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Journeys Notes from the Road

Hey, Now

iced matcha latte-anneliesz-7196

Writing sometimes resembles wrestling a beast to the ground where the writer’s persistence on the page is rewarded. Rest assured, no animals were hurt in the statement above. Departures in writing can come about innocuously and perhaps some might say are causes of distraction, but I tend to abide by the idea of inhabiting Alice chasing the white rabbit on the page. The image of wrestling a beast came to me vividly today as I sat down to right about one thing even as the strains of the song in my headphones shuttled me somewhere else entirely. Before I could proceed with the writing at hand, I needed to grapple with that interloper head-on, knowing if I let it fight underneath my grasp, I might be able to access something real and true. Here’s where it took me:

In May, I had been refreshing my phone app’s weather program as if willing the weather to simmer down. I was traveling around Texas on book tour and so were the showers. I’m not fond of driving in Bay area rain where showers have garnered headlines long before the rain dried up. When I used to commute to San Rafael from San Francisco on a rainy day, the sky would turn the same color as the glistening road, blurring boundaries of street and sky. I had grown up in Texas where rain means business and takes on the adage that everything really is bigger in Texas. Growing up in that kind of place, you develop a healthy respect for weather systems. Tornadoes, flash flood thunderstorms, heat that bakes the back of anything in its wake appears regularly in the lone star state.

On one leg of my journey in the spring, I stayed at my mom’s house. She watched the weather channel with the frequency of conferring with it as one would with an oracle. The weatherman’s drone became the soundtrack of our days. That healthy respect transformed into an edginess as the darkening skies unfurled overhead. I have grown too accustomed to 24/7 sun that keeps the streets dry.

As one does in situations that test our mettle, I decided to try and make light of the typhoon of uncertainty growing within. I posted a photo of my driving route through the Texas and Louisiana legs of my book tour where not one but eight lightning bolts lit up the route I was supposed to take. I joked about being in a modern day rendition of the Odyssey and secretly hoped I didn’t spy any sirens on the roadside. An event in Dallas with overcast skies ended up blowing over. Another event in Dallas brought rain after the event had finished. Austin and Houston were on the horizon. My mother practically pushed us out of the house early on Mother’s Day to try and beat the storm headed to Austin. She had deliberated and treated herself to a one way ticket home that night. We beat out the storm. After several mildly wet days in Austin, I needed to leave for Houston. For days, I had been tracking the storms that lighted up the weather app that showed 80 percent precipitation days bleeding into one another. It was inevitable. I couldn’t avoid driving into the heart of the storm alone.

On the morning of my departure from Austin for Houston, the sky hung ominously like one large cloak of steel grey. A few fat raindrops dripped onto the windshield of the rental car and I made a decision to stop into Central Market for road snacks and an iced matcha latte. Blueberries and cherry tomatoes had made the cut of easy to pop snacks for the drive, and my caffeinated green drink would keep me energized. I headed back to the car, squeezing open the umbrella with my free hand to shield me from the rain that had picked up force, finally shutting myself inside the car. What had started as a light rain picked up force and gathered speed to become a full-blown gale.

In the parking lot, the rain pelted down with fury and the kind of force that would have made me pull the car over and wait it out. I hesitated to turn the key and shift the gear into drive. Instead, and without a sign that the rain would abate, I turned on the radio to listen to London Grammar and shifted the gear into reverse. As Hannah Reid’s ghostly voice pierced the quiet of the car amid the crazed percussion of the assaulting rain, I found comfort even as the peach pit of fear in my stomach blossomed in size. She sang Ooh, this is frightening and then followed it with Ooh, it’s like lightning. The words left my mouth, matching her pitch and with them recognition of a type of song onomatopoeia where her lyrics matched my circumstance. They caught in my throat as I tried not to cry.

With 15 percent visibility, the car edged forward as the other few drivers kept a very polite distance. Though the windshield wipers had been set to top speed, I couldn’t discern where one lane ended and the other began. My eyes shifted to focus on the brake lights of the car in front of me, letting them be a light unto my path. I found that if I sang along with the words, I could channel all of the nervousness out of my body and into the melody, letting it catch like a key turning in a door. I could separate myself from the myriad possibilities of catastrophe that could assail me on this road I had to drive alone. It was as if I had found a modicum of courage to just keep moving forward at an ant’s pace. And, eventually, the rain did abate. And, eventually, my coiled fingers around the steering wheel slackened.

