Long Time Gone: September 27, 2010 by Sheila Grace Stuewe

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.” Robert F. Kennedy

david crosby playing guitar 2010

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user johnsoeder

most memorable ribbon July 2012David Crosby, illuminated by a lone spotlight, sings the first three notes of “Long Time Gone.” His voice, like the ones that rang from porches in the Mississippi Delta a half century ago, rises alone – desperate, knowing, unsettling. His cadence stings with regret. He grips the descending whole notes, holding them, not wanting to let go. Moved, I rise, standing as if in church listening to the reading of the Gospel. Crosby wrote the lyrics the night Sirhan Sirhan gunned down Robert Kennedy. His words awaken in me a time when I could turn on FM radio and hear him protesting the Vietnam War, his fingers strumming a guitar. I’d close my eyes and see his long hair and crowds waving signs: Make Love Not War and No One Should Profit from War. It was long before conglomerates bought up the airwaves, years before I earned an MBA and exercised my stock options, a time when music mattered more to me than money.

 

Crosby, Stills and Nash opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on that September evening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I couldn’t believe my luck that those folk rock legends agreed to warm up the crowd for my favorite band. I had always wanted to hear their three voices live, joined in harmony. The war long ended, I had lost track of them in high school. Instead, filled with teenage lust and longing, I sang along with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, while I solved algebraic equations with multiple variables. On the weekends, I babysat, depositing the two to four dollars an hour in the savings and loan for college. Little time remained for making out with boys who listened to big hair bands.

At the concert on the way to the fourth row, I passed families, blankets and picnic baskets packing the hill that led down to the amphitheater. As I progressed to my coveted seat, I had to show my ticket to four security guards. The first stood at the top of the hill, a 60-year-old man with a ponytail and a long grey beard. He looked like he had stepped out of the 1960s counterculture. The next, positioned at the entrance to the amphitheater, was a college student with bouncy brown hair, whose parents probably listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Tom Petty. I wondered if this was the only job she could land for the summer and if she would earn enough to pay her tuition in the fall. The third, a bar-bouncer type with 20-inch biceps and a shaved head, waved me on, confident I wouldn’t try to get anything past him. Laden with middle-aged weight gain, I’m too self-conscious to sneak to a better seat. And the last, the sentinel of the pit, a clean-cut mid-50s man with white hair and a Roman nose said, “I have to put a black ‘used’ mark on the ticket. I promise to make it small.” He knew I would place it in my “special” drawer. Some day I’ll find it again, rub it between my fingers and remember.

Only seven when the band’s self-titled album Crosby, Stills and Nash was released, I couldn’t understand the message in their lyrics, but sang along captured by the rhymes and rhythms. That was years before I would learn about war and worry, love and dependability, and ideals that have to be set aside when working 60-hour weeks. Yet as a child when those three voices melted together, I hummed along, picking out the words I knew – golden hair, seagulls, free. Now, forty years later, David Crosby’s voice coils around my chest, constricting my lungs, unsteadying my legs, biting at my soul, enticing me to question how I’ve changed as the decades have slipped away. I began yearning for a time when I didn’t care about making enough money to own a three-bedroom house with two overstocked refrigerators.

 

Born in Chicago in 1962, I grew up singing folk songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land is Your Land”. Surrounded by organ music at church, tambourines in the classroom, and a capella campfire sing-a-longs on Girl Scout outings, I sang every day.

In kindergarten, music class began at the chalkboard. My mother, the teacher, would draw the lyrics in pictures since my classmates and I couldn’t read. When teaching “America the Beautiful,” she filled the black background with golden stalks of grain and purple snow-capped mountains. She’d point from a crown to three stick figures holding hands to ocean waves touched by the sun’s yellow rays. The images came to life in our voices. For me, they still do.

At home after dinner, my sister and I would rush into the living room, turn on the record player, and croon along to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, leaping in the air, dancing. When “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” played, I visualized miniature navy seamen holding on to my scalp as I scratched. On Sunday evenings, after our Rodgers and Hammerstein workout, we’d watched The Ed Sullivan Show to see the Beatles, the Supremes and my mother’s favorite, Beverly Sills.

Other nights, we couldn’t escape glimpses of combat on our black-and-white television, especially the evening of the Vietnam cease-fire in 1973. Sitting next to my mom, I expected something like the Coke commercial where people from all over the world joined hands and sang “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Instead, white flashes of gunfire and mortar soared back and forth across the black night. Just as the first glimpse of early morning light appeared on the Vietnamese horizon, rifle fire began to slow. It didn’t stop, not even at the mandated time. No music played.

Back then I didn’t know that David Crosby had written “Long Time Gone” about Robert F. Kennedy. The morning after RFK had been assassinated, dressed for kindergarten in my sister’s old jumper and tights, I walked into our kitchen. Mom stared at the Chicago Tribune’s front page. She had planned to vote for him, believing he was unshakable in his stance against inequality. Mom, the sole breadwinner in our family, understood discrimination. She earned half of what her male counterparts made, teaching at our church’s elementary school, making barely enough to pay the rent and buy groceries. Standing next to the stove that morning, stirring the Cream of Wheat, she said, “His children won’t know the changes their father could have made.”

