top of page

Singing and Running
By Dorothy Barnhouse

Bio
Dorothy Barnhouse lives in Brooklyn where she writes and teaches. Her work has been honored with fellowships and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and MacDowell. She has pieces published or forthcoming in Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Prose, the LA Review, the Adirondack Review, and the Lindenwood Review.

I. Singing

          My father is a religious man. He describes himself as born again – saved. And so when he told me once, his voice quavering with emotion, that a nun he knew had taken him aside and said, “You’ll find your salvation through music,” I wondered what kind of salvation he was imagining. How could someone be in need of salvation if they already considered themselves saved? And why would my father -- practical, dismissive of superstitions, fully Protestant -- why would he recall this moment with awe and reverence, as if the nun had delivered a message to him directly from God?

 

          Mostly I wondered why he chose to tell me about this matter. I am not saved. More accurately, I was but then at age 16 decided that I wasn’t. I informed my parents of this gently, I thought, by announcing one Sunday that I was no longer going to attend church. My father wept. He lay face down on the couch and cried like a child. My mother stood nearby, her arms crossed. “Look what you’ve done,” she spat. Since then my father has rarely passed up an opportunity to save my soul. Was the story of the nun another attempt? Another swipe at the devil inside me? By telling me the story, was he perhaps telling me that he would not be completely saved until I, too, was saved, and that my path to salvation – and as a result, my father’s – might be through music?

 

          We were connected, my father and I, through music. My mother is next to me in church, in her 1964 heels and suit, but it’s my father, up front, dressed in robes, that I watch. He motions us to stand, tells us the hymn number, and knows just when to come in, on just the right note. His lips widen and elongate to enunciate each word: A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Later on – 1970, 1972 – I’m the one at the podium, leading with my guitar. I have learned the rhythm of these services: when to get the clapping going, when to slow it down, when to flip my guitar behind me, step closer to the microphone and speak my story.

 

I once was lost.

 

          My father and I would sing together at parties. The church folk were always having parties: Friday pot-lucks, Saturday socials. These weren’t times for religious songs – even my father knew that. We sang folk songs and hits by the Kingston Trio or Burl Ives. We practiced at home, working out the chords and harmonies, then performed in people’s living rooms, standing on milk crates, the furniture pushed aside.

 

          My father’s guitar was a Martin with ivory pegs that he’d had since college. The only other thing he’d had since college, he used to tell me, was a hollow place on the side of his head. Each time he told the story, he’d take my hand and guide my fingers to a place above his right ear. At first I could only feel dry scalp, but then I found it -- an indentation the size of a fist. He’d been a freshman at Harvard, crossing a street on a rainy night. One car hit him and threw him into the path of another. “A human volleyball” is how he puts it. Six weeks later when he woke up, the doctors told him he should be dead. “I knew then that God was real,” he would say. “My body was saved; it was time to save my soul.”

 

          My father gave me his guitar years ago. I’ve been told it’s valuable now, though the body is cracked and the ivory pegs are brittle. They crumble when I turn them, as I try to find a tune, an old cowboy song, slow and homesick:

 

Old Bill Jones had a daughter and a son.

 

Te son went to college and the daughter went wrong.

 

His wife got killed in a barroom fight.

 

But still he keeps singing from morning till night.

 

          I don’t sing anymore. Not really. Not the way I did – practicing, perfecting for an audience. I sing now as I cook or drive -- incidental humming really. When my children were younger, they would invariably tell me to stop. “Mo-om” is how they put it. But they sang and I couldn’t stop them. Anytime, anywhere is a good time for a child to sing. They sang in the bathroom and while setting the table, they sang while doing their homework and at dinner. Why talk when you can sing? They opened their mouths and songs came out -- snatches of radio hits and jingles, TV theme songs. Sometimes they ‘talked’ to each other in song. A favorite was “Feed the cats” to the tune Doe, a Deer.

 

          When I picked them up from sleep-away camp one summer, they went through every song they’d learned. There were hello and goodbye songs; good morning and good evening songs; songs for feeding the pigs and chickens; songs for canoeing; songs for hiking; silly songs about vegetables and milk; serious songs about the earth and sharing.

