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Sleepaway Camp

 

It’s probably the heat that made me think of sleep away camp. I spent five summers in upstate New York, supposedly in the Berkshires, pretending it was cooler out of town. The memory that started the ball rolling was of Friday nights in the dining hall. The whole camp would eat together for that one meal, eating half-burned, half-raw, Kineret pre-frozen challahs, and singing Shabbat songs.

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“I could eat.”

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“Food? Where?”

Friday night to Saturday in camp was a big production. First, on Friday afternoons, we had to clean up the field in front of our bunks, then we had to clean our bunks, and then shower, and then dress up, in something other than shorts and t-shirts. All of the kids on A-side (ages 8-12) would go to one Shabbat service, and all of the kids on B-side (ages 12-16) would go to another, and then we came together for dinner in the dining hall, with all of the counselors, and visiting parents, and staff, and various random adults. And we would sing. The acoustics were glorious! And everyone joined in, even the coolest of the cool kids.

Friday night services at camp were a little awkward, because we were all dressed up and self-conscious and mixing with the other age groups with kids we didn’t know as well. And it was formal and serious, something else we weren’t used to. But once we got into the dining hall something changed. Everyone knows food. We sat by bunk, with our counselors, and listened to the noise level grow as everyone else entered the building. Then we went up to the front tables to pick up extra challah and extra chicken and potatoes. And once we finished eating, and cleaned our tables, we started singing Friday night songs, and even if you didn’t know what the words meant, the huge sound of clapping hands and stomping feet pulled everyone along. There were call and response songs, and bouncy songs, and slow, sweet songs.

It was perfect. I could forget for a moment about the cool kids at the next table who wouldn’t even deign to make eye contact with me, and just sing and feel connected.

After dinner we went off by age groups, and the night dwindled down, and we returned to our bunks in the dark, with only the bathroom lights to guide us (because we weren’t supposed to touch the light switches until the Sabbath ended).

Saturday was taken up with prayer, and some sort of “meaningful” activity, or napping. We ate cold cuts for lunch, and macaroni salad, and egg salad, and Butterscotch pudding for dinner (because the kitchen staff wasn’t allowed to cook, or even heat up any food, on the Sabbath).

On Sunday morning, we went back to the normal pace of life. We went to prayer services every morning, back in our shorts and t-shirts, and thinking about other things. We had to clean our bunks, and go to swim lessons, and play some god awful sport in the hot sun, and paste pompoms on Styrofoam cups or some such thing.

There were no dogs at camp, and I missed Delilah and her restful presence. Even her barking would have been okay with me, compared to some of the shrieking that went on at camp. Had no one ever seen a spider before getting to camp? I mean, really.

delilah close up

My Delilah, looking much more serious than she really was.

I’ve always felt like there was a novel in those five years of camp, or a memoir, or something. But then, I tend to think everything belongs in a book, if it happened to me.

Camp was a constant balancing act between enjoying the freedom of a whole world of mostly children, and the strangeness of being away from home, and feeling the deep down fear that I would never see my Mommy again.

The memories come back in sharp bursts: like the campout on the hill; and the girl who ran through a glass door; and the girl who was stung by 39 wasps; Color War, when my bunk was split down the middle, and my counselor was on the opposite team; the Violent Femmes singing A Blister in the Sun; sitting on the stone steps by the lake, and singing Little Boy Blue and The Man in the Moon; or lining up in the community building to play Human Foosball.

In a way I felt outside of my body even when it was all happening the first time around, and not just now as I look back and try to narrate.

A lot of time at camp was spent keeping us busy, and keeping us Jewish, rather than doing things that actually interested me. There was no writing class, or voice, or dance, or acting class. I had no TV, or access to a phone. We had one musical show per year, per age group, and we had to audition, so sometimes I got a role, and sometimes I didn’t. We went swimming twice a day, and chose between aerobics, or softball, or basketball, or soccer for sports. In the afternoons there was woodworking, or radio, or arts and crafts, or photography, or nature, and I wasn’t much good at any of it.

But Friday night was my night. I didn’t feel left out, or weird, on Friday night. Everyone sang. Everyone was there, and I fit in.

puppy in October 034

Just like baby Cricket,

Ellie between two beds

and not-so-baby Ellie.

My Voice

My Voice

When I was little, I used to sing stories to myself. I would walk to the library, make up a story, and revise it over and over, all to some endless tune in my head. My mother loved that I would sing around the house, and she wanted me to sing more. It was her idea to find me a voice teacher when I was in eighth grade. She wanted me to know that my voice was worth taking seriously.

I was always singing, or shouting, it's hard to tell.

I was always singing, or shouting, it’s hard to tell.

My first voice teacher had an opera background, but she spent most of my lessons on vocal exercises and breathing exercises, teaching me how to breathe from my diaphragm, and stand up straight, and relax my shoulders. I’d never much liked practicing scales on the piano, but vocal exercises made more sense to me. She taught me to sing through the mask of my face, like a raccoon, and to change the shape of my mouth to make the consonants clear and the vowels more open.

