In 1999 I got a phone call from my mother. I had been having a terrible week—everyone experiences them from time to time—and she suggested I get on a train from Washington DC and come up to New York City and join her at my sister’s place for the weekend. Today, many years later, I recall three things from that weekend. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I recall walking through a Washington suburb early on my way to the Metro. (This was during the years when the DC metro seemed like a model for mass transit. Times have changed.) I took the Red Line to Union Station. I caught the Amtrak and headed north. I looked out the window. I’m certain I dozed off north of Wilmington.
Adulthood does not always feel the same way we imagine when we’re young. Money, relationships, work, dreams—they all take on momentum that can grind grown-up days into gray powder unless a person actively, intentionally, charts the map of their life forward. Just barely 30 years old at the time, I recall that weekend as something of a thrashing declaration that the weights dragging me down would not pull me under. I was in a foul mood when I left DC, edgy about spending a pile of cash to take this spontaneous trip, yet feeling like I was declaring independence to myself. That’s the first big thing I recall.
The second thing I recall was how it felt to get to my sister’s apartment. My mother was already there; it was the three of us for the weekend. Everyone comes from somewhere, and I’m not insensitive to the fact that not everyone comes from equally solid origins. Family always comes with history, good and bad, but I’m fully aware that I’m a lucky man on this front. When I made it to my sister’s spunky, one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, I felt the weight of many days lose mass. When they both met me at the door, I felt like I was home. I will never forget that aspect to the weekend, something that carried through from that first moment of meeting through a final shared cup of coffee before I caught the train back to DC.
At some point shortly before I arrived, one of us floated the idea of going to a show. New York being a one-of-a-kind place meant that extraordinary, last minute opportunities are more possible there than elsewhere. That’s how we found ourselves at the Marquis Theater in midtown, somehow managing to snag tickets to hear Charles Aznavour perform.
I can’t say my sister and I were huge fans at the time. We knew who he was, of course, and even appreciated his cultural prominence in a slightly older time, but to former teenagers shaped by 80’s New Wave music and big hair, we perceived a measure of schmaltz that didn’t deeply resonate. My mother felt differently. But honest truth here: we were genuinely pleased to go anyway, together. Plus, I can clearly remember my what my mother said to us with a grin: “Trust me. I bet the show won’t be like you remember hearing from his records.”
We must have gotten the last three tickets. The place was jammed. Here was a guy singing chanson in the late 1990’s, recalling the Parisian West Bank, small tables with espresso cups, the clasped hands of lovers, and bold, urgently romantic social and political idealism. A small man in his late 70s at the time, Aznavour strode onto the stage like a man 40 years younger. Spry, powerful, he captured the light, drew it to him, sang like he was trying to convince the audience not to abandon life, not to abandon youthfulness even as we aged, to pay attention, to pay attention, to pay attention.
The audience leaned in and hung on every word, every note. They applauded like teenagers.
I remember my sister’s eyes that night, round and full of feeling. (I know she won’t kill me for saying so in this space because I must admit recalling my own eyes heavy with emotion that evening, too.) What was it about this aging, grey haired guy singing songs of passion and romance to a late 20th century crowd? What made him matter, made the evening count?
Context infuses all experiences with deeper meaning than the experience itself. Context is the heart of experience, of course, and I’m fully aware that seeing Aznavour that evening was amplified for me by the sense of ease shared with my closest peeps, especially when the week had already left me feeling low. But context alone cannot explain it, and I’ve recalled that performance a thousand times.
Years later I encountered a magazine article about Charles Aznavour, then in his late 90s, looking back on a protean life. He’d lived through wars, cultural upheavals, political travails, personal adventures, affairs of the heart, fame, challenge, and all of the many things that make life the breathless adventure it is for all of us. But there in print, conveyed through his interview and the narrative reporting that shaped the story, I felt it again. His special thing—that unusual, sparkling, saturated thing that gives him gravitas and value—is a profound urgency about not giving up on life, on romance, on love. Oh, there are sappy love songs aplenty in the big, wide world, sung by a million singers that ape this kind of thing. I think it’s the fact that there are so many middle-of-the-road examples from others is why I initially dismissed his (still rather schmaltzy) sound. But now, near the end of an extraordinary life, recalling his Armenian heritage, his French personality, his global citizenry, he had not given up his most intimate identity. He was a romantic through and through, and I’m convinced that he believes if he could give that sentiment to an often unworthy world, the world would be a better place. His creative life was not separated from his feeling about being in love, or in believing life as something to be actively pursued. His creative life was about not missing a moment, suffused with an urgency for his listeners not to waste their own time in petty relationship squabbles or nationalistic competitions that diminish everyone.
This recollection, presented soulfully that night in New York, was the third thing I recall from the weekend.
My mother and sister and I still talk about that great weekend together in Manhattan. I remember it well—I always will—and I also hang on to those feelings when moments of banal doubt creep in about the exasperations that life inevitably presents. A creative life is all about context, always. There is no deeply felt artistic expression without a profound awareness of the world all around. The context of my time that weekend was one of sharing time with the most important people in the world. It was that context that informed my view of the concert, and it also refracted my brief escape from a tough quotidian stretch. Inevitably more ordinary days demanded that I return home to face them, but I did so with the echoes of a impassioned balladeer in my head, suggesting that it was possible, indeed vital, not only to hang on, but to embrace the challenges ahead, and to remember that the context we pursue with our hearts is the one that counts.