Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sunday Scribblings-Music

3 Vignettes set to music

Ah ah, no no by Hector Lavoe

For a time, long ago, music made up the boundaries of my life.

"But Mardougrrl," you might ask. "Don’t you mean writing, or reading?"

No, I mean music.

Words were secret self speaking back to me. I would burrow in shadows to read, and to write in my journal, turning on the television so that my family would think I was watching, and leave me alone to write. I would disappear from family gatherings, until inevitably someone noticed me missing, and would call out imperiously "Mardougrrl! Donde estas? Where are you?" and I’d crawl back to the fold sheepishly.

Words divided me from my family—my crude Spanish was no match for their fluid native tongues, and the way I was already expressing myself in English was far beyond their abilities, at that time. So I retreated into my books, where everyone spoke the same language of beauty. But I needed to learn another language. I found music.

I’m not sure why I started playing the flute. I do remember wanting to play the drums, and being discouraged because "girls shouldn’t do that." I didn’t have much interest in the flute, especially, but the girls in my books all played some instrument, and I felt that I needed to give myself the same classical education.

But that wasn’t the real reason.

My family was saturated in music. My parents and their friends had weekend parties that stretched for days, and of course, everyone danced until exhausted, then had a huge meal-pernil, rice, beans, and salad and felt compelled to dance off the food languor. The record player in our small apartment turned and turned for miles, pausing for a breath only as we changed the LPs. I would stare at everyone as they paired off, watched how some adults used dancing to get fresh, or grope for some excitement. And how some, like my parents, would use it to return to themselves. Not factory workers, not immigrants, not laborers who struggled to pay every bill. They danced elegantly, allowing the music to elevate them to royalty. I would stare, pleased to see their straight-backed confidence return, if only for a song. Their pasts shone in their eyes as they watched each other—remembering a different life. My mother would grow flushed with delight and close her eyes, letting the music dance through her as she danced herself back to Colombia’s beaches and her own youth.

Every now and then an adult would try to pull me onto the dance floor, but I always shook my head, embarrassed and pretend that I was too cool to dance like these old people. I didn’t want to give the adults yet another chance to point me out as "la Americanita" and laugh, a nasty edge to their voices. I didn’t want to step on the spell with flat feet.

But secretly, I wanted to be a part of the spectacle. I wanted to belong there, just as surely as I belonged inside my books.


Limelight by Rush

I’ve always been a fidgety person, so instead of tapping my fingers and jogging my legs while watching television, I started practicing my scales. Soon, I became proficient, and by the time I reached high school, I was good. I think I joined the high school band to fill up a class period.

But like a fire on parched brush, it licked away at all of my other hobbies and obsessions and became my life, my people, and my stage. Band introduced me to a true artistic community—we all spoke music all of the time, trading mix tapes and fascinations, romance and song lyrics. We practiced every free moment, teaching each other to listen to our cues, to know when a performance needed to be more raucous, or more subdued. The music ran through us like a current, the performance like a group trance. There were concerts when I was so in tune with the rest of the band and with my communion with the sheet music in front of me that I can’t remember particulars, just that sense of a great good, a well being that feels like the pressure of tears as they finally gather and fall.

Band, and music, fed a burgeoning theatrical bent to my personality. Have you ever been on stage, lapping up the stares of the people who see you everyday, but who are now watching you the way they watch television? It shocks with the thrill of strangeness, watching someone expand into a star in your vision. I devoured that feeling, craved the limelight in a way I had never understood before.

This gave me common ground, finally, with my family, a collection of outsized drama kings and queens. No longer did they only see me holed up with a book. No longer did they have to worry about my puzzling silences, my alarming habits of staring into space. No, music gave me force, gave me exuberance as I opened up to my parents about my love life, my tiny soap operas which seemed to encompass the moon at the time. They didn’t always know if they liked that other daughter, the writer, who seemed to be living alongside rather than with them. But this loud, brash, musical daughter? This was a daughter they understood, a daughter who finally spoke loudly enough to be heard within the family.

