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Swing Low

Tonight is melancholy, but I can't imagine why. I am coming home from a party and I smell like second-hand smoke and, in the cool air, it's not so bad, an almost comforting smell. The moon is out and lights my way, and as I stoop to tie my shoe, I can hear the clink-clink of bottles hitting each other as a homeless woman scoops through the bags at the curb. I'm still a bit jazzed from hopping out of my shared cab mid-ride as my acquaintance/friend Colleen curled up by the wrought-iron fence of the Boston Common to vomit. It's cold in a way that picks up my step. I could run if I wasn't so tired. But I am, so I don't. I walk, keep walking, shoes scraping the asphalt.

I'm thinking about the future, I guess: where I'll be in two months, what shape my life will take. There is so much to do, and it feels impossible. Time is beginning to slip through my fingers. It's cruel, how slow it went at first, when I wanted it to speed up, and how now, when I need it most, time has quickened. How much I gained this year and how much I lost, what I had and thought I had and never had and never will have and might get again but then again, might not. And what it all means and what it all doesn't. I kick a rock.

Without reason, I start to sing. I'm at the top of the hill on which I live, crossing it to get to my street. I don't know what I'm singing, but it matches my step, and it takes me two blocks to realize that it's "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." A spiritual.

I was about six years old when I learned that song, sweet voiced and pigtailed and sitting up tall in my folding chair in the music room. Jane, our faithful, blue-eyed teacher, poured out song after song on the school's box piano, a honey-colored, chipped affair that looked as though it had been through at least one world war, and we chirped and mumbled along. Our favorite, "Drill Ye Tarriers Drill," was a loud, sturdy number that chronicled the building of the railway system, one we memorized the words to and sang at our Harvest Festival assemblies with the dark autumn sky poking through the windows.

My favorites, though, were those old spirituals. There was something about them, about their cheerful melodies and pining for death, a lesson not lost on us even at six. We were taught about the slaves who sung them and why they sung them and what they meant, but nobody could have explained the longing we would feel singing them, the beauty the words held, the sweet sadness of the tunes. How the hardship comes through, the barbed edge poking its head up.

I'm approaching my door; I can see it and the glowing light of the laundromat below my building. I'm still singing, letting the song fill me up and tug me empty, the way I now know it will. I'm not a great singer but not a terrible one, still possessing a sweet voice but, if I'm honest with myself, one best suited for harmony, for descant. It is not a leader's voice, but it is tonight, on this lonely street, in this lonely song. And it was when I sang out for the first woman I ever loved, the first time I opened my voice to another person. I sang for her as I sing now, though I lost my nerve there with her and dropped off after three lines, the only lines I remembered. Here, I press on strong, verse for verse, singing for me, I guess. Singing to keep my head from bowing, to keep my eyes from filling? Singing to whom? To myself? To the moon?

But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, because tonight I'm looking over Jordan and begging whoever beats me to it to tell my friends I'm close behind.


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