The lights in the arena had gone down and the musicians on stage were well into their second or third number. The people around me were still talking in loud voices and the aisles were full of people, late-arriving people, trying to find their seats in the dark. Their silhouettes bobbed across my field of vision like the ducks in an old-fashioned arcade game, but I was without the pop-gun that would knock them over and clear the view.
And, yet, watching this particular opening act, one would guess that they weren’t bothered at all by the late arrivers, the loud talkers. He threw his head back and sang as though laughing. She opened her mouth and the notes ran out like water over pebbles. They played, they sang, they moved about the stage with an insouciance that made it clear they would be making music just like this if their only audience was themselves.
This was, of course, before COVID-19 closed down all the arenas, the schools, the churches. All the places where people gather to do things together. All the places where all the things about being human are celebrated. The places where we sing and laugh, where we run and play, where we praise and pray.
It is hard to do some things alone.
But I’ve noticed something over the last couple of months: A lot of us, in our aloneness, have been moved to try. Singers, actors, preachers — people who are accustomed to standing in front of large groups of people and sharing the essence of themselves in one way or another — have toggled the button on their phones to selfie mode and awkwardly set forth to sing, perform, preach to an audience of none.
It is not easy. I know this because my pastor asked me to do a closing blessing for a Sunday morning service. It took me something like 25 attempts to get a 61-second offering. After I finally managed to get the video transmitted to the church, I couldn’t help wondering why all of those singers, actors, athletes, preachers were so eager to expose themselves without the normal masks and accoutrements of their callings.
Somewhere in all that, however, I stumbled across the Instagram account of that opening act I’d seen in that arena, the husband and wife music-makers who are also the parents of three tiny children. They were inviting people — ordinary people, the kind of people who need 25 takes to make a 61-second video on their phones — to join them in making music. To join them in the midst of a pandemic, the end of which is not in sight. To join them in a house full of children, one still nursing, one being potty-trained. To join them in doing the only thing they knew to do when the only things they knew were certain are exactly the things that have always been certain — love and beauty and art.
The end result of that invitation was what they called “Song With Strangers,” five extraordinary songs that would never have been birthed, never have been sung, never have been gifted to the world had Abner Ramirez and Amanda Soldano not sat down to sing without an audience they could see.
The world has opened up a little. Whether that is a good idea or not remains to be seen. I hope it does not mean that I forget how sweet can be the taste of a cake baked for no one but myself and at the same time I hope it does not mean that I forget how bitter are the tears shed for friends to whom I never got to say goodbye.
I hope the opening world means only that we are all more grateful and careful in our safety and more generous and flagrant in our solitude.