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Violence, Redemption, and the Power of Song

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On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives renewed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) a landmark law passed in 1994, providing assistance to victims of domestic and sexual violence. Thursday's vote follows the success of the measure in the U.S. Senate last month, and, notably, after some debate, was also drafted to extend protections to LGBT victims of domestic abuse, as well as American-Indian women on reservations.

In spite of my New England stoicism, I wept at hearing the news. The tears surprised me. I had apparently unconsciously steeled myself, deeply, for the possibility that the law might not be reauthorized given the fierce public rancor over the last few months. I feared its lapse would silence the voices that are hardest to hear in our country: the economically and socially marginalized, the children, the indigenous. I worried about what message it would send to our nation's children. I should not have been surprised by the depth of my emotions in response to the news of the bill's success. I am a survivor of domestic and sexual violence.  

Yet my relief was somewhat short-lived. Just 24 hours after the triumph of VAWA in the House, the U.S. State Department delivered a virtual body blow to the planet: the release of an assessment claiming that that the environmental impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline would be nominal, in the face of overwhelming, broad-based scientific evidence to the contrary.  

Violence against humanity and violence against the earth are inextricably bound. Systematic and rapacious plunderings of our earth are also acts of violence. Forceful, willful destruction or harm of any life-form -- woman, child, egret, or boreal forest -- is violent, regardless of context or application. They are two sides of the same coin of a spiritual malaise, a coin being flipped with astonishing ubiquity at this time in the history of our planet, sourced from deep within the shadows of aching, disintegrated human spirits. 

Emboldened by the success of VAWA and deeply troubled by the Keystone XL Pipeline ominously looming, I raise my own voice -- as mother, artist, survivor, and concerned citizen of planet earth -- with renewed conviction. I endeavor to speak the truth -- my truth -- even if, as Maggie Kuhn might suggest, my voice shakes as I do so.

For as long as I can remember I have sung. As a child, I sang all the time, wherever I went, whenever I could. The daughter of intellectual peace activists, my early passion and refrains came out of the American folk music traditions of the 1960s. However, at age 5, I heard my first live opera and was utterly transfixed -- forever changed by my encounter with the muse. I have long drawn deep inspiration from my folk roots, but it was from within the hallowed halls of the musical temple of Mozart, Handel, and Donizetti that I forged my path and the pursuit of my dream to become a professional classical singer. My career began at age 17.

By the time I was 19 I had survived two prolonged incidents of acute physical abuse and in 1987 became the victim of a near-fatal violent crime. I was raped. The physical and emotional pain from those experiences was overwhelming. In the wake of the trauma, I was at war with my own body. I stopped eating and began wasting away. Singing became excruciating, then impossible, until I completely lost my voice. 
 
In September of 1988, at age 20, I found myself in a hospital bed in Orlando, Fla., hooked up to IVs and heart monitors, a shell of a human form. On the 11th of September, my physical sheathing gave way and I journeyed into a tunnel of luminous light -- beautiful, peaceful, and blissful. Gently, with no fanfare, I was, however, returned to physicality moments later, cellularly reorganized as a human being.
 
Thus began the long road back to my body, my voice, and my life. Recovery of my voice demanded every ounce of courage, faith, and commitment I could summon and more. I fought against all odds. Intuitively I somehow knew I would find my strength only by returning to source. I went, wearily but determinedly, to the very place where I had first discovered my voice as a young child -- the earth herself: those woods, streams, and meadows that surrounded me in Vermont where I grew up. 

Day after day I journeyed to the holy sanctuaries of the wild, hoping to find my voice again, engaging in the humbling ritual of offering up my agonizing squeaks and squawks to the trees, only to fall on my knees, sobbing in despair, to the humus of the forest floor. Day after day I submitted myself to this wailing ritual, until one day, through nothing less than a miracle of grit and divine mercy, my voice returned. 

In time I was able to resume singing professionally around the world, and have enjoyed not only the return to more traditional operatic and concert appearances, but also the chance to collaborate with beloved colleagues of other musical genres, including with seven-time Grammy-award winning world musician and dear friend, Paul Winter. Through it all, I have never forgotten that mine is a reclaimed voice with its own story to tell. 

As an extension of my gratitude, I now help others find their voices, speaking or singing, using all of the physical, emotional, and spiritual tools I discovered through my own journey. 
 
In the mid/late 1990s I became a mother -- an unmitigated blessing, given what my body had lived through. I awakened to considerations of the future in ways I hadn't felt before. Though I have always held a concern for the health and future of our planet, the arrival of my daughters gave my earth-consciousness a much deeper, almost laser-like focus.
 
On the eve of Earth Day 2009 while my girls and I were traveling in Los Angeles, I caught a glimpse of two children in an unassuming side street, playing an impromptu game of soccer with garbage. There was something about that scene, that moment, which stirred something deep within me. Drifting off to sleep that night, I pondered whether there was something more -- anything -- I could do, to further extend myself in healing our weary planet.
 
Lightning struck at dawn. On the morning of Earth Day 2009, I sent out an email to gather a group of friends together in Vermont upon my return, asking them to join me in singing for the earth -- nothing fancy or performance-oriented -- just the simple joy of people coming together to share our love for the planet and our belief in the power of song and the human voice as an agent of healing. I sent out the invitation to my mailing list, inviting friends to join me for an evening of singing and a potluck supper. 

Within an hour, I received responses not only from Vermont, but from Indonesia, England, South Africa, Argentina, Israel. One by one, people from all over the world wrote me, asking how they could become a part of what we were doing. Their responses were overwhelming and heartfelt. They felt that this idea gave them a gift -- something they had been searching for, something I had lost and found again those many years before: hope.

There is something about singing, especially singing together, that creates a deep response in people. Singing makes us human. Hearing someone sing makes them more human to us. Singing together unites and re-humanizes us in ways that nothing else can.
 
In this time of unprecedented volatility and frailty on our planet, the human voice -- in particular the singing voice -- has tremendous capacity to unify people and to create peace within and among us. The greatest social movements of history have borne this out time and again. As an artist and as a student of history, I have come to believe in the power of the human voice and the power of song to create a better world, a healed planet and to bind together the human family toward a common purpose.

Music has the ability to bring healing to the earth in ways we are just beginning to understand through modern science, which have been understood for thousands of years by all indigenous peoples of the world. 

Where there is hope and a voice, anything's possible. My life stands as its own testament to that truth. I have dedicated my life -- my voice, in all of its iterations -- in fully consecrated service as an advocate for the earth whose relentless generosity to humanity is the reason I have a voice at all.

Join me in song. Together we sing to end violence against our most vulnerable and against the plundering of our children's world.