Words and music

I have some pretty early memories. One we think was from my first birthday, of cruising around the trunk that served as our coffee table with one of those popper push toys. Another, from approximately the age of 2, is of me stepping over 6-packs of empty glass soda bottles (recycling was a thing in the 70s, too, ya whippersnapper) — which were nearly as tall as my legs were long — making my way to the crib of my mom’s friend’s baby. I’d not been around a lot of babies; I was fascinated by them. I have many other small, inconsequential, sensory memories — sunshine on my eyelashes and the feel of the blanket that was on my parents’ bed and the taste of the tapestried dining chairs.

But mostly when I think of my very early childhood, I remember the music and the words.

My childhood was filled with music. My mom had an expansive record collection (seriously, it’d make Rob Gordon drool), and there was music playing nearly all the time. I learned to sing because the combination of words and music touched me in a way nothing else has, before or since. The act of singing provided me a physical and emotional release. I would stand on the footstool and put a towel on my head (Tina Turner had long hair; I didn’t) and belt my heart out into the end of a jump rope. It felt good. It felt like home.

I was equally obsessed with lyrics. I would puzzle over the words to those songs, working out the imagery, coming up with my own ideas about what they were about. Helen Reddy confused me; she said she was roaring, but she was actually just singing. Quite melodically. It took me a long time to figure out what she was talking about, too. I mean, who would want to keep me down just because I was a girl? And Tom Jones. I drank in the poetry of Green Green Grass of Home, but completely missed the death-row march because, well, I was three. I was more interested in how, in the space of a few short lines, those lyrics took you home: you could see it, feel it, smell it, taste it. As I was too young to glean the more adult messages of the lyrics, I took from those songs what I was capable of untangling at the time, and glossed over the rest. In my 20s, I was blown away when I revisited Dr. Hook — particularly Freakers Ball. (I knew the words by heart at 6, but I’m not to this day certain I understand them. And I’m good with that.) But I can’t say I was that surprised to see it was written by Shel Silverstein. And did the writing help cultivate my ear for rhyme? Perhaps.

Mom also read. A lot. Sometimes to me, sometimes to herself. I learned to read because I was jealous of the attention she gave to her books, the attention those books stole from me, and I wanted to read so I could ignore her right back. I learned to write so I could write the stories I wanted to read, the stories nobody else was writing. I studied the dictionary, and later the thesaurus; I asked questions when I came across a word I didn’t know. I picked apart idioms. I studied colloquialisms like they were a separate language. I read like words were oxygen. And I dreamed that, one day, it’d be me writing really great stories. Stories that people would talk about after I was dead and gone.

As I got older, I toyed with pursuing music as a career path. Ultimately, though, I had to accept the fact that I don’t have a strong voice. I can on a good day sing lullabies, but the allergic coughing, sniffling, and wheezing prevent me from tackling anything more complicated than that. Not that I don’t still enjoy singing; I do. But nobody wants to hear me do it, so I save it for those rare times when I’m alone in the car.

I gave up writing for so many years because I didn’t feel like the stories I was trying to tell were important enough. But I never stopped loving the words. There’s something so satisfying in writing, in reading, the exact right words. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t really matter so much what the words are saying. The message doesn’t have to be transcendent. There’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s okay. Powerful words about minutia are every bit as transformative. Perhaps even more so. Because life really is about the little things.

So we’re nearly halfway through November and I’ve not touched my damned books once. Life’s been busy and I’ve been depressed, running on little food and less sleep as I try to sort out this defective digestive system of mine. And working and momming and just keeping the plates spinning. But I think about my stories a lot. Working out the plot kinks in my head, so that when I do get a chance to write I can dash them all down and get back to focusing on the words.

Is what I’m writing any good? I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s the point, either, at least for now. It’s more important that I’ve reclaimed a part of me that I began fostering when I was younger than my children are now, one of the most elemental aspects of my being. Good or bad, the words bring me home.


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