It’s a Saturday for wandering without leaving my chair, headphones on, marveling at the pure magic some have in putting words together. I love lots of different kinds of music, but by far my favorite is the music of those who can put poetry to song, stripped to its most basic, simply words and chords together to move my thoughts and emotions as nothing else can.
I was watching some videos on YouTube earlier today and came across a 20-year old clip of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash and Nanci Griffith together at the Bottom Line. Carpenter was singing her song, “The Moon and St. Christopher” with Griffith offering some backup, and I noticed in one shot that as she sang, tears were falling from the eyes of Nanci Griffith. This is the music I like best, the music that makes even one of the very best singer-songwriters cry, such is the beauty of it. Some days all I can do is sit and listen to it for hours on end.
As I listen and let my mind wander, it goes back a few years to an evening when I sat in the balcony of the Calvin Theater in Northampton, MA waiting to atone for one of my greatest sins in life. In 12 step programs, one is told of the importance of making amends for past transgressions. Usually it’s preached that we make amends to others, say we are sorry, correct the wrongs we can correct and ask forgiveness for those that we cannot. Sometimes though, the biggest transgressions we make are against ourselves and the amends most needed to the same. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves that we’re sorry, that what we did or didn’t do can be forgiven, that we can move on from here, a different, better person.
In the summer of 1992, the threads that held my inner life together were frayed to the point of breaking. Years of sadness and hurt, self-loathing and self-medication, fits and starts, had added up in essence to a decade lost to a single tragedy and its seemingly endless fallout. I’m not one to use profanity often, but in this case there isn’t much of a better descriptor of myself at this time than “fucking mess”.
I was living in Arlington, Virginia, sharing a townhouse with one less-than-stable fellow, about to be enticed into moving in with another even less so. It was the latter that I was to spend a Saturday night with that summer, sitting on the lawn at Wolf Trap, seeing one of those singer-songwriters I so worship. My soon-to-be housemate, Lonnie, was both a gifted and cursed musician. He was a musical genius, literally, but totally inept at functioning in the world. Still, hundreds of extended happy hours and a bunch of shared interests brought us together, and we became friends. It was the love of music that we shared most. His talents had led him to play in several well-known bands in the DC area in the 80s, but for me, his greatest feat had been to back-up a talented but relatively unknown singer-songwriter in some session work. He told me that he had played guitar for and with Mary Chapin Carpenter.
By the time we met, her gifts had been well-recognized and she had several well-deserved Grammys and a number of hit records to her name. I adored her. She wrote and sang the most poignant, heartbreaking songs; songs of the kind of lonliness I knew, the kind of sadness I felt, the kind of longing that I had. I listened to her CDs over and over and over again. She was playing in her backyard of Northern Virginia that summer and we got tickets. It was a dream to see her perform live. I couldn’t wait for the day to arrive.
It was an evening concert and Lonnie was going to pick me up late afternoon so we’d get there in time to get good seats, meaning a good spot on the lawn for our blanket. Before any of this though, I had an invitation to the birthday party of a co-worker. She was leaving work soon, too, so it was a combination happy-sad event. I looked forward to it, not only because we were friends, but also because I had an utterly ridiculous crush on another co-worker and the thought of getting to see her there was, though misguided, exciting. Looking back, the math is pretty easy to do: Happy-sad event + utterly ridiculous crush + a couple dozen beers = Fucking Mess.
I left the party after several hours, somehow got home, and promptly passed out. The next thing I remember was Lonnie pounding on my bedroom door, telling me to get up and get ready or we were going to miss the concert. Drunk, sick, fairly incoherent, I laid on the blanket on the lawn at Wolf Trap and missed the show I had so longed to see. Every song, every word, every connection I imagined that I shared with my favorite artist – I missed it all.
I got home that evening and cried. I lay in bed the entire next day, way more sick at myself than sick with a hangover. I had never been so disappointed and angry with myself, had never let myself down so much before. It was the beginning of a rapid, downward spiral that would end the following spring when I finally began the long, slow process of healing.
I continued to listen to Mary Chapin over the years. I bought all of her music and remained moved by the words she sang. I still felt the deep connection to the feelings she shared. There are many, many other singer-songwriters that I treasure, but she always rose a little higher on the list. But I could never listen without a sense of regret. There was always a piece of myself unforgiven for the behavior of that Saturday.
Until the evening when I sat in that balcony at the Calvin, years and miles removed from that earlier time. This time I was awake, I was present. This time I was ready to listen.
Then the stage went completely dark, the strings of a single guitar were struck, and an unmistakable voice sang:
I’ve waited longer for lesser things
But here I am
Who really knows what tomorrow brings
But here I am
Just in case you were wondering
Just in case you lost again
Just in case you run out of friends, here I am
It’s so easy to rip and to tear, so here I am
What you need the most
Disappears into thin air, so here I am
Maps and compasses may stay true
It doesn’t really matter what you do
I have never forgotten you
Here I am
Some days our reach
Is bound to far exceed our grasp
I gave up hoping long ago
I could fix the past,
Here I am
I know full well that Mary Chapin Carpenter was not singing to me directly. I know that she does not know me at all. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? I wrote yesterday of the strange coincidences we sometimes notice in life, those circumstances and moments that make us stop and pay attention. They make us think that maybe something bigger can be taken from them.
This was perhaps the most profound example of such I’ve ever experienced. Under my breath that night, as she sang words that could not possibly have been more to the point, I apologized to Mary Chapin for turning away the gift she gave years earlier. And I forgave myself, too.
(“Here I Am”, Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2006)