Summer: Looking back, looking ahead (or: September, we hardly knew ye)

This summer was filled with some great stuff: cheering for the Yankees at baseball games; strolling through riotously blooming botanical gardens; enjoying barbecues in Brooklyn and country weekends of canoeing and lakeside reading in Connecticut; toasting a couple of dear friends as they got married in a ceremony brimming with laughter, tears, and music; watching Casablanca and eating an impromptu living-room picnic after getting rained out at an outdoor movie.

Summer’s happy places: Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a quiet lakeside idyll in Connecticut.

But, as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote in The Green Fields of the Mind, “There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it,” and indeed, proverbial autumn loomed large this summer. There were upsetting headlines (Nazis are trying to stage a comeback? The president is tweeting threats of nuclear war? Seriously?). Friends and I traded diagnoses, fears, and familial travails like baseball cards. My routine physical turned into a protracted series of exams and consultations in which I learned I’d need a big ol’ surgery to remove a softball-sized fibroid. I was scared a lot this summer. Then, September belonged to the surgery itself: preparing for the procedure, going under the knife, and recovering.

Me with my mom, the best nurse a gal could hope for; socks from my DUCHESS sisters that kind of sum things up; me at my first post-surgery outing at (where else?) Yankee Stadium.

Now, thoroughly ensconced in actual autumn, my big takeaways are forehead-slappingly obvious and not particularly insightful: We all get sick. We all die. The world is—and has always been—on fire. Given all these dismal realities, the only things that really matter are family and friends and a living a life full of love and kindness and gratitude. THANKS, HALLMARK.

While I’ve been sitting here this morning, trying (and failing) to piece together a cogent recap of my summer and the gifts that fear and uncertainty can bring, I’ve also been listening to the radio. Right now, Ella Fitzgerald is singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with the Basie band, and her exuberant, freewheeling vocal, imploring us to choose joy, is really the whole truth. Looking ahead, I’m going to do my best to follow the song’s advice:

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worry on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street

Can’t you hear a pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street

I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade
But I’m not afraid
This rover crossed over

If I never have a cent
I’ll be rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street

This summer, I…
Blogged about: May. Music from 100 Years Ago. Singer-friend Roseanna Vitro.

Read: Kafka Was the Rage, by Anatole Broyard. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This gorgeous essay about food and memory. What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, by Irwin Shaw. One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson.

Watched: The Handmaid’s Tale. Casablanca. So much Yankees baseball. The Great British Baking Show. Desk Set. Every single episode of Game of Thrones. I Called Him Morgan.

Listened to: Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio. Lots of the Nat Cole Trio. Tanto Tempo, Bebel Gilberto.

‘Tis better to give.

Exhibit B: Eyes Closed.

After a recent performance, my friend J. told me that I was keeping my eyes closed too much while I sang. “You have expressive eyes,” J. said, “and when you sing with your eyes closed, it’s the same thing as turning your back on us, the audience! You have to give us more of yourself!”

Exhibit A: Eyes Closed.

It’s awfully scary to gaze into a sea of strangers (or, even more terrifying, close friends) and sing for them. “I close my eyes to hear the music better,” I replied, a bit peeved. But I was forced to acknowledge (to myself, anyway) that closing my eyes isn’t really about looking cool or hearing the music better. It’s a way to put a barrier between my fears and the audience. And my friend called me out on it. As a singer, I was being selfish, plain and simple.

Exhibit C: Eyes Closed. Okay, so he had a point.

In the weeks following J.’s loving admonition, I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity and what it means to really give as a performer. Then, I serendipitously stumbled upon an episode of Elvis Costello’s TV show, Spectacle. Tony Bennett was the guest, and just listening to him speak was a lesson in giving.

Tony told Elvis about his love of the Great American Songbook. “This isn’t old music,” said Tony, “it’s great music.” He went on to say that that demographics, while very important to record labels, don’t interest him; he sings for the whole family. Tony was ardent in his respect for the great American composers, like Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Ellington, Kern, and Arlen.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts

Believing that American schools should have flourishing arts programs, Tony founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens. When discussing this extraordinarily generous act, he preferred to focus on the achievements of his students and the power of creative expression to transform lives.

Tony had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. When Elvis Costello asked him about it, Tony said simply, “I thought everyone should’ve been there,” then spoke about his belief that, one day, human beings would see that peace is truly possible. His faith and optimism were humbling.

Elvis asked Tony to sing. Tony obliged, prefacing his performance by saying that the real reason he was appearing on Spectacle was to introduce the world to Bill Charlap, a hugely respected jazz pianist who is not well known outside the jazz community. He continued to laud Charlap the rest of the show. I mean, isn’t that amazing? Tony Bennett, one of the most legendary singers of all time, made a television appearance and spent a great deal of his airtime singing the praises of his accompanist.

With exquisite accompaniment by Bill Charlap, Tony sang “The Way You Look Tonight.” Now, I’ve heard that song a million times. I’ve sung it at weddings, regarding it as a sweet piece of nostalgia. But I’d never really heard “The Way You Look Tonight” until I heard Tony Bennett sing it.

Even through the television screen, it felt like Tony was singing right to me. No–it felt like we were having an intimate conversation. His smile and sparkling eyes told the song’s story as much as his singing. Every gesture, every nuance, was in service to the music. At the song’s conclusion, he threw his arms open, as if to embrace the audience. Tony Bennett gave himself entirely to the song, then gave the song to us.

It’s so easy to let fear–of mistakes, of inadequacy, of just plain not being liked–override our basic human generosity. But giving of ourselves always feels better than giving in to our fear, which is just another way of saying “ego.”

Thank you, J., for telling me that I need to open my eyes and be more generous when I sing. And thank you, Tony Bennett, for opening my eyes and showing me what generous singing really is.