On Time Travel and the Collection of Sounds in My Ears

I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn

Last night I was 15 years old

In between the compulsive-prayer phase of my life and the I’m-definitely-going-to-die-soon phase, I sat on the left-hand side of the lower level of the Carrboro Arts Center. It was my first small-venue concert, and I was there with a newish friend, Tish, and her parents. This whole folk music thing was new to me, but it meant something big. I suppose this was the first finding-myself-amidst-crippling-self-doubt phase. One of many to come, though I couldn’t have begun to understand that yet.

I was just starting to comprehend what accessible music can do for a person’s psyche as I watched Dar Williams take the stage. There were songs about teenagers and babysitters. There was a song about therapy, though I had no idea how important that would be in setting the stage for a version of me 20 years in the future.

I imagine that Dar was wearing a velvet dress. In my mind she is always wearing a velvet dress.

Perhaps I am a miscreation
No one knows the truth there is no future here

Last night I was 18 years old.

Standing by the backstage gate of a road-tripping folk festival in Raleigh. I had never asked anybody for an autograph before and I was unprepared. I waited, hoping she would come out so I could ask her to sign the scrap of envelope in my hand. Not for me, but for the daughter of my local record store clerk. I spent so many hours there among the CDs, looking through boxes of promos. I love the music, yes, but mostly I wanted to feel special. Like someone who knew things. What I was sure of, was that this seven-year-old loved Dar Williams and I was determined to surprise her with an autograph.

That year, I graduated high school and headed into the Great Unknown.

I’m not a leader,
I’m not a left-wing rhetoric mobilizing force of one,
But there was a time way back,
Many years ago in college, don’t laugh,
But I thought I was a radical

Last night I was 19 years old.

I knew a thing or two about life. Like, literally one or two things. It was overwhelming and enticing. Rhiannon finds herself, v. 2.0. I crossed the Mason-Dixon line for the first time with my no-longer-new friend, heading to a festival in New York where I would continue to doubt exactly who I was or should be. Some sort of confused caterpillar. My modern-day-friend, Chelsea, talks about all the goo of becoming a butterfly, but at the time the most I could imagine was a moth.

I didn’t even realize that a future friend, Charlotte, was sitting feet behind me, full of her own fear and doubt, too nervous to say hello to this internet stranger. Listening to the same words. I had no clue I’d make that same trip with her two years later. I never could have known that she would one day help hold my legs and feed me ice chips as a midwife told me to push, to welcome my daughter into the world. Or that I would do the same for her.

What I knew was music. Always.

Also, boyfriends. A paralyzing fear of driving down the mountain. The heady feelings of college and freedom and the first tastes of alcohol. Midnight adventures to Walmart and Tennessee and the stars of Orion.

It felt like an adventure
Isn’t that what you would call it?

Last night I was 20, 21, 22…

North Carolina, Virginia, New York. Thousands of miles. Dozens of artists, many dozens of shows. The old boyfriend was gone, lost to whatever chasm eats college romances and spits them out, never meant to be consumed in the first place. I’d marry the next one, follow him south to north and back again in a few still-unknown years.

On New Year’s Eve 2001/2002 we went to Northampton, MA to see Dar with The Nields. The next day, driving back to Steven’s mom’s house in Boston, we decided to take a detour to NYC. Driving around, we stumbled upon ground zero (or as close as you could get), still full of haze and dust and bright lights. We picked up leftover NYE confetti in Times Square.

Each summer we sweated through glitter and face paint at the Eno River Festival. God, we felt so grown up.

We were babies.

 

So when they ask how far love goes,
When my job’s done you’ll be the one who knows.

Last night I turned 31 years old

Now we had babies of our own. Charlotte’s daughter giggled on the floor behind us as we handed out CDs and songbooks on the eve of my 31st birthday. Our big kids were home sleeping.

I wondered what 15 year old me would say to this. All of it. A husband, a daughter, selling merchandise for Dar. The friendships I’ve created with bands I hadn’t even heard of in 1997. Hanging on the tour bus with Eddie From Ohio. Driving Nerissa and Katryna Nields around Durham — likely driving them past the house I didn’t know I would one day own. Taking my week-old daughter for brunch with Pete and Maura Kennedy, who had once been my parents for a night when I was 20 and couldn’t get into their show.

