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.
Soon after we were married, Joel and I hit the road for Southern Oregon, leaving the Portland scene behind us. I quit my job at Coffee People, and he quit his at the microelectronics company. The season was fall, and the light–if visible–was gold like latticework, filigreed, taunting, disappearing. We may have listened to Harvest Moon on the way down. We might also have passed a hearse, and a woman who ran across the freeway, hands on face, screaming.
By the time we arrived, it was cold, as well as dark and unfamiliar. It was Halloween. Some friends of ours who lived in the area swung by with a fifth of whiskey and canned beer and helped us unpack the moving truck. And that was the start to our new life together, in a place distant to my childhood home. Depression soon set in for many reasons, just as the winter settled over the world. But in my mind, I erase those reasons. The genre of memoir relies on picking through the aftermath of numerous storms and discovering familiar relics–a life edited, in other words.
And so I skip to summer. We lived on 4th Street in Ashland, in the bottommost apartment of a smooth, stuccoed building constructed in 1916. Our place had at one time been a garage, and it came complete with louvered window glass. Its placement insured its coolness, so when I emerged from the land of the louvered glass, the hot southern sun blasted me as did the smell of dust and hot grapes.
By summer, after handing out my resume at multiple cafes around town, I was gainfully employed at a coffeehouse in the neighboring city of Medford. What did I do on my days off? What could I do, but hop across the street from my apartment to the 4th Street Cafe? This is what baristas do–they survive off the caffeine hanging in the air. They lap it up, breathe it in. And for my part, I carried a stack of lined paper and a handful of pens and pencils and scratched out my first novel a mano to the sounds and scents of coffee.
Back up. We haven’t arrived yet. Walk through the alley beside the stuccoed apartment building. Ashland is one of those towns connected from street to street through dusty alleyways, and these alleys not only provide shortcuts, but they supply intimate views of interior life, such that the clusters of fruit hanging from private yards become yours for the taking, as does the shade from hanging wisteria. Intimacy, summer, grapes–they blend together in delicious memories that might have been purely mental, even back then, even when the 90’s world was physical, tangible.
Steal a handful of grapes and eat them individually, spitting the seeds out as you cross through the alley, and then 4th Street, and then wander up the sidewalk until you reach the entrance to the cafe. Enter to the sound of wind chimes and native fluting–follow the call of the flautist to the back garden. Buy a cup of strong black coffee, sit and watch your lined pages ruffle in the breeze.
The flautist will attempt a conversation with you. He’s an older man with long, graying hair and beard. He’ll discuss [or, rather, talk at you about] religion and politics and inform you that his Sioux ancestors worshiped the Creator of the universe long before white men brought Jesus, and you won’t know whether he’s rejecting your religion or connecting himself with you in the way all humans are linked through a common Great Spirit. And you also won’t know how this man can sit fluting around with no real book knowledge or music lessons, but still be able to sit in the present, comfortable in himself and his abilities.
You won’t know because you’ve already exited the premises, if not in body, but in mind and deep yearning. [End Stop. I’m reentering my own memoir, thanks.] Especially when I was younger, exiting the world seemed the only way to master any subject or art form. Long before the summer, in that cold, dry winter I skipped over, I visited a music store and stared longingly at the racks of hanging violins, which chattered at me in chiding little voices. I played the violin as a child, but I never really played, and I could only imagine finding an alternate space for myself in which I would leave the world behind and become a musician. I’m not sure why this is–why I must exit the world in order to master a subject, but the necessity entangled with the impossibility has kept my life on hold for as long as I can remember. Because I’m still waiting to exit the world, where I plan to refine and master numerous disciplines, I haven’t lived. I’ve never truly lived.
The first book I scratched onto notepaper was–no surprise–about a violin player who exits her life, moves from Portland to Florence, Oregon, where she dwells in a parallel existence that enables her to reenter the world at large. I desired to be her, even though I made her homely, but she only existed in my imagination. And so, although I fashioned her to be real, she never really exited her life and, consequently, never reentered.
Places of the imagination exist in a way I can’t reach to grasp, and the same problem occurs in memoir. I’m busy working at leaving the world of my current self, who sits on my porch in New Mexico, and I’m doing this through selective memories. I’m creating positive spaces through negatives, negatives through positives, and I’m mastering nothing.
Where did I go–that girl who sat in the 4th Street Cafe? And how can I reach her? I’m lost. I’m neither here nor there, and all I have left is a day-old pot of coffee that brings me no closer to exiting my present reality. And how will I edit this moment later? Will I add flowers to the desert, stark red roofs, an unreal blue sky to cap off eternity?
This is a story of numbers. This is the story of a girl who couldn’t understand story problems to save her life, who melted to the floor in a fit of tears and frustration at the conundrum, the cryptic-bestiary, dark-world of language. This is the story of a girl who couldn’t understand the language of math to save her life.
Soy yo. I am she. But I’m also a person who has harbored a secret obsession with numbers for as long as I can remember. During my school days, I counted things. I counted them until the numbers drowned out every other thought in my head. When people spoke, I counted their words rather than listening to them, and I made numerical calculations on the value of words based off the number of lines and whorls that formed them. I counted ceiling spots, and made elaborate attempts at removing the square footage of light fixtures from my totals. I counted squares on the floor and lines on the furniture and walls.
