written in early August 2015
Last weekend, I was on a dance floor for the first time in years.
I was at a close friend’s 50th birthday bash, dancing to music played by a cover band we had loved 25-plus years before.
A few of us had been among the band’s first fans, there for their earliest performances in the late 80s in the college town where we were struggling to get used to being employed college graduates.
Back then, we loved the band because they were immensely talented musicians; because they were hot (of course), and because they could pull off playing an odd, excellent mix of covers with ease—Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Earth, Wind and Fire, Bruce Springsteen and the Jackson Five are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. We mostly went to hear them play at an upstairs bar called La Terazza, where you could feel the floor shaking underneath you as they reeled from one song to the next until the bar closed.
They were serious musicians who worked on other ventures on their own, and a few years after starting their bread-winning cover band, their non-cover band got a recording contract that led to a lot of respect and a bit of fame, if not a huge fortune.
Later, they started doing their cover band thing again here and there in addition to whatever else they were doing to make a living, and when the time came for my friend’s milestone birthday, they were available to make us dance into the early morning hours again.
2015 looked a little different on the dance floor than 1989, no doubt; I’m sure that if we had invited our kids to the party, they might have posted “Vines” or Instagram photos of us with hashtags along the lines of #groovymiddleagedpeopletrytodance. And, speaking for myself, anyway, they might have been on the mark.
But groovy or not, what I felt on the dance floor along with the nostalgia was a bit of awe and a lot of grace. Around me was a network of people not unlike a family tree — and our connections to each other were a bit like the rings you see when you cut down a tree. (I’m mixing my tree metaphors, but bear with me.)
There was that original small ring of close friends I danced with in the dive bar 25 years ago. Then there was another layer of friends I got to know through those dive-bar-dancing friends over the course of my twenties.
Then there was another circle of acquaintances I don’t know well, but feel connected to nevertheless because I have heard their names so often and because I know they are important in the lives of my old friends.
And finally there was another small circle — the older brother and sister of my friend the birthday girl, who I’ve been able to spend pockets of time with over the decades of our friendship.
At the end of the night, the band played a song in honor of my friend – a song that they had never played back in the day because we were all 20-something and ageless and timeless then:
We’ve been through
Some things together
With trunks of memories
Still to come
We found things to do
In stormy weather
Long may you run.
Long may you run.
Long may you run.
Although these changes
With your chrome heart shining
In the sun
Long may you run.
As they played, I ended up on the dance floor in a cluster with the birthday girl and two of friends from those outer rings on the family tree. Spontaneously, one of them grabbed the hand of the friend next to her and soon all four of us had done the same, making a circle as if we were small children again.
At this age, I don’t see gestures like this among friends too often, and it was a lovely, genuine thing — sparked from nostalgia and music and the many things the women in that circle had been through together and what they had been to each other in varying combinations over many, many years.
Later, after the band finished loading up, they lingered with a small group of us from the dive bar days. This time, we talked about our kids – or in one case, our dogs, who were for all intents and purposes much-loved kids, if not offspring. I thought later about the fact that they probably had come to feel like a family of sorts, too.
In the middle of a hard summer, that night was a powerful reminder of just how large my family is at 50.
There is my given family, as well as the families I have been fortunate enough to gather over the years — the one I was on the dance floor with last week; my best friend from third grade on, who died in 2008 but will always be a part of my life; the other friends I grew up with in my earliest years, riding bikes and playing Kick the Can after dark; the high school friends and college roommates I go on long weekend trips with once a year (as well as other high school and college friends I stay in touch with); the crowd I ran with in my 20-something days in Washington, DC; friends from my time in Prague in my early thirties; and friends I made in my late 30s and into my 40s while navigating marriage, divorce and parenthood.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch of one of my dearest high school friends (we bonded instantly in 9th-grade health class), enjoying some much-needed solo time and the peace and quiet of her home in the mountains.
I am listening to crickets and having a beer and enjoying some much-needed solo time while she and her husband are treating my daughter to a picnic at the pool with their two daughters; the three girls have never lived in the same town, but they have known each other all of their lives, and I can only hope that like my friend and me, they will be family to each other for decades to come.
I took two of the girls to Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, NC, today, and our guide, an earnest college intern, took great pleasure in sharing Sandburg’s idea of a good life:
“ … to be out of jail … to eat regular … to get what I write printed … a little love at home and a little nice affection hither and yon over the American landscape … [and] to sing every day.”
For my daughter, who is already a writer as well as a lover of music, I would wish all of these things (that first one is a given, of course) and a family as big and big-hearted as mine.
Postscript: When I wrote this a year ago, I had no idea just how much this idea of “family” – those we gather around us and not just those we are born with connections to – would take on more and deeper meaning than I would ever have imagined, so there will now have to be another post, a ‘part 2,’ one day.