Monday was nuts. I was off at Job 1 that day and the next, but my boss missed my e-mail about getting off at Job 2 until she opened ON MONDAY. Knowing she missed the e-mail, I planned on going in (which meant baking the pies Sunday nights and waking up early Monday morning to pick up cheese and pack up my stuff). She called me last-minute and gave me the time off. (Yay! It may not have been necessary, but it made my life a thousand times easier.)
Mike and I finally left around 1:30 to begin the three-hour trek. There was conversation, excitement, and anxiety. The traffic was pretty bad near Chicago, and I was already starting to tense. Anticipation of crowds, parties, and maybe Amanda had me tensing further. The walk from the car to the door the first time had me breathing heavily, though I’d done nothing to merit it. I think it was my first real anxiety attack. I just kept walking, went in the front door, and we were greeted by Jackie, who told us what we needed to do, where we needed to put things, and gave us a smile. Direction can be very reassuring, especially when it’s given calmly and with a smile amidst internal and external chaos. (Thanks, Jackie!)
We needed to make a second trip out to the car, and Kelli offered to give us a hand. Nerves were further soothed with friendly acceptance—an (accurate) assumption that because we were here, we must be friends—and conversation. We were all highly anticipating Amanda’s arrival. (Thank you, Kelli!)
Things at the house were still abuzz and getting buzzier as more people arrived. Mom always told me that when I’m a guest, I should try to make myself as useful as possible. Still unsure of my place, I asked the first person I saw if they could use a hand—and thus met that doll-baby Margaret. She was sweet and welcoming and put me at ease seemingly without a thought. (Grazie, Margaret!) We were trying to set up some lights in the front yard (without success) when Amanda drove up. I noticed someone coming up the walk and said, “Hi,” trying to pass on the cheer and welcome Jackie, Kelli, and Margaret (and, honestly, everybody) had given me. My brain still hadn’t processed who it was, and when it did, my mouth spat out something inane like, “How’s it going?” (My memory does not perform well under pressure—especially the ‘record’ function.) I think she hugged us all on her way in, and in her wake we all took a moment to realize what had just happened and how casual we all were about it.
That’s where the play-by-play ends because my mind became one giant modgepodge of meeting some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I’ve ever known.
I remember Robin walking in and introducing herself to everybody in the living room with a smile and a hug simply because she didn’t know anybody and, being here, we were all automatically friends.
I remember chatting with Jill Thompson before I realized she was THE Jill Thompson and, after mentally noting that a friend of mine would be jealous, just going with it because, to my mind, we were already friends for the night.
I remember greeting people at the door, my social anxiety gone, doing my best to welcome and reassure the nervous faces coming through the front door, telling them to go out to the backyard and, “Paint my friend Mike.”
I remember Mike being the life of the party with his white suit, bought exclusively so we could paint him.
I remember Jamie introducing herself because I was all-out dancing-like-no-one-is-watching solo and she does the same thing. We tried to convince her friend Julia and—I think Robin was the other one—that they should dance crazily with us.
I remember using spray paint for the first time ever.
I remember watching Amanda sit with every circle on the lawn, chatting with everybody.
I remember singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ with Amanda and the whole crowd because the three-year-old requested it and none of us had the heart to say no.
I remember Laura and Julie spray-painting their skin, those wonderful painted girls!
I remember Margaret managing to get her hands on a t-shirt and getting spray painted as well. (Mike, you trend-setter.)
I remember how much Jill loved my corset. (Don’t tell her, but I nearly let her keep it, such was her joy.)
I was jamming out to ‘The Killing Type’ and Laura, sitting next to me, kept looking away from Amanda to look at me. I apologized, assuming I was off-key or something. Maybe whipping her with my hair. A shred of my social anxiety surfaced. She reassured me she only kept looking back because I loved it so much, which made me heart her more. (Hugs, Laura!)
I remember Amanda singing ‘Bigger on the Inside’ and the crowd just sobbing. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but it’s teeming with heart and pain and strength and every single thing you can imagine. If people weren’t crying on the outside, they were crying on the inside, I promise. It’s a beautiful song, but as I was watching Amanda play this powerful, painful piece, I looked around at the crowd. I looked at the red eyes and the shining trails of tears. I watched friends hug each other in reassurance and ‘there’ness. But what held me most of all, was the sight of crying *strangers* hugging and holding on to each other. It’s a funny, beautiful thing being friends and strangers all at once. In that moment, we didn’t need to know a single thing about one another except that we all felt so very much that we didn’t want to do it alone. And we didn’t have to.
I remember Mike pushing me in line to get a photo with Amanda. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d say to Amanda if I ever actually sat down and talked with her. I’m usually a babbler—especially when nervous—so I thought it best to keep my distance. After we painted the canvas, we all took pictures with Amanda, and Mike confronted me about not having been in line yet. He knew I’d regret it if I didn’t, so he pushed me. (Thanks for that, Mike. You deserve cookies.) I dragged a couple other stragglers into the photo with me and put a stuffed dinosaur on my head. We smiled great big smiles.
Somehow, after that shot, there was another picture with Amanda and a different crew of people. I don’t remember why it was shot or who started it, but I remember thinking Amanda was trying to grab my hand for balance so she didn’t get her boot covered in fresh spray paint from Mike’s suit and Margaret’s shirt as she stood on one leg behind them, when I reality she was lacing her fingers in mine and raising our hands above our heads. I remember the people in front doing back-bends and loving it.
I remember consciously opting to stay in the conversation I was having about cats over standing around, haunting the last conversations other people were having with Amanda, waiting to ask her to sign my piece of the Canvas Art Project of Awesome (also known as ‘Art, Probably’)—with absolutely no regrets.
As I was heading out of the house for the last time, standing on the landing, looking out at the remnants of a happy crowd, I remember seeing Amanda come up the stairs. It’s a short flight and I stood aside so she could get in the door. She kept eye contact the whole time. No one does that to me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I held. When she reached me, she stood very close, took my chin, told me how glad she was that I came, and walked inside. I was utterly at a loss. As she walked her way and I walked mine, I told her that there was a great deal that she had to teach people. Usually, after human interaction, I berate myself terribly for having said or done the wrong thing, convinced that I should have done something differently. Today, I’m simply okay with it. It might have been one of the most intense moments with another person I’ve ever experienced, but for once, I am completely sure in the fact that there were no right or wrong answers.
I don’t know if she did the eye-contact/chin thing because she was slightly drunk and I was there, or if she saw that I was at the party, but knew she hadn’t talked to me and made a point to thank me for coming, or what, but no matter the reason, it was amazing.
That woman has the most incredible effect on people, and I will learn as much as I can from her. Without a single word, my fears and anxieties turned to trust. Sure, I didn’t know what to do, but that was okay. I want to learn to make other people feel that way. I want to do my part in turning a group of strangers into a crowd of friends—friends for the night or friends for life, it didn’t—it doesn’t matter.
Mike and I had a conversation in the car about breaking comfort barriers. It started with how nervous everyone was to start the Canvas Art Project of Awesome. Some people were unfamiliar with spray paint, some didn’t think they were good enough artists and wanted it to look pretty, some of them didn’t want to accidentally paint over somebody else’s work. I suggested that people’s fears and anxieties were erased when somebody else broke the barrier first—once we got started and over that first layer, on to the second, people relaxed. The canvas turned out absolutely beautiful after we let go of our fears. But Mike has wisdom beyond mine and put forth that perhaps instead of erasing the fear, it was simply transformed into trust. People didn’t just stop being afraid, they chose to trust that they wouldn’t “do the wrong thing” or get made fun of.
(Photo credit to Jason Ernst)