Sing me to sleep.

This past weekend I was present at our choir’s retreat weekend and for the first time (supposedly ever, but who knows?) they held a “bonte avond” which is like a Dutch version of a “talent show” for adults.  The evening held lots of laughs, to be sure, but the ending stole the entire show and left (I seriously suspect) more than a few of us with tears in our eyes.

In our choir there are two women from Germany.  The lights were turned down for the last act and one of them had brought an old-fashioned looking lamp. The other spread out a rug and they both knelt down upon it with their choir colleagues seated in chairs all around.

But before I carry on with the story I will give you some history to help shed light on why this scene was one of the most moving I have experienced in a long time.

Roughly 3 years ago I was in a discussion with another person over the state of America’s economy and vicariously its education system.  I said that the situation did not seem so dire while he was predicting the “fall” of America.  He remarked on my confidence as being common to Americans in their demonstrations of mental “safety” contemplating their role as a super-power in the world.  On this he said, “Perhaps it’s because you’ve never had tanks in your streets.”

Those words live with me still.  Like many things I hear that resonate strongly with me I packed up that sentence and bore it with me as a reminder that the rest of the world (much of it) knows what it means to “have tanks in their streets,” from an occupying foreign power… And then two years ago I moved to Amsterdam.

Germany and the Netherlands are uncomfortable neighbors in many ways, but one picks this up in the cultural dialogue through less of what is actually said than what remains unspoken.  Relationships/encounters that I observe between Germans and the Dutch have a restless tension beneath them (very often) belied by the soft and softer tones these people often use when speaking.  When Americans learn about WWII they are taught little beyond some names, some facts, some dates, some battles, and some outcomes, and unless you want to (as a high schooler) go digging for the complete events unfolding in a world war that remains the extent of your education.  I, for instance, didn’t know that Germany bombed Rotterdam’s city center into kingdom come on May 14, 1940.  The bombing came after a ceasefire agreement had been reached.  The success of the bombing was such that the Germans (seizing the psychological upper hand at the moment) forced the surrender of the Netherlands in the second day by promising the same for the city of Utrecht if surrender was not total and immediate.  Unsurprisingly, the Dutch surrendered and equally unsurprising, those who were children in the war have never forgotten how it came about that they were conquered by Germany– by violent treachery.  One might be naive enough to think that nearly 70 years since the end of WWII all tension and disillusion would be gone, but one only has to watch carefully to know that what is peace on the surface has a cultural divide that runs deep as an ocean trench in some families.

To return to the present, however, our two women, my friends in choir, knelt on a rug with their partners in song about them and one began to speak (in fluent Dutch) to us about how the lullaby shaped their childhood.  I will never forget Theresa’s words as she looked up at us and said,

It may sound silly to say, but until the time I was 13 I cannot remember a time when one of my parents did not come, tuck me into bed, and sing me a lullaby.

And I will remember these words because they are part of my heritage as well.  I grew up as a beloved child, whom, every night without fail, was lovingly tucked into bed; first read to and then sung to.  Both Mama and Daddy had favorite lullabies they sang, and I sing them now to my son after reading to him before bed and, then, as he lets go of my hand I kiss him goodnight.

My two friends then sang us three lullabies.  Lovingly, tenderly, without accompaniment or undo ceremony recreating for their friends in song a moment familiar to perhaps all of us in that room.  And sitting there with tears in my eyes I realized that though we can somehow justify silence to one another, cruelty, or even tanks in one another’s streets, we share much more in our experiences of being human than we might have imagined.

Surrounded by (yes) friends, but some of those friends who are old enough to have had parents that lived through the war, these two women opened their arms culturally through music and shared something precious not because of its uniqueness at all but precious beyond measure because it is something simple and ordinary that we have in common.  Perhaps the commonality of being sung to at bedtime guarantees its being taken for granted as a gesture in human experience, but what completed the intricate weave of beauty spun around this gesture was not cultural, and it struck me while singing the last part of the rehearsal the next day.

Here, lying still and drifting to sleep to the sounds of our parents’ voices was where all of the singers in that room first learned to sing.  And while song may come to us first in disparate tongues and in a vast arrangement of tones, yet it reaches into our lives forging links through experience with people we dare not even dream we will one day meet far in the futures of our lives…

And be joined to them once more in song.

One of the songs that Theresa and Gudrun sang for us so simply and so beautifully.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on October 14, 2013.

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