I once organized a concert where all proceeds went to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to be held at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I was to play an hour-long set of my own material and Michaela Foster Marsh, a local singer/songwriter heroine to me, was going to do the same. Most of the tickets had sold in advance but there were still seats remaining and I was hoping for a full house. I had spent the month prior putting up posters and distributing press releases as I wanted to raise as much money as possible for the cause.
The television crews showed up to cover the event also helping to raise awareness. I had done a few radio interviews and tv performances earlier in the week and more interviews just prior to going on. The merchandise table was laid out, the sound checks were done, the audience was filing in and I was getting myself ready in the green room. It was the first time I was going to play with accompaniment. I also have a nasty habit of forgetting my lyrics when I’m performing. Time would tell whether I would keep this tradition up tonight. I wanted to play my part well.
Needless to say, I was feeling pressure.
The first number was to be an acapella song – a two-part harmony. But here was the glitch. The other voice had called me a few days before to say that she was unable to do the show. After weeks and months of practicing with four of us, trying various arrangements with vocal harmonies, mandolin, banjo, tin whistle, flute, percussion, guitar and violin, we had come to depend on each other. The three of us remaining gathered to pick up the pieces and figure out how we would change the set four days before the show.
There was something about this final twist in the plot that made me realize that I had done everything I could up until that point and now my job was to let it all go. As I was about to go on stage, I made a promise to myself. I would stand before that crowd in my long, shiny blue dress and bare feet and take as many deep breaths in silence as I needed to until I was calm, centered and ready. This was very different for me. Usually I would wind myself up until I was surrounded by panic and oblivion and let the Tasmanian devil run the show.
If you’ve ever been on a stage with bright lights, looking out on a sea of faces anticipating something from you, you know that ten seconds in silence feels a whole lot like ten hours. I have no idea how long I stood there. I took a deep breath, let my lungs fill up, breathed out, did it again, and again, until I knew I was squarely perched at the very centre of me, looking out.
These were stolen moments. Instead of doing what was expected of me I truly, madly, deeply held ground. I didn’t worry about what others were thinking. I took the time I needed to breathe.
Expectation. The killer of creativity. The artist’s worst nightmare. The suffocator of all things free. The beast that ruins magic. Destroys dreams. Makes the child grow up. Firmly plants you on the outside looking back at yourself.
Your breath. The thing that you and you alone own. The thing that can save you when you’re freaking out. When the world is crumbling down around you. When the tides are crashing in on you. It is the simple reminder that we are still whole and strong. That we move from our middle, whether we notice it or not. With breath we live firmly in the present. There is no way to cling to the past or worry about the future when we are concentrating on our breathing.
In every moment, with everything we do, we have the choice to orient ourselves from our inside looking out. The default is without a doubt to spend our energies critiquing ourselves from the outside. At least that is certainly true for me. There are never-ending demands, things that are misconstrued, troubles waiting to complicate our days, long lists of expectations we put on ourselves. As a woman and a keeper of many living things including my own organic self, the expectations are limitless.
We can focus entirely on those external things. Or we can borrow a ride on the Deep Breath Express right down to our very own core. There the world is constant. There the chaos circles you, rather than the other way around. And when we do that, we can finally see all the beauty, wonder and life that surrounds us, just outside of our own self-absorbed, miserable day. Mine anyway.
I managed to use my breath for those few precious moments on that night, under those lights, with what seemed like the whole world waiting. When I finally started singing, it was just me there. Tiny, quiet me with no instruments, along with the reasons why I had put together the show in the first place: to raise money and awareness for an important cause that was dear to me.
And everything went just fine.