Torch Songs

A few weeks ago I had dream in which I was onstage, getting ready to sing. Maybe a little nervous, maybe not, I launched into a song. I surprised myself at how good I sounded.

This is not my ego speaking. It’s my unconscious playing with me. Yes, I love to sing (who doesn’t?). But being able to carry a tune is not going to turn me into Mariah Carey, never mind Adele. I love to dance, too. And in my dream, I could feel the bodily sensation of belting out a song. Good for the heart. Good for the soul.

Then I wake up and see the metaphor for what it is. Writing requires skill and attention to detail, but isn’t it that thing called voice that makes our words resonate?

“If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page,” notes Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair piece he wrote during his “year of living dyingly.” Moving, and filled with Hitchens-style intelligence and wit, “Unspoken Truths” gives voice to a newfound awareness re: the connection between what is said and what is written. Among other things and people he touches on is Leonard Cohen singing “If It Be Your Will,” a song he acknowledges should not be listened to late at night and one he cannot imagine anyone else bringing what LC brings to it.

Leonard Cohen would be among the last singers I’d listen to for a good torch song, all of which makes his cover of Always something to smile about.

Speaking of torch songs, I’m in my car (otherwise known as my mobile sound machine), an easy listening moment, a voice as inimitable as it gets, with or without the distinctive quaver.

Even before the song comes to an end, Billie Holiday pops into my head. Sirius Radio is reading my mind. The ache in her voice brings tears to my eyes.

From there the playlist is less torch song, more soulful. Joe Simon has me Drowning in the Sea of Love though Peaches & Herb bring me right back, slow dancing/make-out music at its best. The sound is tinny, a reminder of transistor radio days on the beach, or better yet, those 45s stacked on my record player, one by one dropping to the turntable, with a click, as I cry myself to sleep with longing or heartbreak, sometimes both.

Leonard Cohen says there ain’t no cure for love.  Eddie Cochran says there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. Bob Dylan tells me summer days, summer nights are gone.

Here’s what I say: Take a walk, let the chorus of birds or that single one trilling a song surprise you with their reminder that nothing keeps them from coming back. Yesterday brought the added joy of watching a Duck Tolling Retriever climb up the steps of a playground slide, then run down the slide itself. All to retrieve a ball. It’s summertime, after all, and the living may (or may not be) easy but it’s easier than winter. Barbecues. Long days. Outdoor concerts. Emmylou Harris will be in my neck of the woods this summer. And Rhiannon Giddens. Last year it was Cecile McLorin Salvant. If you’ve been lucky enough to hear/see her even once (twice for me), you’d be hard put not to agree with Wynton Marsalis: “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” To learn that becoming a singer wasn’t even what she set out to do is beside the point. This is an artist who does more than interpret songs. Trust me when I say you’ll never hear a cover of Wives and Lovers like hers.

Summertime Blues

Twice in my life—one morning up at Machu Picchu and one afternoon at a Zen rock garden in Kyoto years ago—I had that exquisite present-moment sensation that these days I work (too hard I fear) at experiencing. More often it’s the past/present/future all tied in one that has me in its grip: the past tugs, the future taunts. Spirit is no match for the weight of all things sense-related. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Something in the air today—a summery breeze, a whiff of wild roses, the Portuguese Water Dog whose bark is pure squeak toy—takes me back to a day not unlike this, summer 1997, and with it the memory of feeling like the worst mother in the world. There—I said it!

It was my daughter’s first summer at sleep-away camp, also the summer she convinced us we really really really needed to get a dog, which became the bargaining chip for her not signing on for the full seven-week program. Visiting weekend rolls around quickly, we do all the parents’ weekend activities, she doesn’t want to leave.  Mama Bear has a quick consult with Papa Bear. Fine, we tell her, you can stay. But no dog. Let’s face it—no family ever really gets a dog just for the kid(s). And if she really wanted a dog, all I wanted was a few weeks of her devoted attention to the new family pet.

Suffice it to say that it was a long drive home made longer by the thick silence. Next morning rolls around, I go out for a walk, burst into tears when I run into a friend whose daughter is at the same camp. I thought I’d done something terrible, taking my daughter home just when she was getting comfortable being away. My friend laughs, with empathy.

maggie on her perch 2Gotta admire a girl who knows her priorities. I get back to the house and find my daughter already checking Penny Saver ads for adoptable dogs at nearby shelters (the Internet was not yet the go-to place for everything). The rest is history. Visits to a few different shelters and the Shepherd mix who would become known as Maggie insinuates herself into our lives. Never mind that my first choice was the very well behaved border collie-mix with two different-color eyes. Maggie was ‘The One,’ instant love the moment Sara laid eyes on her. As for me? No regrets. Ever.

I love summer—throw on a simple skirt or dress, slip into sandals, sit outdoors at a favorite French bistro sipping a martini. I don’t get to the beach much anymore, but all it takes is a touch of humidity to bring it all back in a flash: the bus to Sheepshead Bay/Manhattan Beach with friends, the blankets spread on the sand, the tinny radio playing top 40s à la Dan Ingram or Scott Muni. The cooling feel and smell of Noxzema. Excursions all the more memorable in wallet-size B&W prints.  Statue of Liberty, 1963.

statue of liberty 2statue of liberty 1963

Nostalgia, by definition, is a yearning for something gone. Many lifetimes seem to have passed between my own teen years and now, but all my daughter has to do is write about her camp years and I’m there, the ritualistic parents’ visiting weekend that punctuated each summer for five years. First things first: make sure to book the dog with the dog sitter; book a room at a B&B near camp; remind friends in the Boston area that we’d be stopping by on the way home. Pray for no rain, so that most of visiting weekend isn’t spent indoors. I relished every minute of it.

Wasn’t it yesterday?

Eddie Cochran

Today I run into a neighbor at the supermarket. She can’t help it when the tears start up, the husband who just stopped loving her. The house is sold, the divorce nearly complete. I give her a hug of comfort. She asks me to send regards, some of the neighbors we’d regularly run into on our walks—with the dogs (duh), great connectors that they are. One of those neighbors has Alzheimer’s and may (or may not) remember the neighbor who sends regards.

I love summer, really I do, fleeting as it is. Freewheelin’ days and natural tans. Fireworks and fireflies, burgers on a charcoal grill.

Music through the open doors, me in a chair on my deck. Listening.

I’m driving in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say ‘you’re a worn-out star’
My pockets are loaded and spending every dime. .
. .

A recent study re: How music makes baby team players makes me laugh. It seems that when you hold a toddler, moving rhythmically to a song—Twist and Shout, in the study—they learn something about coexistence and compassion. Another duh. It’s not rocket science to recognize the power of music.  We may not sing camp songs on Facebook, but we share music, a connector as primal as it gets. We shares photos, thoughts, see me/hear me right now. Facebook may stretch the definition of ‘friend,’ but if you’re one of mine, those status updates are reassuring:  I know what you’re doing this day/this night/this summer.

Not so much those first years at camp for my daughter. I had to wait for hand-written letters, and so did she. Phone calls would come, but so would busy signals trying to get through. I think she was lucky to go to camp at a time when cell phones were not even part of the equation.

Time moves quickly/too quickly/even more so during summertime. Physicists have an explanation for this. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman’s exquisitely poetic rendering of how a genius like no other might have dreamed alternative scenarios of time, is a book I go back to again and again. I had the pleasure of sharing those visiting weekends with him, his wife, our daughters.

Yes, I love summertime, with its long days. Midsummer nights of dreaming and partying, nothing wasted about youth even if it (eventually) slips away.