2016 has been an emotional ride. We’ve lost people, gained some new ones. We’ve won some battles, and lost a lot more. In times like this, it’s hard to keep looking looking on the horizon of the future, seeking land ahoy on the rocky seas of present.
Thus, in the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve decided to share a little story I hope might spread some hope. Maybe talking about some of my personal experience can help someone look forward a little easier and locate the land while they’re adrift.
December – Several years ago. I was the singer in a band my friends and I put together named Charybdis. For the uninitiated, Charybdis is the giant whirlpool that neighbors Scylla, the great sea monster, in Greek mythology. I didn’t help choose the name, but it really spoke to the kind of style we were trying to make. Epic rock, lots of hair, sick guitar solos, fantasy – all the things we were into at the time. We had a TOOL meets Linkin Park kinda sound that I was really proud of.
The band had been born in Summer six months prior, and we had been practicing every week all the way into December. Up to that moment, we hadn’t performed in front of anyone yet, since we were trying to memorize the songs we had written, get the instrumentals down. I was still memorizing the lyrics myself and working on how best to sing them, but by then, we were starting to get things together.
It was then our bassist informed us he had invited a few friends over to watch our practice – two other musicians from the Colorado Metal scene. I hadn’t met either of them, but wasn’t worried. I was preparing to sing in front of a lot more than just two people, so this would be a good way to get our feet wet before we moved to a larger venue. We set up in the bassist’s basement where we practiced, and the two of them arrived and introduced themselves to us. They said they would provide us with whatever feedback they thought would help, so we got in position, and my friends started to play the intro.
Despite all of the people, the front of the band was a lonely place. I stood in front of the two of them, feeling their eyes on me. I held the mic stand in my hand, holding fast to the mast of my swaying ship. My feet suddenly felt unsteady in a way they never had. I listened to where the music dipped, my cue to start singing.
It came. It went. I said nothing.
My friends continued to play, but now I could feel their eyes on me too. In private, I’m reserved. With my friends, I’m anything but. I like making jokes, laughing loud, telling stories, being in the spotlight. So I foresaw no issue with standing in front of a lot of people and singing. Hell, I had done it before in smaller circles. What difference would a few strangers make?
Yet when I opened my mouth, my voice grew weak in my throat, and fell back down my larynx into my stomach, where it drowned. My friends stopped and started again. Again, I missed the cue, unable to make a sound. I was stock frozen, gripping the mic stand like a vice. If I let it go, I would fall into the abyss below. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, what to do with my feet. All of my daydreams of being a sexy rocker were like vapor trails, dissipating as I reached out for them to inspire me.
They stopped and there was silence. I cleared my throat to get my voice back up and apologized. What was wrong with me? This had never happened before. I had been nervous in front of people, true, but I had always come through in the end. I had made speeches, danced at recitals, all manner of public displays. But something about this muted me.
The two critics my friend had invited figured they could help. They were very understanding of my sudden onset stage fright, and offered some remedies that had helped them in the past. One exercise involved watching some YouTube videos of other frontmen – people that knew how to engage a crowd. Axel Rose, Freddy Mercury… They all had this indomitable energy I figured I would easily be able to access, but at that moment, I felt none of it. Stevie Wonder really stuck with me. He was blind and able to really move an audience. It didn’t really feel appropriate to point out that the fact he was blind made sure he couldn’t see the audience watching him, so he could ignore them, but the man did know how to really bring a room to life, sight or no sight. I watched other people doing what I dreamed I could do, and felt myself shrink in my chair. They must have sensed my growing depression. They changed tactics.
The other guy was a singer in his own band, and he had an idea. He said he would stand with my friends as they played the song and show me some moves. He didn’t know what the lyrics were, but at least he could show me how to be loose on stage. I took his seat, and they took their places. They started playing the songs we had worked on, while I watched someone else take my place with them, moving to the music, and performing as best he could without lyrics.
I glimpsed a solemn future. I was standing in the audience of a small bar, the music blaring around me. I looked up and saw the stage, where someone else was performing the lyrics I had worked for half a year to memorize. My friends were playing their parts, having a good time, living off the crowd.
And I was in the audience. Watching.
