Dina on the Verge

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She had been impressed by far less than this. A petal from a wildflower blown onto damp earth. A horned beetle inching its way across her path. Her old tiger cat leaping for a moth. Even the songs of the wind aroused her interest easily. But she felt strangely intimidated by this and unmoved. She stood at the end of the room and turned to meet their faces illumined by candlelight, registered their cheers. They found her worthy of attention, believed her success amid their failures was a boon for them all. Or so she guessed. It all seemed like someone’s else’s story.

Two years ago she was just the girl who could be seen found sitting on the back porch of Harper’s Inn rather often, sipping a lemonade in the harsh glare summer. She worked at Harper’s Inn as a hostess at the dining room and when she had ten minutes she escaped, ear cocked for the brass bell that customers rang when they arrived and the desk was unmanned. Her disappearance was tolerated because when she was at her post she was good.

It took exceptional good humor and flexibility to greet people for eight or more hours, to inquire of their well-being and offer them a distraction if the wait was long. Most of the girls had quit after six months. Too many diners treated you like you were their servant, like you weren’t smart enough to do anything else or too pretty to be doing such a job. So they said. It was true you got propositions and complaints and you had to smile, nod, write names down as though it was a king or queen needing assistance.

But Dina made it seem a privilege that they found Harper’s Inn.

“My, what a long trip. I hope we don’t to wait more than fifteen minutes!”

The woman was halfway through retying her scarf when she dabbed her perspiring forehead with the blue and white checkered fabric. It looked neater against her white shirt. Her companion had his lips set like an unbroken horizon. His face was pink and veiny and reminded Dina of raw shrimp.

“Why, I can get you iced water while you wait,” Dina said, reaching for a pitcher. “And there’s a place on the bench. Have you been on the road a long time?”

And from there things would move along, the woman enthusing about her new grand-baby, the man stating his opinion about Iowa, both relaxing under the light touch of Dina’s congeniality. She welcomed people. She brought what mattered most to them at that moment. It wasn’t just food or drink. Mostly it was about getting and staying comfortable in an inhospitable world. Or so Dina felt it must be. That’s what mattered to her. And people commented on how nice an atmosphere Harper’s had even though it was pricier than a place on the other side of town.

So when she ducked out back for a few, putting finger to lips when she passed the kitchen, no one complained. Kenneth, the manager found her there after a few days and was about to complain when he heard voices at a table in the garden.

“How about that Dina? She moved here to finish her senior year, then must have gotten stuck here. She should get out. Such a good way with people. Classy but down to earth. Well, Harper’s needed that touch.”

Dina had looked up when Kenneth touched her on the shoulder.

“Hey, just wanted to let you know you’re doing a nice job here.”

Dina shrugged. It was bread and butter money. It helped out at home and in time her measly paycheck might contribute to a better guitar. Because that’s what she thought about out there. Her songs. They skipped about in her brain even when customers were talking to her. People often inspired her. One might have deep forlorn eyes and place a protective touch on a child’s head. A man would wistfully look at the black and silver matchbooks in the little silver bowl as though they reminded him of some place or someone. She saw the expensive women’s footwear and was drawn to high heels even though she didn’t like them for herself. They seemed barbaric. But tasteful. How could she sing about that?

Every person who came in had a complicated history, held close their desires and dreams, had been places she had never seen. So she took them home in her head and got out her guitar and paper and pen. And the best part of her life began. She had written more than eighty songs by the time she was eighteen, some forgettable, many that were better or getting there, a few that stood the test of repetition so far.

Marva, for one, liked them. She was a waitress at Harper’s Inn but knew Dina’s mother. She had heard Dina play and sing up in her room, so asked her to come join them on the porch swing and serenade the neighbors, too. She did so, but quietly.

“Why on earth have you not been promoting this child? Why, she has a voice to rival Dolly’s.”

Dina winced. She hadn’t meant to sound that country but there it was–it sneaked in from southeastern Missouri where she was born. The place they had left.

Helen, her mother, laughed. “Yes, she’d going to make a mint and take us all to Paris! Marva, don’t encourage foolishness.” Her face turned hard, the way Dina knew it to be in general. “She’s a damned dreamer, this child. She sings rather than cooks or cleans and I don’t know what to do with her since I don’t have the money to send her off to the state college.”

“Well, our little music maker,” Marva winked at Dina, “stay late on Saturday night and sing a long with Max and the crew. We have some good times.”

Helen rolled her eyes and rubbed lotion on her hands that smelled of slightly rancid lilacs. Her mother feared things, like getting old, but acted otherwise.

