Tomorrow I am singing. Today I have a cough. The roof of my mouth is inflamed, the crucial soft palate compromised, and there are mild white splotches in the back of my throat. I practiced “Rocket Man” in my apartment earlier — a speaker held at max volume and at minimum distance from my right ear. In my first and third go-rounds I failed to hit the high note after the second verse without relying on falsetto; I’ve been wanting to hit the entire thing in my head voice (what singers call the non-falsetto range), which not even Elton can do. But the encroaching cold precluded successful successive attempts. I’m only going to be singing the song once, with a local Sayulita cover band at a bar where the sidewalk functions, at climactic moments, as a dance floor. But the musicians are quite good and there will be people there who could change my life in ways both big and small.
I planned all day to pray to Saint Jude (or in the Spanish, as I prefer to refer to him, San Judas); I wrote it on my list, next to "meditate." I have done neither, instead focusing on circumventing whatever it is that is growing in my throat and around my tonsils, consuming more ginger and turmeric in the past 24 hours than I have in the past two or three months, smoking as sparingly as my tobacco addiction will allow, and medicating, preemptively, the anxiety I’ve expected to snowball as the day grew shorter, taking 600mg of the anticonvulsant Gabapentin, three L-theanine capsules, a dropper or so of sublingual CBD oil. These material preparations have nearly rendered unnecessary the spiritual variety — nearly.
Two months ago, I suddenly began a conversion to a new belief system, a whatever-works hodgepodge of my unformed commitment to Emmanual Levinas’s concepts of proximity and recognition overlaid with ineffable — and perhaps inactionably vague — psychedelic universalisms. It’s been several years since I gave up my atheistic pretenses, convinced by those psychedelicisms that “God” is indeed real if only an unfortunately imperfect shorthand for the “universal consciousness” that I had come to view as entirely willful. But recent circumstances, and their corresponding, desperate attempts at resolution, forced me to recant an even older recantation, a rejection of Christianity as a mode of spiritual growth and actualization. More surprising, I was not only reviving a belief I had been born, and as a youth indoctrinated, into — I was raised Presbyterian, rarely missed Sunday services and participated in not one but two weekly church youth groups up until and throughout high school — but I was investigating an entirely new form of the religion that I had never been introduced to, and with which I remain rather unacquainted: Catholicism.
I am now, for reasons perhaps entirely un-Catholic, an avid believer in San Judas.
I was at a rooftop bar in Mexico City just on the edge of the city’s Alameda Central — famous for its abundant jacaranda trees, the purple blossoms of which proliferate in late March and litter the ground for weeks, especially in a light breeze. (For a truly trippy visual experience, I recommend visiting at this time to watch the florescently uniformed municipal workers repeatedly sweep only these lavender-colored flowers; under the influence of a light dose of psilocybin, even better.) Answering my question, a new, charismatic friend laughed that the church across the street was dedicated to the patron saint of thieves. For the sake of avoiding potential legal issues, I won’t say why exactly my interest peaked at this revelation, but suffice to say that my reasoning was made irrelevant upon my visit the next day.
La Iglesia de San Hipolito is not, as it turned out, dedicated to the patron saint of thieves, who is, oddly enough, Saint Nicholas (literally, Santa Claus of Turkish origin), — and as I learned over the course of the next week, only the patron saint of repentant thieves, which did not apply to my situation given that I was perfectly obstinate with respect to the moral question of my actions. (I still don’t know who San Hipolito is or what he represents.)
After praying and soiling my face mask with the tears and snot of my murmured pleas, I paid my 20 peso tithe, lit a personal candle at the altar, and crossed myself as closely to the manner of the praying Mexicans I had observed before exiting. It was back near the entrance, among the stalls peddling souvenirs and Catholic totems, that I found a suitable alternative to my so-far illusory savior. I purchased a wooden carving of Saint Augustine and the Virgin Mary for my parents, who despite being an almost Wahhabist form of Presbyterian, enjoy any sort of Christian symbolism. But I also caught sight of a figure of whom I was previously unaware, one resembling the image of Jesus but robed, uniformly, in green and white with a large gold medal around his neck, a staff in his hand and small flame atop the crown of his head. This was, as I could read on the prayer card, San Judas. My Spanish being what it is, I learned very little about him from the salesman but still purchased two tokens of my new curiosity: a the laminated prayer card with words specific to the saint pictured on the opposite side, and a small gold-painted metal pendant bearing the same image in incredible miniature.
