I took the dog for a walk at dusk last night, and found myself thinking about a time when I was young, when I won prizes and had a story published. I was sixteen, seventeen, and the world held so much promise. But I floundered when it came to writing anything new, and my mother pronounced my words “bitter.” I had done my best work early, and after that, I was like a failed spring, a river run dry. I survived my years at university, studying mostly literature, by putting all my energies elsewhere. I was more lost than I was in love with what I was learning, and I only did what it took to get by, doing nothing that I thought I might fail. I had no idea about myself, no idea about the quirks that explained why I felt so lost academically, why I wasn’t what I had been expected to be. I lasted long enough to graduate, and in my final year, to take a creative writing paper. But I had no interest in revising my work, or in playing pretty word games. I wrote nothing that meant anything to me, or to anyone else. My light had fizzled out.
I went to a dance show with Greer last year, and at the end of the show the dancers invited the mostly school-age audience to come up on stage and dance with them. Greer, all curly-headed six years of her, was up there like a shot. She set herself up at the centre front of stage, locked eyes with the audience, and danced. The song was “Party Rockers,” of course, and she found her rhythm and got shuffling, right there at the front of the stage. More kids came up, and some of the professional dancers tried to encourage them to show us their moves. There were a few half-hearted attempts and some fun had around the edges, but the space wasn’t really working. A little six year old girl was dancing, face to the audience, literally stealing the limelight.
I was glued to my seat in shock. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I felt like I was under the spotlight as much as she was, as if everyone in the audience knew that she was my daughter. Of course they didn’t, and the scene eventually sorted itself out. One of the older dancers gently encouraged Greer away from the centre of the stage so that the group of kids could spread out and share the space. Greer came back at the end of the song beaming from ear to ear, and she got several high-fives and big smiles from the people around us. I told her how proud I was of her, and what a good job she’d done, and she was happy. She had no idea what had really happened, she told me later that she couldn’t even see the audience.
There was nothing prodigious about Greer’s performance on stage that day, except this, she got up there and did what she set out to do. She didn’t freak out when she realised all the kids around her were older, and she wasn’t dazzled by the lights, or the audience she knew was out there somewhere. She walked up to the front of the large auditorium, climbed up onto the stage, and started shuffling. She kept on shuffling until the song finished. She stayed her course.
It’s the best that any of us can hope for, in whatever time we have here in this life. To get out there and do what we’ve set out to do, to stay our course. I don’t mean “do”, in the sense of achieving a certain group of external markers, and I don’t mean “stay the course” as if that course is a tangible set of tasks or goals we must complete in a lifetime. I mean “do” as in become ourselves, the word my friend Stu used on a facebook comment on my last post, when he talked about life as a process of “becoming.”
I watched a cheesy clip from a Michael Buble concert that’s been circling around for a couple of years. In it Buble has a conversation with a woman in the audience who tells him she’s at the concert with her son, and that her son can really sing. So he gets this kid up on stage with him. The kid is sixteen, and looks like any ordinary guy, and Buble really just has fun with him and his mother, doing a bit of audience interaction before his next song. Buble asks the boy to sing with him, holds the microphone between the two of them, and then the kid opens his mouth and sings and everything changes. The audience erupts, Michael Buble jumps back, puts the microphone in the boy’s hands and lets him sing solo. The boy’s voice is incredible, astounding for a sixteen year old, and completely unexpected. Buble is obviously impressed, and the camera catches the mother standing in the audience with tears running down her face, completely overwhelmed. Because she knew that kid could sing, and she’s been hoping and praying and wishing he’d get a chance to, one day.
I know these stories are common now. You can’t do much without someone sticking a camera in your face, and we seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for seeing “ourselves” on screen. Between The Voice and X-factor, and all the other versions of reality TV that multiply every day, we can’t get enough of seeing real people have their fifteen minutes of fame. Consequently, our idea of success has been narrowed to the group of activities that television producers deem worthy of putting in front of a camera. I’ve seen how this works; my two big girls are obsessed with The Voice. They watch it with their Dad any chance they get, give running commentaries as the show progresses, and talk constantly, on first-name basis, about “Joel” and “Seal” and what they themselves are going to do when they’re on The Voice one day. Their eyes light up with the wonder of it all, and with the sense I recognise in them because I felt it in myself, that there is something they are going to woo the world with.
I feel a bit like that sixteen year old boy as he was climbing up on stage. As if despite all my attempts, failed and otherwise, I haven’t really opened my mouth yet. And when I do, well I think it’s going to be a good sound. Actually, I know it’s going to be a good sound, because I can hear it echoing within me, getting ready to roar. I don’t say this because I’m anything special, not at all, I say this because I think most of us, whether we’re sixteen or sixty, are in that same waiting space. We know there’s something in us, we feel we’ve got something yet to give, and so we wait and hope and wonder whether our moment will come.
By the time I’d turned around and started walking back home last night there was only the faintest hint of light in the western sky. I could barely see the road ahead of me, but I wasn’t scared. The sky was dark but the day was still fresh, as if it was only just drawing to a close. I knew that all the way over in the city, under those burning beads of light, were queues of cars still inching their way home. And around me, in the handful of houses that had people in them, dinner was being prepared and stories about the day were being shared. I stopped, pulled back the hood of my jacket, and listened. There was the faraway woosh of cars along the main road, and the wind blowing lightly around my ears and up in the trees. A cat miaowed strangely in the distance, and around and through it all was a peaceful silence. It was a contented, full silence. The contentment of a good day’s end.
That’s the best we can hope for, when we get to the end of our lives. Not the applause of an audience, nor the approval of critics, nor the praise of judges. Those things, as reassuring as they are along the way, are not the things that will give us contentment when our time comes. No, it’s what we did when we finally opened our mouths to sing that we will remember. When we finally started living the life that only we could live, and found that within us we had the most remarkable gifts to offer. That we had a love that had taken a lifetime of faithfulness to sustain; that we had forgiveness and had risked everything to give it; and that we had hope deep inside of us, despite the circumstances. These were our gifts, this was our true life, this was how we managed to woo the world. And at the end, when the lights went down and all was silent, we were content. We gathered around a warm table and shared stories. It had been a good day.