On the First Night of August: Everyday Magic, Day 1012

Sometime in my early teens, I discovered Carole King’s Rhymes and Reasons, and like I had done with Joni Mitchell’s Blue (was there ever a more perfect album?”), I listened to it over and over, embedding every nuance of note and syllable in my psyche, especially replaying the lyrical and gorgeously orchestrated “On the First Day of August.”

That song grabbed me from the core of my yearnings and dreams because, more than anything, I wanted someone to love me. To be honest, that was probably my biggest dream of all, even more than holding my first book of poetry in my hands or strolling up to the glittering stage to collect my Oscar (although I had my speech well-rehearsed).

I was a late bloomer when it came to the boyfriend game. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my inability to act like I didn’t care and my propensity to put myself out there like a labrador retriever puppy wiggling on his back didn’t win me dates except for mismatched matchmaking forays with boys so geeky they ignored me to read Dune. My step-sister devoted herself to finding me a date for the senior prom, which turned out to be a disaster, but I appreciate her persistence in asking so many guys. College, on the other hand, was better, but also worse because while everyone seemed up (more or less) for sex, few wanted anything beyond that (which brings to mind another Carole King song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”).

I accumulated little badges of heartbreak like an Eagle Scout, and by the time I was 23, I felt too old for love. Then I hit the jackpot: meeting, getting involved with, marrying, having kiddos with, and now about 38 years since we were introduced, growing old with Ken. Which brings me back to “The First Night of August.”

In some of Ken and my early camping trips, often illegally setting up a tent in some hidden Kansas field or Colorado forest, it seemed we were always sleeping under the stars — aka in sudden storms that soaked us and almost blew away our tents or in the midst of a million mosquitoes with a mission — on the first night of August. Sometimes I would sing this song to him or at least hum it repeatedly in my head. As our camping trips expanded to fly-ridden yurts with three children who were fighting with each other over who wanted most to go home (although they say now they *ahem* loved those trips) or throwing up on each other from altitude sickness), I would still sing that song each August 1st, usually while walking to the car to get more blankets or see if I could find someone’s glasses.

Now — so far away from the days of taking a big vacation without fear and precision-planning, and so long after those toddlers and babies we camped with raced through campgrounds in their underwear — the song returns to me along with August 1st. The piano opening — each note ringing through my upstairs bedroom facing the backyard in Manalapan, New Jersey when I was 14 years gold and crazy-lonely — also rings through this surprisingly refreshing breeze on the porch as I watch the swaying hosta blossoms, the sleeping old dog, and Ken’s car, surely still under attack by packrats (another story). I sing along with King, all these years held in this song holding me:

“On the first day in August/I want to wake up by your side/After sleeping with you on the last night in July/In the morning/We’ll catch the sun rising/And we’ll chase it from the mountains to the bottom of the sea.” Listen to it yourself right here.

Whoever you are, I hope that something — if not someone — holds you in your dreams this first night of August.

The Night John Prine Died: Everyday Magic, Day 1002

The Night John Prine Died

 

The pink full moon rose over the pandemic

singing through the tree, “Hello in there. Hello.”

 

We listened, all children grown old, but always

looking for something to hold onto, even angels

 

of the old rivers of our heart’s journeys,

grown wilder in their holiness, forcing new channels

 

like the holy is prone to do, especially when everything

changes. What is there to do but stand here,

 

willing peaceful waters to calm us, sometime

in the future as if that’s where paradise lay?

 

But John Prine knew there’s a hole in the world.

We can just see it now while time changes us,

 

if we’re true, into souvenirs of this life,

talismans of something precious and lasting

 

beneath the tree of forgiveness the moon climbs.

Come on home, come on home, come on home.

.

Like many of us around the world, I adored and revered John Prine, one of the greatest of the great songwriters, musicians, singers, and mensches. WIth great gratitude to him, I used a word or short phrase from the following songs: “Hello in There,” “Paradise,” “Lake Marie,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Souvenirs,” and “Long Monday.”

Are We All Just Dust in the Wind?: Everyday Magic, Day 995

That’s the question I kept asking myself as I replayed “Dust in the Wind” on my quickly-wearing-out but relatively new copy of Point of Know Return. I was a 17-year-old Jersey girl, commuting two years each way because of a wacky bus schedule from my home in Manalapan to Brookdale Community College, just 10 miles away. There, I studied English (quelle surpris!), but mostly, poetry, music, and several guys at our school radio station, WBJB, where we often played Kansas music in between jazz, folk, showtunes, opera, and rock because we had a progressive format (mixing any and everything). Oh, and did I mention the band that put out “Dust in the Wind” was Kansas, the name of a people and place where I would find my own point of no and know return?