 

          In the car, from the backseat, they taught me the songs the way the counselors had taught them. Lucy, the oldest, played the counselor.

 

Lucy: “This is a repeat-after-me song.”

 

Ella: “This is a repeat-after-me song.”

 

Lucy: “Mom, you have to say it too.”

 

Me: “Oh, ok. This is a repeat-after-me song.”

 

Lucy: “And a do-as-I-do song.”

 

Ella: “And a do-as-I-do song.”

 

Lucy: “Mo-om, you have to say it, too.”

 

          It was 1975. I heard Patti Smith on the radio for the first time. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine. It was a frantic, mumbled plea from the gut, angry and defiant. I shut my bedroom door to try on her sound. I slid my hands over the neck of my guitar, not so much fingering chords as searching for something that would express what I had no words for. I had orphaned myself – turned my father into a child, my mother into steel. I needed a song.

 

          The year before, my father announced a new ritual in our house: “We’re going to say catechism before dinner.” My older siblings were off at college. It was me, alone at the dinner table with my mother and father. Catechism was something I only knew about vaguely, from my Catholic friends. It was memorization, rote, right and wrong. We didn’t do that in our church. We were emotional. We said, “Praise Jesus” and “Amen” whenever the spirit moved us. But something moved my father that year. Perhaps he sensed he was losing me, perhaps he thought he needed a tighter grip. Or it could have had nothing to do with me. The need could have been all his: assurance and comfort in swift, concise answers.

 

Q: Who made the world?

 

A: God made the world.

 

Q: Who is God?

 

A: God is the creator of heaven, earth and of all things.

 

Q: What is man?

 

A: Man is a creature composed of body and soul and made to the image and likeness of God.

 

This is a do-as-I do, repeat-after-me song.

 

          When Lucy was in 5th grade, she took an overnight trip with her class. They traveled several hours and took a fancy bus with cushioned seats, a bathroom, a VCR.

 

          “Did you sing during the bus ride?” I asked when she got back. I had memories of church-camp bus rides. Someone rowdy would start a rendition of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and we’d all join in.

 

“Nah. We weren’t allowed.”

 

“Weren’t allowed?”

 

“The driver said it would distract him. But we watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

 

          I felt a tinge of loss. Singing together had gone the way of other childhood rituals – riding your bike aimlessly up and down the street, slamming the screen door behind you, calling over your shoulder, “See you later, Mom.”

 

          When my kids were toddlers, I filled our long days with activities. Music classes were a favorite. We sat in a big circle on the floor of a church basement. We sang and clapped and marched together. We played percussive instruments. We pretended to be elephants, birds, or mice. And then when the hour was over, the teacher would settle us with a lullaby. Hush baby, sleep baby, dream baby. I always found myself on the verge of tears during these songs. I’d nuzzle my child but bite my lips to keep from sobbing. I’d focus on my grocery list, what I could make for lunch. I’d look around the circle to see if others were so moved, but they were as cheerful during the lullaby as they were during The Donkey Song. What is it about music that chokes me up? Is it the church memories -- the choir softly humming while my father reaches his arms toward heaven? “Dwell on the evil of your soul.” “Give yourself to Jesus.” The organist improvises and we step forward.

 

          Once on a crowded subway car a huge man grabbed my arm and whispered fiercely into my ear, “God knocked me down in Arizona.” Then he was gone. I was shocked. I felt assaulted. I rubbed my arm, my ear, but his touch had burned into me. And though I knew better, I couldn’t help but feel chosen. He grabbed me, not the woman next to me, not the man behind me. This was a message for me. Years later I can still hear his voice: “God knocked me down in Ari-zone-ah.” I picture him, large and crazy, on his knees in a desert. I picture my father knocked down, knocked down and battered on a cold, rainy night in Cambridge.

 

I will not step into that street.