Walking away with these idols, I felt incredibly clean given how much mucus was drying on the inside of my collar and in the pockets of my shorts. All of a sudden, a kind of pure, beautiful rage — which I wrote about earlier this year — resurfaced, and I felt freshly determined, as if my psychological state was no longer downstream from my material circumstances which themselves no longer seemed immovable. This, I thought, was good no matter where it came from, traditional Christianity — the most traditional, indeed — or otherwise.
My phone was dying and I used its remaining life to consult the Wikipedia page for my new patron. San Judas, according to the open source, was one of Jesus of Nazareth’s original 12 disciples — who knew. There is some debate about who exactly San Judas was. There are references in the Bible to Judas being related to Thaddeus (i.e. Tadeo) as well as James and even Jesus. The debate is irrelevant, especially if you are inclined towards to the work of Reza Aslan, who demonstrates quite clearly that we know next to nothing about Jesus of Nazareth, who he knew (he had a brother who was apparently way more Jewish than many key figures) and what he did — we know he died and not much more (don’t get mad at me, get mad at Reza, he’s much more used to it; it’s been years since I read Zealot, but it was seminal in my decision to reject Christianity’s insistence upon Jesus’s divinity and his being the sole route to heaven, which is a concept I also have no use for). What drew me most to San Judas, per his Wiki page, was not anything the Bible claims him to have done or said (if anything) but his history as a figure within the Church itself.
As Catholic legend has it, given the similarity of his forename to a guy considered by most Christians to be very bad (i.e. the other Judas, Judas Iscariot), Judas of Thaddeus was thought to be seldom invoked “for misplaced fear of praying to Christ’s betrayer.” At some point, when the Bible was being translated from Greek to English, the good Judas had his name abbreviated to Jude to avoid further confusion. Having gone so long neglected by the faithful, San Judas Tadeo, or Saint Jude, supposedly became “quite eager to assist anyone who sought his help, to the point of interceding in the most dire of circumstances” — a detail that gives the name of Saint Jude’s Children’s Hospital an ironically darker meaning.
In a rather transparent reversal of the direction of the divine — decrees and symbols usually come down from heavens — meaning was assigned from the mortal upwards. And this is what I love about the patron saint of lost causes; his very existence as a sign is a recognition of humanity’s innate divinity. Sure, God helps those who help themselves — a phrase I always felt to be a tad uncomfortably cynical and potentially hypocritical. (Who needs God’s help if you are, indeed, capable? Does his help make your own self-help work overtime, in which case the faithful ought to be doing extraordinarily? Isn’t this the foundation of the visibly corrupt evangelists of the so-called Prosperity Gospel?) But, as I would find out, San Judas helps those who are unquestionably helpless.
Weeks after my visit to La Iglesia de San Hipolito, and after a few prayers in a few of Guadalajara’s largest churches over the Easter weekend, something happened that I never expected. I had been toiling, as much as my other addiction — to socializing, to the party — would allow, searching for work to supplement my life as a freelancing, surfing beach bum in Mexico. Just when I felt I was making progress, committing more of my time and effort to making things work, San Judas presented me with an opportunity I long believed dead but which I know now was only dormant: I started singing again.
I understand this sounds like no great miracle. Who can’t sing when they wish? That’s not what I mean by “started singing again.” I have always sung; really, I never stopped. But long ago I stopped pursuing it as something I might actually do — as we say of those things that either earn income or are given considerable time — with my life.
When I say I have always sung, I mean I have always sung. I must’ve been five or six when I started singing with the children’s choir at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis, the town where I grew up; I was not a fan of the white smocks with their blue neckerchief-style dressings, and I found the words of scale exercises, such as “mama made me wash my M&Ms,” to be unbearably saccharine and childish. I didn’t like singing then, but it went on for much longer.
As an exceptionally anxious pre-teen, I had to play Moses’s brother Aron in a church musical in which the lead, i.e. Moses, couldn’t muster the volume necessary for the role and to which I was forced to offer my obvious, attention-summoning assistance. I played Jesus once too; I don’t recall singing in that one, not because it wasn’t a musical but because the memory is utterly eclipsed by the tremendous anxiety of having to carry a wooden ladder — they had made no cross and adults had decided this would work well as a substitute — to center stage in front of a large crowd of silent, white heads all impeccably well-lit by the room’s many plastic halogen bulb panels. It would be years before I’d first speak, ironically or otherwise, the thought “I’d like to kill myself,” but had it been in my lexicon then, I’m sure it would have been used as I stumbled to the top of that ladder.
