I like to sing; I always have. At least once, when I was a kid, I said I wanted to be a singer when I grew up. Alas, I have highly imperfect pitch, can’t consistently keep a beat, and have a hard time singing and clapping (never mind playing an instrument) at the same time. Were I to cover a song you like, I can’t guarantee you wouldn’t cringe. Also I resist the professionalization – monetization – of singing. When someone says, “I can’t sing,” what she really means is, “I’m embarrassed to sing,” or, “I don’t sound like a pop star,” or, “I haven’t sung in years, and now I’m scared to start.”
Singing is part of being human. All of us can sing. When we silence ourselves – deferring, perhaps, to commercially successful musicians, bands on stage, friends and family members with “talent” – we lose a chunk of our birthright. A vehicle for ritual and worship. A thread to the sacred. Yet it can be damn hard to sing – what if we risk it, and get it wrong?
You might say I’ve found a workaround: writing my own songs. When I sing something I’ve written, I can sing it better, or worse, than I’ve sung it before – but I can’t sing it wrong.
In the past twenty years, I’ve composed (received the gift of) maybe twenty songs. The first, “The Dishwasher’s Lament,” was my response, while working in the kitchen of a lakeside resort, to an unrequited crush on one of the dock guys. The most recent, modeled on the folk song “Long Black Veil,” celebrates my husband’s decade in the trike business (“Ten years ago/On a non-stop flight/Gregg crossed the pond/To buy a trike….”). Some songs I’ve shared on the occasions that inspired me to write them. Some songs I’ve sung at open mics. One song a friend posted to YouTube. But a number of my songs, never having fit anywhere, have never been shared.
Enter the campfire. At Earthaven, I was blessed with a number of opportunities to share my songs (and hear others’ songs, and sing along). Nourished by friends’ and neighbors’ appreciation, my voice grew surer and stronger.
Then, last night, at a local bar’s open mic, I got the chance to compare singing in a city to singing in a circle.
Around the campfire, I sang with neither microphone nor spot light. With the others so near, and nothing to blind me, I could connect – see faces, gauge reactions, hear laughter. I knew those I was singing to: I might hear, the next day, that a refrain of mine had lodged in someone’s head; my songs joined an ongoing conversation. My gift flowed into the circle, around it, and back, coloring who I was, to these people, and who they were to me.
At the open mic, I sang mostly for people I didn’t know. The microphone mediated between me and the ears in the room; the lights on me, and the distance created by the stage, muffled laughter, obscured responses, blurred faces. And when I finished singing, and returned to the audience, that was it. My husband and I went home. There was no circle to hold the singing, weave it in with other songs.
I dream of seeing my book (my Zendik memoir) in libraries and book stores; I dream of it reaching, and moving, millions (I can dream, right?). But now I notice something else: There’s a difference between transmitting to a mass of strangers, and reaching people you know. The latter, maybe, is sweeter. The latter, maybe, feeds a richer stream of gifts.