My musical essay in Disability Studies Quarterly!

The Blindness Arts issue of Disability Studies Quarterly is finally here! This special issue, edited by Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne, represents several years of work, research, performance, and art among disabled contributors. My piece is called “Sacred Positions: A Personal History of Blindness and Singing.” This is how it begins…

On a crisp December evening, I stand outside the church, its heavy doors propped ajar. The wind buffets my thin chorus dress. Despite my eighteen years, I am a child tonight — the youngest member of the choir with the highest voice. I will lead our procession into the darkened church, my white cane in one hand and a lit candle in the other. I will take echoing steps down the center aisle beneath the vaulted ceiling.

Moving forward, I begin the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and my voice rings alone in the huge space. I glide across the tile, enveloped in the aromas of incense and evergreens.

The song I lead is the first in a series of nine carols and Scripture readings. The choir follows me down the center aisle and around the pews as we walk to the pit. Tucked against the left side of the sanctuary, the pit sits lower than the rest of the church. Three tiers of seats lead down to the bottom level, which harbors the glossy bulk of the grand piano. Our director sits at the bench, her hands poised over the white keys.

The pit steps are not easy for me to navigate. Because the steps are made of the same pale tile that covers the church floor, I cannot see the changes in depth. I rely on my cane as I move forward, slowly measuring my descent. If my cane misses a step, I will, too — and the moment’s charm will be shattered.

Happily, I’ve spent many years in this choir pit under the guidance of several directors. The small alcove is as familiar as the larger space of the church. I know how to fill this edifice with my voice. I know which notes will throw crisp echoes into the high ceiling. I have served as the cantor for countless Masses, Ash Wednesday services, Christmas celebrations, funerals. I have arrived an hour early, scheduled to sing, my lyrics printed in bold 24-point font. But I have also been drafted from the pew unexpectedly when other singers fail to show up — no enlarged lyrics, no preparation. In these hectic moments, the director and I leaf through the huge hymn books, finding the songs I’ve learned by heart. We know that the small faded font of the general hymn book will be illegible to me.

Intellectually I recognize singing as an intricate choreography of mind and body, but I feel purely voice in the choir pit. My folded cane occupies the seat beside me. My hands rest at my side. My ribcage is lifted, my knees slightly bent. As I sing, leg and belly muscles remember the old habits. I take inventory of my body while I sing. Yet what matters to the congregation is my voice. When they hear the initial notes of an entrance hymn, I doubt whether they need to see who stands behind the piano. My voice is familiar, one of the few young voices to lead liturgical services: a high, clear soprano

Continue reading my essay here.

Read the full issue here.

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