Contributor: Wendy Guest
It’s chilly in the mountains for late March and the 45 women bustling into the big pale chapel pull their shawls and cardigans close. They leave their shoes outside and pad about in socks arranging chairs in a wide, ragged circle. It’s Friday night, and this is the getting-to-know-you session of the first Australasian Gathering of Combined Threshold Choirs – choirs who sing for the dying.
Jane from Brisbane starts the session. She gives her name, home city and the reason she joined the threshold choir.
“When I first heard about this,” she says, “about singing at bedside, it was the stereotypical lightbulb moment.”
The stories move clockwise.
“When someone told me about it, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
“I sang to my father when he was dying.”
“I sang to my sister. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“When I read about it in the local paper it was like the world stood still.”
“I sang to my husband. I was holding his heart when it stopped.”
The women have come from Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington, Gosford and Sydney to the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual Retreat Centre, deep in bushland north of Leura in the Blue Mountains. The choirs have no affiliation with this or any spiritual tradition, but it’s a good venue for the gathering. Big windows spill light onto the broad verandahs and ancient eucalypts that surround the main conference centre. Inside the women begin to sing. It’s a simple song with simple phrases, shifting into two, then three-part harmony, dissolving into a hum and returning with the lyric just above a whisper. It’s not sad, it’s light and warm. I know the words and remember my alto line. I’ve been away from the choir for some time, and this feels like a homecoming.
“Aren’t you scared?”
Kristin Masters has been answering that question for 14 years after telling people she sings for the dying with her local threshold choir. Kristin is in the Santa Cruz choir in California, and has been in the threshold movement almost since its beginning. She came to the Australasian Gathering because she was in town – and because this is her tribe.
“When people ask whether I’m scared to do this, they get a worried look on their faces, like they’re thinking if it was them, they’d fall to the ground and weep, or be creeped out or something.”
She has a wide California-style smile.
“But, really, it’s so much of an honour to step into that time and moment when somebody is passing from this life. Everything else fades into halftone. You know that you are at an event human beings have lived with since before written history – but most of us like to pretend isn’t going to happen. So it’s that sense of ‘oh, I get to notice the importance of this, I get to be here for it’. There’s something about that.”
There is something about that, something I came to Leura to reconnect with. Something that hooked me – like all the others here – the moment I first heard about the threshold choir. My mind said: “I want to do that.” Then it said: “How bizarre.” There is something about practicing this quirky repertoire, about singing understated harmonies with as much subtle blending as you can manage: something about taking your turn “in the chair”, where a lawn chair substitutes for a deathbed and you experience being surrounded by heartfelt harmonies.
Anna Heriot, from Brisbane Threshold Choir, calls the work “profoundly counter cultural”. It pulls secular singing off stage, from entertainment and performance, and reclaims it for ritual. “The business of dying is extraordinary and mysterious,” Anna says, “and we believe it’s a time for singing.”
The threshold choir movement began in California in March 2000 and was founded by Kate Munger. Munger says the idea took a few years to crystallise, but when it did she knew this was why she came here. She had sung to a friend dying of AIDS and was intrigued and moved by how much it comforted them both. On long road trips, she began singing for every dead animal she saw. She went looking for others interested in how singing could “deepen presence, compassion and gentleness at the bedside”. The movement has grown to 2000 plus singers in 200 choirs worldwide.
When Kristin decided to make the Australasian Gathering part of her trip Downunder, she knew she’d be welcomed – because choirs share a lingua franca in their repertoire and a common culture of openness around dying and death.
Saturday morning and in the bush around the dining hall kookaburras compete with the chattering and laughing inside. It sounds more like teenagers on holiday camp than choristers who sing for the dying. Along with the threshold singers, the retreat centre is hosting a group of men and women here for meditation training. For meals, everyone gets together. Ann Bermingham, musical director of Brisbane Threshold Choir, holds up her hand and begins to sing.
We give thanks for this wonderful world – and for all who labored to bring food to our table . . .
The kitchen staff stops and the meditators look bemused as singers from the deck outside, in the food queue or at the tables, all stand and join in – an exuberant flash mob. At a sign from Ann all those on one side of the room stop, then pick up the song a line later as the musical grace turns into a round, a surprising sync of rhythm and harmony. The staff goes back to ladling oatmeal with dance moves. The meditators grin.
In the chapel-cum-meeting hall this morning everyone’s a bit flighty, almost giddy. Kate Munger is joining the gathering from the US via the internet and a big screen, but there have been problems with the technology. When Kate’s face comes up huge on the wall, round and smiling and framed with straight grey hair, there’s relieved applause.
“I so appreciate that this concept, this idea, this way of treating one another, has travelled so far around the world,” she says. “That we can be of service when it’s crunch time, when there aren’t many precious moments left … it’s a tremendous privilege.” Heads nod. She says threshold songs are unique. “There’s plenty of tribal music, and there’s plenty of folk music, but this particular body of music and the way we sing it – the way we insist and delight in the blend of our voices being the expression of spirit and of generosity – I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
Almost all threshold songs come from the pens of choir members like Ann, who composed “We Give Thanks” for the Australasian Gathering. But while Ann’s grace would suit any choir, songs written for the threshold of life are “like mantras or chants” according to singer/songwriter Trish Watts, former musical director of the Sydney Threshold Choir. “On each repetition you go deeper and deeper and that allows your whole body and your whole being to sink into the melody and the harmony. Eventually, the song starts to sing you.”
