Callie Feyen is doing a series about hermit crab essays over at Tweetspeak Poetry. Her first one is titled How to Do a Switch Leap. She describes the essay in this way:
A hermit crab essay, described by Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant, is a lyrical essay that takes the shape of an existing form, such as a recipe, a how-to manual, a sewing pattern. The rationale has to do with the essay’s content — it could be too vulnerable (like a hermit crab), needing a “house” to inhabit, to shelter it and help it makes its way.Callie Feyen
She’s invited readers to write along, and her second essay is about How to Teach Poetry to Seventh-Graders. Here’s my second attempt.
How to Sing Again After You’ve Lost Your Voice
My freshman year of college, my roommate and I were obsessed with The Little Mermaid. We saw it at the dollar theater more than a dozen times. We were especially obsessed with Ariel’s voice — what it means for her to have it, to have it taken, and to have it restored.
I didn’t make a bad deal with a sea witch, but my life did contain Ursulas, and I did not know how to handle them. They cast spells; I went silent. For a long, long time.
But that wasn’t how I explained my giving up music. I used the universal excuse refuge of all Central Texans: allergies. Here, where freezes are infrequent, every season is allergy season, all the livelong year.
The problem with allergies is that they can take root and grow into other things. Like asthma, which then made me more vulnerable to other viral and bacterial lung ailments. I got sick multiple times a year, every year. Forget singing — there were days I could hardly speak. I saw a doctor, got prescriptions. Saw another doctor, got different prescriptions. When I could talk, I hardly recognized my own voice.
Did I even have anything worthwhile to say?
Not without a pencil and paper, or a laptop. I began to do all my vocalizing silently. Writing allowed me to say things without having to open my mouth. For a long time it was enough.
Since it was to be my first time holding a musical score since high school, I didn’t aim high. There was a list of Male Roles, a list of Female Roles, and one Bovine Role: Milky White. That’s what I auditioned for, and I shared the role. Friends, I was half a cow. I also got to be Snow White in the finale. The experience resurrected my voice.
I wanted to keep it. Definitely. Maybe.
Because a voice, however practiced, is not universally adored. There will be mistakes. There will be critics. There will be wear and tear. There will be pride and insecurity in equal measure. Some people will compliment. Some will walk out. Some will bar the door. Or the sea witch may appear in disguise and steal your prince after she’s already cut you off from your mer-folk.
Is it worth it, The Little Mermaid asks? If you can’t have it all, what must you have? Can it be true love without your voice? Can you be happy with your golden voice and your glittery home under the sea if you can never leave the land? Is dancing preferable to swimming, especially if you can’t tap out a showtune?
Slowly, I made my choice and found my non-sea-legs. There was a period of recovery time —more fluids (mostly tea), more rest (including yoga). And then, with a deep diaphragmatic breath, yes, I’d like to participate in the singing Christmas Tree. Yes, I’d like to join the chorale in time to learn Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. Yes, I’d like to lead singing at church. Yes, I’d like to be in the chorus for The Sound of Music.
It has been wonderful. It has been exhausting. I have new community. I have old community that did not make the leap to land with me.
Each day when I sit at my piano and open my music, I am connected to first-grader me, learning to play; to high-schooler me, on a choir trip to New York City; to college me, when someone heard me singing and told me to shut up, and I did. Neither of us knew it would last decades.
The Disney version of The Little Mermaid ends with Ariel getting everything she ever wanted — prince, family, and her voice. The original tale by Hans Christian Andersen ends with her losing almost everything — prince and family — but she gets to keep her voice. She becomes a daughter of the air, not immortal but ethereal.
This version feels more accurate. To have my voice and use it is, at times, alienating. The alternative — silence — sickens me. The question isn’t how can I get the prince to kiss me, or how do I keep safe my cavern of thingamabobs, or how can I free my father, it’s what shall I sing today?
Maybe an air.