It’s been awhile since I’ve written, obviously, but it was good to run into you the other day, to speak briefly. I think I know what you meant, but I’m not sure if you understood me. Still, it was good to see you.
Let’s see, what is new. There’s a bird nest under the roof of the porch at the camp store—a phoebe, I think. I only see one adult, a female, I assume. She sits on the nest sometimes, so she must have eggs. She’ll fly to the nest only as long as nobody is looking. I hope she doesn’t abandon her nest with all the celebrations this week—the campground is having a big to do, and there will be a lot of people on the porch. It’s a good location, apart from the people, and so I hope she learns to ignore us utterly; the only thing she has to fear is fear itself. I’ve noticed that the last few times I’ve found a nest on an occupied dwelling it’s been a phoebe, or what I think it a phoebe, anyway. Do they like our buildings particularly? I’ve been meaning to ask you.
Prairie Home Companion broadcast from Tanglewood this past week, a place I’ve just learned you have a connection with, though it’s an utterly different connection from mine. Tanglewood is only two or three miles from the campus of my old boarding school. We used to walk there sometimes for exercise—usually we didn’t go on the grounds themselves, we just used the entrance as a turn-around point for the walk. I also saw three performances there, and sometimes from campus we could hear music from Tanglewood, faintly. B.B. King played there once and I heard him, muffled, in the distance.
One of the performances I attended was some Bugle Brass Band I had no interest in whatever, but at least we got off campus to the pretty Tanglewood grounds for a while. They are green and full of rows and spinneys of trees, as you know. Another time we went to see Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, two performers I admire greatly, but I happened to find their performance kind of boring that day, for whatever reason. Arlo Guthrie also went to boarding school in Stockbridge, did you know that? Same campus but different school, years and years ago. That’s why the events of Alice’s Restaurant occurred in Stockbridge; he was there visiting friends from school.
Ah, but the best concert I went to at Tanglewood was Peter, Paul, and Mary. I grew up listening to them, I knew most of the songs they sang, and singing along it felt very much like I was singing with them—it wasn’t like at a rock concert, where if you sing along it feels very much like singing along to a recording. There was very little sense of separation between performer and audience, it was like we were all just sitting around a campfire singing together, except that the fire circle must have been huge because there were thousands of people, and mostly I couldn’t even see the three who happened to have the microphone—Peter, Paul, and Mary themselves. We had lawn seats, of course.
That was the summer I turned sixteen, but I hadn’t turned sixteen yet because it was the Fourth of July—twenty years ago yesterday. Twenty years ago yesterday, I sang with Peter, Paul, and Mary at Tanglewood and then watched fireworks explode over the Stockbridge Bowl. I was high as a kite on life and nothing else, the memory of the familiar music still in my ears as a kind of balm against the chronic, low-grade hurt of being away from my family among people whom I did not really understand.
Tanglewood’s presence in my life was so mundane, then. It was the famous neighbor most of us had never heard of, and which most of us ignored, no different in stature from the other landmarks around us: the high ridge behind the school that colored up like Fruity Pebbles in the fall; the Stockbridge Bowl, that lake that froze in winter so you could walk on it, an odd thing for a kid from Delaware to see; or the Kripalu Yoga Center, a kind of unacknowledged sister institution to ours, given that both were vaguely cultish at the time. They were all just there, like furniture in the mind. I can see that ridge of trees even now, if I close my eyes.
And way led on to way from there until, eight years ago, I was sitting alone on a lawn in Maine, my earphones tuned in to Garrison Keilor, and suddenly out of the dark of radio bloomed Tanglewood. My sweet old someone, as he sings. It’s Saturday, the band is playing, and for the first time in years a person speaks along Rt. 183 and I, through the medium of live radio, can hear.
It was not, of course, Tanglewood itself that had me feeling nostalgic, but its proximity to that old school, that place where I never did fit in, and which finally asked me to leave, but which nevertheless registers emotionally as a kind of home.
Yes, they asked me to leave. I admit that I was probably difficult to deal with, but I did nothing either fun enough or nefarious enough to warrant being kicked out. While I was ultimately glad to get out of there and get on with my life, I still sometimes wonder why it happened the way it did.
Sometimes I think that Michael, the headmaster, asked me to leave because he knew I needed to go, that I would learn more by leaving than by staying, which was certainly true. Other times I think my being escorted to the gate had a lot more to do with the fact that I was on full scholarship—that I had become too expensive to remain as a square peg in a round hole any longer.
But whether my being asked to go was an act of faith or an act of faithlessness on Michael’s part, either way I was expelled just as if I had done something horrible—marched to the gate and barred from further contact with current students, lest I sow dissention in the ranks. Because there was only one procedure for asking someone to leave, and, as incredible as it sounds, the little school that prided itself on creatively meeting everybody’s individual needs couldn’t figure out how to ask me to leave without treating me like a virtual criminal.
All this was many years ago and far away. I don’t think about it much anymore, except when something, like a voice on the radio, reminds me. The school, as I said, is gone.
But the campus is there, in Stockbridge, right where it always was. I don’t know what is being done with the property now, maybe nothing. Maybe, the next time you go to Tanglewood, you could take a walk up the road and go to campus, and if nobody is there, there will be nobody to stop you. You’ll see a steep, squared off embankment, maybe ten feet high at the corner, visible from the road but maybe a few hundred feet in. It was grassy when I knew it, but it’s probably overgrown with brambles and tree seedlings by now, if nobody’s been cutting it. And, if nobody has been cutting it or digging in to it, you might find, at the base of this embankment, among the other growth, dark, flat leaves, like grass but thicker.
If you find these leaves, please tell me. Tell me the daffodils I planted still grow.