So that’s how it started. Marva had come from a bluegrass family; her great-grandfather had taught his children banjo and tunes and it just kept going. Her friend Cap was a piano player and played nearly anything on week-ends to entertain the guests. Carter and Phil were singers from way back, on the other side of thirty, itching to go to Nashville, just four hours from there. They needed more money so they could survive awhile, they said. And more nerve. Far greater pitch would have helped, Dina noted silently.

The first time she sang with the gang her reservations dissipated. It felt good to blend into a group. She’d waited to sing with them for weeks and here it was. A few songs in, Dina closed her eyes and harmonized awhile, then wove back to the melody, letting her voice establish its place while the others filled things out. They quieted down after the third verse and let her have the room. She didn’t notice at first, the piano playing so good and happy, her guitar releasing rhythmic chords like they were scrappy creatures set free.

And then she stopped in the middle of a phrase, confused.

“What are you all doing here? Trying to embarrass the heck of me?” A look of  horror passed over her face and she covered it with a free hand, letting the plastic guitar pick fall to the floor.

Marva clapped, then the rest joined in and hooted and whistled.

“I told these boys how much you had going for you. That was primo singing!”

Marva gave her a hug, bosom squashed against Dina’s thin frame and taking the breath from her. But she joined the ragtag group every Saturday night after work, eleven to midnight. And finally, after a few months, she sang for customers a little, and dared sing a few of her own songs.

“Walk a Winding Path” was one of her favorites, about a boy from Missouri she’d left. She had practiced it a long time, adding here, erasing there, til the chorus sounded right:

I can’t find the sweet end of day
without your hand fitting mine;
you roam the far ends of this world,
and I’m lost without your light.

She knew it was simple but really, life was. She hadn’t hit twenty yet but knew from watching though not completely experiencing it that it about boiled down to love or at least lust, loss, pain, joy, and hope. And God. Everybody needed God sooner or later. Simple.

It was the tune that hooked them, she saw, well, maybe the way the words crowned the melody. They were twins of inspiration. The full room cheered her on. And she sang the next week and the next. Things just happened until she made more money singing three nights a week than hostessing so she quit hostessing.

It all added up to this. Leaving to make a record. A producer had stopped on his way to Nashville and liked what he heard, came back for more and offered her a contract. It was ridiculous, really, how songs made on her bedroom floor, in the empty basement, on the porch swing could be important enough to reveal to the faceless many. Maybe there would be nice money and Paris. But she wondered what would happen to her songs. If they would hide away from her. If it mattered how many people heard them. Harper’s Inn was one thing, a country another. Far less had beguiled her and it had been enough. Sunrises from a hilltop and iced tea with her mother on a balmy afternoon. But her music had found its way out there. She was going to have to follow it all the way. If things fell apart she could come back. Welcome guests. Make more songs.

Before the Time of Vespers

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(Image from La Collectionneuse)

She had gone out one afternoon and come back another woman.  She’d cut her hair. He’d followed her into her apartment, then to her bathroom where she drew a brush through what was left. Dean tried not to look directly at it. Instead he studied her face as she talked while his peripheral vision gave him a picture. He’d become attached to the length of bright auburn. It was as if a lovely tree had lost its final fiery adornment in the span of a few hours. Now Kelsey stood there in all her compactness, looking spare, arrestingly so, and more self-determined than ever.

Valiant was a word that came to him, he didn’t know why. Valiant and maddeningly attractive as she talked about her decision to have it shorn off.

But Dean felt alarmed by her action, as though she’d told him she had decided to become an entomologist or drive all the way to Nova Scotia alone. It didn’t make sense to him. She knew it affected him–she tracked his reactions like a fox, that one–but kept on talking, a jaunty lilt to her speech.

“I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I’m drawn to that life and want to explore the possibilities. Before its too late, you know? I need to simply and cutting my hair is a start. I’m thrilled with it. I wanted to tell you all this later but you barged in and here we are …you always have thought my space was semi-public. Or partially yours.”

Kelsey chortled, ruffling her cap of hair.

“I was surprised when it sort of looked like yours! Funny, huh? Modified pixie, the stylist said. Not sure how I feel about that. Well, Dean-o, imitation is the best flattery. But look, the point I’m trying to make is that I want to discover what will happen if I…”

Her voice faded even though her lips kept moving on and on. Dean leaned against her bathroom wall and thought of reasons he ought to pay attention. That voice was like water falling over him, soothing yet powerful as the music she made.

