Wednesday, March 29, 2017

One eternal chord: the legacy of Soeur Sourire

(BLOGGER'S NOTE. Though I wrote this post days ago, and have been gestating it for weeks or perhaps years, I just happened on the fact that this is Soeur Sourire's death-day. She chose it, a grim fact, but though she loved God, she definitely had a will of her own.

March 29, 1985 was the day she chose to set herself free from despair, fulfilling a suicide pact with her longtime companion, Annie Pecher.)

"Am I a failure? I try to stay honest with myself. To look for the truth, and try to question everything in my life...
Ten years ago I would have said I was a loser.
Now I don't think in terms of losing or winning...
Life is a continuum. You're constantly on your way. One day I feel good, the next I feel bad. Altogether it's bearable.
Would I do it all over again? That's not a good question. You can't.
You can't do it all over again. Voila"

- - Jeanine Deckers

"Jeanine... is in constant depression and only lives for me. I live for her. That can't go on. 

"We do suffer really too much... We have no more place in life, no ideal except God, but we can't eat that.

"We go to eternity in peace.
We trust God will forgive us.
He saw us both suffer and he won't let us down.

"It would please Jeanine not to die for the world.
She had a hard time on earth.
She deserves to live in the minds of people."

- - Annie P├ęcher, from Jeanine and Annie's suicide note, 1985


Dominique, nique nique
o'er the land he plods along
and sings a little song
Never asking for reward
He just talks about the Lord
He just talks about the Lord

At a time when Johnny Lackland
over England was the King, Dominique
was in the backland,
fighting sin like anything


Now a heretic, one day
Among the thorns forced him to crawl
Dominiqu' with just one prayer,
Made him hear the good Lord's call

Without horse or fancy wagon,
He crossed Europe up and down
Poverty was his companion,
As he walked from town to town

To bring back the straying liars
and the lost sheep to the fold
He brought forth the Preaching Friars,
Heaven's soldiers, brave and bold

One day in the budding order,
There was nothing left to eat,
Suddenly two angels walked in
With a load of bread and meat

Dominique once in his slumber
Saw the Virgin's coat unfurled
Over friars without number
Preaching all around the world

Grant us now oh Dominique
The grace of love and simple mirth
That we all may help to quicken
Godly life and truth on earth

Je Voudrais

I'd like to be just like the wind,
singing everywhere
I'd like to be just like the wind
dancing everywhere
Like the wind that praises the Lord
Like the wind

I'd like to be like the white cloud,
Sailing in the sky
I'd like to be like the white cloud
In the sun
Like the cloud that searches for the Lord
Facing You....

I'd like to be like the flame
from a wood fire
I'd like to be like the flame
from a wood fire
Just like the flame that rises, Lord
Dancing for You

I'd like to be like a guitar
A singing heart
I'd like to be like a quitar
A vibrant heart
Like a guitar that You fill with the strength
Of Your song

Tout Les Chemins

Every road through hills and valleys
Leads to heaven by and by
And the wind that sweeps the alleys
Points a finger to the sky

A song on my lips, a song in my heart
I go my merry way
The sun in my eyes, The sun in my heart,
Lights up my step day to day

Many friends are on the highway,
And they're waiting for a smile
Walk along my friend on my way
Holding hands a little while

There are times of storm and sorrow
When the goal drifts out of sight
But the road leads on tomorrow
To the land of peace and light

Then we'll all be reunited
Singing one eternal chord
For we know we've been invited
To the mansion of the Lord

Soeur Adele

Here is my guitar from Barcelona
Full of the soul of ancient Spain
Born of a tree in Catalonia
And of that mainly rainy plain

You'll like her form, gracious and slender
The sunny color of her skin.
You'll love her voice, mellow and tender
Her fiery beat will make you spin

I well remember when I met her
Hung in a showcase upside down
Right then and there I had to get her
From that old shop in Brussels town
Adios Espania and seguidillas
Adios toreros full of flame
No more sombreros and mantillas
Sister Adele shall be her name

One shiny day I heard God's calling
Oh yes, my Lord if You say so!
I packed my bags without much stalling
Took my quitar and said, Let's go!
Ever since then through every weather
Sister Adele stays at my side
Day in, day out, we sing together
Praising the Lord far and wide.

