Monthly Archives: February 2014

how can i keep from singing?

More like an older sister than an aunt, Susie taught me to swim.  I was nine the summer she came to visit, and though I splashed around easily enough in the shallow end, nothing I did resembled a stroke.  Over the course of a week, Susie worked with me at our little community pool, teaching me to do the freestyle and be brave in water.  On day four I made the discovery that submerging my head wouldn’t mean sudden death.  After that I was golden.

Since that summer I’ve been a swimmer.  Not a competitive one, but a dabbler in the unstructured water play of paddling across lakes and rivers, jumping off rocks, bodysurfing, rafting.

In addition to last year’s big life changes I’ve probably written about too much here, in the fall I added swimming laps, a new skill that still feels humbling.  I was looking for another activity that might deliver the kind of focused non-focus of running, one I’ll be able to do for many years, long after my running knees give out.

That I was very bad at surviving laps in the beginning is an understatement.  But it was thrilling to engage in something at which I was terrible.  I had to learn to sustain swimming and breathing at the same time without panicking and stopping in the middle of the pool to gasp for air.  To put on a swim cap.  To wear goggles so they were tight enough to work but not so tight they nearly sucked my eyes out of my sockets.  To swim in a straight line and share a lane with another swimmer.  To “deal” with the wall every twenty-five yards.

At first, swimming four laps in a row left me completely without breath.  For the first month I could only swim ten slow, tortuous laps before peeling off, exhausted, to simmer in the Jacuzzi.  In the second month I tasked myself with braving the wall via flip turn, and the day I figured out how to plan for and execute a series of turns I was high on life the rest of the day.   The day swimming laps gave me a glimmer of the kind of meditation I feel while trail running was even more affirming.

Given the choice, I’d rather swim in a lake or bay over a pool, but I imagine no matter the space, I’ll be a swimmer as long as I can still walk.  I’m grateful about that.

It’s 2014, time to renew my vow to learn something new.

On a whim a few weeks ago, Riley and I tagged along with some friends to their choir practice.  Though we met at a church because that’s a space large enough for the group, the choir is secular and intergenerational.  I’ve never really sung before, unless I count the shower or those musical performances from grade school.  In high school I was both too shy and too busy playing sports to spend any time in the arts and theatre wing, a fact which I regret a now.  Despite a year or so of piano in middle school, I can’t read music, and I don’t have a great voice.  I’m on friendly terms with the voice I do have.  Singing in public terrifies me.

In a packed sanctuary hall the night of our first practice, we met and were wrangled by three local, professional musicians, our leaders, who believe so strongly in the power of the collective voice they’ve volunteered their time in this way.  A white-haired woman with a walker sporting orange tennis balls staked out a place at the back of the sanctuary.  With our friends, we squeezed four bodies onto two chairs next to her.  Kids of all ages wiggled and danced beneath the stage as we sang ten or so tunes, many we knew and some we didn’t.  Reading lyrics projected on a huge screen at the back of the stage, we practiced singing in harmony.  We sang in round.  Folk, pop, blues, tunes from around the world.

I spent much of the evening sweating, working to manage anxiety about whether and how my voice belonged. But there are three hundred of us, and we sound good together.  I can see that each week my fears will be allayed by my own efforts and being buoyed by the group.  Our sessions together will be about the community building of raising our voices in song, and also about preparing for a culminating performance in the spring.

Pete Seeger had just passed away a few days before our first choir meeting.  Even though he’d had a good run, dying quietly at 94, I’d been melancholy about his presence gone from the world.  At home I’d been playing over and over Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions and thinking back to 2002, when John, Owen and I went to the Great Hudson River Revival, an annual folk festival Pete and his wife Toshi began in 1966 to raise awareness about keeping the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands healthy.

That June weekend in New York was a rainy, hot muddy mess of a festival.  Food vendors and magicians, hacky-sackers and jugglers, artists and storytellers filled the grounds.  The afternoon Pete took the stage toward the end of the weekend, it was still raining steadily.  John and I sat in our chairs, a blanket over Owen who slept across our laps, finally worn out, and for an hour we sang along with Pete and other musicians who joined him.  Songs we’d known since we could walk and sing.  This Land is Your LandIf I Had a Hammer. Turn, Turn, Turn.  We Shall Overcome.

