Revisiting A Darkened Auditorium

Carol A. Hand

This morning, I revisited one of my first posts and decided to share it. Perhaps this will be one of my last entries. I have joined NaNoWrMo for the month of November to provide structure and motivation for working on final edits for the manuscript I began in 2015. It’s time for me to take the risk that I’ll once again be sharing my authentic voice in a darkened auditorium to the censure of critics. The message the book contains about the importance of preserving even limited tribal sovereignty in order to preserve cultures that value life is too pressing to ignore for me in these times.

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As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.

By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.

Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.

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Microsoft WORD Clip Art

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The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.

At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?

I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.

Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.

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Photo Credit: Carol Hand, Carlos, José, and children, 1973, photographer unknown

 

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48 thoughts on “Revisiting A Darkened Auditorium”

  1. Oh, Carol! Your words moved me to tears. I can almost feel myself in your place on that stage. As much as I would miss these little glimpses into your life I appreciate and respect to tend to those matters that weigh most heavy on your heart.
    Please know what a difference you’ve made for me. I think of you often and pray our paths will cross again.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comments, Jessie. I miss working with you and hope to see you sometime in the near future. I am not going anywhere. I just need to unplug from virtual reality for a while so I can grade papers and edit. Sending my best wishes to you. ❤

      Like

    1. Thank you so much for your kind, supportive words, Trace. I have been trying to carve out space to finish without much success. Reading the paper you presented recently made me realize how important ICWA issues are at the present moment. I would love to connect with you during my blogging hiatus! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, your post reminds me of just how easily and quickly we succumb to the judgments of others…especially those who represent religious dogma. Ugh. Singing our hearts is so important. You are courageous. My son is a singer-songwriter and I marvel at the way he expresses the most intimate parts of himself (his heart and feelings) with total strangers. He always seems to inspire others in ways unexpected. The sharing of gifts like that seems to empower and inspire others to risk their hearts in a world and at a time that seems to be hostile to this. Be you. You are awesome. 💕

    Liked by 4 people

        1. Indeed it was that. We are enjoying the afterglow of an extraordinary amount of love in the spaces…of our hearts and the venue. I’m so glad you sing 🎶! I’m sure your parakeet feels the love from your heart.🎶💕

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for posting this poignant memory, Carol. Your words stirred memories of moments that do not deserve brain space many decades since, please know that reading this recounting helps me. The replies reassure too, so thanks to all and each. And, speaking specifically of singing: a fellow choir member once unilaterally shared a suggestion in private: “Just ask yourself if you are contributing or not” — followed by a shrug and a walk away.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and insights, Bill. I am grateful for the lessons I learned from this experience, and the early diversion from a lifestyle I might not have survived.

      The encounter with your fellow choir member reminds me of some of the folks I met during those early times – competitive, egotistical, insensitive, and convinced that they were great “artists” who had the right to judge others’ talent as inferior.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol, you had been silenced, at the time, by an evil, tyrannical voice (a voice in the dark), a voice that has ruled over most of humanity for far too long. I am glad this hierophant, this sick, twisted individual, didn’t silence you for good, as he probably had with many others.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your kind words and important insights, Dave. There are those who try to silence others. In the long run, this experience helped me find a way to use my voice with greater self-awareness and mindful intention. Your comment reminded me of a quote from Kahlil Gibran “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The gratuitous cruelty of some people never ceases to amaze. So often it is meant to silence and marginalize voices that are authentic and can’t be controlled by dogma of fear. I agree with sojourner that this behavior has been around too long. Now the many voices can be heard. I love to listen!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Carol, this is a beautiful and heartfelt piece and as so many here I am deeply touched by your words. I feel so for the younger you, silenced by the priest’s harsh words, troubled by stage fright. I’m glad with time you found your voice again through our work and especially for your writing.

    Good luck with the writing / editing marathon of this month and hope it ends with you closer to publication. Hugs xx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. At the risk of insulting you and every one of your commenters, I am compelled to ask why you took the priest’s words and his intent as mean and critical rather than as an encouragement? Taken at face value (without hearing the tone, emphasis, and delivery), his words don’t even make grammatical sense and could mean a variety of things. Is it possible that his intention was to encourage you TO sing for people? I would hate to see anyone (you) suffer unnecessarily or be wrongly accused (the “white middle aged priest”) based on a simple misunderstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

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