Already I have shed the leaves of youth, stripped by the wind of time down to the truth of winter branches. Linear and alone I stand, a lens for lives beyond my own, a frame through which another's fire may glow, a harp on which another's passion, blow. The pattern of my boughs, an open chart spread on the sky, to others may impart its leafless mysteries that I once prized, before bare roots and branches equalized, tendrils that tap the rain or twigs the sun are all the same, shadow and substance one. Now that my vulnerable leaves are cast aside, there's nothing left to shield, nothing to hide. Blow through me, Life, pared down at last to bone, so fragile and so fearless have I grown! —Bare Tree, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
It looks almost warm this late afternoon as I look out at the sun brightening the bare branches against the blue sky. But it’s still in the forties this last day of February. Just inside this office window, one improbable surprise of a bloom hangs languidly from the arched green of a Christmas cactus. Both plants bloomed generously at Thanksgiving and again in January, but this one must have had one more glorious coral-and-white solo to sing. It took three days for it to stretch from its long, silky, coral bud to this final frilly show.
In contrast, “failure to thrive” scrolls across my mind when I see the dark circles, the fly-away white hair, and familiar layers of comfy clothes in the mirror as I pass. I’m well. I’m warm, but feel more fragile than fearless this winter. . . Perhaps it’s because I’ve forgotten to sing. I’ve always been a singer. I remember the first time I sang in harmony. I was small enough still to be able to stand on the bump in the back seat of our car. I leaned my head over the front seat and sang melody while Daddy found different notes to sing. I was hooked.
My first talent show. I was in third grade. Maureen Beasley, our high school next door neighbor, chose Sammy Kaye’s “Walkin’ to Missouri” for me. She would accompany me. I was excited as I waited backstage for my name to be called. No fear. I walked out into the spotlight of the gymnasium stage and waited for the piano to start as the microphone was lowered for me. And then I belted out:
Poor little robin walkin', walkin', walkin' to Missouri He can't afford to fly. Got a penny for a Poor little robin, walkin' walkin' walkin' to Missouri Got a teardrop in his eye. I hope my story don't make you cry, But this birdie flew too high; He flew from his old Missouri home. He fell right into the city ways, like dancin' in cabarets, From party to party he would roam. Poor little robin walkin', walkin', walkin' to Missouri He can't afford to fly . . .
I’m not sure why Maureen thought this was the perfect song for me, but I think it was because she could play it so well, with a catchy bounce, as she sat at the piano in her fifties pencil skirt. I didn’t know what a cabaret was, but I liked the way I had to slide the melody every time I sang “ro-o-bin” and “fly-y-y-y to make it sound like the record.
But the sophisticated words weren’t the problem that memorable night. No one even heard the words until I was halfway through the opening Chorus. The mic was off! I didn’t know this so I just kept singing. Then, suddenly, I heard my voice fill the room. Perhaps that’s why I got such an enthusiastic round of applause when it was over . . . for finishing strong, in spite of my inauspicious start. I left the stage flushed and excited, making my way down the side steps to the gymnasium floor and back to my parents in the audience. One of my classmates leaned way out into the aisle as I passed and said, “You really thought you were great, didn’t you!”
On the way home, I told Daddy what this girl had said. It still hurt. He didn’t sympathize with me as I’d expected, but simply said, “If you can’t take it don’t get up there. That’s the way it is.” So began my singing life up front. Daddy knew I would need those words.
I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the Girl Scout banquet where we “flew up” from Brownies to Jr Girl Scouts, “Frosty the Snowman” at a high school Christmas concert, “Honey Bun” from South Pacific in a sailor suit on the back of a flatbed truck at our little downtown Avocado Festival. It was the sixties now, and I had discovered folk music. I sat on a tall stool on a little stage in the center of the gymnasium, audience all around . . . in black tights and turtleneck, short corduroy jumper . . . singing, “Today while the blossoms still cling to the vine, I’ll taste your strawberries and drink your sweet wine. A million tomorrows will all pass away. Ere I forget, all the joy that is mine today . . . O I’ll be a dandy and I’ll be a rover, you’ll know who I am by the song that I sing . . .” I wasn’t nervous and I didn’t worry about it being good enough. I sang because it’s who I was, a singer. I got a guitar in Mexico before my second year of college. Someone showed me three chords in C, then three more in D, and I could play most any song I wanted to sing. My sisters and I sang more Gaither and Evie songs than we could count to the sound of that guitar.
Life keeps moving forward. You are a wife, mama, mom, teacher, choir director, writer, grandma . . . and yes, you can still sing, but you don’t do it like you used to . . . like breathing, like letting life move in and out to the rhythm of your song.
I tie on my walking shoes, zip my jacket to my chin, and head down the sidewalk. And I begin to sing in time with my steps. “The wonder of the King . . .” It’s a little crackly at first, breathy, cold air in my lungs. I sing the next lines a little louder, “clothed in ma-je-sty,” step . . . “let all the earth rejoice,” step . . . “all the earth rejoice,” breath, step, step. I’m getting my rhythm now. “He wraps Himself in light . . . and darkness tries to hide . . . and trembles at His voice, trembles at His voice.” Step, step, step . . . “‘How great is our God,’ sing with me, ‘how great is our God,’ and all will see ‘how great, how great is our God.’”
The back row’s pretty comfortable after a lifetime up front, but as Mary Oliver reminds me, “Earth and heaven both are still watching.” I’m not done yet, these bare branches still a lens for lives beyond my own, a frame through which another’s fire may glow, a harp on which another’s passions, blow . . . Breathe. Walk. Sing. Let go. Catch the rhythm of your heart.
Lord, make me as beautiful as that coral-and-white winter bloom fearlessly singing its heart out simply because it’s still here . . . and it’s a singer.