“Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”
My wife and I were hosting an Open Mic fundraiser in town in April. Some people were leery of attending because they thought they’d be dragged up on to the stage, or the performers will be sub-par. To dispel whatever myths you might have on such an event, I thought I should share an incredibly memorable evening I had with my daughter many years ago.
In her “gap” year, she was participating in an environmental leadership program. At the end of each term, they have a “coffee house” where anybody who attends can sign up to recite a poem, sing a song, play music, act out a skit, or do what they like for five to ten minutes. Margaret was not sure if parents were invited, but she wanted me to attend. At first I was a bit unsure about attending an event that parents were not technically invited to, but since she was so enthusiastic about this program, how could I say no?
When I arrived, Margaret was quick to introduce me to her friends and teachers, and I was quick to realize that, indeed, I was the only parent there. No matter. I was warmly received and did not get the impression from a single soul that I did not belong. So I settled in to a comfy chair with my hot cider, ready for the show to begin.
The first performer was a young woman with a quirky, upbeat demeanor. Her stylish hat and outfit from the used-clothing rack completed the Bohemian look I am sure she was going for. She started playing her guitar well enough, but when she started singing she was so bad, I was convinced she was trying to be funny. Just before I made my conclusion that comedy was the intention and burst out laughing, I took a quick look around. The kids weren’t laughing. In fact, they were incredibly focused on the performance and gave her a resounding applause as the last chord was struck. I joined of course, but honestly, my applause was more relief with its conclusion.
The next performer was also a young woman with a shiny black guitar. She too started to play well and, thankfully, she also had tone. Before I could exhale my sigh of relief, she stumbled on the lyrics. She was so nervous she forgot the lyrics again … and again. Each time going back to the beginning. Constant apologies were part of this performance. It was disjointed and awkward to say the least, and I was embarrassed for her. No worries for the kids though, it was worth an even more resounding applause.
I began to regret my decision to come, and was dreading the next act. Another young woman approached the stage nervously and decided she was going to recite a poem. A poem she wrote herself. In fact, the first poem she had ever written. Earlier that day! As I sank into my chair wistfully wishing there was a good shot of rum in my cider, I braced myself. And this is where my story turns. Her poem was brilliantly crafted and powerful. So powerful, it became difficult for her to recite it. Then it came. The first tears jettisoned past her cheeks until a constant stream dripped from her jaw. She laid it all out there, and had a genuine meltdown in front of her peers. After what seemed to be five minutes (it was likely just one) where the only sound in the room was her sobbing, somebody in the back of the room said clearly – “take your time”. She did. When she managed to finish, the place erupted with a thunderous standing ovation. There was not a dry eye in the place.
It dawned on me in that moment that I was bearing witness to incredible acts of courage. What allowed them to bare their souls and risk standing in front of their peers and share whatever talent and level of skill they had? Where did the members of the audience find the respect and tolerance they gave to each performer after they were done, regardless of how well they performed? How could such young souls have so much compassion for each other to offer all the space to sort out what they needed, when they needed it most?
Every time we witness the courage of others, we wonder if we have it ourselves. As I reflect on that night over ten years ago, I still wonder if I can find the courage to be less judgmental of people and as compassionate as these young people taught me to be that night. In the end, we respect people for who they really are, not how well they play a part. The courage to be vulnerable is inspirational and engaging to those that can support and “incourage” others. When I sense the authentic being of someone, it inspires trust – and hope. And I learned that night that the performers at a small coffee-house who raised their voices, can give a person all the hope they need.
The Open Mic event in Eden Mills was another smash success. Our friend Suzanne Hnatiw played her fiddle two days after receiving yet another chemotherapy session. No one in the audience knew, but my wife and I knew we were bearing witness to yet another selfless act of kindness.
Sadly, Suzanne passed away last week. When we first heard she had cancer two years ago, we were dumbfounded. You won’t find a person more dedicated to her health than Suzanne, from what she ate to her daily exercise (she was a phys.ed teacher). No one thought she’d see 2015, in fact her son moved up his wedding to have it in the hospital as they all were expecting an iminent end. But if you knew Suzanne, you knew a person with unparalleled strength and determination that lived her life with no regrets. She was not leaving quietly! Indeed, she turned things around a lived another 18 months with a renewed vigour. But cancer, in it’s most incidious form was still there. I will miss her terribly. I’ll never forget what she told me when we were together last year. “I can’t believe how well I sleep at night and how fantastic I feel when I wake up. I’ve never felt so alive”. Those, my friends, are words to live by.