I sing — that’s a fact about me. I sang all through my childhood; and in my teens, I sang with a band; and in my 20s, I sang with my best friend Hula — we wrote songs and sang them at parties — and later I sang to my daughter, when she was a baby. I sang to her until she said, “Mama, don’t sing.”
I never thought there might be a time when I wouldn’t sing — but for a while, there was.
The problem seemed to be that I had no one to sing with.
At 15, in Brooklyn, I’d never thought twice about singing all by myself as I walked down Quentin Road or waited for a train at the Kings Highway station — no more than I thought twice about singing as I sat beside my mother on the Coney Island Avenue bus, sat on my knees facing the window, singing “As Long As He Needs Me” at the top of my lungs. But at 30, making my way across the campus of the University of Iowa, where I was in grad school, it never crossed my mind to sing (and if it had, I’m pretty sure what would have crossed my mind would have been, What are you, 15?). And so, somehow, with no one to sing with in Iowa City, and no one to sing with (there was hardly anyone to talk with) in Omaha, where I moved after I finished grad school, for four years I didn’t sing at all.
At first I didn’t even notice that I’d stopped. I didn’t miss it, either. And even when Hula visited me in Nebraska, there was no singing — there was not even any talk of singing. I was too busy showing her the sights, and showing off my driving, a newly acquired skill (and, to that end, we drove back into Iowa, halfway between Omaha and Iowa City, to Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair), and she was too busy raising an ironic eyebrow, shaking her head, and murmuring, “Are you kidding me?” (for example, when one after another of the contestants in the State Fair Queen Pageant answered, somberly, “The plight of the family farmer” in response to the question: “What is the most serious problem facing the world today?”).
We watched the crowning of the Fair Queen and petted the baby farm animals, examined the butter cow, admired the freshly shorn sheep in their pajamas, watched sheep being shorn, and studied the thousand-pound pumpkins. We ate fried dough and corn dogs and cotton candy and stood aside as the brass band paraded by, and, as the day progressed, I could see Hula trying to decide whether to maintain her sardonic distance or be charmed, as I was — or at least amused, as I also was. It was my first state fair, too, but I didn’t have an ironic bone in my body about it.
We’d brought two of the younger sisters of my (like my driver’s license, also recently acquired) boyfriend to the fair: teenage girls born and raised on a farm in Iowa, living now in Omaha with their brother. Watching Hula with the girls, seeing her finally laugh (at the giant pig, and then, a few minutes later, the giant cucumbers) — seeing her bafflement flicker into amazement and finally into something like pleasure — was a great relief to me. I was still in shock myself (pleasant shock, mind you — happy shock — but shock nonetheless) over how much my life had changed.
Of course, it’s possible that that was why I wasn’t singing anymore. Before I’d left New York for Iowa, I’d never been away from the city for longer than three weeks (and, at that, only once, the summer I was seventeen); for over a decade, I hadn’t left New York at all for more than three days. It’s possible I needed to marshal all my resources simply to adjust to life in the Great Midwest.
No — that can’t be true (possible, maybe, but not true). I didn’t quit writing, after all. Nor did I give up romance — although at first I made a conscious effort to, and I did manage eight romance-free months before I began dating the med student who would move to Omaha for his residency, and for whom I would move to Omaha once I’d graduated too.
I even picked up a few new pastimes — domestic ones suitable to my new Midwestern life in a real house with a front yard and a proper kitchen: I put in a garden; I learned to cook.
Indeed, the only other activity I can think of that I relinquished during the Iowa and Nebraska years was smoking cigarettes.
Did I somehow think singing might be bad for me?
I never started smoking again — it’s been 29 years now — but I returned to singing almost the minute I left Nebraska for Ohio. In Columbus, where I moved for a teaching job, the first friend I found (who, by spring, after the Iowa/Nebraska doctor and I had amicably split, would turn from friend to boyfriend) played the guitar and sang beautifully (which goes a long way toward explaining the shift from friend to boyfriend — but that’s an old story, isn’t it? Doesn’t every woman have at least one story that features a man and a guitar?).
By summer, my new boyfriend and I were singing together for hours every day, sitting side by side in the swing on the front porch of the hundred-year-old house I’d just moved into. I’d bought the house — a leap of faith in honor of my having completed my first tenure-track year, and an act of defiance, too: taking a stand, doing the most dramatic thing I could think of after not marrying the doctor, declaring myself a woman who was not waiting a minute longer for her “real life” to begin.
The new boyfriend and I sang Beatles songs, mostly. We sang “Hold Me Tight” (feels so right now) and “Eight Days A Week” (just like I need you) and “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” (yes, yes, you’re going to lose that girl). I was wildly in love: I took that bromide about “making beautiful music together” absolutely literally.
But by September he was gone (having, yes, lost that girl — though “lost” is prettifying it: he ditched me), and — just like that — I stopped singing again.
This time, unlike the time before, I noticed. I noticed that I wasn’t singing, and I missed it, too. I missed it more than I missed him (or else missing it was all mixed up with missing him — I couldn’t tell). I missed Hula, too. I missed everything. It struck me that autumn that I had made a wrong turn somewhere — that I was living the wrong life.
