You Can (Can’t) Go Home Again

A little over a week ago I went to St. Louis, Missouri to give a concert for the Friends of Music series. As I sat crunched in the airplane on the way back to my hometown, I thought about how long it had been since I played at this venue—18 years.

It was in the spring of 1999 and like many artists, I got the gig due to circumstance. One of the performers canceled and they needed someone to fill in at the last minute. We negotiated a reasonable fee of $0.00 and all was set. While I can’t remember the details, I do remember walking on stage, feeling that it was a huge space and that it was a packed house. I think I played Bach… What sticks with me today from that concert is the realization of how different it was to do it for a grade versus an audience who gave you their time—perhaps the most valuable commodity of all (especially in the culture we’re living in now).

Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again (interestingly, that title emerged from a discussion between Wolfe and fellow writer Ella Winter) came to mind during my short journey as I visited with my family the evening and morning before the concert. You, in fact, can go home again but you really can’t—Wolfe was right (though I hadn’t publicly aired the town secrets like the main character). The diner I used to go to study for exams is still open but there might as well be an ocean between that coffee shop and me. While the booths may be the same and the coffee smells the way it did all of those years ago, somehow it’s completely different. The buildings may be in the same places and many of the people I knew are still there but things have changed—we’ve all changed….together…

Of course, this is nothing revelatory but it’s rare, at least for me, to have moments where you can reflect and see how much you’ve actually changed. More importantly, where you’re given a chance, if you look at it, to see how much you’ve learned and still don’t know. Which brings me back to the concert.

Returning to the hall, the room now seemed quaint, cozy, and intimate. The chairs were in the same places, the space itself had the lovely acoustics I remembered and everything else (i.e. me) was different and hopefully a little better. 18 years ago I was in that stage where the world begins to give you things (if you’re willing, hungry, and able): opportunities, experiences, confusion, adventure.   It asks so very little of you—show up, try hard, be kind, fail, and try again. Now, the stakes of the game have changed. I come to the table with experience, a bit of wisdom (from repeatedly falling down and getting back up) but now there are new twists: while the earlier version seems only to give, now sometimes the world takes things away or asks for compromises or a bit of both. Still, there’s a trade-off in that while you may lose things at this stage, you gain in your ability to share with others and with audiences. Is there a moral to the story? Perhaps it’s this—that change is the only constant.  This leaves me with a question: Why is this always so hard to remember or understand? Perhaps this single sentence from Mr. Wolfe’s novel sums it up “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”

 

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