Songwriting as a Prayer
Excerpted and adapted from "Carolyn McDade's Spirit of Life" by Kimberly French, UU World magazine, Fall 2007. Used with permission.
Carolyn McDade, the author of the song "Spirit of Life", does not identify herself as a songwriter or musician—though she has written hundreds of songs and released fifteen CDs. "Activist, yes, but not a musician," she says.
McDade has given her life to what she calls the movement. By that she certainly means the feminist movement that dramatically changed what was possible for women since she was a girl. But she also means a chain of linked, politically progressive causes: She has actively opposed wars, South African apartheid, U.S. foreign policy, and nuclear power. She has worked for economic justice, environmental protection, and the rights of women migrant workers, prisoners, refugees, and lesbians.
"I'm boringly consistent," she says, with a streak of self-deprecation, sitting on the sun-dappled deck of her modest Cape Cod home, lined with three birdfeeders and a birdbath. "I'm still basically at the same work."
Consistent, yes, but not boring. McDade's life has reached pinnacles of political victory and spiritual insight as well as troughs of personal disappointment and despair with the world. Running through it all has been a strong thread of women's spirituality, which she has woven with Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Canada women, as well as radical Catholic nuns.
McDade still dresses in her signature layers, a dark turtleneck or T-shirt under a white collared shirt, jeans, and squiggly silver earrings. But she now wears her soft gray hair in a short cap of curls. The powerful, deep singing voice on her recordings hardly seems like it could come from this slight, soft-spoken, warm grandmother of eight.
It was the 1960s, when she was working as a Secretary at Boston's Arlington Street Church, that McDade started to write music. The student minister, Marni Harmony, had invited Carolyn to put together music for one of the first women's services. But when she went looking for songs written by women, she was appalled to find so little available.
So late one night she sat at her piano and sang what she wanted to say to her three daughters asleep upstairs, which became the song "Come, Daughter." It was a turning point, the first time she had sung from her own experience, and a searing recognition of what she was meant to do.
"Writing my own song really was the beginning of finding of my own way," she says. "I was a young woman activist, my children were young, and I had totally lost myself. I wouldn't have known what to call it. Social movement was my healing, seeing my life as part of other lives."
She quickly immersed herself in the groups of women activists rising up in Boston and across the country in the mid-1970s. Early on she joined with the Women and Religion groups within the UUA, demanding a place for women's spirituality. McDade and one of that movement's leaders, Lucile Schuck Longview, in 1980 conceived the water ceremony as a way for women who lived far apart to connect the work each was doing locally to the whole. Each woman brought a jar of water from the place she lived, and during the ceremony poured it into a bowl, naming what made it precious to her. Then, dipping her hands into the water they'd combined, each blessed the woman next to her, imparting strength to continue her work.
In the 1980s, McDade became a leader in the movement to oppose U.S. policies in Central America, particularly Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The UU Community Church of Boston invited her to chair its Sanctuary Committee, challenging U.S. government policy by offering illegal shelter to political refugees. She traveled to Nicaragua and helped clear stones from land the revolutionary Sandinista government had given peasants, under constant threat of attack by the U.S.-backed contras. She traveled around the United States, sometimes on speaking tours, sometimes moving with refugees among safe houses or churches. Her life was intense with demonstrations, arrests, threats of legal action and violence, infiltration, and endless meetings.
Like much of McDade's music, the genesis of the song "Spirit of Life" was a very personal one. Late one night in the early 1980s, she was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from an activists' meeting for Central American solidarity.
What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. "When I got to Pat's house, I told her, 'I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I'll be dust.' I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me."
McDade then drove to her own home. "I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement."
Thus the song was born—a prayer for infusing work for justice with spirituality; a prayer for change in the heart leading to change in the world.
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.