Mom placed her hand on my shoulder and slipped a bowl in front of me. By dropping a half-teaspoon of butter in the middle of the warm white cereal and pouring milk around the edge, she formed a fortress complete with a moat. After she walked to her drawer, the one that contained her Mother’s Day cards, my drawings, coupons, and news clippings, she read aloud the speech Robert Kennedy gave after Martin Luther King died.

Mom bowed her head, repeating the words of the poet Aeschylus chosen by Kennedy: “Against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

I ate my cereal, every bite. We didn’t have enough to waste.

 

In Saratoga Springs four decades later, my $300 ticket costs almost as much as my mother’s monthly income in 1968. Standing just six feet from the stage, I close my eyes and see flashes of chalk drawings of anti-war protesters, a crowded courtroom, and Bobby Seale bound and gagged when the first words of “Chicago (We Can Change the World)” ring out. Graham Nash wrote it in hopes of compelling his band mates to protest the Chicago Eight trial. When I hear the words “just to sing” I long for the kindergartner, the little girl I lost along the way, the one who made a MAKE LOVE NOT WAR poster and asked my mother if we could take the Archer Avenue bus downtown to join the protesters outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Naturally, Mom said no.

When I was six, I learned the words to “We Shall Overcome,” with the aid of my mother’s multi-colored figures holding hands marching. At 18, I stood in line and voted for John Anderson, the independent presidential candidate. On Inauguration Day, I lifted my hand to my heart and sang “God Bless America” when the American hostages in Iran boarded the plane home. Soon thereafter, Ronald Reagan launched trickle-down economics, slashing my student aid, forcing me to work full time and attend college at night school. At 26, sick of eating frozen generic potpies, I earned an MBA at a top-tier school. Two years later, I reveled at my first stock option award. At 33, feeling financially secure while working 60-hour weeks, I became the treasurer of a Fortune 600 company, paid off my mother’s debts and handed her keys to her first new car.

Five years after, I voted for the man who reduced my effective income tax rate. Growing up wearing hand-me-downs, I never thought I’d use dollar-denominated milestones to describe my life. Now at 48, I earn a six-figure salary, but it doesn’t feel like my American Dream.

Tonight as I watch Steven Stills’ fingers move from fret to fret, menopausal heat waves surge through my body. How did this happen? Over the past 20 years, I didn’t make time for music: to savor it, learn from it, or see lyrics splashed across my mind’s canvas. I’m ashamed to admit that since working my rigorous schedule, I only attended concerts when I had to go, sharing a luxury box with CEOs and SVPs, who frowned if I stood and danced. During my career, I’ve concentrated on interpreting financial statements, overusing the phrases “increased by,” “primarily due to,” “offset by the following one time items.” I’ve spoken in acronyms the likes of PE, IRR, NPV, and EPS. I’ve bought houses, insurance, sedans, and paid off my student loans – everything I thought I was supposed to do.

Until now. Instead of funding my 401K, I invest in concert tickets. During the summer of 2010, I spend the equivalent of three mortgage payments, hoping that standing, singing along, dancing, shouting, crying and clapping will lead me back to a time when money didn’t rule my life. I know it seems absurd to spend money to find a way to escape from it. But I’m doing it anyway.

 

Just before the trio returns to the stage for the encore, middle-aged men and women arrive to take their pit seats, carrying wine and popcorn. They chat about the weather and overfilled parking lots. I turn around. Everyone else in the amphitheater is up on his or her feet. From my $300-seat, I can make out the thin age lines highlighting Graham Nash’s eyes, but I miss being in the middle of a crowd, waving arms in unison and singing along.

The audience hushes as Steven Stills steps up to the microphone and plays the first few chords of “Love the One You’re With,” a song about having no regrets. I join in, singing the words I remember, the ones I picture in chalk drawings – eagle flies, dove, and love. My shoulders sway. I clap my hands. Even though I’ve taken an extended detour, I’m still that six year old who wants to sing, raising my chin for the high notes, not caring who might hear me.

After the song ends, Crosby, Stills and Nash heads off the stage. I won’t stop clapping. I don’t want to let them go. I search my purse for a match, wondering why I didn’t buy a cigarette lighter. I want to hold it high, just like in the 1980s. Others flash their cell phones, filling the amphitheater with artificial light. I turned mine off when the concert began. If I had it in my hand, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from checking my emails and thinking about Monday morning.

To screams, Crosby, Stills and Nash steps back on the stage. I smile, waving my arms in the air. All three look a bit tired as they sling on their guitars for the last time before they end their workday. Nodding, counting down, they strike the first few chords of “Teach Your Children.” I sing along, remembering the decades-old lyrics. I picture my mother and her drawings, struggling to capture truth and dreams in chalk. I try to harmonize. I can’t quite get it right, but still I try. I sing.

