One of Us

This is an essay I wrote for a live lit event. The theme was “musical guilty pleasures.”

Cover of Joan Osborne's "Relish"

Joan Osborne’s “Relish” (image via)

It is 1996. I am in the 5th grade, and so is my best friend Nicole. Nicole lives up the road from me and rides my school bus, and we have almost nothing in common. Even at age 11, she has much more of a rebellious streak than I do, and her mom isn’t around much. I, however, am the daughter of two librarians who always know where I am, and my idea of a rebellion at this point in life is trading a whole grain natural peanut butter and sugar-free jelly sandwich at lunch for a Little Debby Zebra Cake — if anyone would have been willing to make such a trade at my school.

It’s almost the end of the school year, and we are beyond excited. It’s been announced that there’s going to be a talent show at the elementary school’s spring fling, and we are going to perform. Neither of us can sing, but we love singing anyway, and we’re pretty sure we have just the right amount of heart to pull this thing off. We believe whole-heartedly in Disney movie endings.

Nicole and I are very different people, but we both know what we’re going to perform: We are completely enthralled and obsessed with Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” a song whose artist will later be known as a strange one-hit wonder. But we don’t know that yet. All we know now, at age 11, is that this song speaks to us, on a deeply profound and important level.

We listen to it all the time. We try to record it off the radio with a tape deck, because it’s the mid-90s and that’s how we listen to our favorite songs. Neither of our moms wants to waste money on more band’s cassette tapes we will inevitably play on loop until they want to tear their hair out. This does pose the immediate problem of having a copy of the song for us to play at the talent show. I find what I see at the time as a creative solution, after many failed attempts at taping it from the radio at the very beginning.

We live in rural, southeastern Ohio, and my family’s house is just up the hill from one of several country bars along State Route 564. Weirdly, I’m allowed to go down there by myself on Saturday mornings to play video games and buy candy bars, armed with a coin purse full of quarters. This morning, however, those quarters are otherwise spoken for. I bring down my portable cassette player and park myself in front of the bar’s juke box, which contains a copy of Joan Osborne’s 1995 album, “Relish.” I play “One of Us” on the machine and hit record. I do this at least three or four times at 10 a.m. in this empty dive, where the woman behind the bar must surely wonder what the hell I am doing. She does not ask.

Satisfied, I back walk up the hill to my house.

I listen to this song over and over and over. I can’t then put into words what draws me into it so much, but as an adult I can supply a theory: This song asks some big questions and is pretty much a highly-diluted version of Christianity. It makes God a person. I mean, what if God WAS just a stranger on the bus, you guys? Just think about that.

I live and breathe this song. I play the lyrics out in my mind like a movie, and think about deceased grandparents and wonder where they are now. I hold the tape player close to me and find myself trying to picture God’s face. I don’t know yet that my life will later be filled with lots of bigger questions and conflicting feelings about organized religion and the meaning of faith. I don’t yet know that my mom will get cancer and die and that I will be really unhappy with God over that. “Good” and “evil” are still black and white to me at age 11, and God personified is a comforting thought.

We memorize the words and get ready for the talent show. We decide Joan Osborn’s vocal range is just in line with each of ours, and we wonder why we are not famous musicians yet. We practice and practice and make up a dance to go with the song even though we both know ultimately we will never perform it in public. But we feel ready.

It’s the big night of the talent show. We see our peers perform before us and we judge them silently to distract ourselves from our nerves. A girl who is a perfectionist and source of constant irritation for me in my classes sings a beautiful rendition of Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me.” I seethe at her success and also feel pangs of envy over the fact that I didn’t think of doing that song first. We watch two boys in our class cover a Green Day song and years later I will have crushes on both of them because my type of man will be partially defined by this performance.

Finally it’s our turn.

At this point I need to mention that “One of Us” is a five-minute song. Years later I will come to know that any halfway-decent karaoke stand-by should not surpass the four-minute mark, with the exception of certain 80s classics and even then, only with a very forgiving audience. But we are 11, and we are not thinking of how long those five minutes are going to feel for us or for anyone watching.

