Did you ever have a hero as a child?
A real person you aspired to be like?
I think about her often. In fact, I was just telling my younger daughter about her very recently, because hers is the standard to which I compare every female voice. Then this weekend, at family camp, the speaker mentioned my hero.
As a girl, singing or listening to music made chores easier. Like mowing the lawn.
I enjoyed this task, because I tried to sing louder than the trucks on our busy road to hear myself while riding the mower. I learned to project my voice and sing loudly by 10 or 11 years old. My favorite go-to songs were by Karen Carpenter.
In my family we all sang, both in church and at gospel “sings” in our area, where Dad brought in southern gospel quartets.
My older sister sang soprano, and I took the alto part. But I loved belting out the lead when I could, and I gravitated toward songs sung in a lower voice.
That’s where Karen Carpenter excelled.
If you have never listened to her voice, please do. She and her brother Richard were a duo, The Carpenters, and she was also the drummer.
Man! Another reason to admire her.
In fifth grade I was offered free drum lessons and a drum kit to practice on. I was excited to tell my parents about the offer, but they said no. Band concerts were on Wednesdays, and we couldn’t miss prayer meeting. So no. With no discussion.
I could have been just like Karen Carpenter – drumming and singing.
And when the lawn was covered with ice and snow, I slide around on the frozen “lake” in our middle yard, singing “Close to You” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” while imagining I was Peggy Fleming skating in the winter Olympics.
The thing I loved the most about Karen’s voice was how rich it sounded. It was low, like mine, and I could easily follow along. In fact, it helped me develop the lower parts of my vocal range because I wanted my voice to be as full and expressive as hers.
She could hold notes out with such feeling and purity. I wanted to sound just like her.
Because to me she was sure and confident. Her songs spoke of love and longing and fulfillment.
Of course I cannot know the whole truth about Karen’s story. She isn’t around to tell it. And there are different versions depending on the source.
But it is a fact that her life ended way too early. It was February 4, 1983 when her heart gave out after struggling for years with a disease that no one knew much about at that time.
I remember learning of it when it happened. Outside of deaths of family members and friends, her passing probably affected me more than anyone else’s up to that time in my life.
I struggled to understand how it could have happened, how a woman who seemed so beautiful in all she did in her public career could have ever thought she was not good enough as she was.
And the hard part was that there was little known about eating disorders at that time. But it did prompt people to learn, and learn quickly, much more about it.
Soon after her death there was an attempt to educate the public about these new threats to the health of young people, anorexia and bulimia.
Except it isn’t always the young. Men as well as women are affected. And like many things that used to be hushed and covered over, it turns out there are way more people with eating disorders than I ever would have believed, living through those days of first learning it existed.
I’ve read things about Karen Carpenter since then, and while I can’t say with any certainty what led to her obsession with her body image, it seems there was something lacking in her life, something she was looking for. Some say she was seeking love and acceptance.
When she died in 1983, I was 21 years old and seeking love and acceptance myself. It was one of the worst periods of my life. A deep pit I had dug for myself, living a life I chose, making a mess of my friendships and family relationships, refusing to listen to guidance, existing only for my own pleasure and plans.
When I heard Karen Carpenter had died I was devastated.
Her songs gave me hope that the relationship I was in could someday be “it”, while my heart knew all along that it wasn’t. My musical tastes had become much more turbulent than her ballads, but I wanted to believe her fairy tale stories of true love.
At family camp last weekend, our speaker talked about Karen’s struggles right before he dove in to a part of scripture that tells us to devour God’s word, to consume it and be nourished by it and take it in and get everything you can out of it.
Just like food.
When Karen Carpenter died, she was 32 years old. She had developed heart problems that resulted from being severely malnourished.
She had lost the ability to take in and get nourishment from food.
I don’t pretend to understand what went through her mind. I’m reading a book right now that is helping me explore it, Overthrow by Jennene Eklund.
I can tell you that at the time she died, I was in a spiritual state similar to her physical state. I was unwilling and unable to take in anything nourishing from God during that dark time. I was not living the faith I had once claimed, in fact I had turned my back on much of it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was at a crisis point of my own.
Over the next year or so, I knew of several young women who were struggling with anorexia or bulimia. And the boyfriend I thought might be “it” broke up with me. I was devastated.
And suddenly not eating seemed the way to become whatever it was he thought I was missing.
I went on a starvation diet and lost about 50 pounds in a few weeks time. I knew I was in trouble when I found myself retching up water outside of church one Sunday morning, because that was all I’d had for days, yet my stomach wouldn’t keep it down.
Thankfully my parents were able to coax me to start eating again, even though I would only agree to broiled fish with mustard since it had almost no calories, and an occasional poached egg cooked with no fat.
And in my spiritual life, as I got over the loss of the relationship, I saw that the “it” I really needed was a better love, a fuller acceptance than I could ever get from another person.
I needed the love of God.
I cried out to him, and he answered, right away, with no hesitation.
I wish, I so deeply hope, that Karen did the same, and that she was able to find the love of God that answers every plea for help.