I wish you courage for the next step and the next.
I wish you peace in the middle of the storm.
I wish you unexpected joy, strength to see you through,
And a heart wide open to all the love surrounding you,
It’s surrounding you – we are surrounding you.
These are the lyrics to my song, “Surrounding You.” I wrote it several years ago after hearing news of a friend’s daughter who was struggling with a serious health issue after giving birth to her son. Thankfully, everyone came through that health crisis. The song it inspired has traveled far and wide in the world.
“Surrounding You” is one of the songs we sing most frequently in the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer choir I founded eight years ago to bring songs of comfort to people who are struggling with living or dying. When the choir recorded the song back in 2009, it found new wings to travel to far-flung places, to be put to use in new ways.
I never imagined that it would find its way to a group of singers in a medium security Iowa prison.
Dr. Mary Cohen is aa Associate Professor and Area Head of music education at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. We met when she attended one of my voice retreats. As part of her academic scholarship, Mary is the founder and director of a choir made up of men who are incarcerated at Iowa Medical and Classification Center, commonly known as Oakdale Prison, and area community members. I was honored when Mary asked for permission for the choir members to sing “Surrounding You” at one of their concerts.
Recently Mary invited me to offer a concert at Oakdale. One of my missions is to bring music to unexpected places in the world. Prison certainly fits that description.
The evening of the concert, a small contingent of outside community choir members and I gathered at the front desk of the prison. The security procedures were old hat to the singers who chatted casually as they proceeded through a series of locked doors.
The men had started assembling in a multi-purpose room that looked a lot like a large gym. A tall, upright piano sat at the front of the room.
When about sixty men had taken their seats, Mary offered a welcome and off we went.
Our time together was rich with beautiful singing and conversation about songwriting. The men offered wise insights and deep questions. When I began playing “Surrounding You” and heard the voices of the men quickly and confidently join in, I heard the song in a brand new way.
Prison is a lonely place in a different way than a hospital room is. Like a hospital, though, there is a profound loss of autonomy and the presence of strangers participating in your daily life. Being there changes your life forever, even if you are fortunate enough to leave. But loneliness is loneliness. It’s part of our lives, no matter where we are.
I was touched that this song – written for a new mother – had found its way into the hearts and voices of men who were locked away from their family, friends, and the everyday pleasures we take for granted on the outside.
I can’t sing the song without remembering them and sending them blessings: I wish you courage for the next step and the next….
Here is the link to the song