Earlier this year, I took a train from Rome to Brindisi, down in the heel of the boot, to spend the weekend with my deeply religious, extremely southern Italian cousins, aunts, and uncles. Normally, when Brian and I go to Brindisi, we stay with Zia Liliana and she gives us her bedroom, and we take it graciously and pretend that we’re totally comfortable sleeping surrounded by pictures of Jesus and my dead relatives, which includes both my parents, because to reject this hospitality, as I learned the one time I booked us a room in a bed and breakfast, is a GRAVE OFFENSE and if you do it you will speak of NOTHING ELSE all weekend.
(Okay, that’s not entirely true. This is still Italy, so you will still talk a lot about food, as legal mandates require a minimum of 80% of casual conversation be about what you have eaten or are about to eat.)
On this trip, it was just me, sans spouse, and it turns out that when I visit alone, I still get Zia Liliana’s bed. Except that she also sleeps in it, so it’s you (well, me) and the crucifix and the pictures of dead relatives and your alive 76-year-old aunt who wants to chat with you until 3am, which is honestly fine, because who is sleeping in this situation?
During our impromptu slumber party, she asked me if I go to church. I could have lied and cut this conversation off at the knees, but I didn’t, and just said: no.
“But not even at Christmas? At Easter?”
“Do you not have faith?”
“Not really, no. I went to church for a long time. I never felt anything there. I find my meaning in other things, like music.”
“So do you ask Beethoven and Mozart for help when things get hard?” (This one was asked with a TONE.)
At the time, I responded with “No, but maybe I should try!” In retrospect, the answer should have been yes. Do I pray directly to Beethoven? I do not, and anyway, he’s deaf and seems like he’d be cranky. But do I use music when I want comfort or solace, or when I want to express joy, or when I want to feel involved in something bigger than myself? Absolutely. There is nothing better than creating music, and nothing better than doing it with other people. I play several different instruments, and have since my mother could prop me up on a piano bench.
My favorite thing, the thing that makes me feel more alive and happier than anything else, is singing. And it’s the one thing I never do, except in the privacy of my apartment or in a car with the radio blasting. Never ever. At least, it was the one thing I never did, until last week, when some very good friends helped crack something open in me. I’m simultaneously elated beyond measure and utterly overcome by what a fucking shame it is that I spent the past 30 years silencing the most joyful part of myself.
* * *
Astute readers will note that this means I wasn’t always silent, because I am currently a ripe ol’ 40-closing-in-on-41 years of age.
As far back into my childhood as I can remember, I remember singing. First it was along with my father’s golden oldies tapes (“Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey! A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?”). Later it was to Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, because I am from New Jersey, then things swung heavily to The Jets and New Kids on the Block before veering to showtunes. Then after several teen years during which I’m pretty sure I sang the entirely of the Les Miz soundtrack every single day, I got to college, developed taste, and discovered non-New Jersey-based rock and roll. I sang all of it. I sang along with advertising jingles. I sang along to those top 40 songs that you don’t really like but end up knowing all the words to because they’re always on in the grocery store. I sang along to Hotel California whenever it came on the radio, which tells you something about my compulsion to sing because that’s a godawful song.
As a child of seven, eight, nine, I frequently went on car trips with my parents to visit my big sister, who lived in Virginia at the time. They’d sit in the front seat listening to dad’s oldies, and I’d sit in the back seat, my Jets or Paula Abdul tape in my walkman. And I’d sing. For hours and hours, until I either fell asleep or we got there. I did this with complete abandon and complete unselfconsciousness.
One day, I noticed my parents in the front seat. They were laughing at me. It was clear from their faces and gestures that they were laughing because of my singing.
I started singing with a little less abandon.
It only had to happen a few more times before my pliable child brain fully internalized: whatever you think is coming out of your mouth, it’s so distorted to others that the only appropriate reaction is to laugh. It might sound beautiful in your head, but it’s actually awful. Sorry, kid.
So I stopped.
* * *
I am a fat adult who was a chubby child; I also reached my full height of 5′ 10″ in the fifth grade and was a sensitive, bookish kid who liked hanging out with grown-ups and used too many big words. Being laughed at was a common childhood occurrence, and trying not to be laughed at a preoccupying pastime.