Ah ah, no no by Hector Lavoe (revisited)

The years after college were lavender hued with a shame I could barely give words to, let alone express.

After college, being exposed to the high patrician culture of publishing, cemented my inner certainty that I was a have-not. A Latina Gatsby masquerading in the house of literature. Best not to reveal my origins to eyes that would be kind, but pitying. I am sure they guessed, if they bothered to think about me at all. I was obviously a "quota" case from my Name School. That fact alone gave me some currency in this new world, a field of intersection with my colleagues, who had all also gone to fancy Name Schools. But there was a whole area of negative space that I tried, diligently, to hide from them. So there could be no question that I belonged there after all. I fashioned myself in the long line of people who try to "pass", deny their roots and create themselves from patches of remembered movie lines and quotes from books.

The problem with all this was it was making me miserable, and straining my always-tenuous relationship with my parents. They could sense the critical disapproval in my eyes and bristled against it. They were very proud of themselves, and they wanted to be proud of me, but they could sense my shame and it hurt and confused them.

I couldn’t see any talent, any intellectualism in my own community. I saw us the way the statistics spelled out, low-class, manual workers, fresh off the boat, criminals and barely-literates. I pushed my culture away with both hands.

Even when well-meaning liberal friends mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julia Alvarez, Isabel Allende, I nodded politely and sidled away. I didn’t want to be affliated with what I called, scornfully, the "flying grandmother" school of Latin magical realism.

Which, of course, just shows how ignorant I was.

Finally, it grew intolerable. I felt a stone at my throat. My heritage was cement poured into my mouth.

I poured out my misery to my best friend. She was shocked by the toxicity of my self-hatred. She encouraged me to detach from it a bit by researching my culture impartially, as though it were an assignment for school. Pretend I knew nothing about it. Approach it with beginners’ mind.

This, I could do. I was always good at school, and research.

You would think I would start with the words. Words, after all, being my passion. Perhaps that’s why I started with music. Less ego involved, and more connection to an enthusiastic side of myself I had let wane as I tried to be reserved and "cultured" at work.

I began feverishly downloading the songs of my childhood, the music I remembered in the background as I played with my dolls, as my mother fried onions for beans in the kitchen. I really paid attention to the insistant drums, the celebration of the trumpets as they blared exclamation points through the music, the sophisticated piano syncopations that made my feet itch to dance.

I forgot that I had grown up lying about hating this music, a lie so old I took it to be a truth. The music was an overheated apartment, sun dying on the linoleum floor as it set fierce over the apartment buildings. The music was the rhythm of the local bodega as the neighbors greeted each other with a warmth and calculation that would have made Jane Austen proud. The music was the ever-present New York skyline in the dusk, the blare of bus horns, the chant of girls jumping double dutch.

And most of all, the music was my parents, dancing their best selves around and around our cramped living room, and all of the other couples doing it too.

A green leaf of pride started to grow with me. A fierce love of what I had once lived.

Music gave my culture back to me.

To dance to more music, go here.



Blogger paris parfait said...

This is a beautiful powerful post about the importance of music in your life; how you watched its effect on others; how you wanted it to be part of your life and made it so. Thanks for these tantalizing glimpses into your musical life.

4:38 PM, June 24, 2006  
Blogger Living Part Deux said...

What incredible stories, parts of your whole story, delivering deep, aching pin-pricks to the reader - all of us blessed by your words. You open emotions I have never experienced that my life has not afforded. Thank you for opening all of this up for us. Your phrasing is itself like music.

6:52 PM, June 24, 2006  
Anonymous alyndabear said...

I absolutely loved reading this - I can see now just how much you grew from the whole experience. I'm so glad that while music helped you separate from your self in the beginning, it also helped you find yourself; your history, your culture.


8:21 PM, June 24, 2006  
Blogger Tammy said...

This was a beautifully told story that captivated me. How I wish I could hear the music as they danced. Very open and brave :)

8:33 PM, June 24, 2006  
Blogger Cate said...

