It’s somewhere past midnight, and the song continues to pour forth, swirling and rising to the damp sky like the flames from this campfire we’re all gathered around in the meadow behind where the Aimées live. I’m miles from anywhere, miles from the conference, and it feels like home. It feels, improbably, like ginger tea.
I remember that first time I stumbled into Pearl Street, back in Cambridge, decades ago. It must’ve been February, and the snow was up past our knees. It must have been February, because I was sick of snow by then, sick of the cold and ready for a sign, any sign, that spring would ever come. The email I’d received said something about singing, or rather about “psinging,” that it happened at this address on alternate Friday nights, and anyone could just drop by.
I caught the T to Central Square and trudged south, knee-deep in resented and still-falling snow toward the river. The address was around there somewhere, in through a lane and around enough turns that I remember worrying that someone would appear out of the dark and ask what the hell I was doing in their yard. There was no wind – I remember that, too – just dark and cold and slush and even more snow.
I’d been in Cambridge for a couple of years then. Lingering on a postdoc amid dying hopes of a faculty position somewhere, anywhere. Sure, there were the folks at the lab, but they had their own lives that seemed to evanesce the moment they left the building. Maybe they were secret agents. Or maybe they just weren’t the kind to have people over.
But as I stumbled up the back porch steps that night, double, triple checking the address I’d written on a scrap of paper (remember: this was long before smart phones, before Google Maps – effectively well before the start of modern civilization), I knew I was looking for something. Or somewhere.
The door must have had a sign that said “Come in” or the like, because I don’t remember knocking. I remember pressing my ear against it and hearing music. Voices, like singing around a campfire, and when I twisted the knob and pushed inward, I spilled into a new world. Tumbled boots piled in the corner amid discarded scarves and coats down a hallway where there was warmth and music. I managed to get the door closed behind me and when I turned to ask – silly question – if this was the right place, a woman appeared with a tray to say, “You look cold – here, have some ginger tea. And would you like a chocolate chip cookie? Be careful, they’re still a bit hot.”
And once I’d stripped off my own boots and coat and scarf and made my way down the hall, I found lovely, joyful song rising from the circle gathered there. People on chairs, pillows, or just sitting on the floor, and there was a guitar getting passed around and songs I knew from forever ago.
Hours and hours later, as the parting song was waning, I tried to find words for the sense of connection I felt with these total strangers. Meg just smiled with that knowing smile of hers.
“Welcome to your tribe,” she said. “What took you so long to find us?”
Meg, it turns out, worked just down the hall.
That evening of musicmaking on Pearl Street started something for me. The Pearl Street gang became my community, and when we left Cambridge, we tried to create the seeds of our own Pearl Street community wherever we went: Menlo Park, Pittsburgh, Palo Alto. It’s a beautiful thing when it does work, and after a decade-plus of Greenwood Musicmakings, I think we’ve finally got something that does work, most of the time.
But I have to be honest: I still carry those memories of Pearl Street in my heart like a platonic ideal that we’ll never be able to quite replicate. Maybe it’s because Devon and I are scrambling around “backstage,” seeing everything that has to go on for the music and food and conversation to flow like that. And things do rise to that ideal from time to time, and when they do, the momentary magical sense of community we’ve created is enough: it’s the spark of something bigger than any of us, something organic and living, with a will of its own to nurture and embrace and feed us a precious taste of whatever it is that we lack and long for in our daily nine-to-five-get-up-and-feed-the-kids-and-get-to-work lives.
So back to the conference. A few days ago I got email from Chris, saying that the Aimées were having a party to celebrate finishing up their album. There would be, the email said, “food, games, music and a beautiful night on the land together.” Chris is one of our shanty singing friends up here, but I had no idea who or what “the Aimées” were.
But I was tired. I’d tried powering through the day at the writers conference. I’d actually gotten half a page of fiction. Survived the freewriting session (“Okay, everybody: two minutes, using the phrase “through the doors to the living room.”). And I still wasn’t feeling it.
So… Aimées. Sure, what the heck. I threw my guitar in the trunk, picked up a couple of bottles of Eaglemount cider from the Co-op and followed the Google Maps bread crumbs to the drop-pin address on my phone.
Wandering down the lane through those trees last night and coming out into the clearing of total strangers was the closest I’ve ever come to recreating that moment back on Pearl Street. The air was filled with unburdened song, laughter and love, simple expressions of joy and welcome. Harmonies just flowed. Djembe-thumping grandparents leading three-part rounds, teens taking the lead, teaching us the chorus to their latest Harry Potter song. Little kids and dogs rolling, playing everywhere.
There was a stage, of sorts, a little batik-draped pallet with prayer flags spelling “L-O-V-E” in the breeze, but once darkness fell, we gathered close around the fire and watched the flames dance in each others’ eyes, until late, late, later than I really should have been up.
Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” has always held importance for some in our family. I’ve always loved his eloquence in reminding us that often the voyage, not the destination, is what is important in a journey.
But tonight, woodsmoke fresh in my clothes and midnight campfire harmonies still ringing in my ears, I’m finding myself seeing a third way: that sometimes reaching the destination is important. Because sometimes the destination is only the beginning. Because even if you find that Ithaka (or the writers conference) has nothing left to give you when you arrive, maybe, just maybe it has taken you to that place, to that new vantage point from which you can see and finally understand what it is that you really seek.