A dear friend once gave me a picture, one that still hangs in my office even today. The black and white photograph is of a bundled person sitting on a park bench and looking across the river at a fog-soaked Chicago.
The figure in the picture doesn’t know a photographer is crouched somewhere behind him, and there is not a single other soul in the frame. The person pictured is alone, gloriously alone, like a god, watching the city stir from a night’s slumber.
But that is just the thing with being alone—it always seems a fetching idea when contained in one’s mind, but it can be a cruel reality when forced on someone.
I remember my first bout with the feeling of being utterly alone occurred at the age of eleven in a room full of people. I was cast in the church’s annual children’s Christmas production because every kid was “cast” in the church’s annual children’s Christmas production. It had nothing to do with talent, as evidenced by my lack of lines and solos. But since each kid got “a part” and I was too big to cram into the manger to be sweet, still baby Jesus, I was made Wiseman #2, because I was neither the tallest nor shortest of the threec chosen wisemen—truly, it was the role I was born to play.
Toward the climax of the performance—the birth of some guy—we wisemen, the stars of the thing in my humble estimation, were to come onto the stage in full wiseman garb, grab a microphone, and sing a shortened version of “We Three Kings.” In many ways, this was clearly the pinnacle of the night, and I wasn’t looking at it like a trio, but rather three independent solos sung simultaneously due to the sheer importance of the theatrical moment. I practiced alone in my room with zest and gusto–a churchy version of Sinatra was what I was going for–in preparation for the big night.
At rehearsals, we always skipped our part and cut straight from the shepherds lines—delivered by a novice bunch of ten-year-olds—to the Jesus stuff: I guess they figured Billy, Luke, and I were professional enough not to need the extra stage time like everyone else.
The big night came and a big crowd with it—the place was
Madison Square Garden the Coliseum the Globe Theater. I asked my fellow wisemen, Billy and Luke, if they wanted to tune-up before going on, and they shrugged me off and put on their bedazzled Burger King crowns, ready to take the stage.
In our purple robes, we strolled up the center aisle of the church, looking upward for the star that would lead us to the Messiah. The pianist played our intro as we stretched a twenty second walk into a two-minute affair of pointing heavenward and checking a compass—man, were we on that night, walking along in our most Orient fashion.
Finally, at the urging of Ms. Wain, our tyrannical director, we made it to center stage. We looked off into the audience as the high-beam spotlight sucked the sweat from our brows. The pianist finished the intro and it was time . . . as Wiseman #2, it was my job to stand in the middle and hold the mic up for my comrades and me to sing into—quivering, I did so and sang . . .
WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE
I sang out loudly, clearly . . . only there was a problem! It was a lie! I sang ‘we three kings’ but in truth, only one king was taking part in this song. Billy and Luke had locked up beside me. They were moving their mouths but no sound was coming out! This was all me!
BEARING GIFTS WE TRAVERSED AFAR
I tried to compensate for their lack of participation by singing louder—by owning the night and saving the day.
FIELD AND FOUNTAIN
Why was the crowd laughing?
MOOR AND MOUNTAIN
I could see my sisters and their Jr. High gang in the back pew and they were leading the laughter!—and pointing too!
FOLLOWING YONDER STAR
I was alone. Utterly alone, here in the center of a spot-lit stage hammering out a single note over and over again . . . Billy and Luke were my range guys…Harmony never sounds great in one-part unison . . .
I could finally hear myself . . . and the AHHs were bad . . .just freakin’ one note . . . like a robot that fell in a hot tub . . .
STAR OF WONDER, STAR OF LIGHT, STAR WITH ROYAL BEAUTY BRIGHT
The choir had joined in but I was still the one with the mic—the one EVERYONE could hear. The one they were laughing at. I wanted to dig a hole and head back to the Orient from whence I came.
WESTWARD LEADING to embarrassment . . .
STILL PROCEEDING to the end of any semblance of a social life . . .
GUIDE US TO THY PERFECT LIGHT
The music stopped and I preceded, along with Billy and Luke, those turncoats, to the manger to see Jesus.
There in the manger was a plastic baby doll, and upon our arrival Mary picked the doll up and cradled it to her chest. An angel, in a non-monotone voice, assured the still giggling crowd, “For unto us a child is born! And He shall be called Immanuel, God with us!”
The choir broke out in Joy to the World, and my motley crew held our poses there in the manger-scene with the shepherds and Jesus’ family and some plastic cows and sheep.
On the way home, my older sisters took turns impersonating the monotone delivery of my solo. They all had a good laugh, as even my mother had joined the catcalling.
I sat in the back of our van, looking out at the big December night sky. I wondered if one of those twinkling things so far away actually had once led to a non-plastic baby in a manger in Bethlehem. And I wondered if there, some monotone wiseman from the Orient had ever staggered up in loneliness to be comforted with the promise of Immanuel, God with us?
Perhaps it was in that moment or one of the many moments of loneliness to come, or maybe it is the times I’ve been sitting on a bench and staring at a still-sleeping city like the picture in my office, but at some point along the way, Immanuel became a real thing to me. If God had really come to us and promised to remain with us, well, then loneliness was merely a choice—there never had to be another solo. The crowd could laugh at the kid in the spotlight, hitting the wrong note again and again—the fog could rise over the darkened city—but I never had to be alone again.
And that is a thing worth singing about (or at least trying to).