y musical friends tell me there’s no such thing. There’s middle C, they say. Anything else is just G. G above middle C, G below middle C, high G. I think of the note as middle G, though, and I cannot sing it. It’s in what they called my “break,” the place where chest voice shifts into head voice. Singing like a soprano, I emit a breathy sound, as if the only muscles I can summon to push out the note are bunched around my throat and clavicle. Slipping into a tenorish chest voice, I force the sound up from my belly through my adenoids until a headache shoots from the top of my palate through my scalp.
Most songs, at least for women, include middle G. It’s the tonic of the C scale, the dominant of the G, the minor seventh of the A. It’s the note you’re supposed to belt out, if you’re belting. It’s where you’re meant to feel happiest, as a singer. If I were to draw middle G the way I’ve always understood it, it would look something like this:
I’ve been singing all my life. My voice has no character, but most days I don’t care. I can read music, I can hit the notes, I remember most of the words, and I cheer up when I sing. Only middle G lurks inside me like a secret wound, the normal place that feels abnormal, the simple moment that grows vexed whenever I try to locate it.
Make Bs, my mother said. This was when Bs were good grades. Decent grades, you called them. Parents weren’t ashamed of daughters who made Bs. More to the point, they had a shot at popularity. Girls were meant to be well liked. How hard was it, to be liked, if you wore more or less the right clothes, told more or less the right jokes, smiled a lot? Bs were middle G. Being well liked was middle G. I couldn’t manage it.
I had skipped fifth grade. This is sheer numerical coincidence, but middle G is the fifth note of the C scale. In fifth grade, most girls turn eleven and enter the first stages of puberty. Fifth grade is the break. Skipping it at a girls-only private school, I acquired the reputation of the Smart Girl, or the Girl Who Thought She Was Smart. While other girls popped breasts like bread rising overnight, my chest remained stubbornly flat, my pudenda embarrassingly smooth. If I failed to make As, I would be exposed as a fraud. If I made them, my label would stick to me like reptile scales. My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Woolcott, fiercely resented the problem I posed. In the first few weeks of school, I kept forgetting we had homework. There hadn’t been homework, to speak of, in fourth grade, and neither of my parents seemed to realize that I was supposed to be filling out worksheets and completing math problems in the evenings. First thing in the mornings, the school held Chapel, and it was while the girls bowed their heads to say the school prayer—Watch over our school, O Lord, as its years increase, and bless and guide its daughters, wherever they may be, keeping them ever unspotted from the world—that I generally remembered what homework I had been meant to do the night before. I filed back to the classroom sick at heart.
Sometime in that first month I told Mrs. Woolcott that I felt ill and needed to see the nurse. Spelling was the first period of the day. While I was hiding in the small, dark room behind the nurse’s office, where three cots lined up with their thin waffle blankets, Mrs. Woolcott told one of the other sixth graders to open my desk. She pulled out my spelling exercise book, its pages for that day splendidly unmarked, and passed it around the class, demonstrating to my new, breast-budding classmates what a fraud I was.
“Make Bs,” my mother said. “Hide your lamp under a bushel.”
A lamp under a bushel, it seemed to me, might start a fire. I didn’t know my mother was misquoting the Bible, which advises, in Luke 11:33, that no man should hide his lamp but place it on a lampstand, “that they who come in may see the light.” I knew only that it hurt my heart to spell words wrong. When I recovered from my shame and began completing the homework, I started getting As in spelling. Latin was harder, thus easier to aim for a B. When it was time to hand out midterm grades, my Latin teacher, Miss Pruitt, would drag me into the hallway. “Petunia,” she said. She liked to call us girls “Petunia” when she was angry, because petunias smell vile. “Petunia, you are so smart. Why are you so stupid?”
I didn’t know, I told her. I tried to smile. Maybe, I said, I wasn’t that good at Latin.
“You have earned a B,” she said. “But you should have earned an A. So I am giving you a C.”
