Saturday night was balmy in Miami, and sweet. The kind of succulent air that makes you feel like you’re on vacation because the only time the air usually smells that delectable is when you’re not in your hometown and you don’t have a care in the world. But I wasn’t on vacation; I was at the Miami Book Fair International 2008. I had spent the day listening to authors reading their works, answering Q&As and discussing the world of literature. My friend Laine and I had sweated out the 85 degree sunshine standing on line to see Dave Barry and Frank McCourt on a panel (they overfilled the auditorium 15 people ahead of us). And we had wandered through the book vendors in the swarm of other people searching for just the right title. In a fit of desperation at the paltry food court, we had broken down and eaten lunch at McDonald’s.
And then at 5pm as the sun set in soft greys and purples over the skyline, we found ourselves on a rooftop overlooking the city, listening to the sound of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band of bestselling authors. Picture a large, square rooftop with hundreds of people lounging around small tables and on the concrete floor. A free BBQ was provided; people milled around with plates piled with ribs, chicken, corn on the cob and biscuits. A few of us danced. All of us clapped and sang and cheered and laughed at this band of quasi-musicians, some of whom were definitely tone deaf, but all of whom were people who, regardless of musical talent, daily seek to connect to the world and entertain, not only in isolation at computers and typewriters across the country, but here, in this Miami moment where they could sing and dance and play together for all of us.
For you book junkies, this band included Dave Barry (on lead guitar), Amy Tan (on vocals in a platinum wig), Scott Turow (who actually has a terrific voice), Mitch Albom (who came out dressed as Elvis and wasn’t a bad imitation either), Frank McCourt (looking his trademark downtrodden even while playing the harmonica), Ridley Pearson (sort of singing), Carl Hiasson (playing a mean guitar), Matt Groening (wandering around the stage unable to find his niche), Kathi Goldmark (who really can sing and writes some funny country songs), and Roy Blount, Jr. just to name a few. For a few songs, Richard Belzer haunted the stage with his odd, surreal presence. To give you a real feeling for the hominess of this band, Dave’s wife and daughter came on stage to sing ‘La Bamba’, and his future daughter-in-law belted out the Joan Jett classic, ‘I Love Rock ’n Roll’. It was a groovy time.
As I was dancing along there in the crowd my favorite poetry mentor strode by – there, in the flesh, my old pal Billy Collins. I have not seen Billy since I left New York City over three years ago. In the flash of our hug and greeting something flipped in me and I remembered myself as Billy met me 6 years ago, a haunted, struggling, depressed, brittle, scrawny woman trying to cope with PTSD without even knowing it. It was a difficult time for me, one of those times when you are in the dark and really, really conscious of it. Not that Billy knew that because of course, you can be so close to the edge and hide it from just about everyone. I had applied and been admitted to a Master class Billy was teaching at NYU. To Billy, I was cheerful and fun and a writer of humorous, whimsical (read: not my true voice) poetry. We hit it off and became good friends.
And now here he was, a remnant of my past strolling through my present. My, I thought, How far I’ve come! Because here I am happy and free and real and healthy and singing along with Amy Tan’s rendition of ‘Leader of the Pack’ feeling such gratitude to be alive. Six years ago I never would have imagined this moment was possible. In the PTSD dark it always seemed like there was no possibility of light, as though the Hades of trauma had claimed me and I, unlike Persephone, was not allowed to spend any time back in the real world.
But that’s what’s funny about fate. One minute you’re fine, and the next you’re a tragedy; one minute you’re a victim, and the next you’re your own superhero. The flip can come, sometimes out of our control, and sometimes within it.
The band played through the sunset and into the evening. As they prepared for the last tune (not, as someone in the crowd suggested, ‘Freebird’), I looked around the smiling faces and felt, as I always do, how important it is to get out and be one of the masses. It’s so easy to become lost in our own problematic vortex, but there is – to quote Kevin Spacey to Judy Davis in The Ref – “a world outside our problems”. And it is really, really, really, good for us to remember that. It’s incredibly uplifting and soul satisfying to participate in a large group event where our isolated past is not the focus of the day, where instead, the present connected moment is all that matters and sweeps us up in it because we are not doomed and destined to the underworld. We have suffered, and we deserve to rejoice.
On glum days in Manhattan when I felt myself being pulled under I frequently and deliberately sought the outside world. I would walk myself over to Central Park to hear a classical music concert, or to Bryant Park to watch a movie in the midst of a sea of picnickers. I would go to the plaza in Lincoln Center to watch people dance, or I would walk down to Battery Park City and sit with all of the other people harbor watching and staring at the Statue of Liberty. On those days it grounded me to be out, around other people who knew nothing of my tragedy, and to connect to them and their lives and the rest of the world as a way to give myself a thread, just a thin, fragile strand that would guide me back from the edge inch by inch. It was good to be out and see that the rest of the world was continuing and functioning even as I became more dysfunctional; it was good to remember that functional, somewhere, could survive. It was good to remember that my problems were microscopic in the context of the world.
I haven’t lost my love for these mass communal events. I use them differently now, but their uplifting effect is still the same. I am still buoyed by the collective energy. And I still love the idea that on that day, at that time, all of us strangers decided to participate in the exact same experience. It reminds me that none of us are ever so isolated as we think. It reminds me that community is only a drum beat, a heart beat, a step away.
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