I stood in the spotlight, strumming the first four chords I’d ever learned on guitar over and over and over again. I couldn’t remember the first note of the song. I’d been playing guitar for over ten years, having played in front of people hundreds of times. A minute went by. Another minute passed and no notes came. One of my worst fears was happening in real time and there was nothing I could do to stop it. In a very public and humiliating way, I would fail. The band looked at me, my friend Kristen stared at me, the audience sat waiting, and I stood there strumming.
That night I’d found myself in a small pub in the village of Strandhill, having come to visit my friend Kristen who had moved to Ireland a year and a half prior. Before I came from the states, she asked if I could play guitar and sing with her at an open mic night at one of her favorite pubs. After many messages back and forth she had decided on two songs, one being, Hey Ya by Outkast.
In Ireland, open mic nights are strikingly different than in America. At this performance, artists were both invited to play with the band hosting the event and to use the band’s instruments. The whole experience resembled a communal family and as other guests entered the pub, you could sense the fierce love of a community that celebrated and honored artists for what they brought to the table. I was excited and accepted the band’s offer to play with us. They dubbed us their “friends from America” and handed me a guitar.
I found myself in front of a welcoming family who knew nothing about me.
I felt like a fraud.Time froze as my tears began to blur the lights around me. I wanted to run away and hide. I wanted to scream. Phrases raced through my mind to shout into the microphone, “I’m not new at guitar. I know what I’m doing. I hate Hey Ya! I didn’t pick this song.” I grasped for anything to put something between me and feeling the shame of my failure. I was tempted to put my friend in the line of fire. Hiding feels so much more comfortable and familiar to me. I stared at the floor and kept strumming silently. The shame compounded.
“I can play guitar,” a voice shouted from the bar. The words felt like a hammer tapping gently on the wall I’d put between me and my shame.
I risked looking up from the floor, my hands stopped strumming, the room grew silent.
“I can play guitar, I just can’t remember the first note. Can you sing?” I spoke to the stranger across the room.
“I can try,” the stranger stepped out from the bar and came to shake my hand, “My name’s Rory.” He was a tall man in his mid-twenties with a kind smile, dark hair, black clothes, and brown leather boots.
I laughed nervously and told him that Rory was the name of my first car. He asked what kind of car I’d had, and upon my response, looked out across the bar and shouted with a bow, “We’re the Hondas!” I felt myself risking to peer out from behind my wall.
He picked up a guitar and cued me to start strumming. The band joined in. Rory started to play simple chords and stepped up to the microphone singing the first line slightly off-key. Kristen and I joined in effortlessly. He backed up and played us through the song. The pub erupted into applause.
Later that night, Rory would take the stage by himself. As he started to play, the band members we’d befriended earlier sat at our table and explained that his father was a famous musician in Ireland. As Rory played his own music, I quickly realized that he didn’t regularly sing off key, nor did he play guitar simply. He was an incredible musician. Earlier he’d offered what he had freely to me without expecting recognition or acknowledgement in return.
What was more striking than his musical ability, was his heart to risk offering love to a complete stranger. In the face of my mounting shame and failure, Rory stood up, taking away my shame, and invited me to be received at the table. To be a part of a community greater than myself that welcomed others to experience love.
The next day we took a train out of Strandhill. In the train station I saw Rory’s father’s face plastered around the station. I was reminded that in the face of failure, shame, and doubt, love covers. May I learn to love so freely.
Devan Grayson is passionate about contemplating the beauty of this world as she finds it in her own story and in the lives of others. She works as a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern and is continually struck by the specific beauty woven into the seemingly raggedy details of our lives. She counts it a privilege to wonder with clients about their own stories. She loves the arts, good conversations, and large cups of tea.