Sing or Swim


Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us about a time we were left to fend for ourselves in an overwhelmingly difficult position. This post isn’t about survival at its most heightened sense, but it is about the survival of my voice, and how naysayers almost silenced the most important facet of my being. It’s no secret – I love to sing. Singing is how I relax and de-stress. It’s also how I ground, get connected, and make space in my mind to contemplate larger matters. A life without singing is black and white. A life with singing looks like this:

The Milky Way, as seen from West Virginia (Wikimedia Commons)
The Milky Way, as seen from West Virginia (Wikimedia Commons)

This is the story of how I almost never found my voice.

My first memory of singing is when I was probably four or five. I used to love Dolly Parton songs, and one in particular (don’t remember which) got a lot of airplay at my dad’s upholstery shop. I would sit next to his workbench after daycare and sing along to the radio, and I was convinced that that I was amazing at that song in particular…until the day I sang it for my mom and she said I was doing it wrong. I kept trying it out, singing along, and each time she insisted I couldn’t sing, that I couldn’t do it right. The frustration was intense, soul-deep. I was so sure that I was doing it right, but moms know best. So if she said I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t. (I know now that she’s basically tone deaf – oops.)

I didn’t try again until seventh grade, when I tried out for the part of Belle in the school production of Beauty and the Beast. I was pretty competent at the vocals, but I didn’t look the part. The girl who was eventually picked to play the lead didn’t even sing her lines – she lip synced along to a recording. But she was beautiful, and I was not. At the time I didn’t really understand that picking a star of a musical would entail both looks and talent. I assumed it was because I was a terrible songstress.

After that, I didn’t sing in front of anyone if I could help it. Instead, I went home and sang along to Disney Sing Along Songs videos almost every afternoon. I loved that hour or so of every day that I could just sing and feel connected and confident. But at some point during high school, I let this confidence get the better of me. I started singing to myself during class and a fellow classmate (someone I thought highly of) groaned and asked me to stop killing her ears. Of course I shut up immediately.

Not long after, I was goofing off during gym class with a few other “outsider” girls. I was the only white girl in the group, and was feeling particularly amazed that I’d been let into the clique, if only for the day. The Fugees were big on the radio, and everyone was chiming in on singing parts of “Killing Me Softly.” I loved the song so much, and had been practicing in my room, so when my time came to add in some vocals, I jumped at the chance. And I killed it (in the good way). Instead of being told “no” or “shut up” or “you’re doing it wrong,” one girl clapped, another made a low whistle of appreciation, and then everybody just jumped in and harmonized. It was a moment in the sun for me, and the thing I kept going back to for years after, every time I felt ashamed to raise my voice in public.

It’s still the moment I return to when I’m feeling like I’m less of a person, or not as talented as my peers. It took me years, but I finally realized that I’m a little different than many people I meet. My gut instinct in all situations is to wish others well, to hope that they succeed, to even actively try to bolster that success, no matter my connection to the individual in question. But many people feel threatened by the success of others, and instinctively go for the throat. They do as much as they can to make others feel small. If you’re surrounded by people who tell you that your dream is no good, it’s not possible, that you’ll fail, just keep plugging along. Sure, you might not be great – hell, I’m not an award-winning vocalist or anything – but you’ll have done what your soul commands of you. That’s paramount.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. michd74 says:

    I really loved this, that moment of acceptance and confidence. Sing often…like know one is listening! !

    1. compassandquill says:

      Oh believe me, I do! It’s one of the reasons I love going on cross-country road trips so much – hours to sing along with all of my favorite songs 🙂

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