Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. School days usually begin with Silke leading the kids on a walk into the woods or a nearby canyon, me sweeping up the stragglers in back. But this day we met in the center of town. After donning heart bands and necklaces at the town park, we walked towards the bank, singing along the way.
The first group of folks we met were standing with hardened expressions outside the Presbyterian Church, after an AA meeting or something of the sort. Silke led us directly through them, singing The Heartbeat of the Universe. One of the them, a young man smoking a cigarette, smiled uncomfortably. Me too. Another ducked inside. But several men and women caught our eyes and smiled back. The kids handed out felt hearts.
Then we hit the bank. The tellers, all women, nearly swooned. My old boss happened to be inside and we hugged. After singing a song and sharing more valentines, we stepped back outside and crossed the main street to reach Wild Leaven, the bakery whose heirloom breads are in almost every one of our children’s pantries. But they were closed. Andre, the owner, noticed us from the back and came out anyway with snacks for all the children. The kids gave him a felt heart and a cookie, then drew chalk hearts all over the sidewalk.
We went to the copy store, the fiber arts store, and even visited a construction site, all impromptu. Silke led our merry train. We waved at cars and attracted the eyes of passersby. The children smiled and sang. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said, the caboose with a smile.
The week before, we painted a mural. We took turns, first the boys, then the girls. Then the teachers. We used thick creamy paints, filling a table-sized piece of brown kraft paper with whimsical plants, sunbursts and big fat raindrops. There was a big red heart to one side. It was February, but we painted outside. It has been warm and dry all winter, and we needed those raindrops desperately. “No, those are rocks in a path,” Sebastian corrected me. “They connect the star people with mother earth.” Right, sorry.
Throughout the painting, which lasted about an hour, we sang. In a week’s time, we might sing ten to twenty different little ditties, repeating them throughout the day, slowly changing them throughout the year. And it’s not uncommon to spend as much as a third of the school day singing, the children following along at first, then carrying the songs into their play. The teachers hum or whistle as we work.
The relationship between song and education is well-known. Dozens of books have been written on the topic, perhaps most famously by Plato in The Republic. In that much-quoted text, Socrates speaks of the perils of certain musical arrangements, which can fill children’s minds with hateful subjects. He proposes to ban The Iliad and The Odyssey outright (music and poetry being, to the Greeks, one and the same). The gods, he says, should never be shown to be such bumbling imbeciles, selfish and unjust. Children who don’t know any better, he fears, will absorb these tales at an age when they cannot discern right from wrong (or allegory as the case may be). They may come to emulate them, and for all the glory and mystery of the pantheon of Greek gods, their behavior leaves much to be desired. Song, in this sense, is dangerous.
My daughter grew up in an intentional community, where song permeated our days. It filled our meetings, our meal blessings, our ceremonies and even our work parties. For most of my life, I would have recoiled at such sentiment, or song, for fear that something insidious was at work. Modern skepticism tends to sneer at such practices as evidence of cultism. And this is precisely the message Plato meant to convey – song invades the mind and heart, and whatever message rides that song buries itself deep in a child’s bearing. So, do not think this an idle subject. It is one of the most potent forces known to humankind. Song.
Have you ever found yourself humming a familiar tune and then wondered what it was? Maybe it was from your childhood, your church, or just an advertising jingle? Maybe it was in a movie you saw, or on the radio? Hard to tell, really, but you keep working at it, trying to recall why you have this particular melody in your head. Or maybe you know exactly what it is and wish you could shut it off? Or how about the national anthem? Say what you will (or won’t) about national pride, almost every person in this country can hum that old English pub tune. But I bet there’s only a handful that can sing it word for word.
That’s the message. For whatever reason, music sticks in our minds far easier than words or ideas. And if we’re trying to remember something (like the ABC’s), it’s infinitely easier to do it by singing than merely repeating it rote. Perhaps that’s because our ancestors spent millions of years listening to animal calls before they ever spoke a word. Maybe we’re just musically gifted, like birds. But if you don’t believe me, just listen to your children. If they are taught music at school, or if they like a particular CD or movie, or – and this is best of all – you sing to them regularly, then you’ve surely observed them singing the song to themselves. Over and over.
