Remembering to Sing

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Recently, I wrote an article about what to leave in and what to leave out when writing a memoir, and it made me think of this story from my life:

When my (first) husband decided he wanted a divorce, it was the end of November, just after Thanksgiving. The cold, darker days marched steadily on in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I was living at the time. I had a plan to be gone for Christmas in my hometown in Ohio, but there were plenty of days that preceded that trip, days when I was still stuck in our shared condo, still living under the same roof with the soon-to-be-ex-husband, days when I dreaded going home after my workday ended. 

At that time in my life, I had two co-workers who were also my friends: Stef and Kim. The three of us had spent a lot of time together—traveling to the mountains, watching Felicity every week (one or both of them rooted for Ben while I cheered on Noel, the safer, more practical choice), eating out, and one night, dancing at a college club, and another night (or was it that same night?), purchasing a CD of the best of the Backstreet Boys and playing it in the car as loudly as we could and singing right along. I’d never been a boy band fan before, but in that time in my life, I was becoming one. The ballads allowed me to belt out my grief and to dare to hope. To this day, any Backstreet Boys song reminds me of that time, and especially of that night, and my two friends.

It's hard to believe, but our trio—Stef, Kim and I—never dealt with any of the jealousies that often come when three people are great friends. It never felt like any two of us were closer than with the other, and we somehow achieved, without any effort, a balance and security that satisfied us all. 

And so it was that on one of these evenings of that time in my life that felt like purgatory teetering towards hell, when the last thing I wanted was to be in that condo, Stef and Kim decided to take me out. I’m sure it was a weekend night, when they might have been going out with their romantic interests but instead chose to go out with me. They drove me to the ice skating rink in Raleigh. I’m also sure I was the one, and probably the only one, who really wanted to go, but good friends make exceptions when it really matters.

Stef was the one who provided comic relief while Kim was the one who provided steadiness. We skated round and round that rink until I forgot, for a few moments and then a few minutes and then more, that I was grieving. The DJ played the crowd’s favorite pop songs, taking requests. We skated round and round. Then, after one song ended, the DJ announced over the loudspeaker, “This one goes out to Julie,” and on came N Sync’s “This I Promise You," which was the song I was listening to at the time, wanting to believe that someone might love me again, this time for a lifetime. I looked at Stef and Kim, and asked if I was “Julie.” Yes, they said, the DJ had gotten my name wrong, but the song was in fact for me.

I can’t remember now if I laughed or cried or both. I do remember skating to my song, and singing to it. And I remember feeling something I still feel to this day when I think back to that night: gratitude for these two people who rescued me for an evening, who would continue to rescue me over the days and weeks yet to come, who showed me a kind of love that has lasted to this day.

Kim and Stef didn’t make it into the memoir but not because they did not matter—I want that to be clear—and not because there was anything controversial about them. On the contrary: there was no conflict whatsoever. They didn’t make it in because I just didn’t happen to tell all of the stories about my life. But I am telling this one now. There are so many others—of my parents and sister, of other friends near and far who held up lights when I groveled in the dark. But it was Stef and Kim who found ways to ensure that I got out of the condo, that I remembered how to laugh, that I did not forget to sing.

A Little Thank You for the Safe and Steady Things

As soon as I turned 16 and was eligible to work, I got a job at the public library. What better place for an enthusiastic reader and budding writer to work? I loved being around books, shelving them, feeling their weight in my hands, and smelling them, especially the old and more musty editions. I dreamed someday I might write a book, too, and that someone would go looking for it in the stacks and pull it off the shelves.

I worked at the library many weekdays, after school, and I would walk home from the library via downtown, always taking the same route: down Xenia Avenue, turning left just before Ye Olde Trail Tavern, cutting through King’s Yard, and taking the alley to home. Every day that I took that route, I passed the little bookstore on Xenia—I’m pretty sure it was Epic Books at that time though later it would become Sam & Eddie’s Open Books

There was a man—I did not know his name then—who was always sitting at the bookstore checkout desk, and often the door must have been propped open because I remember that as I passed by on my way home, I would see him and wave to him, and he would smile and wave back. He was a fixture in my journey home, and there was something safe and steady knowing he would be there. 

My journey has been filled with safe and steady things, and for all of those, I am grateful.

It seems fitting then that when I found out my book was being published, the first store I contacted in hopes that they might carry it was Sam & Eddie’s. You see, the man sitting at the desk, the one who always waved to me on my journey home, was Eddie Eckenrode, though it would be years after I left my wonderful library job before I knew his name. I was there when he celebrated his marriage to Sam, and I was thrilled when he and Sam opened Sam & Eddie’s.

