I approached the wicker platform with long, cautious strides; as if stretching the time that it took me to get from the refuge of my small table to the arena of the microphone stand as much as possible would quell the rippling anxiety in my stomach.
"Next up for Open-Mic Night, we have a young lady singing "Royals"! Give her a hand, ladies and gentlemen!"
The hostess with the fiery red hair let her voice boom from her hand-held microphone. The soar of her voice across the steakhouse muffled the sound of clashing knives and chatter, signaling to me that this was it. I was going to sing in front of all these people--to possible lawyers, mothers, couples, tattooed teenagers--and the guitar chords that I had practiced for three months in the sheltered sanctuary of my bedroom were about to be ripped from their long-lived anonymity and projected straight into their Wednesday evening. I felt my hands tremble.
Sitting on the stool, I wrapped the strap of my guitar over my shoulder and looked at the fiery woman. She gives me a warm nod, and I begin.
Maybe it was because it was the first time that I had ever sung Open-Mic. Maybe it was because I didn't practice enough. Or maybe, it was because I wasn't focusing on how happy music made me, on how music made every part of me feel present and electric and curious and alive, but because I was too busy focusing on the way that every single person had to be perceiving the way my voice sounded with the guitar--how did I look in their eyes? Did they approve? I didn't know.
But by the time I began to sing the bridge of the song, I could feel my fingers faltering over the guitar strings. I could feel my voice becoming smaller, afraid to emerge. High notes that I had once adored for their melodic, crystalline beauty became looming obstacles that yearned to expose cracks and wisps in my every vowel.
After the song ended, the hostess approached me on my way back to my table. A warm smile was spread across her face, and a maternal shimmer glowed through the genuineness of her words.
"Hey there. I can see that you love this. You were really brave out there. Promise me--never, ever stop singing."
And that was it. A singular phrase, trailed by a swift pat on the shoulder. Perhaps she didn't know--but by saying that, she gave me a gift that I will never forget.
She gave me a gift of confidence.
Her gift to me had a past, a formative period spilling over the seams with memories, connections, and sights that my presence made her remember and feel.
The gift's past began in her memory.
When she saw me nervously pencil in my name on the sign-in sheet amongst a sea of entirely adult signatures, she remembered the first time that she had ever went to an Open Mic. Like me, she was young--too young to carry her hollow guitar without a large strap--and she remembered the way that the beat of her heart danced against her chest when the announcer called out her name.
"Next up for Open-Mic Night, we have a young lady singing "At Last"! Give her a hand, ladies and gentlemen!"
She remembered every month that she had spent cloistered in her room, calluses hardening at her fingertips from strumming the same song over and over again, as she sewed the guitar chords of the favorite song in the world deep into her memory. She loved the song with every fiber of her heart. She loved it for the resonating pureness of Elta James' rich, bluesy voice. She loved it for the enchanting delicacy of the violin. She loved it so much that she scrounged up every last cent of her money and purchased a guitar on the very same day that she heard it--she had to share the song with the world from her world; from her voice, from her guitar.
The gift's past continued in her present.
She saw the furrow of my brow as my fingers traced new figures on the arm of my guitar. She could tell that the chords were still new, freshly etched into my memory. She saw how the way I approached the chords was different from the way she usually did; while she approached the chords with a proudly loopy liberation, I approached them algebraically, like each chord was a variable to a formula that I needed to solve. She saw how I loved the song so much, with every fiber of my heart--and how I was sharing the song with the world from my world: from my voice, from my guitar.
The gift's past ended in my future.
She envisioned how a small gift of confidence would raise my spirits just enough to calm the nervous tremble of my fingers in the next time I sang. She saw the potential for a new-found motivation to flourish within my mind, a motivation to learn an endless stream of song--colorful songs, sad songs, happy songs--and to feel confident enough to come back every Wednesday to sign up for Open-Mic Night. She saw the change in me over Wednesday evenings that hadn't happened yet; she saw how every Wednesday night, the nervous girl sitting on the edge of a bent chair, with hands trembling over the strings of a guitar, would eventually grow into one that would be emboldened. One that would be vulnerable. One that would think, create, dance, sing, cry, fall and breathe without ever thinking that she wasn’t good enough. One that would give the same gift to others--future lawyers, mothers, tattooed teenagers--in her every endeavor.
The hostess waited for me to finish my song. And then, when it was over, she walked towards my table, started speaking, and gave me the greatest gift that I could ever receive.