by Sunni Brown Wilkinson
The care center smelled on par with all the others I’d ever been in: musty and antiseptic with a passing breeze of mothballs. I’d always found them depressing, but this one at least made very sincere efforts to keep things upbeat, even jazzy. One day, they hired a guy to come in and, accompanied by synthesized, pre-recorded back-up music, croon such classics as “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” to a crowd of cheery residents who clapped and sang along. The phoniness of this guy and his artificial “music” made me cringe. But it made the residents happy.
I was there because, as a Mormon missionary, I was required to fulfill at least four hours of community service each week. Aside from the usual teaching, training, and studying, I was to volunteer in the community where I currently lived which was, in this case, Vineland, New Jersey, a large suburban sprawl in the southern half of the state that seemed to be perpetually covered by gray clouds.
It’s not that I didn’t love the work. I did. Or the people. Some people we taught were like family to me. But sometimes I wasn’t sure who was teaching them.
The cloistered life of a missionary promotes a kind of erasure of one’s personal identity: my first name was replaced by “Sister,” so that I was known for 18 months as “Sister Brown.” The only time I heard my first name was when I called my family back home, and that was only permitted twice a year, Mother’s Day and Christmas. And I was to put away all significations of my old life that could distract from my focus of sharing the gospel message. This included no TV (though we caught bits of game shows and novellas glimmering from people’s front rooms in the evenings), no movies (though my mother was saving for me a list of “must sees” for when I got home), and no secular music. And while I generally embraced it and enjoyed focusing on matters of the spirit more, that last one was still a hurdle.
In the cast that made up my childhood, the biggest star was classic rock. “Oldies,” as the radio stations called them, provided the soundtrack to our family’s life. Hippies in their youth, my parents brought us up on the good bread of church, the outdoors, and the music of their generation. My mother, who prefers her music loud with a touch of blaring, would open the front door and turn up Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin on the stereo to the point where I could play in my friend’s front yard – three houses away – and still sing along to every song. My dad even set up speakers on the back of the house so that Cream or The Beatles or Jethro Tull could accompany our volleyball games or gardening. To this day, whenever I hear certain songs, I’m immediately in our garden, under a blue summer sky, facing the mountains and picking raspberries.
This particular day at the care center, I found myself throwing a beach ball around to a group of senior citizens whose wheelchairs had been parked to form a circle. This was not the group that clapped and sang along about doggies in windows. These were the extremely quiet ones who didn’t complain about the food or look anxiously for family members to visit. Most of them had a look of absence about the eyes. But they could catch a ball, and it was my job to stand in the middle and keep up their daily “exercise.”
In the corner, a small radio sat on a table. So far, all I’d heard from it were songs I vaguely attributed to my grandparents’ generation. But as one song flowed seamlessly into the next, something happened. A renegade from my other life burst in.
The first notes of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” started. And something way down in me broke loose and bubbled up to the surface. I stood there, holding a beach ball in the middle of a windowless room, surrounded by strangers and empty stares and, for the first time in months, felt wholly myself. And along with myself came everything else. Some memories came with logical connections (dancing in the front room with my little brother Riley, brooms for guitars or wooden spoons for microphones). Others clung to those connections like lint on a sock and so came along with them (the smell of the Wasatch mountains in spring rain, all the places I’d ever camped, the wallpaper of my childhood bedroom).
“I really want to see you… but it takes so long, my Lord,” he sang. And I got it. Even the Hare Krishna chorus that he repeated like a prayer.
This was another way to worship.
A song becomes “ours” because it gives us back to ourselves. It unlocks remembrances that are sacred and unexplainable. And in doing that, it reminds us of that longing for the God we know and don’t know yet. It was really me, singing my heart out: “Really want to know you Lord but it takes so long, my Lord (hallelujah).”
I believe in the value of traditional “church,” but I also respect people who use their voice, their art to search for God. What they create becomes our search too. Our stairway to heaven, our bridge over troubled waters, our sweet Lord.
My top 10 list of “oldies”:
1) “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison
2) “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin
3) “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac
4) “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson
5) “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
6) “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison
7) “I’ll Be Your Lover Too” by Van Morrison
8) “Moonlight Mile” by The Rolling Stones
9) “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
10)”Going to California” by Led Zeppelin
Sunni Brown Wilkinson holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Her poetry has been published in Weber: The Contemporary West, Red Rock Review, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and other journals and anthologies and has been nominated for two Pushcarts. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons. She also blogs at www.allthelivelystones.blogspot.com
Image from 45cat.com