He first liked her face because it reminded him of someone he knew before, a girl he used to chase around the fields in Iowa. He hadn’t imagined being a dancer before ten. He was broad of shoulder even as a toddler, and was husky, strong as an ox, his dad bragged. Dean shrugged and smiled obligingly. His mother knew something else was fated as he grew tall, lean and dreamy-eyed. Hannah, the girl he thought of when he met Kelsey, heard his secret hope of dancing and murmured it was strange; he was a third generation farm boy. They parted ways shortly after.

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              (Image Courtesy of Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The two shared the same small, pouty mouth even when happy but Kelsey had a laugh that was a shock of  delight. Her eyes were close to sapphire blue in strong light. Hannah’s were middling grey, like her, somehow.

Kelsey had determined what he felt for her way before he knew it. She’d kept it playful. They’d been living in the same apartment building for a year and becoming friends was so easy he felt right at home with her. Then he began to feel a shift.

“I see you hanging over your balcony when I go to work,” she’d said, “and you might as well shout out your intentions to the neighborhood.”

He’d been irritated. “What intentions would those be, know-it-all?”

She’d blinked a few times, her jewel eyes flashing across the hallway. “Really? Could anyone mistake your looks for mere platonic wishfulness? Let me get a camera.”

She’d gotten her Nikon and started to shoot away, defining something though he wasn’t sure what. Then they were side by side, his arm around her shoulders. She deleted them all except for one, with their foreheads together, eye-to-eye, a big hug keeping them close. He’d pulled her closer.

“I’ve got to get to the studio,” he’d said, “but send me that!”

Later, when it was closing in on midnight, he checked his email and there it was. They looked bright and close as tulips in a vase. He was looking at her as though at the sun. He was going to be distracted for awhile, he’d thought ruefully. But it got harder, not better or more exciting or fulfilling. He danced every day and auditioned in between and when he saw finally saw her she was working on music history or composing or singing some song. He’d sit on the floor outside her door and listen to her sing. The landlord saw him and asked if he was in the doghouse. Dean got up without a word and entered his apartment. She never knew he did that. She didn’t know a lot of things. But she did know how much suffering his body endured, how auditions robbed him of sleep and what his favorite classic movies were. And how he berated, perhaps hated, his competition. She was patient with that. She “got” him while most did not.

Kelsey knew he wanted to be with her. She clarified her viewpoint by calling him “my best friend since seventeen when I shared my love for both Hesse and Kierkegaard with Marie Solis.” He was often thanked for being there when she was driven crazy by the second movement of a musical score she was writing. Or when she had vicious headaches that only eased with a head and shoulder massage. Dean was entrusted with tales about her parents that confounded him and he told stories about rural life that scared her. He thought they’d crossed into an unguarded place and it felt better than most things in his life. He imagined more.

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But she didn’t love him. Not like that.

Kelsey paused now; it seemed she was waiting for an answer or question. Dean leaned toward her so he could gaze into the three way mirror. They looked back from three separate pictures that appeared identical at first, but then Dean had the unnerving sensation they were different, and turned toward him with twelve questioning eyes. He recognized fear. What had she just said?

He stepped away and clamped his lower lip with his upper and breathed in through his nose. Exhale slowly. Be calm.

“What are you telling me?” he asked. “Did you say something about moving or did I imagine it? Is that what the hair thing is about? Women cut their hair when they are about to do something drastic, my dad used to say. So–changing things up or what?” He crossed his arms over his chest.

Kelsey sat on the three-legged yellow stool by the tub.

“Yes. I said: I’m going to stay in a monastery for three months. I want to study the music. The chants. Everything. I need solitude, to be fully integrated into music. I want to compose something much, much deeper. And God has always been a burning spot deep within. You know this, or some of it…”

Dean dropped his arms and slid to the floor opposite her.

“Hang on a minute! Monastery? With monks?”

“Benedictine monks.”

He peered at her from under bushy eyebrows. “You want to be a religious person, like a nun, someday?”

Kelsey’s laugh pinged off the tiled walls. “No, I want to experience music in a different way. Sacred music has its own forms and delivery. It would be as if you decided to take a break from jazz dance and studied modern dance, maybe. A different path of creative development. For me, spiritual development, too.”

Dean flexed his feet and watched her ruffle her hair. She was still breathtaking to him,  a woman who had ways and ideas that stunned him. He was surrounded by vanity and ego and aggressive competition. Yet he loved what he did. It had called to him  just as he music had called to her. And now it was taking her to a different level, a divergent path. He felt his core contract; he wanted to say it aloud.

