Do you remember the show Mad About You? Paul and Jamie are newlyish-weds living in Manhattan? They frequent a restaurant with this horrible waitress named Ursula (who later is revealed to be Pheobe’s twin on the show Friends)? And that one night they did a real-time episode in which they teach their baby to cry-it-out and at the end of the episode the baby finally falls asleep and Jamie says, “I want to take it back”? There’s a line from that show that has stayed with me forever even though I can’t quote the context perfectly. I’m pretty sure some woman was speaking about Jamie’s hospitality skills (or lack thereof), and she says, in something like a stage whisper, “She’s not a giver”.
It was the first time I had heard people divided that way – those who are givers and those who are not – and I think I determined right then which I wanted to be.
Of course, I don’t apply it to cooking. Or baking. Or cleaning, really. Although I do follow the golden rule of being human in which you try to leave every room better when you leave it than it was when you entered. (So… yeah, that’s me picking up the paper towels that you dropped on the floor in the bathroom, people. As long as there aren’t five million of them – I’m not a martyr!)
But where I really find the want-to for this character trait is with art. I want to sell books a LOT. Because then I can keep writing them and selling them until hopefully – by retirement age – I can sort of just do that, instead of that and the other work.
But eventually I discovered the greater good. Art should be a gift, first and foremost. A thing that people can take in – not just look at, but actually take in – and hopefully find that they are different – better or brighter or happier or more at peace – once they have.
This is easy with my writing. I’m learning to not worry if someone doesn’t like something I’ve done. I give it as a gift and trust that some will consider it a great one and some will take it back. But it’s not so easy with other things.
This week I sang in a funeral. Michael’s beautiful younger cousins lost their dad. I sang in both of their weddings and now they had asked me to sing in their father’s funeral. The song they chose is one of my favorites, “Go Light Your World,” by Chris Rice. I love Chris Rice’s voice like some people love coffee. It shoots me straight to the happy place. I listened to it during labor with John Michael, and it is forever married to my greatest happiness, and perhaps my list of things that ease excruciating pain. So I was equally honored and thrilled and delighted to get to sing his song and also terrified that I would butcher this masterpiece.
As I sat in the funeral, awaiting my turn, I felt perhaps the greatest case of stage fright yet. And when it comes to singing, I have had some doozies. During one funeral, my leg shook so hard from my nerves that it almost knocked me over. I generally feel pretty sure my heart will pound completely OUT of my chest. And that will make my whole body shut down completely. The least of my worries is that I will open my mouth and no sound will come out because the nerves will have fried my vocal cords. All these things and more ran through my mind this time. I felt sure I would soon be released from the torture in a merciful, graceless faint. And I hated myself for it. I felt so horrifyingly selfish to be nervous when the point was to give and to celebrate the life of a man who had just found rest from life’s troubles, albeit way too soon.
I inched my way to the piano when the time came, I pressed my shaking fingers to the keys, and I sang. The whole song. I heard the nerves in my voice and from my fingers and even from my foot that touched the pedal. But I did the best I could and I went to that place where you focus only on the notes so you don’t cry your way through the lyrics. And when I was done and I finally looked up, I could see the beauty of Chris Rice’s song on every single face of the people I love. I don’t know if I gave it beautifully, though they were kind enough to tell me that I did, but I do know it was beautifully received.
I can’t tell you how I wish in those moments that I had the voice of Beyonce, Carrie Underwood or either of my sisters. But that day I learned – in the kindest way possible – that at least in some small way, I’ve learned to give. In the words of my favorite author,
If you can’t shine like a shooting star, then shine like a candlestick.