Launch

Here’s what we expected: A drive up a dark and curving Highway 20 to I-80 to Squaw Valley, wrestling with the electric fence we’ve had to install to keep the bears from breaking in, and entry into a cold house where my nephew Nico and his wife Ola might or might not be visiting for the weekend. We figured we’d turn up the heat, light some candles, drink a little wine and—if Maggie’s fingers could bear it after performing four hours at a wedding—practice a little, fall into bed, and take off in the morning.

Here’s what we got: A drive through a light-filled summer evening; night does not descend until we reach Truckee. The drive along Highway 89 is indeed dark and curving, but the moon’s silver sheen on the river helps light the way. We pull up to the Squaw house and as we begin to unpack out comes lovely Ola, arms spread wide in greeting, her blonde hair gleaming in the porch light. The house is redolent with ginger and jalapeno and whatever else might be in the pan full of chard and mustard greens that Nico’s friend Jeff is turning and turning on the stove. A fire glows.

Chicken frying.
Photo: Nico Bailey

Jeff’s wife Sonia is pouring buttermilk into a cake pan, about to dredge a pile of chicken breasts and thighs. Nico pours us a glass of wine and points us towards crackers and an excellent St Andre.  When I ask if we might share a bit of what they are creating, he says, “Of course! We waited for you!”

At a beautifully set table, under candlelight, we are served Ola’s mashed potatoes, Jeff’s greens, and fried chicken that for the first time makes me understand why people love the dish. I can’t get enough of the flaky delicious crust. Afterwards the ladies sit at table while the men clean the kitchen.

Maggie and I willingly agree to play a few songs. We’ve not rehearsed in two days, what with preparations to get out of town and Maggie’s gigs with Beaucoup Chapeaux, so we’re not as tight as we want to be, but we smile at the errors and at each other, knowing that with a bit of focus, we’ll be fine. It’s now midnight and we should be in bed as the next day will be hours of driving, but Nico and Ola and Jeff and Sonia say, “Do another!” And we do, ending with “O Joy Divine of Friends,” which begins:

I know that it’s been said before

We are orphans of the storm

Cast adrift and far from shore

Orphans of the storm

Driven moorless on the sea

By winds which rock us endlessly

Until we find the land we seek

It’s the joy divine of friends

The phrase O Joy Divine of Friends was etched in marble above the fireplace in the house of friends of my parents—I was probably 13 when I first saw it. Years later, living in New York City, I was working at the Magic Pan on 59th Street, and as I had a shift on Christmas Eve and another the day after Christmas, couldn’t accept various invitations that had come my way. I’ll be fine, I thought. What’s so special about December 25th? I can be alone, no problem.

At the end of that Christmas Eve Day shift, as I walked in the door of my five-floor-walk-up/tub-in-the-kitchen apartment, the phone rang. It was my dear friend Kate Kelly, calling from her family’s home. “Get yourself to Penn station, now,” she said. “There’s a 4:10 train to Scranton. And bring your guitar.”

I ran to that train station, grateful beyond words. And the phrase came to me, O joy divine of friends! As the train plowed through fog and rain, lyrics descended into me, through me, as if I were a channel for something that already existed, even though I shaped the words and images as they poured out.

In search of land we’re not at peace

We are orphans of the storm

We yearn for these cold winds to cease

Orphans of the storm

Looking for a warm strong hand

To clasp ours while we roam the land

We draw our boats up on the sand

It’s the joy divine of friends

As the train to Scranton poured through early evening I scribbled away, hearing the tune and even the chord shapes in my head, although my guitar stayed quiet above me in the luggage rack. Kate and her father picked me up at the station and we headed back to their house.  In a bedroom I added my coat to the pile on the bed, opened the guitar case to pull out the Martin and ran through the chords just once before heading into the living room to sing it to Kate’s gathered family.

Joy Divine, O joy Divine

So simple and so hard to find

All loneliness and sorrow mend

In the joy divine of friends

As last night Maggie and I twined harmonies around the chorus, our lovely young friends, who’d fed us so well and who were clearly appreciating our music, did not join in the chorus. Shy perhaps, unused to the great thing that singing together is.  I rose to my feet to sing the last verse.

I know that it’s been said before

We are orphans of the storm

Adrift, forlorn, and far from shore

Orphans of the storm

But when we know enough to land

To draw our boats high on the sand

We’re blessed by God’s true gift to man

It’s the joy divine of friends

“Joy Divine,” I sang to Nico and Ola and Jeff and Sonia, “O joy Divine, so simple and so hard to find.” Maggie with her accordion rose and stood beside me, enjoining those young generous souls to sing, and finally they did.

All loneliness and sorrow mend

In the joy divine of friends.

“That’s the best song!” Nico said. “That’s the best one.”

Sometimes I think so, too. Especially when everyone is singing.

What an amazing launch. We could not have asked for better. And here’s what greeted us in the morning, as we packed up to head to Reno to pick up the rental car:

Squaw Valley Morning: Granite Chief

About Sands

Writer, musician, teacher, theater artist. Books include the novel CATCHING HEAVEN, a book of essays and exercises, TOOLS OF THE WRITERS CRAFT, and, forthcoming, FLUNK.START: Reclaiming my Decade Lost in Scientology. A CD of my songs is called RUSTLER'S MOON.
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3 Responses to Launch

  1. Brett Hall Jones says:

    Dear Sands,
    Brett has been reading your journal to me. Brava! Very profound and moving! How wonderful to read about your preparations and thoughts going into your big tour! So proud of you!
    Love, Mom
    PS: Please take that terrible photo for me down!

  2. Brett Hall Jones says:

    Miss you already Sands! Mom has enjoyed hearing about tour adventures!
    xx -B

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