Then I was at home, looking at a ticket I would have bought to see my friends perform in the band I was a part of, throwing it away. I wouldn’t go to all of the shows, I wouldn’t be able to stand there and take it. Someone else would be living part of a dream I never knew I could be a part of, with some of the most important people in the world to me. They had every right to choose someone other than me, they had really worked hard, one learning how to play his instrument specifically for the band. This was our dream together, not for glory or money or recognition, but to make something that would be completely our own. And I was cutting myself out of it.
I stood in the middle of the song and fled up the stairs. When I reached the top, I heard the music cut out, but no one followed me. I made my way to the front door and threw it open to the cold, December night..
Dark Night of the Soul
Playing in a band really makes you hot. That would be a double entendres, but seriously, you get really warm standing up there in front of people. I had worn a coat there, but had taken it off to sing. I didn’t stop to grab it on the way out, so it was only a pair of jeans and an Affliction T-shirt against the cold. I barely felt it, my face was burning with shame.
The future I had foreseen played over and over in my head like a song stuck on repeat, blasting the same, sad note. The friend’s house we were playing at lived in the neighborhood where I grew up, so I knew the streets, even after dark. I was walking and walking, trying to distract myself. Trying to come to my senses. What was wrong with me? What could I do? It seemed so easy to just stand there with them and sing, but now, I didn’t trust myself. The only thing worse than not singing would be to go back up there, come up silent again, and know that I would never be the kind of person I dreamed I could be.
It wasn’t just about being the frontman. I had been shy as a kid, but had changed a lot in high school. I assumed I had come a long way, that I had become more comfortable expressing myself.. I gave myself permission to be loud and funny, to tell jokes and make people laugh rather than wait by the wall while the other people danced. I knew I could be confident and put myself out there. But now, nothing felt certain.
Minutes passed in shadowy silence as I walked the dimly lit streets, watching my breath play in front of me, feeling the heat on my cheeks. A car came driving up the street, and I remember thinking, “They must find it strange to see someone like me walking around at night in this neighborhood.”
Apparently, they did find it strange, and they slowed down as they came up. The windows rolled down, and with the full moon, I could see three girls in the car, all about my age.
“Hey, are you okay?” the driver asked me. I wasn’t even a little okay. The dream I had been working on for the past six months was coming down around my ears. I was dealing with the very real possibility that I would soon be out of the band and replaced by someone better, who would get to experience what I couldn’t just because I was afraid of something I couldn’t describe.
“Uh… Yea, I’m fine,” I lied. In times of crisis, when we should be reaching out to people with our problems, I did what everyone else in the world would do – run and hide. Sharing your problems with strangers should insulate you from judgement, those people don’t know you or the people close to you. But being transparent makes us vulnerable, and that openness – that weakness – is a scary thing. What if they wound us further? Not knowing them means we don’t trust them – they could toss our problems down at our feet and laugh just as easy as lifting us up above it.
Despite my sad attempt at subtlety, trying to lead them away from what was bothering me, they must have understood. We don’t give people credit for their ability to sense when things are inherently amiss. That, and I was walking around with a T-shirt at night in the middle of December in the Midwest. I wouldn’t be giving them enough credit if they didn’t suspect something was up with me. Still, I assumed they would just laugh a little and drive on.
They stayed, window rolled down despite the cold outside, breath puffing out the window in the moonlight.
“Hey, man, whatever has you down, you got this!”
“Yea, dude. Just stick with it. You can do this! Don’t worry about what happens!”
“Just be you, don’t worry about other people! Believe in yourself!”
Now that would be some innocuous advice – something you could tell anyone that looked down and out. Saying those words covers more than half of every human’s problem. Most likely, they were drunk, possibly high (it was Colorado). My rationality told me any number of things could have contributed to them stopping and talking to me that night.
But studying religions and spirituality opened me up to the idea of synchronicity, or that your mental state can influence the physical world. Call it a crock all you want, but sometimes, we need to believe that the world isn’t solid all the way through, and there are simply occurrences that would be lost on us if we could fully explain them. At that moment, I chose to believe that something was happening beyond the scope of my understanding. Here I was, in a rare moment of crisis and self doubt, and some kind strangers pulled up at the exact moment I needed them most, dishing out exactly the kind of advice I needed to hear. My rational mind provided the obvious, boring answer to their presence, but my creativity gave me some more meaningful options to consider:
Angels, descending on the word of some Lord to guide some lost lamb back to himself.
