When The Words Don’t Come

Spring may be in the air, but it hasn’t reached my front porch.  The cold taunts me even as the forecast promises it will be warmer tomorrow.  While Charming turned up the heat in Vegas for an epic March Madness Bachelor party last weekend, my stubborn refusal to turn the heat back on condemned me to feel every bit of those dipping, nippy, thirty-degree days and nights, colder still without a handsome man beside me.  I couldn’t remember what to do with a weekend alone, so Saturday I sat on another familiar perch, this one a deep cherry with Queen Anne feet.

The wooden bench isn’t worn, not like my writer’s niche; no, this tattered love seat has endured two moving trucks less than two years apart crossing at least a half a dozen state lines.  The cherry bench isn’t worn like the one in my parents’ living room in Upstate New York, still occupying the same space on the cuff of the Wedgewood blue oriental rug.  Nor is it worn like the stool that I substituted for a bench, the one I last felt beneath my fingers in a rented home on a cul-de-sac in Antioch, a curiously named suburb of Nashville, over five years ago.  Has it really been that long since I left my ex-husband, that 1906 Baldwin vertical piano, and the first decade of my adult life?

It has.  He remarried this year, or so the Facebook grapevine showed me.  We move on. Life moves forward.  We change.  We grow or weaken, but we never stay the same.  Six years ago, I was a devoted wife juggling a full time teaching career with a graduate program coming to grips with the reality that my husband couldn’t relate to the academic parts of me.  Honestly, I played dumb for the better part of the decade that I was with my ex, and I was a good actress.  They called me, “Casi Mexicana.”  It meant, “Almost Mexican.”

Despite the prominent role that intellect had played in shaping my childhood and adolescent path, education was neither respected nor necessary in the world my former husband grew up inside so many years ago.  He would tell me he wasn’t book smart; he was street smart.  This was never more true than when he sat on the stool from Grandpa Rubbo’s workshop that substituted for my piano bench, and no college degree could accurately award him for the masterful melodies he would make there, harmonizing with voice and keys, making me fall in love with the memory of a passionate musician whose only muse was me.  That would change in time, and eventually he’d stop writing.  He’d stop making music. His heart may as well have stopped beating in his chest, if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my collegiate and career pursuits to notice that he’d abandoned his music for a nine to five that would satisfy vested stakeholders, like my parents.

Perhaps we never should have been, but we were.  Perhaps his new wife is his muse now, and he’s making music again.  I’m not.

Charming likes to tease me after church services where folks have commented on my “beautiful voice”, saying, “See, you’re still a singer.”  Oh, but I’m not.  I used to wake up singing, carry that tune on through the shower and the rest of the day, having transformed a freewrite into a poem into the fourth revision of a song lyric that warranted a lunch break camping out in the chorus room, plunking out the accompaniment on a baby grand I liked to pretend was mine.  During class or rehearsals, Mrs. Quackenbush took the helm, but at lunchtime, I was alone in the oversized, carpeted room, and I made music best that way.

Best until I met my ex-husband, that is.  I’d made a demo when I moved to Nashville during college, but few people know that since I was quite confident early on in our dating relationship that there was only room for one performer.  I dabbled a bit in modeling and on stage, but my voice was reserved for three-part harmonies with my mother and father-in-law, slipping between familiar Spanish and English translations of favored choruses while my husband manned the drums; there, he was as equally brilliant as on my makeshift piano bench.

Five years, and there’s no music in my life.  I’ve got some fine-tuned Pandora stations that I’ve meticulously crafted over the last half a decade, but ultimately, apart from songs my gym mentor texts me with a note like, “Watch this all the way to the end, “ I hear what comes and goes on secular radio and the platform at Liberty Baptist Church.  I sing only during worship services.  I am not a singer anymore.

