Thursday, February 18, 2010

No One Knows

When a child is born, no one knows what she will do in life. Stories and legends tell about otherworldly beings who speak prophetic words over children sometimes giving blessing, sometimes wreaking havoc. But as for me, I watched and wondered.

Valerie was a sleepy, cheerful child who was not interested in learning to read or write. I never dreamed that her calling would involve the written language. She loved playing, though, and doing things together especially if it involved making a big, imaginative production. I thought she might be a photographer because of her artistic eye.  I thought she might be a physical therapist because I noticed how she identified with people’s struggles, (which shows how little I then knew about physical therapists). I had no premonition that Valerie would be a rockin’ awesome singer songwriter!

When she was away at college, she would sometimes call while in the throes of frustration. Her lament was often, “I can’t write a song! I haven’t written a song!” One would think that her mother (me) who writes stuff also, would understand this lament, but I thought her gift in life was her spectacularly gorgeous, light-filled voice. What else could compare? So I would try to console her. But I was thinking something like: Why not sing some Janis Joplin songs or some Carole King or some Patty Griffin or some Eva Cassidy? I may have suggested something lame and typical like “Dream a Little Dream of Me” which I knew to be within her range.

Little did I know!

When she wrote her first song, she stood in our living room by the fireplace, guitar in her arms, and sang it to me. I could not breathe! That Christmas a friend challenged her to write a Christmas song. She plinked around on the piano and then at a family and friends’ gathering offered to play a song she’d written, adding, “it might not be any good.” Then she sang “Torch” for the first time.
"There must be someone to bring a little light into these dark eyes."
“Constellations in the gravel/Their rhinestone dress directs my travel./ Funny how I haven't found my path looking at the ground."  The last chords sounded and we blinked at her, searching for words to express something like—“Could you play that again? Could you play that beautiful, stirring, song a million more times? Please?” “Torch” is still an amazing favorite, though now she’s written so many others.
performing at the Seafood Festival two weeks before Clare was born
It turns out that my daughter is a poet! For me, an English teacher who also writes, Valerie’s poetic gift was both surprising and delightful. I love poetry, but I’m picky and critical about it. I love Val's poetry which she crafts from sharp observations, deft language skill, a respect for human suffering, a belief in human triumph and the notion that God is good. Her poetry is real, her images surprising, but apt, and her voice, itself a bright triumph, is part of that gift, inseparable, rich and to me, thrilling.
I wonder what this baby's gifts are?

People have asked me how Valerie became a poet. But I don’t know. It’s true that I read poetry to her beginning with Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child's Garden of Verses and it is also true that she never tired of this book; she has it memorized. I read other poems to her—whatever delighted me and might also delight her, such as “An Eskimo Baby” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.” I recently read these poems aloud to my grandson, hoping to infuse some poetry into his active and practical soul. He touched my arm gently and said, “Grannie, would you please pay attention to me?” So, obviously it doesn't work like a charm.
The band won a place in the "New Talent Competition at Cornerstone Festival

When Valerie was a little older, she and her brothers fought a lot in the car on the way to places (anyplace, everyplace), so I made them listen to Sir Alec Guinness reading T.S. Eliot’s poems. You may think this was cruel. It was certainly dull as chalk. But I found it soothed everything in the car to a gray quiet and the tepid tenor of his voice fit well with the tedious, depressing subject of the poems. I suppose my secret hope was that they would revel with me about the notion of a person measuring his life in coffee spoons or say when they graduated from college “I’m getting old; I wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” This didn’t happen because they don’t wear trousers and they hated T.S. Eliot read by Sir Alec. My preventative measures worked though. My children did not fight while poetry was playing; they slept and mocked me for years after.
playing at First Sunday in Annapolis
It might have been Bible reading. The Bible’s language is poetic and dramatic. It might have been all the Shakespeare In The Park plays we forced her to attend, or the fact that I watched Hamlet videos regularly just to hear the poetry spoken in my house. For some reason, I like the way it sounds better than-- let's say the conversation on Oprah. But Val likes Oprah and Shakespeare, so no clue there.
Val with Josh on bass
People also ask me where Valerie got her voice. I don’t have an answer to this, but I have an idea. Her father has a big, beautiful voice and he loves music. Both her Nebbia grandparents played the piano and sang in musical theatre in college. So there’s some inherited ability. But I think it comes from her being such an incredibly bald baby.
Clare is speechless while her mom rehearses
She was cute but bald. And she stayed bald. I dressed my only daughter (the bald one) in pink or purple, in dresses and ruffles, but she was so bald that when I took her out, despite her clothes, people would say, “Oh you have 3 boys. Bet you want a girl!” I would say, “This one is a girl.” People actually looked at me like I was lying.

