When our family lived in London, Hilary and I attended a school called St. Paul’s Girls School. The school had enormous, intimidating brass handles on the front doors, a High Mistress we were supposed to curtsy to, and a grand mahogany assembly hall where we gathered every morning. Each morning we stood up from our rows of narrow caned chairs to sing a hymn, turning our little red hymnbooks open to the specified page. You can see my red hymnal above, and see how well-worn it is, its binding taped, my name and class year carefully noted in the frontispiece in the fountain pen that we all used then.
When I go to church, which is not particularly often (though I always love it when I do), I am almost always surprised by how the hymns are familiar. The words, and the tune, bubble up from some deeply buried memory. These hymns are engraved on the core of who I am.
One song, more than any other, carries a huge freight of memory. It’s Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, which I love so dearly that I want it sung at my funeral. The staccato opening notes, the specific, almost peculiar cadence of its verses, and the final soaring descant all invoke a powerful nostalgia for me. The song represents nothing less than the heart of St. Paul’s, and of that time in my life, for me.
St Paul’s had an annual holiday concert, and Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day was always, always the last song of the night. I’m not the only person for whom the song is special. I remember one particular year, though I don’t know which one. Many of my classmates and I were in one of the classrooms that lined the assembly hall as the imposing organ began the notes of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day. Our parents all stood. As the song soared to its chorus, a group of us leaned out of the door of the classroom, craning towards the music like a plant towards light, singing our hearts out. The music crescendoed and we all rode its wave, joining our voices in the swelling song.
I can close my eyes and be back there, in the long-ago days of my own life, in the dark London night. The past feels animate in my present when I think about that concert, that hymn, that well-worn red book; the 13 year old me is dancing inside the 36 year old me still. Dancing and singing: may we all dance tomorrow.
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