The other day driving home from something I was having particularly good luck with the iPod on Shuffle. Sometimes I think that this iPod…actually, this iteration of this iPod, as I just switched it out again, for the fifth time since I dropped it and it broke last summer. I promise you, as I promised the dudes at the Mac store the other day, that I am not actually marinating these iPods in vats of hydrochloric acid before running them over with the car. (The guy at the store said “I’d be more concerned about your having a vat of hydrochloric acid in your house than by your throwing your mp3 player in it, frankly”). Anyway, sometimes I think that the iPod just gets really into a band (right now it’s The Shins) and won’t stop playing and while I, like, respect my iPod’s opinion, I don’t need to hear about it all the damn time, you know? So sometimes Shuffle can be a little fraught with peril, where you’re all “Huh? How did this song even get on here?”
But the other day it was going pretty well: a little Stevie Wonder; some Aimee Mann; this one Emiliana Torrini song; Wilco. And then “Misguided Angel” by Cowboy Junkies came on. I haven’t listened to that album for quite some time—I somehow seem never to be in the mood, the exact opposite of when it first came out and I could listen to nothing else all day and all night—and I was halfway through the part about how sister, don’t you understand, he’s all I’ve ever wanted in a man, at the top of lungs in the way I only do in the car before I knew what was happening.
One of the weirder aspects of my adulthood that I would have never anticipated as a kid, along with my unstinting love for cruciferous vegetables, is that fact that I hardly ever sing any more. I used to sing so much, which is a little funny because I don’t know how to read music and I am shaky on the difference between an octave and a key. My voice is okay but it’s certainly not stunning. It’s an honest, workmanlike sort of voice. An alto, usually. Good for children’s church choir, and musicals put on by the drama club of a very small high school, and for Andrew Lloyd Webber sung in the car with your best friends, and for years and years of praise and worship songs. Probably would sound okay in a band. Good for singing along to every song from Grease and Annie and Godspell, and very good for singing in the car.
I was thinking, as I drove down the hill and onto Market Street, about one summer when I was home from college and Marah and I had this weird job with Miami Head Start that required us to drive and drive and drive all over Miami and visit these bombed-out elementary schools in Liberty City or Hialeah or wherever and do language acquisition testing (huh?) with three year olds. She’d pick me up every morning and we’d go to whatever school we were supposed to go to and do the testing and then come home, maybe via The Last Carrot in Coconut Grove near where we went to high school if she was in the mood for a pita sandwich, which she very often was. She was really into Chess that year and so we listened to that tape (or did she have a portable car CD player then? I don’t remember now) over and over again, as she sung the soprano parts and I learned the alto. We’d already memorized Phantom and Les Mis years before, as fifteen year-old rather gooshily romantic girls are required to do, and of course we’d been in four or five musicals together by that point, so all one of us had to do was open our mouths and go “Nothing is so good it lasts eternally” or “Well, how about Champion?” or “Where in the world have you been hiding?” or “Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat?” and that would last us twenty or thirty blocks at least, driving back to the island, around the curve of the bay and over the bridges, past the state park through the long aisles of jungly green. Every day for at least a month that summer, driving around, talking about nothing and singing about everything, twenty years old and young for our age.
When I met Anna in college I was thrilled to learn that she liked to sing too and we also built up a repertoire (she liked Cole Porter and I liked Tori Amos) that we would go through on alternate Fridays as we walked down from her dorm to bustling downtown Claremont in order to deposit our work-study checks at the bank. I can picture that first year of our friendship, lying on a pile of mattresses we called the Gravity Well in our long hair and bare feet, doing the harmony on “So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts, what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts.” Her then-boyfriend and now-husband Rob liked to sing too…he was actually in the college choir…and they would sing They Might Be Giants and The Bobs on camping trips. One of the times I was down there to visit semi-recently, we were walking around somewhere (that big scary mall they have that always makes me really tired and require a Cranberry Craze Jamba Juice, maybe) and they sang “Pflugerville” by The Austin Lounge Lizards in its entirety and I marveled at how I’ve been listening to them sing that song for over a decade now.
And forget about all the hours of my life I’ve spent singing praise music. It’s so weird to think about now. I know we must have sounded ridiculous in Christian fellowship meetings, singing all that crazy nineties’ Maranatha Music with the guitar players and our hands in the air, but I have to say that’s something I miss about evangelical fundamentalism, honestly. I can really understand why so many different religious traditions use chanting to get to a certain spiritual point, a certain experience. Just regular (well, secular) music can do that sometimes, and if you’re singing about a God you believe in, as a way to access that God, well…it used to be pretty cool. Since I was part of a Presbyterian church as a kid I was never comfortable with more charismatic expressions of worship such as taking my hands out of my pockets, but I did like the sense of everyone’s voices melding together to make a bigger sound. I don’t know, anymore, if God hears or cares about those amalgams, but I like to think that there’s something valuable there anyway.
I miss singing because I really like it and I don’t understand why I haven’t been doing it much over the past couple of years. I like how singing makes you sit up straighter and how you can feel the noise physically sweep out of your lungs and throat when you get a really strong note. I like that you can sing with other people or by yourself and that those can be two completely different experiences of the same song. I like how you can be sitting on the church bus or walking down to the bank or doing chores or something sort of ordinary but if you start singing (especially with a friend who really knows her soprano part) then all of a sudden the time has passed more quickly. I like that you can sing things that you can’t really say in real life and that while you are singing, dramatic hand gestures are often completely appropriate. I like that you can sing an impromptu party into existence or that you can sing someone to sleep. Most of all I like that singing can sneak up on you in the car on Market Street, reminding you to open your mouth and take a deep breath and let your voice just pour on out.