Trish founded a threshold choir in Cambodia as part of her work with the not-for-profit Cambodia Sings. In a country “where the whole cultural voice has been shut down”, where “you can be thrown in jail for singing in public with a group of 20 or more”, she says the choir’s early mission was to teach women to sing and to trust.
“To me, that’s the first step with any threshold choir. We’re learning that we can trust each other, show our real faces, show our hearts to each other and our intention to use songs to uplift and bring healing.”
On Saturday afternoon, Melbourne choir presents a workshop to role-play ‘challenging situations at the bedside’. It’s a training exercise from the United States. Each group takes one of more than 20 scenarios: an agitated patient, a daughter with a boisterous toddler, a leaf blower outside, the smell of an unchanged incontinence pad. There are no men to play the male roles; only two of the choirs here have a male singer in their ranks – they’re not discouraged but rarely show up. Perhaps dying, like birthing, is regarded as women’s business.
My role is to be the sister of Liz, the dying woman, and Joan is her husband. I’m the ‘wildcard’. Two threshold singers come into the space. They sing “Rest Easy“ and then, breaking the meditative silence at the end, I demand: “before you go on, have you given your life to Christ? My sister can’t die without Christians to pray for her soul.” And somehow, by stepping up, I stepped into it. I felt what that sister might feel, the pain of her little sister dying without absolution, the terrible fear of retribution. My heart rate increased, tears threatened. And this was pretend. The singers responded with compassion – for me, for Liz and Joan. Calm, balanced and experienced, they offered to sing “Amazing Grace” but made no claims to religious faith. As Trish Watts said: “You have to have your feet on the ground at bedside because sometimes you do encounter torrential emotions.”
Connecting choirs with those who might want their services isn’t simple. Developing a pool of trained singers, big enough to be sure two or three are available when required, also has its problems. Marketing was discussed often at the gathering. Nursing homes and hospice facilities are common venues, but one choir had problems with a matron who vetoed songs suggesting death; in Queensland there’s talk of inoculations for nursing home volunteers; and New South Wales requires police checks. But Sydney choir practises and sings at UnitingCare’s Marion Street facility in Leichhardt, and Melbourne choir has found a home at Sunshine Hospital in the western suburbs, singing in palliative care and in the intensive care unit.
Helen Margulies has almost never missed the monthly engagement at Sunshine.
“In ICU,” she said, “machines are beeping and people are distressed and some are on respirators. We don’t know who the patients are, we don’t know what illness they have but we’re just connected in that moment, we sing, and sometimes they look you straight in the eye while you’re singing and sometimes they close their eyes and you see them relaxing.”
A social worker experimenting with art therapies in acute care introduced the choir to the hospital.
“She demonstrated that when we sang “Ocean Breath” in ICU,” Helen said, “the monitors showed the patients’ breathing regulated. It was that evidence that got us established.”
Saturday evening and it’s my turn to understudy death. I lie in the chair, covered by someone’s blue and green mohair shawl. Montaigne’s line about making “reconnaissance toward death” comes to mind as I slow my breathing down. There’s a shuffling, a quieting, a whispered direction and then one voice begins – cracking a little before binding to the note: “We are all just walking each other home”. This is my favourite threshold song. Synchronicity. All the voices join in steady unison: “We are all just walking each other home.” The lyric is one line but to me it’s a ballad. I imagine sidling up to the precipice, letting the body drop. Inertia sinks deeper. The body is a sheath of tissue and bone expanding on the inhale, exhaling into stillness. The harmonic triads shift along the scale: “We are all just walking each other home.” The voices are a hammock of sound, and I am soothed and surrendered. Then silence. A long silence that holds the intention of every singer to hover right here on the threshold of immanence. Mohair fibres tickle my neck and I open my eyes.
Death has its rituals: the funeral or memorial, the PowerPoint presentation of family photographs, the eulogies, tea and sandwiches, or booze and snacks. But the dying process itself can be a stumbling, confronting, raw period with shocks and emotional swings few are prepared for. Many of us who love someone through their dying ad lib until we fall into our seat at the sad but solid ceremony that marks the end. If we are not the praying type, there are no rituals for comfort and resolution along the way. Meeting the living-dying person with open-hearted acceptance is threshold work, offering what Kate Munger describes as “a liturgy of music that honours and normalises” dying. A secular liturgy for walking each other home.
By the end of the Gathering we’re all close, swapping ideas and email addresses, promising to send recordings and photos. Kate said the choir was into its second decade before she realised it had become as valuable for its members as for those they sang to. “While our service is incredible for the people we give it to, in a way the service that is inspired in members and the meaning that it brings to our lives, that’s the other saddle bag.”
Kristin, from the longest-standing choir represented at the gathering, said: “Because we’ve been at bedside, at that – I don’t know if it’s the most vulnerable moment of life, but it’s up there – because we’ve done that with each other so many times, we’ve lost any defense or pretense with each other.” By talking openly about death, “we share our experiences in the hope that people feel less scared, that they feel more like they want to be with each other in living, so we can be with each other in dying too. When we learn how to do one, we learn how to do the other.” She gave me her email address and a big hug.
It was a weekend for hugs. All the way home early next morning I sang “we are all just walking each other home”. It stayed in my head for weeks – and there’s something about that …
Wendy Guest’s first book, Not Just For This Life: Gough Whitlam Remembered, was published by New South Books in 2016. Her passions are writing and yoga, which she combines in her blog yogananna.com.