It’s always best to start at the beginning—what Glinda the Good Witch said when Dorothy asked her how to find the way back home.
So, let’s start at the beginning:
1973. I tried out for the role of Dorothy in our class play, The Wizard of Oz. Mrs. Hughes had me, my best friend Wendy, and my best friend Karen sing, one at a time, “Over the Rainbow” at the front of the classroom. I knew—like a second-grader knows, innocently, matter-of-factly—that I was the smartest kid in my class. Who should’ve been Dorothy?
Poised before the blackboard, I belted out my best Judy Garland croon.
Guess who got the part of Dorothy? Wendy. Who got Scarecrow? Karen. And I? What role did I score? Munchkin. And whose stuffed dog, won at the town carnival, pink Kool-Aid kiss on its snout, was Toto? (Mine.) And whose mom volunteered to dye a dozen pillowcases green for the munchkins’ costumes and hang them to dry on the clothesline for all the world to see?
And who said to herself, “I can’t sing,” and began to live out that sentence? I can’t sing. I can’t sing.
In middle school and high school, I didn’t try out for chorus. When Christmas carols floated from a car radio, I’d stare out the passenger window, crying, mouthing the words—Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing... For days after a concert by my favorite folk singer, I’d ache as if he were my true love lost. And I, thwarted singer and songwriter, wrote poems, like this one:
No Place Like Home
What girl wouldn’t want to be Dorothy,
to be spun up high above the dusty gray sky of Kansas
with just a basket, a little dog, and a dress?
Who wouldn’t want to be an instant hero, the pretty
lady of the house that landed flat on the Wicked Witch of the East,
faceless villainess in garish hose and sharp-nosed shoes whose
latest crime was picking on nice folks half her size?
What girl wouldn’t want a fashion makeover from Glinda
the Good Witch, best-dressed in all of Oz (the Lollipop Guild notwithstanding),
her lilting voice a wise advisor on the long strange way to the Wizard?
Who wouldn’t want her wanderings underlined with bright yellow bricks,
ruby shoes to rescue her quick restless feet,
friends with smarts, heart, and spunk that make a monkey
of a dead witch’s sister from the West?
And who, who wouldn’t want home to be only three heel-clicks away,
the family of your dreams waiting at your bedside?
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. I can’t sing. I can’t sing.
How do you commute a life sentence? How do you rewrite that story?
In 2010, I told my Dorothy-to-munchkin tale to a musician friend who’d co-founded the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts, in Lafayette, Colorado. She said, “You know, that’s a creative trauma.” Trauma? I could heal this? I can sing? The one I cried for, the one I ached for, was the unsung me?
In 2013, forty years after that fateful audition, I registered for voice lessons. One hour a week for sixteen weeks. Four months. At the piano, my teacher, Faye, would take me through the scales, a half-step up at a time, first humming, then open-voweling. She’d show me the lesson’s sheet music, reviewing it measure-by-measure, marking the tricky notes. I’d stack my body, earth to sky: Feet. Knees. Abdomen. Chest. Shoulders. Arms. Hands. Chin. I sang Tea for Two. I sang Walking in the Air. I sang My Favorite Things. Eventually, I said, “Faye I want to devote our remaining lessons to ‘Over the Rainbow.’” And guess what? We did.
In the first two notes of “Over the Rainbow” (I learned this in an NPR segment), Dorothy leaps a full octave—between two worlds, Kansas to Oz, black-and-white to technicolor—then circles and yearns, leaps, circles and yearns, on her way to the final high note.
February 3, 2020. I told this story for a storytelling event called “The Bard’s Confession: Sounds of Healing.” I closed by singing “Over the Rainbow,” joined by a trumpeter, then the other storytellers, then the entire audience. I wanted to publicly sing because I’m a big believer in orchestrating breakthroughs in one’s limiting beliefs, sentences, stories. I can sing. Someday I’ll write a song. And I’ll keep writing poems:
Dorothy Gale: The Post-Oz Years*
A sucker for smart guys, Dorothy Gale,
after graduating from Radcliffe with a doctorate
in anthropology, stayed in Cambridge for its dating
scene but soon grew bored of scholarly discourse
falling short as foreplay. She wanted a roll in the hay,
so she returned to the home of her dreamy Kansas
girlhood, where Scarecrow watched over the long,
fertile fields of corn. He’d come far since Oz,
taking night classes in humanities at the local
community college. Tuesday evenings and weekends,
Dorothy and Scarecrow went head to head in Scrabble—
he, a keen strategist, making multiple words in a single play
by laying the lettered tiles parallel to ones already on the board;
she, a lover of words, aching to make mauve, pecan, canopy.
No matter who won the game, they both scored big
in the end, sweaty and breathless and coming
apart in the corner stall of the barn. But Dorothy
was a junkie for adventure, always off on some emerald
jaunt in her mind, the everyday sameness of the farm
not shiny enough, and Scarecrow knew this.
So when Tin Man began showing up at the place—
to fix a squeaky door or a leaky pump or a clogged
drain—Scarecrow hung his head in the books
and in his fieldwork, afraid of a match
of wit versus sentiment with his old friend
from the road. Tin Man brought Dorothy roses
and chocolates; he wrote poems for his love dot,
his oil of dee. But his gestures were too mechanical;
he cried too damn much. So, though she knew
she would pine for his woodwork, everything
in the house started functioning again. Truth is,
Dorothy wanted a mate with more mettle, more leap
in his step. So, that winter, when Lion came by the farm
collecting clothes and toys for the annual holiday drive,
Dorothy invited him in for supper, sunflower biscuits
and a carrot-mushroom-corn loaf hot in the oven.
They toasted to witches, wicked and good, laughed
about the time she slapped him hard on the nose
for chasing Toto. While Dorothy talked about her
dissertation on the migration habits of Homo munchkinensis,
Lion, having barely touched his plate, excused himself,
ambled to the sofa, stretched regally across
and over the length of it, and fell asleep.
A vegetarian since her undergrad days—
a radical turn from Auntie Em’s home cooking-
Dorothy knew she couldn’t be too picky
about certain lifestyle choices in the dating pool.
But, as a chronic insomniac (since the twister of ’39),
she had to steer clear of snorers, and Lion’s snores
were far less sexy than his roars.
Discouraged, disheartened, dumbfounded,
Dorothy Gale did what any self-respecting woman would do:
she went out and found a new pair of shoes.
*Emerald thanks to writer Laurie Boris for including this poem in her 11/30/10 blog post “8 Works Inspired by The Wizard of Oz.”