The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by them, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because the sidewalk could pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or cash register. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time your neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

And you feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.

 

Aperture

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking down the street— my head cloudy with argument—a low hum descended upon me like the rrrrmh of a plane passing overhead. Around me, empty storefronts huddled together for warmth on this, the first chilly evening in October. How could a city street be so dark? I looked above me. A thick canopy of oak leaves blocked all but a sliver of light. The trees on either side of the street seemed to be reaching out, as if still consoling one another after the trauma of being separated.

Ahead, a single light illuminated one side of several oak trunks. I jaywalked and found the aperture of an open doorway. The contrast between my dark neighborhood and the beacon made me feel like one of those innocent characters in books—Alice or Meg Murry or the Pevensie children— who encounters a portal to another world. A syncopated shadow blocked the light for milliseconds at a time. I could just make out a sign above the door; it read Jodo Shinshu Temple.

Inside the upended rectangle I saw the profiles of three men wearing bright red robes with orange trim. They raised their arms parallel to the parquet floor and turned a slow circle. Their hems gently rose away from their sandals. The men turned again and my eyes rose to their faces. Six half-moons and three slashes of a comet’s tail— closed eyes, pursed lips. I continued listening and watching as they danced. Their turns seemed random to me, but their synchronicity never faltered.

“Excuse me.” A woman brushed past me on the sidewalk. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking, but of course I had. I mumbled something embarrassed and apologetic, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. She may as well have entered a portal herself. I turned my back to the door so I could walk across the street. Somehow, putting it between the men and me made me feel less disrespectful. I waited for a car to go by and then I crossed. Mid-stride, I heard an exclamation of surprise, then the hum abruptly stopped.

When I turned around, one of the men was leaning out beyond the threshold with his cupped hands out in front of him. After a beat, he unclasped, releasing a small bird from his palm. It glided to one of the oak branches somewhere far above my head. No longer able to distinguish bird from shadow, I lowered my head toward the doorway: to ask the man about the bird or the humming or the meaning of Jodo Shinshu, but he had already ducked back inside.

I couldn’t just abandon such an inexpressibly meaningful occurrence, so when the humming started up again, I walked to one of the oak trunks and placed both hands on the dappled bark. Just for a second. Then I went straight home.