My father insisted that we sing songs together after Friday night dinner, as a family. But, he didn’t believe in normal limitations, like that a baritone might struggle to hit a glass-shattering high note. He refused to choose a key that everyone, including him, would be comfortable with, and he didn’t care about the quality of the note when he was done with it. He could rip it and strangle it, and drown the note in coughing, but if he hit that note, even for a second, he’d won.

And he did not like competition. He didn’t want me to practice singing between voice lessons. He would complain that I was “caterwauling,” even if I practiced in my room with the door closed. He’d complain about the money Mom was spending on my lessons. And eventually, he made it clear that he believed in the ban on kol isha – the voice of a woman – that we’d learned at school. I could sing at home, but it would be unacceptable to allow my voice to be heard by men outside of the family. He believed that singing, for a woman, is a salacious, sexually provocative act, and if I do it, I am a whore.

Unfortunately, around the same time as I was getting used to my voice lessons, we had a guest speaker at my orthodox Jewish school. Only the girls were invited to the gym to listen to her. She performed for us first, doing her own version of beat boxing, using her mouth like a drum and her hands as tambourines. The things she could do, the sounds she could create with no musical instruments to back her up, were incredible. There was something like bird song about her voice, as if she was born with these songs in her body and she just had to release them. She wasn’t just hitting notes, she was putting spin on them, like a tennis player, top spin and back spin, hollow sounds and full sounds, cold and warm, shivery and strident, all from one voice. I wanted her to be my teacher.

After her performance, she told us that she’d been a voice student at a prestigious conservatory, training for a professional music career, when she started to visit Chabad (a Chasidic Jewish outreach group) on the weekends. She gradually became more and more religious, until it became clear that as a religious Jewish woman she could never sing in front of men. She’d pieced together a career as a speaker, and sold her music to strictly female audiences. Her message was clear: being religious comes first, before anything else you might want, or love, or need in life.

Her visit haunted me. I didn’t stop singing altogether, but I felt her hand tightening around my throat.

My black lab mix, Dina, came along when I was sixteen years old, and she was a singer too. You had to hit a certain note, something in the howl-range, and that would set her off. Her pitch was pretty good and she could sing a nice clear note or series of notes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy it. She seemed like a button had been pressed in her brain and she had to sing, and had no control over it, and no choice. She seemed relieved when the singing stopped, as if it had taken so much out of her and now she could rest in silence.

Dina as a puppy.

Dina as a puppy.

I took a few years off from trying to sing, until my last semester of college, when I had two credits to kill. I’d been feeling like a robot, detached from myself and my voice, and I hoped voice lessons would help unlock something. I didn’t have to perform in public; my lessons would be in a safe, partially soundproof room. I still couldn’t practice at home, though, so I’d sing in the car on the way to and from school.

This was my first male voice teacher, and he was closer to my age, and friendly, and an opera singer. Whenever he actually sang something I sort of cringed, though. I’m not an opera fan. The vocal quality they strive for is bombastic and brassy and kind of hurts my ears, but he was very nice. He had me singing from an opera workbook, in Italian. There was something freeing about singing in a language I didn’t understand.

I sang to Dina at home, but not too loud, and never in full voice, and gradually, the hand around my throat grew tighter and tighter, telling me to stop singing, and I did.

Dina had a lot to think about.

Dina was a very good listener.

When I think back to that girl singer, though, telling us that she had to give up her dreams in order to be a good girl, I wonder if I ignored something important. With her words, yes, she told us to hide ourselves from the world, but her body carried a different message. Her voice seemed to be saying that, if you have a bird trapped in your chest, flapping its wings and trying to sing its song, you have to let it sing, or it will die.

birdie

The Choir

 

I joined the choir at my synagogue a few years ago, when I was still a one-dog-woman, battling wills with Cricket, and needing somewhere else to be every once in a while, preferably with humans. At the first choir rehearsal of the summer, the cantor handed me a loose-leaf filled with the High Holiday music, and then he had to rush off to answer someone else’s questions. I didn’t even know where to sit.

I wandered around until the musical director introduced herself. As soon as she told me her name, I recognized her as my elementary school music teacher, and started to panic. She was a bit of a… let’s just say she had a tendency to be critical. She didn’t really remember me, but reminisced about other students she really liked over the years. When she asked if I was an alto or a soprano, I said, “somewhere in between,” and she sat me with the altos, because there were only two of them.

The rehearsal started inauspiciously, with a song I had never heard before that required the altos to sing something entirely unlike a melody. The next hour and a half was pure panic and confusion, for me, and boring repetition mixed with endless criticism for everyone else. When I tried to stand up at the end, I couldn’t balance and fell back down into my seat, and when the musical director came over and asked if I was okay, I started to sob.

Partly it was the adrenalin let down after my 90 minute panic attack, but also, I’d been having seizure-like episodes and walking problems for a while by then, so my balance was unreliable. Mom was there to drive me home, and as she walked me out of the sanctuary, the musical director walked out with us, talking non-stop. She said that I was brave to have tried, but choir isn’t for everyone, which made me cry harder. I tried to suck it up and smile and pretend I was fine, but she kept talking to me and the tears kept coming.

