Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Moving Between Time Zones or: A Word of Wisdom

by Catherine Boebel Grotenhuis

Berkeley, California June 2010

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Flying back to California late Saturday night allowed me to have that one additional day in Saint Paul to spend with the kids and finish the long list of things-that-needed-doing-before-leaving-for-about-a-month. My flight arrived at 9:30 in the evening, so I’d still get a good night’s sleep, and then have plenty of time to head off with Steve on Sunday morning to sing in the San Francisco Free Folk Festival in the afternoon. Steve already had the schedules figured out for riding on BART and transferring to the bus that would drop us off a mere one block from the festival. Simple. Why, I’d even had the foresight, before leaving Berkeley two weeks ago, to set out my performance clothes so they’d be ready. Talk about organized. We had this one all but wrapped up.

When will I learn that what looks good on paper isn’t always manageable in real time?

Squeezed onto the most packed bus I’ve yet to ride, I can’t tell if I am excited…or angry. Normally, I’d be excited and there’s certainly no reason for me to be angry about anything, today of all days. We are, after all, on our way to a wonderful folk festival!

Yet, I can sense that I look mad. Typically, I’d be watching people, smiling at the toddlers snuggled in their mothers’ laps, or motioning happily for the elderly man to take my seat. But today my smile feels forced, my face—a lifeless mask. I actually have to think what to do and what to say. Can by no means trust my reactions to flow naturally. Smile at Steve. Okay, now answer his question. Yes, take the transfer the nice driver is offering me. In some peculiar way, I don’t even feel like I’m in my own skin. It is painful, although I am, at the same time, completely numb. No, this pain is not in my muscles or nerves. It’s somewhere much deeper; somewhere I cannot reach to massage it away. Less than twenty-four hours ago I was in Saint Paul, seated in a cozy corner table at Café Latte, eating scones and lingonberry sauce with Adria, while she poured out her heart to me. The luscious treat all but forgotten, so absorbed we were in discussing the difficult choices my young daughter is facing.

How can that person be this person, riding through San Francisco in heels and formal black attire, clinging to the overhead safety handle of an overcrowded bus? I cannot comprehend how I am here.

During our ensuing choir warm-ups I can only stare silently at the many glowing faces around me. All of them, flushed with nervous expectancy. My dear husband and his bastion of fellow basses, teasing and jostling one another like schoolboys as they find their places. Amongst the sopranos standing opposite me, Bobbi looks simply radiant. Approximately as old as I, her face in this moment is as jubilant and trusting as a young girl’s. Transformed in song. Singing together is such a joy for everyone in our World Harmony chorus. Yet today I cannot sing. In fact, hardly a sound comes from my mouth as the others begin to rehearse Hanatra, the hauntingly lovely song from Madagascar. For weeks I have worked to memorize the lyrical Malagasy pronunciations of these verses. Verses that, only in translation, reveal the irrevocably harsh and cautionary warning set into such tender harmony. Literally translated “A Word of Wisdom”, this song is bittersweet tribute for a pregnant bride-to-be. Yet innocent ears will hear only the beautiful melody of a simple love-song. I have mastered words and melody alike, so thoroughly have I prepared for today’s performance.

“Mitari bady tsy lasa vodiondry…”

Yet, nothing above a whisper can I manage to utter.

How can people be so happy, I wonder to myself? How can they sing? How, for that matter, do I make myself sing? I literally cannot even fathom how the others’ bodies can be so relaxed, their voices so free and clear. For here I am, standing as stiffly as the guards at Buckingham Palace. My fingers on both hands are turned back and clutching the table behind me, else I fear I will fall over. Or bolt. I cannot bear to stay amongst such joy. I fear I will shatter.

I do bolt, though quietly, and ease my way through the alto section, out the practice room, and down the hall to the Girl’s Room. Here, at last, I can take a deep breath. I head for the toilet furthest down the row of stalls, dash inside and bolt (this time) the lock on the door.

Instantly, the tears pour from my eyes. Tears that have locked my mouth, my heart, and my voice are at last free to release their hold. I lean against the cold, tiled wall and sob and sob and sob. I would wail except for that I know the sound of my keening would reverberate off this tiled echo-chamber and soar down the corridors. No. I choose to weep in silence.

Even as I cry, I can see myself, huddled in this toilet stall, weeping for reasons of which I am not completely clear. How many girls, I wonder, have fled to this very room over the decades, to hide and cry? This “rest room” being the sole place for privacy in the vast, aged school building—a relic built, it seems, around the very time I was born. Somehow I am clear that the tears shed here have been many. I am grateful for the chance to add mine in this safe harbor. I cry for my children who are too far away and so vulnerable in their youth. I cry for my parents who are even more vulnerable in their old age. I cry for my marriage that, today, feels much too fragile, and for myself who am utterly confused, living like this between worlds. I cry, too, for all the young girls who have hidden here—and in bathrooms throughout the world—and have cried.

At last, my tears are spent. I move towards the row of porcelain sinks and slowly turn the archaic knobs until warm water gushes forth from which I splash my eyes. Searching the dented, metal mirror, I can see that my face is blotchy and red. Yet I sense my throat is, once again, open. I walk back towards the practice room, knowing I can now sing.

Mitari bady tsy lasa vodiondry,
Efa viray ny zaza izay vao mba nihoitra,
Tsy misy tsy andalo fitiavana…

Married soon without the parents’ blessing,
To the son-in-law of a dear friend.
Already one child (you have) before starting out.
But there isn’t much to be done about it.
No one fails to fall in love,
So accept what pleases you, even if it is
Not by the law of the land, and not by the law of the church,
Neither engagement ring nor marriage (do you have).
No job even with which to feed the child.
It’s not that the world will be forbidden to you.
It’s the wagging of people’s tongues that will be unbearable.

music credit to Claudia Marie Noelle Ramasimanana & Sanoela Andriamalalaharijaona, Wixen Music (BMI) 1996

Read Catherine Boebel Grotenhuis’s bio »


It too shall pass…thank you for sharing. Warm hugs!

by Odella on December 6, 2011 at 5:52 am. Link

You triumphed!
Both in your ability to “find your voice” at the concert and “giving voice” to that experience through your writing!
You express so well the struggle that many women (especially) feel in transitioning from one of a multitude of heart engaging responsibilities to another with little time to do the inner work of introspection and integration.
Thank you and keep writing!

by Karen Bougae on December 6, 2011 at 5:16 pm. Link

This is so deeply moving. You have shown us body knowing at its most profound level. Your face is frozen. You cannot sing. Only tears can release what is locked in. How eloquently you have given voice to the dualism that drives us. We believe we can do anything until our body tells us, enough! Our spirits soar to respond to the idea that we are invilnerable. But we are embodied spirit and in time our bodies will ground us, remind us that we are one. Your story is such a beautiful expression of this.

by Susan L'Heureux on December 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm. Link