Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on December 28, 2010.
A couple of months ago, my brother, who is 6 years younger than me, invited me to see his band play.
“It would mean a lot,” he said, and as his definition of family time usually amounts to a text message once a week, I promised I would come.
The show was at an art gallery in Little Italy, and when I arrived, my brother, or Phoof, as we nicknamed him when he was too young to protest, set me up in the back with the sound equipment. This was fine by me, as it saved me from having to mingle with the young folk. I sat there watching girls in plastic hair bows and guys in heart-shaped sunglasses scuttle by, feeling the usual discomfort-veiled-as-judgment I usually experience when I’m amongst my brother’s generation.
Then I remembered something: I’m taking singing lessons.
I’m not sure why, but I feel embarrassed admitting this. I’ve wanted to sing since God knows when – okay, since I was five and saw Dorothy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz – but once it became clear that opening my mouth and having sounds come out of it was not a skill that was going to come naturally, I wrote it off. Even after a professional singer told me that your voice was something you could develop with lessons, I gave my usual list of excuses: lack of time, lack of money, lack of reason. I think that if something doesn’t serve our careers, our images, or our ability to escape a lack of success in either of these arenas, after a certain point a lot of us figure, “Why bother”?
Then, early this year, I heard an all-female choir perform and I knew: I needed sing. It was as if a voice spoke to me from on high, and so, with less time and disposable income than I’ve ever had, I started taking lessons. And I found out, it’s true: even the warbly-throated among us can learn to sing. I come out of every lesson so happy it feels possible that I might take flight.
I auditioned for the choir.
I didn’t get in.
It’s funny, isn’t it? You spend a lifetime telling yourself something isn’t important to you, and when suddenly you can’t do it, you feel as though you’ve been robbed. I spent days moping and sniffling and feeling fabulously sorry for myself, and telling myself I might as well not bother with anything, including eating or personal hygiene. I would never sing again, I decided. It was time to admit that this was something at which I, officially, sucked.
Then, I went to my brother’s show. And looking around that art gallery that night, I realized that these were people who hadn’t given up. They still take the time create things, even if those things don’t benefit their hiring prospects. They’re still full of hope and possibility and conviction that they will change the world, while I was sitting there worrying about how I was going to catch up on my sleep schedule. Plus, how many so-called “adults” passed me when I was their age, strolling along with my fuchsia hair and platform sneakers and fun fur shoulder bag, and thought to themselves, “What the hell was that?”
Then my brother appeared next to me and began taking off his pants.
I forced myself to smile encouragingly as he removed his shirt and wrapped a sarong around his waist, then strapped a conga drum to his chest. A crowd started to form around the stage, so, screwing up my courage, I left my post and joined them, trying to assume the kind of facial expression that said, “I come to these sorts of things all the time.” A pounding started echoing through the room, and I realized it was coming from Phoof and another, similarly-attired boy. It created this amazing kind of tribal, surround-sound effect, and the crowd parted so the drummers could make their way to the stage.
Suddenly, I found myself about to explode with pride – a big sister, holding-back-tears kind of pride. My parents and I constantly worry about my brother. We nag him about partying too much, about not making enough money and abusing too many substances, about staying “on track” and being more “focused” and not being “responsible”. And there he was, rocking a crowd, doing what so many of us dream of doing but never will. Watching him, I wondered: when did I become so judgmental, and so afraid? When do some of us, pardon the expression, grow up? When do we lose – again, forgive me – that inner child, who makes us create and keep creating, even if we “suck”? And why on God’s green earth do some people get to bomb their way through that fear, while others shut down and stow it away, only letting it out at late-night dinner parties after too much whiskey?
I went home that night and wrote my brother an e-mail, and made him promise me that he’d never give up playing music. And after that, while I harbour no fantasies about joining him on stage, I realized I had to practice what I preached. So I signed up for more singing lessons, and formed a little group of my own. We sing in my basement: a bunch of 30-somethings like me, who just want to make music for the sake of it.
And just recently, my brother had another show. The crowd was about five times bigger than the last one, and there was even, to my delight, body-surfing. And in the middle of a song, my brother yelled into the microphone, “My sister’s here tonight!”
I was almost dancing too hard to hard to hear him.