 

I say I hear a doubt, with the voice of true believing
And the promises to stay, and the footsteps that are leaving

Last night I was 32 years old

What Do You Hear in These Sounds – AKA “that therapy song” – played on a loop in my head as I sat in the waiting room at a clinic down the street from my work. A woman I had talked with briefly on the phone called me back to her office. I sank into her couch. I knew I was supposed to tell things to this kind stranger. So many supposed to’s. Too many shoulds.

I figured therapy couldn’t be a personal failure, after all, Dar wrote a whole song about it.

Four years later, and each week I go sit on a couch with this same non-stranger and tell her things. Sometimes. Sometimes I just stare at my hands, picking at the lid of my water bottle. I’ve destroyed at least two bottle tops that way.

Wake up and you still feel the same
It’s hard to move and you’re reeling from the pain

Last night I was 34 (but who’s counting?)

No wait, I should have been 34, but it was early. Two months early, as I sat on the hospital bed waiting for son’s arrival. I’d been there for a week, with no idea that I only had one more week to go before Rowan was cut out of me and into the world.

Zach brought me the mail from home, and there was Dar’s new CD. I’d forgotten about it. Then I lay back down and took a nap and forgot about it again. Hospitals are exhausting.

One day during Rowan’s six-week NICU stay, I came home to my empty house and put on the new CD. The first song, Something to Get Through, hit me. I cried. Shaking, hiccuping sobs. It promised me I would laugh again one day. That I would get through this. I wasn’t so sure.

Two nights before Rowan went home, I got to pretend to be his mother for a night. At least, that’s what it felt like, because we equate mother to caregiver, and I certainly had not been his caregiver so far.

I wheeled his bassinet from the NICU to a single hospital room for my trial run at this whole mother-of-a-preemie thing. He was asleep, and I knew exactly how I wanted this to go. For once, for the first time since I got pregnant with him, I was determined things would go how I planned.

the one who knows

The NICU has no sunlight, so I pulled the curtains wide open, letting the slice of diffuse light shine on his face. I got out my computer and pulled up Dar’s The One Who Knows. I had planned for this to be the first music Lorelei ever heard, but instead it was While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which is not a bad choice in and of itself, but was not my plan. This time, I’d get it right.

After a while, Rowan’s eyes opened a crack, and he took in his new surroundings. He was almost six weeks old and weighed five pounds. I held him easily on one arm, bathed in natural light, and clicked the play button.

And I cried. Oh, how I cried.

And in the morning you wake up and the signs point to you
They say
“I’m so glad that you finally made it here,”

Last night I was 36 years old

I handed out Dar’s new book. Dar wore a velvet dress.

Charlotte was there. Tish and Marie and Steven and all my concert road buddies were not. But they were. Because live music is time travel. I was in all those places, all those ages, and with everyone at the same time.

I sat slightly above the row of seats where I first watched Dar sing The Babysitter’s Here. I imagined my 15 year old self sitting down below, still younger than the song’s title character, and Dar herself younger than I am now. I could almost see the back of my head, long auburn hair barely brushed — the confused child, wondering if there was really a place for her in the world.

At the same time, I saw it through the lens of my daughter, who could be the little girl from the song, watching her babysitter in a play about a unicorn.

She played The One Who Knows and I cried, mascara smudging.

It all floated through my brain, a montage of life and music and fear and growth. All these loose strands of thought and memory get woven together to create life lived in one moment. One singular point in time. I was me then. I am me now. I was me now. I will be me.

via GIPHY

 

I sat next to my friend Chelsea, who wasn’t even part of this tapestry the last time I saw Dar. Now, she is another strong thread woven into the rest of this patchwork quilt. It’s both a masterpiece and threadbare in spots. But when I scrunch it up and burrow down, it becomes warm and protective.

After the show we went to Maple View Farms to watch the Geminid meteor shower. We watched a piece of space explode through the belt of Orion. It matched the stretch mark inside my Orion tattoo.

There’s the weak and the strong and the many stars that guide us,
We have some of them inside us.

Last night, I was me

The sum of my history. Expanding into infinity.

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