Hallowell–Spreading the Word Through Song

Brattleboro Area Hospice Annual Report  2007

Mary Cay Brass leads

We always start with the same song. 
“How Could Anyone Ever Tell You,
you are anything less than beautiful,
how could anyone ever tell you,
you are less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
that your loving is a miracle,
how deeply you’re connected to my soul.”

We look into people’s eyes when we sing.  We feel the power of the words as people in the workshop take them in.  Across from me a woman is weeping openly, quietly.  To my left an older woman has her hand on her heart.  A gray haired man has a light in his eyes. Later he shares the story of his wife’s death and how she responded to the singing of Somewhere Over the Rainbow at her bedside and how after she died, a double rainbow spread itself across the sky.  

The circle seems to grow smaller as the workshop goes on. Voices grow stronger, more confidant.  The stories come first from us, the singers of Hallowell who have been invited to yet another community wanting to start a hospice choir in their town and then from those who have come to gather with us.  We share songs with them.  We tell them about how we started, about our relationship with Brattleboro Area hospice, about what it feels like to stand around a bed and sing songs in harmony, in quiet reverence, as a person we have just met takes their final breaths.  We talk about what to do when emotions surface.  We tell them the stories of our greatest teachers, those who invited us in to sing and have since died.   As the hours pass, the energy and emotion in the room grows.  By the time we leave, a new group has begun to form.  People meet in smaller groups, take on roles and responsibilities.  There is a song on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s heart.  It’s the song of bringing life to the death bed.  Of bringing heart into our living by standing closer to our dying.  And it is spreading itself across the country with very little effort.  

Four years ago, when Hallowell first started singing in this community, I already felt the life force of this ministry.  I recognized that this idea, this grace of song for the dying, wanted to be in the world, now.  We have done very little to promote who we are or what we do through hospice and in the community.  The growth of Hallowell has been an organic process; word of mouth, a few lovely articles in newspapers and on the radio, connections made through friends or community.  Yet it has reached far and beyond Brattleboro.   

 The first workshop was offered in Middlebury through Middlebury hospice in the fall of 2005. Wellspring has  been offering bedside sings for over two years now.  After that, the calls started to come.  Burlington,      Montpelier,  St. Johnsbury, Rutland, Randolph, Bennington.  Last November Noyana, Burlington’s hospice  choir, hosted a day long gathering of all of the hospice choirs in the state.  We gathered to share stories and  songs and a lovely lunch.  I believe we all left that day with our hearts full of wonder at how it feels to be  guided in our lives.  This work is clearly guided.

It felt that way in February 2006 when we recorded Angels Hovering Round in Soundesign studio in  Brattleboro.  We had a wonderful weekend. Peter Amidon and Mary Cay Brass took turns directing us  through the songs we chose for our CD.  The songs came easily, the sounds were pure and lovely, the  energy was high and joyful.  People worked together in harmony.  I guess it’s what we know best.  I recently  listened to Angels Hovering Round as I was driving home.  I hadn’t really listened, without singing along,  since we first recorded it.  I was overcome with emotion at the lovely sound and spirit of this CD.  It was a  truly guided project and has been finding its way into the world as was our original intention for the project.    We have given away as many copies as we have sold.  It seems to find its way to the families who need the comfort of our songs and sounds at just the right time.  

This and first article photo by John Nopper

This and first article photos by John NopperThis past weekend, four of us walked quietly into a room at Thompson House where a woman rested comfortably, long spaces between her breaths, her granddaughter beside her as she labored towards her death.  Our music was playing when we walked in.  It was a comfort to her, the granddaughter told us.  We sang quietly around her for an hour, her breathing changing after each song ended.  Another family member arrived to keep vigil.  Our singing created a space for the family’s grief.  They cried.  We sang.  And the dying grandmother rested in the lovely heartfelt sounds of this world as she prepared to let go of her physical body and follow her own song wherever it might take her.  

We are so blessed, so graced by this ministry that has invited us to be in sacred spaces, to be witness to love again and again.  To watch this ministry spread of its own great need and desire to be in the world is a wonder.  Hallowell is grateful and honored to be a model for so many new groups forming.  

At the same time we were beginning to be asked to offer workshops, Camilla Rockwell had a vision.  It included the inspiring sensitive artwork of Deidre Scherer and the songs of Hallowell.  Over the past year, Camilla poured her heart and soul into the creation of her beautiful emotional film called Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life.  The film was screened in Brattleboro in April.  At the end of the hour long film, there is a stunned silence in the audience as people try to absorb what they have just witnessed; the close up intimate work of Deidre Scherer as she embodies a soul’s light through fabric.  Her gentle spirit is a channel for those she sketches.  The people she preserves in art seem to give her a piece of themselves.  Those who are fortunate enough to look upon Deidre’s art know they are seeing into someone’s most intimate inner life force.  Camilla’s film gives light to all of this.  And for Hallowell, Camilla’s film has given us an even stronger voice and presence in the world.  She follows us to nursing homes and private homes and to bedsides.  She captures our voices, our spirits, our joy, our bond with each other and with those we sing for.  How could anyone ever tell you…how deeply you’re connected to my soul.

Through art, music and film, we are all exploring ways to stand closer to death in joy and reverence and with less fear.  Our cultural attitudes and practices have taught us to stand away from death, to be afraid, to deny impermanence that is all life.  Hallowell’s ministry of song is one small ripple in a huge wave of change that hospice has created space for in our culture.  We are in awe of the process, grateful to be asked to serve as a model for other communities , to offer our workshops, to share our CD’s, to be invited to the bedsides again and again of those who are dying before us.  And we are grateful for the evolution and natural growth of Hallowell and for our holding center, Brattleboro hospice, that place from which so many wonderful ideas and programs continue to grow.  

–Kathy Leo