Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thanks, Sarah

And now for something completely different.

I don't normally make a habit of posting personal essays, but in the end, I write about what's on my mind. So, take it or leave it, I guess, and have a lovely day.

Anyone who knows me is likely to tell you that I am a little...obsessed...with Sarah McLachlan. Honestly, being that I’ve never actually met the woman, I’d say it’s more accurate to say that I’m obsessed with her music. That’s the truth of the matter, really, plus it sounds a little less, well, creepy.

My love affair with her music dates back to some unremembered time in 1995 when my older sister bought Solace, McLachlan’s second album. This was followed in short order by her purchasing Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, McLachlan’s more recently released third album. Every morning before school, I’d awake to the sound of my sister singing along to one or another track while she showered. And every morning, my groggy, prepubescent brain would say to itself, Emily, you should find out who this is, because it’s really fucking good.

Finally, I asked, and sis made me a tape copy of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy that would soon be getting frequent play on my Walkman. I listened to it on the bus to school. I listened to it when I rode my bike around town. Terrified of singing in public, I nonetheless took to memorizing every lyric to every song and belting them out when I was sure no one was around. I was in love with this album. It was perfect from beginning to end, like a well-orchestrated symphony, and its themes seemed both timeless and extremely relevant to me.

I’m sure this was only magnified at the time by my boisterously chaotic hormones, but even now, I hold fast to my assertion that it’s one of the greatest records ever.

I was an awkward looking teenager; a tomboy who played the drums, loved softball, climbed trees and had boys for best friends, one of whom I also secretly harbored a perfectly serious crush on. This, my soundtrack for all of the angst that this entailed, stayed in my Walkman for days on end.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, my mother got sick. The illness turned into something I could barely wrap my head around, something that dragged out into years of surgery, rehabilitation, more surgery, brain damage, and yet more surgery. My older brother and sister were away at college, so my father and I were left to take care of her. There’s no resentment there, just fact. Still, it was a lot. Music turned into the one thing I could always escape into when things got too complicated. Sometimes that was my raucous punk band. Sometimes that was donning my headphones, disappearing into my tree fort and staring up at the sky and just listening.

Sarah McLachlan’s next major record, Surfacing, came out in July of 1997. Just a few months prior, I’d discovered an online mailing list of Sarah fans who called themselves Fumblers. The magical and sometimes bizarre world of the internet was still somewhat new to me then and the idea of an international, easy-to-access fan club and information hub was extremely exciting. I promptly joined and learned about the formation of Lilith Fair, about various Sarah b-sides I’d never heard before, about concerts from long before I’d discovered her, about other artists, about how to refer to her by her first name only.

I went to Lilith Fair that summer when it stopped in Chicago. It was me and my sister and a few of her friends. They’d all gotten tickets for the lawn, but my sister and I had scored pavilion seats up front. We stayed back on the grass with our friends for most of the acts, but when it came time for Sarah to take the stage, there was no stopping us. We took our places up front and were promptly lost in reverie as the music began.

When she played “Hold On,” we couldn’t help but get a little misty-eyed. It seemed all-together too timely, considering the situation with mom. During the chorus to “Witness,” several red glow sticks appeared throughout the crowd: the Fumbler’s bat signal to recognize one another at shows. They were out there. And then, when it came time for the traditional sing-along to “Ice Cream,” I had a moment. It was sort of transcendental, I guess, this feeling of awe and of being part of something huge and wonderful. Or maybe someone nearby was smoking something special, but whatever. This whole stadium of people was singing these lovely lyrics back to the woman who’d penned them. It was almost overwhelming, that sound. And it made me want, more than anything, to have the chance to do something similar, to stand on stage and make people feel something, anything good, with music.

It would take years to get at all close to achieving that goal, but that was the starting line.

That fall, just over a month into my sophomore year of high school, my mother finally succumbed to her lengthy illness and passed away. I can’t explain what that was like, except to say that it sucked. It really, really sucked.

In the mental haze that followed, I sent a brief email to the Fumblers, explaining what had happened and why I would likely be incommunicado for awhile. There was an immediate outpouring of support from the list, something I hadn’t really expected from strangers, but there was still more to come.

On the morning of my mom’s memorial service, I awoke to my dad standing in the doorway of my bedroom. He had the most impressively gigantic basket of flowers clutched in his hands and he was chuckling (which was good, because none of us had done that in days).

“Who is this from?” he asked, incredulous. I sat up in bed and examined the little card buried beneath layers of foliage.

It said: “From the Fumblers.”

I nearly cried, of course. These people hardly knew me. And wait a minute, how had they gotten my address, anyway?

As luck would have it, the answer was far less unnerving than it might have been. One of the secretaries at my father’s church, which was just a parking lot away from our house, was good friends with a woman on the Fumblers mailing list. This woman had simply asked for the address at the church and then had the flowers forwarded on. This was also how I got my second Fumbler gift; a book, called Motherless Daughters, that ended up helping a great deal with getting me through it all (which is saying something, because, as a general rule, I don't like self-help books). This woman, too, had lost her mother, and the book had come to her at just the right time as well.

I wish I could remember who she was, because I’d love to send her another thank-you now, even so many years later.

And maybe it’s weird, but someday I hope I get the chance to thank Sarah herself, both for making the music that’s seen me through so many good times and bad, and for providing the impetus for people like the Fumblers to come together and generally be awesome. I’d be lying if I said I also didn’t secretly hope to someday get the chance to jam with her and her band. A girl can dream, right?

In the meantime, I have the music. I also have the good example set by a musician who has given so much to promote and fund charitable organizations, good causes, and fledgling musicians alike.

I’ll likely never be half the musician that Sarah McLachlan is, and no matter what my id might pretend otherwise, that’s not really what I’ve ever wanted. I’ll find my own path through music and through life.

Regardless of the outcome, though, I’ll have an excellent soundtrack to see me through it, and I’m grateful for that.


Anonymous said...


Emily said...

Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

I have tried many times to explain to people why music connects with me or how live performance can change everything. I think this comes close.

Thanks for this. :)

The CDP. said...

I agree with Nat. Everyone has that special moment with that special musician that gets you through everything, and you described yours beautifully.

Good work.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I like Sarah McLachlan's music, though I don't have any of it -- yet. (I'll be buying some soon!)

Interesting story. Very well written.

Emily said...

MIKE - I heartily recommend "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," if that wasn't already obvious, as a good place to start when buying her music. :)

To everyone - thanks so much. I am incredibly relieved that this came off at all well. I'm always a bit nervous about writing anything very personal. But hey, what's the internet for if not to tell complete strangers about your life? :)

John Foust said...

It would've been around 1996 when I bumped into her in Madison, the day of her show. She was walking with a friend on a side street near State Street; I was pushing my baby in a stroller and she bent down to say hello and do a little cootchie-coo and praise my little boy...

Emily said...

John, I hate you.

No, that's not true. I'm just insanely jealous, as it's a nice story.

sue said...

What a beautiful post. I am a huge fan of hers, too, and have only seen her once in person but it made a gigantic impression.

Thank you for sharing.

The Lost Albatross