Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: If Life Were a Musical

This post is dedicated to Sallie McCann Vandagrift.

I’m about to tell you a story, and you may not believe it, but I have witnesses to back me up. This is an account of a split in my being, the rent part of me that, at one time, was whole and continuously sang. By age eighteen, I carried a reputation for it: Hello, have you met Jill, the girl who sings?

I sang on Portland’s Tri-met buses and on the train. I sang as I crossed city streets and green spaces, and as I hid under the canopy of elms that populated the park blocks. But, mostly, I sang while making my way into the world of adulthood, across university campuses, while working for the physical plant, and as a means to expel anxiety. With my voice half-hidden, those who listened heard my stylized and carefully pitched vocals. And I did sing on key, though I can’t claim much more than that because my voice has always lacked strength.

At nineteen, when I took my first job as a barista, I still sang a round of my favorite songs: Dylan’s Love Minus Zero, No Limit and Mr. Tambourine Man, Simon and Garfunkle’s Homeward Bound, Melanie’s Brand New Key, Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz. At the peak of my non-career, my friends and I sang a rendition of Roger Miller’s King of the Road live on college radio.

And then something strange occurred. My voice dried up, and a great hush filled my soul. I stopped singing. I stopped pretending I had any musical talent [I didn’t, and don’t]. I stuffed any notion of living out the singer-songwriter dream. Every once in a while, that split in my being cracked further, and in the midst of a shift at the coffeehouse—while sweeping or carrying trays of café—I broke into a song and dance that usually began this way: If all of life were a musical. . .

If it were, then what? What would happen if life stopped, and the business world halted and swung into spins and leaped into heal-clicking renditions of the inevitable angst and joy brought to us by shift work? That was the idea I considered, what I pondered deeply when my Mary Janes could no longer walk straight and my hush couldn’t contain itself any longer.

What would happen? In the movies, songs and dances interrupt the story, and then regularity resumes without question, as if the protagonist hadn’t just sung her deep sadness for the world to hear, or the physical-plant workers hadn’t swung around in carefully orchestrated figures, their irrigation wands or rose clippers in hand—singing their life, dancing their job positions to a heartless universe that expands despite their display.

What is it worth? It’s equal to the finest wine and all the beer varieties you can think of. Because our human activities are futile in comparison to the broad spectrum of history, including the starlight that has traveled billions of years to reach us–because of that, even Solomon in his great wisdom would equate a real-time musical with love-food-alcohol after or during the tediousness of work.

What is it worth? It’s worth as much as any human survival method. But what if I were to ratchet up the meaning, raise the stakes? For a while, I sang in a praise team at church. This provided me an acceptable end to the hush, a means of breaking the silence that rent me deeper and deeper as the years of marriage, children, and work stole over me. Singing in a praise team, in a sense, raised the stakes because the pastor/members set an expectation of deliverance and evangelizing. Those stakes–the ones involving an assumed audience–aren’t the ones I mean.

I don’t mind singing in church. I don’t, but lately I’ve wondered about the purpose of the church experience–the effect of being the audience or having one. I haven’t, to be honest, attended church in weeks, and the last time I did, it wasn’t to sing in a praise team. These days, the church I attend sings hymns to a pipe organ whose sounds weigh heavily on my soul.

Music is a survival method, and for a long time, listening to accordion players has filled the survival well with much needed water. But now I desire more than survival. This is where my life is currently—on the edge. I’m at the edge of survival, on the border of breaking free from ego fixations that press me down and hold me in silence.

Solomon might have given equal weight to the various methods of extracting comfort from pain, but in the end, the only purpose he found for existence was service to God. That was it—the end, the final conclusion. So when I ask, what is it worth?, I mean, what could it be worth if I broke away and served God by any means possible?

I have an accordion. What would it be worth to repair the rip inside myself and sing again? Essentially, I’m not seeking musical greatness. I don’t care about that. But I might like to hear these words: Hello, have you met Jill, the woman who sings because her soul needs to serve God?

I want to enter into mature adulthood, sans anxiety, expectation, and ego fixation. I want to come to the end of myself, where the only answer left is to remember my creator. As of now, this story has no end, but it now has a multitude of witnesses. Hear me now: If all of life were a musical, then all the living would have a choice. Sing and dance for God, or as a passing glimpse of hope in otherwise darkness.



  1. Loved this. It resonates with me.
    Yes, I remember well the “singing barista” incarnation of Jill. Her spontaneous appearance was always the highlight of my day. 🙂
    When I heard you got an accordion, I shivered with excitement at the thought of you out there in the desert playing and singing.
    I have a draft to share with you. It contains a girl, and a coffeehouse, singing and stopping, too.

  2. I like this. I’m a singer, and I notice how my urge to sing really hinges on my mood. Before kids, I used to get up in the mornings and hum while making my breakfast. After kids (post hormone tsunami and unbelievable loads of stress) I don’t sing in the mornings. Carrying too heavy of a load, I guess.

    I do still sing in the worship team at church, though, and it is a much welcome reprieve. I’ve been watching some old choir videos lately too, and remembering why I was so obsessed with it at one time… ‘Cause it’s loads of fun if you don’t have bills and kids to worry about. Singing for a living ain’t all it’s cracked up too be, though, much too difficult…music’s a tough biz.

    Have you considered taking voice lessons? I resumed lessons a year or so after college. It was something I did just for myself and it was great stress relief. I made great strides technically, and my voice is much more free to do what I want it to now, which makes it all the more fun. Singing is extremely therapeutic. I’m convinced God wants me to keep singing for whatever reason. I’m also quite sure he didn’t design me to be the next American Idol. Ha.

    1. I don’t think I would spend the money on lessons. You probably actually have a good singing voice, and mine is neither good nor powerful. And I did have voice lessons for a while in high school. I also don’t want to be in the music biz at all. I just want to bring music back in my life. As you say, it’s a great stress release. Every time I pull out my accordion and play it, the pressure seems to lift. But then I get scared and feel incompetent (which I am) and stop playing. Oh, well. I need to do it, though. I need to, I need to!!

  3. Remember that after Moses sang or recited his song, Miriam led the women out with tambourine and dance, Jephthah’s daughter met a returning army–pledged to abstinence for the duration–and was in the wrong place. Jezebel’s hundreds of priests of Baal and Asherah relied on music, the king of Tyre was a musical prostitute. Truly, the “law” or the record shows that unfaithful women were often the downfall of Israel. Miriam (prophetess means poetic singer or wife of a prophet) was afflicted with leprosy for attempting to be the overseer or “musical spokesperson” for God.

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