Concert companion: Live From Here got me through a separation and a pandemic. Then it got canceled.
The weather on the exquisite June evening when I found out that the American Public Media show Live From Here was going to be canceled was exactly like the night a year earlier when I’d attended the show in person on a lawn with hundreds — probably thousands — of other people. Going to a concert alone for the first time was a turning point in my healing after having recently separated from my husband.
The weather was again the same perfect temperature this past Saturday, the last night my local radio station would broadcast the show, which was created to celebrate live collaboration in a way that’s not possible in pandemic life.
I understand that when good things come to an end, there can be new beginnings, but I’m saddened by the end of the show. In addition to the transformation prompted by seeing the show in person, listening to it alone on Saturday nights has provided a powerful connection I will sorely miss.
I mark the start of the pandemic by my kids’ last day of in-person school — March 13 — and by the cancellation of Live From Here’s March 14 Kennedy Center show, for which I had a ticket. In the months that followed, Live From Here kept me company on my way to the grocery store on early-pandemic Saturday nights shortly before closing, when I knew there’d be no lines. I got through quickly, joking with the cashiers about seeing them the same time next week before heading out to my car where rebroadcasts or new “Live From Home” shows accompanied me on my way home and then as I unpacked groceries alone in my townhouse while my kids were at their dad’s.
During a time when everyone was so disconnected, the show was my faithful Saturday night companion.
My relationship with the show began two years earlier, under very different circumstances. Back then, I was still married, and going out alone on a Saturday night was an anomaly. One of the few times it happened, I listened to the show driving home from a friend’s. The singers’ voices captivated me, and I loved the vibe of the host, Chris Thile, and his crew. As a stay-at-home mom with chronic health issues, I hadn’t been to a concert in ages but thought I’d like to see this show on stage just as the local announcer said the show was coming to the DC area the following week.
I suggested attending to my husband, an avid music consumer who still owns boxes of CDs plus many folders of online albums and various subscription services. Since we first shared an apartment in 1994, he was the driver of the sounds that filled our homes. My interest in finding and choosing music faded through — or got overshadowed by — attending graduate school, then teaching high schoolers, then struggling with my health and parenting our two children.
We almost never went on date nights, least of all to see unfamiliar musicians. Still, I found a babysitter, and he agreed. There was terrific energy that night from the Live from Here stage, but not between us. What I imagine when I recall us sitting in the hard plastic seats on that summer night is lukewarm liquid swirling around fading ice cubes, a beverage that is neither warming nor refreshing.
The performers were impressive, though, including Kacey Musgraves, who my husband actually started listening to after the show. I’d picked something good. This alone — well before Musgraves won several Grammys — felt like a personal victory.
A few months after the concert, and after several years of increasing unhappiness, we decided to separate, some 26 years after we’d met. Our kids were 12 and 8. My husband would remain in the house where the kids would stay on weekends, when he could spend time with them. As the default parent who didn’t work full time, I would make a home out of a smaller rental nearby, a new place, not one he’d designed for a renovation, not one filled with art he’d chosen and a TV and music system I didn’t know how to use.
That winter, I moved pounds and pounds of my life, often carried in over my shoulder in reusable bags up the many steps to my townhouse. I filled recycling bins with years of papers, scoured the internet and Goodwill for used furniture, and blinked my bleary eyes through the aisles of Home Goods looking for what was still missing.
I was sad and gutted, but I also enjoyed time alone. In our late 20s, I relished time to focus on my graduate studies while my then-boyfriend traveled as a consultant. Then, after working hard to climb out of a depression during my first year teaching high school, I became hopeful enough to suggest we tie the knot. Years later, I experienced a myriad of health problems just as we wanted to start a family. I made great strides but felt unsupported by my husband, so I had just initiated couples counseling when I found myself pregnant against the odds.
The two of us would be in it together after all. As parents, we would always be connected.
And I would be forever changed. Parenting two children while staying on top of my health made it hard to earn much. My part-time work as a tutor and freelancer was a drop in the bucket of our finances. I lacked confidence and was daunted by the idea of supporting myself.
As the spring after our winter separation thawed, I got more settled, less sad. Weekend mornings alone brought time for creativity, and I benefited from better sleep, more yoga, slower meals. Weekend evenings were often spent in front of my laptop, no one expecting anything from me as I sat catching up on emails or doing creative work.
