If a friendship starts with a conversation about books, the two friends are hardly surprised when literature itself becomes a third, equal presence in the relationship. This is how things began for Katie and me. Katie became my first “college friend” when an orientation team leader asked her to look after me. Both Katie and I considered this an awkward arrangement; I felt like her baggage, and Katie felt like my babysitter. Without openly acknowledging the awkwardness, I took her elbow, and we tried to make small talk. In minutes, the all-important question arose: Do you like to read?
I cannot now recall which of us asked this question, but it sparked an enthusiastic discussion. After only a few sentences, we were excitedly trading literary recommendations, kindled by the realization of our mutual love of Jane Austen. Over the next seven years of our friendship, we’ve since encouraged each other to read hundreds of texts—from classical Chinese philosophy to modern poetry. We’ve reveled in wide-ranging discoveries—the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the folktales of medieval Iceland, and the latest books that blend neuroscience and the philosophies of yoga. When Katie gives me a book, I know it will challenge my mind and speak to my soul.
For my most recent birthday, she presented me with a copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s 1975 work, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. It’s a thick volume – over 500 pages – that offers anthropological, psychological, and spiritual commentary on the female psyche and the power of storytelling. In its first pages, Estés introduces the story of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a mysterious crone who wanders the world and collects the bones of dead creatures, especially wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, La Loba begins to “sing over the bones,” and her singing transforms the skeleton into a living creature. With each line of melody, the Wolf Woman imbues the dead bones with life, adding blood, muscles, skin, and fur, until the creature begins to breathe and move. With purposeful singing, La Loba can resurrect any creature from this throwaway material “in danger of being lost to the world” – its bones (23).
It is the connection between singing, life, and intention that draws me to read on. After presenting the story of La Loba, Estés insists that we must all look for our own “bones,” the integral structures of our spirituality, the framework of our souls. She writes, “[The story] promises that, if we will sing the song, we can call up the psychic remains of the wild soul and sing her into a vital shape again” (24). For Estés, and for those who respect the story of La Loba, our life’s work is to uncover and nurture our deepest selves. We must find the bones and sing over them, crooning them to life.
I find this tribal story compelling because it reiterates, or perhaps predates, what I have learned through my experiences: singing changes the world of the singer. The cultures who believe in some version of La Loba are not the only ones to acknowledge the power of singing. Throughout my Catholic upbringing, the adults around me encouraged my love for singing, citing the mantra, “Singing is praying twice.” Whenever I performed sacred music – or choral music in general – my experiences confirmed the truth of this adage. I felt, as I have said in previous blogs, incredibly connected with my fellow singers and with the divine.
I remember when I first heard someone talk about the connection between art and life in specific terms. My tenth grade world history teacher showed slides of tribal artifacts from Africa and said, “These people didn’t believe in ‘life for art.’ They believed in ‘art for life.’” She meant that every tool for daily living, every piece of practical houseware, was covered with art: vivid colors, carvings, runes. The members of this tribe used art to infuse everyday life with meaning and beauty. No article went without embellishment.
Believing in “art for life” gives each person infinite possibilities for enriching their everyday experiences. In his Letters to a Young Poet, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke conveys his enthusiasm for this ideal; he argues that if you can’t find artistic inspiration, you’re not looking hard enough. Rilke teaches that the real artist can draw inspiration from the most ordinary experiences. The dedicated artist uses art to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary in the service of life—to make our existence more sincere, more real. To help us understand the unbearable and celebrate the miraculous.
But art is not always a miracle cure. In her exploration of animal and human emotions, behavioral analyst Patricia McDonald relates a story about Ella Fitzgerald, in which Ella’s singing brought to life some unexpected emotions. Apparently, after spending a year singing the lyric, “I’m so tired,” Ella began to experience chronic fatigue, but she didn’t unearth the connection between lyric and feeling until she discussed the situation with her doctor. Her repeated lyrics became a kind of incantation—though I’m sure her physician didn’t use that word—telling her how to live.
Lyrics contain a transformative power. Often at the end of rehearsal, my chorus members heed the call to “Circle up!” We join hands, making a human chain, and sing one of our many Sweet Adeline classics. To prepare for international competition in Hawaii, we currently favor “Aloha ‘Oe,” a beautiful Hawaiian parting song. But when I hear about Ella’s “I’m so tired,” I can’t help but think of one of our other favorites, “Harmonize the World.”
The skeptic in me wants to interrogate this song: Does it really work? Can lyrics really harmonize the world? But I silence the skeptic by remembering my bones. Singing is praying twice, and words have power. Then I feel that I am really doing something by singing over the bones of harmony, calling up from the dust of old chords a vision of a peaceful, civil world—a world of constant, contagious music.
Each time I prepare to sing, I ask myself a series of questions. What will I make with my music? What bones have I collected? What will I sing to life? I marvel at the miracles wrought by art and intention—the incredible changes in mood and circumstance that singing can achieve. I find power not only in the words I sing but also in the action of singing, in the sensation of being surrounded by kindred spirits, in the sheer, primal resonance of many voices making harmony. Even the mechanisms of singing are miraculous for me. I am delighted and absorbed in this spiritual task of finding my bones and my voice—of experiencing what I can build with my voice and my beliefs.