The same held true for clothes. That we couldn’t afford the brand–name clothes the other girls wore to school (Pappagallo, Honeybee, Lilly Pulitzer) wasn’t the problem. That my sewing skills, carefully honed on my mother’s 1900-vintage Wilcox & Gibbs chain-stitch machine, rose to mediocre wasn’t the problem. The problem was that, once I’d found the fabric and the pattern to match whatever the school’s fashion mavens wore, I went too far or not far enough. I wasn’t content with buying fabric that looked sort of tie-dyed; I had to tie-dye it myself, in colors no one had seen at the store. My polka-dot minidress sported polka dots the size of pancakes. My high-waist bolero pants rose higher than everyone else’s. Or else they failed to rise at all, or I neglected to put enough pin pleats into my pin–pleated shirtwaist, or the polka dots looked like the flocked blouse our French teacher wore. I went flamboyant or I went dowdy. I couldn’t find the median. Middle G, in school, looked something like this:
“You were insecure,” my husband says. “Everyone was insecure.”
“You can’t help being extraordinary,” my best friend says. “Why would you want to be mediocre?”
No one wants to be mediocre. In middle G, I want to say, lies genius. When I was very young, I thought I would be a tightrope walker. I spent hours walking my mother’s garden fence, which was a six–inch tall border of metal rick–rack. I tried to keep my gaze focused ahead, on the knot in the pine tree or the neighbor’s back door. But I never made it to the end of the garden. My center of gravity was too high, my mother told me, and I wondered how she knew. Were we born that way, in our family? Or was my center of gravity a mistake I kept making? For me on the garden border, middle G looked like this:
It may also be coincidental that I am the middle child in my family. When people learn my sibling position, they put on a knowing look. “Middle child,” they say. “We get it.” But they don’t. The middle child is supposed to be the peacemaker, the socially adept. I never understood myself as being in the middle. I was my brother’s slightly younger sister, torn between worshipping and challenging him. I was the older daughter, in charge of bossing my little sister around and resenting her indomitable cuteness. I couldn’t rest in the middle. It wasn’t my place.
It’s easy, and not entirely wrong, to conflate my concept of middle G with some-thing we might call “normal.” My college students talk about writing a “normal story” or a “normal essay.” The defining characteristic of these mythical endeavors is their “relatability.” A normal essay begins with a solid statement, marshals evidence, and presents a synthesizing conclusion. A normal story engages two or three characters in a conflict that builds to a dramatic scene and then resolves. Key to both these normalcies is their kind indulgence of the reader’s limits. The essay’s premise can be fished up from the pond of received opinion. The story’s characters are members of a family or a friend group or a workplace who wrestle with interpersonal crises. They are not spermatozoids. They do not shift from a bedroom in Manhattan to an outer, nameless wasteland. Slavering dogs do not appear throughout the narrative without connecting directly to the plot.
I once had a poetry teacher, a brilliant man, whose wife wrote verses for Hallmark greeting cards. They were hard up for cash, and she had more work than she could handle. So she persuaded her boss to take on her poet-husband. He tried with all his might to write a Hallmark greeting card. He did not despise the form or the audience. He wanted the money. But he was a failure at it, and got himself fired within a few weeks.
The stories my students want to write and the poetry my teacher tried hard to compose fall within certain boundaries:
These norms are imposed from the outside. They are things to which we conform or—recklessly, brilliantly, or because we have no choice—fail to conform. Yet, when Donald Trump was President of the United States, like everyone else I know, I’d cry out, “This is not normal!” I didn’t mean Donald Trump was failing to conform. I meant that I was terrified. I meant the situation was abnormal.
And no, gentle reader, there is no upside to this kind of abnormal. No free spirit, no maverick, no genius. No one yearns for abnormality. Normal, in this sense, is not a midpoint or a box, but a dividing line:
There’s no middle G here. There’s sickness and health, kind and cruel. You want one of those, not the other. You have no longing to fall somewhere halfway between. For the politics of the twenty-first century, middle G is a Trojan horse. Allowed within the gates under the guise of compromise, it will open its belly to unleash the murderous fantasies of QAnon.
