We Become Our Feelings

My partner is a genius. No, really. I’m not just blowing smoke. I know, he doesn’t seem like a genius. Then a pearl of wisdom plops out of his mouth into his French vanilla creamed coffee, and I am dumbfounded. It’s my own reaction that informs me of his special nature. I’m surprised because I don’t expect wisdom. I expect bad jokes, old song lyrics and the recitation of ironic stories from his news feed. Sometimes he’s orating cheerfully in his chair, and I realize I’m not even listening. Then resting our weary bones after a day of pushing our stuff around, we got to talking about how we had made it through our move from his forest home of 19 years to this new place in the suburbs, and we shared the observation that we got through it without a fight, no emotional tension, no big disagreement, no harbored hurts. I wondered why, and he said, “I think it’s because we have so much forgiveness between us. We’ve both been through so much.” 

I had to ponder that. It was so explicit. Of course we’ve been through a lot. We’re old. Old people have been through a lot. We have similar backgrounds born and raised by German Christian families in Illinois, music education, theater, Shakespeare, show business dreams, a passion for dogs and the outdoors, failed marriages. At the root of that, we were beloved by our parents and grandparents. The seeds of self-confidence were planted early in our lives by the adults who made sure we knew we’re special, who encouraged us to express ourselves, and taught us how to collaborate with others. When we were small, each of us spent weeks at a time at our grandparents’ house where we had the experience of being their only child. His grandparents taught him to fish. My grandparents taught me to garden. They nurtured our emotional resilience.

We go out to breakfast. Sitting in a booth at our local diner, we reminisce about the vintage vinyl album covers that decorate the walls. Both of us grew up thinking we were talented enough to have a career on stage, perhaps as a result of the glowing praise from the doting adults around us. He is more talented than I am and made it a lot further than I did, but each of us had humbling moments when we just didn’t cut it. 

In 1975, living in New York City, I auditioned to be the chick singer of a rock band. I don’t know what made me think I was well suited for the role. I had zero chick singer experience. Dressed in my coolest jeans and platform heels, a tiny shirt hugged my boobs, hair down to my waist like Cher, I went to the rehearsal space where the band was set up as though they were on stage with guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and a line of microphones across the front. I saw their eyes light up when I walked to the center mic. The keyboard player handed me a typed song sheet and told me to pick the one I wanted to sing. I stared blankly at the paper. None of the titles were familiar to me. I told him I didn’t know what to pick, and so he chose “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. The band began to play, and I froze. Someone gave me a lyric sheet and the band began to play again. I tried to sing, but I didn’t know the melody. They sang a couple lines for me, and the band began to play again, but I was way out of tune. I’ll never forget the look on their faces, that mix of arch disappointment, horror and confusion. I was asked to leave. Definitely one of my top ten most memorable failures. 

My partner has played many roles in musical theater, from Luther Billis in “South Pacific” to Eddie in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. But the memory he reflects on as we sit at the diner is a bad Karaoke episode. He was with a group of fishermen who took the stage and mangled country songs. When his turn came, he asked the MC for a favorite classic rock hit, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf. In his element, he wailed and riffed like the rock star he is. However, when the applause died down, the MC was pissed and asked him not to sing again because he was too good, his performance would intimidate the untalented regulars who wanted to sing. Karaoke wasn’t supposed to be good. It was a public shaming he never forgot. Also one of his best stories. I’ve heard it a few times. That criticism became a badge of honor. 

We make our own history from the raw materials of our childhood by choosing what to remember. After a thousand failures, we remain undaunted. We’ve lived rich lives. People died. Relationships ended. Our animals departed. Homes were lost. Dreams withered. That’s life. We have so much forgiveness because we choose to be happy. We curate our look, we add emphasis, we play the part we write for ourselves, and just like that, we become our feelings.   

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