I suppose I've been a singer longer than I've been a writer. I started writing in the fourth grade, but I was singing from the time I was very small and very much under the influence of my older brother's albums by The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. We were a musical family. My father's Irish tenor voice was clear and beautiful when he sang "Irish Eyes" or "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral." My mother had sung with a band here and there in her younger days, and I remember her singing show tunes—loudly—as she ironed our clothes or waxed the kitchen floor. My sister was really "the singer" in the family, taking on that role early and singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in the elementary school talent show when she was in the fifth grade. Which is about the time I started writing. As the youngest of four children, I was the "shy" child (shouted down, more like), and writing allowed me to have some form of self-expression that was private and safe from my family's often brutal criticism and ridicule.
Music, though, shaped my identity. My friends in junior high and high school never knew about the stories I wrote, the journals I kept. But they knew I loved music in just about every genre from the Beatles to Motown to Johnny Cash and everything in between. I knew the lyrics to hundreds of songs.
So at fifteen, under my sister's tutelage, I learned to play the guitar. We went to the swap meet, and for $30 I bought a nice little folk guitar (which I kept until I gave it to my daughter on the occasion of the birth of her first child). I learned to play on that and was later given a "real" guitar, a steel-string higher-end Ibanez that I still play today.
When I play. Which is the problem. I don't play often enough to keep those calluses on my fingertips.
Back then, at fifteen, I played every day, singing folk songs and "Christian" songs my sister would teach me. (At that time, she was writing her own songs and would later go on to record an album with a Christian singing group.) When I was seventeen, someone tipped off a deacon in my church, and he asked me to sing a song before Bible study one night. I never did find out how he knew I could sing; I never sang in front of anyone. Ever. But I couldn't say no. Somehow it seemed like I'd be denying my gift if I did. So I said yes—and felt that heart-hammering-against-my-chest feeling for the first time in the moments before I began. There were several hundred people in the church that evening. I never really saw them. Once I began, I felt that transcendent power music has to take us to another place.
After that, I sang often. Eventually, I began to sing at weddings and funerals and odd celebrations. When I found myself married to the pastor of a church (see previous blog post), I sang at least once a week.
And then not at all for years.
When my husband and I separated, I lost every friend I had. My life became filled with raising our four children as a single parent while attending college full time. Occasionally I would get out my guitar and sing a song or two, but mostly I was doing homework or housework or child care, and the pleasure of sitting down to sing was a luxury I couldn't afford.
Once I started teaching, though, I had more time. And my kids were older. So once and a while I'd go out with Friend Laura to have a girls' night out and do some karaoke. Just so I wouldn't lose my ability to get up in front of people and sing. On one of those nights, I confessed to her my secret dream—to sing the National Anthem at a sporting event. Some months later, she called me, excited: Auditions were being held to sing the National Anthem at a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes baseball game. This required getting up on a temporary stage in the middle of the Montclair Plaza as people strolled by doing their shopping and belting out the song a cappella. Easy peasy. (Well, after a month of belting it out daily in the shower.) And with that, I was chosen.
The experience—for someone like me who has never taking singing lessons, never sung with a choir but is a patriot who absolutely loves flag and country—is humbling, to say the least. You stand behind home plate, your name is announced to the crowd (on the night I sang, two thousand people were in attendance), and someone hands you a microphone. And then you're on your own.
Yep, that's me!
I'm pretty sure I didn't embarrass the friends and family members who had come to hear me sing. I know for certain it was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Which led to me singing the anthem a couple more times (at pep rallies and a basketball game or two, since I taught high school), which then led to me singing in a few more weddings.
Mostly, now, I am focused on my writing, marketing what's already out there, working on new projects, big and small. And I don't think to get my old girl out of her case and just sit down and "let my music take me where my heart wants to go," as Cat Stevens put it. But I need to. My voice is my instrument, really (the guitar is just a prop), and my instrument has fallen out of tune, become weaker and less pure with lack of use. But music has always been my greatest comfort, and I need to keep it close.
So recently I volunteered to sing a couple of songs for a Valentine's Day luncheon. The performance was far from perfect. But it was a start.