As I have described here before, a life-threatening illness and scary diagnosis several years ago transformed my relationships with myself, my loved ones, and my work in a number of ways. One of the resolutions I made during that horrible time was that, if I survived, I would never again refrain from pursuing a goal or passion simply from fear.
Since regaining my health I have not been consistent in keeping that resolution, but I have pushed myself into places I know I would not have gone without that wake-up call. Most recently, last week I performed musical improv before a live audience.
A club in Manhattan has a weekly "musical mixer," an opportunity for less experienced improvisers to work with pros and get experience performing. The evening draws a pretty good audience. It is sort of like open mic night at a jazz club, except that you don't know what you will be singing until the audience tells you, and then you have to make it up on the spot.
My teacher felt our class was ready for this and encouraged us to try it. One other student and I agreed. As soon as I had committed myself, I felt sick. I felt I was not ready, that it would be a disaster. But I didn't want to back out, so I told myself that this was most likely another one of those events that seem daunting in prospect but after the fact you look back and think, what was all the fuss about?
It was harrowing. I was cast in a few group numbers, which were manageable and even fun, because all I really had to do was blend in. But just as I was starting to relax, the host called me up to perform a duet, and asked the audience for a genre suggestion, and some audience member who is lucky I couldn't see past the footlights, because he would now be nursing a black eye, called out, "Funk reggae!"
I had no idea what that even was. [My son, the musician, told me the next day that it is not actually a genre; "funk" is what my generation called R&B, but the person apparently just randomly paired the term with reggae for kicks. Make that two black eyes.] My heart started pounding so loudly I could hardly hear what my fellow actor was saying.
Fortunately, he was truly expert, and guided me gently into a funny song about a Brooklyn couple on holiday in Jamaica. Once he had set the rhythm and tone, I was able to follow along, improvising my own lyrics and harmonizing with him on the tag line.
Or so I am told. I have only a vague recollection of being up there, and none at all of how I got off the stage afterward. That night I had dreams about having to go onstage but having locked my costume, props and glasses in another building, making my fellow actors furious at me. I woke up with palpitations.
I'm going back and doing it again, though. I know now that it won't kill me–and even if it did, I was "supposed" to die seven years ago, so everything that happens now is an unearned gift, one I plan to keep exploring as fully as possible.