 

          One time when I was home from college, my father played a parlor game with his Bible study group. I was in the kitchen, helping with the food. Everyone had to decide what famous person they most wanted to be. They then paired up with someone else and asked each other yes-and-no questions until they guessed the person correctly. My father’s partner, Alan, asked and asked but couldn’t guess my father’s person. The others all finished and were moving into the dining room for hors d’oeuvres, but Alan still plied my father with questions. Finally, frustrated, he gave up.

 

“Pavarotti,” my father stated proudly. “Luciano Pavarotti.”

 

          Alan couldn’t believe it. “Pavarotti?” he exclaimed. He must have thought my father would have chosen to be a saint or religious leader.

 

          As if to prove it, my father started to sing an aria -- one of the famous ones from Aida or Tosca. He sang it as if he were on stage, roses strewn at his feet. People drifted into the living room, curious. I leaned against the door frame.

 

          “Who knew?” Alan shook his head. My father had tears in his eyes as he held the final note. Perfect Italian. Not a bad tenor.

 

knew.

 

You can lose yourself to music.

 

          One day, as I was making dinner, Ella pulled me from the kitchen. “Come, come,” she said calmly but urgently. She led me to her bedroom, stopped in front of the open window and said, “Shh.” I listened. At first I couldn’t hear anything, but then softly, as if on a breeze, I heard singing. It was a single voice, a prayer I realized, sung by a muezzin from a nearby mosque. “It’s so beautiful,” Ella whispered. And it was. Listening made me want to creep closer, kneel down, bow so I could tuck the voice closer to my heart.

 

          I hear the prayers often now, if I’m at home at the right time, the windows open, the wind just so. It never fails to stop me, pull me out of what I’m doing. Sometimes I stand still, the way Ella and I did that day. I take a breath, close my eyes, open my heart. Every religion knows the power of song.

 

II. Running

          Our apartment is on the top floor of a four-floor building. When my kids would leave the house, they would barrel down the stairs, two, three, four at a time. They would push out of the front door onto the sidewalk and run to the corner. When I picked them up after school, they would throw their backpacks at me and take off. They would run to the park and choose a myriad of games to play – Alligator, Fruit, Survivor – that all amounted to the same thing: running, fast.

 

Why walk when you can run?

 

          While they were still in elementary school, the girls joined a track and field program. Every Sunday we’d take the #1 train uptown where they learned javelin and high jump and did lots and lots of running. “I like to run,” Ella told me one day on the train home, then added, confidently, “I’m really fast.”

 

          There were perhaps 200 kids in the program, grouped by age and gender. Ella was one of the tallest in her age group, her stride long and easy. There were some kids – the shorter ones – whose legs whirled like tiny helicopter blades as they ran. From where I watched on the bleachers, they reminded me of cartoon characters, their legs a blur. I’m sure that all of them had said to their parents something along the lines of, “I like to run” and “I’m really fast.”

 

          The oldest age group was 12- to 14-year-olds. There were 20 boys and 3 girls in this group. The girls seemed uninterested in racing. They jogged half-heartedly around the track. One day, a boy from their group stood on the sidelines and yelled to them, “Run you pigs, run!” The girls paid him no mind, but when they finished their laps, they fiddled with their t-shirts, touched their hair. They had grown into bodies they didn’t yet know what to do with.

 

          My father used to tell us – his congregants – that the word ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin word for ‘breath.’ It was a recurring point he made in his sermons. “Doubt,” he would look out at us sternly. “You doubt the Spirit, but do you doubt your breath?”

 

          In December of 2001, Ella was three years old. Her preschool was giving their annual winter concert. We – all of New York City – were still in shock then. All of us knew people who had lost friends and family members. The ‘missing’ posters that hung ubiquitously on telephone poles and street signs had become ragged and weather beaten. The smiling people they described had not yet been found. A few weeks earlier I had attended the funeral of a firefighter. The casket was empty. We still couldn’t believe in these deaths.

 

          There was also fear. Not below-the-surface fear as there is now, but palpable, visible fear. We rode the subways grimly, eyeing the people around us. There had been an anthrax scare and we could too easily imagine white powder on the floor of a train car. Would our fellow passengers be our killers or our companions in death? Would we step over them or stop and help? Push or take their elbow? We all thought about this.

