“Why do I write?”
Like anyone with the passion of being known, I return again and again so that I might check myself for the truth—that endless search for purpose and meaning. Perhaps this will be the moment, the lucky visit to the empty page when I will find the courage to write in both the bright places as well as the murky ones.
This is a story of my first music festival: think Woodstock meets leather pants and mohawked awesomeness and you’ve got a pretty good image of rock and roll in the early 80’s. After traveling a couple thousand miles across the country and then another endless few on a rutted dirt road, amped and ready to rock with some of the world’s greatest glam celebrity bands, my boyfriend and I discovered that we’d have to hang out for a while and wait for the gates to open to the grounds.
Ten thousand people would soon crowd in to the grassy knoll for several days of camping, cold showers and non-stop concerts. We lurched and jerked through the dust cloud hovering over a dirt path until we pulled up next to a trashed up Toyota and lurched to a stop. The Toyota’s owner was sitting cross-legged by the back wheel relishing a bit of shade on that sweaty Illinois day.
When I opened the passenger side door, the air was heavy with musty field dirt and faraway sounds except for a loud strumming and knocking and… was that crying? Laughing? Oh, singing. I got out and stretched my cramped legs and swatted a mosquito while in route to see what kind of stage our new adventure would play out upon.
I came around to watch the Toyota guy.
He was unfazed by all the coming and going and I too remained unnoticed. He was a flashback to the stinky hippies of Colorado who hung around where I’d grown up in the 70’s. His eyes were closed and his bearded face was bent with care, nodding. His dreadlocks metronomed time while he beat away at a worn old acoustic guitar. He had definitely shown up to the party 15 years too late.
Have you ever been embarrassed to watch a musician lost in his playing, I mean really laying it out there? This revelation of soul was too intimate for public consumption. I meant to be laisser-faire about him, but I felt the heat of blood pulsing in my face. My chest felt tight and though I tried to pull my eyes away, I was mesmerized from where I was hiding at the back hatch of the car. The day was so hot his sound permeated every hazy air molecule. I reached for a can of cold dripping soda from the cooler.
I hated this terrible onslaught of unabashed love and angst pouring out over strings and vocal chords and wondered how this guy wearing a flannel shirt and baggie trousers worn to undecipherable colors had the nerve to play such crap in the midst of all the hipsters music lovers milling around, most of whom could perfectly mimic rifts of professional musicians on guitars of their own. He was so NOT cool.
Yet, his passion was beautiful and sad and somehow electrifying. He was somehow lost in it; having such a damn good time. And I, a shackled prisoner, watched a trapeze artist, a bird flying high and free.
After wallowing his way through a couple more tunes, he did a gentle roll from lotus position to kneeling and slid his guitar under the old car whose door panels were devoured by rust. It was an act of great tenderness, the kind of care required for sliding pumpkin pie into an oven without spilling or handing over a swaddled newborn baby to its mother. He stood and stretched exposing his hairy stomach. Then with a spring in his step he sauntered over to hang with another carload of bad hairdo’s and tattoos. I let out a sigh of relief and crawled up into the shade of the car to rest.
We’d been driving all night so we snoozed and sweated in the mid-day haze of humidity and high 90’s. Drugged by the heat, we crawled back to consciousness by splashing lukewarm water from the thermos on our faces and necks. It ran down leaving rivulets on our dirty skin. Cars were honking and mobs of rowdy fans were whooping and yelling. The gates had been flung open and streams of people pushed forward. We hustled to pull our stuff back into the car and I glanced up just as the Hendrix Wannabe hopped into his Toyota and threw it into reverse.
He’d forgotten his guitar on the ground behind the back tire… until the splintering crunch. Did I hear it? With a fist punch to the gut, my memory says I did. Now a reporter, my mind captured each frame in real time chronicling devastation as I watched him dive out onto the ground, a mother reaching for a baby on hands and knees, his gentle face now a landscape of despair. While mobs of fans streamed past to chant and cheer rock gods in spandex famed for smashing guitars on stages all across the world, one man wept at the side of the road, holding a crushed body with a broken neck.
I once heard Anne Lamott say that we write “for the experience of it” and I remember my grubby Chicago muse, rocking and hugging his guitar to his chest oblivious to the glory of musical heroes whose roadies were unloading semi’s at the massive stages just inside the gate.
When will the love of my own written symphony draw me, define me…break me?
If only I could go back. I would hum along with a hippie sitting in the shade of a trashed up Toyota. Naked with abandon. Embarrassing? Yes. And raw and devastating. Free. I’d lift my skirts high and twirl. Clumsy without much rhythm, with my head thrown back, face to the sky. Lost in it.