I have observed this firsthand on so many occasions that, like Socrates and Plato, and the skeptics, I am exceedingly careful about the kinds of songs my daughter listens to. Pop music on the car radio is full of catchy tunes that, just as Socrates warned, are full of dangerous messages, and if you think it’s benign there’s a good chance you’re overestimating your child’s strength of volition. We’re social creatures. Even Disney songs are, in my book, mostly to be avoided.
But while the power of song may occasionally be used for ill-purposes, it also has the power to uplift. There is no question that music creates some of the most beautiful and sublime expressions known to humankind. It can transcend language and cultures, bringing people together that otherwise have little in common. I am not someone who believes in a common ethic for all people, but like most folks I am devoted to my own. And I express it in song.
“Silke,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder from behind as the girls painted. We had just finished one song, The Heartbeat of the Universe. The boys sat patiently by her side. Silke turned to me. “Can we sing that ‘All I ask of you…’ song?” I hummed the first few bars so she knew what I meant. The song, comprised of just three lines, doesn’t have a title. She looked at me thoughtfully, then wrinkled her nose. “I think it’s a little complicated,” she whispered, meaning the melody. I knew she wouldn’t resist the content, but, being the uber-teacher she is, she chooses her songs wisely, seemingly effortlessly, preferring the simple pentatonic scale for young ears. My song, which incorporated a bittersweet sort of melody, is breathtaking, but perhaps a bit…complicated. I shrugged it off and sat down by a bucket of water that had been put out for our hands and brushes.
Silke started a new song, “Biff, biff, bang,” she sang in her lilting voice, “goes the hammer in my heart.” The kids picked it up without even looking at her, calling out, “Biff, biff, bang goes the hammer in my heart.” I picked it up at the last line, “…and the hammer in my heart is…YOU!” Then it continues, “Nibble, nibble, nibble goes the mouse in my heart…” There’s a cat, a Bengal tiger, a paintbrush, pretty much anything you want. They scamper and roar, paint and flap, and then, to everyone’s delight, they always end up being, “YOU…” It’s cutesy, but if you’re afraid of cutesy, then, no offense, but you’re a wimp.
“Alright children,” Silke said, “now it’s time to switch. Finish up what you’re working on, girls, and then it’s time for the boys to have a turn.” The girls made their last few brushstrokes. The boys traded eager expressions. It was a glorious time, really, a painter having joined us for the morning to share her inspiration (and materials) with us. We were outside, and even if it was too hot and dry the warmth was inviting. The children had little aprons over colorful sweaters, and sunhats. A light breeze shook the tree limbs.
“And now,” Silke continued, “Papa Joe has a song for us.” I turned to look at her. She nodded and shrugged, as if to say, “try it.” I shrugged too, and turned back to the painting. I thought about saying something to introduce the song, but then I just did what Silke does. I sang.
“All I ask of you…” I began simply. The first few notes are the same, creating a slow, pulsing kind of rhythm. Then it takes off, “…is forever to remember me…” and here I embellished the rise and fall, which shapes itself musically on the “forever.” I have a big voice, so I spoke gently. It’s easy for me to overwhelm a crowd, even myself, and this was just a handful of children. I began softly, then ended with, “…as loving you,” which echoes the simplicity of the first line. That’s the whole song. It just repeats.
I don’t know where I first learned this song. Most recently, I recall singing it a handful of times at Lama Foundation, the intentional community where Agnes was born. An inter-spiritual community, it’s not uncommon to sing Muslim zikrs at Shabbat, Hindu kirtans before lunch, or the Buddhist mantra “Om Mane Padme Hum” at business meetings. Songs, like people, come and go at this diverse and transitory community, but whenever I heard this one, which was only a few times, I sensed that I knew the song from long before. Whatever the origin, the song’s simple message and rich melody struck a chord in my heart. Like a handful of others, it is now my song.
“All I ask of you,” I often sing, “is forever to remember me…as loving you.” I do this on walks, feeding the chickens, or washing the dishes. Befitting my urban upbringing, I usually sing it ironically at first, with a bit of a romantic flair, till the song soothes my nerves and I begin to actually mean it. I sing it with my daughter, or with Silke, but mostly I do it alone. I may have a big voice, but I’m bashful precisely because of that. Fortunately, I live in an area where it’s not hard to be alone. The deer, the big-horned sheep, the lizards and pinons – they all know this song. The canyons. They remember me.
