I have an embarrassing confession to make: I cannot sing. I am tone-deaf. Worse, everyone I stand near in church sings really, really well. Like, they are or were in one or many choirs. Like, every member of their family has musical talent. Like, people tap them on the shoulders and tell them what beautiful voices they have. And I stand next to them.
What I used to do is not sing. I liked the music just okay anyway, and I felt bad that I wasn’t getting audience participation points for singing in church, but what could I do? Not only was my voice awful, but I would be compared to my friends with great voices. So, I didn’t sing.
Well, then the guilt got to me. I wanted to participate in the singing, but I didn’t want to look like the grumpy jerk who hated music, so I did what any God-fearing churchgoer does in this situation: I lied. I mouthed the words. In fact, I found that I mouthed the words not only to the songs, but also to many of the prayers. Was my voice actually making any sound? I wasn’t really sure of it. I stand next to Gregg, and he’s big and loud and unafraid to be big and loud, so did it really matter if I was mouthing the words? No one would hear me anyway, I figured.
One Sunday a few weeks ago, I sang the words. I wasn’t sitting next to anyone I knew, and I was at the late mass where all the crazy people and college students go, so I was a virtual stranger. I tried out my voice, and guess what? It was even worse than I thought it was. It was scratchy and off-kilter and flat and just oh so awful. And it was great fun. I said all of the prayers, really loudly. A few people looked my way, and for a second some shame washed over me, until I realized, hey, I’m in freaking CHURCH, so none of that is allowed.
I know not all of you have great experiences with organized religion. I know some people have probably isolated you and angered you in the guise of God. I have some awful stories to tell, too, but in the church I hold in my heart, I am not allowed to feel guilt or shame or regret or anything negative at all. That’s the church that I visit every week. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the words coming out of the priest’s mouth or the people sitting next to me or the building. That’s not really the church that I go to. I realized a few years back that that church wasn’t as real for me. What was real was the feeling I got when I went to the church in my heart, the one that reverberated nothing but love and goodness. I feel it every time I step in to the physical church, though, too, so maybe they’re connected. Maybe they’re not. I’m just saying this because I get it if this isn’t what church means to you.
But what it means to me is this: unconditional love. Not, “Love if you get an A,” or “Love if you do all the dishes,” or ”Love if you forgive someone for the unforgiveable,” or “Love if you lose twenty pounds,” or “Love if you just weren’t born you.” No, just unconditional love. Love for the fat girls and the thin girls and the smart ones and the dumb ones and the ones who’ve been through hell and the ones who’ve been through nothing, and the ones who’ve had abortions, and the ones who are gay, and the ones who hate gays and the ones who protest outside abortion clinics.
And I know that those people who would make anyone feel less than and use God as an excuse don’t really Get It. They don’t get that God would never do that. So I’m pretty sure my church is, to sound preachy, the Right Church. It has nothing to do with where I pray or who I pray with or whether or not I eat pork or wear short skirts or meditate or think the bread I’m eating is really God or just a symbol of God, or if there’s any God at all.
It has everything to do with the feeling of love. I feel loved when I go to church, and when I pray, and when I talk to other people about God. Not anger, not regret, not retribution. Just love. I want everyone to go to my church. Not the building, not the organized religion, the one in my heart. I just want everyone to feel that overwhelming love, that everything is going to be alright, even when it is anything but alright. I just want to be able to douse you in it, to have you feel the happiness that can completely overwhelm you that you can sit there and just cry because life is so, so beautiful, and it’s almost, almost all gone.
So, what was I doing, going to church and not singing out loud? I was embarrassed, my voice was bad, but without my voice, was there really a communion? Wait, that’s churchy speak.
What I mean is: was I all in? Was I sacrificing myself, admitting God totally didn’t give me any musical talent, in front of everyone, or was I trying to look cool and collected and pretty? Fuck that. (God’s alright with me swearing. Really. I told you my church isn’t the same as the other church.) Fuck not showing every weakness, not sacrificing, not being All In. Who was I saving face for? Who was I trying to protect? It didn’t even make any sense. So yeah, I have an awful voice. So maybe some people would say some things about my awful voice. Did that actually matter?
I’ve been singing every single week since then. Yes, it’s awful. Yes, it’s embarrassing. But I’m All In, and it feels good to know that everyone around me knows I’d sacrifice my cool, my integrity, because otherwise, what else would I hold back? I’d be stopping myself from getting something great, and maybe my pride would be stopping someone else, too. Maybe if I own up to my embarrassments, someone else will, too. Maybe not, but just the chance that there’s someone else who wants to sing but isn’t hears my screeching, ear-piercing songs, and sings, too, saying, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as her.”
All of this is to say I have some good news: I finally, finally am working with a literary agent, a great one, even, and I’m so, so scared. I’m scared I’m going to mess up. I’m scared nothing will come of it, that I’ll be a colossal failure, that I’ll never get that book deal or be a success, or that my book will be a huge stinker. I’m so scared that I’ve been paralyzed with it, not even wanting to share this good news because I’m just waiting to fall flat on my face, and I don’t want you to see. I want to keep it to myself. Is that the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard? But I don’t want to just mouth the words anymore, because you’re there for me, I know. So I’m telling you now: I’m so happy and I’m so scared, all at once. I’m All In, failure or not.
And know this: if I’m a failure, I refuse to be embarrassed. I tried. I didn’t let the fear stop me, so then you can let it not stop you. And if I’m a success, know this: it will not be about me. I’m sure that it will be so someone like you, reading this now, can say, “Well, if she can do it, I definitely can.” I want to just show you the direction the unconditional love is coming from and then duck and get out of your way, so you can feel it, too. It will be better than any success you could imagine.