Because I Wandered In

We were off our usual beaten path, and I went for a walk. There, across the street, I was drawn by a sign in front of a low-slung, unassuming building: “Writers’ Night Tonight.” Seemed to be some type of a music store. And I hesitated, just for a moment.  Should I head back to the comfortable room that Larry and I had rented for the weekend, or should I go in, find out what this “Writers’ Night” business was? I wandered in.

And here are the things that happened because I wandered in.

I met Tony, the owner of The Music Exchange, whose eyes lit up when I asked about Writers’ Night. He described what was basically an open mic night, with one rule: in the tiny performance space adjacent to the store, the musicians and spoken-word artists could only perform works that they had written. He ticked off the names of some musicians who would be there, seeming to assume that I’d know who they were. I didn’t. We exchanged backgrounds a bit. I learned that he had lived in Park Ridge in the ‘70s and ‘80s, working as both a musician and a potter. The guys in his band slept on his couch sometimes, and when they left town to start the band Shadowfax, he chose pottery and stayed behind. Shadowfax, the New Age instrumental group that I enjoyed in the late ‘80s – wow! He proudly displayed the treasures in his music store: the cigar box guitars, the vintage Fender. He told me about the studio below the shop, describing the weeklong music-writing workshops that occur there three times a year, musicians from all over the world converging on the town and staying in the ’50s-era motel next door. Larry had to see this place and meet this guy. I promised we’d be back that night.

I refused to tell my husband where we were going, simply brought him into this space where a few folks who seemed to know each other well sat around the BYOB room, joking and telling stories. We met Pat, who shares ownership in the motel next door, built in the ‘50s, prototype (maybe) for the first Holiday Inn, and filled with a vintage vibe. Eventually, someone was moved to get the Writers’ Night started. Cathy, Tony, and Pat all played, each an incredible, soulful musician. A nice man read a piece about being part of the Geezers’ Club and sipping $0.88 coffee at McDonald’s, striking notes of humor and poignancy throughout.

The room grew very still when Larry got up. Not my Larry, another Larry. Like us, though, not a regular. He, too, had wandered into the store that day, and had been encouraged to come back for Writers’ Night. He wore a very large pair of overalls, he stared at us, and then began speaking in a tongue we did not know. The room held its breath. And then, in English, he explained his Mohican greeting, and went on to introduce himself more deeply. This introduction was filled with anger for land that was stolen, and reverence for the land itself. It was rich with memories of growing up on the res, and was unbearably resigned and hopeful all at once. Larry eventually read a brief, sweet poem, and then was ready to sit back down, as we all thanked him for blessing us with his open-hearted gift. In all honesty, I think that I am writing this blog post so that I will never forget these moments of sitting in awe as this man spontaneously and courageously spoke his truth in front of me.

Just before Larry read, I’d decided yes, I’d share one of my blog posts aloud. Hearing this man’s message, though, I felt a bit humbled. But, I decided that I’d go ahead and read in this very safe room, in front of these new stranger-friends. Here I am, reading about a quiet walk I took with my husband’s step-father.

A young woman, a new resident in the area, had declined over and over to read, although she’d apparently shared in the past. She explained she had nothing new to read, just the same poem she’d spoken before. I told her I’d never heard it, and others agreed that they, too, had missed the earlier reading, or wanted to hear it again, and eventually she took the stage. As poems sometimes do, it started light, and deepened into beauty and pain as she spoke about her soldier brother. Either he had died in service, or she worried he would not make it back. Husband Larry and I do not agree on the literal meaning, but to my core I felt the emotion behind the words, nevertheless.

More music from the talented three who were in essence the hosts – Tony, Pat, and Cathy – and the evening drew to a close. But not quite, because Tony had promised to show the store to Larry (my Larry, now, not Larry from the stage). We saw the cigar box guitars, the Fender which we were told was one of the first 100 made, the picture of Tony and Jackson Brown from a gig.

Larry heard about the Shadowfax thing. And then Tony asked us, “Had we heard about Pat’s background?” Pat, from the motel, right? Yeah, right – now he performs at Writers’ Night and I think many gigs, and he is a partial owner in the motel, but many years ago he was one half of Timbuk 3. Wait… what? Pat is Pat MacDonald from Timbuk 3? He and his then wife, Barbara K, were a band that Larry and I enjoyed in the late 80’s. Do you remember The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades? Yeah, that’s Timbuk 3. They also wrote and performed a song called Facts about Cats, which definitely ended up on one of the many audio tapes Larry sent to me in college. Mailing mix tapes back and forth was part of our early romance, as we met while in college but went to school across the country from each other. This was of course long before any easy electronic means of communication, and so these tapes served meaningful dual purposes: sharing something important with someone important, and a daily, musical means of staying present in each other’s lives. Music has always been integral to our connection: our first “I recognize you” conversation at a summer party occurred around John Lennon, I fell in love with my husband in a record store, and as I write this, a new Van Morrison song plays in the background – almost 28 years after we danced to a song by this artist at our wedding. Did I digress? All this to say, meeting half of Timbuk 3 together was a thrill.

Larry told Pat about something that had resonated with him from a Timbuk 3 interview many years ago, Pat talked about the song-writing process that he and Barbara K had used, and then gave us a live-performance Timbuk 3 CD. Cathy and Tony also gave us CDs… in all, we left The Music Exchange with four CDs. Pat invited us to stop by the Holiday Motel the next day, sharing the insider tip that the coffee is fresh again after 3:00.