The honesty of your posts always astounds me, as does the beauty of your writing! I'm always word-less after visiting your blog (I believe I have mentioned that before . . . :)--you are a true talent and I'm so thankful that you are willing to share your gift with us!

12:04 AM, June 25, 2006  
Blogger Laini said...

This is so vibrant and visceral -- you're SO good! Your life fascinates me, your feeling of otherness from your family is something I've never thought about, and I don't think I've known anyone (at least not well) who grew up in the unique position you were in. It's great that your friend was able to get you to look at your culture in a new way and begin to embrace it. I am (obviously, I guess) a big fan of flying grandmothers, so be nice to them! And I'm curious to know more about your publishing work, too.

12:35 AM, June 25, 2006  
Blogger DuhhhBlond said...

You tell your story wonderfully, making me feel as if I am in your living room witnessing you write, or watching your parents dance, even your mom in the kitchen frying onions.
I played the flute, too, only because all the other girls did. My mom wanted me to play the violin, and I wish I would have instead.

3:00 PM, June 25, 2006  
Blogger Joy Eliz said...

What a cultural experience!! Beautifully written...thanks for sharing:)

4:36 PM, June 25, 2006  
Blogger deirdre said...

You describe the struggle with being an immigrant child, a foot in each world, so well. The sense of not really belonging is sharp in this piece and leaves me remembering it too well.

6:29 PM, June 25, 2006  
Blogger fern_leaf said...

Wow! That was so refreshing to read. I loved the fact that music helped you embrace your culture. It is that powerful. Music has always been important to me too, there's nothing like being able to connect to something larger than yourself. To find a voice in lyrics.

7:19 PM, June 25, 2006  
Anonymous susanna said...

This was a very good post. I could SEE your parents and their friends dancing, I could HEAR the music in your home. My house was so quiet while I was growing up. I guess, sometimes we have to remove ourselves from our culture to see it in a new light. Do you find yourself writing about or within your culture now?

9:53 PM, June 25, 2006  
Anonymous Jennifer (she said) said...

I'd like to thank you for sharing more about your life with this prompt. Your ability to tell a story, to write, serves the material so well. You offer so much up here. Your writing continues to impress but it isn't just that. I have watched you claim more and more of yourself on your blog and what we've gained, I think, as readers of a talented, smart woman makes me feel really grateful.

I once belonged to a writing group that held read arounds. Each person would share 2-3 minutes of something they'd written. There might be as many as 20 woman writing together. Our job as listeners was to write down anything we heard that really stood out to us. After everyone had read, one person would begin reading a word or a phrase or a line she'd heard. Another person would follow. It always felt like we were creating something new as we shared what we'd liked about each other's writing...and when I would hear my words spoken by someone else, I always felt so warmed by that. There was no clapping - nobody said "that was really good"...we just gave the words back to each other.

Because this is a blog, I can copy and paste much more than a phrase or a line - so I'm going to offer you two places that I held as I read this piece. Thank you so much for your words.

"And how some, like my parents, would use it to return to themselves."

"They didn’t always know if they liked that other daughter, the writer, who seemed to be living alongside rather than with them. But this loud, brash, musical daughter? This was a daughter they understood, a daughter who finally spoke loudly enough to be heard within the family."

9:23 AM, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Colorsonmymind said...

I like how you broke this up but it all goes together beautifully.

Music is so powerful

1:10 PM, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Bohemian Girl said...

i hope i get the opportunity to see you play a flute one day.

flutes are one of my most favorite intruments.


8:06 PM, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Verity said...

This is so beautifully, searingly honest, perceptive, acutely well observed and so well written. It was like I was watching your childhood unfold as I read, and I wanted to read on and on. I was so moved. It also took me back to moments in my own childhood I'd forgotten. Thank you.

7:22 AM, June 29, 2006  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

Thanks so much to everyone for your always manage to bring so much more to the writing than I ever thought of!

6:22 PM, June 29, 2006  

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