Then, I was aware as I scanned the soggy crowd that we were in the presence of a kind of greatness.  Everyone sang, most eyes on Pete and his banjo, his enthusiasm and gathering spirit infectious.  There was nothing pretentious about him, none of that rock star stuff he might have deserved after decades of fame.  As I recall he wore faded jeans, a t-shirt, his signature cap.  Through a gap in the trees, the sloop Clearwater sailed by along the Hudson, loaded with passengers availing themselves of learning how to save the river.  I’m so grateful now we made that trip.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

At choir practice, toward the end of the night, a photo of Pete filled the screen, and these words -“Participation!  It’s what all my work has been about.” Singing next to Riley whose voice is bold and clear and lovely, I was a little sad she’ll never get to sing along with Pete.  We stood up and grooved to a song Pete sang with Woody Guthrie, a fun kids’ tune about all working together with a “wiggle and a giggle.”  Kids twirled and fell on the ground and helped each other up.  This full-bodied interaction with music was exactly what Pete had in mind, for it’s not too far a jump to go from singing together to working together in all ways that matter most.

That night the spirit of Pete was all around us, it seemed, filling up our lungs and hearts.  We began “How Can I Keep from Singing?”, a song many seem to take credit for though I think it’s a hymn from the 19th century.  This song always makes me a little weepy, and I was struck that night by the gorgeous impermanence of the music we were making and the universal truth in some of those words.  Our individual and collective voices were vanishing into thin air, and yet long after the notes could no longer be heard, the people who’d gathered would remember the singularity of the effort.

I couldn’t really hear my own voice, though I knew it was a piece of the whole.  Still a little sweaty, emboldened by my plucky daughter who wasn’t nervous in the slightest, I tried to sing with bravery and intention, thinking of Pete, and of the way participating with hundreds of other voices could -was already- rendering a similar kind of grace I sought in breathing life into stories, in trail running at dawn, in gliding through water.

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Categories: community, parenting, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

surviving february

Over dinner our family sometimes plays the tattoo game.  It goes something like this:  If you had to get a tattoo, which animal (or fruit or motorized vehicle…) would you choose and where on your body would you put it?  The answers are sometimes surprising. Riley always tries to choose a bird no matter the category. John once chose a unicycle for his “motorized” vehicle, and that led to a half hour discussion on locomotion. But anyway, the kids like our strange amusement.  It’s a pastime that saves us on days we’d otherwise easily fall into lamenting the ways the world feels terribly broken.

How the world is broken seems more evident in February, when the slant of light has changed, but not enough to signal spring. When it feels like it’s been winter long enough, and yet the storms keep on coming. What’s wanting is diversion enough to distract from another several weeks of slate skies and long underwear.

The other day I found the perfect thing on River Teeth‘s website.  You can sign up to get a daily email from them — “28 days of Beautiful Things.”  Each day you will receive an excerpt from Michelle Webster-Hein’s essay “Beautiful Things,” originally published in River Teeth in 2013.  I was hooked after reading the idea for the project, but what really got me was the gorgeous photo of a beet, a vegetable I uniformly detested in youth but which now I cannot eat enough of.

Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red.  Roasted, pickled, slawed.  Nothing beats (ha) growing them. Feeling them release from the soil when they are ready to be harvested.  Knowing that under the tough exterior awaits brilliant color, sweet earthy flavor. Fresh beets means eating the greens, too, steamed or sauteed in sesame oil or hidden inside chili or lasagna (don’t tell the kids).

I’m not usually very clever about where I’d put a tattoo — I almost always choose my arm, because it seems like if I’d gone through the journey of permanently inking myself, I’d want to be able to admire the art without having to use a mirror.  The kids tell me that’s not the point.  Tattoos are meant to be seen by others.

My obsession with body art doesn’t get much past our dinner game.  When we play vegetable tattoo, a beet in any of its iterations is always my answer.  It’s also the lone answer to another game we play — If you were marooned on a deserted island and could only have one food, what would it be? The beet.  Of course. Though I would have trouble deciding which variety.

The miracle of a beet is the topic of “28 Days of Beautiful Things” first beautiful thing.

Today’s excerpt from Webster-Hein is an ode to dust — oddly dear to her, its silty presence on her belongings means she’s spent time doing what she loves instead of housekeeping.

Amen to that.

From River Teeth's website.  How could anyone not love this gorgeous vegetable?

From River Teeth’s website. So gorgeous every time…

Categories: gardening, kids, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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