So we did stop by. I cannot overstate how much we would have ignored this motel had we not met these musician locals. Here’s what it looks like from the outside.

But then, here’s what it looks like on the inside.

Guests are welcome to pick up and play any instruments. Three times a year, musicians gather from around the world to come here and write music together. Cathy told us that musicians gather in a circle, and play a version of Spin the Bottle — instead of creating kissing couples, the bottle creates music-writing partners for the week.
Guests have breakfast at this 50’s era counter top. The breakfast diner is known for it’s free-flowing coffee, and hard-boiled eggs.

In a span of 24 hours, we looked into the souls of generous writers. We faced a Native American who spoke with anger and love, and a young woman who shared the meaning of loss. We made new friends, if only for an evening. I shared my writing aloud, having never intended to do so. We experienced vintage: guitars, motel, people. We met amazing musicians, including blasts from our pasts. And all because I wandered in.

That We Know of… YET

Karen and I met in and supported each other through graduate school, each acting as guide, confidant, editor, and cheerleader for the other. When I think of driving back and forth to Urbana during a hot summer in the mid ’90s, trying to figure out how we would get all of the work done, I think of Karen. And then our lives went in separate directions, and we lost track of each other. All of this was before Facebook and Twitter and texts and it was flat-out easier to fall out of touch, and so we did. This was indeed a terrible loss for me, one I let happen.

Then recently, I had reason to reconnect with Karen: I have accepted a new position in the school district where she worked back when we were in graduate school, and letting her know this was the perfect reason to find her again. And then, just as I was getting ready to send a message to her, I learned that a teacher I know had been a student of Karen’s, just around the same time when the two of us were such close friends. The teacher told me with excitement that having Karen to guide her was one of the reasons that she chose to become an educator. Karen is strong, smart, and passionate about education and making a difference, and so is the teacher who was her student. Amazing – both women whom I admire and respect, connected so long ago. Yet another reason to reach out. And so I did.

Karen’s response to me was lovely, no surprise, and it included this, about her former student: She was a bright young woman, a great athlete, strong sense of empathy… I always saw in her a bit more than she was ready to hear. In one phrase, Karen had summed up the essence of what we should all be doing with our students: seeing what is possible, seeing the greatness that glimmers around the edges of our students’ poor choices and fears. Really, now, think back to your best teachers. Is that what they did for you? Probably, in some way, yes. Karen is currently the director of a regional Safe Schools program, serving young men and women who need something extra to be successful in a school setting. So, you know she is still seeing more in students than they are ready to hear.

This brings me to Ladybird, the beautiful Greta Gerwig film that I saw separately with each of my young adult daughters over the past year or so. This movie hooked me as a mom who raised teenage girls (What did I get right? What did I get wrong? HOW wrong?), and also caused me to think deeply about the messages of empowerment and positive risk-taking that we give (or, sadly, sometimes don’t give) to our young people. High school senior “Ladybird”, who renamed herself as she was becoming who she was becoming, is faced over and over again with adults who do not believe in her, or who are afraid to show that they believe in her. Her guidance counselor outright laughs at her college dreams. Adults fail Ladybird all of the time.

One of my favorite moments in the film occurs between Ladybird and her principal, a good-humored nun who actually does support her, who sees and celebrates Ladybird’s spirit and strength. “What I’d really like,” Ladybird says, “is to be on Math Olympiad.” The nun answers, with some kindness, “But math isn’t something that you’re terribly strong in.” And wait for it… Ladybird responds with, “That we know of YET.” (Want to see the scene? It is at the end of the trailer.) That phrase has stuck for me, and I keep trying to find ways to sneak it into encouraging conversations. It is a spark of hope. It is breaking through. It is believing that something else is possible. It is what we need to give to our students. For sure, it is what many of the adults in Ladybird’s life did not give to her — she had to give it to herself. It’s what Karen clearly gave/gives to her students.

Personal development for all people, at all ages, has been on my mind a lot lately. Stretching. People trying things out, doing things that they haven’t done before. And that’s where Honky Tonk Angels comes in. (What now?) If you happen to have read any of my other blog posts, you may already know that my husband has been taking guitar classes for many years, and that sometimes I hang out with him at the music school, or at a nearby coffee shop. And that last year I even took a vocal ensemble class while he was strumming away in another room. This winter, however, Larry cajoled me into taking a class WITH him — we are both signed up for an ensemble class called, you guessed it, Honky Tonk Angels, where we are, in essence, a band that practices (and eventually performs) a set of songs written by female country/western musicians. There are a few guitar players, a guy who plays fiddle and bass, and me, a “vocalist”. Look at that, I had to put it in quotation marks. Say it, a vocalist! But the thing is, unlike the rest of the group, I don’t really play an instrument. I played guitar in college, very, very badly. I can play piano, just a little. But secretly, for the past few years, I’ve craved the drums.

Now, just the vocalist part is already basically new for me. I have plenty of past singing experience, but it has all been more musical theater and choral singing. I have never actually FRONTED a band before. (Never mind that I’m paying for the pleasure of doing so – that’s just a side detail, right?) And then, today, I nudged myself even further out of my comfort zone. After harmonizing on one song in the background while someone else was singing lead, I thought, “Why not?” and quietly spoke up, “Could this song maybe use someone on the drum kit?” And it was YES. And I DID.

Here’s what I’ll say: Drumming isn’t something I’m terribly strong in. That we know of YET! Ladybird would be proud. And Karen would believe in me! I’ll have to tell her about it the next time I see her.