“Have I told you how much–”

But Kelsey started to hum, then sing a wordless melody. He closed his eyes as a song took shape, lifting to the ceiling, dancing on the walls, reflecting off the mirrors and making its way across the distance between them. Into his chest. It was like a journey with prayer and yearning intertwined. It was her language; he listened and tried to hear her. It was like the ring of crystal. Pure. True.

He held her afterwards, calm only on the outside. Then she drifted to the living room and stood with her face to the window. When Dean left it was getting dark. He had to accept what was, didn’t he? He needed to walk, let his arms swing and his head empty out. He entered the park where they liked to picnic. If he had turned around he would have seen Kelsey in the distance leaning over the balcony, her gesturing hands saying wait, her face blurred by twilight but he was carried by the rhythm of his feet. The tempo: a brisk, solitary dance.
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Tango for Sale

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She said they didn’t have any great skills but that’s why people enrolled in dance lessons, right? So they saw their new ad and here they were.

Sadie was a talker but they both shared a lot, how they liked to do things that required far less sweat–watching movies, enjoying six course meals, mastering the art of checkers. Carlos was a factory worker so when he was off, he was done. Sadie was manager of a tapas café until the owner’s daughter took her job. Now she worked at her aunt’s collection business.

“Collection stinks. How can I harass people who don’t have the money to meet basic needs? It’s indecent.”

Janelle tried to not listen as she showed a student how to stretch, but how could you avoid such a voice? She couldn’t imagine what it was like getting Sadie’s phone calls or living with that decibel. But the way he patted her shoulder, brushed her bangs from her eyes and bent down to kiss her long nose–some might say large–said it all. He was handsome in a beat-up way, Janelle thought. Must be newlyweds.

They wanted to live better, lower stress, they said. Janelle and Baron had an ad in the neighborhood weekly but this month they’d run a special. First three classes for ten bucks each, then after that the regular rate of twenty an hour. Or ten for one-forty, a real savings. Not so many people wanted dance lessons when they had trouble paying bills. It netted them a half-dozen newbie so far.

“I gotta keep myself in shape,” Sadie said, rolling her eyes. “I’m edging toward thirty-seven and you know where that leads.”

Janelle smiled and handed her a schedule.

Carlos watched the group learning the tango.  He seemed restless; Janelle assumed Sadie had dragged him there. He didn’t ask questions, shrugged with hands in pockets. But in ten minutes it became apparent the guy had a sense of rhythm. He tapped his foot, bounced a little as he paced, and studied the moves.

“Sign us up for this one. I can tell he likes it.” Sadie beamed at her man and he shot her a hundred-watt smile.

Janelle took her check for three lessons and talked over attire and rules of the dance floor. Just to be clear. Sadie had worn a long brown sweater, tight jeans and heavy boots.

Baron whisked by, then paused. “You like tango?” He was the expert on this dance.

Sadie shrugged. “We like games, checkers or dominoes, t.v. shows after work. I don’t watch football like him but I used to play volleyball awhile back. I had a bike, rode it every day. Got ripped off. Tango, yeah, well, I used to dance a long time ago. I’m game to try anything and I love Latin music. And Carlos.” Her laugh boomed in the small space and a few people looked her way.

The couple hustled out the door, Sadie waving like they were old friends, saying they’d be back.

Baron chuckled as he stepped back on the floor. “He might be a natural.What a couple of characters!”

Janelle threw him a sideways glance. Her husband: six feet three, a balding redhead, brown eyes that could scald or light her up depending on his mood. He never took off the long necklace with crystal and jade pendants. He denied being superstitious but she knew better.

Of course, she was not a flawless fifty. A bit soft, okay rounder than she’d planned. But she had thick, long, silvery hair; it saved Janelle from despair some days. Ridiculous. But every morning after the mirror check she said aloud, “I’m still a dancer and a better teacher.”

“I bet the woman can dance,” Janelle confided in Baron that night as they closed up. “And that Carlos may be a natural.”

“In the end it doesn’t matter, darling girl. Two more students! We’ll make a decent profit this session.”

He rapped the scarred wooden desk top three times.

The next week the couple turned up. Carlos seemed embarrassed and Sadie did not when they bungled their first steps.  They took a sail around the room to loosen up more despite Janelle and Baron’s frowns. The group appeared more relaxed with the breezy twosome there. Baron noted it felt less like pulling teeth to get them to commit to the steps.