After a few rounds the kids had picked up the basic melody and a handful of words. Silke sang with me. She and I are well-practiced, sometimes spending an hour together in culverts, hallways or caves where the sound is just right. Our visitor, a painter with an adult son, sang along gently.
Song can hold us as individuals, but it can also carry a whole group, a whole being-of-doing. Even a whole nation. It’s hard to describe, really. You have to picture the children, in little aprons and dabs of bright colors, filling a mural that reached well above their heads with shimmering yellows, reds and greens. A massive blue sky, the real one, towered over all. Birds flew by. Shady, Silke’s old dog, looked on from the back. Each step in the gravel punctuated our song, and the trees seemed to dance in the wind. Silke’s chickens buck-buck-buGAWK’ed, chiming in from behind the fence.
I put my hand in the water bucket. I am not a musician, but I have come to love the sound of living things. Tree branches that sound like marimbas, pinecones like tiny thumb pianos, the blip, bloop, blop of stones as they fall into the river. And water. Moving my hand back and forth with the song, we soon had a sloshy rhythm section. The kids had picked up most of the song by now and their angelic faces, so innocent, so devoted, just beamed with the task. The task of painting. The task of singing. The task of being alive. There were nine of us, only a handful of humans on this planet, but we squeezed every last ounce out of that moment, achieving something all too rare and precious on this planet – unadulterated life.
There are moments when everything aligns in a way that is palpable. One’s movements follow the wind. The music aligns with the rhythm and pulse of one’s heart. The activities of the brain, which thrum in constant parallel fashion, synchronize in a way that no longer resembles the thrashing of a stormy sea, but the gentle lapping of waves on the shore. Tiny grains of sand on bare feet.
This was how we prepared for Valentine’s Day.
After visiting the bank and several other shops, waving at cars and passersby, we made it to World Cup, the coffee shop at the center of Taos. Owned and operated by one of the children’s parents, it is a common meeting ground for tourists, hippies, vagabonds and townies. We fit right in. Well, sort of. No larger than a bedroom, the twelve of us squished inside with the patrons to share hot cocoa and a song. Silke got a cup of coffee, then sang The Heartbeat of the Universe in double time. We all laughed.
We were expected on the plaza at eleven, only a block away, to meet up with several other school groups. We had only a moment to get there, but along the way we stopped in front of two young men. They were street musicians, the kind most of us ignore. They had downcast eyes and dirty clothes. Taos is full of drifters like this, and I assumed we’d smile politely and pass on through. The kids, after all, I thought, making excuses for myself. But Silke stopped us front and center and asked them for a song. I smiled. I would never had had the courage.
The kids chatted with the young men playfully, then listened. Their voices were strained and their guitar-playing left much to be desired, but the two young men came alive. It was an uncommon love song. Every young man yearns to be noticed. Every human being craves to be touched. Silke gave them a few dollars in their hat. The kids waved goodbye.
Crossing the street, we reached the plaza, the central square of Taos. Four other teachers met us there, along with their students and several other merry men and women. There were two-year-olds and kindergartners, first and second graders, fourth and fifth graders, sixth and seventh. Mothers, fathers, babies, uncles. Grandmas. Largely the remnants of the Taos Waldorf School, which closed down two years ago, the diehard parents (and students) are now in several homeschool groups run by teachers in their homes. All told, we were about fifty big-hearted folks.
We started with a few songs, each school group sharing something original. We smiled and ate cookies. Passersby stopped to look. Valentine’s Day. Silke, wearing a fabulously embroidered red jacket with green and gold hearts, was the master of ceremonies. I know her as a drifter of sorts, a lone wolf without a school, but for nearly thirty years she was the lifeblood of the Taos Waldorf School, and one could see it instantly. She likes the limelight, and, being a kindergarten teacher, she holds the seed for everyone, because everyone (and this was true of most of the kids there) once passed through her hands. Young and old, happy and despondent, wanted and unwanted. You have to see her work. She is a marvel of humanity, weaving together the fabric of society, ill and whole, with the ease and good-heartedness of a kindergarten teacher. She sees the child in us all.
I clung to the background. Silke taking center stage meant I needed to keep an extra watch on the kids. But she and I caught eyes here and there, dancing and smiling. And, of course, I knew she would call me out.
