In my first post on Life Metaphors, I observed that seeing life as a journey, a song or a dance is to affirm the presence of lasting meaning in the midst of change. Countless songs liken our experience of life to music. We can all think of many examples (e.g., Arlo Guthrie, “You are the Song” ). But my favorite exploration of this metaphor is an utterly beautiful story about:
“Hruna the humpback whale and his journey into love, mystery, and spiritual awakening in the waters of the world.”
That is how one blurb introduces Whalesong, by Robert Siegel. This book was one of our favorite family read-alouds when our daughters were young (along with Siegel’s other masterpiece, Alpha Centauri). In this skillfully-written and delightfully-crafted tale, Siegel portrays the song of a humpback as its ongoing life-story, a continually growing composition that recounts the events in a whale’s life from birth to death:
“Every whale would stick to his song and repeat it faultlessly. The longer he lived, the longer and more complex the song grew. Sometimes he would sing only a few notes from it, but later he would pick up exactly where he left off. As the years passed, the song grew with the singer until many lasted for hours. We calves only made short whistles and squeaks which grew longer with the months, but we waited impatiently for the day when each one would sing his unique song.”
Whalesong, an epic counterpoint to Melville, is a tale of life as music. While a young calf, Hruna described his mother’s song:
“Each whale had his own song, but none, I thought, equal to my mother’s. Hers lasted a long while, begining with a soft croon to which I’d sometimes fall asleep. Soon, however, it changed into trilling whistles like birds skipping about on a barnacled back or water that leaps and dances down a cliff, then to a long shivery moan that probed every sea cavern between us and the ice at the end of the world. This moan stretched and bent in every direction, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, and was the sweetest sound I’d ever listened to. Sometimes it reduced me to tears – I don’t know why…”
“Another time I saw a large male singing while I recorded nearby. He was slowly swimming in a large circle under a mother and baby. He went in a circle perhaps 100 yards across at a rate of about 15 minutes to go around it, about 50 to 100 feet down. This is the recording I call “Kalama Lullaby” because it seemed he was making a cradle of sound for the mother and baby to feel protected in, while they snuggled on the surface in the sun.”
Whalesong is so compelling because it demonstrates the power of music as a metaphor for life. The song of Hruna powerfully embodies how our lives are inextricably related to music.
It is no surprise, then, that music moves us profoundly at significant moments in our lives, nor that the experience of hearing a long-neglected song can resurrect a past experience in a most vivid way. A few of my own musical memories, just off the top of my head, would be:
- Attending a Stephen Foster concert in my teens, keeping my eyes closed the entire time (indeed, never even seeing the outdoor ampitheater). My memory of that event is particularly vivid, just because it is exclusively auditory rather than visual.
- Candace singing “The Lord is My Shepherd” to me, accompanied only by a flute and a red-winged blackbird, at our wedding.
- Michael performing “Season Suite” for us at our wedding.
- Our children’s’ favorite lullabies, such as “Snows are Falling on Douglas Mountain,” “Morningtown Ride,” or the Sleep Sound in Jesus CD (which is now a frequent baby shower gift ).
- A lyrical worship dance of Michael Card’s “Simeon’s song” at our daughter Hannah’s baptism ( ).
- Singing Priscilla Herdman’s “First Lullaby” (mangling the French and all) to Susanna when I held her – minutes old – in the delivery room.
- Julie’s exuberant piano rendition of “Come Thou Fount,” which has become a theme song for reunions and other family gatherings through the years.
- Candace and our daughters singing through the years; especially at Laura’s wedding, at Christmas and Easter services, and at Candace’s father’s memorial service.
- Our favorite Christmas albums, listened to during homeward travels each year (Precious Child, John McCutcheon, George Winston, Bruce Cockburn, John Michael Talbot).
All of these and more, with a plenitude of clicks, short whistles, squeaks and moans, are part of my own whale-song.
Postsript: One of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever heard about the power of music to resurrect the past and make it coinhere with the present is an NPR story, “Who is singing me lullabies?” by Oliver Sacks. The recording conveys the story much better than the article, because the audio suggests something of the Irish lullabies. Listening to this story is like listening to Whalesong; if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy the other.
Next: Part 2: Theology, Music and Time