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VIRUS DIARY: The singing stopped, and the emptiness arrived

WORTHINGTON, Ohio (AP) — My mother taught me that the best place in the world is on the inside of a chord. If you've ever been there, you'll know what she meant. It's a bear hug of awe and wonder, a sublime sliver of beauty or dissonance or genius powered by the humble human voice. Or, more precisely, by many human voices.

How I miss that place. When COVID-19 first descended, our church choir sang for one final Sunday. The cases in Ohio were still few and it seemed important to us to be present. As we elbow-bumped our goodbyes that day, one friend joked, “Will I ever see you again?”

None of us imagined the lockdown that would ensue, the months of isolation and separation. The masks, the fears, the divisions. In my world, coping with such stuff is what singing is for. I was taught to harmonize at my mother's knee, and she at her mother's. We break into rounds on long car trips. We perform at weddings, birthdays and funerals. I've joined a choir wherever I've settled, making fast friends along the way.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown me how much I rely on these choral interludes for my spirituality, my community, my sanity. Our wonderful choir director, Brandon Moss, has helped ease the emptiness with a weekly email: a virtual warm-up, sheet music and YouTube links for singing at home and often something purely inspirational to quench the choral thirst.

For the first couple weeks, I ignored the emails. I was busy learning the new rules for how to cover the Ohio Statehouse, navigate the grocery store and fill my now endless free time. By Week Three, my soul was starved. I opened the email and began. I warmed up. Alone. I queued up the audio file and followed my alto line into the void. “Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken... all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken... Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy..."

It helped. So I opened another email, and another. “I’ve known rivers. Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” I sang. “Tell me where is the road I can call my own, that I left, that I lost, so long ago?” I wept.

Easter Sunday arrived. I saw a silver lining. A dear friend directs a church choir in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I could sing hymns at my own virtual church service, then belt out a rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” rebroadcast a state away. I dressed up, I wore a flowery hat.

Yet even this music-filled day didn't put me inside a chord. Nor did the virtual choir project I participated in, recording myself via cellphone and emailing it to a distant curator. What I wanted was to be surrounded by friends of all vocal ranges, delivering a work of art we'd painstakingly worked on for months, artists and grateful audience in tune.

This story's ending isn't happy. Not yet. The hard truth is this highly infectious virus, spread through droplets from the mouth and nose, has blocked the road to my favorite place in the world, maybe for quite some time.

“There is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a COVID-19 vaccine and a 95% effective treatment in place,” Dr. Lucinda Halstead, president of the Performing Arts Medical Association, said in May during a YouTube conversation on singing's future.

On one hand, how devastating to think of a world without choral music, even for a single life-saving year. On the other, it confirms what I always knew: Singing is breathing is life. Perhaps this moment calls for a state-of-mind adjustment, a shift from “Hallelujah Chorus” optimism to something closer to Mozart's Requiem. Supremely moving, in spots even uplifting, because the sorrow and grief show us just how deeply we loved.

__ Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow Columbus, Ohio-based AP journalist Julie Carr Smyth on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jcarrsmyth

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