If you give a Volunteer an anthem...
I'd only been in Comoros for a few days, and in fact was enjoying my first Iftar during Ramadan, when our country director Dan pulled me aside.
He mentioned he noticed I'd put singing on my résumé and asked if I would be willing to sing the U.S. national anthem at a Fourth of July event.
Being the people-pleasing and adventure-seeking new arrival that I was, I responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!”
I had sung in choirs for years and performed in a couple musicals, but I'd never sung a solo successfully before. This was not for lack of trying. I attempted it multiple times, in class, church, and auditions, but my throat always closed up once all attention was on me.
But I knew the national anthem inside and out, and my audience wasn't going to judge me. Plus if I embarrassed myself beyond belief, I actually could leave the country and pretend it never happened.
I psyched myself up and prepared to practice singing to find the perfect key. So I wasn't that daunted when, a couple days later, Dan pulled me aside again and explained that the Comorian anthem would need to be sung as well. Would I be able to do both?
“Sure!” I replied.
Not 24 hours later, I had the lyrics in Shikomori, an English translation and someone to teach me.
I sat down at a table with one of our program trainers and she sang the anthem for me. Once I had the recording, I listened to it regularly. The tune was easy, and the pronunciation relatively, but memorizing the right order of the sounds took time. For a while, I would only practice alone in my room, but eventually I started to practice with my neighbors and host family.
The way they beamed every time I sang made learning the anthem worth it and easy. During training, I knew little language and had few ways to communicate, but music is universal, and there's so much power and connection that can come from even attempting someone's mother language. Practicing eliminated any sense of anxiety, and sitting and singing with my host family helped make me more comfortable sitting and talking with them, learning, until I reached the point one night where I was perfectly at peace under the stars in the backyard/kitchen area, playing with my two-year-old host brother and listening in the background to a beautiful Arabic song playing on my host dad's phone.
On the day of the event, Peace Corps staff were excited for me, having had me sing for them a couple of times already, and I was excited too. I got the agenda: American anthem first, then Comorian. After I sang, I'd hand off the mic and find a seat.
“And now, Lindsay Morrison singing the American national anthem.”
I sang, not in the key I'd planned on but the one that came out instinctively, and didn't disgrace Lady Liberty. I felt a little stiff and wished I could've expressed more emotion, but my throat didn't close up and that was all the miracle I needed. The audience waited patiently, I paused and then it was time for the Comorian anthem.
I can't help but smile every time I sing this song. I'm not sure if it's the music that makes me so happy or the memory of my emotions learning it, but on this occasion, the reason came in the hundred faces smiling back at me.
The instant I began, the mood changed. Smiles broke out on every face, mouths opened and every Comorian sang along. I might not have known how to get a full bucket of water from the well every time. I might not have known how to open coconuts with a machete. But I knew this perfectly.
My body wasn't stiff. I sang and swayed along, fed by the crowd's energy and feeding back into it, even when I saw phone cameras filming me.
Afterwards, it felt like everyone wanted to thank me. Their warmth was evident in their handshakes and smiles. I thanked them for their kindness and for the honor of getting to sing a song that really is beautiful. Knowing the notes was easy. Feeling free to be heard was not.
I tried not to mourn the fact I hadn't quite hit the high note in the U.S. anthem or fully conveyed its beauty too, and the day came to a close. The next would be business as usual, training, studying, struggling with language and finding more moments of laughter and harmony with my host family.
Though I was originally just asked to sing the American anthem, that isn't what I was meant to do. That isn't why I'm here. For Comorians, the significance of foreigners coming to learn and celebrate their language, culture and values, instead of imposing their own, is huge, and this represented a small step in that direction.
Self-discovery and growth are important for Volunteers, of course, but I want to be clear: These are just a couple of snapshots from the very beginning of a journey I'm still on, a journey that is hard and complicated and beautiful and full of amazing people whose stories I should give more of a voice to every day.
The takeaway isn't that I finally got over my stage fright; it’s that this was one of the first times I broke out of my comfort zone in a tangible, semi-successful way, and it was only the beginning for all the other times I've had to break out and be brave since. It was my stepping stone and I've had to leap out even further since then.
That's what Peace Corps service is. Exposed vulnerability after exposed vulnerability, challenge after challenge. We lose our language to find our voice, and then we realize it's never been about us anyway.