Don't worry - sing!

It was pouring, and I should have been braced for big noises. But one clap of thunder came with such sudden ferocious intensity that it shot me right out of my chair. Equally impressed, all three dogs burst into the room from the workshop where they'd been lazing. Regarding their tail-tucked panic, I responded with the one thing that came unbidden to mind. It had worked in "The Sound of Music" when a new governess (Julie Andrews) found her bedroom invaded by the storm- rattled Von Trapp children - and those "raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens" worked for the dogs as well.

The dogs lay down again, so distracted by the unexpected entertainment of "My Favorite Things" that they forgot the thunder altogether. They are gentle critics, even of a tongue-in-cheek performance.

If I could sing half as well as Julie Andrews I'd do it all the time, but I knew early on that this was a gift I did not have. Sure, I joined my high school's glee club, but they took anyone. We of lesser talents were placed strategically close by the choir's true voices and warbled along as best we could.

I went right on singing well into college, though less formally. My peers and I had a repertoire that covered miles of road and trail on geology field trips, outing club campouts, and spelunking ventures (what echoes!): "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Black Flies," "Pick a Bale of Cotton," "If I Had a Hammer" (budding geologists all, we liked hammers).

Whatever the song, someone would start, and off we'd all go in full throat, with as much unison as we could muster. The range of talent was broad, but it didn't seem to matter to us who could sing or how we all mixed and harmonized. The point was to sound off about our friendship, youth, confidence, the very rocks we hammered - just belt it out.

Graduate school was somehow a more sober and serious affair. I and a new group of friends got down to the business of earning advanced degrees, and I don't remember singing much about it. Adult responsibilities loomed. Oil companies came recruiting in our department, cornering us for interviews.

I fled to England, found a job on a dairy farm in Somerset, and joined a small choir with the woman who gave me room and board in return for (talk about deals) exercising her lovely ponies on the moors. That alone was something to sing about.

As Christmas neared, our group toured hill farms, offering carols to families in big kitchens redolent of fresh tea cakes and clotted cream. I still couldn't sing, but I did my best for such rewards.

The other day I realized that I haven't sung for the fun of it - or for my supper - in years now. I was reminded of this by a group of peers celebrating the 20th birthday of our neighbors' son. Charlie and I had agreed to fence in their large organic gardens, and the celebration wafted out to us from the decks as we worked. I didn't recognize many of the modern songs Ari's friends regaled him with, but I tuned into something oh-so-familiar - the sound of a group of buddies who, never mind how they sang, just had to do it together. The chorus of newly emerged cicadas offered a lusty and somehow appropriate accompaniment.

There is song after 20, but it's never as much about belonging and becoming as it was before. And it never matters less if you can't carry a tune.

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