Religious traditions—the older ones, not today’s evangelicals—cultivate the idea of a center. The Shakers sing it:
’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.
’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
Quakers meet in a circle or a square, focusing their attention inward. “For the Quaker seesaw, the important point is the fulcrum,” according to a document from a 2007 Friends General Conference. “The individual and the meeting are in balance in relation to each other because of their relation to God, the Center, the Fulcrum.”
Here, then, is the seesaw, balanced by middle G:
Various Eastern philosophies put a third eye in the center of the forehead. In Hinduism, the chakra leads to a higher plane of consciousness. In Taoism, the third eye opens up inside the forehead and creates a space between the body’s two hemispheres. In Buddhism, it symbolizes the mind’s eye, the perfect center where so–called reality vanishes into insubstantiality.
For the past year, I’ve been meditating. What I’ve chosen is the McDonald’s of meditation: an app on my iPhone, in which a sexy British guy named Andy Pettibone guides me through breathing and imaging protocols completely devoid of any reference to spirits or enlightenment. My goal is not enlightenment but lower blood pressure.
For decades, I resisted any call to meditation-qua-meditation. I swam, I pointed out. I counted laps. That was a sort of meditation. But the real reason for my resistance was my brief marriage, in my early twenties, to an avowed Zen Buddhist who looked like the Marlboro Man and who provided cover for me from my sexually predatory employer. We don’t need to get into that story. The point here is that things quickly went wrong with the Zen Buddhist. I thought we needed counseling; he thought I needed to find my center. I agreed to try things his way if he would try things my way. For a month, I meditated daily for twenty minutes. I studied my breathing. I counted to ten, then began again at one. Nothing else in our pallid, distant relationship changed, and he still refused to seek counseling. So I stopped meditating, and divorced him.
On one other occasion, I had tried to locate my center. This was at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. I cannot remember how I found myself there, but it was with a group of inquiring minds. Monks, residents, and guests took their places on satin pillows in a wide, skylit room. We novices were given instructions. Those who could achieve the lotus position did so; the rest of us sat crosslegged and tried not to slump. We shut our eyes and kept silent for a long while, until a gong sounded. During that time, something happened to me. If I had to name it, I would call it middle G. That is, I felt myself for a long moment suspended in time and space, perfectly balanced, as if God or someone held me in the palm of his hand. My head seemed to lift from my shoulders and float.
It was a deeply pleasurable and frightening sensation, not unlike my first orgasm, when the thing that washed over me filled me at once with joy at its presence and panic that the gates to this heaven would shut and I would never know how I found the combination in the first place. When the gong sounded and we opened our eyes, I experienced a tilt–a–whirl vertigo, as if I might tumble from my satin pillow. Afterward, while others walked through the green gardens, I went to visit the Roshi. I told him of my experience. What did he think had happened? I asked. And what might I do to further explore this state of being?
“I will not answer you,” he told me.
But I wanted to know, I said. I wanted to learn.
He shrugged. He could not give me advice. Everything, he said, was up to me.
“I fucking hate Buddhists,” I said in the van on the way down. My comrades looked aghast. My eyes and throat burned, tears wanting out.
In this iteration, middle G constructs a balance point, smaller than a pinpoint, that opens up a space inside. The desire for that transcendent center seems not to intersect with the desire to be average, or with the humble–brag of failing to tamp down individual genius. Maybe I’m making a category mistake. I learned about category mistakes in a college philosophy class. Gilbert Ryle coined the term in 1949 to counter Descartes, who spent a lot of energy distinguishing the brain from the mind. Ryle said Descartes was making a category mistake—“a mistake of a special kind. It represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category . . . when they actually belong to another.”
