The first memory I have of me singing is not mine. It is me, singing, but it is a memory my mother has given me. I was in the bath. She was sitting, maybe on the floor or on the toilet lid. I stood up, my little girl body covered in suds. I flung my arms wide and at full volume belted out a song I’d learned from my babysitter.
“I love you mama, oh yes I do. I don’t love anyone, as much as you. When you’re not here, I’m blue. Oh ma-ma, I love you.”
We moved to the mountains of Colorado when I was six. Our town, Steamboat Springs, was as far from everything as you could imagine. It was close to the ski mountain and to endless alpine meadows, but it wasn’t close to anything I wanted to be near.
In order to get a little closer to those things, we had to drive. No matter how ready you are to escape and no matter how much the city might one day feel like home, living in the west instills in you a sense of driving that is unshakeable. The sense that driving is what leads to freedom. If you just go far enough and sometimes fast enough, you can almost fly away. If you just roll down your windows, you can finally breathe. If you just turn the music up enough, you can drown out the quiet of paradise.
Driving in the west affords you a familiarity with stretches of road that wind on into an almost unfathomable distance. The vast sky arcs out ahead of you and all you can see is road and land, land and road. Even the occasional house or ranch can sometimes feel like a mistake, something that has sprouted from the wrong seedling, defiant and unnatural, disconnected from the rest of its kind.
The cassette player in the car got to know a lot of tapes and a lot of songs, but I remember three tapes best of all. There was “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D, which caused my mom to sing “Buy Me A Condo” for years and years, even when we weren’t in the car. There was the soundtrack to Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come, which my parents had recorded from their LP and which had songs that everyone in the family loved and knew by heart. And then there was the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also taped from an LP. The car wasn’t the only place we listened to this soundtrack — sometimes my brother and I would go to a friend’s house and play Rocky Horror, and I would cry when the older kids refused time and again to let me be Magenta — but it was the best place. It was its own world, both escape pod and location in motion.
I tried my hand at singing a few times outside the safety of the car. Once was in ninth grade. I desperately wanted to be Rizzo, in part to follow in Stockard Channing’s perfect footsteps and in part to be able to kiss the senior playing Kenickie. I don’t remember at all what I sang in the audition, but I know it was terrible and so I went back to the safety of the car.
The next time I tried I was 21. This time it was different and not at all terrible. Somewhere along the line I’d picked up a set of pipes. The voice that came out sounded nothing like me yet was unmistakably if newly mine. It was almost as if a stranger had left it in the trunk and I’d fitted it to me, breaking it out on one drive or another. First I tried it out in a blues band, then a gospel choir, then two more bands, then another gospel choir.
And then mostly silence. Except for the car, of course.
“It’s a shame,” people say, “to have this gift and not to use it.”
“Your voice is amazing, and if I had it I’d sing as much as possible,” strangers like to tell me.
But what is a gift? And how often should we give or receive it? Maybe it’s better the whole world should have the gift. But maybe some gifts are yours to share in those moments when you know, undeniably, that you want to be filled with joy.
“I could listen to you sing all night,” friends say. I think then about ways to sing to them. It’s a gift for me too, to perform. I love to sing as much as someone else might love to listen.
I imagine being in a visual feast of a living room with such friends, high above narrow New York streets. Or perhaps in my car, driving up a strip of cypress-dotted road along the California coast. I imagine I am singing because I can, not because I should. I imagine we are smiling, and the wind is blowing, and there is absolutely nowhere we need to go. And I imagine we are exactly where we want to be.