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“Look,” Sadie told everyone, “just act like you know what you’re doing and mirror our teachers’ movements–they’re perfect!”

Carlos held her tightly. They were stiff in each other’s arms. Then tango music crescendoed, intense rhythms shaking up melody, Sadie’s laugh punctuating their goofs.

The room felt good, the atmosphere livelier.

“See?” Janelle whispered. “Though they could be a little more serious.”

He nodded slowly, eyes on the new couple.

There were twelve total on the floor. The ones who improved were those who let down their guard a bit. It wasn’t just feet, arms and head placements. The tango was a passionate dance, a lover’s dance, and relayed what words couldn’t begin to say. Some people were too scared to welcome that sort of power. Others would find their way. And some, like Carlos and Sadie, got in the thick of it because they wanted to be right there.

The second class was a success; everyone learned what they were supposed to, on time. The group began to jell. The third class demanded more, putting  more complicated steps together quickly. Confidence was required.

Sadie leaned into Carlos as they veered away to the group’s edge. She’d worn a floral skirt and scuffed red dance shoes and when he guided her she responded with the trust needed to move in concert. They executed more difficult moves, moved instinctively. They were engrossed, enchanted–by the music’s heat, the challenge of the dance, each other.

Baron and Janelle watched in surprise. They’d been practicing. They had, it seemed, real promise. Everyone stole admiring glances at them. Sadie and Carlos were beautiful to behold; their electric presence brought back Janelle’s and Baron’s past, when they were young, fresh, excited by the grand emotion of it all.

“I love those kids,” Baron told her as they watched the floor and the students. “Carlos and Sadie have the spirit. How can you teach the essence of tango? I know we didn’t teach that in three classes.”

“No, but we still get to show them the way. Look at them glow.”

She said it with such reverence that Baron slipped an arm around her waist. He absently touched the necklace. He wondered over  the new couple.

“They’ve got something besides talent, Janelle. They know something, a secret that makes them good so fast.”

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She shook her head but the way he said it, his hand on those darned pendants–she knew what he meant. She shivered a little and followed their moves. Turning in the light and shadow, their bodies in sync, their profound silence infused with something Janelle couldn’t name. When the song drew to a close, all the students clapped for each other. They were so pleased to have taken this class. And they had two stars in the making right before them. They were drawn to Sadie and Carlos–the first pink-faced and panting, the second animated and shiny with sweat–like bees to clover. They lingered awhile, chatting until Janelle and her husband had to lock up.

When the students trailed out, the two teachers sat and looked at each other. They were having success. Happiness coursed through them like a veritable transfusion. Janelle got up and settled on her husband’s knees. He closed his arms around her.

The fourth week came and they waited and waited for Sadie and Carlos to come through the door. The students took their places. The tango music swelled; work got underway. Janelle looked at the clock, at the door. Baron called the commands, adjusted a few couples’ positions and threw her a glance, fingering the pendants. Everyone seemed stiffer than usual, not quite on task. They missed their inspiration, waited for the golden couple.

“It has to be another appointment or the flu. Or maybe they ran out of money and just didn’t want to tell us.”

“No,” Baron said. “Tango meant too much already. They should be here.”

The fifth week, no show, no call. Janelle tried Sadie’s number but  no answer. The sixth week everyone took their places without a word; if the other two showed, good and if not, well, a mystery. Janelle was on the phone–there had been so much interest lately–when Carlos walked in. The room erupted in cheerful greetings until they saw he was unshaven, hair a mess, and eyes dull. The group gathered around him, hands to chests.

“What, Carlos?” Janelle put her hand on his arm.

“Sadie has a weak heart. Can you imagine her with a bum ticker? Yeah, I knew. And she had more and more trouble breathing.” His eyes filled. “Had to have surgery. She’s not so great.”

It was clear he didn’t know when or even if she’d get back. But she was home. Their shock and sympathy were a soft murmur.

“We’ll go see her, okay, Carlos?” Baron spoke with firmness. He grabbed the tango CD from the player and got his jacket.

Janelle got her coat and one by one they all prepared to follow.  When they trooped upstairs and the neighbor who’d been staying with her left, they squeezed into the bedroom where she lay, eyes suddenly wide. It was a little strange, being in this intimate space with someone who had seemed far different. Her presence had been so big at the studio. Now, she looked very small.

The new friends shared encouragement in near-whispers. Sadie listened and an easy smile usurped her frailness, while her eyes tried to hide fear, pain, grief. She seemed nearly transparent. So young to be lying there. Such an ill-begotten and terribly unwanted thing possessed her. But she held out her hands to them in thanks.