 

          So on that December day, as parents gathered in the preschool auditorium, there was a need for ritual and comfort. Each class did a performance. The parents applauded, photographed and waved. This was good. Life goes on.

 

          And then it was time for the finale. All the children gathered on stage. They were going to sing something big and meaningful, and I felt tears rising in anticipation. I dug my nails into my palms. I made a grocery list.

 

          The piano played the opening chords and the kids started humming. We recognized the song immediately – it was Singin’ in the Rain. Every parent burst into relieved laughter. It was brilliant. These were 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds on stage and when they came to the line hap-hap-happy they threw their arms skyward and did a little tap routine. They were giddy with joy, and the feeling was contagious. We smiled -- when was the last time we smiled? – and we cried. I cried. I gave myself to the song. I wept and we all lifted our arms high as we sang out, Hap-hap-happy. We could have been tossing confetti, the gesture was so light and spontaneous -- so different, I thought, from the way I used to raise my arms in church, try-try-trying to reach God.

 

          Lucy’s elementary school was a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. That December, the building was still being used as a Red Cross staging area. Blue plastic tarps covered the south side of Chambers Street, a membrane behind which the word debris was taking on a whole new meaning. The students were attending classes in a building on 13th Street that used to be a Catholic school. The principal kept saying -- mantra-like, to keep spirits high -- that a school was not a building but the people inside the building. We nodded and repeated this to our children, but the fact was, this building was dreary and awful. We spruced it up one weekend -- parent volunteers. We chose bright, cheery colors and removed an agonizing crucifix from the auditorium. Someone with a darkroom turned every child’s school picture from the prior year into an 8 x 10 poster. These were pasted along the stairwells. It was an effort to say Welcome, you belong here, but to me the portraits looked like the Missing posters, smiling faces of the lost.

 

          September 11 was Lucy’s first full day of kindergarten. I had just dropped her off when the first plane – not yet the first plane, just a plane -- roared over my head. When the second plane hit, I ran back to Lucy’s school. Parents were running in the halls, screaming. I held my arms out like a traffic cop. “Walk, walk,” I spoke in a voice conjured from my father. Parents obeyed, and I found my way to Lucy’s classroom. The teacher had the children seated in a circle on the carpet. They were singing a song about putting your hands on your shoulders. I sat next to a crying boy and put my hands on my shoulders, the way the song said, then my knees and toes, and when the song ended, I took Lucy. We left out of a side door and fled north – the only direction without the burning towers in our view.

 

          That night for a lullaby, the song on my lips was one from my church days. I didn’t even know I remembered it until I was lying next to the girls, hugging them, rocking, trying to find comfort. The tune slipped out of my mouth. It was a minor key, a plea. I hastily improvised new words: ‘Jesus’ became ‘spirit’ and ‘Lord’ became ‘love’. I didn’t want to turn back into a Christian tonight, not here, not now. But this was the tune that found me.

 

          Across the street a vigil had started at the fire house. Eight men were missing, men who were our friends, who we would wave to every day. Their truck -- the truck they let the girls sit in on Saturday mornings, the truck with lollipops hidden in secret compartments -- was nowhere to be found. People, neighbors, were gathering. I could hear them as I lay with my children. They were singing. I recognized the tune: Amazing Grace. It felt just right. It wasn’t a repeat-after-me song or a do-as-I-do song. It didn’t shame or command me. It was simply an outpouring. It’s what we do. It’s what we all do. We sing when we can’t yet talk, can’t yet cry. I once was lost but now I’m found.

 

          I stand at the window and think of my father. He thinks I ran from God. He thinks I’m running still. He prays daily for that mighty bulwark to find me. His eyes are moist with faith.

 

What is man? I inhale. Breath, spirit.

 

          Here’s my answer: I, too, have faith, learned from my children, who are now asleep, dreaming of a new day. Why talk when you can sing? Why walk when you can run? Let’s push against the air, create a wind that whistles in our ears. There’s a tune there, and it’s of our own making.

bottom of page