When I got home, I was determined to show her that I could stick it out. I put my new loose-leaf full of music on my bed and took out my guitar and picked out the first song in the book note by note. Cricket jumped up on the bed and pawed at the guitar strings. The sound stunned her, but she pawed again, and seemed to think she had discovered a monster hidden inside of the guitar. She is not a fan of monsters, other than herself, so she jumped off the bed in search of safer adventures.

Cricket's suspicious face.

Cricket’s suspicious face.

I practiced the High Holiday songs every day, with Cricket nearby but suspicious. None of the music was familiar to me, and I wasn’t used to four part harmony at all, but I pushed myself to go to the next rehearsal. The people who recognized me were surprised to see me again, and when the musical director came over, she looked at me like I was a fourth-grader who’d just peed on the floor. She said she was glad to see me, and I chose to believe her.

"You pee on the floor too, Mommy?"

“You pee on the floor too, Mommy?”

I thought I would be better prepared this time, but of course we only sang the songs I hadn’t practiced yet. I didn’t cry after the second rehearsal though, that was my big triumph.

I went to the next rehearsal, and the next, but I never seemed to catch up. There were different altos at each rehearsal, so I didn’t get to know anyone very well, and the row of bases behind me was completely filled, and loud, so I could barely hear my own voice to figure out what I was singing.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the bases behind me.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the other singers.

In between rehearsals, my neurologist was testing me for everything under the sun, but finding nothing. I was having a lot of trouble walking Cricket, even around the block, and the butterflies in my stomach during choir rehearsals were turning into pterodactyls and trying to rip me open from the inside.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me with her.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me behind her.

By the end of August, the Neurologist was convinced that my problems were all psychological, and that I should try anti-depressants because he saw no physiological cause for my symptoms. He wanted me to see a psychiatrist from his group, but my insurance refused to cover it. They would, on the other hand, cover a hospital stay.

At first I was adamant that I would not go into a hospital: because I didn’t want to be away from Mom and Cricket, because I didn’t want to be watched all day, and because I did not believe I was crazy. But the choir rehearsals were setting off long forgotten pockets of dread that I could not squash, so, when Mom asked me, for the 72nd time, if I would please go to the hospital, I looked at the looming dates of the High Holiday services, and finally said yes.

That was more than two and a half years ago, and my neurological problems are still undiagnosed, though the anti-depressants have made other things easier. Butterfly arrived after my attempt to join the choir had ended, and after the guitar was zipped in its case and hidden in the back of the closet, and I wonder sometimes if I would have handled things differently if I’d already had Butterfly at home. But the fact is, I don’t sing to Butterfly at all! I’ve always thought that the one kind of singing I’d be able to do is to sing to my children, and yet here she is, big floppy ears at the ready, and I don’t sing to her.

Butterfly's big ears.

Butterfly’s big floppy ears are ready.

I do sing, but only when everyone around me is singing too. I look forward to the special Friday night services at my synagogue, when a full band comes to play, because with all of the singing and clapping and drums and amps, I can sing full out and not worry that everyone will hear me.

And it feels wonderful. It really does.

"Don't worry, Mommy. We're ignoring you."

“Don’t worry, Mommy. We’re ignoring you.”

Cricket’s Vocalizations

 

 

            When Cricket sings, she sounds like she’s arguing her case before the court as she gurgles and growls and rolls her R’s and squeaks and skips along the notes. I believe all of these intonations mean something to her. It’s like an aria, with slow pleading sections, and heart wrenching sections at the top of her voice, and trills just to show off.

            When I was a teenager, I thought I might become a singer, so I took voice lessons. But singing actual songs left me frustrated; I couldn’t feel the songs the way I wanted to. I wanted to be expressing the deep clanging in my body and instead I felt like I was a hollow imitation of someone else.

            Vocal exercises, on the other hand, reached me. There were no words, just sounds: mee, may, mah, moh, moo, on different notes, changing the shape of my mouth to round, straight, tensed, loose. Without words, the sounds seemed to be able to express something deep inside of me.

            Dina, my previous dog, used to sing. It was as if she had a button in her brain and if you sang high enough for long enough, she had to sing with you. She’d lift her nose in the air as if the note was over her head and she could only reach it if she could see it. She didn’t growl and roll her R’s like Cricket, she didn’t change pitch or jazz it up; she just aimed at that high note, and howled.

            The circumstances have to be just right for Cricket to start her monologue. Something deeper than food and poop issues, something about being left behind or ignored.

            “Why must you sit at the computer instead of giving me scratchies and a lap to sleep on?” she’ll cry. “Why must you ignore me when I clearly want you to throw this toy for me, so I can catch it and taunt you with it?”

            I listen to Cricket growling and crying and rolling her R’s and I feel like “ain’t that the truth.” It’s not that I always know what she means or what story she’s trying to tell, but whatever she’s feeling, I can feel it vibrating in my bones.