I feel like ruminating on miracles. Anybody experience one? Bet you have…and you might not even know it. Not all miracles are of the “someone in peril snatched from the jaws of death” stripe. There are everyday miracles. Of course, most people would say that they consider their children everyday miracles, but let’s be honest—we think that only when they’re sleeping. The rest of the time we’re usually seriously considering selling them to the circus or sending them off to apprentice with a ship full of pirates or something.
Anyway, to miracles. I’ve got a miracle story. At the time I didn’t think of it as one, of course, but now I recognize it for what it was. This is my personal miracle:
As far back as I can remember, I loved music. No, I mean I really loved music. But there was none in my house. No radio, no stereo, nothing. My father had a big collection of records, including quite a few 78s, and, I found out later, had played clarinet in his high school band, but my mother, who called the shots in the house, had no use for music whatsoever. So my dad’s records collected dust, and I had to content myself with getting my music fix from television.
My favorite show was The Partridge Family. I know, I know; the stories were stupid and the acting worse, but when the band played, I stopped whatever I was doing, walked right up to the television, and stared. Drooled, too, probably. When the Brady kids started singing as well, I was ecstatic to have two sources of tuneage.
Even at 5 years old, I dreamed of being in a band. But our music-starved household sure didn’t have instruments lying around. No piano, no drum kit, not even a tambourine.
Oh wait—there was a tambourine. One of my relatives had given it to me as a Christmas or birthday present. I used to rattle it occasionally, pretending I was Tracy Partridge, but it sure sounded lonely in our silent house. If I persisted, my mother would shout from the basement, where she was ironing, to knock off the racket.
No matter. Singing was what I really loved. And at least I had a chance to do that in school. I still remember my elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Wadsworth. She had curly graying hair and cat glasses, like a character straight out of The Far Side comic strip. She played a blond-wood upright piano, always standing up, bouncing behind it as she tried to jolly us little kids into enthusiasm for the tunes she taught us. My classmates were noncommittal about singing “Erie Canal” and “Fifty Nifty United States,” but I ate it up because…well, it was all I had.
And I used to live for the concerts! Each class would go in order, from kindergarten up to sixth grade, shuffling onto the creaky risers under the red and white lights on the stage at the far end of the gym, and our parents would beam at us from the rows of folding chairs while we sang our simple songs.
Oh, how I loved those concerts. I was so excited to finally sing in front of an audience. The music welled up inside me and couldn’t wait to get out—it felt like a bubble expanding under my ribcage, around my heart. When it was our turn to sing, the bubble burst; I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I was the loudest and the most eager. I smiled, I gestured, I wiggled excitedly. I belted out those lame historic and patriotic tunes as if my life depended on it. And, in a way, it kind of did, as singing made me feel more alive than anything else in the world.
There was only one problem. I couldn’t sing a note.
Truth. I was tone deaf and didn’t know it. Yep, at every school concert I sang my heart out, as loudly as I could, and I was the worst singer in the entire place. The best utterances my family members could muster after a concert were along the lines of “Wow, we sure could hear you!”
Eventually—maybe somewhere around fourth grade—it dawned on me that it wasn’t really a compliment.
After it finally sank in that I did not have what it took to be a singing star, I started to shrink. I kept my voice low in music class; in concerts, I stood as immobile as the other kids. I made sure not to stand out, and I made sure nobody heard my godawful voice.
Although I was still desperate to sing, I knew it was hopeless. A bad voice was a bad voice, I realized, and if I didn’t have the talent, that was that. End of story. So I went to school and I did my homework and I played with my friends and I read books and I watched TV and I tried not to think about singing. And when The Partridge Family came on, I tried not to resent the kids in the band. I had varying degrees of success with that.
It didn’t work. I kept thinking about singing. In fact, I resorted to rather desperate measures.
My family wasn’t religious at all, but they sent me to religious education classes at our parish because, well, it was just what you did if your kid went to a godless public school. I was happy to go because it got me out of school early once a week, but the religion wasn’t sticking with me, just as it didn’t stick with the rest of the family.