And then the music started. She heard the tango boldly wending its way into her room with its smooth, sly beauty, sensual and bittersweet, wrapping her in vivid life. She closed her eyes and she was dancing, feet strong and body lithe as she pulled it into her faulty heart. Carlos was there showing her the way. Her spirit leapt. There were lights like stars and a broad swath of velvety blue and she danced right to the moon. It was what she’d needed.

Carlos sat on her bed to make certain her chest rose up and down and he felt the music seep into her marrow and his. The crowd filed out of the bedroom like a collective sigh.

Baron and Janelle called out to the two left behind.

“See you both sooner than you think!”

“We’ll pray for speedy healing and more dance!”

The music played on. Carlos lay beside her and stroked her face. She breathed his tenderness and they fell asleep, tango taking them away._wsb_410x262_CornerT

Why I Love to Whistle: A History

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore                                (Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore)

Most people came from musical families; I knew this was fact when I was a child. They were my neighbors, schoolmates and friends. I was just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in my Midwest town’s public education music program. It encouraged students who tested well on standardized music tests in the fourth grade to take up an instrument. My father developed and oversaw the program, so I was glad I passed. I looked forward to participating in school and learning at home.

I was the last of five children to coach. I had tried violin before kindergarten. Though I liked it, I wanted to play what my sisters played: the cello. It just sounded better than any other instrument I had heard, except for the trumpet with its sparkling cheer or melancholic sweep of sounds. Since dad was known as “a string man” I surmised the trumpet would not be the best choice. I considered the French horn, as well, but never mentioned it; it seemed too formal somehow. The trumpet appealed to the dreaminess of a properly raised child straining to be free (and later jazz drew me like honey draws bees). I must have heard it played in that style on the few records of big band music we listened to occasionally. Dad had played lots of instrument as a younger man, including the saxophone and clarinet–he liked reed instruments. Brass seemed less favored; the violin and viola were his chosen instruments.

As I worked at learning piano as well (I sought minimal skills, enough to I could justify making up songs on the baby grand), I took up the commanding cello. I fell in love with its stirring elasticity, its resonant notes responding to the briefest pressure from my bow and fingers. Its power startled me. Sometimes I felt it took over, leaving me breathless, anxious to catch up–to what? What did all that music mean? It was a mystery what could happen with practice and critical feedback and more sweating over tedious exercises that led me to sonatas and concertos. The years brought private lessons, innumerable performances in orchestras, solos at concerts and competitions, summer music camps. I played the harp for a year or two, but I wanted to do with the cello what my oldest sister did. She would go on to become a professional cellist (as a female cousin did, as well) though I had a suspicion by fifteen it was not to be. My middle sister had ditched cello for bassoon; it was the perfect choice for her. My brothers? They played violin, viola, clarinet, oboe, flute, saxophone between them. Everyone sang, but have patience with me on that one. They became paid musicians as well, eventually.

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But ambitions aside, music just belonged to me, and I, to it. All of us lived our lives imbued with its powerful force as well as a responsibility of making music and making it well. The family DNA supplied musical scores and an impulse to master instruments. We were the proverbial ducks born to swim, submerged at birth then quickly floating our way through music-making, music history, music theory. Except for my mother. She championed us all, hummed along, played a bit here and there on the piano. Her pleasure in our music and the applause of audiences offset my father’s critical analyses. It took all this to do well, then excel.

But although the cello found, loved me, even let me romance it back, all this time I was also doing something else, in private and on stages. I was singing. There you have it: three words I spent over five hundred words not writing. I have thought about this post ever since I mentioned elsewhere that when I write poetry it feels as though I am writing songs. It took me back to all this music business, the singing issue.

Try to imagine that singing is speech: you open your mouth and songs slip out as the native language. To give any other a whirl feels unfamiliar, even clumsy. Life is not a musical, exactly, but it is clearly something to be sung about. I wanted to sing all day long, in school, on the ice rink, in the pool, at the desk where there was homework waiting. Of course I sang at church but also while riding my bike, walking on the street. I needed to sing past bedtime when mother called up the stairs to turn out the light. I didn’t want to obey, could not. Songs were happening and they were not done with me. They were musical poems that lingered, danced, crested on words, a language that sang out, and my body and soul were the instruments. I would whisper the melodies if needed. And in the morning when I awakened, the song awaited me like a lovely puzzle, a tantalizing desire. A blessing. Sometimes I would take it to the piano when all the house was empty or strum my guitar. And singing on stage felt no different from singing from our maple’s treetop. It gave me profound joy like little else, opened up the universe, connected me to life’s deep soulfulness. It felt natural.