Now that I’ve admitted this, it should come as no surprise that I was a walloping failure in school. I never listened, not ever. Fast forward to my first job, and imagine for a moment an ancient cash register. Imagine the ching-ching, the whoop-whoosh of the credit card machine over carbon paper. And you can bet that the idea of counting prices in my head mesmerized me, especially to the symphony of ancient technology. Yes, I had to punch the prices into the register. However, it was gratifying to find that my calculations agreed with the machine. Furthermore, management forced the cashiers to count back change to customers so that the till would ring out exactness, down to the penny, at the end of each shift. Oh, what joy beyond measure!
By the time I took my first job at a coffee shop, tills did the work for the cashiers, although management still encouraged the counting back of change for precision’s sake. Now, this is a lost art, and it’s more usual for cashiers to give customers a blank look before shoving a fistful of money their way [Cash, what’s that? Only terrorists use that stuff].
Needless to say, I continued to count prices in my head and count back change without checking the digital readout on the register face. Numbers are beautiful. Numbers won’t steer you wrong. Prices are fixed quantities that only have so many variations. And I began new counting habits, too. I counted ounces. I understood the ounce variation of every cup we used, from paper to ceramic. I made cappuccinos to precise measurements of espresso to milk to foam. Torani shots–those had to be exact, or the customers would pucker from the sweetness.
I counted money, ounces, seconds, minutes, hours. I counted the number of words I had or hadn’t written on my days off. I counted out my syllabics, as well as the feet in my metrics. I counted customers, the in-and-outs, and those who stayed for hours. One famous customer–I’ll call him Michael because that’s his name–could drink twelve double shots of espresso over the course of an eight-hour shift.
I counted the books and words of the intellectual customers, who rarely allowed me to be one of them. In fact, one old academic coot regularly teased me with his avant-garde ways and his shocking literature. He would bring me books and chuckle at me, smirk at my lingering stoicism after having studied the sentiments of time-travelers who carried on incestuous relationships with their great-great grandparents.
This being Southern Oregon, many of the intellectuals were libertarian males who studied history and knew more about the constitution than any constitutional lawyer. Among them [albeit a minority] were the stereotypical survivalists who preferred women to keep quiet and birth children but–woe to those who gave suck in those days! I frequently caught that lamentation, especially after I was pregnant with my first child. And, yes, these survivalists were intensely academic and not of the Hollywood stupid-ass redneck variety, although I rarely tuned in to their words to find out. Rather, I counted the men, their cups of coffee, their books, their multitude of words, and just how many minutes past closing they lingered.
One time, a free-thinker among them assumed I was heeding their debate with rapt attention and asked me for my opinion. I told him I didn’t have one, since I was a woman [which was a lie, though not the part about being a woman. I didn’t have an opinion because I wasn’t listening].
And later, much later, the old coot intellectual of the incestuous literature shocked me when he handed me a sheet of numbers and asked me if I would make sense of his bank account and budget for him. He said he could tell I counted things. Wide-eyed, I agreed to do as he asked. But how did he know? How could he have known?
The title of this memoir is change because I did. I changed. After spending years calculating the ounce measurements of every cup in my kitchen and falling apart if somebody mistakenly drank from my cup of water–how am I to count ounces with undetermined swallows?–I stopped. Occasionally, I still catch myself counting things, but I’m firm with myself these days.
The world can’t be quantified this way. Behind the numbers, I hear no ching-ching, no symphony of order and harmony. And most of all, I can’t quantify myself this way. Jill is a simple name that isn’t worth much in the cosmos. It means girl. That sounds countable, but it isn’t. I’m one in several billion, a being so disordered that you might as well stop attempting to count the hairs on my head right now.
Several years ago, my dad, artist A. Leon Miler, asked me to write a poem based on his image of a peregrine:
Because I had lost all my confidence in my ability to write poetry (not that I’d ever had any), I wrote numerous small poems about peregrines and never gave him any of them to use with his bird. Since then, I’ve found three of those peregrine poems. They aren’t great pieces of poetry, but they’re interesting. Take a gander–they’re short enough to hold most people’s attention span.
His perch rests on the highest throne,
a raven wounded by the dart,
whose beak tears at the serpent tail.
He turns from flight to death to hell,
but Peregrine, he tears the heart,
then rises to his tower stone.
A counterpoint to Peregrine,
whose height and gravity and flight
will rein the wind in vacant skies,
in deserts etched with falcon eyes,
he draws his story in the night:
the swan and eagle light his screen.
His lights are visible from earth,
where truth is history’s weight to bear.
His wings flash brilliantly, then dim
and fall below horizon’s rim.
Yet, Peregrine, he rules the air
by snatching those who sing his worth.
He snatches song birds from the air,
the bloody peregrine;
he chants his song on top his throne,
the chiding peregrine;
he gathers movement with his eyes
and rides the air between
the sky and earth and stone, tall tower,
such cunning, peregrine.
The fields are orange—the world’s on fire,
And songbirds flee the acres at break-neck.
They search the river in ribbons of sand—
in glimmers of light—they search for water.
With aching and sorrow in silent currents,
Peregrine snatches the songbirds in flight.
The fields are orange, the world’s on fire,
the chollas are blazing with yellow light,
and Peregrine rises to his tower,
chiding his song, his goodness—the liar,
night from day and spirit from song,
scorching the fields until darkness is fire.