“That One Time When ‘Sweet Caroline’ Came on and…”

As a teenager, I was rarely alone. My life revolved around spending time with others. Even if that meant sitting on a couch watching television together, I was content as long as I wasn’t by myself. College looked fairly similar and my best friends and I lived an uncanny FRIENDS-like existence for a few years. Yet within our “I’ll Be There for You” period of life, I first began to experience the simple wonder of alone time. On Saturday afternoons in the fall, with a spice-scented candle lit, a college football game on TV and a glass pumpkin full of candy corn on my table, I found I could write in peace. Even with the spirited distractions of first downs and fight songs filling my apartment, I was alone and in tune with myself. Then I moved to New York where I struggled with the new loneliness of a new city; loneliness I buffed away with new acquaintances, allowing them to patch up that needy part of me that felt holey. But as time wore on, I found my way back to the benefits of spending time by myself. As a teenager, alone time was considered time wasted, but as an adult it was time to refuel, like plugging my internal charger into the wall and allowing it to refill in peace. Seven years into living in this city, I not only have no problem being with only myself, but I look forward to it. I love a date night with my television, an essay-in-process or a book; just me, my apartment and my brain. Being alone has become a part of my self-care regimen.

This practice has found its way into other aspects of my life as well, one of which is going to a movie or to the theatre. Disappearing solo into a theater with my phone turned off is covetable time; time I fight for. I never included concerts in my regimen before because I felt like they were social activities where interaction is encouraged. That and I’d always gone to concerts with other people. But when presented with the opportunity, I bought a last minute ticket to see Barbra Streisand by myself. I wanted to see her perform live while I still had the chance and as it was so last minute, I went alone. I was nervous I’d feel out of place and by irrationally fixating on it, I did. With couples and friend groups sitting all around me, I was the only person in my section who wasn’t there with someone else. But then, the music started. The weirdness dissipated and I was reminded how there’s such freedom in music – you can have a solitary and personal experience with music in your car, your bedroom or an arena – and after that, it became just Barbra and me (and the rest of the Barclay’s Center but whatever).

On the heels of that experience, I bought a ticket to see Neil Diamond at Madison Square Garden, again, by myself. I had a perfect seat – directly centered with the stage and on a level where no one could block my view. Sitting down, I accidentally bumped into the man to my left. I apologized and he told me in an Irish accent it was no problem. We shared a moment of small talk in which I learned he and his wife were in town on vacation and seeing Neil was a dream of his; a dream his wife had successfully surprised him with once they’d arrived in the States. They were as kind as two people could be and I felt lucky to be sitting with them.

Some Long Island coeds down the row from us heard the couple speaking and abrasively interrupted to ask where they were from. I’ll admit, I too asked that question just minutes earlier. I heard Ireland in their voices but in today’s global culture, I knew better than to assume. However, these loud Long Islanders with accents as heavy as molasses guffawed in the overly-aggressive and insertive way some Americans do when they treat foreigners like pets in a cage. Aww isn’t that such a cute accent. You’re so precious. It’s a lack of social decorum; fallout from being told their entire lives that Americans are better than everyone else. It’s both demeaning and insulting. The Irish couple smiled and placated the obnoxiously American Americans before turning their attention back to me, an American on his best behavior.

From Dublin, they were in the States on holiday, running around New York that week, Orlando the next. I told them I’d love to spend a week running around their country as I’d never been. “The closest I’ve been is Scotland,” I told them, to which the husband replied, “Well most Scots are almost as Irish as we are.” He chuckled mightily at his own regional wit and that in turn made me laugh. I really love happy people.

We leaned over to each other from time to time during the show to marvel at Neil Diamond, a man who’s been performing for 50 years and still sounds like he did when he first started. But at the end of the concert we heard the opening pangs of “Sweet Caroline,” the moment we’d been waiting for. At once, we and all of Madison Square Garden were on our feet, ready to sing along.

I have a special relationship with “Sweet Caroline,” as I’m sure many do – it’s one of those rare songs that serves as injectable joy in most situations. I’d been raised on a fairly steady diet of Diamond, both my father and his father liked his music, but it wasn’t until college when Neil became a part of my story. Driving home from Taco Tuesday at Rosa’s one evening with my rag-tag group of friends, the song came on the radio. Together, my friends and I sang along to the song we didn’t know we all knew.

Hands touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you.