Yesterday, to commemorate Kansas Day (our state’s birthday), I posted a video on Facebook of another Kansas song I’ve loved since I was a teen, “Carry On, My Wayward Son.” Stephanie commented on how much she loved “Dust in the Wind,” as did Betsy, all of us teenage girls listening to it in our rooms or cars over and over. When sleep eluded me last night, I started reading up on the band and its history, discovering that one of the voices I loved in both these songs was that of Robby Steinhardt (also the classically-trained violinist), from Lawrence, and hey, both songs were written by Kerry Livgrin, who still lives in Topeka. Livgrin said “Carry On, My Wayward Son” come through him in a flash, and “Dust in the Wind” started out as a guitar exercise he created, then his wife suggested he add some lyrics.

As I shimmeyed down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I learned there were several early version of the band, Kansas 1 and Kansas 2, plus in-and-out mergings with bands named Saratoga and White Clover (eventually a band called Proto-Kaw also). What’s more, one of the main guys in Kansas 1 was Don Montre, the twin brother of a dear friend, the late Weedle Caviness. Just as I was reading this, Weedle’s husband Paul, having seen my Kansas post, wrote me about Don (ah, the magic of Kansas or Weedle or just time itself!).

Eventually, I got to bed, telling a sleeping Ken what I had been doing, only to have him wake me up an hour later to ask if I loved “Dust in the Wind” as much as he did when it came out. Yes, of course I did, I told him. Then, hundreds of miles and dozens of years away from first hearing this song, no longer worried about if our lives are just dust in the wind (they are, but so what?), I lived out the opening lines: “I close my eyes/ Only for a moment and the moment’s gone/ All my dreams/ Pass before my eyes with curiosity.”

P.S. Check out this video of Kansas — some inexplicably dressed in the prom ruffled shirts I remember from over 40 years ago.

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Annual Pilgrimage to Our Patron Saint: Mary Chapin Carpenter: Everyday Magic, Day 944

“Show a little inspiration, show a little spark,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings in her song “The Hard Way.” Kelley Hunt, one of my beloveds and my songwriting partner, happily obliged her by summoning up the inspiration and spark to strap ourselves into my peanut-butter-colored car so we can once again worship at her feet and replenish our songwriting well.

This year we trekked to Wichita for a long day’s night to the Wabi Sabi (beautiful, decaying, and full of soul and vibrancy) Orpheum Theater to see  this shining soul sing some of the greatest songs we know, such as “Stones in the Road,” once the best songs I know of about America. Listen to it sometime, and hear what she says about all that’s on fire in our history and lives, including lines like these: “And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung/ We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing.”

When Kelley and I write our own songs together, I like to think there’s always an invisible and palpable icon of Mary Chapin in the room, right on top of the purple piano where we compose music, occasionally nodding at us and always making eye contact. So many of our songs — such as “Love,” “You’ve Got to Be the Vessel,” and “Let it Rain,” — speak to some of the deep-river themes of hard-won love, healing, and courage flowing through MCC’s songs, such  as her song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” and “Jubilee,” in which she sings:

And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came

So it’s no wonder that we drive, drive, drive to be with MCC and her kick-ass, open-hearted band, including many bandmates she’s played with for decades. She’s someone I would leap over long highways and through 100-degree days to see, well, her and Bruce Springsteen, and you know what? This year, Mary Chapin ended her concert with a Springsteen song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Sitting in an ancient theater with one of my best friends, witnessing this moment and many others together — like when she sang “This is Love” — my heart overflowed and my being exhaled in pure joy. As she sang, “The wrong things aren’t supposed to last,” and “You would’ve thought a miracle/ Was all that got us through,” I realized how some moments, maybe all if I was awake enough, are the miracles that get us through, leading us to do and be all the rights that do last.

Bonus song: You’ve got to hear “Jericho,”  a song that inspired Kelley to write a song and me to write a poem of the same name. Here is Kelley performing this live on Kansas Public Radio (and you can support Kelley writing even more amazing songs by supporting her Patreon campaign here), and here’s my poem:

Jericho

How long have you been lost? All your life?

Then you’re getting somewhere.

The walls don’t fall for those who think

they know where they are.

It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,

like what I sang out in childbirth, each call

a plea to open and let the new one come through.

Or the sound of the handful of dirt the new widow releases

slowly quickly the long way to the top of the wooden casket

where a thousand hands hit the same drum at one moment.

Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running for the first time,

about to trip. Or the inhalation of surprise and verve on the cusp

orgasm in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.

Knowing the path has always been overrated

although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.

Loving and looking for clues is all we have–the slant of the sun

across the dusty wooden floor, the ache of leaf toward earth,

the weary smile of the stranger who gives you his parking space.

When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully

for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed by the brilliant

wings of an Indigo Bunting vanishing into the future

in a stand of cedar where you’ve always lived.

Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.

His feet remember how to follow the outline of the city

ready to unmake itself into something better. Let yourself

stop trying to hold up all that weight. Come and sit

on this beautiful, cold ground. Be as lost as the rain

making its way, through the veins of the universe, home.

I Hear America Singing At a Just-Closed Minnesota Music College: Everyday Magic, Day 921

When Jen Scovell-Parker and Shon Parker, professors at McNally Smith College of Music, got the email December 14th  that the college was closing in a week and they wouldn’t be receiving their next paycheck, they leapt into action on behalf of the effected 600 or so students. Shon, a vocalist, arranger, and educator, is also a chef, so when the college immediately shut down the cafeteria — the only source of meals for students, most of whom had little deposable income by the end of the semester — he took over the cafeteria kitchen with help from Chris, the kitchen manager. In no time, they were whipping up barbecue and slaw to feed hundreds of students for free. Faculty also got out the word about the food situation, and alumni, parents, and local businesses started sending in piles of pizza and other foods.

Meanwhile, Jen, interim chair of the vocal department, and a long-time performer, educator, and arranger, made a miracle happen. Working with other faculty, she contacted dozens of music colleges across the country and  regional colleges with relevant music programs to put together a list of 33 institutions willing to accept McNally Smith credits, and do all kinds of other things to help McNally’s students find a new academic home: waive application fees, offer discounts or scholarships, expediate application processing, find new students housing, and in general turn a nightmare into a new dream (see the impressive list right here). The director of admissions Matt Edlund, Kerri Vickers, and the registar staff also organized a transfer fair, and according to my daughter, a McNally Smith graduate who was there recently, McNally Smith was filled wall to wall with booths from institutions eager to help student sort through information, fill out paperwork, and talk through the sudden situation they landed in through no fault of their own. On top of this, Maria Vejdani, a former grad students and first semester faculty, set up a google doc form to help all the people in need or willing to help so that there was an instant database. People stepped up from all directions.

This weekend as I was facilitating a writing workshop for people with serious illness, I shared Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” in which he writes about each of us making a kind of music that lifts up the world through our particular role, whether we’re carpenters, shoemakers, or mothers, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” I told the workshop participants of how Jen and Shon, through their night-and-day work to feed, comfort, guide, and love students, are the best of America singing, and the best of America. Their actions are born out of their deep love for their students, and expansive recognition of how this college transformed, as Jen wrote about on Facebook, all who walked through the doors of the campus. “We worked there because we believe in the future of music, and we see how bright it was through the magic of our students. It was a calling to teach buy generic cialis from india this music. In some ways the call feels even louder,” she writes.

Jen , Shon, and other faculty and staff heeded that louder call with a series of celebrations that also allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to grieve collectively: graduation on Sunday (which only happened because of Sue Brezny, the director of Student Affairs), a Sing-Out concert featuring students and faculty Monday, and a series of concerts and performances in between Shon and others feeding the masses, all week long. Not only is America singing through Jen, Shon, and other shining stars (including alumni who have dropped by to perform, encourage, bring food, and help students pack up dorm rooms and faculty pack up offices), but a whole lot of people at McNally Smith have been singing their hearts out to make a bridge of music and hope for all those who need to cross over from this college to their Plan B. 

At the same time, I can imagine many reasons a college would close: the college where I teach, Goddard College, has occasionally accepted transfers from like-minded colleges that went down, but those closings were gradual, at least a semester and sometimes years in the unfolding so that students, faculty, and staff could transition to new situations. I can’t imagine any reason that a college would close on a week’s notice, especially since colleges (and particularly for-profit institutions) rely on tuition as their main (or sole) income.

The owners could easily have discerned back at the beginning of this semester, if not a year ago, that they were in trouble. That they didn’t act — either to work with the community to save the college  (I read the college was in the process of being not-for-profit), or to let everyone know the campus would be shutting down — is unethical, and a breach of trust. That they would not pay their faculty and staff, and ask them to continue on should be illegal. That they would leave so many students in a lurch — including students who already paid tuition for the spring semester, international students without adequate visas for such a closing, and students in the dorm who suddenly had to move out on no notice — is horrendous.

But that people like Jen and Shon — along with the real community of and around that college (excluding its owners) — would rise up singing in all these ways shows us what we’re capable of at our best. Then again, I’m not completely surprised — I’m extremely graduate to faculty like Jen and Shon who worked closely with our daughter and gave her and so many others a superb education and the most soulful mentoring possible. Our educators are, in many ways, our truest artists and most authentic heroes. And this is how America sings.

If you’d like to contribute to Jen and Shon’s Go Fund Campaign, please click here. Another Go Fund Me Campaign supports the faculty as a whole.