A few years served to gap these more embarrassing episodes from the singing I did in my later teens — having to participate in the middle school marching band, as a baritone player no less, was not all that much of a reprieve. For my 16th birthday, instead of a car, I was given a CD set of Frank Sinatra’s hits, and I began learning every song that I liked, and some of the ones I didn’t, so long as they were challenging. At a church youth gathering around that time, the pastor’s younger son told me, unsolicited by any mention of my singing ambitions, that everyone thinks they can sing until they plug their ears and realize they suck. I went home, and for months after, I sang with at least one ear deafened by a finger; he was right, but I got better.
For hours, I would sing, kneeling on the floor inches away from the powerful sound system my brother had left in the high school room that had become mine; I would go until my voice was too hoarse to hit the same high notes. At some point, my mother had begun clandestinely observing my progress; as a long-time church pianist and a singer herself, she must have been excited by all of this. It was at her insistence — it felt more like insistence than encouragement at this anxious age — that I started singing publicly. Just small things, really: with the trio at my church’s annual, jazzy Valentine’s dinner; my high school’s talent show (no winner was announced); with the band at my cousin’s wedding.
There were exceedingly few opportunities in such a small town as Eustis, Florida, to engage in live music, let alone join a band doing anything interesting. The kind of cafes that had open mic nights didn’t stay in business long. I went to a college with a good music program, but I was studying Political Science, and besides, I didn’t want to do the musical theater or opera that was mostly being taught there.
So I auditioned for American Idol, which is nothing like you see on TV, and hated every minute of being among the hooting, camera-whoring crowd. I did well up until it came time to sing in front of the producers. I’m still somewhat suspicious that my refusal to answer the questionnaire item asking what my childhood was like contributed to their disfavor; though, one of the producers made it known that the song I had chosen, On the Street Where You Live (the Harry Connick Jr. version), was far too outdated to be interesting, which still did not seem like an assessment of my singing ability. I had bought new black skinny jeans, a plain white shallow v-neck t-shirt and red, high-top Converse All-Stars for the occasion. I don’t even like the fit of high-top Converse All-Stars.
Two years went by. I eventually sang in Auburn University’s men’s chorus, but I was a solo singer with a terrible ear for harmonies, stuck on the threshold between baritone and tenor with a distaste for chamber music. I entered into a singing competition called Auburn Idol later that year, and in the final round, lost; well, only first place, with a $10,000 grand prize, was announced. There was no second place and no other prize.
The next semester, I was studying abroad in Ghana, and after showing a friend a video from the December competition, he hooked me up with a local rapper, going by Rumor at the time (his real, and new artist name, is Nana Benyin). We eventually recorded a song, “My Life,” and even shot a video (you can find it on YouTube). A second song and video were lost to the corruption of an SD card.
And then nothing.
I auditioned for a big brass band while living in Alabama and didn’t make the cut; some young asshole in the band asked if I had perfect pitch, as if that was at all a reasonable requirement for an Alabama brass band. I didn’t even know what pitch was, he demonstrated by holding a single note perfectly for a bit; my thoughts were then “well, you’re a fat piece of shit singing a single note you’ve had in your pocket for your entire trombone-playing life, try belting out New York State of Mind you perfect-pitched fuck.” I left for the Peace Corps a year later and resigned myself to regularly singing several hours straight once or twice a week, just to keep my spirits up by doing something I couldn’t not do, something I enjoyed more than anything, the thing I was actually best at and had been doing the longest.
After Peace Corps, I moved to Seattle where legal weed in addition to alcohol and what I passionately argue is the best karaoke scene in the entire country allowed me to sing at a level of proficiency — and joy — that I had never experienced. But nobody came to save me — even though I was eventually singing Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” an absolute banger in karaoke and out. Nobody said, ”Hey, your voice kicks ass. Here’s a record deal.”