This continued until people were saying to me, “Oh, I bet you’re hoping for a girl this time,” when I was expecting Karl. At two, she was still bald. And she was still bald when people commented, “Oh, you have four boys! I bet they’re a handful.” To which I’d respond, “This one’s a girl,” and get no reaction. None.
Does this child look like a boy? Don't answer that!
So when Val was well past three, nearly four, a foreign born faith healer stayed with us for a couple of days. When he left, he asked to pray for the children and all I could think of to ask for Valerie was that she’d get some hair. (Come on, really? That’s all you can think of to ask for?) He heard me and said, “That’s my specialty.” He prayed  for her and her hair grew and has always been gorgeous. But I just wonder… what else God gave her that day. I mean God might have pitied me for not coming up with something more significant to ask for… but then again, Sampson’s hair was part of his strength, wasn’t it?

Maybe it all has nothing to do with that single prayer. Maybe God gave her voice and the words to sing when she was formed, maybe He planned it all along. But I think they are both His gifts and calling. I know you can’t hear her, as I am hearing her voice now, and I know you’re thinking it is because I’m her mother that I would make such a bold and reckless claim, but I do think it is true.

Valerie tells us that she wanted to sing and write music from a young age. I remember one day when she was in middle school and came to my classroom at the end of the day to say that her choir teacher had kept her after class, but not for the usual reasons (talking or disrupting) but because as Valerie put it in her inimitable way, “a jewel came out of my throat when I sang.”

That’s what she sounds like—that surprising, that valuable, that dazzling. Someone once said she sounded as if she’d swallowed an apple whole. Her voice is big and clear and stirring. It’s bright with a rare ability to give insight. And there’s a sound to it, a note or a ring that is there and unique and impossible to describe. She’s sounds maybe a bit like Eva Cassidy but with more energy and wit and purpose. She can be as powerful and raw as Janis Joplin, but with a sweet poignancy that will wring tears from the stoniest heart. Her voice is a gift and she has beautiful things to say.
Clare thinks so too
Valerie’s choir teacher asked her to sing a solo one Spring Concert when she was in tenth grade. It was the first part of a song called, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” I was nervous for her. She looked so small and timid when she stepped up to sing, but her voice soared, far bigger than herself, clear as sunshine with that mysterious note of the wind in it. "What tho' the darkness gather round?/Songs in the night He giveth..."

She’s had break from performing since her baby was born, and we are all so looking forward to hear what she has planned this Saturday for her “return to the stage” at Ramshead in Annapolis. I know they’ve planned a remix of the old favorite “Torch,” a bluesy version of “Smell of Cotton” the teariest tear-jerker, and lots of other surprises. Though she performs her own beautiful songs, she does cover some other artists. Last year she gave a bold, resonating performance of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason To Stay Here;” that really brings that tune alive. The band is eager to play lots of great music and they sound better than ever.

Tim at Ramshead
If you’re free on Saturday afternoon, come and join us at Ramshead Onstage. I wonder if you’ll be able to hear how hard my heart is beating when Val sings.

1 comment:

  1. This was wonderful and I think has made up my mind. I always wanted to see Val in concert and my husband and I had talked about going to see this one for our anniversary, but we had also talked about a movie as we never get to see those. But this sounds so much better.