Thursday, 19 July 2012

Let Myself Sing

My daughter bounced home from singing class. “We listened to ‘Mister Postman’!” she exclaimed, energy bubbling through her features. She had stopped walking in order to tell me this and could barely contain her excitement. In fact, she couldn’t - standing there, her feet shuffled and arms swayed as if music were pulsing through her bloodstream, pumping from her heart.

Her mention of this song was striking. All at once a gate opened inside. Freed by the sudden appearance of these swinging doors, a series of moments - all seeming not one bit less real than their initial arising - flooded through. The smell of warm summer air hanging trapped in a van. Sticky vinyl heat pasting bare thighs to the seat. A green landscape, grey asphalt whizzing by outside.

I was ten years old and on my way to a swim meet in Oregon. With the exception of a single adult sitting eyes-forward in the passenger seat, it was just us and our coach; a dozen or so kids packed into the back of a long white van. This was a time before on-board DVD players, satellite radio, ipods. This was before even tape decks had established themselves as common. Our only source of entertainment was a tiny AM radio in the dashboard up front.

Covering hundreds of miles that day, moving constantly in and out of listening areas, we would yell at the coach whenever our journey took us beyond station range. As soon as the signal weakened we’d demand he reach out and turn that dial, search for a suitable replacement. A wall of “Noooo!” greeted any hint of talk radio or country music. Early in the trip, before being worn down by our insistent fancies, the parent chaperone would encourage us toward the former. “There might be something interesting,” she would say, her features in hopeful profile. We would have none of it. We wanted Top Forty - something we could bounce along to as we tore down the I-5.      

In the moment of my memory a thin, tinny signal was overwhelming the van’s speaker system. A now anonymous person pressed close on my right-hand side; to my left sat Amanda Patton. Blonde haired and strong shouldered, Amanda was perhaps twelve months my senior. This is a considerable gap when you are ten, but we had somehow found each other in back of that van and realized a common passion.

All morning it had been the two of us leading the cries to move the radio here, shift the radio there. We were desperate to hear everything by Elton John. “Crocodile Rock!” I remember her screaming after only two notes. I envied her swift recognition. “Turn it up!“ we shouted in unison. Should Elton not be available, we were willing to settle for one of our lesser lights: new hits by Neil Sedaka, perhaps, or the Captain and Tennille.   

Shared glee welcomed the emergence of the present song. Though it didn’t meet our agreed upon criteria, a glance at one another immediately established its suitability. A quick grin and a flash of the eye - then, near oblivious of everyone around us, of those turning to see what all the fuss was about, we were belting out words with careless abandon, pressing heads together during the chorus. The song? ‘Please Mister Postman’.

In the days after my daughter’s return from singing class, ‘Postman’ was rarely far from my mind. Eating breakfast together I would sometimes lift into song. “So many days you pass me by / Leaving tears standing in my eye.” “Dad!” Samantha would reply, rolling her eyes. “Stop, okay?”

Some excitement, then, greeted my sighting of the Beatles’ second album at our local library. With the Beatles slots a cover of ‘Postman’ between ‘Til There Was You’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. Playing the disc at home, I was carried away, I think, by the exhilaration of this discovery. And by pure enjoyment. Lennon’s vocal on this track is delicious. The yearning apparent from the very start (“Oh yes”), the way this shimmers and nearly breaks from time to time (“I been standing here waiting”) - I suspect I got through three or four listens riding the waves of these alone.

After a while, however, I noticed something. My singing - vividly recalled from that van - did not match John’s. Our phrasing was, in several places, off. And my body moved to a rhythm that did not match what Ringo and Paul meshed together. My arms and legs grooved to something smoother, with more ease and glide. Though I could not make out exactly what I heard in memory, I knew it wasn’t this; it was not the Beatles’ version of the song. A quick check on YouTube revealed it wasn’t the Marvelette’s original either.          

At this point, I pretty much dismissed the matter with a shrug. I turned off the computer, headed into the kitchen, and let the rest of With The Beatles play while I readied dinner. The whole experience probably would have been forgotten had it not been for the copy of Carpenters’ Gold: Their Greatest Hits that jumped out of the library stacks a few weeks later.

The moment the Carpenters’ version of ‘Postman’ started playing I knew it was right. My body response was unmistakable. Even across several decades, my singing matched Karen Carpenter’s vocal breath for breath. And the smooth, easy movement of my limbs - something that kicked in without volition - partnered perfectly with the glossy production her brother Richard had wrapped around the song.

Bubbling through both of these was a joy I had not felt in a very long while. Vibrant, alive this was, like air, impossible to either hold or deny. The exhilaration that pumped along with the first verses of this song simply needed to be and I could do nothing to resist. With such feeling coursing wild in my veins, I was ten again - unable to contain myself, taken over by delighted abandon, feeling impossibly, unboundedly, unselfconsciously happy.

