© 2008 wendy wall

When I was growing up, and well past growing up, my mother had a habit of announcing, like the noon whistle, that “Life is Not A Dress Rehearsal’. She might wake me in the morning with it, sing song into my ear, or later, when I was on my own, I’d answer the phone and there she’d be, like an alarm clock set down too close on the bedside table, startling me from dreaming. Some days I still hear that voice, following me through the day, snapping at my heels.

Maybe, at the end of it all, looking back, it’ll be the day to stake that claim, like a big yellow signpost for the next traveler, but for me, for today, it’s too unforgiving. Then again my mother, despite her good qualities, was kind of a tough crowd.

The first time I played football was a beautiful summer evening in June on the Carroll’s front lawn. I was seven years old. I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about, but I wanted to be a part of it anyway. I did get that the object of the game was to get the ball and run it across the goal line. So I stood ready, like a little soldier, awaiting The Mission, sometimes attentive, sometimes distracted by and drawn into the hum of the summer around me.

We played for a little while, or rather they played, while I tried to determine what all the running and tumbling was about, wanting in but too shy to stake a claim. Just as my interest was waning and I was turning my attention to the fireflies in the growing dusk, I felt a shove in my belly and looked down. The ball was in my hands. For a split second, time stood still, then, in another second, I saw bodies running toward me. I knew what they wanted. They wanted that ball and I had it. I was the carrier, I was assigned the mission of getting it across the goal line. The thrill was unbearable.

I ran.

I ran like I’d never run in my seven long years of endless days and I heard the cheering behind me. It swelled around me while I ran through the thick sweet evening air. I ran and ran, propelled by the growing inevitability of my triumph as I realized I was outrunning them all and I crossed the finish line, holding the ball high into the thrill of victory

I turned to share the moment with my team mates and they were far away, too far away. They were still yelling, but their yells weren’t cheers. Arms were flailing, fists pounding on the ground. The other team was rolling in the aisles of the great expanse of lawn, laughing.

I walked toward them all in slow motion, slowing more the closer I got. Then I was there and they were up in my little girl face, my team mates yelling, their faces flushed with the heat of the late day and their own white hot rage, the other team jeering, all telling me in a moment, in every possible way, the terrible error of my run. I had run the wrong way with the ball and crossed over the finish line of the other team. There lay the truth that shattered my shining moment.

I never forgot the rage and ridicule that run inspired. Or the feeling in me.

So, which one of us always gets it right? It wasn’t the last time I ran the wrong way across some one else’s goal line. It was just the first.

After the glory of my football day, I took to writing. My imaginings spilled onto paper and years of my childhood were spent sitting in my room on the blue dresser my mother handpainted. I cleared all the knick knacks she placed on top of it and used it as a window seat, soaking in the sun, face against the screen in summer, fogging the panes in winter, writing stories, little books, mysteries, epics and poems, all delicious escape from a world I already struggled to fit into. When I wasn’t writing I was reading, into the night, flashlight under covers, or crouched in the bedroom doorway, reading by the hall light.

I’ve needed music for as long as I can remember. My grandmother bought us a piano that football summer. To my mother it was furniture to polish and lessons to assign to a chosen child, my brother. To me, it was magic. They pronounced to me that my fingers were too small, so lessons were not offered. A teacher came weekly and gave structured lessons to my brother and I sat at the top of the staircase, listening to each note. When the lesson was over, I would run down the stairs and pick out notes, sometimes from the numbers in the little book she left, sometimes from what my brother showed me, more and more from what my ear wanted to hear. I figured out quickly how to play an arpeggio and I’d play and sing for hours. I loved the feel of the cool, smooth keys under my skin, the way my fingers somehow found, without me asking, without knowing how, just where I wanted to go, what I wanted to hear. I loved the vibration of voice in my body.

Not much thrilled me more than that. A close second were the adventures pouring through my pencils and the stories I created and acted out with playmates in the lawns, the fields, the woods, stretching on for days, into evening, waking up into the next chapter, living out another day of it, falling asleep dreaming of it. In between were the hours in the magic corner of the playroom, where the piano waited for me, breathing.

My parents were friends at the time with an editor from the New York Times and his wife, a novelist. They were warm, wonderful people and invited me over often to play with their daughters. They told my mother I was a writer. Impressed, I think mostly by them, for a while after that, my mother excused me from dinner downstairs if I was working on a story and brought me mine on a tray, to my dresser turned window seat, so I could write, the flow uninterrupted. Apparently no such angel whispered in her ear about me and music. I don’t know exactly what happened to my brother’s lessons, but they stopped and not long after, the piano was gone.

I found another way for music to transport me.

I was sleeping one night when my parents were out and my sister babysitting. I woke slowly, being mystically, mysteriously transmigrated to another dimension of perception, floating on waves and waves of indescribably delicious sound. I lay there in bed for a minute, drinking it in, shivering in the ecstasy of this rich new experience, then crawled out of bed and looked down the hall at the miracle that was happening to my eyes and ears.

At the end of the hall, through an open doorway, my sister was balanced on the side of the bathroom vanity, expertly rolling her hair onto big pink plastic rollers, a cigarette dangling from her lips, bathed in light, in riveting nonchalance. On the shelf above her head, music poured from the blue plastic radio. It was Buddy Holly, singing ’Everyday”, followed immediately by the Beatles “Love Me Do”. I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life. Somehow every fiber of my being thrummed with every note. After a steady diet of fine art, classical music, classic poetry, classic folk, this new sound, this new look, rocked my world. Whatever other direction my life might have gone in all changed in that moment.

Out of necessity, I formed my first band. I don’t remember how many of us there were but we would sit in a circle in the schoolyard, all girls, while the other children played. I would lead them in song after song of radio hits. We loved the songs of unrequited love and especially loved the car and train crash songs, where a desperately passionate, doomed lover would brave the train tracks for some lost ring and be rewarded for the grand romantic gesture with a hideous death. We sang and wept, sang more, wept more, then filed back into class single file, after the bell rang, to study history and learn all about men and wars.

That was the beginning of my life in music. I had no idea in those slow, dreamy days of childhood, what a long, ragged road it would be.


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