In Stillness and Song

In the past months, I’ve been sailing on Puget Sound, changed jobs, continued work in my doctoral classes, travelled to a conference and presented a paper, celebrated holidays and a birthday, worked on a long-term writing project, spent a few weeks sick, and now—suddenly—we’re at the end of the year.

It’s not that I don’t have lots to say. There are so many things that need saying, and there are also so many people saying so much and so little about all the much-ness that’s happening in our world right now. Truly, I’ve found it hard to keep up with the constant stream of shootings, bombings, and acts of violence in our world. Not a day goes by that if I log into social media I won’t see video of police assaulting or killing an unarmed person of color. Not a week passes that I don’t hear about a suicide, or experience of violence against an LGBTIQA person. Globally, we’ve come to live with war like it’s a given law of the universe; as if we weren’t collectively feeding it with every choice we make, dollar we spend, and vote we cast.

And in all this, I have found myself turning to music and to silence. These two things open up such space for grief and room for imagination towards peace, hope, kindness, gentleness, and humanity. In the past year, I have taken to silence—whether on the water, at home, or sitting for two hours at a time with the good folks at Underhill House (a drop-in center for quiet, meditation, and prayer, open weekly on Thursdays in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle). I find that the stillness and quiet is much needed to listen to what is stirring up in me.

And in these months, I have also taken to music. In the past year, I’ve acquired a baritone ukulele, a banjo, a banjo-lele (that’s right a banjo body with a ukulele neck and tuning), an autoharp, a couple melodicas, harmonicas, a travel guitar, a drum or two, and a bugle. This might be a little excessive.

As a child, I was gifted and cursed with the capacity to become dramatically proficient in a lot of areas. Visual art, logic, spatial reasoning, and math came early. After a few early failures, cooking and writing followed. What this meant, however, was that I expected to be able to be quite good at a thing without having to work for it—exhibit a: standardized testing.

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So, when it became apparent that beyond singing melody, I was going to have to work for music, I quickly gave up. I spent my adolescence quietly simpering along trying to hold the melody while my father and older sister played guitar and piano, singing harmonies around me. It was a world that I loved, but one that I had to work for. I had a passably pleasant voice, but I wanted to be a star—which was not going to happen.

I had an early attempt wherein I assaulted our dog’s sensitive ears with my saxophone squawking. It was the one and only time I ever heard that dog howl, and her tortured bellow mirrored my own disappointment with my failed music making. I wanted my body to usher beauty into the world, and just wasn’t coming easily to me.

Although a baby grand piano sat in the center of our house for a decade, I didn’t dare touch it until my sister had moved out of the house. Only once she’d gone away to college, did I finally ask her, on one of her visits home, to explain to me how to form major and minor chords, and finally, I tentatively began to hammer out chord progressions into some halting resemblances of songs.

My father gave me a guitar one year for Christmas, and I fumbled my way through the chords of D, G, and A for a year before my sister saved me from humiliation by graciously permanently borrowing the instrument from me.

I dedicated two years of church attendance to focusing in and only listening to harmony lines—using my time running sound to isolate the mic’d voices of tenor and alto singers and sing along with them in my headphones. In choir, I’d get stuck on Tenor II because it was most often on melody. To sing anything else, I’d have to sandwich myself between two people with stronger ears.

It wasn’t until college that I’d finally worked enough and internalized my high school choir director’s wisdom to “listen louder than you sing.” Come to think of it—using my body to make music wasn’t all that different than my experience with sports and physical activity.

I always loved and envied the grace filled movements of the athletically inclined. I always grew extremely frustrated when my father or a well-meaning friend attempted to explain the mechanics of a backhand swing, a layup, a backstroke, or a perfectly thrown spiral. I understood the physics, the mechanics, and the math of it all. I could diagram, draw, or explain the motion.

The trouble was getting the strange and squishy of my own muscles and bones to cooperate in a way that would bring beauty, rather than shame or despair, into the world.

From a young age, I’d learned that my body held secrets that it wouldn’t be safe to disclose. My secrets were too big and unwieldy for my home or my world to handle. My church pews and dinner table couldn’t bear the fleshy questions contained inside my skin. So, it was with a necrotizing guardedness that I sought to move and make music in the world.

These things couldn’t come easy, because I knew that I couldn’t do them perfectly—not just in the sense that it took practice to learn and grow in skill, but because my intonation; the swish of my hips or wrist; the quickness of my tears might serve to unleash the secret that my body had to keep contained in order to stay safe.

So, by and large, I learned how to hide and seek in a world of words and ideas—things I could process and control how they came out. It’s much easier to vet emotion in a paragraph than in a sweaty victory dance or a raucous jam session. To allow my emotions to flow within my body might mean being seen and known; to be found out.

Two years ago during Lent, a year post-divorce and coming out to my parents, I invited friends to give me music to which I would dance. Forty days of dancing repentance. It was a continuation of a beginning of telling truth with my body; righting the world—or at least myself in the world—by living into a fragile freedom.

No one was ever born to hide inside their own skin.

Thus, I’ve not written as much here in the last several months. Instead, I’ve taken the grief and hope that wrestles in my body and I’ve sat with it in deep silence, allowing myself to feel rather than articulate what’s going on in me. And then, I’ve clumsily caught up strings and keys and fumbled my way into music that’s less pretty than it is emotionally honest. And this feels like a way forward.

When I am swept up with sorrow and desire for myself, my neighbors, my family, and the world, I have other options than to try to tell with words a way forward through the mess. Other options besides arguing or clamoring for my voice to be heard. Instead, where I feel the weight that’s sunk down like a rock in my gut, I can feel face and limb tremble, and let tears and song swell.

I needn’t fight to be understood or bury my body in a tomb of silence. Instead, out of deep soul-quiet, I can let it out—in all the imperfections—my tender trying.

It’s with our bodies, that we make and heal the world; in our practice of showing up when it doesn’t come easy just showing up in our own skin.

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4 thoughts on “In Stillness and Song

  1. I love this. And I love that I felt, more than I registered, when reading this. Guess the curse & gift of dramatic proficiency extends to your writing still today 🙂 “I needn’t fight to be understood or bury my body in a tomb of silence. Instead, out of deep soul-quiet, I can let it out—in all the imperfections—my tender trying.”

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