In Joy Hargo’s poetry collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, there is a poem titled, We Were There When Jazz Was Invented, interspersed with lines of italicized words I didn’t recognize. Wey yo hey, wey yo hey yah /hey.I like to read poetry aloud and, as I read her poem, a series of strong emotions swept through me — sadness, longing, love. I am often overtaken by the emotion of a poem while I’m reading, but, in this case, I didn’t even know if I was reading proper words. I later learned that they weren’t words. They are what’s called vocables (more on that in a moment). Yet, I could feel their meaning as I spoke the sounds aloud. They compelled a chant that seemed to start in my very DNA. I read that poem in summer 2019.
The feeling of that poetic chant came back to me suddenly last Tuesday morning when I was running. My beloved 17.5- year-old cat had died in my arms 3 days before.
The loss arrived less than six months after the loss of my mother and my relationship of almost 29 years. I felt (feel!) like I have been thrown into a bottomless abyss. The nausea of falling and falling and falling; of fear & grief and fear & grief and fear & grief. Of ear-ringing silence. And yes, I had gotten myself out to move my body, if only for a reprieve from the desire to crawl out of my own skin. As I was running, I started to cry. The tears were not enough. I started to moan quietly as I ran. Then I found myself vocalizing sounds, as in Joy Harjo’s poem. Of course, I couldn’t remember what her exact not-words had been, nor did I remember that they were called vocables. I just remembered the feeling of the chant.
As I ran, I let sounds arrive on my out-breath, until I settled into a pattern of Hee Ya, every second out breath. I varied the pitch, tone and emphasis as I chanted. I varied the volume according to how close other people were, getting louder when I was less likely to be heard. Still, I saw some heads turn as I ran by. I didn’t care if people thought I was crazy. Maintaining the chant was a challenge. I had to control my breath more consciously than I usually do when I’m running. More like swimming. At times, I felt like I wasn’t getting quite enough air. I continued. I had the sensation that my nervous system was shifting into a different gear. Slower. Deeper. Even as my running pace picked up. Breathe in. Chant out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Chant out. For the last three miles of my run. Over and over and over. Here’s what that sounded like.
I was not containing my grief. I was opening a channel to allow the grief energy to flow. When I finished my run, I was rinsed. The desolation was not gone, but it wasn’t stuck inside me either.
And I wanted to share the practice with you. In case any of you are going through a challenging time. I remembered that I’d written about reading Joy Harjo’s poem. I rummaged around on the internet until I found that piece. I had completely forgotten that later, on the very same day I first read the poem, I was reading Ursula K LeGuin’s book, Always Coming Home, when I came across a footnote that read (the italicized paragraphs that follow are directly from my 2019 piece): “This is LeGuin’s tribute to Native American tradition, in which the syllables “he-ya” are common vocables, or wordless syllables. As American folklorist Barre Toelken comments on a Navajo song that is all vocables, ‘it has no words, but is all meaning. (The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West, 2003).’”
At the time, I was astounded by the not-coincidence of this explanation landing in my field, on the very same day. Today I am amazed to see that the very vocables I landed on, for no conscious reason, are common vocables.
Understanding! The words in the poem were vocables. Now I had a word to describe their wordlessness. The footnote went some way to explaining why I had responded with such feeling to Joy Harjo’s poem. I felt, too, how grabbing at the word for my experience satisfied me intellectually, but left me wanting to understand at a more visceral level.
The next morning, I listened to a meditation guided by Thich Nhat Hanh. Our breath, he said, is how we access the oneness of our body and mind. Aha. Three points of contact with an idea and a glimmer of gut-level connection clicked into place.
Song is like breath. If there are no words, only wordless syllables, then our bodies and minds can receive the song, as breath, without judgment, without trying to figure out meaning. We can’t think our way to the answer. We have to feel. Chanted vocables enable us to access the oneness of body and mind.
As I ran, the chant was opening access to my body-mind, to my wholeness. No compartments. Clearing a channel for the fullness of my emotions.
I intend to explore the practice on my next runs. I’ve noticed with embodied practices, like this, that once I have a better intellectual grasp, I’m often able to deepen the impact. As if having agency (which I define as intention + choice) enriches an experience. We shall see.
And if you decide to test drive the practice, let me know how it goes.