The Muse and the Mesquite Tree
There’s a mesquite tree on the west side of I-10 halfway between Phoenix and Tucson that I will never forget. We bonded several years ago – I left my mark on him, and he left his on me. But our brief encounter was not the most memorable part of that day – that came much later under a desert sky when my favorite singer returned to the stage after a stunning performance and played an encore just for me.
It was Mother’s Day, May 9, 2004, and my husband and I decide to pass on the tortuous three-hour wait outside Olive Garden for a mediocre lunch and a wilted pink carnation. We had bigger plans. We were going to Tucson to see Josh Groban in concert.
After dropping the kids off with the in-laws in Sun City, we high-tailed it out of Phoenix, stopping only for a quick bite at In-N-Out on the edge of town. Thirty minutes later, I was sucking air through my straw, rattling ice in the bottom of my cup and staring at a long line of red tail lights in front of us.
Sunday afternoon congestion? On Mother’s Day?
Why, yes; yes there was.
And that’s when I started to feel that Dr. Pepper work its magic.
As we slowly stuttered south, my distress took on new proportions, unnoticed by my husband. He was busy analyzing traffic.
Could I see the front of the line? Could I see anything? Would I call the traffic hotline and find out, please, what was going on?
I, meanwhile, only had one question on my mind: Why did I order a large drink?
Another half an hour passed and we had hardly moved. I was getting desperate – and slightly delusional. Mirages began to float with my eyeballs. I imagined a rest stop just beyond that RV, an exit leading toward a Starbucks with pristine facilities – they are everywhere, right?
Instead, one inch of highway gave way to another, yielding only the sensation that time could truly move backwards. And, still dressed in my Sunday best, I was starting to seriously consider something that no self-respecting woman should.
Scorpions, diamondbacks, Gila monsters.
I started a list, imagining vainly that fear would paralyze my system. It wasn’t working.
Another fifteen minutes passed. I crossed my legs and squirmed some more, biting my lip. By then, my husband knew about my predicament and felt that a detailed description of what traffic engineers should be doing was the best way to distract me.
He knows me so well.
I won’t try and tell you that the tree glowed with ethereal light, but something about it caught my attention. I rallied my spirits, coaching myself toward victory. This was my moment and this was my tree. I convinced myself that I could do here what I could not do before.
My husband pulled to the side of the road and I made the dash of shame. To this day, I will not let myself imagine what the people stuck in the car behind us were thinking, much less what they might have seen.
Now, I’m no princess. I’ve camped deep in the woods, bathed in murky ponds and dug my own latrine. But context changes everything, doesn’t it? What happened that Sunday afternoon was different – it changed me. With a handheld mirror and a well-lit bathroom, I could probably still find the scars to prove it. (Mesquite trees are prickly and I’m not particularly good at balancing at a 90 degree angle, we’ll just leave it at that.)
By the time I made it back to our car, a considerable weight had been lifted from my, er, shoulders. I smiled brightly at my husband, convinced that with a liberal misting of Bactine and a few sessions of therapy, I would be back to my old self.
Traffic, of course, picked up immediately. Ten minutes later we sped past a lovely rest stop.
The rest of the drive was uneventful. We listened to my husband’s kind of music -- probably Rush or Dream Theater. Maybe Eric Johnson. He loves progressive rock, but he’s particular. Give him a 26-minute song with complicated rhythms and lots of time changes and he’ll probably start to tear up. These were my concert experiences with him so far – being part of an audience that was made up almost entirely of men. But I’ve always been happy to go. Really. With ear plugs.
We reached Tucson and checked into the Hilton El Conquistador. Within half an hour I was laying by the pool, admiring the view of Pusch Ridge and sipping on a strawberry something-or-other.
I needed this break. I was a busy mommy with two young kids and was also trying to finish writing a novel I had started when my oldest was just a baby. One of the great things about kids is that they don’t let you forget what your priorities are. But there’s danger there too – that you’ll get lost along the way – maybe to one day wake up and realize you don’t even know who you are beyond the diapers and schoolwork; the dishes and piano lessons.
I had been letting my writing lag for some time up until about a month before the concert. That’s when I read an interview with Josh in which he talked about his introduction into the recording business.
Preparation met opportunity.
That’s what he said. I remember being struck by that. What if my opportunity comes along, I asked myself, and I’m not prepared?
So I got back on task, squeezing as many hours from my week as possible to devote to my novel. And I was making progress. Just before we left for Tucson, I had finished polishing up a particularly pleasing little scene where a street musician performs one of my favorite old Paul Simon songs for my lovely heroine. (Sigh.)
The afternoon passed quickly. My husband and I dressed, ate and drove out to the reservation. I had never before (or since) been to the Anselmo Valencia Amphitheater, but it was lovely – and the perfect night for an outdoor concert. Normally, I wouldn’t be thrilled with lawn seats, but, I was remarkably okay with it that night. I was there, at least, and ready to hear Josh live for the first time. I looked around at the crowd and I couldn’t help smiling at the ratio of women to men. I squeezed my husband’s arm.
Feeling outnumbered, honey?
When Josh took the stage, I was captivated. I forgot about the lawn, I forgot about my husband. I forgot about myself. I almost couldn’t believe Josh sounded that good live. He sounded even better than on the album – now how was that possible? Josh was joking with the audience between songs, making us like him more. The women were all flushed; even the men were drawn in. He sang every song flawlessly, but with natural joy.
Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Josh was saying goodnight and I was clapping like crazy, waiting for the encore. When he returned he sat down at the piano and told us he was going to do something different that night. He had a favorite old Paul Simon song he wanted to sing for us.
So the crowd grew quiet again and Josh began to play. And, you guessed it, I got chills. Because I expected Bridge Over Troubled Water. It was the obvious choice. But that’s not what he played. He played America instead – the same old Paul Simon favorite I had just written into my novel a few days before.
And that’s when I knew that Josh was playing his encore just for me. The rest of the world went away and I was singing along, harmonizing from the lawn.
Now I’ve since regained my sanity. I know Josh wasn’t singing just for me, but it felt very personal at the time. How could he sing the same song I had woven into my story and that not mean something?
That’s how inspiration works. And even though Josh doesn’t know how he inspired me that day, he hears it from others all the time. I’m sure of it.
I put his inspiration to good use. I finished my novel. And when I couldn’t find a publisher for it, Josh had another song for me: “Don’t give up,” he said. So I kept trying and several years later, I signed a book contract. And when my publisher flaked on me and went out of business just before it went to press, I cried. But then Josh sang to me again, reminding me that my words shouldn't be held in silence. "Please don't keep them Hidden Away," he sang.
Josh’s music isn’t the only place I get inspiration, but he never fails me either. With each new album and opportunity to see him live, I’ve gained new perspectives. I get a real kick out of imagining a time when my writing inspires someone the way Josh’s music has inspired me.
I’d even take on a couple more mesquite trees to get there.