Hating to Sing, Part I
When I was nine, I moved myself to the middle of my elementary school chorus. There were twenty-six of us standing on a grey carpet in front of three rows of wooden chairs. Sunlight through the side window made us squint. I máde my spot in the angle of shade given to us by a curtain. I could almost hide in it. But I couldn't sing. When I tried, the sounds came out wrong. I couldn't hold a tune. I hunched low in my school uniform shirt, collar high, head bowed, my voice a sigh. What I wanted most was for the teacher not to notice. My next thought was for Leslie, the girl I liked. I hoped she couldn't hear how I sounded. I tried to keep my distance from her but sometimes she tried to stand next to me.
The most frustrating part was that, two years before, I thought I could sing. When I'd chanted "Coming Round the Mountain" as a seven year old, grown-ups seemed to like it. The music teacher smiled at me, the only boy doing his part at normal volume. I ‘had promise.’ Then things started going wrong. The songs got harder. My voice got inconsistent.
In fifth grade, as part of the inconsistency, I saw I didn’t hurt anyone with "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog." On the other hand, I made the adults in the room wince when I tried "Cherokee Woman." For the school play, I could sort of serenade the audience with "One Tin Soldier." When the next piece came up, I had to mouth the words and whisper. I closed my eyes so I wouldn't see my own terrible acting.
The worst part was the music teacher giving me looks of exasperation. On more than one occasion, she stopped conducting and stared in my direction with her hands on her hips. She knew I could play this stuff on the piano. She wanted to know why couldn't I sing it. And I had no idea. After a few years of inconsistent hymns and harmonies, I left elementary school behind. That was the end of my performances, a huge relief. No one ever asked me to do it again.
But secretly, I sang anyway. In the woods around my new home, alone and lonely, I wailed aloud to the burbling accompaniment of the creek, the cicadas, the frogs, and the wind through the tree boughs. I used no words for my completely-made-up stuff that was almost-but-not-quite music. Whatever I was doing created enough of a tune to carry my feelings. Sounds came out of my mouth, chants like I later heard from the Ojibwe tribe recordings of Sitting With The Turtle. Bellows poured forth from me, usually at dusk after a hard day. I sang in the deeps of the forest, where no one else could hear the melodies of the clouds, the spirits of the river, the deer, and the fox. No one witnessed my chants about the laughing soul of the crawdad-parts-littering raccoon.
That was the best way to let the feelings out. With no one hearing me.
One night when I was fourteen, I went to bed early, around ten, and woke up at eleven. I knew it was snowing outside. The storm had started at dinner time. I'd lain on the couch by the picture window in the living room and I'd stared up at it. The flakes were huge, bigger than my thumb, and they floated down like a parachute army. I wandered outside and stood without a jacket, gaping at the invading force. I crouched to the surface of the deck and ran my hand across two inches of settled sleet and ice. At the top, the snow felt soft.
The sight of the storm got me too excited to go back to sleep once I'd woken. Maybe I wouldn't have to go to school tomorrow, I thought. Then I could sleep in. For the moment, I could use my free time to read.
Ninety minutes later, I'd finished my book, finished a stack of comics, and started to pace around my bedroom. I searched for more reading. I cupped my hands to the glass pane and peered outside my basement window. A sheen of white glowed in the starry darkness. There were eight inches on the ground at least and the descent of the white flakes appeared to be relentless.
I stomped into the closet and pulled on my boots. I threw on my best jacket.
Ten minutes later, I was back inside. I had managed to avoid waking anyone but my clothes hadn't been adequate to the whirling snow. I didn't own a hat. Frozen flakes kept slipping down my neck. Some got under my tight, too-short t-shirt and down my pants. Shockingly, I had blundered into drifts that had gotten nearly two feet deep already, far above the protection of my springtime-ready rubber wading boots. I needed something better.