Sister Adele is never lonely
She helps me keep my hope up high
God is her love, her one and only
I know he voice can reach the sky
Someday up there God be willing
I'll be a guest in the great hall.
And for the dance won't it be thrilling
Sister Adele will lead the ball!

Une fleure

With a flower on the tip of my
muddy shoes I'm walking toward
God, happily singing.
With a flower on the tip of my muddy shoes
I go my way with a light heart
I've picked a flower of hope
Among the budding wheat
Among the evanescence
Of winter evenings

I've picked the flower of hope
In the love of the Lord
Toward Him I am advancing
With a heartful of songs
I found along my way
A flower in the sunshine
It chased away
My desperate tears
In my heart,
The wealth of a sea of eternity
Carries me with happiness

Petit bateau

I found our God on the shore
I found our God in the white seashells

Little boat on the waters
Drifting, drifting
Little boat on the waters
Take my soul to the sky

I found the Lord in the breeze
I found the Lord
In the misty wind

I found our God in the sand
I found our God
in the dreamy swellls

I found the Lord in the mist
I found the Lord
In the sunset on the dunes


Like an autumn leaf that is drifitng
Through a chilly November day
I was restless and drifting
Never happy,never gay

Hallelujah, for Your grace has saved me
For Your love makes its home in my heart
For the happiness You gave me
the wind that sings
in the mountain
For the sunshine that lights up the sky
For the water in the fountain, Hallelujah!

I walked in sadness
and my song was troubled
I walked in sadness
Seeking peace and happiness everywhere

By chance in my adventures
One evening God I found
To God I give my solitude
And His friendship saved my soul

Mets Ton Joli Jupon

Put on your pretty skirt my soul
Prepare a joyful rendezvous
Put on your pretty skirt my soul
The Lord you love is waiting for you

In the early morning hours
When the dew is on the rose
A small gift of Your love
And I am satisfied!

When noon is full of wonder
It`s a joy to be alive
I feel golden in the sun
from a friendship close and warm

Among the twilight stars
When You are all around
You make me fall asleep
In the peace of your arms

CODA. I don't want to write about the cost of fame, the despair, the turbulence, or any of it. Jeanine Deckers (also known as the Singing Nun) left us this music, songs that are quirky, fragile, ideosyncratic. I don't think she played the guitar any better than I do, and her voice, though vibrant and sincere, was not outstanding. 

It was her life she gave us. 

Someone wrote a horrible musical about her life, sending it up, the little girl from Belgium entering a convent, then by accident making a hit record. Leaving the convent to live with a woman and try to make her way as a painter and club singer. Falling into alcoholism along the way. Drunken nun - it's hysterical!

Except it isn't. She and her companion made a suicide pact, and acted on it. They weren't just broke but desperately in debt due to the criminal actions of her former convent, and saw no liveable future.

The Catholic church did not approve of their way out, and buried her silently. Bad enough to be a suicide, but a heretic/lesbian in the bargain? 

Though biographical material is scant, Soeur Sourire pops up surprisingly often on YouTube. When I first began to read up on her life, years ago, I was shocked to find there was only one biography, self-published and badly-written. I am about to read it for the second time, because it's all I have.

I would have liked to have known Jeanine Deckers, a thistle of a woman with a soft centre, who evidently made the best of her good periods. I am convinced she was bipolar, and I know what a hard road that is, even at the best of times.

She was never meant to be world-famous, harassed, cheated this way, owing a mammoth amount of back taxes on song royalties that all went to the convent. But that wasn't the only reason she gave up, or gave in. 

When I hear that clear, candid voice, the voice that seems to be speaking to me directly through time, it brings back a lot of things. My brother Arthur used to sing her songs in French, and they were beautiful. Everyone listened to the album, and no one had the first idea what the words meant. 

I present translations of a few of them here (and a video of a portion of her first album: it was all I could find). The lyrics are slight enough for a breeze to stir them, but the tunes are simply lovely, full of sun and shadow. Of course the original words lose a lot: the French syllables are inherently beautiful, the English bulky and too-literal. I've taken the liberty of amending a few lines: "prepare a joyful rendezvous" was originally "we have a date, we have a date".

