Last week, I traveled to the historic city of New Orleans to perform for a crowd of 4000 people. You would think I might have been scared, but I really wasn’t. I was in my happy place. As a fan, you might have heard me say this before. Sharing music is one of the few ways I live into my authenticity.
I was a featured musician at the annual Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly. The theme of the event was “Resist and Rejoice.” There were dozens and dozens of workshops, presentations, worship services, and breakouts related to deconditioning the so-called “norms” of white culture. UUs are on a mission to break apart those norms, examining and re-examining how to be the widely and wildly inclusive and open faith community we claim to be.
I wrote the song “I Will Rise” specifically for the theme. If you’re a five-star fan, you got a sneak preview of the song a few months ago. Now the final version is available as a single. And here’s the live version at the event.
I also performed “Hand in Hand,” the song that started me on the path to owning my voice as a songwriter.
All this performing, even at a huge venue like this, didn’t stir up any fears for me. Here’s my story about something that did.
But first, a short side story. Earlier in the week, I attended a midday worship service hosted by Sanctuary Boston. I have admired their worship style – contemporary, heart-felt, music-laden, ritual-rich – since I first experienced it in 2015. Long story short, a question that hit me, shared at this service, was “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” That question kept coming back to me throughout the week in NOLA and since.
OK – now the real story.
Walking the Garden District, replete with stately, old southern homes flanked by fine lawns and, of course, gardens, lining narrow, tree-lined streets, I was alone on a gorgeous, partly cloudy morning. The sidewalk bricks, at odds with the tree roots, were a hazardous work of art. Mosses and climbing vinery clung like lovers to walls and fences. The cool, moist morning air was just starting to heat up. Twice, lizards scurried from under one lush clump of beauty to another.
I enjoy excursions like these. I had no agenda. I just got off the street car at Washington and started walking. Long ago, I decided, when I get off a bus or train or subway, to just start walking, any direction, as if I know where I’m going. Better than standing there looking around like a dumb tourist, and easy target.
At Washington Ave., a bunch of tourists – dumb or otherwise – started heading toward the famous Lafayette Cemetery. I headed the other direction. This is the way I like to see things, as if I lived there. I walk until I notice something interesting – a flowering hedgerow, a stone walkway, a columned entry – and go there, with determination, as though it had been my destination all along. The Garden District was perfect. I made my way back and forth through the quiet 5 x 13 block neighborhood.
On one street – Prytania? Third? Chestnut? – an older black man was moving some bags of garden debris to the curb. I assumed he was a hired yard worker. There was that overarching white culture showing up instantaneously. Nonetheless, that was my assumption, the place from which I had to ask myself the question: What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
As I approached, I made eye contact and said, “Good morning.” He looked at me, – did he look me up and down? – trash bag in hand, and, in a relaxed Louisiana accent, said, “Well, you confident.”
Within the space of one and a half steps, my mind ran a wild game. What did he mean? Was this some comment about my body, my willingness to say hello, my solo travel? Was it stupid of me to wear this halter top today? What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
My street sense, my instincts kicked in. I’m a white woman alone on a quiet street with a black man. Tons of garden walls to drag me behind, cars to throw me in. Flashbacks to inappropriate and damaging interactions with men of all kinds. Deep cultural messages of danger.
I responded. “Yes, I am!” Though I didn’t much feel that way.
He came back with a smile – was it genuine? was it sly? – and replied, but I didn’t understand him. Did he say something crude? Should I just fake a laugh and plow on? What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
In a split-second choice, I slowed my pace, turned my head back and asked, politely but firmly, “Excuse me?”
Here is where I have to acknowledge that stories like this have a turning point, the moment at which the writer either wishes she would have made that one choice differently or counts her blessings that everything turned out okay. I know enough women, and I know the raw stats. Rape culture is real, and women are very often not safe. In this case, it turns out well, but for one in four women, it does not.
Smiling, the man repeated himself, more clearly this time, “You got no um-ber-ella. You must be confident!”
A huge wave of relief washed over every cell of my body. I laughed, and told him that in fact, I did have one in my large purse, which I now grasped a little more loosely, and walked on.
How, people? How did these short interactions become huge feats of courage? Long-term, multi-generational, systemic learnings, both overt and covert, make this 7-second interchange a grand accomplishment worth celebrating.
What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? I’d tell you this story, partly embarrassing and partly empowering.
A block or two later, light rain started, and quickly built up to a decent downpour. Sliding around in my flip flops, I slipped under the porch – yes, porch – of a grocery store to wait it out. Joining a few others, I closed up my um-ber-ella and sat at one of the tables. On a bench behind me, an elderly black woman was coughing. I glanced over and said hello. She waved with a nearly toothless grin. She had a few overstuffed shopping bags at her feet, stuffed not with groceries, but with clothes. Three sample-sized coffee cups, empty, were stacked beside her. What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
This time it wasn’t physical danger I feared, but that weird social pressure. Where the hell did I learn to be nervous to help a frail black woman? Was it just inexperience? Unknowns? Self-consciousness?
I went into the store, grabbed some napkins to dry my feet and shoes, and bought the woman a bottle of water. Was it guilt? Was I trying to make up for my racist assumptions? Was I just helping a little old lady with a cough?
I have no idea. Racism is the water we swim in. I’m new to this. I don’t yet know how to evaluate my choices.
What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
I’d show up and bare my experience, as exposing as that feels. So far in my life, showing up, again and again and again, is the path to freedom. I’m living as I’ve sung it, forging into those unknown places, knowing I’ll screw up sometimes, but going anyway, past the edge of the map.
Come on down this path with me to the place where the road ends
Beyond, beyond, beyond
What would YOU do if you weren’t afraid? Comment below.