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
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
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.