We get on stage, and stand too far away from the mics because we are terrified. The AV person hits play, and a static-y, second-hand recording of “One of Us” begins to play. It is now dawning on me that we probably should have told at least one of our parents about this talent show because someone would have likely stepped in and told us that using a recording of a recording was a bad idea. But it’s too late for that now. We both very quietly sing, “What if God was one of us…?” and look out at our peers in our half-full school cafeteria.

The song seems to go on forever but mercifully, it ends. We stand in silence as the final notes fade out, and the audience stares at us. We stare back, and then someone politely claps. The rest of the audience kicks in, and we jolt back into action and scurry off stage.

It is awful, but somehow we are running high from our achievement, or from our own daring. We hug each other and laugh backstage.

To this day I am unclear as to why none of our parents were there, or at the very least my mom, but it doesn’t matter. We got through it, and we shared our message with the world. Tonight I leave you with that same message:

What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, just trying to make his way home?

Think about that.

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Live Lit At Last

Me reading an essay at Story Club

Photo taken by Stef (Thanks!)

I can finally cross “read an essay at a live lit event” off of my bucket list (and I guess my 2013 list of New Year’s Resolutions). I got the chance to read at Story Club Thursday night, and even though I thought I might tremble off the stage during the entire first page, I am so glad I did it.

I read a more polished version of a blog post I wrote the morning I moved, while waiting for the movers to show up.

Thanks to Stefanie who encouraged me from the start (Sarah too, who was with us at Holiday Club in spirit, all the way from Salt Lake City!). Stef gave me  a couple last-minute detail suggestions that really added to my piece, and she also gave me a giant hug the moment I got off stage. Thanks also to Christina, who came out to see me and who helped me revise my essay in our writers group. They were among the very few people I told, so I apologize to those of you who wanted to see me finally make this happen. If I get another chance, I’ll let more people know with the hopes that I’ll be less nervous in the future.

The live lit community in Chicago is so overwhelmingly supportive. I met a lot of great people that night and was glad to see the folks I already knew who are a part of that crowd. I felt lifted up by them all. I hope I get the chance to read again soon.

Small Steps Toward Live Lit

It’s a terrifying thought, but before 2014 is over, I am going to get up in front of a group of strangers and read an essay I wrote. It will probably be about something super painful that I’ve attempted to blend with humor and retrospective wisdom. I am not sure what this will be or when this will happen, but I think about it a LOT these days.

Recently someone pointed out to me that I basically write an essay every couple of weeks for this blog. I’ve got nearly eight years of stories catalogued here (not that I can bear to read my own old posts, eeek). I can’t claim I have no material to work with.

I just went to a Story Club event that was half-performance, half-class. Four seasoned story tellers performed around the event’s theme of “What I Should Have Said Was…” Then after, my friends and I (and the other 17 people there) got to ask questions of some of the premiere live lit folks in Chicago. Our group was assigned to Keith Ecker, co-host of Guts & Glory and the new serialized story-based WBEZ podcast, PleasureTown. He answered our questions about essay writing, editing, and performing. He told us there is value in our perspectives, even if we worry a topic has been discussed before an audience already.

After the event, I told Story Club founder Dana Norris that I’d only put my name in the running for a Story Club open mic slot once before. I spent that entire night feeling terrified of having it drawn, and yet disappointed at the end of it all when it wasn’t. She said she knew the feeling.

“I’ll be sure your name gets drawn next time,” she said with stage wink.

I knew she was kidding but all I could do was give a nervously awkward, “Ha-ha-ha-ahhhhhhhhhh” and back away slowly toward the door in fear.

I’ve been watching live lit for more than two years now. I love the concept but I never saw myself as part of that scene, or somehow believed I couldn’t be. No one even once said, “This is my thing and not yours, and you can watch me do this but you cannot have it.”

But I thought it anyway, because I’m super insecure.

I saw proof of the opposite tonight, though: It’s an extremely welcoming community, and those who do it want anyone who is interested to do it, too.

A few weeks ago I submitted to Essay Fiesta after seeing a friend absolutely rock it last month, but I haven’t heard back from them. And I’ll try to get up the nerve to put my name in again at the next Story Club. In the meantime, I’m just going to keep editing my essays and practice performing them out loud. I hate public speaking, but my job is requiring me to do it more and more, and to work hard at getting better at it.

I got this. Who’s coming with me?