Audrey Beth 
Stein's SHOW AND
TELL

 
 

Meeting Chapin

an essay

Copyright 1995 Audrey Beth Stein
All Rights Reserved.

This story has more than one beginning. It began a few weeks ago: I turned twenty, I went home, I saw her in concert. It began nearly five years ago: I bought a tape of hers, Shooting Straight in the Dark. It began just before that: Mr. Nicholson--her former and my then-current English teacher--showed our class a videotape of her performing at the Grammys. It begins now: I try to put this in words and hope I can tell it right.

Her name is Mary Chapin Carpenter. She plays a mean guitar. She works magic from the stage. She sings feelings you can hold in the palms of your hands as her music helps you soar. She is an artist in the truest sense of the word.

It's a helluva way to live from day to day not knowing where you're bound/ but the look in his eyes made me realize I was glad for the life I'd found. Chapin wrote these lines while she was playing in bars and "living on nothing but a young girl's dreams." The guy in the song (it's called "A Lot Like Me") had been there himself but "gave it all up for a government job where the paychecks come on time." The lyrics belong to a small collection of words which carry me through tough times. When "I'm going to be a writer" clashes with "How am I going to support myself?" and "Do I have what it takes?" As I searched for summer internships this song kept running through my head, and I decided to release myself from obligation and spend three months writing. Creating stories good enough to send to publishers. Learning how far my talents could take me. While my classmates interned in banks and law offices, I would intern with pen, paper, and Powerbook.

"I want to write" is enough motivation during the semester when you can't write, when creativity gets eaten by classes and exams and jobs and papers. But when you've got an empty day and an empty page, and the day wears on while the page stays blank, doubt creeps in. You think how you could be getting paid for entering data or slinging hash. Your long-distance bill goes up as you search the past: for a person you used to be and for the inspiration which came to her as often as breakfast and as furiously as a drenching rainstorm. You feel lonely and you feel lost. You think maybe the dream isn't worth it, or maybe you're not worth the dream. You wonder if it's too late to find happiness in a secure career. You think about home.

Home is a permanent address and parents in one city and my best friend and high school years in the neighboring town. It is also driving alone between the two in a car so old the radio's only AM. The roads are comfortable and I roll down the windows and sing aloud. But comfortable is transient and when I've driven enough the road says it's time to move on.

I came home that July weekend because of the concert. Mary Chapin Carpenter would be playing at Tanglewood two days after my twentieth birthday. Fame works quietly sometimes when you're played on country stations, and often I had to explain to people who she was. My descriptions never came close. An interviewer once described her as "everywoman," the rare performer who is just one of the audience onstage. She understands the importance of changing seasons and favorite shirts. She's given a life to someone who died unknown. She spends time on railroad tracks and sometimes gets hit by trains carrying loneliness and melancholy. Her lyrics echo your deepest feelings, tell you you're not alone, then hand you a winning lotto ticket and inspire you to fly. Sometimes a person touches your life from afar and it's enough just to be touched, but then there's this rare occasion when you need to reach out yourself. When she's shared so much of her life that the only way to say "thank you" is to introduce her to yours.

That's a complicated thing to do when she's touring the country with a collection of Grammys and you're just a college student with writer's block. Scenarios ran through my head during June, almost like preparing for a job interview. When I meet her--and I was sure it was "when," not "if"--what do I say? How do I convince her in the first thirty seconds that I'm worth knowing? Should I write a letter? What if she thinks I'm just a star-crazed fan? Will she come to a high school reunion--maybe Mr. Nicholson can introduce me. The latest fantasy went like this: Our lawn chairs are forgotten during the encore as we climb over benches to get close enough to see her fingers as she tames the guitar, close enough that maybe, maybe, she'll see our faces, maybe she'll recognize the Taft sweatshirt I'm wearing, maybe that wink was for me. There is magic working, I can feel it, and then I know because the concert is over and we're all hanging out, shooting the breeze.

I cried after the encore. Later I understood why: that was the last fantasy. I was saying goodbye to my teenage dreams. The past was being carried to the attic of my mind to make room in its backpack for the present.

I took inventory as the train rolled out of the station the next morning. Journal, talent for writing, Swiss Army knife, Chapin's Stones in the Road Tour Book, small piece of wood. Not much for twenty years. I picked up the wood, literally trying to carve a new life for myself. I was searching for more than mere inspiration; I needed someone or something to drive me and give me purpose.

The train ride from Connecticut to Philly is the rare gift of a slow transition. Those four hours are just long enough to adjust to the difference between home and school, or between an old way of living and a new. The wood boarded the train with me as an ordinary piece found in the basement, light-colored and not much larger than a thick Crayola marker. I had intended to teach myself to whittle using the Swiss Army knife, a birthday present. By the time we detrained at Thirtieth Street Station, the wood had been transformed. With a small blade I had curled off the existing surface, shaped grooves for my first three fingers that let me hold it like a pen, and carved my new approach to life: SO CHAPIN WILL KNOW.

SO CHAPIN WILL KNOW. What does that mean? It means that God is an enigma, that a loving MCI-friends-and-family circle isn't enough, that fantasies can come false. It means that saving the world is too elusive a dream to depend on. It means that security isn't satisfying and that fame may not cure loneliness. It means that it's possible to love a friend you've never met.

My best friend says that if we're meant to meet someone it will just happen. That this is a well-written essay but I should chill and let fate work itself out. I don't think it works so easily. We have to prove ourselves worthy of the meeting. I'll meet Chapin when--if--my words resonate for her the way hers have for me.

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