Then I stopped.

I was in the kitchen, one ear to the CD player atop our fridge. After about a minute I started to feel uncomfortable. ‘What if somebody hears this?’ I wondered, thinking of our neighbors across the hall. ‘What if somebody sees this?’ followed as my eyes scanned the building next door. A sax solo was playing slick through the song’s bridge. My features soured. All remaining movement ceased. ‘Cheesy,’ I thought, shaking my head in disgust. Reaching up, I stopped the disc and walked away.

What was I walking away from? A corny version of a catchy old song? A moment of sepia-toned nostalgia for a distant long ago? A random piece of flotsam that had surfaced for an instant, bobbed the waves of awareness for a while, and would soon return to the shadowy depths? If any of these were in fact the case, I probably would have been able to let that first walk away be the last. If that road trip memory were ‘only’ a memory, I likely would have been done with it here. 

But I wasn’t.

That song stayed with me. The Carpenters’ take of that tune would not surrender its place in my internal jukebox. As if on some tireless loop, I found myself again and again teetering on the edge of another play. “Stop!” and “Wait!” Karen insisted. “Please Mister Postman look and see / If there’s a letter in your bag for me” - these lines pulled at me; I could feel their draw in the body. As if the song were the moon and I the ocean, I physically shifted and swelled in response to its call; it was a force I could not resist.        

And within all this there was that kid. Every time ‘Mister Postman’ repeated, a ten year old me rose up as if roused from decades of slumber. The energy. The excitement. The camaraderie, happiness, joy. I could feel these insisting against my features from within, a power wanting, needing, yearning for... For what, exactly? The word that strikes me here is this: expression.

This memory arose, I realize now, from a time before. It was a time before I knew it was not cool for an adolescent boy to find such pleasure in pop radio. It was a time before I knew singing out loud in this way, singing the Carpenters with a girl of all things, was not  a behavior that adhered to certain lines that were beginning to emerge in the sand of my life. This was also a time before I was able to recognize what some of those turning faces further up in the van might be thinking.  

This was before I understood there were rules working to contain and channel my life, rules that would soon define acceptable and unacceptable for many years to come. It was before I deliberately started playing by these in an attempt to fit in, get along, hide. I tried very hard to like Led Zeppelin, for instance. Most of my friends did. While making this effort, however, I held secret the pleasure and affinity I felt every time the Carpenters or Elton John - later anything by the Go-Gos or Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’ - came onto the radio. This was a time before the unselfconscious freedom evident in the moment above had been restricted and tamed, effectively lost.

Viewed in this light, that memory is not what we conventionally consider a memory at all. Practice meditation long enough and this gradually becomes evident: what we experience - the impressions and feelings, recollections and insights - these are not always what we think. Memory can, for instance, on certain occasions be more emissary than nostalgia, a representative from our past wanting access to and expression in the living present.

When recollection arrives with inexplicable force, lingers with stubborn insistence, this is quite likely the case. In these instants, what we call ‘memory’, something most of us consider lacking relevance in our daily lives, is actually a caring and intelligent messenger from our greater selves, something with tremendous day to day import. Showing us yet another step in our journey - the kind of openness and acceptance that must now be cultivated, the parts of our lives we must welcome back - such ‘memories’ are, as Reggie once noted, “Well worth paying attention to.”

It has been a couple months since my daughter bounced home from her singing lesson. Weeks have passed since I first picked up Carpenter’s Gold in the library. I have renewed my loan twice and soon will have to return the disc for good. I’ve listened to Karen Carpenter sing ‘Mister Postman’ at least once every day in this span. I’ve watched the Disneyland video that was produced for the single. I occasionally go even further afield and spend time with other Carpenter songs - ‘Yesterday Once More’, ‘Superstar’, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’. I have also listened to much of Beauty and the Beat, the Go-Gos’ wonderful debut.

Whenever I do this, I try to let that ten year old boy return as fully as possible. I sing, I dance, I feel unbelievably happy and indescribably sad. I try to give this middle-aged body over to a kid who felt so drawn to the way this music played in his blood and in his bones that he could not resist its expression. To the best of my ability, I welcome myself from this time before in spite of the fact I still worry about the people next door and across the street - worry in a way I never thought necessary with those turned heads further up the van. ‘What will they think?!?’ I fret while welcoming anyway. 

Where is this taking me? I have no idea. Destination is something we are rarely offered as we step more completely into our lives. All we are given is a message - “Stop! Wait!’ - and the opportunity to respond. So respond I do. Sitting again beside Amanda Patton in the back of a van, I surrender to the giddy abandon that rises to meet the Carpenter’s ‘Please Mister Postman’ each and every time it plays. Feet move and arms swing. Eyes closed, words come effortlessly to my lips. Then, standing there, I just let myself sing. I let myself sing.