Maybe it’s not just that I’m putting, say, “making Bs” in the same category with “singing middle G” and “achieving satori.” Maybe what I’m after, with middle G, has the same contours as Ryle was outlining: that is, I am making a big mistake, from which all the little mistakes follow.
Before the pandemic hit, I began voice lessons again. When I first took lessons, ten years ago, the teacher kept pushing me to higher and higher notes, which ran me out of breath. Other techniques I’ve acquired through choral singing include big-belly breathing, bending my knees as the notes go higher, waving my right arm in a circle for the arpeggios, pretending I’ve got a quarter pinched between my butt cheeks. None of these have produced a beautiful sound, and none ever helped me master middle G.
Carol, my new voice instructor, was a slim, long-haired, plain-faced woman who wore peasant skirts. She told me to take a deep breath and sing the note she was playing on the console piano. Then she told me I was doing it all wrong. She came around to where I was facing her from the other side of the piano, and she pressed her hands on my shoulders so they hunched a little. She told me to take about a third of the breath I thought I needed, but to push the breath down, down, down. “Like a piston,” she kept saying. She made a fist and pushed it downward through the air. I was to push the organs of my lower abdomen outward and sing the note as I did so. I needed to use my diaphragm, yes, but the diaphragm is not a muscle; you can’t feel it kicking in. If the lower abdomen swells, it means my organs are being pressed down and out. I shouldn’t tighten my abdominal muscles, the way I’d been taught. Think about it, Carol said. When you lift something heavy, you tighten those muscles, and what comes out of your mouth? A constrained, exploded Oof! You want the opposite, when you’re singing.
Carol sang a short series of notes, do-re-mi-re-do, on a bright Aah. She held her hands lightly on my waist and abdomen as I imitated her. She placed her hands under my chin, on my larynx, to see how it sat. She pulled my jaw down and pinched underneath it, to loosen its muscles and let my tongue flop open. She had me hold the tip of my tongue between my thumb and forefinger as I voiced the notes, to be sure it was relaxed, that only the back of the tongue (which, like the diaphragm, I couldn’t feel) was working. Drool ran down my chin. I didn’t particularly like what I heard coming out of my mouth. She gave me a tissue to wipe the drool. She told me not to listen to myself; that what I hear is nothing like the voice the rest of the world hears.
I shut my eyes as I repeated the notes. I had never actually seen a piston in operation, but I imagined a fat metallic bar with a wide stop at the bottom, pressing down to my ovaries, my uterus. We think of breathing as a rise and a fall, but this was the opposite: a descent on the inhale, a release on the exhale, fall then rise. Every time we met, Carol ran a do-re-mi series first in my lower register and then in my upper register. “Don’t mix the registers,” she told me.
After some weeks, my high notes stopped warbling and going flat. My low notes felt silkier. Something undeniably erotic about Carol’s cool hands on these parts of my body kept me coming back for more. She was rearranging my insides in ways that gave me both vertigo and pleasure.
Slowly, I improved. I got the piston idea; I stopped filling the cavities of my upper chest with air. Carol had me sing a song only on the vowels, and we spent five minutes arguing about whether to pronounce God with ah or awh. As I improved, I began to imagine something I didn’t tell Carol about, even as she pressed into my flesh at various places. I imagined that I was singing, not through my vocal cords and mouth, but through my vagina. I pressed the air down, I let my mouth flop open, and the sound emerged from between my legs. I was giving birth to my voice. It emerged weak, incontinent, mewling, and pure. When I tried again, my jaw muscles tightened, just as they had when I gave birth to a real human child. That time, I squeezed the muscles in my face so much that by the next day the flesh around my eyes had grown puffy and bruised. Now, I told myself that dropping my jaw would open my vagina, like a remote hinge. I pressed down insistently to round the notes into a robust baby. I could not have told you what the sound was like; I could not seem to hear it.