With our hands outstretched, we touched each other in the obnoxious and invasive way college friends can. We sang loudly, drunk on the song’s bridge that swelled to the chorus we loved so much.

Sweet Caroline
Bum, bum, bum!

It was perfectly unplanned. When the trumpets sounded their iconic blasts in the chorus, we punched the air in front of us, laughing and singing in one of those ridiculously syncopated moments you never really forget. The song became a part of our tradition, our folklore; it was “that one time when ‘Sweet Caroline’ came on and…”

A decade later in New York, I knew I needed to see Neil’s 50th anniversary tour – it was the same sense of urgency I’d felt when Barbra came through. It was imperative I hear him sing the songs that formed the fabric of my upbringing. In the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to invest in those moments.

As a teenager, concerts weren’t something I made much of a priority to attend. I was more of a movie goer and I missed out on seeing some of the greats because of that. My first real concert was in eighth grade. I’d broken my leg a couple months earlier and while the cast had come off, I was still wearing a brace that covered from my ankle to my crotch. I had such limited mobility, I had to take each stair down to our seats one at a time. The concert was for the Christian music artist Steven Curtis Chapman, someone I’d listened to for years, and I immediately took to the novelty of singing along to his hits as he sang them in front of me. But more than the that, I was mesmerized by the lights. The way they created pillars of color, how they became backup dancers moving to the music, how they created worlds and feelings – I felt it in an atomic way. At home that evening, I raved to my parents, not about the songs but about the lights.

From there, my next concert experience was Celebrate Freedom, the largest of the Christian music festivals at the time. A church friend had a connection to volunteer at one of the booths handing out branded swag to other church people and while it would mean having to do some work, it also meant having access to the artists directly. I signed up without hesitation.

During the day, I met the girls from Out of Eden, a pre-Destiny’s Child gospel trio I loved, danced along with Plus One, Christian music’s answer to the Backstreet Boys, and stood front row as Amy Grant sang through her decades of hits. She was releasing one of her first albums since her divorce made news – her divorce that resulted in her music being pulled from Christian radio – and she was working her way back into the good graces of God’s people. She was one of the first acts of the day, wedged in with the up-and-comers and the never-heard-of-thems as opposed to singing alongside the headliners who’d take the stage later. It was an obvious slight, but I didn’t care. Well, to be clear, I didn’t care about her divorce because that was none of mine or anyone else’s business and it in no way reflected her relationship with the Almighty, but I also didn’t care when she performed. I was just glad I got to be there. It’s a rarity today to be able to see someone perform who single-handedly created a genre of music, but that’s what Amy Grant did. Without her, this festival that drew 100,000 people and the music format on which it was built would never have existed. Groups of women yelled out “We love you Amy!” from the field in front of the stage and I could see on her face what that meant to her. It was a meaningful moment to bear witness to and the thousands of us standing in the field cheered her on loudly.

That evening, there was a torrential downpour, the sort of Texas Thunderstorm where you half expect Pecos Bill to ride by on a freshly lassoed tornado. We handed out as much swag as we could to the trapped church folks under our awning but as quickly as the storm exhaled over the countryside, it moved on. It left thousands of wet Christians in its wake as well as fields of mud six inches thick to snare sandals and shoes like tar pits to a dinosaur. The headliners were rained out and seeing Amy in the dry, sunny morning felt all the more kismet.

As the years went on, I made it a point to experience the artists who’d affected me through my stereo speakers. I’ve been in the room when Celine sang “My Heart Will Go On,” when Mariah Carey sang “Hero,” and when Dolly Parton sang “I Will Always Love You.” As these legends sang, tears welled up in my eyes, the sweetness of being in that moment with the people who wrote the soundtracks of our lives hitting me like a sock full of quarters. Seeing Neil Diamond was another of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

As the bridge of “Sweet Caroline” began at Madison Square Garden, the Irish couple and I extended our hands just as my college cohorts and I had ten years earlier.

Hands touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you.

Singing loudly, the wife grabbed my hand and we lifted our arms to the sky. We were connected in a chain not unlike a “grab your neighbor’s hand across the aisle” prayer chain in church; bound by joy. Together, we reveled in a moment of pure connectedness. Our regular lives were an ocean apart, but for this one evening, as I thought I’d sit alone at a concert for a solitary experience, I wasn’t alone at all. I was a part of something bigger. A moment made of 18,000 moments. We were unified, holding hands with strangers from around the world, dancing and singing together.

And it was so good.

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