I don’t remember where I first came across the Oliver Wendell Holmes line, “Alas for those who never sing, but die with all their music in them!” But I do remember about when.
I remember recounting it aloud to a friend whose greatly adored grandmother never sang. “She had a song in her heart,” my friend said. We overlooked a strip of under-occupied-parking-lot real estate from the cement step of a Texas barroom.
That time in my life was often filled with song. Mostly the songs of others, from the pop charts or from the archives of the Grand Ole Opry. I was always singing. In the kitchen, by the fire, in the fields, by the train tracks, on the swingset. It seems to be sandwiched by very long periods of keeping my music in me.
At the time it didn’t seem much like a period or a phase, but now looking back from a time where I rarely sing I wonder if that grandmother once sang. And then, one day, for a reason she may not have noticed or known, took one long gulp, and swallowed her song. And I wonder if this is what has happened to me.
I am reminded also of some time I spent with Dylan Thomas in the late 90s, when I got so wrapped up in the words that I entirely forgot a pot of boiling water until the metal pot melted into a spun masterpiece through the coils. Maybe the encouragement of, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” was not just one for the death bed, and maybe a message that we can take before our lights are so literally on the verge on being extinguished.
The drama is inevitable in the line,”Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” If someone were to recite it at a party, they would certainly draw a giggle if not an all-out shun. But isn’t this what is so very wrong with becoming an adult? Our passions are no longer cute and endearing, but downright annoying and worthy of scornful glances. If we feel or express anything too intensely, we are weird social outcasts who have refused to grow up or need therapy. We have to make up some excuse for our behaviors. Or become actors.
At least, that’s how it seems. The further my age gets from my shoe size, the more I feel pushed towards moderation. We have a culture that verbally encourages us towards our passions, and socially encourages us towards the middle.
It is dangerous on the outside, completely exposed, open to any outside force. The front line. But what is the real danger?
There are so many of us who have stopped singing, but somewhere beneath the ribcage we can still feel a strong and variable beat. I run uphill sometimes, and when I do I hear the faintest sound of a single wavering bow on a violin, finding the right note before the show.
I breathe in. And promise to start singing again soon.