Eddie has since passed away, but Sam has carried on with a gem of a bookstore that offers not only books, cards and gifts but heart. 

Seeing my book in there means more to me than it would sitting in a big box bookstore. My book feels like it’s exactly where it belongs. 

Thank you, too, to the other fabulous independent bookstores who are carrying my memoir: Park Road Books and The Regulator Bookshop.

Claim Your Space

After my divorce, and before my second marriage, I was dating. For years, I was dating. I was in my thirties and in Chapel Hill, and I was dating. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I was going out with men, falling—sometimes more, sometimes less—and enduring breakups, and some of these were easier to bear than others.

I forged one of these relationships long-distance. I met him contra dancing. Because he lived four hours from me, I banked on this fact to assure myself that whatever breakup we might one day face would be made easier because of the great chunk of North Carolina interstate between us. I fell hard for him—his deep laugh, his tenderness, his smooth, olive skin—so much so that after the last time he left my house—just after a beach trip, at the start of which I knew the end was looming but I didn’t want to let him go—I cried for weeks. Weeks that felt like months. And even though we had broken up because he had hoped to change me and I wasn’t changing (or perhaps we had hoped to change each other), none of that meant we didn’t still care deeply for each other, or at least that I didn’t still care deeply for him.

Six months passed, and I was still smarting from the breakup. In the contra dance community where I lived, there was a sweep of dance weekends that many dancers went to, and whether or not you went to those weekends, you knew exactly when they were: Gypsy Meltdown (March), Spring Dance Romance (April), Lake Eden Arts Festival (May), and Summer Soirée (June). And if you were a rabid dancer, as I was, then you marked the dates faithfully on your calendar and you did not miss a single one. But that year, for me, was different. 

The former boyfriend lived in one of these dance weekend locations. In fact, we had gone to this weekend together the last time it had been held. My foot had been injured then—I could walk but not dance—so he had given up dancing, too, and had spent the weekend strolling with me to all the artist booths and listening to music, and at some point during that Saturday evening we had lain on the grassy ground in the middle of the hustle and bustle and thrown a blanket over our entire bodies, including over our heads, and pretended we were invisible to the world. We had giggled as if we were both five years old. 

That blanket, that evening, those giggles were what were going through my head when Dean Snipes asked if I was going to attend that particular dance weekend again, which was coming right up.

I knew Dean because we were both regular dancers at the Vintage, a weekly Tuesday night dance in Winston-Salem, suited for rabid dancers like me and Dean: I drove an hour and a half from Chapel Hill just to dance there for two hours, and Dean drove an hour and a half from Charlotte. In fact it was during a break at the Vintage that Dean had asked whether I was attending the upcoming dance weekend. The expectation was that I would.

Dean was not just a fabulous dancer but a great caller, too. He had a wonderful Southern drawl and a voice that could boom across the heads of dancers and make you look up. It’s the exact kind of voice needed to correct a wayward dancer going in the wrong direction.

To his question about whether I was attending the dance weekend, I must have said, “I can’t,” and then explained that my former boyfriend lived there and would probably attend.

Dean didn’t bat an eye. He looked right at me. And with his booming voice, he said, “Claim your space!” 

I did then what beginning dancers do: I fumbled. I tried to keep moving in the direction I was aiming for, and I mostly did until I figured out how to make the correction, how to execute the right move. In other words, I showed up at that dance weekend. Not for the entire thing, just for all of Saturday, and I made a friend go along with me and stick by my side the whole time. What I did not know then, but what I understood later, was that I was only beginning to learn how to claim my space, and that it would become harder but necessary if I wanted to forge ahead. And I wanted to. I was determined to.

A year or two later, when a different contra dancing man and I broke up just before that exact same dance weekend, I packed up my car solo, and I drove the four hours to it alone. I set up my tent. I slept curled in my sleeping bag in the cold. I danced. I won’t say that it wasn’t at least part-misery—the ex attended, too, and he started dating someone else that weekend. I saw them everywhere I went. I didn’t want him back; I just wanted my weekend world without him in it. But since I could not have that, I chose what I could. 

On the last morning of that weekend, there was going to be an hour or two of waltzing to live music in the biggest dance hall. I got there early, while the band was warming up, and I put on my dance shoes. My ex showed up early, too. But so did one of the best waltzers—tall, handsome, muscular. He took me by the hand and twirled me, and we had the huge wooden floor to ourselves. We danced for several songs while the band practiced some of my favorite, crescendoing tunes. While we could, he and I claimed every single inch of space, and the music, the light, the wideness of the hall made me forget, in those moments, the sadness, the disappointment, the very difficulty of it all.

You can read more about my lessons in love and dancing in my newly released memoir, The Going and Goodbye.