Discover more from Lean Out with Tara Henley
The Zac Brown Band takes Toronto to church, it's a wrap for the pandemic, a new non-profit turns down the heat on controversial conversations; plus, a note on hope
In years to come, when I think about the exact moment that I knew the pandemic was over, I’m going to think about last night.
I came to this realization as the sun set over the Budweiser Stage at Ontario Place in Toronto, casting a golden glow over the thousands of faces in the audience. It was warm without being hot or humid; the air carried a slight breeze. The Zac Brown Band had just returned to the stage after an intermission, and the set was a vivid red. Everyone, in every direction, was smiling.
As the band launched into the second of the show’s three acts, something significant swept over the crowd. It was a kind of glee, an ebullience, a delight that felt almost spiritual in nature. I thought: This is what it feels like to live again.
The mood lasted throughout the blue twilight. Then darkness crept in, and the Atlanta country musicians launched into their final set, a playful medley of covers, including Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison.” Everywhere I looked, people were shouting out the lyrics and dancing, hugging and cheering and jumping up and down.
I realized, in that instant, that it had been years since I’d felt this way. Years since I had found belonging in a moment like this, some magical sliver of time that saw thousands come together, communing with the music and each other.
The last time I felt this was in June of 2019 when the Raptors won the NBA championship, and a million or more flooded my city’s streets. Out in the crowd that day, I remember Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” blasting from giant speakers. I ain’t got no money, and then, I need your love… A man on a microphone somewhere called out, “The greatest city in the world — Toronto, baby!”
Everything had come to a standstill. Businesses were shuttered, cars were banished, the rush of commerce was abandoned. It was, on that random Monday morning, only about the people. About togetherness. In the midst of those multitudes, I saw faces of every hue, heard languages from every corner of the world, watched strangers from every walk of life embrace one another. I found myself crying, then, there, among all of those people. And last night I felt that same swell of emotion.
If you read this newsletter, you know I started my career in hip-hop. I spent much of my youth at concerts, transported by this very feeling I’m trying to describe. This feeling that you had been living your life in black and white, and then suddenly someone came along and sang a song for you — and life exploded in technicolour.
I’m not a country music fan and I don’t know the Zac Brown Band. But when the group performed that joyful medley, mashing up Lionel Richie and Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson, belting out tunes with a conviction that it could somehow save us all, it was like a switch was flipped in me. After two years of holding my breath, I could exhale once again.
My friend leaned over and asked me, “Do you think the band understands what they are witnessing? Do they grasp our relief? Do you think they know the gift they have given us?” Us, a city that endured some of the longest lockdowns in the world.
I hope they know.
Some quick notes from the news: We are starting to see critical-minded pandemic coverage hit mainstream outlets. If you have time today, Paris-based philosophy professor (and fellow Substacker) Justin E. H. Smith has published an astounding — and downright dystopic — cover story for Harper’s, “Permanent Pandemic.”
Finally, Free Black Thought has an uplifting essay on a new organization that aims to turn down the heat on controversial topics, founded by a group of U.S. and Canadian scholars, researchers, and educators — at least one of whom, Ellie Avishai, is from Toronto. The Mill Center is a non-profit named for John Stuart Mill, driven by “genuine and compassionate curiosity for multiple points of view” and dedicated to “teaching the skills needed to inspire intellectual risk-taking, expand empathy, and deepen conversations in educational settings.” I’ll be watching with interest.
Lastly, a note on hope. My favourite author as a child, Madeleine L’Engle, believed that it was the writer’s responsibility to offer hope wherever possible — and that she never considered a piece of writing complete until doing so.
I subscribe to that philosophy. When it is genuine and authentic and true, there is nothing more powerful than hope.
I thought about this during my podcast conversation this week with the brilliant academic and free speech advocate Amna Khalid. “There is something about human curiosity that cannot be hemmed in,” she told me. “It will find a way to persist, to ask, to question.”
Is there any more hopeful a statement than that?
The past few years have been filled with despair. Our world may be a broken one, but we should take solace in the fact that the human spirit is tenacious. My hope is that we can now emerge from the darkness that has consumed us — that we can stumble out into the sunshine, blinking at the brightness, and shake off the horror of this past few years. That we can awaken, once again, to all that is beautiful.
Our artists will show us the way.