Most people are completely unaware of the fact that the celebrated Dominique is a sly satire on the veneration of saints, those exalted figures who invariably turn out to have feet of clay. Verse by verse she builds up his legend until he appears to be wearing a cape and an S on his chest. Yet almost everyone, even the nuns at the convent, took it literally. No one in the listening public was remotely interested in a translation, but just whistled or sang along. It is said Dominique shot to the top of the charts because it came out just after the Kennedy assassination. Could be true; the pop version of the Lord's Prayer was released hard on the heels of The Exorcist, and it sold like crazy.

What more do I have to say? I wasn't going to say any of this.  I know how it feels to want to die. I know how it is to actually plan it, to choose the method. I used to be religious, I was part of the United Church for 15 years and left in bitter and abject pain, completely alone, and feeling mortally wounded by disillusionment. But it serves me right for having illusions in the first place.

Or so it would seem.

P. S. I have found three spellings of her name. Her biographer D. A. Chadwick spells it Jeannine. The quote at the top of this post says Jeanine. Wikipedia claims her name was Jeanne-Paule-Marie Deckers. I have no idea if these shifting versions had anything to do with her choice. I am reminded of the saying, "It doesn't matter what people say about you, so long as they spell your name right." Her suicide was treated as a joke by many: my God, the Singing Nun killed herself! But she died long before that, mauled by celebrity, then virtually forgotten.

The unspoken internet rule

I just got off one of those Facebook pages dedicated to kitschy fashions, decor, etc. from decades ago.The thing that has always bothered me about this and similar pages is the way a seemingly random photo of someone will be posted in an outlandish (by today's standards) outfit and hairdo, ranging anywhere from the '50s to the '90s. 

There will follow dozens and dozens of comments which just seem to get meaner and nastier and more personal. I am quite astonished at the bitchy, catty, high-schoolish tone of many of these. I was going to quote some of the more devastating remarks here, but I find I can't go back there. I'd rather step in quicksand.

I keep thinking: there's no way this person gave permission for having their photo visible to (potentially) the whole world. What if she were standing there, surrounded by all these nasty people she does not even know? Not one of them would have the nerve to say any of this. 

What if someone got hold of your high school yearbook and pulled out your dorky picture, and you suddenly became public property? It would be the equivalent of overhearing nasty remarks about yourself in the ladies' room, and being afraid to come out.

I don't know exactly where all these photos come from, though I have been told they somehow end up in flea markets and estate sales, perhaps when a family comes apart through death, estrangement or bankruptcy. And people say things like "well, if those photos were really important to them, they wouldn't have lost track of them". Therefore the implication is that the photos are public property and open to any sort of ridicule. 

But "losing track" is all too easy in the face of domestic catastrophe. The insularity and privilege inherent in these judgemental statements astonishes me. These people have obviously had pretty cushy lives. "Let them eat cake", indeed. 

People collect other people's stuff, no matter how irrelevant it may seem to them. They're casual about it. But photos meant far more back then than they do now. Every family album is so emotionally laden that, figuratively speaking, it weighs a few tons. But so far I am the only person I have ever found who seems to be bothered by any of this. So what's wrong with letting a Facebook group take a few harmless potshots at '80s shoulder pads and high hair? 

Well, I'll tell you, if someone, somehow got hold of a picture of my daughter from that era, I would cheerfully kill them. I mean it. I would do more than tear a strip off them. She looked beautiful and radiant with her spiral perm, braces and puffy shoulders, and felt that way too. She WAS beautiful, but the snipey, nasty, "Run for your life!"/"OMG, I am in fashion hell!"/"Put away your mirrors or they'll all break"/"lol, I can just smell the sweaty polyester!" comments these women spew out would seem to indicate otherwise. 

And these are some of the milder ones.

What safer way to sharpen your claws and get rid of excess venom than to rip into someone you will never meet? But if you call them on it, they claim to be just kidding and can't understand why I am too dried-up and joyless to join in the fun.

I am not buying that "oh, we looked just as bad back then, so it's OK" stuff. It isn't OK. Just isn't. The person you are ripping into might not even THINK they looked bad, and there's a good chance they didn't. It's a judgement on your part.

I wouldn't want to see myself up there. I just wouldn't, nor any of my kin.

If you ran into a photo of your Mom or grandma, particularly if they had just passed, it might be even worse. But if I say anything about this, the response I get is along the lines of "oh, I am sure if someone saw themselves they'd just join in the fun". The reasoning is that THEY wouldn't mind, so why would anyone else? In truth, they don't know any of this because the person in the photo might as well be an anonymous cartoon. They're not real. I've also been told that nobody ever protests, so it must be OK. Everybody else is fine with it! (Can't we say anything any more?)

