Posts Tagged With: memoir

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.

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

demolition…a love story

For a while when I was young we lived in a very small town in northern California.  Hours from any major city, you could only get to it on steep, winding roads.  There were no stop lights, no big box stores or fast food franchises.  I could walk anywhere in town from my house and, as long as I was home by dinner, I was allowed to roam. Looking back from the lens of parenthood and a world that feels more complicated and more dangerous than it did then, I realize what a gift that kind of childhood was.

Every summer we had a big Fourth of July celebration.  Our main park was also home to the fairgrounds and baseball diamonds, a community center and forest service offices.  Before the holiday weekend, a cavalcade of semis barreled into town and disgorged their sea-monsterish carnival parts while kids made excuses to hang out at the park and watch the carnies set up shop.  Elsewhere in the park, our local chapter of the Lions lined up trailers for food and beer in the concessions area by the playground and organized vintage fire trucks from five counties to participate in the parade.  A rodeo, a greased pig race on the baseball field, sack and three-legged races on the park lawn, music at the bandstand — our town transformed itself into a Norman Rockwell painting.  At least on the surface.

I loved all those things, of course, but what I really loved best was Sunday night, at the end of the holiday, when the demolition derby happened in the rodeo arena.  It was more popular than the rodeo, better attended than the parade, and every year the stands were so packed those who came late had to hang on the fence to watch.  Relative to the other events, it cost a lot of money to get in.  People had generally blown through whatever cash they’d allotted for the weekend by then, myself included, but that didn’t stop us.  The derby was the finale of our festivities.

The evening began with the rodeo queen and her court racing around the arena brandishing various flags.  Crammed into the tiny announcer’s booth, the school choir sang the national anthem.  After that the water trucks watered down the competition area to ensure cars would never get much traction.  The boy scouts sold popcorn and nuts, cotton candy and soda, and one of the rodeo clowns usually sat on the fence to entertain us in between events.  Derby cars caravanned slowly into the arena and parked facing the stands in a chevron so we could have a proper look at them.  Usually there were twelve or fifteen entries, sometimes more.  Inside, these cars had been stripped down — gas tanks moved to the back, roll bars installed, all the seats except for the driver’s and the glass taken out.  They were old Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Chryslers –trash-picked from junkyards or someone’s collection of vehicles from their land — implanted with engines that could withstand battle.  Cars were worked on all year in secret.  Drivers were people we knew from the bank and the hardware store, parents and teachers and firemen.  Once in the arena, derby drivers pulled themselves out of cars through driver’s side windows (the doors had been welded shut),  and then stood theatrically, often in costume, next to their rides.

The exterior of the car was the thing.  Painted, bedazzled, props welded to their tops, the cars were voted on by the audience before they even raced.  Voting was crude, the winner decided upon by the announcer for loudest applause.  I was generally hoarse from whistling and cheering before the destruction part ever started.

The suspense, until we got to see what we all came for, was delicious, tortuous.  In the beginning, three or four cars at a time would race in “circles” around the arena, like it was a NASCAR event.  There were several heats of this sort of racing so we could get a look at how each car performed.  After that, cars came back again in sets of three or four and ran the track backwards, and this was the beginning of lost bumpers, dented doors, radiators spewing hot fluid onto the arena floor.  Between heats, cars drove behind the arena to a place we couldn’t see, where each driver had a pit crew that kept the thing going for the big event.

The big event, when all hell broke loose, was, of course, what we’d all really come to see.  Event coordinators made us sit through a singer with a guitar, usually, or the rodeo clown doing his bit with a bull.  Water trucks mudded down the arena again.  We fidgeted through intermission, placed bets, loaded up on more snacks until cars limped back into the arena and staged themselves in a circle facing out.  The announcer gave the call.  Every engine gunned.  Sparks flew.  The din thrummed in our chests.  And then it began.  Drivers circled and rammed each other, ganged up on cars with popped tires and flattened back ends.  Props were severed from the tops of cars.  Some cars died early on, the driver required to sit inside until it was over.  Sometimes a dead car magically resurrected itself, able to battle again, a thrilling reversal of fortune.  I loved every minute of it.

Since that town, I’ve lived in several others that also host derbies.  One summer in my first few years of teaching a friend of mine from the city came to visit during our town’s Memorial Day celebration.  A die-hard urbanite who prided himself on visiting small towns only through drive-by, Brody was fascinated with the mule parade, the craft fair, and the rodeo, at which we featured chariot steer roping (which was more about how not to get ripped from your homemade, welded chariot by your horse than lassoing a hysterical steer calf).  He loved it all, but what he loved best was the destruction derby.

Because my husband was a paramedic, we were allowed access to the gate at the end of the arena.  Brody and I hung on the fence, close enough to get sprayed by mud, and watched people I worked with ram into each other.  Cars caught fire and got hooked together, waging attack as hybrid, two-car beasts.

A few minutes into the finale, Brody turned to me a little wild-eyed, and said, “Now I know how the Romans felt.”  He raised his fist into the air.  “Throw in some more Christians!”

Maybe my zeal for the derby grows from some primordial delight humans harbor for watching destruction.  Maybe it comes from the disjoint in witnessing people I know to be reasonable, thoughtful humans in their everyday lives step into an impulse that’s surprising, shocking.  I’m riveted by the marriage of art and savagery, of community and competition, of recycling and waste.

I’m in another small town now, and we have a derby here, too.   This year I’ll partake in the demolition again.  Only this time, I’ll be in the arena, driving an ’85 Cutlass.

Categories: demolition derby | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Create a free website or blog at