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  • Alice Parker

"I can't breathe!" is the horrifying refrain we hear echoing around us in these desperate days. Breath means life itself, and to watch it snuffed out in front of our eyes is the stuff of nightmares. . . and a mandate for social change.


Breathing is at the center of another ongoing crisis in the world, as it has become clear that COVID-19 spreads principally through our breath. We must cover our mouths and keep distant to avoid infection. To have the virus take away our choirs and choruses and communal celebrations seems like a cruel deprivation.


However, choral music isn't dead: it's just temporarily out of reach. Song itself is available to us with every breath. We can weep for what is missing -- or we can triumph over adversity with our individual voices. Here is one way that needs no book or lesson or conductor or audience. Try it!

LIFE SONG

At the beginning, a baby is born, takes its first breath, and lets it out in sound.

That first cry is the first song, and that ability is with us all our life long.

Life Song.

We breathe in air in order to live, and we breathe out air because we must

in order to breathe in again,

and the possibility of song is always with us, with every breath.

Of course singing together will be the last action returned to us

in the present emergency.

Nothing is closer to our inward expression, to the core of our humanity,

than breath let out in song.

Of course it is dangerous! When we share song, we share breath and life.

We must value it, save it for safe time -- and spend it now in unsafe time.

We don’t have to be together to sing.

No one will be gladder than I when we can sing together again.

I had never realized how much I need human touch, human sympathy,

human voices blending with mine in patterns of song.

But let’s use this time that is given us to reconnect with our beginnings.

Listen to the birds!

They have songs in choruses that live from generation to generation.

They have daily concerts that arise from nothing but the gift of life.

What can we do, now today, here in this place, to respond to that imperative?

We can sing.

Not in the way we are used to, with our wonderful repertoire and choirs large and small

and lessons and rehearsals and concerts.

But alone. By ourselves. For no reason but the gift of song.

Be quiet. Sit down. Sink into the silence. Listen to your breath: in, out, in, out.

Awaken the bird in your throat and hear what it wants to do.

Allow it to go where it wants.

One long descending sigh or a siren wail.

High, low, fast, slow, with words or without.

If it turns into something you’ve heard before, let it.

If you forget the words, make them up or leave them out.

If it just wants to sit there with you, unchanging, let it.

It is your breath turning into song. Always there, always ready to be listened to.

It’s our breath, our song. We can sing alone or share it with those living with us.

Sing to babies: they listen and understand.

Sing with children – often! Share their songs; awaken their throats.

Sing to trees and rivers and sunsets and cliffs.

Sing because we have the breath of life and are grateful.

No one can take away from us the ability to sing. Remember that it is always present in our throats, ready to help us through both the storms and the calms of our lives. And think how well we will sing when we are able once again to join our voices in chorus! All that stored up song will burst forth in world-wide celebration. And perhaps we will be reminded that when we sing together we are at our best, affirming our common humanity and giving thanks for the gift of life and breath. Just like the birds. Life Song.


Alice Parker


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  • Alice Parker

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching* is a book of ancient Chinese wisdom that I turn to often. Here is a quotation:


I have just three things to teach:

Simplicity, patience, compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

Contemplating these three concepts is a breath of fresh air in our present world situation. Let’s examine them more closely, looking at synonyms and antonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus.**

Simplicity: austerity, plainness, severity (unadorned, easy, plain, modest)

difficulty, pretense (unnatural)

Take your own line of work and think how this goal would affect it. The sign above my work table says “Can this piece be simpler than the last?”

Patience: forbearing, long-suffering (meek)

haste, itchiness


Does anyone teach this now? Our attention span has decreased in exact proportion to the speed of our electronics. Where is waiting for someone else to go first? Or not complaining about an invasion of your ‘rights’? Or even stopping to think before responding to - or in - anger?


Compassion: yearning, mercy, clemency, humanity, pity, grace

accusation, retaliation

We at least pay lip service to this idea. After all, it’s the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, share one another’s burdens and rewards. There’s a lovely old phrase about marriage “doubling our joys and halving our sorrows.”

What would our world be like if we tried to choose the simplest options? If we acted with restraint and good will? If we showed mercy and grace to ourselves and all others? For some time I have thought that only a world catastrophe might unite us as human beings, and jolt us out of our narrow views. The present world situation is exactly that shock. This is the moment to imagine and work toward a society that cares for all its members, curbs its wastefulness and walks in humility.

In a way, it comes down to old-fashioned good manners. That’s more than saying “Please” and “Thank you.” It means always thinking about the well-being of the person facing you. It’s the small things: the daily courtesy, the willingness to work and share, the quiet presence in the explosive situation. It’s the web of mutual support that we weave when we treat each other with respect -- at home and abroad.

Here is a closing thought from the same verse of the Tao:

Simple in actions and in thought,

you return to the source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,

you accord with the way things are.

Compassionate toward yourself,

you reconcile all beings in the world.

-- Alice Parker

*Lao-tsu: Tao te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell, New York, Harper & Row, 1988

** Roget’s Thesaurus, ed. Norman Lewis, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1959

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  • Alice Parker

Dear Friends,

I'm fine. I'm keeping very close to home -- outside for short walks, but no calls on neighbors and family. It feels best to physically isolate ourselves as much as possible at this time – but I'm in good health and good spirits and can find many things to do in each corner of my studio. And Spring is coming! The sun is shining, the snow is melting, a few hopeful buds are showing, there’s mud in the driveway, and the days are really longer. There's one crocus in my yard, and other shoots shouldering through the icy, muddy crust of soil. I remain convinced that Nature is continuing her cycle of regrowth, and that we rest in the midst of miracle.

But -- this is truly a different time. I got a note from someone yesterday who commented, “You are one of the few people I know who have lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Is this worse?” Well, the impressions of a 10-year-old of the Depression are bound to be limited, but I do remember that my first bicycle had an NRA sticker on it (the National Recovery Act, one of FDR’s programs). I was in high school and college for the War, and those memories are much stronger. Boys I knew were enlisting, getting sent overseas and killed. At home there were shortages and limits, yet it seemed that everyone was working together to win the war.

Now, for the first time we are facing a world-wide threat with the ability to name it and receive hourly reports of its progress. It’s possible to read about it and talk about it without fully realizing that it really is Now, Here, and it’s ALL of us. World-wide. We are our brothers’ keepers. What each one of us does affects us all. We must work together to win this war.

The sobering reality is that just when we need to work together, we can’t be together. Social distancing and quarantines mean that we can’t affirm our human ties by meeting together in groups large and small. From my point of view, there’s the incalculable loss of being able to SING together -- that unique way of affirming each individual voice as we create not only community, but beauty.

So we must learn to think differently. What can I do, right here, today, to preserve this world? I can affirm that one day this will be over, and that there will be a world in which my great-grandchildren can live and love. I can show kindness to myself and to everyone I meet. I can try to get through this day with no angry words or acts. I can realize that others are facing far severer challenges than mine, and help them however I can. It seems so little – but if each one of us lived this way, the world would be changed.

Where is the answer? It is where it always was, deep within us. Can we find the quiet place inside where we put our own souls in order? Can we remember that we are part of this same world in which Spring is returning to our Northern climes? Can we sing by ourselves, in our family groups, or on our balconies, to gladden our hearts and ‘keep the dark away’?

I think we can. After all, there are those babies being born all over the world. I think we must.

-- Alice Parker


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