Live From Here became the soundtrack of my Saturday nights, my steady date. I got to know the regular performers; I laughed at their skits and cried overdue tears to poetry and covers of songs from my teenage years. The show was both a catharsis and an anchor. To not go see the show when it returned to Wolf Trap in June 2019 would have felt like refusing to see a friend visiting from out of town, a friend who had been there for you unconditionally.
As the day of the concert approached, things began to align toward the evening show. My perception and expectations about myself and how I could show up in the world shifted because of my desire to attend.
I took the day off parenting. Normally, I helped with kids’ events most weekends, but this time I asked their dad to take them to a film festival featuring an acting turn by our oldest. Meanwhile, I went to a networking lunch I might have, without the momentum of the concert pushing me forward, blown off.
I was instead blown away by how good it felt to talk with people I hadn’t seen in years. I barely knew some of them, but we all shared a profound joy in coming together. I went straight from there to a going-away party for a friend I might have turned down were it not five minutes from the concert venue. It felt good to catch up with friends, including the one moving to India.
Because of my plan to go to a concert alone for the first time, I spent all day connecting to people and believing that I was worthy of connection.
On that gorgeous June evening, I walked up the hill toward the turnstiles, not turning left toward the smaller theatre in the woods where I’d often taken my children but heading straight toward the main venue I’d been to only a handful of times in my 20 years living outside of DC. As I put away my credit card and fished my ticket from under the glass of the box office, I noticed a bike helmet sitting on the next window counter, where a ponytailed woman stood. I asked if she’d ridden her bike to the show. She nodded, adding, “It’s the first time I’ve gone to a concert by myself.” If I’d been in my third grader’s classroom, I would have waved the pinkie-and-thumb hand gesture to indicate wordlessly what I instead said out loud: “Me too.”
She then offered another parallel: “I asked a bunch of people and then my friend flaked, so I figured, why not?” I concurred again. I felt buoyed to know I was not alone, even if I was alone. I could have asked if she wanted to sit together, but I think we each needed to know we were okay on our own.
The sun shone golden on the lawn. I squared my shoulders and took in a breath as I took in all the humanity around me. For so long, I’d been feeling like my life was a folded-up postage stamp, brittle and no longer usable for having stuck onto itself, the glue dried and cracked. Now, I unzipped my blanket, the same striped square I’d had since my oldest was a baby, and spread it out on the top of the hill amid groups and groups of strangers, noting the “Be Brave” tattoo on the neck of the woman in front of me. It seemed there was enough room for everyone, and everything.
Before the actual broadcast began, the band and singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham had played a haunting cover of the Radiohead song “No Surprises.” The slow, plaintive song my husband introduced me to had always clutched my heart. Performed live under the early evening sun, the harmonies were exquisite, the two voices made so much the richer by their interaction.
It occurred to me at some point when our marital separation seemed inevitable, amid seeing Facebook posts of people sharing how much their spouses made their lives complete, that it was not really possible for me to love someone else completely when I was so unhappy with myself. On that hill that night, having had three months of time alone, I was finally starting to think I was decent company.
And it was powerful to see others there with me, looking to music as a balm. They, too, had admitted to themselves that they could — and wanted to — be moved.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have had this experience just when I needed it. If we’d separated a year later, during the pandemic, I wouldn’t have had the chance to be alone in community like this. I needed then to understand that doing something I wanted to do for me was important. I was not a failure because I didn’t have anyone to share it with. I had me. And I had the music. And the air. And all the people on the lawn whose joy I didn’t begrudge, among them a woman unashamed to tell a stranger she was at a concert alone.
And even though I didn’t have my husband as a life partner, I still had all we had shared and created. After happily reading his message that he and the kids had a great time at the film festival, I texted him the video I’d taken of the end of “No Surprises.” It didn’t capture the most beautiful harmonies, but I knew he’d appreciate the notes hanging in the air.
He replied to my video of the song: “Dang.”
And then, “Sweet.”
Finally, “Perfect night.”
In preparing to post this essay, I found that someone at Wolf Trap with me — not with me, but with me — on June 1, 2019 posted video of the Madison Cunningham and Chris Thile cover of “No Surprises” on Reddit. Take a listen! Madison also has a cover on her YouTube channel here. It also doesn’t have the harmonies I heard live, but, of course, her voice is also beautiful all by itself.