I couldn’t stop kids from making fun of my size, but I could cut off one avenue of mockery. Make fun of my body if you want; I didn’t like it much at the time anyway. But not this thing that is the most precious to me, not if I can help it. I will rob myself of it before I will tolerate being laughed at for this most personal and deepest pleasure.
That’s not to say that I stopped singing entirely: if there was music playing with audible vocals, I sang. Do sing. But if it’s just my voice? No. It’s not that I get nervous, or have stage fright: it’s that my voice turns to dust in my throat. If I’m talking about a song with my spouse, who I have known since we were both 15 years old and who routinely hears me fart, and he asks me to sing a few bars so he can recognize it, I can’t do it. If I’m singing along with the stereo and I hold a note too long or come in too early, so that for a moment it’s just my voice hanging in the air without the accompanying recording, I swallow the sound so fast that I practically choke on the nothingness. I want to run away from the room, away from myself, away from the half-second of sound that the child-mind we never fully outgrow is sure is one of the most hideous noises a human can emit. It’s a fight or flight response, my lizard brain trying to protect me from the pain of mockery. Or rather, from the pain of having to accept that the thing I think is most beautiful is, in reality, laughable.
And the thing is that intellectually, I’m pretty sure my parents were not mocking my singing voice. I mean, they fucked me up in many ways, because they were people and parents and that’s life, but they weren’t assholes. They were probably laughing because it was cute, or because of the inane lyrics coming out of my nine-year-old mouth, or because of the level of passion I displayed for Menudo, or to save their own sanity because they’d just listened to five hours of a cappella Hangin’ Tough, which is something that I believe is now banned by the Geneva Convention. They’re not here any more, so I can’t ask them, but I’m pretty sure.
I’m also pretty sure it doesn’t matter now. Because that’s how child-me understood it — your voice is so comical that even the people who love you most can only laugh at it — and once that shit sinks in, it sinks deep. And it doesn’t let go.
Because here’s the other thing: I’m not deaf. In fact, I have a pretty great ear; it’s how I play the instruments I play as well as I do without knowing a jot of music theory, or even knowing what actual notes I’m playing. I know when other people are singing out of key, and I know that when I sing, I do not. I’m not Whitney Houston, but the sounds I emit are pleasantly in tune.
It’s a testament to how early and deeply this lesson took root that it causes me to distrust the evidence my own senses provide. And yet, there it is.
* * *
Something started to change, slowly and imperceptibly, a few years ago. Obviously: it would have to have been imperceptible to evade my now-instinctive self-silencing.
It happened, improbably, at work.
My company is entirely remote, with no central office and colleagues scattered all over the world. Once a year, we come together for an intense week-long gathering, to put faces to names and stock up on the camaraderie that we’ll mete out over the ensuing year back in our home offices. There are lots of social activities at these retreats, including, for the past few years, a band. We choose songs to cover in advance, learn them (or don’t) at home, then rehearse during the week we’re together and play a show on the last night. Over the course of the week, about a tenth of the company plays.
I play in the band; I like to bang around on the drums in the rehearsal room, but I mainly play the bass. I grew up playing piano and took up the bass when I was 19 or 20 and realized that it would let me play the kind of music I listened to. That, and there was a boy I liked who played the bass and I wanted him to think I was cool. So I learned, the boy turned out to be a jerk and I turned out to be a much better bassist than him, and now I play the bass.
The work band is the only time of year I get to do that any more, especially at full volume. I sign up for heavy songs, syncopated songs, songs with impossible time signatures that make drummers hate me. I do this partly because they’re fun to play and because I’m one of the only female instrument-players in the band and the only female bassist, so I like to represent for the lady rockers. I do it in other part because playing the bass, even though I really do enjoy it and am decent at it, has only ever been a consolation prize. It’s not the thing I really want to do — at least, not exclusively. It’s the thing I can do. So I might as well be impressive while I do it, if only to make myself feel I’m doing something that matters.
Anyone who knows me in real life will be unsurprised to hear that I spend a lot of time in the band room at these work meetups, where there is music and there are not large groups of people. We practice, and we jam, and people sing along to things, and I do too since other people are singing and the music’s real loud, and sometimes, fleetingly, I’d hear my own voice and not flinch, because the happiness of making music with other people who are happy to be making music together is a powerful thing.
And I started to wonder. I started to wonder if things had to be this way.
