Pushcart XL: Catherine Jagoe, “A Ring of Bells” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, 27:2

Church bells punctuated our lives, doling out information and instructions, for the church clock tolled every hour. Eight bells meant it was time to jump out of bed and get ready for school. One bell meant it was lunchtime. Six bells, and it was time for Dad to switch on the evening news. Bells at 7:30 pm on a Friday meant the ringers were holding their weekly practice. In the evening, ten bells meant it was time to switch out the light. On New Year’s Eve, twelve strokes meant squeals, hugging, and one of the grownups popping a cork. Saturday bells signaled a wedding or a funeral.

~~Complete article available online at Gettysburg Review

This is what I love about Pushcart – about reading in general, actually. You never know what’s on the next page. It might be bells.

A few years ago, I sang in a choir at the local Unitarian church. The sexton would ring the steeple bell just before the service, using a thick rope hanging from the ceiling and stored well out of reach at other times. I can hear the bells every Sunday still from my apartment. When the Longfellow Chorus, another of my singing projects, used the church for its concerts, those bells chimed in to help with our final piece. There’s another church with a carillon that plays a 20-minute set of hymns in the evening, but that’s automated; there’s something particularly quaint and charming about actual bell-pulling.

There’s more to bell-ringing than just yanking on a rope. Jagoe takes us through the technical process, the effect it had on her as an adolescent, and the persistence of the memories, a lifetime later.

For those interested in finding out more about the craft, there’s a lovely video that covers history and technique. But this isn’t a how-to essay. It’s much more personal than that.

My ten years of bell ringing precede and include my years of teenage love, of anorexia and clinical depression, of losing my virginity and my faith. The bells woke me every day and kept vigil in the long nights of my illness when I lay unable to sink into sleep. The bell chamber became a refuge where I could sink into rhythm and concentration and briefly escape the obsessions that tortured me…. There, I didn’t have to speak. All I had to do was show up, hang onto my rope, and sound my bell on time. Ringing anchored me physically, acting as a literal lifeline to a community of music making and faith at a time of radical isolation and silence in my life. I was one note in a communal instrument speaking to the town.

Like Jagoe, I’ve sung in choirs since I was a kid. I’ve never pulled bells, but I did ring in a handbell choir for a while. And like her, after adolescence my only connection to church was music. I like to sing, and for amateurs with a fondness for polyphony and harmony, church is where the music is. In churches, as in schools, music is often the victim when expenses must be cut. Jagoe makes a convincing case that a church’s music program is about more than providing background music during the offering, and a school’s music instruction teaches more than scales and time signatures.


One response to “Pushcart XL: Catherine Jagoe, “A Ring of Bells” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, 27:2

  1. Pingback: Finishing Pushcart XL | A Just Recompense

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