“Okay, Papa Joe,” Silke said toward the end, “would you lead us in a song?” She smiled coyly, knowing I had little choice. Everyone stared at me, precisely the kind of thing I dislike. And like. I knew, just like Silke, that, bashfulness aside, I would sing at the top of my lungs. That’s what moments like this call for. We need men and women to stand up with a heartfelt courage. No wimps. Most of the songs that morning had been lovely, but the children being a bit shy, they had been gentle. I may be awkward, but I’m not exactly gentle. And Silke knew it.
I was thinking about the All I Ask of You song, hoping to find something beautiful and fitting. But as I was searching my mind, Silke interrupted. “Now children,” she said, “I want you to look at the plaza. What do you see?”
I looked around. There were dozens of folks nearby - visitors, locals, employees on break, even a policeman in his truck – all wandering the storefronts and walkways of the plaza. Most of them kept walking, but a few inclined their eyes and ears toward us.
“I see a statue!”
“Yes, yes,” Silke said, leading the children on, “and what else?”
“Grass?” one boy said, who knew that Silke was fishing for a particular answer.
“Yes, that’s right,” Silke answered, in the kind of tone that implied he was close.
“I know! Trees!” shouted another.
“That’s right,” Silke said with finality, “trees.” We gazed at the enormous cottonwoods that stood nearby, following their gnarly trunks up to empty, crooked branches. The blue sky. “And what do trees need?”
“Water.” That was an easy one.
“Right. But this year has been very, very dry children.” The kids nodded their heads. The adults had serious faces. “Maybe we need to sing to the trees, to give them some support?” Silke continued. “It’s not easy being a tree in Taos right now.” More nods of approval. “So, Papa Joe,” and Silke turned to me, “will you lead us in the Trees Grow Tall song?”
I smiled like a little child, both nervous and excited. I wanted to sing. I wanted to sing for all the men and women we’d seen – the bankers, the addicts, the bakers and shopkeepers. I wanted to sing for the cars and the trees, for the lonely men and women, for the suave and romantic lovers. I wanted to sing for the children, for the earth, for Silke, and for me. I wanted to hold us in song. But I was nervous.
“Okay,” I said, looking the crowd over with wide eyes. I wanted to start singing, but I covered my anxiety with words. “But I have a REALLY BIG voice. So if you sing along,” I continued, “you’re going to have to sing as loud as you can.” I paused for a second, glancing at uncertain eyes, then began. “Trees grow tall in the heart of the forest…” The first few bars are mid-range, a plodding melody like squat gnomes hiking in the woods. But I struck it too high, because then it soars, “HIGH in the sky…” and here I had to almost scream. I heard a few chuckles in the crowd. I couldn’t control myself, but I could feel the upper part of my throat, where it bends into the nasal cavities, clinging to the high note. You don’t catch men singing like that too often. Or women. To reach that pitch, you have to blast air out of your lungs with tremendous force – like a police whistle. My whole face went beet red and my facial muscles strained wildly with an expressive and giant mouth. I must look like a mad man, I thought. Surely, I sound like one. Thankfully, the song tapers back down, “and the roots grow down…” with a bass note on the word “down” that punctuates the song in contrast to the word “high.” Then it ends with the steady staccato rhythm of “in the deep. Dark. Eaaarth…”
I toned it down as best I could as we sang the song through a few more times. Silke wove us through the plaza, hand in hand, like a train. I began to feel bad, like my rendition was leading us into a train wreck, but Silke kept smiling. Mid-verse, I plummeted an entire octave in an effort to calibrate myself. I recalled the moment a week earlier at the mural, my hand sloshing in a bucket of water as we sang. It had felt so easy. Then I recalled the AA meeting and the bankers. I recalled the coffee shop and the bakery, the street musicians. A police truck rolled slowly by. Life is imbalanced sometimes. Songs come and go. Sometimes, we aren’t beautiful. Sometimes, the earth is dry.
That evening, I heard about the school shooting in Florida. Seventeen young men and women who no longer have a voice with which to sing. The young man who killed them, now vilified by the media. Guns are a problem. Laws are important. But broken hearts and unmet eyes are a deeper problem.
That night, while everyone slept, it rained all over Taos.