My father had come to watch me in my high school track meet. It was the middle of winter, so the event took place in the basement of the school where there was a quarter mile track. The middle of the track was filled with other fitness equipment and areas, separated by movable, netted walls.

I was no good. I could run a long distance, but I could never run very fast, at least not as fast as the other runners. I was once able to eke out a 5:40 mile, but only once. Over 40 years later, and I’m still proud of that mile.

I was running the 2-mile race the day of that winter track meet, and I just didn’t have anything in me. I started off with the pack, but quickly fell behind. Dad was there cheering me on. I fell even farther behind, and then farther, and farther. Soon I was being lapped by the lead racers. It was not a good day. About halfway through, I realized I was done. But Dad was there, and the other guys on the team were watching, and the coaches were watching. Honestly, I was feeling ashamed. Ashamed and exhausted.

I was alone on the track coming around a turn, and I saw one of those netted rooms. I quietly left the race amidst the netted walls in the center of the track, and found myself hiding. Hiding from my coaches and team, hiding from my dad, hiding from myself.

My dad, only there to watch me and cheer me on, suddenly had no idea where I was. Actually, it was kind of humorous, and in the years that followed we would often laugh about my sudden “disappearance.” It was not self deprecation on my part, and it was not mean spirited on Dad’s part. I had disappeared…in a basement! It was pretty funny.

And yet, I always imagined what might have happened had I not quit, had I not hidden in the dark, dank basement between the mildewy, moldy netted exercise areas. Of course I would have still lost the race (nothing was going to change that), but maybe I would have finished. Or maybe I wouldn’t have finished, but I wouldn’t have disappeared, and I would have been ready for more coaching, and more improvement.

Maybe if I had seen Patti Smith sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before the race, the outcome of that day could have been very different.

In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for literature. In classic curmudgeon fashion, Dylan refused to accept the award in person. In his place, Patti Smith performed Dylan’s 1962 dystopian classic “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” She was the perfect choice.

Patti Smith first came to prominence as part of the 1970’s New York punk scene. She had always been a devoted fan of Bob Dylan, and they would go on to become great friends. “A Hard Rain” was the first Dylan song that Patti connected to when she was only 16 years old.

At almost 7 minutes long, “Hard Rain” is a beautiful elegy, line by line, asking questions and providing answers. The concepts, pentameter and rhythm are unforgiving, and I imagine it would be a challenging song to perform under any circumstance.

But this wasn’t any circumstance. This was the Nobel Prize. Luminaries from around the world dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns, bedecked in jewelry and sashes and tiaras. The formality of the event must have been daunting. Patti Smith appeared above the stage, surrounded by a full orchestra to honor a friend she loves, to honor a song she loves, to perform with honor and grace.

Accompanied only by the guitarist behind her, her angelic voice echoes through the hall as she surveys all that is before her. She sings the complex lyrics carefully, gently. At 1:19 in the video, we can see the dignitaries looking up at her with a quiet respect. A lonely steel guitar joins the lament. A man in the audience quietly sings along. Everything is going just fine.

And then, at 1:52, Patti misses a word. The guitarist continues strumming, expecting that Patti will jump back in. She tries.

“I’m sorry” Patti says, and tries to continue the song. She cannot. At this point, Patti Smith could have hidden, like I hid running that track event. She does not.

Instead, she addresses the audience directly. “I apologize. I’m sorry. I’m so nervous.” As Patti lets out a nervous laugh, the audience joins together in applause. They applaud in encouragement, in understanding, and in appreciation. The guitarist returns to the song, and with a look of fierce determination on her face, Patti Smith sings.

She continues where she left off. Just her and the guitarist, with the steel guitar joining in every now and then. Her concentration is laser focused. At 3:35 a kind smile appears on her face. She’s made it this far. She is singing with every bit of love and appreciation she can. Appreciation for the song. Appreciation for Dylan. A deep, deep appreciation for the kindness and generosity of the audience.

Then, the unthinkable happens. At the 4:00 mark, Patti stumbles again. Rather than stopping the song this time, she quickly glances at the conductor and decides to continue. She does not miss a beat. The audience is paying rapt attention.

Patti finishes the song with the entire orchestra now playing behind her. She is literally marching in place in confidence, leading everyone in the room forward. There is no stopping her now.

In Patti Smith’s beautiful essay about her experience that evening, she references her love of the song, and the exhaustive practice and rehearsals she went through to get everything right. She stood up on that stage, and saw the lights, and the kings and queens, and the dignitaries, and the television cameras, and felt, in her words, an “avalanche of emotions.”

“Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.”

Patti Smith may have stumbled through a performance she wished so very hard would be perfect, but through her nerves and her determination, she made everybody a little bit better, just by the fact that she finished the song.

She made the audience better. Because she stayed, the audience that was before quietly listening was now quietly invested. Whereas they may have been critical, they were now supportive. Whereas there may have been a division between performer and audience, now they were together as a unified force.

She made the orchestra better. Everybody on that stage was a professional musician, but that night Patti Smith was also a teacher. Every musician makes mistakes, but not always so publicly. Every musician gets nervous, but not always with such consequences. By not giving up, by not walking away, Patti made these already excellent musicians just a little bit better.

And lastly, I think Patti made herself a little bit better. She rose to the occasion. Had she stepped away, or maybe even walked off the stage, we would have understood. This bad-ass punk rock queen somehow found herself singing to kings and queens on the world stage. Of course she’s nervous, and of course she is so bad ass that she didn’t go anywhere. She stayed up on that stage until she was finished.

So, finish. Finish the race. Finish the song. Finish the paper, the project, the new years resolution, the speech, the joke, the story, the diet. Finish. Just finish. We may not finish with victory, but we will finish with dignity, if only because we have finished. Finishing will make you better, and it will make everyone around you better as well.

I wish I had finished that race. Now, that would have been a great story to tell.

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