And middle G? At first, middle G felt like the innermost part of whatever gift I was trying to unlock. It peeked out now and then, but it couldn’t seem to go where the other notes—the high and low ones—went. It was the heart of my singing, but a tiny mouse heart, and for a little while, it felt like mercy to leave it alone.
Eventually, though, Carol explained to me: every woman has a middle-G problem, because women, unlike men, have two voices. The point where the voices—the registers—cross might be G or F or A, but what’s important is that the problematic note lies high in chest voice and low in head voice. If I’m singing in my lower register, I have to push the air down harder to reach the G, and by focusing my energy downward, I produce a round sound, headache free. In my upper register, I will get nowhere by pushing harder, but neither will the voice find its full strength. Instead, I need to run lightly through it, to push hard as the tune rises to a place of soprano strength. The trick, then, is not middle G itself, but deciding on what note to switch registers. Middle G is not the middle at all. It is the top or the bottom:
The metaphorical implications of thinking this through are almost painfully obvious, but I can’t resist. Take what’s called code-switching, shifting from one style or register of language to another. When the term first became popular, it was mostly in reference to Black Americans switching from vernacular to formal English. But plenty of people in other groups, including white academics, code-switch. I’m fairly fond of casual profanity in my speech at home, but in the classroom it disappears. Some of my failed attempts to find middle G socially, when I was younger, came from trying to find that exact note, that exact dialect and approach and attitude. I was trying to work within one identity, one voice. I couldn’t let go of the Smart Girl, for whom a B grade was a note too low to carry any authority. How astonishing to consider that I possessed another register where the Smart Girl had no place, where (let’s say) my sartorial choices constituted the high note, where they took every bit of the panache I possessed. The anguished adolescents around me might have seen one whole, indivisible individual, the way you will hear one song when I sing it. But I would have reached strong and hard for those tie dyes; I would have taken Latin lightly. Don’t mix the registers.
Even the search itself for middle G suffers, as it were, from an anxiety about middle G. To focus on balance, on the center, is to awaken fear. The great funambulist Philippe Petit has said that fear while on the wire is the most dangerous experience for a wire–walker. Without fear, he says, “the wire is a safe place for me to be.” Perhaps it’s in the nature of a fulcrum that one cannot know one is on it, or close to being on it. “Did you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it?” Daisy says in The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth, as he climbs the Alps, searching and searching for the point where the rise will become the fall, experiences this:
A peasant met us, from whose mouth we learned
That to the spot which had perplexed us first
We must descend, and there should find the road,
Which in the stony channel of the stream
Lay a few steps, and then along its banks;
And, that our future course, all plain to sight,
Was downwards, with the current of that stream.
Loth to believe what we so grieved to hear,
For still we had hopes that pointed to the clouds,
We questioned him again, and yet again;
But every word that from the peasant’s lips
Came in reply, translated by our feelings,
Ended in this,—‘that we had crossed the Alps.’
Does this notion—that middle G is not middle G at all, that such thinking is a category mistake stemming from the notion that my voice is a monophonic instrument or that personal identity is uniform—apply to what the Zen monks are doing? Does it apply to the Shakers and Quakers?
This side of the argument remains a mystery to me. When Andy Pettibone speaks through my earbuds, he tells me to imagine my thoughts as a young, wild horse gradually being tamed. He tells me to imagine the clear sky that always lies behind the clouds of random associations that enter unbidden as I sit with eyes closed. Or to imagine myself on an island with the traffic of the world speeding around me. These are all fine images. At some point they all cease to apply. To meditate, perhaps to worship, is to perform a search whose object is unknowable. The best result would be to reach the summit of the Alps without comprehending either summit or Alps.
Lately, I’ve shut Andy off. Closing my eyes, I picture the piston pressing down within me, pressing the beauty of my voice toward birth. Press, release. Press. Release. I don’t know who I am as this happens. I don’t know if I am normal. Having no sense of my limits, I define no central point. More registers sound within me than I can count. There is no middle G. ■
Note: Illustrations by Chloe Ferrone.