The copy of Rise Up Singing is two decades old. On the inside cover, my maiden name is a flourish of ink penned by a girl I hardly remember. My boy and I have thumbed the spiral-bound pages thin, working our way through every song I maybe-kinda-almost know. Each time I come across another vaguely recognizable title, I begin, off-key and falling flat. Bug is the final authority on which ones can come to the party. “I do not like it,” he says of “Octopus’s Garden.” When I try Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” he blocks the page. The garden song is acceptable, “Erie Canal” gets the boot, and “Waltzing Matilda” enjoys top billing for two weeks before experiencing an abrupt demotion.
Our collection is large. We have been singing together since Bug was an infant. In truth, we have been sharing songs since before he was even a he, back when Bug’s in utero nickname was Moo Shu and the critter was just a bottomless craving for Chinese food impossible to satisfy California’s high desert. Despite our sizeable repertoire, we have almost exhausted the supply of songs I know. Some have stayed and others have been forced into retirement by the boy’s capricious tastes.
I flip through page after page crammed full of unfamiliar titles. Hand-written lyrics are accompanied by simple chord progressions that mean nothing to me. I tell myself again that I should learn more of these classics, perhaps listen to some of them on YouTube. But I won’t. I reach the end and and come back around to the tried-and-true. “Red River Valley?”
He wrinkles his nose.
I don’t even suggest “Baby Beluga.” He was bored with that one before he turned three. I flip another page. “Au Clair de la Lune?” He lets out a great sigh. Clearly the world is just not sufficiently entertaining.
“Hmm. This one is about a rooster,” I say. “I should learn it. And here is one called – ”
“Sing the rooster song,” he says.
“Can’t. Don’t know it.” I turn the page. “Let’s see. Here’s ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’ You like that one.”
He flips the page back. “Please? The rooster song? Please?”
“I don’t know it, baby. I can’t sing it.”
He points. “Aren’t those the words right there? You don’t have to know it. You read it.”
“But I don’t know the tune,” I say. “I can’t sing it.”
Bug sags. I flip to another page.
Last week, a new-ish friend sent me an email after reading my post about housing. “Do you really want to own a home?” She asked. “Are you willing to see the world as other than limiting?”
Yes, of course I do. Isn’t that obvious? Doesn’t everyone? Yes, I want to see the world as. . .
But wait. Isn’t the answer also a little bit no? Don’t those limits feel so safe? Don’t they protect a tired brain from having to reach? Self-defined prison bars are convenient in their way. They keep us stuck, but they come in handy when a person wants to have a firm grip on something.
They also make it easier to say no when life sends Oliver Twist up to ask for an extra helping.
One morning this week as I was packing up for school, Bug asked me, “Is that a made up song?”
I paused. Had I been singing? Sure enough, a little melody had taken shape under my breath without me noticing. It is gonna rain and we need our raincoats.
He asked again. “Is that a real song?”
Made up? Real?
Which is it?
What I do every day, mindless or intentional, becomes my child’s real. For good or ill, we grownups shape the world in which our kids move, and delineate the perimeters, and create (or not) the pathways out of them. What is real but what I say? What any of us say? Aren’t the real and the make-believe simply two different lines of sight on the exact same world?
“I made it up,” I say. Like everything. This power, this amazing power. “And it is real.”
Why is this so easy to forget? I don’t know a tune, so I cannot sing? What is every song but an act of creation? What is every story, every building on the skyline, every space capsule orbiting the moon but something fashioned from spare parts and fancy? Even a whisper of love into a bending neck is nothing but an idea that was not until it was. Everything. All we have here was an absence that some act of nature or will planted with the fleeting life that now inhabits it.
We have only so much knowledge, only so much money, only so much time left. We have only a few choices, and other people’s claims and fears can deplete the imagination.
Also, a feathered, nameless thing preens just outside the window. It takes wing and streaks across the day. The magnolia drapes us with glossed leaves and heavy perfume. Also, we are magicians.
Made up. Real.
One day we will open the songbook, and the pages will be blank. The melodies will skitter from our memories, and those that stay will be all wrong for naming our hungers. No medium in existence will fit our hands. What will be left then? What is left but all the everything inside the nothing?
The whole of creation is ours, if not for the taking, then for the making.
Back in bed, my boy looks at me. I look at him. The first lesson for any apprentice alchemist is to imagine the absurd, yet I have just told my boy that I cannot sing because I do not know a tune. I laugh right out loud. “That’s just about the silliest thing Mommy’s ever said, isn’t it?”
I turn back a page and open my voice. The rooster song requires a certain amount of twang, and my throat complies. Bug giggles through until the end. I cuddle up close to him. “How about. . . “ I skim. “Maybe the one about father’s whiskers?”
“Yes!” He says. We are off. Every page blooms with lyrics to music that belongs to us.