Pat Keown is starting South Carolina's first chapter of the Threshold Singers, an organization with the mission of "kindness made audible." She is a former psychiatric nurse and licensed clinical social worker, and a member of the Beaufort Art Association and the new Compassionate Beaufort Communities.
"You don't have to have a great voice," she said. "We go to their bedside and offer the comfort and compassion that music brings."
The group will sing a capella, two to four members at a time, at the invitation of families when comfort and ease are needed during hospice care.
"We bring gentleness and compassion, respect for the individual, a soothing presence," Keown said, "Before we enter a room, we will center ourselves to be focused and clear and present as can be."
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"Thresholds" are the transitions of life, from birth to death. In between, it might be easy to get accustomed to the even keel of daily life and become oblivious to the elusive, valuable moments that could benefit from acknowledgment and ritual. Another word for threshold is "liminality" as in "subliminal" -- what phase is next, just a gut feeling away? The arts are a way to mull and handle change, to raise up the liminal like pulling a net full of shrimp out of the river. Culturally, we have much below the surface.
Consider still life paintings, the fruit on a wooden table captured in one brief phase of its life, the bruise on the apple painted in, and about, temporality. Note the many lyrics written about milestones, from "Happy Birthday to you" to "take this job and shove it" to "...but I always thought that I'd see you again."
Singing is an ancient practice, Keown said, "done at all kinds of events, especially those that are transformative." Her family sang together at her father's bedside before he passed.
The group hopes to sing at additional thresholds too: during a serious illness, as people wait for chemotherapy, for a preemie in intensive care -- "as wide and as varied as we have the capacity to imagine," Keown said.
Six months from now, she hopes her group will be ready. "We have to build a relationship with each other first. Being at the bedside of a human being is sacred time.
"We have to be present, and in the moment to sing from our hearts."
The group has had three meetings, and invites those who resonate with the idea.
"I've yet to talk to one person about this who didn't get chills down their spine or tears in their eyes or didn't catch their breath. When we hear harmonic music, it resonates within the cells of our body, our spirit, and our mind. It's a different kind of medicine," she said.
Their songs are sacred lullabies. They are simple, just two or three lines, and ecumenical. In her strong, natural voice Keown sang one for me: I am your standing stone/I will stand by you.
"But if a family says 'We love Baptist hymns,' then we'll learn them. Anyone will be comforted," she added.
Beaufort's Threshold Singers practice in a circle with one member laying in a zero-gravity lounge chair that Keown bought specially for this project. Keown had a turn in the center recently and described it as beautiful.
"We're already starting to get our own voice," she said with satisfaction. Then she pointed out how fortunate we are in Beaufort to have so many organizations that are about volunteering and compassion.
"We have the talent and spirit in this town to have an amazing Threshold Singers group. My dream is that we will join together as women, men, all races, and be totally inclusive. This is what we need to do as a community. Together we can be so much better, embracing each other as we embrace others going over the thresholds. I am saying yes. At this point, this has been once of the easiest things I've done. I hope I can say that a year from now."
Lisa Annelouise Rentz writes and works on her capacity for compassion from the Higginsonville neighborhood of downtown Beaufort.