After I graduate, I want to audition for a group that brings musicians and artists to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and similar facilities. The idea of singing as healing has always appealed to me, much more so than the thought of performing. I don’t feel the urge to be the center of attention onstage where I can’t really feel my audience. I prefer the intimate setting of a small room; I desire the closeness of a small audience whose reactions I can gauge.
My friend Edie, who brought the group to my attention, happened to tell me that “Amazing Grace” is one of the most requested songs in hospitals. I have never done any hospital singing, but I can conjecture that people find this old, familiar, warm hymn comforting. Especially in our locality, its lyrics of Christian conversion and rebirth are words we all learned as children — grandmothers sang them, we heard them in church, and they are likely inscribed on some article – plaque, sympathy card, cross-stitch pattern – in our homes. Those among us who have sung or played our fair share of funerals know that “Amazing Grace” has a special place in the hearts of the grieving.
Edie tells me about the technique of hospital singing and asks me what I will sing for my audition. She mentions a few other hospital favorites (“Danny Boy” and “How Great Thou Art”), songs which don’t have any particular significance for me. I start to think that, if I become a member of this group, I will certainly sing whatever patients request. I’m not there to judge their taste; I’m there to provide comfort, joy, peace. Healing. This is what I have always wanted to do with my voice and I cannot wait to do it.
But for my audition, I shudder at the thought of singing “Amazing Grace” whose lyrics for me seem graceless. I distinctly remember learning about the hymn’s composition, sitting in a 5th grade Religion class at my Catholic grade school. I remember our teacher saying that the author of those lyrics was the captain of a slave ship whose powerful conversion led to their composition and content. God found him, saved him, poured the sweet sound of grace into his ears, and cured his blindness.
“…was blind but now I see.”
Even as a child, I had a problem wit this line. I never mentioned it to anyone because I was sure they would laugh at me and say I was being “too sensitive.” “It’s a metaphor, Emily,” said the mocking, pitying voices in this imagined conversation. “Don’t be so touchy.” Or the more religious version, “Well, Emily, it’s about more than just physical blindness. Maybe you need to get past your worldly sensitivities and understand that you too have your own spiritual blindspots.”
But the newly-found disability activist in me rails against these imagined oppositions. The lyrics don’t talk about a man who was deaf and now can hear, who was lame and now walks, or who was cognitively impaired and now thinks clearly (although I suppose the earnest reader could say that he was “lost” and now “found” is the indicator of a mind on the wrong course). Instead, the first verse (and let’s not get ambitious here – who among us knows any verse better than the first?) talks about a man whose new spiritual beliefs give him a different way of looking at the world. He was “blind” but now he “sees” – God has, as He has done so many times before in our history, “opened his eyes” to a new reality.
And maybe for the sighted among us who are used to a visual world that makes sense, an interpretation of their physical space that never shifts, wavers, or distorts, this is a powerful transformation.
But I am used to a world of wobbling images, wavering lights, and constantly transforming objects. I have brushed against bushes before and said hastily, “Oh excuse me,” thinking I had grazed a person instead. I have gazed into the distance, blurred by too much sunlight (for almost any amount of sunlight is too much for my dilated pupils) and seen blurry objects take shape — what I thought were people turn out to be trash cans or signs or even columns. It all depends. It all shifts. I can’t even begin to articulate patterns, but I can say that my low vision constantly nourishes my poet’s imagination and keeps the shelves of my symbolic root cellar well stocked.
“I was blind and now I see.” I can’t bring myself to sing this. Not for an audition, not for the time when I will choose the words to represent what I believe. If I have the chance to pick my signature hymn, the hymn that will cry to the world my unequivocal status as a singer and healer combined, the hymn that will express me, I cannot choose the curing words of “Amazing Grace.” I do not want the visual miracle they advocate—not because I stubbornly resist change and improvement, but because it invalidates my current perspective and the beautiful life that wakes me every morning. I find value in the vision that I am using now, the sight that lets me watch the large white letters marching across my black screen, the sight that falters in the bright sun and makes me revel in shade, the sight that makes me feel transported when I can actually glimpse the moon at night or the veins of a leaf. These are rare, visually-epiphanic moments for me, and they comprise some of the bright points of a constellation of joy that I live.
I think I have found my hymn, the lyrics that express me and that validate my current perception. I have found the hymn that carries my golden light heavenward, the message that I would give in lieu of all others. If I had once chance to sing my beliefs to the world, this is the hymn I would choose. For me, it is a curing hymn, an anthem of preservation, delight, and timeless strength.
“My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear its’ music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul–
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging;
Since love is lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of love makes fresh my heart,
A song of hope is springing;
All things are mine since truth I’ve found–
How can I keep from singing?”
*If you want to hear one of the particularly gorgeous settings of this hymn that inspired me, go to iTunes and find the version sung by the University of Utah Singers. I wanted to put it here, but I was unable to find it on YouTube.