Wednesday, May 11, 2011

There I Am in Younger Days, Star-Gazing

Twenty years ago, after a long day of improvising Elizabethan daily trials (alack! the Queen is coming and I've naught to wear!), wearing layers of clothes in 90 degree weather, and mooning over whatever boy I was too shy to talk to at the time...a bunch of us were hanging out on the near-empty grounds of the Renaissance Faire. I was about 15, the rest of the group was older and much more sophisticated...why, I'd put their average age at 22! My friend Colin was playing guitar, and I was pretending that I, too, was cool enough to know all the words to REM's "The End of The World As We Know It" (by the way, you're welcome for the earworm). He played some other stuff I didn't know, and then he played the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine." And I was struck. By the end of the song, I was joining in on the chorus, and my next paycheck took me to the record store (remember those?) in the mall and I bought the album. By which, of course, I mean the cassette tape. It lived in my car that summer and I memorized every word.

In college, that tape was never far from my stereo. OK, to be fair, my dorm room was tiny enough that nothing was very far from my stereo, but still. Eventually I got other albums, and my college boyfriend, Eric, finally convinced me to move to these new-fangled CDs, which was basically his only useful contribution to my life, I see now. These albums were the soundtrack of my early 20s. One of my closest friendships from those days was my friend Mandy (she of the socks in the bed story), who was an alto, and she and I spent hours singing these songs, harmonizing as we drove or to cover our poor attempts at learning the guitar. Later, we found people who would play guitar not-poorly, and we performed at talent shows, coffee houses, and basically wherever someone would hold still. I may also have worn a lot of Doc Martens with dresses, but that's not important now.

I was thinking of all that today, as I drove windy country roads and sang at the top of my lungs. I had to go see a kid of mine who was recently pulled into foster care (the list of reasons included filthy house, meth use, living with sex offenders, and various suspicious marks on her 2-year-old body) and her new home is in another district, an hour away. I started out listening to NPR, but couldn't stomach doing what I was doing and listening to debates over whether we teachers are overpaid and "should learn to live within our means like the rest of the country" (thank you, call-in listener!). I put in the Indigo Girls' live album that I haven't played in years and all of the words and harmonies were right there where I left them. I remembered other drives on country roads in the Midwest, which boy I was crying over at the time, how cool and weird it was when my sister independently started listening to the Girls as well, and which songs would be forever tied to certain people.

I am sometimes struck that, ten years ago, I don't know if there was anyone in my life who didn't know that I sing, that didn't think of me as a singer. And now, I can probably count on two hands the number of friends who have ever heard me sing. It's not any less important to me, but it's somehow become less of my identity. When I sang at a friend's wedding, I got a lot of lovely compliments, most of which started with, "I didn't know you sang!" While I understand how this happens (I haven't performed much since moving out here, due to grad school, cancer mom, job, baby, etc.), it makes me inexplicably sad. Which is kinda weird, because it's not like my ability has changed or disappeared. In fact, since I took lessons for a while (after grad school, before baby), my technique has improved. But now it's a skill that I bring out from time to time, whereas before it was something people knew about me, sometimes before they knew my last name. It was a way that I connected with some of the most important people of my life. It was how I exorcised that hamster wheel in my brain and the little fuckers who ran on it.

And, because I am exactly that unwell, sometimes that sadness somehow keeps me from singing more now. Or rather, the fear of that sadness welling up and wrecking what was once a source of comfort and release. Because now it's also a reminder of something I'm not doing, which feels like pressure, which sucks out all the fun or relaxation that could otherwise be there (that sound you hear is MOTH shaking his head in disbelief of my labyrinthine logic). It makes me miss people with whom I once shared strong musical connections.

But today, I did it. I was able to put all that aside and just enjoy it. Just singing, harmonizing, matching the timbre of my voice to Emily's, rocking out in my little Prius bubble. It was great.

The Indigo Girls play each summer in a local concert series at the zoo. Picnic blankets, snacks, and probably disturbing the elephants--what more could you ask for? The last time I went was the week I found out I was pregnant, and we hadn't told anyone yet. I remember thinking, "If I'm actually pregnant [I was fairly disbelieving up until the first time I saw the sea monkey on the ultrasound], then this is baby's first concert." They're coming this July, and I think we'll take Tankboy. Let him hear it from the outside.


  1. OMG - We are twins. My all-time favorite band is the Indigo Girls! I also was known as a singer in high school and college, and now, practically no one I know has any clue about my musical past. I have a degree in music, and my main instrument was voice, though I did also have to take lessons in practically everything. I do play guitar pretty well, but after a lot of stress and disappointment, I quit everything musical for approximately ten years. It wasn't until my youngest was born and I had reached one of the most depressing points of my life that I turned back to music. Now, for the last six months or so, hubby and I have been playing together each week. He plays upright bass, and I play guitar and sing. Honestly, I don't know why we never played together before, since we're both musicians. But I'm glad we do now. It's saved our marriage -- gave us something to talk about and do together besides just dealing with the kids. It's brought a touch of joy back to our lives. I really recommend fueling that musical energy again. Even after a long absence, it feels like your comfiest sweater right back on.

  2. This is a great posting I have read. I like your article.