It did not occur to me then, as it does now, that I was too depressed to sing. I remember consciously considering the thought that I might never sing again.
I dressed up this bit of melodrama in pragmatism. I was sad, sure, I told myself, but I wasn’t only sad. I was also busy. What had I been thinking of, anyway, spending all those hours (hours upon hours, day after day, for months!) singing? I had things to do.
And so I threw myself into all the things I did that weren’t singing. I proofread the galleys of my first novel and began a second one, set up readings and signings and made and remade lists of people who should get copies of the book once it came out, even as I settled in for serious advance fretting about reviews. I taught my classes and wrote up proposals for new ones, served on departmental committees, edited a literary magazine, applied for grants. I made dinner parties and made friends and fussed over my house — the house that had been a factor, the singing ex-boyfriend had declared, in his leaving me (my leap of faith an act of no-faith in us, it seemed to him, and for all I know he was right): I painted and repainted, contemplated and rejected wallpaper samples, made the rounds of secondhand and antique stores and lugged home dressers, chairs, a desk, a coffee table. I moved the furniture around (then moved it around again — and then again). I put the coffee table on the porch and bought another coffee table. I painted the coffee table I’d moved out to the porch. (I painted it red. And then I decoupaged it.)
I started taking piano lessons (it had been 22 years since my last lesson, and I was alternately astonished by how much I remembered and astonished by how much I’d forgotten), setting aside half an hour a day to practice “Für Elise,” “Rondo Alla Turca,” Chopin preludes, scales — making music but not singing. Resolutely (sadly, busily) not singing. As I’ve done all my life, before and since, I battled back depression with sheer busyness (a strategy that hardly ever works for anyone, but works — or more or less works, usually — for me).
Fall passed, winter passed, spring began. My book came out. I made it through my second year of teaching, went off to an artist’s colony (I brought my piano books to Yaddo, so I could practice), made some headway on the novel. Started a new romance.
I would probably have sung with that boyfriend (spring and summer, 1990; breakup in the fall) if he had sung — but he didn’t, or he didn’t then (he sings now — sings and plays guitar and banjo in an all-faculty/staff band at the college where he teaches). If he’d ever played guitar for me back then (if he even knew how to play guitar back then — he never mentioned that he did), we might have lasted longer — who knows? (No, actually, I do know: we would not have. The relationship was ill-fated for any number of reasons, not the least of which was that I’d met him through the boyfriend who did play guitar and sing with me, then left me — and for whom I was still pining — or that the boyfriend who never mentioned that he played, or if he played, turned out to be what one of his grad school housemates delicately called a “two-timer.”)
The boyfriend after the two-timer didn’t sing either — and that was Glen, the one I married. By the time Glen and I got together, I’d stopped missing singing. I’d stopped thinking about singing — that was what I would have said if anyone had asked. But who would have asked? Who would it have mattered to except me?
Two and a half years passed songlessly. And then, one April morning in 1993, I surprised myself with the sound of my own voice.
I was seven months pregnant, in residence at the MacDowell Colony, and as I made my way through the woods to my studio in hip-deep snow, I discovered that I was singing. I was singing “Amazing Grace.”
I stopped. I laughed, and then — I was pregnant; this is how it goes when you’re pregnant — I started to cry.
And every day after that, as if a spell had been broken, I sang. I sang folk songs and pop songs and rock songs and jazz standards (and the one hymn I knew, “Amazing Grace,” which I sang over and over again). I sang to my daughter, loudly, as I plodded through the snow, from Colony Hall to my studio and back. Every day after breakfast, I sang. I had ski poles to help me keep my balance as I pushed through the snow. I’d reach my cabin, build a fire, change into dry clothes, and write all day, determined to finish the manuscript before the baby came — and ten hours later I’d head back, ski poles in hand, for dinner and conversation, singing all the way.
When I ran into the painter from Maine who had been assigned the cabin nearest mine, he laughed and waved. I waved back and kept on singing.
My great discovery, that cold spring in New England, was that not having someone to sing with didn’t matter so much, after all. Not if I had someone to sing to.
Of course, this too is an old story. What mother doesn’t sing to her child? Still, it felt new to me. It was new to me.
It’s new to all of us when it happens for the first time. Like everything.
Even falling in love with the boy with the guitar isn’t a cliché when you’re the one doing the falling.
These days, 21-plus years after that frozen April (I once was lost but now I’m found) that yielded finally to a true New England spring of rivers of mud, I have people to sing with and people to sing to, in spades. These days, 25 years after those summer nights on my front porch with the boyfriend who would be gone by September (and then I might/never be the lonely one), 32 years after Hula and I traded shoo-wop shoo-wops between lines about narcissistic men (they like themselves so much it’s catching/so watch out for the disease), I sing with a 200-voice choir, the Harmony Project. Our concerts, in a gorgeous old theater in downtown Columbus — a theater in which Lillian Russell and Al Jolson once sang, in which Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova once danced — sell out every time: that’s nine hundred people to sing to a night.
My private joke (not private anymore) is that it takes a village to replace my daughter. A very, very large village.
Now that I have plenty of people to sing with — and sing to — I’m pretty sure I’m set. That I’ll be singing till the end.