Way out West, where I’m living for the summer, on a train climbing up a 14er at a 25% incline, my visiting little brother says that we can’t sing. Dad is singing Diana Ross to my squirming little sister and Mom’s laughing like she always does at Dad. Tim is sure that our family’s genetic code for song has been mutated beyond repair, and he’s not ashamed to say so, while Dad moves into the second verse of “You Can’t Hurry Love” and our train chugs up the mountain.
Way up North, almost across the border into Canada, on a small, private lake deep in the Hiawatha National Forest, oak cabins spread out across 32 acres of paths and fields filled with feet. Music plays from speakers in the treetops to herd hundreds of tennis shoes and flip-flops from softball sand to supper. In services, eternal things dig their heels into soft and stubborn hearts alike. It’s a youth camp. And everyone on staff, except the sound man and including me, sings in the choir.
The madness for this summer’s staff begins on a Saturday. They’ll rake leaves from forest to forest, drag nets across half a mile of sand, and haul picnic tables down the hill. It’s all to awaken the campgrounds from a long winter of hibernation under heavy blizzards, and after two weeks of 7-11 years olds this work-week will seem like ages ago. I used to be on that staff. It’s where I learned how to sing.
When I was a child, my grandparents lived down the block and would call often. I always ran to the phone when it rang, but there was something wrong with my voice. When I screamed in excitement or surprise, it wasn’t high-pitched and airy, it was low and guttural. It didn’t sound like a sound my little body and bouncy blonde curls would make. It sounded too much like the boys in the neighborhood; too much like my brother.
When Grandpa called, there was a pause,
“Well, hello there…” and more often than not he thought I was “…Tim?”
“No, Grandpa. This is Linda. Do you want to talk to Mom?”
“Of course! Linda!” He’d say, as if it’s what he meant the first time.
But this went on daily for years. It was funny until I grew up a little and was made fun of some. Slowly, it became unfair from funny. It became “Why don’t I have a girl’s voice?” Without a girl’s voice as a starting block, I had no chance at singing. Outside of the shower curtain, this mouth did a whole lot of talking, but never carried melodies. I found some tapes I’d recorded as a girl with my Fischer-Price tape deck and microphone. I had to throw them out after listening. It hurt my ears to hear my own voice sing along with kid’s songs. I had no concept of notes; I only knew how to make words longer.
When I first got to camp, no one told me that the staff is also a choir. There was no audition. No interview or talent show. If you were holding a Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir book and standing anywhere within shouting distance of the auditorium, you would sing in the choir. Haunted by Fischer-Price cassettes and Grandpa calling me a boy, I cried every summer during the staff’s first choir rehearsal. It was too unfamiliar and I was scared to even try. The thing about choir for me is that I don’t sing.
But I remember the first time I did. My peers were buried in their choir books, reading music I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t have known a pastor’s kid from a bum on the street, much less an eighth note from a Bflat. I knew I was in trouble, but I also knew that I couldn’t mouth “watermelon” every night for the entire summer. So I leaned in and listened to the sound of the girls voices around me. My first attempt came out as a squeak. The notes were too high and I couldn’t make them with my throat, as much as I’d wanted to. Soon, it would be back behind the shower curtain for me.
At some point in my silent catastrophe, the choir director sensed my difficulty and moved me back one practice pew with the boys. He confidently said,
“The tenor should be easier for you.”
“Alright,” I whispered, unconvinced.
And for five years I’ve stood on the platform, my girlfriends a step below singing notes I’ll never reach. And I sang and sang famous choir arrangements in my boy voice into the microphone.
Maybe I wasn’t born with a Billboard Top 40 voice. Maybe Tim is right that we are one family who should keep our lips sealed. Let Diana Ross sing Diana Ross songs. Or maybe every voice does have something to offer; something beautiful to give back to a world that would be silent without us. Maybe somewhere, the master Choir Director sits, facing the singers He’s nurtured and guided, waiting for us to offer our boy voices to Him. And He’ll wait and wait until we do.