We all have our phobias and fears. For much of my life, that personal horror was stage fright. I’m surprised when people tell me they have never experienced the sensation of walking to a podium or settling in with their musical instrument and, suddenly, being gripped by a paralyzing fear. That dread just came naturally to me.
Stage fright—or performance anxiety, as it is also known—is a condition that affects many people who have to talk for a living or want to perform for others. I’ve experienced it in both speaking publicly—say, for television interviews—and in playing music in any space other than my living room. If you don’t address your fears, the feeling saps your confidence and energy in ways that seem to make poor performance a self-fulfilling prophecy. With work and experience, I overcame at least a part of my anxiety through the years and came to enjoy public speaking and conversation.
A little bit of online research will turn up 21.5 million results (I Googled it) around ways to combat stage fright. There are multiple TED Talks on the topic, including one by a folk singer who ended up writing a song about stage fright to help him overcome his performance anxiety. But one remedy that doesn’t appear in TED Talks, Web.MD or Psychology Today came instead from a touching story told recently by Margaret Renkl, one of my new favorites among the roster of New York Times opinion writers.
Renkl, who grew up in Alabama and now lives in Nashville, recently wrote of facing a book tour unsure as to how to cope with her life-long stage fright. Knowing that her usual collection of pocket-size security blankets—her buckeye, sea shell, or worry stone—would not pull her through, she “thought of the family wedding rings.”
Renkl had come into possession of several family wedding rings over the past few years, but she had never thought to wear them, and certainly not all at once. But in a lovely tale, she relays the meaning of each ring to her life and how the women who originally wore them—her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother-in-law—taught and inspired her. She felt they would give her strength for the tour, so she “took out the wedding rings of all my treasured forebears and put them on.”
And just as she felt that simply thinking to wear five wedding rings in the first place was a miracle, she recounts,
“In what might be another minor miracle, for we are clearly in the realm of magical thinking here, it worked. I stood in front of microphone after microphone, spinning the thin bands around my fingers, and I looked out upon all those strangers, and, lo, I was not afraid.
Full disclosure: It’s possible that menopause, which has fostered an “Oh, who in hell really cares?” attitude in me for some time now, may have dispensed with my lifelong stage fright, too, and I just never noticed, having been on no stages in recent years. But I prefer to think the family matriarchy saved me, that my beloved elders closed ranks around me, my mother and mother-in-law on one flank, my grandmother and great-grandmother on the other, to shore me up and give me strength.”
I’m taking the side of the family matriarchy over menopause in this one, because I know the power of personal stories that remind us of hope in the face of suffering and hardship.
We all have stories in our past that can provide hope for the future, if we do the work to dig them out. Renkl recounts several, including how her grandmother taught school in a two-room country schoolhouse because her grandfather’s farm never quite made enough income to pay the bills. In my life, I can look at a watch that my grandfather used as a conductor on the Franklin to Nashville Interurban rail line and recall that he worked multiple jobs to help get his family through the Depression. Because he was occasionally between jobs, my grandmother also ran a boarding house in their home, serving meals to workers and travelers, to make ends meet.
Hope is grounded in memory. Hope as a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things—powerful things—can happen. Stories from our personal pasts can point towards a resilience and strength we need today.
Near the end of her story, Renkl builds on the thought of hope being grounded in memory. She writes, “Perhaps these family histories, small as they might be and utterly invisible to the world, hold the key to facing our larger worries, too, and showing the way through.”
Like Renkl, I do believe these family stories and histories provide hope that is key to facing larger worries. Which is why I’ll take the family matriarchy story line every time.
More to come…
Installment #15 of The Gap Year Chronicles