Any sane person with a sense of humor knows that it's all just harmless fun.

This particular page also seems to like to run "drunk photos" which are viewed as screamingly funny, people passed out at parties or groping their neighbor. My Dad was an alcoholic who scared the hell out of me and showed up in lots of these kinds of photos, and not only would I NOT want to see one posted on Facebook, I would not want to read 30 comments about what a lush he was. Family photos of people suffering from alcoholism (who have perhaps just ruined yet another family gathering) aren't necessarily something you want to publicly display, although it apparently doesn't count because there are no names on them. Anonymity is a very liberating thing.

What amazes me most is how no one gets what I am talking about. Whenever I express these sentiments - and I've tried to before - I get blank or even offended looks, as if I am speaking some other language, or even broken an unspoken internet rule. I get the sense people are trying to correct my opinion to match theirs, or talk me out of my feelings because I am just being hypersensitive and obviously have no sense of fun. Hey, it's just on the internet, it's nothing personal - don't you KNOW that? And if you don't like it, OK then, you should just get off Facebook. (That's one you see all the time. Make a comment about something you don't like, and you will be told to get lost.)

Not such a bad idea. I've liked Facebook less and less over the years, and this is one of the least attractive features of it: the anonymous skewering of people who might be dead, or might be watching. Or, worse, might be a son or daughter or some other beloved figure that you don't want to see roasted. There is nothing more bewildering and infuriating than having an obnoxious, aggressive person rough you up emotionally and then say, "Hey, what's your problem? I was just kidding around!" The anonymity of the internet has fed and watered that particularly repulsive aspect of the human psyche. Nobody can get to me here behind the bluff, can't even see me or know who I am, while I rake this unknown person over the coals for the unforgiveable sin of having big hair. 

BLOGGER'S THOUGHTS. Yes, I have more to say on a related topic. I have seen many Facebook/YouTube videos of people in dire trouble, injured or in real peril. People watch them and say, "Ohhh, look at that. Wow, that's pretty extreme, eh?" But there is someone standing there taking the video and NOT HELPING! Yes. That person could be using their phone as a PHONE and not a way to "go viral" and get a million views and appear on the evening news. All they would have to do is speed-dial three digits. If you don't know what they are, then I give up.

But they don't do it. They have a video to take. It's just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Another thing - and this is the worst - are videos where a child is in obvious dire peril. He or she is being sacrificed for the sake of an "awwww, look at that" moment and a hundred thousand hits on YouTube. I saw a child of maybe eighteen months, surfing. Another was skateboarding. These kids could barely stand up, and I saw no helmets or safety equipment of any kind in the event of a spill. The comments all seemed to be "wow, what a great little guy!", not "Jesus, somebody HELP that kid!" I've seen two-year-olds ride horses (full-size horses, not those little miniatures) while not wearing helmets or any kind of saddle, and no one leading the horse around. What a good little rider, reads the caption. I saw, recently, a toddler climbing an eight-foot wire fence, up one side and down the other, with nothing soft to cushion a fall, no headgear, and no adult standing anywhere near. But someone WAS there, taking a video of the whole thing, and not anywhere close by. Everyone I talked to thought it was "cute" and said things like, "wow, that's just amazing. What a strong little guy!"

Whatever happened to Child Protection Services?

I know there are supposedly more pressing concerns on planet Earth, but why have we stopped caring? The internet keeps everything at a remove. These toddlers and drunken grandmas and people in funny hair styles aren't real. Thus they are fair game. It doesn't matter. The videos just sort of take themselves (and I am amazed when people say "what?" when I contradict that - someone takes these?) It's as if a random portal is opening up so that we can see a not-real figure enact hazardous or bizarre stunts, just for our own amusement. 

It doesn't matter if the child bursts into tears of terror or grief, because the next day the whole family will be on some TV talk show saying, "Oh, she's fine with it now. Aren't you, Suzy?" Two-year-old Suzy dutifully nods her head. Already she has been commodified, and all for the sake of a hundred thousand "likes".

P. S. I've used my own pictures for this. Perms, big glasses, raw turkeys, the works. And I was probably drunk in at least two of them.