But when our religious ed teacher said that we should pray to God for what we wanted, I decided to give Him a tryout. I prayed for one thing: to be able to sing. I started politely enough, with one formal prayer or another, then tacking my special request onto it like I was attaching a caboose to a model train. It felt completely awkward and entirely useless. But somewhere along the line, my prayer shifted from a petition-like request to a fervent, desperate, aching conversation with God, where I poured my heart out about my love of singing, where I expressed my passion, my all-consuming desire for this One Thing. It was all I wanted, I explained. I didn’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t sing, I said silently, tears escaping from beneath my squeezed-shut eyelids. Please, I begged. Please. Please.
Eventually my overly religious phase petered out, and my prayers went with it. I still wanted to sing, but as I got closer to 12 years old, I realized that some things were just impossible. Again I lost myself in other interests and contented myself with singing little ditties for fun, like around the fire on overnights with my Campfire Girls group.
And then, one day, on a hike or sitting around the fire (in the rain—it always rained when we camped out) and singing some silly camp song, something clicked in my brain. It was like I stepped out of myself and observed the group, and I realized that most of the girls, and the adults, were way off key—so much so that it would have been a challenge for even Mozart to pick out the correct melody on his harpsichord. But later, when I was off collecting firewood (in the rain) and humming the same song to myself, I realized that I could hang onto the tune pretty well.
Bah. It was all in my head, of course. All bad singers think that they can wail like Janis, when in reality their wailing sounds more like an ambulance siren. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder. When I got home, I took my battered cassette recorder—the old shoebox-sized kind that weighed about 10 lbs.—and, once I was absolutely certain there was nobody else in the house, sang a song into it. Softly. Cautiously. Hesitantly.
Then I played it back. And what I heard was…recognizable. Nice, even. I still remember my first thought: “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
It turned out that nothing was wrong with that. After years of shattering glass and making dogs howl when I uttered even one note, all of a sudden I could sing.
I. Was. Ecstatic. Over the moon. I screamed into my pillow. I rolled around on the bed and hugged myself. That bubble of excitement that inflated behind my ribcage expanded once more. I had experienced a miracle. And I was grateful.
I didn’t let this gift to go to waste. I joined the middle school chorus. And then the high school chorus. And the audition-only harmony group. And musicals. I learned how to play the guitar and joined the folk group. After this many years, I was not going to overlook any opportunity to sing and sing and sing some more.
I sang in college. I sang after college. I sang every chance I could get. Because, after all, when you’re given the gift of a miracle, you make the most of it. And every moment I was on stage, I was grateful.
Even now, at 44, with no outlet for singing except joining in with favorites on the car radio or bellowing along with the iPod while cleaning the house, I remain grateful. I never forget my personal miracle.
Once a week, my local newspaper does a Q&A with a high-profile “woman to watch.” One fill-in-the-blank part of the questionnaire is “One talent I wish I had…” and, every single time, the woman’s answer is “the ability to sing.”
And every time I see that, I’m grateful all over again for the miracle I was given. And yes, I still consider it a miracle, even after I picked up a little bit of science-y goodness a few years back. In a newspaper article about puberty, there was a bit of trivia that hardly anybody knows—just a passing mention, but it stood out to me as if it were in red, 36-point type: During puberty, a girl’s voice changes just like a boy’s, only not as dramatically—often so subtly that it goes completely unnoticed.
Cynics would say that this proves that my prayers weren’t answered, that I didn’t experience a miracle. But I still say they were, and I did. After all, my voice could have changed and still stayed off key. But it didn’t.
And what’s more important to note is that this is exactly the way miracles occur. Oh sure, you’ve got your occasional parting of the Red Sea and all that, but most miracles enter the world quietly, subtly, and following the rules of nature, not breaking them. In this case, the girl begged to be able to sing. There was a window of opportunity at puberty. And thus the girl was able to sing.
So. A miracle? Absolutely. I asked, and it was granted. And it has nothing to do with one particular religion’s prayers. It’s not the words of the prayer; it’s the passion behind the request. As Don Henley sings, “How bad do you want it?”
And it’s not exclusive to one faith; it’s bigger than any one faith. No, wait—it is faith itself. If you open your heart and reveal your passion, the Universe or God or the Great Is or whatever you want to call It hears you and does Its best to grant what you ask.
All you have to do is ask. (Don’t forget that part. It’s important.) Now…what’s your personal miracle? You let me know; in the meantime, I’m going to go sing a little bit. Or a lot. Yeah, a lot is more likely.