I loved my jacket. It was fur trimmed like the one Sylvester Stallone had worn in the Rocky movie. I imagined it made me acceptable to other teenagers. But it hung open wide at the collar. Its sleeves were wide, not tapered. It wasn't made for snow. I didn't have anything that was.
In the back of my closet, I found it. I swung everything else to the other end of the clothes rod and stared. My mother had bought this monstrosity out of a catalog. It was a real, genuine winter coat. It had a hood. No one I knew except my parents wore a hood or even a hat. The surface of the thing was nylon or something else plastic-like and shiny, and it was decorated in block-like shades of mustard and baby-poop brown with a sort of orangish trim. It came with thick, nylon mittens. Mittens. For adults. The surface was seamless.
I ran my right hand over it and felt its thickness.
No one would see me, I told myself. I would be in the dark, alone. I repeated the thought. Because I had to get out in the storm. I had to feel it around me.
A half-hour later, I was a mile away down by the creek. I was trying my best to get lost amidst the swirls of white-out snow, tromping in my double layer of wool socks, wading boots, extra jeans, two t-shirts, and the abominable snowman knock-off brand coat that draped down to the middle of my thighs in the most socially awkward way possible. I wore the hood I'd been sure no one would ever use pulled up over my head and tied down with brown nylon straps. I would have forgotten about what I was wearing except, every so often, I paused and found myself amazed to feel so comfortable. I hadn't known this was possible.
I'd already twice laid down in the snow just to be there. The unfashionable mittens felt better than the rest and put me in awe of how much better they were than my usual gloves. The hideous outfit was perfect. The forest was dark under the trees, though. If it weren't for the luminous, white carpet everywhere I'd have found it hard to navigate.
As it was, I knew too well where every tree, every fallen branch, every stump, and every hidden rock lay. When I stepped on a random drift, I knew what depth of fallen leaves to expect in the crunch beneath. When I wandered out onto the rocks along the rapids, I knew the crayfish homes in the slow-moving pools and could study them by starlight. I stepped onto a snow-covered rivulet and laughed when my boot sunk into the frozen muck. It confirmed what I knew about the ugly world.
At one point, I got mad, I think because I was fourteen, and I started throwing snowballs at trees, turning over rocks, and breaking apart dead branches about the thickness of my arm but rotten.
The forest remained quiet except for the hiss of falling snow. Every sound I made, every move, every grinding step echoed across the hard surface of the world. The defective log bark crumbled like mold in my hands. The wood crackled wetly as I bashed it apart. I got tired. I wandered closer to the creek. There, I sat on a rock overlooking the rushing water.
After a while, I began to sing.
The sounds came low and slow. I crooned a summons to the deer and the fox. I called to the raccoons who kept leaving their shellfish trash, to the one in particular I'd glimpsed, chubby and fast through the blackberries and underbrush. I chanted to the trees and hummed to the water. Five minutes was a long time to say anything out loud when I was fourteen. But when I paused, I became aware of some part of nature, a hiding animal or some other presence far off, listening. I sang again to reach those distant ears. Ten minutes, twenty, all slow and sad. And comforting. I knew the presence didn't want me to approach. But it was curious and paying me a sleepy sort of attention.
The snow that had started with the sunset continued to fall with flakes like quarters, like half-dollars, inch after inch, a blizzard somewhere else but not here in the forest, where there was no wind. The miles of treetops had reduced an awesome force of the world to a gentle spiral from above. I leaned back and sang to the twirling dust-devil that was dizzying itself down to me, to the bare tree branches, to the spirits of life and near-life.
There were no words. My voice gentled the loudness of the blizzard, the crackling of the millions of icy flakes hitting the forest floor cover. It harmonized to the creek racing along through the quick shallows, to the stray eddies of wind in the clearings, the tired brambles, the sleeping vines, the struggling willow tree on the riverbank, the pushy oaks knocking everything else over and jostling against each other. The crawfish tried to hide. But I sang to the distant presence, to the part that listened.
The world was perfect. It always was. I was the only imperfection. But no other human being could hear me. And I sang.
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