Still, no record deal has materialized, not that that’s what I’m after. (This is a lie – I’m only saying I’m not after that in order to seem humble and less delusional, but that is what I want; on the other hand, expectations are only as realistic as the efforts towards them are sufficient — aim for the stars, blow up the moon.) But suddenly, after seven months living in Sayulita, I am singing again, and I cannot help feeling, given the timing, as if some prayer was answered that I was never even uttering. Of any personal lost cause that I can think of, singing is it. To where or to whom do I attribute this miracle. Who else but San Judas?
“Rocket Man” is, I think obviously, about the special alienation that comes from being both enormously famous and extremely talented (if you think it was about space travel, then you’re the person it was made catchy for). It’s also not Elton John’s best song; nobody knows Elton John’s best songs because everyone knows the ones that everyone knows and they are not the best ones. It’s not on the top 10 list that I would make, but it’s a great song to sing, and it’s easy to impress people with. It’s also, crucially, very simple lyrically, so there’s very little risk of forgetting the words at peak anxiety.
I was only worried about what to do with my hands. When your only instrument is your voice, there’s nothing in front of you to shield you from people; which is, of course, the wrong idea for a singer to have. The thought should not be, “How will I stay safe and avoid getting embarrassed?” (in which case I’ll need some protection, some mask to wear while the deed is being done) but, as arrogant as it sounds — a quality we many demand of rock singers — “How I am going to bless the fuck out of these people who have no idea what’s about to happen?” Blessing requires hands.
Had that remained my only “lost cause,” my only object of prayer, then it might have happened. My hands might have been pretty stellar. Instead, I indulged — I got a little too Drugs before the Rock N Roll, and Sex was a distant option. I went skiing, albeit on some gentle slopes, and made sure that I was buzzed — very lightly (I don’t need a house call; I had pressed turmeric juice today; I am a balanced adult, I just achieve that balance using further extremes than most others.) The high note and lyrics were suddenly back on the table and being considered by the Fates.
I’ve grown more and more certain that San Judas — by effect placebo or divine — can save a lost cause. I’m less certain that he cares particularly all that much when a cause is only slightly out of alignment. Either way, I don’t think my pre-performance drugging, boozing and smoking was necessarily my way of “losing the cause” for the sake of a guaranteed rescue. No, that was probably just regular old drugging, boozing and smoking, the kind that’s just for the hell of it. Still, the effect was the same: I was in poor shape and in perfect condition to be saved. The result was a tidy “Rocket Man” performed with vigor and closed eyes.
A couple months have passed, and just as I was giving up writing an ending to this, everything I wrote about came crashing into a wall of irrelevance. Or so I fear.
It would seem, from what I’ve turned up during my many spastic and feverish internet searches, that vocal cord damage accumulates rather slowly, sometimes not showing up for years. I’m not sure if that’s what I have; if what's been keeping me from singing as true as I had been so recently is indeed vocal cord scarring. Aware of my age and remembering the absolute wringer through which I put my voice on so many late April and May nights that became early mornings, I would not be surprised by bad news from an otolaryngologist.
The last several weeks since I’ve been back in Florida, I’ve been slaving away as a house painter, writing next to nothing, singing only in the long car rides to and from work, and producing less than ideal sounds. In that time, I’ve prayed very little to San Judas; even saying his name now, in that Spanish way, no longer seems so comfortable (perhaps, he is finally just Saint Jude to me). I took it as rather given; post-facto; guaranteed that my voice would eventually get its rest, recover from what I had to do with it to find the hope I left Mexico with, and then it would return, with ease and when called upon. I was wrong.
The fear grows everyday now that, instead of a lost cause being saved those few months ago, it was really all just a last hoorah, a consolation prize for an otherwise non-committal soul, a final tour ‘round a what-could-have-been before the what-will-be. So terrified am I that my voice is damaged permanently, that two days ago I quit smoking. Surprisingly, I feel as if it might actually take this time (maybe love needs a bit of fear to aid the cessation process), but I’m still afraid that it might have been too late.
And, frankly, this is what I hate about stories like this, these “personal essays” that I have retreated into these days; they do not end and can almost never be concluded. As for this one, it is regrettably far too early to tell — what will happen to my voice and my ambitions to use it, that is. Not that this at all abrogates the paranoia that my special brain nevertheless thoroughly enjoys building in its rather efficient fits and starts.
I did pray today, however. I held my little Saint Jude baseball-style card and asked for an easy day, to be comfortable with the work I had in front of me, to make time to finish this story. And, almost forgetting, for my voice to heal.