I was twenty-five, dressed in a tiered hippie skirt and sky-blue Capezio leotard when I snuck backstage to meet Joni Mitchell. It was two hours before her Buffalo concert, and Joni’s dressing room was awash in lilies. When she walked in shimmering and golden, I was speechless. Her manager asked me to leave immediately — of course he did — but Joni turned to me and smiled. Where were you born, she asked? You look Norwegian, she said. And can I offer you some seats to the concert? Come bowling with us later, she said, and with that, I was ushered out of her dressing room, but not before someone in her band asked me to have sex with him after the concert. (I didn’t go bowling or have after-concert sex.)
I’ve never stopped adoring or listening to Joni Mitchell — her music took me through my parent’s divorce, the breakup of five relationships, a trip to India, a move to California and a determination to become my version of an artist — so it was with dismay that I realized I’d missed her first concert in years recently at the Gorge in Washington. I cried — so happy was I to see her — watching her singer-angel-helpmate Brandi Carlile beside her singing “A Case of You.”
And then the mind rolled in, which is never a happy circumstance because of its insistence on bringing up old stories that trigger old feelings. Fear and envy, for instance.
I noticed an age-old fear of being alone when I die (as if everyone doesn’t die alone) and envy that Joni had younger musicians helping her heal from her 2015 brain aneurysm and will probably die with them beside her as they hum "Both Sides Now." To which the ever-judgmental mind said: You blew it. Where are all your younger friends? Not only didn’t you have children, you don’t have Geneen-Jams like Joni has Joni-Jams. What is wrong with you?
It took about half an hour of roiling around in envy and fear — until I knew that aside from the disappointment of not seeing my beloved hero sing live, I was re-experiencing the fear and loneliness I’d felt as a six-year-old and through most of my life. I remembered walking around our house, no one but my brother and me home, and feeling as if even the walls were crying. I remembered lying in bed making a list of who I could call if either of my parents died. Who cared enough to show up. I remembered the fear that no one did and no one would. The fast-forward fear that Matt would die before me and I’d be left with walls that cried. And that after I died alone on a random floor or else homeless on the streets beneath a rubble of paper bags and cat food cans, days would pass before anyone would find me. I was deep into the fantasy of being 92 and toothless and dying on the street when I caught myself. Listened to the stories. Became aware of what saw them passing through. Knew without a doubt that they didn’t mean anything about the present, only about the past. Knew that I was suffering to the extent, and only to the extent, that I believed those stories. Knew that I now had a choice now that I didn’t have as a child: to disengage from the nightmare. To be gentle with that woundedness. To be on my own side.
Stories are so compelling. They are like crazy glue for my attention, particularly the ones I’ve been telling for more than fifty years. It takes grit to remember to withdraw my attention from out there to in here. To be the one I am waiting for. To allow, really allow, the feelings that are waiting to be recognized: in this case, the fear and the loneliness of the child and further, and just as important, her conclusions based on what was going on in her family — that she was/is unlovable, that there was/is no one here for me — that seemed to still be at the bottom of so many of my reactions that seemingly have nothing to do with a neutral event like Joni’s concert.
I started to laugh. And say a silent thank you to Brandi Carlile for shepherding Joni through this time. I looked again at a clip of the concert video. Joni is vibrant (I’d like to know where she got that shirt she’s wearing). She looks as if she is able to take in the love from the thousands of people who are clapping and crying to see her, hear her, thank her. Me too, Joni, thank you thank you thank you.
Finally, I’m left with being amazed once again that what seems like a non-event (hearing about Joni’s concert) triggers a pool of forgotten conclusions and is a portal into gathering the broken pieces and seeing what has never been broken. Into the awake aliveness that sees it all.
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