Walking Each Other Home
In November of 1990, I sat nervously by my friend Larry’s bedside, unsure what to do as he lay close to his death. He was comatose and agitated. To deal with my fear, I started singing, and right away we both started to calm down. I sang the same song to him for two-and-a-half hours, and at the end of that time, realized that I had rediscovered something ancient, deeply human, and very exciting. I knew I had given him the best gift I could, and I knew there were other singers who would readily offer their voices at the bedsides of people who were dying or incarcerated. However, I didn’t have the computer skills or the musical knowledge to start what has now become the Threshold Choir.
I spent the next decade teaching music in the classroom to get ready. Lucky me, during this time I met Sarah Pirtle, who introduced me to Children’s Music Network. CMN became a major resource for songs about love, about peace-building, about making friends, about trees, about who was already here in 1492, about courage, about owls, about saying “Goodnight,” about “Passing It On!” The Conference was also a highlight of my October for many years and a source of great friends.
In 2000, when I started the first of now over 200 Threshold Choirs, I became aware of a sense that I was now fulfilling my life’s assignment. As each choir started, basically from singers sharing with other singers, I could feel that sense growing. Everything I had learned, everyone I loved, every skill I had acquired in my life this far was poured into this work. It was tremendously satisfying and exhilarating to bring this essential human offering to the world. In the first four years, I started ten choirs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then, following a miraculous 2006 article about the choir in Real Simple magazine, the speed and depth of our growth changed dramatically.
We go to a bedside when invited in groups of three or four. We slip in, sing softly, honoring whatever is happening to this person and their beloveds. We welcome friends, staff, and family to sing with us and to continue singing after we’re gone. We have created a remarkable repertoire of original songs, many of which come from the experience of being at a bedside, mostly written by amateur and first-time songwriters. The choir has grown organically and very swiftly, partly because of miraculous media coverage, partly because it’s a way to use our voices, our most precious gift, in service.
For fifteen years now, we have sung with women inmates at our county jail facility on a weekly basis. They are invited to join us if they want, and they can all hear us singing, so the value and the vibration reaches into every cell and every heart. Then five years ago, we were invited to facilitate a spirit singing session with men at San Quentin who have been incarcerated for more than twenty years. This is a monthly sing with men who are so kind to us; they are like the kindest monks in a fantastic monastery. We have formed deep and very loving bonds with them. I wish that every correctional facility could have a community chorus connected to it so that when inmates are released, they have friends on the outside with whom they have sung who can help them as they create a new life.
After an eighteen-year hiatus, I attended the CMN Gathering last fall in Cape Cod. What a delight to see old friends, to sing favorite songs again, AND to recognize that there is an interface between the Threshold Choir and CMN—in the friends, in the songs, and perhaps most importantly, the community that develops out of friends and songs. There are songs suitable to sing with children OR at the bedside of someone who is dying. I want to share with you the lyrics of four songs that lie in that precious place.
I am sending you light, to heal you, to hold you.
I am sending you light, to hold you in love.
(words and music by Melanie DeMore)
You are not alone; I am here beside you.
You are not alone; I am here now.
(words and music by Kate Munger)
We are all just walking each other home.
(words by Ram Dass, music by Kate Munger)
Soften my heart/Suavizando mi corazon.
(words and music by Kate Munger)
While our groan up exploration of meaning that can accompany our contemplation of death isn’t necessarily appropriate for five-year-olds, they can relate to these lyrics. They can have a conversation about what “Walking Each Other Home” or “Soften My Heart” means to them.
I know that my decade of delight with CMN was pivotal in finding my personal path with the Threshold Choir. I saw the power of song on newborns and children; it simply followed that the power of song had value at the end of life. I thank Sarah Pirtle, all my friends at CMN, and those of you who keep this magnificent organization thriving and growing. And now, retired from running the business of the Threshold Choir and able to enjoy singing more of the time, I am proud of this precious work of singing at bedsides, this remarkable community of singers whose delight and calling is to serve with their voices those who are dying or incarcerated and their loved ones.