Muses, as old as human creativity, come to reignite the spark of myself like Prometheus bringing fire to man.
Spirits, conjured by my doubt and kindled by the lingering hope in myself, come to light my way back to my friends house to discover who I really was.
Ghosts of Christmas, made corporeal by the holiday season. Their vessel, conjured by the void, was once a horse drawn carriage throughout the centuries. Now, it’s an old Cutlass, inconspicuous and dark, smelling strongly of weed and perfume. They could joy-ride around, looking for lost souls to lead back home, reminding them of their values before they returned to their own realm. Always driving, always laughing at how life around them changed yet continued to remain the same.
Whatever they were, that was what I chose to believe. I could have listened to my rationality, but that didn’t take me back to my friend’s house. If there was ever going to be a moment in my life where I was presented with a sign, this was going to be as close as I could get. Moses could have believed he was hallucinating the burning bush, Jesus could have blamed his hunger for the Devil in the desert. But that didn’t lead to them growing as people, our capacity to be human means we have a connection to things larger than ourselves.
“Um… thank you. Truly. There’s somewhere I need to be. Have a good night,” I said to the spirits. They nodded and smiled, laughing a little to themselves, always laughing at the silliness of humanity, before rolling up the window, one last puff of smoke emerging as they drove away quietly into the night. I shivered, maybe from the cold, maybe from being in the presence of something other-worldly. Whichever one, my body was sending me a clear message. I turned around where I was standing, my next steps taking me back to my friend’s house.
You Got This
I entered my friend’s front door, it had been left unlocked for me. Only a sparse half hour had passed since I had left. I walked back down the stairs to the curious gazes of my friends and the two guests, quietly sitting around. They had been waiting to see if I would come back.
Their expressions were clear in questioning me. Was I all right? Had I broken from the pressure? Was I out of the band, or was I in?
My own expression was determined, if a little embarrassed. I nodded an answer to their questions, clearing my throat.
“Let’s do this thing.”
They didn’t ask me what had transpired – if they sensed a change in me, they didn’t say anything. We got back into position, me in front of the mic, standing before the smallest audience we would have. The music started up, blaring loud behind me. It deafened my thoughts, but not my doubts. I could feel the same choking nervousness rising to dry my throat, trying to drag my words back down into my chest, weighing down my heart. What if I still couldn’t do it?
My cue came, and I forced the lyrics out I had memorized. It was much too quiet at first, and it sounded terrible because of it. I knew it didn’t sound good, but it was because I was quiet. If I wanted it to be better, I had to be louder – had to be prouder. I made myself sing louder, and I could see the smiles on our guest’s faces. It didn’t matter if they thought it was good, I was just getting the words out. That was all that mattered.
We finished the song to a standing ovation, two sets of hands clapping. I smiled, feeling the heat on my face, but we had done it. No matter what, I could get through the songs without succumbing to stage fright.
Six months later, after many more practices and small performances, we played a total of three shows. Two at the same bar to a crowd of friends and family, a few strangers in the back wondering what the Hell these kids were trying to prove. Another was at a church (of all the places for a metal band to play), and was one of the strangest nights of our lives, a story for another time. We never got famous, never signed that record deal or played a stadium, but they were some of the most fun moments of my whole life. All thanks to some mysterious girls on a moonlit night in December. I owe them all of those moments, and if those girls ever read this, all I can say is thank you, whoever you are.
And so, this holiday season, I would like to channel their powers and say to you, you can do this. What you’re working on, what you’re training for, what you’re striving for, it’s within your reach. This isn’t some Shia Lebouf viral meme shit here, you really have the ability within you. It just depends on what you choose to believe. Your dreams are within your reach, and taking that opportunity, even if it terrifies you, can change the course of your life.
But there’s an equally good chance that I too am a spirit, an aspect, ancient and weary from centuries of un-life. I could be older than people, older than stories, older than thought, waiting all of this time right up until this moment to tell you, you got this. You would never know the difference. It just depends on what you believe.
From me to you, from this blog and the aeons beyond…
You Can Do This.