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But it ended, which brings us closer to the whistling part.

It was a gradual separation that began in earnest after sexual and other assaults were survived, substances used to endure the fall-out. Finally and also importantly, time constraints developed along with unexpected choices. I grew up and married at twenty, but not to a musician–that happened much later. I attended college, studied art, psychology, sociology and writing, not music. Not being fully engaged with my passion, it became neglected. Or I neglected it because it was too close to what mattered most, so far from my reach I felt it leaving me daily. It all resulted in a terrible ache, a longing for something that felt no longer possible to recapture, refine. Rather than feel as though I was a walking wound again, I left music. It was that or try to find it in fragments, in random pieces of time and space. I have a practical streak. I turned away, went on with my life.

I did continue to play my cello off and on when alone but my now-untried skills failed to uphold what my ear needed to hear. I sang to myself, to the babies that were rocked with lullabies, who danced to music made up together. It was there, the music, all that time, like a fragrance that pervades the atmosphere but faintly. Occasionally I harmonized softly with my second husband, in the privacy of home. But it had changed, and my voice had been transformed from soprano to alto from having too many cigarettes and drinks. Life can challenge dreams; we all have them, often change or lose them. For much of my family, the music played on. For me, it quieted, then was finally silenced in one regard: I could no longer sing. This is reality. I don’t kid myself even though I do let my voice out for a phrase or two in church. Even joined a couple choirs years back and found it physically and emotionally taxing to create the necessary sounds. I put it back in a secret place where it hibernates, having forgotten what it used to do.

But wait, there is still music that surfaces. I could and can whistle. No  other other animal can do it though there must be approximations. Whistling is undervalued and overlooked. Its wordlessness makes a case for relationship to instrumental music, my opinion. I have heard people whistle from exuberance or sorrow, offer an aria or a pop tune or something that makes no sense at all but is catchy, at least for the whistler. It can be as impressive an art as any other. There are competitions for whistlers, I have found. But kids can do it in time. I am no expert, but I can still purse my lips and blow as though on, say, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, yet the instrument is my own body. Like singing, yes? The notes are created by altering the shape of the mouth inside and out, by regulating the air from diaphragm to chest to throat and sinus cavities then out. A cinch. Before long, I may be working up a C major or D minor scale, then catching the drift of a tune, resilient, sweeping across space. Whistling may be cheap, even proletarian entertainment, but it is its own reward and then some. It makes people happy, including me.

The whistler’s music, for me, can be a generous smattering of auditory star dust that glimmers and rises on a whim. Islands of notes erupting from a landscape that feels like home. Sun dapples and rain splatters of sound that make me smile, remember. When whistling, I know I have forgotten nothing of what music means to me–I’m not talking about my taste preferences or how it relates to my philosophical or spiritual ideologies–but what it means to my innermost being. What I cannot sing today, I can whistle with precision and subtlety, a dash of friskiness. Maybe one day it will be a prelude to something that can flower with more attention. Nobody’s testing me for virtuosity. I don’t have to win a prize anymore.

article-new_ehow_images_a01_uq_ce_teach-child-whistle-800x800Classical? Modern jazz? The old standards? A favorite number from musicals or a pop tune? Try me! But it is likely you will have to catch me unaware. I don’t perform for anyone but myself and that’s finally good enough for me.

(Note: A print of the painting at the top of this post hung in my childhood bedroom and, later, in my parents’ den.)

Bonnie and Me

I recently was gifted with a ticket to a Bonnie Raitt concert. It came from one of my closest friends, who has treated me a few times over the years for no reason in particular that I can tell, except that I am lucky to be her friend. We always have nearly front row seats. This venue was Edgefield, just outside of Portland, so we enjoyed the embrace of sky and sun, with gusty winds out of the Columbia Gorge to enhance our experience. The moon showed up bold and bright halfway through and cast a benevolent glow.

We didn’t need anything else to improve our mood, although lots of people were enjoying beer and wine, and smoking pot only a bit surreptitiously. Likely a lot of other substances were involved, from the looks of the exuberant women and keen-eyed men. My friend and I haven’t had a drink or drug in over twenty years. We had long ago partied our way in and out of concert halls and music festivals and only remembered about half of them. So we were missing out on nothing this night.

