Tea and Empathy

Joni Mitchell wears Christmas tree light necklaces. Big, colorful, novelty ones. For the woman who wrote “River,” this could be considered a departure. Though she may have wanted to skate away from Christmas at the time she wrote the song, Joni enjoys the holiday now.

I know this, because I had tea with her once.

When you’ve spent six years behind the piano in an LA music establishment, you’re bound to have run into famous entertainers. Big ones. Studio City is like a tiny village full of people who could take up and entire block. But none gave me the feeling I got when I saw Joni and her friends come into the club that Christmas. And what was that feeling?

Crippling anxiety.

How could I have been in the right place at the right time to be inhaling her carbon dioxide. Why was I the only one losing my mind over the fact that she was there? It was like staring into the sun. Like Jesus himself had come in, propped his sandals up on one of the tables, and turned his water glass into a wine glass.

It was, of course, a ridiculous way to feel,. Don’t put people on pedestals, right? They’ll fall off and smack you in the head.

But I can’t help it. The summer before I left for college, I could sense the huge changes that were coming. Most of the time I spent by myself. I thought about life, I enjoyed my childhood room for the last time, I read, and I listened to music. I spent a lot of time listening to Joni Mitchell while crying. Oh to write words so profound, and yet feel so deeply and put that feeling out into the world so generously!

As my college degrees in jazz started me on the path that led to me being a songwriter, my love of Joni grew ever stronger. The fact that she could hang with Jaco was such a huge exciting thing to learn. It gave me the affirmation that it’s ok to make music in many different styles. I never imagined I’d actually meet her.

After playing one of the most terrified sets of my life, I went to the bar for a break. One of our managers then embarrassed me down to my molecules by asking Joni and her friends if I could go and sit with them. I immediately had a gut reaction that can only be described as carnival ride nausea. Not only was I terrified of saying something stupid, I was also very worried that she’d tell me she didn’t like my performance. Or she would be annoyed and offended that a stranger wanted to fangirl over her dinner table. Some zoos have “Don’t Feed the Animals” signs; in LA, they all say “Please Don’t Look at the Celebrities.”

Her party was a combination of friends and caretakers. Joni had suffered an aneurism in 2015; she was in a wheelchair and needed some help getting from place to place. The group of friends was a lovely bunch of people, and they immediately welcomed me.
I took one look into Joni’s eyes, and thanked her for all she had written that had impacted my life. Then I immediately burst into hot, guttural, ugly crying. (Note to self: Hot, Gutteral Ugly Crying – memoir title?) She didn’t seem to mind. She had a cup of tea and some dessert in front of her, so she kept on enjoying her food. I think she’s used to people breaking into crumbly little pieces when they meet her.

I showed her my “Both Sides Now”- inspired tattoo. We had a lovely talk about music and musician life, and she mentioned how much she had enjoyed my work in La La Land. She was kind, encouraging, and complimentary of my live performance. It was just a short time, but it was surreal. Before I left the table, I thanked her and explained that I was so awkward at first because I was afraid of bothering her.

She looked at me, grasped her teacup with both hands, and said “Everybody bothers everybody.”

At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. But I knew I’d remember it forever.
I took a very grainy picture with her, which I treasure to this day. And because I’m a sad nerd queen, I went home, removed the shirt I was wearing, and kept it in a box of keepsakes in all its Joniness. But maybe now, knowing what I know, I should take it out again, wash it and wear it. Experience the memories while I’m here on earth, instead of keeping them in a box.

Reverence is a given in our celeb culture society. Making gods out of mortals is a huge part of formal music training culture. Whether you were trained classically or commercially, you learn how to Stan. Is art, in fact, a gift from the divine? Or is art just within the minds and spirits of the talented people who create it? I have no clue. I sit down to write, stuff comes out, I rewrite. I rinse and repeat. Many people feel Joni is a goddess. But I think that “everybody bothers everybody,” was her way of saying hero worship, even that which people bestow on her, is unnecessary and weird.

You bother me, I bother you. We can’t go through life without bothering people in some way. We all ask each other for advice. We all teach. And why would I see myself as unworthy of a cup of tea with one of my heroes? Everybody is making their way. Being humanly curious. How would anyone ever learn how to live if no one else let them sit at the table?
When we throw ourselves at the feet of our heroes and proclaim our own unworthiness, we’re broadcasting that message to the entire world.

Respect your heroes. Love them, tell them what they mean to you.

But don’t be afraid to take your seat at the table. The real ones can be bothered for a cup of tea and a picture or two.

1 comment