This morning, without warning, I found myself back in the rental car, the rain thwacking the windshield as I was pulling out of the safe haven of the Central Market parking lot in Austin. The music unleashed a visceral response to something in the recent past on a day where I was sitting in front of my computer in Oakland, attempting to write something else. Perhaps that reaction came from not listening to London Grammar since the trip until this morning. Or, I could point to the fact that this morning, I woke up with a desire to listen to their music. Do you ever think about the cavernous rooms inside us that stay locked and inaccessible or how they quietly thrust the key into our hand at the right moment? What happens when we stop listening? What happens when we crane forward ready to receive what they have to tell us about life, about ourselves? On the wall of my office hangs a hand-lettered sign that asks a question. Everyday, I pass by it several times, reading the words and letting them take root inside. What is the story only you can write? My rental car rainstorm might be something different for you, but we all go through events we survive that feel harrowing and insurmountable at the time. It’s not everyday that they resurface. And, perhaps, it’s not everyday that we let ourselves be swept away into a memory we would rather forget. When you sit down to write, keep yourself open to what needs to be expressed. You might find as I did with the aid of that London Grammar song that the revelation given is something you need to see in order to move on and start working on the writing at hand. You, the writer-wrangler. Words, the elusive beast.

Categories
Art Grief Singing Spirit

Losing My Voice

Grief does weird things to a person.

You don’t exactly know the when or the where, but you know to take this visitor at its word, when it says it will drop by. Right after my dad’s funeral, people kindly sent emails, texts and phone calls. In the void and silence not to be filled, each word felt like a buoy to anchor me from the weightlessness that threatened to carry me deep into the sky. What is it about that levity that drains time of its usual punctuality, letting present ebb into future and blurring the lines of the past? Except for the event itself, when each detail can be recalled with rote precision.

Some of my earliest memories of my dad bring to mind two voices singing in unison. My starbird voice trilling in that high pitch special to children. His bass would carry the bottom like a firm foundation upon which the house could be built. He would take me out “driving” on his lap- hands latched onto the wheel, steering our way straight from the veering and careening he would do, I thought, so he could see Mama’s face contort into that of an irritated mime. In choir, his deep sonorous bass distinctively stood out from the lighter sopranos, mezzos, baritones and tenors. At one point in time, I equally spoke into existence my intention to be opera singer and fashion designer. My parents taught me to dream big and I did not disappoint.

I started really singing in church. Like Axl Rose. Like MC Hammer and probably scores of other singers. During high school, I auditioned for a youth singing group and made it in, though my point of pride settled on me being the only female rapper one year for choir tour. I wove the words around one another in rhythmic time and felt myself all the more impressive because of my cap worn backwards. Ah, youth. It’s no surprise really that my best friend is an opera singer and I casually took up karaoke.

The week my Dad died, I emailed Karl, our church music director, explaining I would not be able to sing with the church band, that I was in Texas, that my Dad had unexpectedly died. This was soon followed with a conversation that included the words “hiatus” and “not sure when”. Three months bled into six that later became eight and finally almost a year. I couldn’t get up the gumption to sing- it was like the song had been stolen from my mouth.

Months after his death, I would find myself alone in church, wearing a hat, feeling the part of the walking wounded. It didn’t take much to be bowled over emotionally- from the turn of a lyric, the chord progression, the violin playing pizzicato. And that surge of sorrow swept over me anew. There is nothing more mortifying than weeping in a crowd full of singers or trying to unsuccessfully stifle the growing storm. There is also nothing more humanizing. I would catapult myself out onto the street where the austere sun would shine its cold rays of sunlight upon me. The ambient street noises muffled against the backdrop of this particular kind of loneliness.

I say this because it needs to be said.

Last year, I learned a specific way to take care of myself- that it’s okay to seek out solitude and crave it greedily. It’s okay to sob because a silhouette on the street resembles that person. It’s okay to be embraced and sat with and prayed for and cooked for because sometimes your body wants you to stop and take heed.

Then Easter changed everything.

It did not bring back my Dad. It’s hard to explain in words really. It did remove some of the burden of the loss and the lungs that had felt unsturdy weeks prior began to feel stronger. I emailed Karl and said I thought I might be ready. Perhaps I could try and sing again? In his kind, gentle way, Karl told me there was no pressure. I could practice with the band and if I didn’t feel up to it, I didn’t have to stay and sing.

SINGING- Losing My Voice

The lights blazed on our faces. The microphone blared until the sound was equalized. My nightmare of crumpling emotionally on the platform during a song went unfounded. And something about losing myself in the harmonies strung around the melody, around the guitar rhythms, the hand-tapped drum beats on my thigh somehow brought my Dad closer. Music- the very thing that had for months felt too painful and too approximate to the forging and physical extinguishing of our relationship, now became sealant and mender.

I stopped singing for a year because it felt like the right thing to do and because I had no choice. My body began telling me how to interpret “take care of yourself” and once I started listening to my body, I began to find my voice again.