What we had tickets for was the promise of inspiration, joyful sass and a low down bluesy melancholy that only Bonnie Raitt can do the way she does, with her slide guitar finesse and her panoramic voice. When she lets loose an edgey crescendo, you stand up and cheer. When she lifts a tender note from the bitter depths, you weep or nearly so. As love moves into the limelight the cadence of desire builds longing. And when she struts across the stage, shakes that mane of red hair and teases the audience with a still-smoldering playfulness, you realize how long and winding a road it has been for her, and for you.

Her songs have likely chronicled many lives–hers, the other songwriters’, and ours. Mine, for certain. Her music has carried me and cleared my vision; it has offered me relief. When things failed, Bonnie’s music undid the ruin for at least a few moments. She wound me up and let me down easy and it was all because she sang what mattered most.

I remember first listening to her in the mid-seventies. I would have sought her out sooner but I was a late bloomer. I had been trained in and raised on classical music, so when I decided to act up and venture into the musical hinterlands, I fiercely attached myself to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Gordon Lightfoot to name a few, with a smattering of Moody Blues, Cream and Chicago thrown in. My older sister, living in Washington after a few years in exotic California, exposed me to a new variety of musicians, and Bonnie Raitt was one.

Despite having bought a couple of earlier albums, Bonnie’s songs are actually cemented in my memory druing the year 1979. I had come to the conclusion my first marriage was ending, despite hanging on to the last shred of hope. There seemed so little I could do to make sense of it. But I was a writer and writing it out was what I did whenever the kids were in bed, after the sun vanished. I would listen to the deer snuffling outside, eating our beautiful corn, drink wine and write poetry that illuminated too little. And I played music softly, hoping for a small miracle of one sort or another.

By then I had very limited emotional space within me for music. Complicated situations wherein I had given up the pursuit and pleasures of music had left me unable to hear most of it, as it caused vivid pain. But sometimes I gave in to my increasing hunger for music and listened to classical artists and symphonies and a few other carefully chosen musicians. Bonnie Raitt was one of the few who spoke to me, and enabled me to speak back. Alone in the house at times, I would sing with her. It felt alright even when it hurt. In fact, it finally felt like a healing when I listened to, then learned the song “Two Lives”. What I couldn’t quite say, the chorus said:

“Some said time would ease the pain, two lives love has torn apart;

I believe whoever wrote that song, never had a broken heart.”

Bonnie Raitt’s music helped me find the strength to grieve and move on. I played her albums The Glow and Sweet Forgiveness over and over that year. They got me through along with Bach cello suites (some of which I attempted to play on my beloved cello), and a few other treasures.

There were many other songs that reflected, cushioned or celebrated events over the next four decades of my life. “The Glow” was an ode to the terrible comfort of a drink when there seemed nothing else. “Nick of Time” speaks to our mortality and the surprising love that is found along the way. “Silver Lining” is sort of a hymn to me: despite madmen and fools, despite all that we fight for and against, we need to take the light and shine it all around, as “the light don’t sleep”. She sings: “The only things worth living for are innocence and magic, amen.” And she makes her  message perfectly clear in “I Will Not Be Broken.”

She probably sings about love the best, all the varieties, whether it triumphs or crashes and burns. And for me that is a good thing, as although I am as fascinated by love as anyone else, it has been a confounding part of my life, full of flash and bite, heat and shadows, and the long still points of no return. If there is one thing I have tried to write about and felt I have missed the mark too often, it is the mystery and mastery of love. But not Bonnie Raitt or her fabulous songwriters. Just play “Love Sneakin’ Up On You”, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Wherever You May Be.” The list gets very long. I have heard them all by now, many times.

But the September concert with my dear friend is one that will stay with me. We have shared a lot over the years, including a love for this music. And, like Bonnie, I think,  we are both fighters who have learned when to stand up and when to step away; we have found some peace.  When dancing rises up in our bones and blood it may be with a sigh as well as a shout these days. We have done and witnessed some things hard to forget, had our lives hijacked and taken them back. We’ve found happiness easier to create than to wait for, and we laugh a lot.

So, we sit up–or stand–close at Bonnie Raitt’s concerts and hear about risking it all for love but not the loss of our souls. Being revolutionary in our everyday lives by having mercy and not giving up, by being fully present and accountable. Finding the silver inside the blues. And having fun for no good reason.

So I hang out with Bonnie just as much as I used in my twenties. She sings my tunes. And I still sing her songs in moments of solitude. And when the music comes–it roars awake as it always did, after all these years–I feel right at home again. So, thanks, Bonnie. I’ll be up front whenever you come to town again.