And I really wonder how that happened.  My junior year of high school, I averaged a fully produced song a week, with original lyrics and piano accompaniment.   This weekend, with Charming celebrating with his pals, I tried to do what I used to do before there was Charming, or really, back in Antioch, Tennessee when my diet was a steady balance of music and academia, one foot in each world and happy because of it.  My rented bungalow with the red door in earshot of Darling Stadium, the place where my students throw down on the football field each fall, is usually quiet anyway.  Maybe it wasn’t so much as Charming’s absence as it was a couple of days without formal obligations that found me trying to wear down the cherry wood of the piano I bought in Hampton shortly after Charming and I started dating, after I made my bucket list.  There were notes, but there were just no words that hadn’t been sung already before.

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My bucket list committed me to buying another piano.  It was the first thing I accomplished from my, “Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties” list because, coming at solely a financial cost, it was easy to arrange.  The grand beast was transported by my gym Mentor Chuck and some of his old cop buddies.  I’ll never forget the way they backed Lt. Col. Anderson’s truck up to the steps of this front porch, how they set up the piano just the way I wanted, how they left and I sat down to try and write a song.  How no song came that night, in the quiet.

Two and a half years later, I’m still trying.  I’ve written several enticing chord progressions, but there are no words.  Do I spend all my words here in this blog, leaving no creative originality for the musical meanderings of my mind?  I posit that it is more likely that my inability to write music stems from one of two things: either, that music was the bond my former husband I shared to a fault, and without him, it seems an empty pursuit.  Or, I grew up and realized that the world didn’t revolve around me, that half of the kids I taught in Nashville would make names for themselves as performers, but that I was just a high school teacher.  What message do I have to share?

My love affair with music is longer seated even than with writing, though my favored mistress shouldn’t be jealous.  Of course, solid writing was at the foundation of the songs I’d write, starting as early as third grade when I was trying to convince the pastor’s son that girls did not actually have cuties. I sang in the church choir in elementary school.  I did all our school plays. Mom schlepped me to auditions for community theater, and then she schlepped me back for all the rehearsals to come.  I think I truly believed I would make it in the music world, that I would be famous, either as an actress or a singer-songwriter, and that in that obvious success, I would have proved my worth.

This weekend, I tried to write a song.  That’s on my list of things to do in my thirties as well, and I’m already halfway through this decade.  Why can’t I write a song?  My fingers somehow still compose.  Eyes closed, each digit finds the right note to depress and release at just the right time.  This piano is barely broken in, having been secured in a season when I was only the artist formerly known as a singer or a musician.

I think when I wrote and sang in my pre-teens, adolescence, and even in my twenties, that it was all about me.  I would change the world, right? I wasn’t a millennial, so I’d mastered my craft to make that claim… only the world wound up changing me first.  When I try to write lyrics now, I close my eyes and I’m back at the enormous vertical 1906 Baldwin I had to leave behind when I left my ex-husband.

Writing came back.  Will music?  Will I ever sing in the shower again?  It’s been five years, and every time a familiar worship chorus plays, I still hear it first in Spanish and still choose the second part harmony, still hear my former in-laws’ voices intermingling with mine in an almost supernaturally inspired way.

There’s a picture of me, full head of dark hair, standing on my toddler tiptoes to reach the ivory keys begging to be played just like my oldest brother, David.  His son is now tickling the keyboard, too. His daughter wants to pursue theater, like I did.  This weekend, while my fiancé accumulated incredible memories with his friends, I bonded with an Italian hymnal with songs my great-grandfathers composed decades ago.

It’s so cold tonight, but it will be warmer tomorrow.  There’s always a frost after the cold.  My magnolias must have deep roots to keep boasting pink and white blossoms morning after morning.  Perhaps I should see a lesson in this unusually long month of blooms. After my divorce, it took a long time for different parts of me to thrive.  I think the roots with music go deep enough to face that challenge of writing another song, even if my words and melody are simply for an audience of one.

With the spring comes the thaw, and tomorrow will be warmer.  Warmth is always a more inspiring foundation for original thought.  It doesn’t matter if it changes the world like it did at fifteen.  At thirty-five, I just want it to change me.

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