From the backstage door I could hear the screams and feel the energy. It was Saturday night and at least two thousand people filled the Biergarten at the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest in Oregon, ready to dance and drink and celebrate. And for me, it turned out to be more than just another gig… it was a homecoming of the heart.
In the mid 2000’s, for four years in a row, I was the headlining act for the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest. Myself, along with my band The Boxhounds, rocked the stage by playing everything from traditional polkas to cover tunes done as polkas and of course the expected chicken dance. But in 2008, for reasons that I did not understand, I was not asked back. It made no sense to me at the time and I was hurt and angry and confused. But that’s how it goes sometimes.
Things get stripped away and you have to willing to let it go with your whole heart before you see that it truly was exactly what needed to happen.
At that time in my career, my son James was just two-years-old. He was born with Down syndrome and later diagnosed with autism, and the new life I found myself in shook me to my core. I had an extremely difficult time coming to grips with his disability. Depression moved in and for years I felt as if this black cloud of darkness engulfed me. That made it almost impossible for me to entertain at the level and standard that I and others expected. It got harder and harder to be on stage. Especially when I would see someone on the dance floor with a disability. The only way I could get through was just to ignore them. I know. That sentence was hard to write. But it is true.
I would look away, pray they wouldn’t make a scene and hold back my tears.
I am not proud of that – but my fear was running the show. I was shallow and self-absorbed and living in darkness. But the writer Barbara Taylor Brown says, “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” And so it was for me, that from that darkness, a whole new life was birthed.
Not getting called back to play Mt. Angel made deciding to get off the road a tiny bit easier. And once I did, I had the time to put my energy where it needed to be.
I spent the next eight Oktoberfest seasons off the stage and on the floor in a therapist’s office.
I read all the self-help books I could get my hands on, I ate donuts like it was my job, I quit plucking my eyebrows and I cried almost all the time.
I felt like I was being pulled and pushed and molded, but years later I knew that in many ways I was better. Not perfect, but better.
So when I got the call this year asking me if I would return to Mt. Angel I was both excited and nervous. I feared so many things; could I find a band that would measure up to how I sounded the last time I performed? Would the eight years of wrinkles make me feel and look old? Could my body even handle so much playing? (And let’s not even talk about the ten pounds!) But I said yes to the call, even with so many questions, because I knew that I wanted to be back. I needed to be back.
Sometimes saying yes, even when you’re not sure, is what gives you more strength than you ever knew you had.
And so after eight long years away, I was back. And as I walked onto the stage Saturday night with a brand new band, and as we hit the first note of “Mama’s Got a Squeeze Box”, I was overcome with gratitude. There are moments as an artist that the stars align; the audience is engaged, the band is in sync, and I wore the right shoes. I thought, “I don’t’ think it can get any better than this moment right now!”
But then… I saw her. Megan. An adorable red-head thirteen-year-old girl in the middle of the dance floor, who had Down syndrome. She was dressed in a German dirndl, singing at the top of her lungs to our music. But this time – this time – I didn’t look away. Instead, I couldn’t help but watch her, pulled in by her smile. By the end of the first song, I found myself holding back huge tears…of joy. I wanted to yell out to her, “Dance Megan, dance! Make a scene! Show the world who you are and why you are here!” I watched her do the best version of the chicken dance I had ever seen and finally, I just couldn’t help myself, I grabbed the microphone and to that crowd of two-thousand people I said, “Hey Y’all, I know we are all here to drink and party, but I just got to take a minute and say hello and thank this beautiful girl on the dance floor. You see, I have a little boy at home who also has Down syndrome and they are the most precious people on this planet! Megan – thank you for reminding us all what life is all about!” The audience let out a huge cheer and she waved like she was just named homecoming queen.
Sometimes our biggest fears can become the mirror we use to see our own growth.
Thank you Megan for reminding me that I made it out of the darkness. To the board of the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest, thank you for NOT hiring me years ago and thank you for bring me back. To the guys that worked their asses off to learn my songs and entertain along side of me; Jason Nix, Duran Crone and Drew Lambert – you are more important and appreciated that you will ever know. To Jim Hoke, who owns the Mt. Angel Sausage Company – your constant belief in m helped bring me back!