Between last year’s retreat and this year’s, I had a three-month sabbatical and went to South Africa, and I made myself sing — out loud, alone — to some of the wild animals I was there to take care of. None of them ran away or tried to eat my face off, which I took as a positive sign.
A few months later, I was on a work trip with my team, and after drinking two entire cocktails, suggested we go to karaoke. And we did, and I sang out loud with other people in the room for the very first time, and no one laughed or fled the room.
And I started to wonder a little more.
* * *
Last week was 2018’s work meetup. There was a band. I played the bass.
And I sang.
I sang at open mic night, where I was Garfunkel to a friend’s Simon on I Am a Rock. (I’m not a name namer on my blog, but I will say that my friend’s name rhymes with Shark Farmstrong.) I tried to sing as solo frontwoman while playing the bass, but trying to play while singing while managing my shaking legs was maybe a bridge too far for a first outing, even with one of my best friends there trying to keep me upright with her gaze, so I instead sang harmony and second vocals with Shark on George Michael’s Freedom! 90, which was the closing song of the main show.
There were microphones. There were several hundred people watching, and listening. They all heard me. I heard myself.
I kept a shaky egg in my hand the whole time I was singing — thankfully, both songs lent themselves to some subtle percussion — and I shook the holy living shit out of that egg. I mostly kept my eyes closed, though every once in a while I’d peek to make sure there were still people in the room or to glance at Shark, who would give me a smile that was a combo of “You’re doing it!” and “It sounds good!” and “I’m having fun doing this with you!”
And honestly, it was the third one that meant the most, because it meant that this person, whose opinion and respect I care about and who is an objectively fantastic singer, liked singing with me. It was the third one that helped me, by the end, to open my eyes, to stop trying to crush the shaky egg into a diamond, to fully enjoy the thing I was doing while I was doing it. I could look around at other dear friends on the stage, at the people having a great time on the dance floor, at the microphone. And my voice could rise, and be audible, and I could just… let it.
And it felt amazing. It felt like everything I wanted it to feel like. If felt right, and comfortable, and so, so joyful.
Singing those two songs were two of the happiest moments in my whole life.
* * *
Then the week ended, and we all left, and I was so emotionally overwrought that I cried in no fewer than three airports during my 15-hour trip home. (Orlando, Dulles, and Fiumicino, if you’re wondering. Of the three, Orlando was the most comfortable one for crying, FYI. It’s not as crowded as Dulles, and lots of the adults there are in Disney shock and seem like they kind of want to cry.) I sent Shark some sappy text messages from the gate. I listened to some of the songs we’d sung.
I figured I’d get home and get some sleep, I’d be a little sad after the intensity of the week, and then the crying would stop.
But it didn’t.
It didn’t, because it’s not just happy crying, or overtired crying, or let-down crying. It feels different. It feels like grief, like mourning.
When I told Zia Liliana that I don’t have faith in god, that was the truth. Maybe there’s a god, but I have no way of knowing one way of the other, and I don’t feel called to any kind of faith. I don’t think we have some higher purpose or reason for being here, and I’m fine with that. We’re here, we don’t know why or for how long, and so the only thing to do, the only moral, responsible thing, is to try to create as much peace and happiness as we can for as many people as we can, and to leave things a little better for the people who will come after us. It’s the only principle that makes sense to me. It’s my standard.
What that means is that for the past 30 years, I have actively cut off access to one of the most profound sources of happiness I know, in direct contravention to my own fundamental morality. And that is sad. Was sad. And so I mourn those years.
I get (and got) a lot of joy from singing along with music in the car or while I do the dishes, because singing is happy no matter when or how it’s done. But every time I stopped myself from being heard, every time I swallowed my own voice, I stomped on my own happiness. And every time I did that, I reinforced for myself that it was the way things had to be. A vicious circle; and then 30 years had gone by.
I don’t expect that the crying will go on that much longer. For a little while, though yes. I have a life to live and more songs to sing, but 30 years are worthy of a little commemoration.
* * *
At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter if you sing in key or not. My dad belted out hymns in church every Sunday with the greatest of gusto, and he couldn’t carry a tune from the fridge to the countertop. Music is for everyone, the end. Creating and sharing it is a deeply human experience to which everyone has access.
Hopefully, there will be a band again at next year’s work retreat. I’ll play the bass again. And I’ll sing. I have a short list of songs already, and a lot of time to make up for.