So begins my annual Lenten sacrifice. Which is why I am not at this moment in bed, resting up for by regular super packed Thursday. Instead I am here at the keyboard, accessing that teeny tiny place in the left hand corner in the back of my brain where creative thought wraps itself around distant memory and tries to make sense of it. The result is whatever winds up on this page, for good or for bad. Perhaps only for therapy.
Anyway...here we go with another self imposed quest for discipline of some sort.
This year I am going to base my writings on the trigger of a picture, randomly chosen, either from my own collection of photographs or from cyberspace. I'm trying to make each picture worth a thousand words, though when I did a quick word count on tonight's piece it ended up being something like 1300 words. I must learn to whittle down. I must learn. I must learn!
Too weary to whittle tonight, so here goes:
“Whatever happened to the alarm clock you gave me for Christmas?”
David leaned over his nightstand, trying to find a place to plug in his iPhone. He was the judge on call, and his iPhone is the vehicle for the e-warrants he often has to sign in the wee hours of the morning when the sheriff calls. How far they have come in the last few years. It used to be the police would ring the doorbell in those darkest hours, and he would quickly pull on his trousers and try to act alert as he read and signed warrants in the hallway by the front door. Don’t criminals ever sleep?
Anyway, David’s new alarm clock was in my guitar bag.
“Sorry Hun, I borrowed it cuz I needed the speakers to play a song on my iPhone for my guitar class.”
These days the music we awaken to is of our own choosing; stored in neat little categories on our iPods and mp3 players. I’m not sure that’s all for the better.
Someone once asked me who my musical influences were, and the most honest answer I could find was “1970’s radio.” The songs my deejays chose to play were my awakening, my inspiration, my reflection, and if they did not naturally speak my heart and mind then my heart and mind adjusted to their tongue.
October of my freshman year we had a contest at Thomas Jefferson High. Whoever sold the most magazine subscriptions got to pick from a dandy list of prizes. Being a natural born salesman, I took the task to heart and walked dutifully up and down the halls of all ten stories in our apartment building there on East Bruceton Road. These were the same people for whom I had polished furniture and folded laundry, seeing that I also had an entrepreneurial spirit and was trying to earn my first pair of skis. So they took pity and ordered subscriptions to National Geographic and Consumer Reports and Readers Digest; enough so that I was the second highest salesperson in our class. There was a large chart of prizes to choose from…a boat (well, actually it was a rubber raft), a leather coat, a bike, and other gear and gifts. But one item caught my eye, and though it was probably worth one tenth of the cost of other items on the list, it was the only thing I really wanted…and I really, really wanted it.
So one month later our class advisor handed me my prize in a cardboard box. I found a private place and quiet moment in the hallway. Set my books down and pulled the end out until the staple let loose, and there it was…my first electric clock radio. I can close my eyes and see it now, feel the fullness in my chest, imagine myself running from the bus stop to the side door of our apartment building, bursting into apartment 101, straight back to our bedroom. I pushed aside everything on the dresser corner next to my bed, slid the fleshy part of my forearm over the top of the dresser to clear the dust, shimmied the chest of drawers out a few inches to reach the outlet, and plugged it in. The new fangled digital numbers flipped on a turntable rod behind the plastic face. Each minute a number changed, the faint humming turn and click became the rhythm of my nights. I aligned myself to that clock. No tick tick ticking like the wind-ups of my childhood, just a steady hum and a click every 60 seconds, with a triple click straight up on the hour, like a whispered shuffling of cards.
Best of all was the magical, miraculous, fabulous ability it had to play music; my music, the music I wanted and no one else got to choose. Thank goodness Libby had similar taste. Either that or she didn’t dare express any other preference from the other side of the room. I had no idea how much the strains of music that emitted from that machine would effect my life forever more. I mean, who would not awaken more sweetly than to Roberta Flack exhaling The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face? I brushed my hair to Bill Withers singing Lean On Me; slid the hangers back and forth on the closet rod looking for the right top for my hip hugger jeans to the Moody Blues vibe. My favorite song to wake up to was Me and Mrs. Jones, and though the lyric was insanely unrighteous I never did feel guilty about loving it. At night the soft glow of my clock radio light eased me out of my teenage angst, my head analyzing the lyric of American Pie, my cravings being filled by the harmonies of the Bee Gees and Bread; my poet heart feeling one with John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot and Don McLean, my newly calloused fingertips imitating the riffs in Stairway to Heaven.
My father had left when we moved into that apartment, one week before school started that year. We didn’t talk about it. Just went on existing like nothing had happened; like we were ok. I’m reminded of it when I babysit my 3 year old Ruby and she pretends she doesn’t care if I tell her “no, darling, you can’t have that”. She’ll pretend she didn’t want the thing in the first place. But I can see her lip quivering. Still, she will not let me give her a hug until her heart is stilled and she turns her focus to the dolly in the corner. We pretended it didn’t hurt when Dad left. At least I did. I pretended there was not a big hole somewhere inside where no one could see. Laid in my bed at night and could not breathe deep enough to fill it before it was time to exhale.
Somehow that space was filled; tenderly, angrily, fitfully, gently, slowly; by the songs that flowed from the speaker on the front of my faithful clock radio. The best prize I could have chosen. Life changing choice some might have called a foolish waste of prize options.
Four years later I unplugged that alarm clock and wrapped the cord around it. Tucked it into the corner of my suitcase and plugged it back in in the dorm room at college out west in Utah. Disco was just coming of age at the time. But so was I, and within three months I was engaged and my head was filled with all sorts of newness. I played my own tunes on my own instrument, and kissed that handsome law student more than I probably should have. My head made its own music then, not being awfully satisfied by the new pounding beats of late seventies pop tunes. I casually listened to the Village People singing YMCA only on the way to class on the car stereo, and by 1978 the music I heard was in the wind up teddy bear in Johnny’s little yellow crib.
But back there, in that little chunk of time behind the belly button of my lifetime, when I was new to the freedom of choice, I thank God for that old clock radio; for the dee jays who introduced me to some of the finest singer-songwriters America has produced; to the miraculous fact that I was born in a time when average teenage girls could even get their own clock radios. I came of age in an age when music was first accessible to the masses. We could all get it; the rich, the poor, the broken hearted and the thriving. It would be years before I could afford a turntable of my own, and even when I inherited my brother’s I owned three albums; John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, and Carole King’s Tapestry. Those albums changed my life, along with the LP’s from my brothers’ closets. But truthfully, my best musical influence, besides the tender songs that entered my heart from my mother’s voice, was the assortment of tunes brought to me through the faithful low fi speaker on my very first clock radio.