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Sunday, February 27, 2005


You make me feel so alive

On Friday night I sang Aretha at a bar in lower Manhattan (they offer karaoke with a live band), and afterwards three middle-aged African American women -- who had been on their feet, singing and dancing along -- told me I had "done what I needed to do." I am not usually a good singer -- it's always a pleasant surprise when I hit the right notes, and at my best I usually sound just about fine. So to get accolades for my rendition of "Natural Woman" from three African American women (not to mention several other bar patrons and my own astonished husband and friend) felt, in a word, awesome.

I am not a quintessential New York lover -- I appreciate what the city has to offer, but have yet to fall fully under its spell; every moment of enchantment (and there are many of them) is eventually snuffed out by the feeling of being overwhelmed, by the throngs of people, the noise, the pollution, the spectacle. (Speaking of spectacle, I saw the much-hyped Gates exhibit on Saturday, and it broke my heart that the city's one natural refuge had been invaded...and, by the way, the gates were orange. Not "saffron"; orange.)

But Friday night, in that bar, I had a moment of self-invention unlike any I've had in D.C. in a long time. Being somewhere with people in their 50s and their 20s, African American people and white people, girls with a lot of makeup and women who gave up makeup long ago -- I felt like I was part of the world. Being surrounded by people with unpredictable, unfamiliar stories somehow opened up room for me to have a story of my own. In a city* where at any given moment someone is writing a poem, rehearsing a scene, playing a song -- how can you help but feel the pulse of creative productivity all around you? How can you help but add your own voice?

Sometimes, of course, the city is deafening -- the noise of so many voices crying out at once, some noisy despite their silence...so many stories intersecting, like wires crossing, and nothing is empty, and nothing is quiet.

I think finding your artistic voice must ultimately be a balancing act between quiet and noise, between seeking solitude and finding company. In today's New York Times magazine, 28-year-old author Jonathan Safran Foer is quoted as saying, "Why do I write? It's not that I want people to think that I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness." Yes, and also -- though I'm not proud of it -- a desire to be left alone. I think New York is good for those of us who, if left to our own devices, might spend the rest of our lives longing for the world from afar.

[*I know the same must be true of D.C. -- but somehow, you just don't feel it here.]

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A postscript: 2 films my husband and I saw at Sundance just won Oscars -- Wasp (best live action short), and Ryan (best animated short -- which I wrote about last month). I think about Ryan a lot -- its embodiment of artistic fear -- and it makes me feel like something is right with the world that such a creative, honest work of art is getting the recognition it deserves (I think it took the filmmaker over 4 years to make...over 4 years on what, 8 minutes of film? If I ever find a creative project that I'm that passionate about, I think I'll die happy.) I just re-visited the film's Web site and came across this quote, which I'll leave you with:

"We don't see things as they are.
We see things as we are."
--Anais Nin

"So to get accolades for my rendition of "Natural Woman" from three African American women . . . felt, in a word, awesome."

I'm curious - did it mean more that the comments came from African American women? Would they have had the same impact coming from white women? Why did you specify?
Obviously black women are better able to judge an Aretha rendition than white women. It's simply the way of the world. Accept it.
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