How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.
–Traditional English Language Nursery Rhyme, Roud Folk Song Index #8148
The problem with candlelight vigils is that they’re usually during bedtime. They have to be. Candlelight can’t provide its comforting glow in the middle of the day. Living in the darkness of the world before artificial light, early singers of lullabies and nursery rhymes knew all too well that candles can’t compete with the sun.
I became a mother in the fall of 2014, around the time the world went mad, at least from the limited perspective of a suburban white woman gently swaddled in many forms of privilege. Scrolling through the news as I rocked my infant, I became aware of a world slowly melting down, liquid pooling at the top of the candle, atoms building upon themselves until their own weight became too much and the hot wax spilled over.
It seems like every day since my daughter’s birth has brought more monsters into the open: corrupt police officers killing people of color, neo-Nazis emerging from their lairs, mass shooters gunning down victims in record-breaking numbers.
There have been so many candlelight vigils. I have seen them on the news, followed their orders of service on social media.
But my own vigils look quite different.
I keep my vigils in the nursery, rocking in the mint green glider, the increasing weight of my baby and then my toddler and now my preschooler in my lap. I keep solitary vigils, my husband often away at one of the real services, the kind where people gather, not because gathering changes anything, but because it’s healthier not to grieve alone.
My candle is a nightlight; melting wax is not the kind of thing you want around a child. My daughter doesn’t know I’m keeping vigil; I’m only singing, the same thing I do every night.
On the inside, I am raging, composing strongly worded letters to send to the appropriate people, demanding they do something about this collective meltdown. I’m not especially good at inner peace, though motherhood frequently demands I fake it on the outside.
So on the outside, I am singing. I’m often singing the song my daughter calls “Bonny Banks,” better known as “Loch Lomond.”
The song has a conflicted history both as a memorial to the failed Jacobite uprisings (a series of 18th century attempts to restore the nominally Scottish Stuarts to the throne) and its partial responsibility for romanticizing Highland culture for mass consumption.
But whatever else “Loch Lomond” is, it is a lament. The chorus, which is all most people know, goes like this.
Oh, you tak’ the high road,
and I’ll tak’ the low road,
and I’ll be in Scotland
But me and my true love
will never meet again
on the bonny, bonny banks
of Loch Lomond.
One interpretation of the lyrics says that two Jacobite rebels have been captured. One is to be pardoned and sent home, and the other—the narrator—is awaiting execution or transportation to a penal colony. Either way, the only way he will return to Scotland is by “the low road” of death.
It’s a strange choice for a lullaby. Yet my mother sang it to me, and her mother sang it to her, so it is in my repertoire for my own child, and she often requests it.
“Sing ‘Bonny Banks,'” she murmurs, eyes closed, sleepy head burrowing into my chest.
In lamenting through lullabies, I join a long tradition of women pouring their pain into the ears of children, both of us for now blocked from public mourning by the needs of those children—needs like a regular bedtime and a mother who keeps her grief under control.
Folklorists cite many reasons parents sing such terrible songs. There’s the superstition that if the gods or the fairies or whatever spirits listen at windows hear that misfortune has already visited a house, they will pass it by. There’s the theory that we sing to children of death and destruction (and often of the death and destruction of children) because of the high rates of infant and child mortality for most of human history. The mother prepares herself for loss through song because the cradle might fall.
I rock my sleeping child, comforted both by the sound of her breath and the swish-swish of the white noise machine. Thinking of Columbine, of 9/11, of cars driven like weapons, of Newtown and Townville, of Orlando and Las Vegas, of Sutherland Springs and Rancho Tehama, perhaps I am doing the same thing. Whether it is a biological imperative to secure my genetic material, love for an individual and irreplaceable child, or a bit of both, whenever there is some catastrophe that calls for a candlelight vigil, my thoughts and my body rush to her, desperate to find that she is safe, to feel again that second heartbeat beneath my own.
The words of nursery rhymes are no better than the lyrics of lullabies. So many conjure up thoughts so unspeakable they can be expressed only through song or rhyme.
I rock, thumbing through the book of nursery rhymes to amuse myself, not yet ready to lay my sleeping child down, to experience that nightly separation. Folklorists cite separation as a common theme of American lullabies. In a culture obsessed with independence, in a country where legal mandates say that puppies get eight weeks with their mothers to a human baby’s six, mothers must prepare themselves and their babies from birth.
How many miles to Babylon? asks an old nursery rhyme, answering its own question with the word “candlelight.”
My thoughts stray to Alas, Babylon! Pat Frank’s 1959 novel of nuclear destruction, disturbingly relevant again after all these years since the Cold War. I read it in high school in the 1990s, from the security of a childhood lived out in relatively safe and prosperous years—years of childhood peace I fear I cannot give my daughter as I think about how I will one day talk to her about active shooter drills.
My mind wanders to the Babylon of the Bible, the mighty empire that fell, crushed under the weight of its own hubris, leading the prophet to cry, “Alas, Babylon!” and back to the title of the novel.
I wonder, as I rock, what is the good of candlelight vigils? I am tired of candlelight vigils, tired of hearing of them secondhand, tired of missing them, tired of the need for them. I am tired of clutching my child too tight, of rocking too fast, of singing a little too loud. I am tired of the soft blue glow of the nightlight representing a candle lit for mourning.
There is a new vigil every week, and nothing ever seems to change.
I think, as I rock my living child, of the tiny lumps of fieldstone that mark the graves of small children in old cemeteries. They knew how to keep time, those old singers of lullabies, knew its value, understood every day as a miracle. I think of the crumbling, moss-covered monuments that mark the graves of mother-baby dyads long gone, the ones that say things like
…who died aged 23 years, 4 months, and 3 days, together with her beloved child, who died aged 1 year, 8 months, and 1 day…and I think of an illness, an accidental fire, a violent frontier.
I think of a pandemic, an oil spill, a mass shooting. For we have arrived at a place like Babylon. We live there now. And whether we arrived by candlelight or not, I don’t think we can get back that way. But I rock as long as I can, keeping a watch in the night, singing sad lullabies, willing the wax not to spill.
Keeping vigil. For myself, for my daughter, for all of us.
Marder, Jenny. Also see: Galchen, Rivka. “The Melancholy Mystery of Lullabies.” The New York Times Magazine. 14 October 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/magazine/the-melancholy-mystery-of-lullabies.html.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker writes (decidedly not scary) rhymes for young readers and historical fiction and nonfiction, essays, and poetry for older readers. Her 2014 novel, The Last Sister, won the IPPY Silver Medal for historical fiction, and her work has been featured in Highlights HELLO and Mothers Always Write. Follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit or visit her website at courtneymckinneywhitaker.com.