Last night Mama Bear and Mister Elwood had a bonfire. In the Mac family, “bonfire” is a term laden with much more than you might generally expect. This is our biannual party where the much loved ones come together and catch up, play music, drink, share food, stories, and get to relish in how much we enjoy each other, with little entertainment other than a fire big enough to be seen from space. Depending on who is in charge of the invitations that time around, it is called either “Brother Elwood’s Bonfire” or “Our Dad Sings Dirty Songs” (I’m hoping that you can put that one together and determine which Mac family members are responsible for each of the titles).
The bonfires are something that I have come to love and appreciate over the years for many reasons. Other than a blessed night off from performing (not that I don’t love that, too), it’s always a really sweet reminder of who I am and where I came from.
Several weeks ago, the Sarah Mac Band played in Clemson,SC. After that gig, we carried on to North Carolina and holed up in a house with no internet or cell phone signals, to force ourselves to finish some unfinished songs. We actually had a really productive weekend, and permitted ourselves a bit of television on the last night there. Since I don’t have television at home, I was fascinated and the next morning as we waited for Charlie to get up so that we could have breakfast, I made Claire turn on the television for me to watch while I had my coffee (it was a very complex machine with like twelve remote controls, so I was completely incapable of operating it myself). We watched CNN, which was already making me a little weepy as I heard about the 33 year old racecar driver who died the night before leaving behind a young widow and two sons, 2 years and 7 months old. Then came on a story about a couple whose three week old daughter wasn’t breathing, the news shared the 911 tape of the operator walking the parents through how to perform CPR on their infant. Ugh—their terror was palpable even through the degrees of separation that it took to get it from real life to television broadcast. Even though their baby did survive, I felt so sad for them that I started to cry again… This time sort of sobbing (just a little).
Claire is used to this since I’ve always been a crier. Charlie sleeps really heavy and snores pretty loud, which serves as a substantial white noise barrier for him against anything else that might be happening in a twelve mile radius. So, I felt pretty okay about just letting loose and crying about the sad parents with their not breathing newborn.
Then, CNN came to the clincher story—they showed the highlights of the 10th anniversary celebration of the William J. Clinton Foundation with performances by Lady Gaga and Usher. No, that wasn’t the part that got me. It was when Bill Clinton made his speech: “I was born into a poor family in the second poorest state in the country. I was the first person in my family to ever go to college. [This next part is my paraphrasing…] Blah, blah, I’ve done really awesome things in spite of the setbacks that I’ve faced, and I’m living proof that it takes a village to raise a child—all that I am is a direct result of the people who have held me up and poured into me along the way.” That one was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This time, it wasn’t just stifled sobs, it was full on waterworks. I was bawling like I had lost my three week old baby, but it was a sweet, inspiration bawling and not a sad one. Of course, Claire was still like, “Girl, you are NOT right.” But then after a little while, she reconsidered and decided to agree with me, “It’s too bad we can’t have him be president again.”
It was more than just the fact that Bill Clinton is cool. It was that his comments hit me close to home. I too, am a direct result of the people who have held me up and poured into me along the way. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how separated we allow ourselves to be in our society. Everyone on their own. Everyone doing their own thing. Everyone self-sufficient, alone, divided without even knowing it. It’s almost a badge of honor to be able to take care of yourself without any assistance from anyone else.
I was lucky enough to be brought up in a community that was the complete opposite of that. Mama Bear and Mister Elwood were a good mom and dad. But Baby Bear and I had others as well: Della and Sven who showed up at our high school graduations, art shows, school plays, family funerals, and now are at almost every Sarah Mac Band show that we play in town; Skipper who would indulge us by walking down to our house and paying 10¢ to watch us put on a circus on our back porch with our stuffed animals, and took off work to help us bury our dog, Berford; Bob who helped us type out our school reports (in an age before people commonly had home computers) and took us to school when we missed the bus; Patty who hugs us and still tells us that she’s proud of us in a way that really makes sense and rings true.
Last night at the bonfire, I looked around at the multi-generational crowd and saw with great satisfaction that Baby Bear’s and my twenty- and thirty-something year old friends were seamlessly interwoven with our fifty- and sixty-something parents and the rest of the village. It was so beautiful to see our present everyday uniting with our rich past, all singing along with Mister Elwood as he played old hippy songs on the guitar (sprinkled with the occasional dirty song—after all, some people do call it “My Dad Sings Dirty Songs Night!!”). I waited until the quiet between songs and said something along the lines of, “Guys, it’s so wonderful to be here and be reminded of how I grew up doing this on the weekends and of how counter cultural it might really be. Who else has a family that’s this big and not-related? Who else’s family gets up on Saturday morning and sits out on their backporch and sings songs together?”
…And then Baby Bear said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have anything else to drink tonight but water…”
After thinking about it for a while, I’m pretty confident that part of the reason that I love music so much and stuck with it was that in my history, music has been a medium for gathering, togetherness, and community. Beyond that, when I expressed an unusually focused interest in music and pursuing it as a lifestyle and career, I had people who didn’t laugh at me or try to turn me away, they encouraged me and showed up at my concerts—sometimes were the only people that showed up. They cut out the articles about me in the paper and hang them up on their refrigerators, just as proud as if they were my parents. They send me emails when they discover a new artist that they think that I would like. They brag about me when they introduce me to people and beam when I play a new song for them.
If I wasn’t yet sure of it last night when I made my grand (not-tipsy, thank you very much Baby Bear) announcement, I am sure now. All the little pieces and people that were a part of my path were instrumental in getting me to this place. Maybe my place isn’t quite as cool and influential as Bill Clinton’s. Honestly, I can’t imagine that it ever will be. But if my music career never gets very far beyond where it is today, I can still say that I’m happy with it and I’m pleased with what it has come to so far. And I owe almost all of that to my village.
It’s not a dirty song, but it’s in there. Here’s one of the songs that Mister Elwood played last night around the bonfire.
I Would Not Be Here by John Hartford
Well, I would not be here if I hadn’t been there
And I wouldn’t ‘a been there if I hadn’t just turned
On Wednesday the third in the late afternoon
Got to talking with George who works out in the back
And only because he was getting off early
To go see a man at a Baker Street bookstore
With a rare first edition of Steamboats and Cotton
A book he would never have sought in the first place
Had he not been inspired
By a fifth grade replacement school teacher inKirkwood
Who was picked just at random
By some man on a school board that couldn’t care less
And she wouldn’t a been a-working if not for her husband
Who moved two months prior
To work in the office of a man he had met while he served in the army
And only because they were in the same barracks
An accident caused by a poorly-made roster
Mixed up on the desk of a sergeant fromDenver
Who wouldn’t been in but for being in back
In a car he was riding before he enlisted
That hit a cement truck and killed both his buddies
But a back seat flew up there and spared him from dying
And only because of the fault of a workman
Who forgot to turn screws on a line up inDetroit
‘Cause he hollered at Sam who was hateful that morning
Hung over from drinking alone at a tavern
Because of a woman who he wished he’d not married
He’d met long ago at a Jewish Bar Mitzvah
For the son of man who had moved there from Jersey
Who managed the drug store that sold the prescription
That cured up the illness he caught way last summer.
He wouldn’t have caught
Except for some kid all contagious with fever who sat in his lap
Was the son of a man who sold him insurance…