To the teenager up on the stage

I was out cross country skiing when my phone dinged ten times in a row. Before you picture technology interrupting a serene experience with “whooshing” noises like a Nordic Track across fresh, downy snow, instead please imagine more of a clattering, dawdling planks on icy snowmachine tracks down near a river situation. 

We made it to the picture-perfect ski eventually, but it wasn’t before I fell over while attempting to call my best friend whose texts were blowing up my phone. 

“What?” I asked, “What are you talking about? I’m skiing.”

“I can’t talk either,” she said, “But you NEED to look at Facebook. Like, right away. It’s crazy.”

Right away couldn’t happen. So, for the next hour or so, classic skiing my way through an Alaskan winter landscape with my family and a friend as dusk fell, this question hummed in the back of my mind. What’s on Facebook? What is she talking about?

We got back to my friend’s house in darkness, and stowed our skis and gear before gathering around the kitchen island. Snacks laid out and cocktails in hand, my heart rate went up as I pulled out my phone and opened Facebook. Everyone gathered around to see what it was.

And, the most bizarre thing: the video started, and it was a memory. Not a “Facebook Memory”, but it was an actual, bona fide memory of mine; something I experienced directly and was also apparently captured by a camcorder video in the very early 2000s. I remembered the feeling of that night even if not the details – a coffee-house style show organized and hosted at my school. It featured numerous performances by people I spent significant time around. All their faces were captured on film exactly as young as they were then, from the kids in the dance performances to the guy I dated a couple years after the video was shot. I remembered being there, in the dim lighting, the stage, the walls, and seeing the low-lit faces of an audience including my parents seated on folding chairs.

I remembered my heart in my throat, exactly as it was now as I was rewatching. I watched myself get up on that stage.

In those days, I wasn’t who I am now. I’d recently overcome my chronic childhood asthma, and my face and body were still puffy from all the prednisone and months trapped inside. I’d experimented with dying my hair as I tried to figure out who I wanted to be post-asthma, so I had these bleached streaks in a short, wavy cut. I remember feeling like I was up there on that stool with my guitar forever, but in reality it seemed like I got set up and off the stage almost as quickly as I could.

Watching me from a different era, my heart both swelled and hurt for her. I wanted to tell her: it’s okay!

Then, I watched me starting to sing. So did my husband, stepdaughter, and two close friends, all gathered around my phone witnessing this performance from twenty years ago. 

I was, actually, okay! I was good. I didn’t remember the song I was singing, but I sang it well – I could hear only a thread of nervousness, but my voice hit those notes and I kept on going. The song sounded vaguely folky, and I had a little tiny bit of remembering what it was. That’s when I realized this had been my very first performance. It was all optional; no one made me or any one of us do it. I had decided to select this song, learn the chords, and get up on that stage in front of everyone and sing.

Everyone else at that show had done it too.

I finally understood what all the staff members at that school were always going on about, with how incredible the students there were. It wasn’t about the talent, although there was a lot of that on the stage. It was the creativity, confidence, and bravery of the performances, how funny some of them were, and also how terribly out of people’s normal “lane” or comfort zone. Some of the performances were surprising, like someone had an alter-ego no one knew about before. One of the little kids got ushered off stage after too long dawdling at the mic. There were beautiful voices, and terrible voices, but it was all one tapestry of authenticity and expression. It was absolutely imperfect, but also not scripted by anyone – it was real. So many people in that spotlight.

Yes, because you’ve ready this long – here’s a screenshot from the video! I can’t share the recording because it’s on a private Facebook group (tragic, I know). But you get a glimpse of the memory and teenage me up at the mic just the same.

I felt a few things: I felt gratitude for the experience and especially how supportive the school and the audience, including all of our peers, had been. I felt a small sense of awe and confusion about how I had ever summoned up the courage to get up on that stage at that age and particularly where I was in life, but also grateful I had managed to scrounge it up. And – and I don’t use this word often or lightly, because I don’t particularly like it as a word – I felt tenderness toward every person on that stage. I had the sincerest hope for each one of us that we would find exactly our way in the world, whatever that was, and that we wouldn’t sweat whatever was between us and that along the way; not too much anyway.

It was a strange feeling to have, because it was all retrospective. Me, and everyone else in that video? We’re twenty years older now. And there I was feeling earnest heartfelt hopes for the futures of the people on film.

Back in my now-body, in Alaska, where I was taking in this memory in my friend’s kitchen, we disassembled from around my phone and laughed and debriefed while eating cheese. My stepdaughter appreciated the fun the videographer had with production; lots of those early 2000’s effects thrown in. My heart rate started to go down.

That feeling of experiencing the memory clung to me a late into the evening; how struck I was by the memory, how clearly I could see it in retrospect, even though when I was actually in it the world was a cloud of teenage angst. I had managed to find some clarity in it and find my way forward, and so had everyone else from that stage. 

There’s not a clean takeaway here. But I’m reminded that each step forward is always faltering and awkward, and in the end that’s what makes it brave. I’m proud of everyone who performed that night and sincerely grateful to all who witnessed (including the videographer!).

Visible relief and shock that it’s over and that I didn’t die. That’s the expression on my face as I complete the song and remove the capo before handing the guitar back to the stage manager to ready for the next act!

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