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.

Blue Jeans & Bagels

At about this time last year, my doctor found a lump and recommended a sonogram. She was just being cautious, she said, and told me not to worry about it. Nonetheless, I was subsumed by dread and worry in the weeks that followed. When the tests revealed nothing troublesome, I gave thanks for a healthy vessel, renewed my gym membership, and vowed to never again disparage my body for its “imperfections.”

Fast-forward to the present day. I’ve been exercising regularly and incorporating more vegetables and lean protein into my diet. My body is decidedly more streamlined, and the winter blues that have dogged me for months seem to finally be dissipating. All this to say, I was feeling pretty good about myself last week when I reached into my closet and retrieved a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in quite some time. Years, actually. But I was optimistic. I’d been working out! I’d been eating right! Those jeans were about to come out of retirement!

My optimism coughed, sputtered and was finally extinguished as I sucked in my stomach and cursed under my breath, wrenching the jeans over my hips with considerable effort. I managed to button them, but seeing as how the “overstuffed-sausage-in-a-denim-casing” look doesn’t seem to be in vogue this spring, I returned the jeans to the closet, feeling somewhat defeated.

Then I remembered the apprehension I felt last year as I walked through the linoleum hallways of the hospital, looking for the radiology department. I reflected on the relief that flooded my senses when the doctor called to tell me that everything looked just fine. I reminded myself that brave and tenacious souls the world over are facing real crises, so who did I think I was, feeling defeated (defeated, for chrissake!) by a pair of jeans?!

I realized that I had a choice to make. I could redouble my efforts at the gym and forever ban bagels in an attempt to be lean and mean, or I could decide that “lean” and “mean” are, in fact, not admirable qualities, toss the damned jeans in the Goodwill pile and go have a bagel.

Wearing a pair of jeans that fit just right, I had a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. It was everything I hoped it would be.

Silence is golden.

hoarseI had a couple of back-to-back gigs over the weekend. The sore throat that’s been coming and going for the past week seems to be settling in for a more prolonged stay, accompanied by fatigue and sinus trouble. And an old friend’s impromptu visit to New York included a few glasses of wine and several hours of animated conversation. In a nutshell, friends: I am a bit hoarse.

Vocal fatigue used to terrify me. At the first sign of hoarseness, however slight, I would alternate between self-flagellation (“My technique is awful! Why else would I be hoarse, for God’s sake? Why did I have that glass of wine? God, I’m an idiot.”) and sheer panic (“I’ve probably done irreversible damage to my vocal folds. I’m sure I have nodes and I sound like Tom Waits with a chest cold. I have no future!”).

The truth is, singing is a very athletic activity. It’s amazing to think that the vibrations of two tiny, delicate folds of skin in the throat can rock Madison Square Garden or fill La Scala. Given the demands we singers place on our voices, occasional vocal fatigue and hoarseness are to be expected. Athletes invariably deal with fatigue and, occasionally, injury throughout their careers. Singers are no different.

chamomile_teaOf course, when it comes to vocal health, singers tend to be known for high-maintenance behavior and superstitious rituals: year-round scarves (a warm throat is a happy throat!), room-temperature water (see “year-round scarves”), copious amounts of chamomile tea with honey (chamomile is a natural anti-inflammatory), no air conditioning (except at nighttime during allergy season), and nasal irrigation (gross but effective).

But when my vocal health regimen is trumped by too much singing, lack of sleep, seasonal allergies, or that last cocktail I just had to have at the noisy bar, my favorite, no-fail remedy for vocal fatigue is simple and obvious: Stop. Talking.

meditationGiven that loquaciousness is as much a part of my make-up as my eye color, a vow of silence is not easy to undertake. But after just a few hours of silence, I find that, along with my vocal folds, my mind is resting. Monasticism, however temporary, seems to agree with me.

The city’s hustle-and-bustle seems to diminish with every passing quiet moment. Having dispensed with verbal expression, I am better able to distinguish between useful thoughts and the reactive ramblings of my untamed mind. It’s no coincidence that silence is often part of a spiritual practice; we can’t quiet the world, but we can quiet ourselves enough to experience the world as it is.

Self-imposed silence used to feel like a punishment of sorts. Now, I view 24 hours of uninterrupted quiet as a gift for my tired voice and, as it turns out, my tired spirit. Tomorrow, of course, I’ll recommence singing and talking with renewed vigor and gratitude. But for today, silence is golden.