This post began as a comment on my friend Lalainia’s blog, here. She put out a call for stories about giving, in honour of the holiday season, which she has since been sharing in vlog form, one at a time in a series she is calling “The Twelve Days of Christmas Giving.” When her request first came up on my Facebook news feed, I actually tried to think of an anecdote that would fit the bill, and failed…which was a little disconcerting. But then I was on the train to Montreal, a couple of days ago, which is a trip that’s always full of memories…and this is what floated up to the surface as I watched the wintery countryside fly by outside the window:
My story isn’t specifically about CHRISTMAS giving, but it is about giving, and it did take place only a couple of days before Christmas…and there’s a Christmas song in it…so it counts, right? 🙂
In high school I had this friend, K. She was smart and funny and (like me) a compulsive reader, and (also like me) she loved to sing. We were both in the gifted program so we had a lot of our classes together, and we also both sang soprano in the school choir, three lunch hours a week. Music was a bright light and a safe space in the high school jungle, for K even more than for me, I think. By our late teens she had already survived some of the worst that life can throw at a girl. Somehow, though, she still had this fierce, stubborn refusal to care what people might think that I always admired. For instance, when she was in a good mood she had a tendency to burst into song without warning, at full volume…on the street. Or in the stairwells and hallways at school. Heads would turn and she would smile and keep singing. Walking beside her, I often wished I had the guts to join in, even as I flinched with embarrassment.
So K’s birthday is December 23rd. In our graduating year it happened that this folk trio she had fallen in love with – they were called Odd One Out – were playing a gig at a tiny pub/folk music venue downtown, actually on her birthday. So she booked a table (an awesome, grown-up thing to do that I would never have been brave enough to contemplate at the time, and also another example of her kickass “I am going to do what I want to do, and screw anyone who doesn’t approve” attitude) and invited a small group of friends, including me, to join her at the show.
I have actually tried to find Odd One Out in the years since, but I think the group must have disbanded before the internet became a thing. There was a guitarist/singer named Doug, a soft-spoken Scot with a lovely accent; a woman named Lee-Ann with long blonde hair who played the flute, and another guitarist, Marc. They all sang, trading lead vocals and harmony parts back and forth; their repertoire was a mixture of traditional Celtic folk and originals. I saw them perform a few times with K, and I had their one album, A Spell We’re Under, on cassette (yes, I realize how much that dates me!). K had become a serious enough fan that the band actually knew her, and often came over to say hi between sets – which was pretty damn cool in my eyes. They were all lovely people – talented, humble and kind.
So there we were in this tiny crowded pub on December 23rd, and I was secretly trying to get up my courage to go up and let Doug and the others know that it was K’s birthday, and see if they would mention it from the stage, and maybe get the whole room to sing to her. But I was too shy, and I couldn’t make myself do it. Luckily, it eventually became clear that they already knew. I don’t actually remember if we all sang Happy Birthday at any point; what I remember is Doug at the mic, announcing the next tune as “Silent Night” (because it was Christmas, after all). I think he said something self-deprecating about how none of the band knew the original German words – but, he said, there’s someone in the audience who does. He introduced K as a loyal fan, also a singer…and invited her up to the stage.
It’ll be exactly 20 years ago tomorrow, if I’m counting right, but I still have a vivid memory picture of K sitting straight and careful in a pool of light, in front of a dark room full of people, singing “Stille Nacht” in her beautiful clear soprano. I could tell she was nervous, especially at first, but she did it anyway; she was brave like that a lot. Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…Alles schlaeft, einsam wacht…Partway through, Doug (and maybe the others?) joined in very softly, singing wordless, improvised harmony. At the end, there was a second or two of silence before everybody clapped and cheered.
And, okay, here’s the thing about K: she was (is) one of those people who put up a good front, who kept the bad stuff at bay with humour most of the time and when things were too awful even for that, she just kept going, one foot in front of the other, running on nothing but dogged determination and sheer stubborn pride. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me, from the outside. At this point in our friendship, I had seen her get knocked down (figuratively) a lot. I had also seen good things happen to her, hard-won victories. But moments when joy came easily – when something was given to her, free and clear and safe, no strings or consequences…there hadn’t been many of those, comparatively speaking. Not that I’d witnessed, anyway.
But: getting to go up on stage and sing that beautiful song with real musicians backing her up, to a friendly audience and big applause…I can’t say for sure how she felt about it, because we’ve never really talked about it, but here’s another thing about K: when she’s happy, really and truly, she busts out this grin that lights up the whole world. I hadn’t seen it very often, back then, but that night when she finished singing and came back to her seat at the table, there it was. She shone with it for the rest of the show and beyond, lit up from the inside like a lantern.
It was a small thing for Odd One Out to do, maybe – but then again, not. To relinquish the spotlight for a few minutes, to give that moment to someone else…it was generous of them, as performers. More than that: the fact that they had listened to K, in the relatively limited interaction they had had with her up to that point – that they remembered she was a singer, and somehow knew that it would mean a lot to her to be asked to join them on her birthday…that was the real gift. I sometimes think that all any of us want – the thing that’s behind the quest for “the perfect present” at Christmas or any other time of the year – is evidence that other people actually see us and know us, for real and deep down.
UPDATE: prompted by my asking her permission to post this, K went looking for the members of Odd One Out online. She found Doug! Douglas Hendry is his full name, and his current band is called Fiddlehead Soup…BUT he’s got some of the old Odd One Out tunes posted on his Soundcloud page here. The other members of the trio were Lee Ann McIntosh and Marc Florent; they don’t seem to have any internet presence that we can find, but I hope they’re still out there making music in some fashion.