Sheila StueweSheila Grace Stuewe lives for Rock ‘n’ Roll and dreams about touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. She earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essay “Residual Value” was published in Artful Dodge. That essay won an AWP Intro Journals Prize for Nonfiction in 2010. Currently, Sheila is writing a collection of essays with the working title My Midlife Crisis Concert Series.
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  • Anne Clendening

    I absolutely love this essay. You inspire me with your writing, which in this case  is like a very lovely, textured mosaic. It’s a work of art. I am in awe. Thank you, I can’t wait to read more of your work.

    • Sstuewe

      Thank you Anne. Your words fill my heart.

  • Diane

    Keep singing, Sheila. Beautiful!

    • Sstuewe

      I’m singing.

  • Lisa Elliott

    Sheila,

    This is one of the most lovely things I have read in a long time.  I am so proud of you!  Thanks for sharing.  I can’t wait for the next one.

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Lisa — one of the best workmates ever.

  • Kate

    Wonderful! I’m so proud of you, Sheila. And this issue was perfect for your material! Hope you’re doing really well 🙂 Kate

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Kate. Miss you.

  • Josie Noble

    This is just wonderful. Music is in your blood — and writing shows your beautiful soul. Thanks for this gift.

    • Sstuewe

      Love you sweet Josie!

  • Hollie Loveless

    So proud to finally see such a deserving author in print. Attaway, Sheils.

  • Lisa Roney

    Sheila, You evoke a whole generational sea change with toe-tapping longing. This piece brought back so many details of my own childhood, while also making me feel as though I was in the audience with you. Thanks!

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Lisa

  • Pinesolprincess

    Fantastic. Just fantastic. There’s money in the wallet, yes, but it will never rival a song in your heart.

    • Sstuewe

      You got it! Pinesolprincess

  • Dlcwoody

    I really enjoyed the experience of your concert, as if I was there along side of you.  And, I so remember your moms drawings as we sang along.  Although we were not financially rich God blessed us with the ability to see beauty in so much.

    • Sstuewe

      Diana Lu – you are right.

  • cynthia newberry martin

    Oh Sheila, just wonderful. Love, love, love. Printing it out so I can read it over and over again.

    • Sstuewe

      Oh Cynthia, coming from you – such an amazing writer – , I truly appreciate it. You words fill my heart.

  • Barry Wightman

    Lovely. When music mattered.

  • Lauren Baldwin

    You are a music writer. It is decided.

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Lauren – I love me some music.

  • I love the way you blend the music, your childhood, and our national history so seamlessly. The essay has a light touch, but makes a strong, effective point.

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Lisa

  • A lovely piece. This is especially poignant to me as I heard Crosby, Stills, and Nash in New Hampshire just weeks ago, to celebrate my 50th birthday. I brought my two teenage daughters who first scowled, then swayed. By the end, the were on their feet dancing and hooting at the top of their lungs. The love of music and the sentiments of the lyrics tamed even my cynical, eye-rolling hop hop junkie daughters.

    • Sstuewe

      Music, sweet music, words laced in melodies, rhyming; fingers strumming intricate chords, notes held and rushed, voices raised in harmony.

  • Constance Adler

    Sheila!  Thank you for this wonderful essay.  You make the world bigger and better with your writing.  Can’t wait for the book.  

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks. I know that your book – My Bayou – is on the top of my list to read.  I love New Orleans – such a great mix of Saints, food and music, and I can’t wait to see your New Orleans through your eyes.

  • Muffie

    Learned your craft well, haven’t you, my beautiful Sheila? I’m speechless with wonder and pride. And love.
    Muffie

  • Lovely, as always! Keep singing, please.

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Claire Guyton, coming from you such an amazing short story writer, I am honored you read my piece.

  • Jenny Bennett

    Congratulations, Shelia…I love to see you in print and achieving your dreams….great piece…

    Jenny

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Jenny. I’m trying and that is the best I can ask for. I will keep reaching and thanks for the encouragement.

  • Leesareece

    You have the gift of song and pen, Sheila.  This is wonderful!

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Lisa – and thanks for being a writing partner so many years ago. I miss you lots and lots.

      • Sstuewe

        On July 19th, please join me for a reading of this piece at 7PM at 14 Pews at 800 Aurora Street, Houston, Texas.  Three other talented writers will be joining me at the podium: Melanie Malinowski, Sarah Warburton, and Stacey Keith.

  • Jeff K

    Hey Sheila, great wring, great story.  Thanks for bringing back some old memories, if just for a few minutes.

  • Rebecca

    Hi Sheila. I loved how you moved through time, using specific images. Well-done! And the questioning of keeping ideals in sight is very poignant. Something we all can respond to, in our own way. 

  • Congrats on your Most Memorable designation – well earned! Happy to connect with another Midlife Concert lover…be in touch!

    • Sstuewe

      Thanks Nancy – it was an honor to be in the same issue with you.  Let’s hope it happens again. OFTEN.