Lullabies reassure in an uncertain world

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

A lullaby is more than a song. It’s a melody of love, a rhythm of tenderness, a demonstration of devotion.

Ask Hannah Reyes Morales, who has traveled the world photographing and recording parents and other caregivers singing to calm their children and tell their stories.

Hannah got the idea while covering the drug war in her native Philippines. One night, when gunshots sounded nearby, “I watched a young mother and father singing a lullaby to their child,” Hannah told me. “I realized they were so much more than simple baby songs—they’re a way we make safety, when sometimes there is very little of it.”

Sometimes the danger facing a child can be intense air pollution, as nurse Altanzul Sukhchuluun knows from her daily wintertime work in fume-filled Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Above, Altanzul snuggles at bedtime with her daughter, Khulan.

Sometimes a lullaby can reflect the pain of war, of dislocation, of building a new life in a new land, Hannah writes for the latest National Geographic magazine. Here are a few of her images—and stories:

Of memories: At left, Khadija al Mohammad puts her son Ahmad, three, to bed in their home in Șanlıurfa, Turkey. Khadija’s family fled Syria in 2013. She recalls how her lullabies evolved from the sweet traditional songs that she sang to her older children to today’s lullabies about war and migration. To Hannah, “the way she helped her children understand their displacement—partly through her lullabies—reminded me of the radical nature of caregiving and nurturing as a response to threat.”

At right, a Syrian child plays at dusk in the Boynuyogun refugee camp. Just beyond the barbed wire is Syria. The playground is often busiest just before bedtime, when the sun goes down.

Of comfort: Hannah took images of the beloved stuffed animals in the children’s bedrooms that she visited. Some of the children sang lullabies to their stuffed animals.

Of our stories: Children gather around Patience Brooks, who holds her younger daughter, Marta, in her lap in Monrovia, Liberia. Mothers and children in her Mamba Point neighborhood take turns telling stories as they prepare dinner for their families.

Of Hannah’s homeland: Zaijan Villaruel, 10, sleeps after fishing with his father, Umbing, in the Philippines. Zaijan sings to a younger sibling at home. “In the Philippines, where I am from, the words ‘Tahan na’ are uttered between lullabies,” Hannah writes. “The words often are said to calm a weeping person and translate to ‘stop crying.’ But to say ‘tahan na’ is to also say ‘feel safe,’ ‘feel still,’ and ‘feel at peace.’"

Of safety: Kindergartners from a community near a landfill take a nap in a day care in Ulaanbaatar. These rooms have air purifiers, which are not available in most homes, to protect the children from dangerous levels of pollution.

Of togetherness: Anthony Hallett reads Princess Truly in My Magical, Sparkling Curls to his daughter Ava, six, in Brockton, Massachusetts. Home from work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anthony could join in the family bedtime routine.

Of long-distance love: Physician Molly Thomas sings to her daughters, Ada and Delaney, and her wife, Hannah Leslie (inset), from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston—and wishes them goodnight from work. Death has been with Molly for months; she was isolated from her family during the time that she worked with COVID-19 patients. “Singing of fears and worry is not uncommon in lullabies.” Hannah tells me. “But what stands out to me is that lullabies show us that our fears can be used to forge our reassurances.”

Catch Hannah on Monday here on the public radio program The Takeaway. Do you get this newsletter daily? If not, sign up here or forward to a friend.

Your Instagram of the day

A glimpse: Detail of the eye of a mare called “Lluvia,” which means rain in Spanish. She has one albino eye and one brown eye. Photographer Luján Agusti spent time with a family of old settlers of Tierra del Fuego—the southern tip of South America—who are dedicated to the countryside and horses. She made this photo on her iPhone.

Related: The spinners ‘at the end of the world'

Today in a minute

A small comfort: It was Thanksgiving. Photographer Go Nakamura was sitting in a Houston COVID ward watching a doctor approach a crying patient. “I want to be with my wife,” the frail man sobbed in his hospital gown. In what would become a hugely shared image, Nakamura showed the man burying his head in the arms of Dr. Joseph Varon, in PPE, who hugged the man. “I believe the photo can be the door to certain people,” Nakamura told the Washington Post, “so they can start to realize what is going on and what the reality is in the world right now.” Varon, who had worked 256 straight days when he spoke to CNN on Monday, said so many isolated, lonely people with COVID-19 deserve a hug—and overtaxed medical workers often can’t give one. “This is taking a huge toll,” he said.

In related news: Our latest poll suggests men are more likely than women to get an FDA-approved vaccine for COVID-19 when it becomes available. Overall, 61 percent of 2,200 Americans questioned responded they were likely to get vaccinated. Of that total, 69 percent of men were likely to do so but only 51 percent of women, according to the poll, conducted with Morning Consult. Nearly 1 in 4 women responded they were “very unlikely” to take the vaccination, the poll found. Read more here.

Ghosts of segregation: America’s landscape is still dotted with the vestiges of racism and oppression, and photographer Richard Frishman visited those sites, from a partial sign in New Orleans that marks where humans were bought and sold to the former fast-food place where two Black teens went before they were abducted and killed by the Klan. “Our built environment,” Fishman writes in an accompanying essay to this haunting collection in the New York Times, “is a kind of societal autobiography, writ large.”

Timed to perfection: A Phoenix nature photographer planned his vacation around it and consulted three apps to make sure he was right. The skies cooperated, too. And that’s how Zach Cooley got a photo of the full moon looking like a mysterious eye as it passed through the North Windows Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park. See the photo here. “It was shortly before sunset, giving the rock landscape a good glow to complement the moon,” Cooley tells Peta Pixel. The photographer, who has been fascinated with moon photography for eight years, considers this his favorite moon shot.

Award season: Brian Skerry’s long career photographing the world’s oceans has been widely recognized. On Wednesday, the Nat Geo photographer won the Presidents Award from the Conservation Law Foundation. The organization cited Skerry’s “inspiring and tireless work to protect our oceans’ living resources."

In a few words

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On Mondays, Debra Adams Simmons covers the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.

The last glimpse

Break time: They pray nine times a day. They live in silence. However, these cloistered nuns were taking a break in the garden when Melissa Farlow took their picture in 1998 in Arequipa, Peru. At the time, Farlow, who specializes in the American West, was working on the book Long Road South, about life on the Pan American Highway. “I love the joy she captured in this photo, and her ability to show a different side of nuns than is stereotypically thought of,” says our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco. Photo editing intern Maya Valentine selected this image from our archives; it also was chosen for our 2019 book, Women: The National Geographic Collection.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro helped produce this, and Amanda Williams-Bryant, Rita Spinks, Alec Egamov, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel also contributed this week. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!

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