Donald McKayle
New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons
Donald McKayle

Finding home

‘Despite all obstacles, I got to make music alongside a majestic lake with friends I loved, encouraged by adults who saw promise in me and applauded for my gifts by strangers’

Carolyn North ( is a writer of books that address "the interface between matter and spirit."

Yesterday, I forgot - and not for the first time - that I had a soup boiling on the stove, and then I forgot that it was my turn to take out the trash.

I also almost forgot that the Yellow Barn Music Festival, right across the road from where I live, was having a concert of chamber music that evening, showcasing advanced students in their summer program, and it was free!

So I changed into a clean T-shirt, washed my face, and ran out the door and through the woods, arriving at the barn just as the young musicians were lining up to go on stage.

I watched from the edge of the clearing, my eyes tearing up as I remembered how it felt to be one of them, my flute in hand as I took in a nervous last breath before stepping out with the others onto that long-ago stage at Deerwood, the summer music camp that I believe saved my life all those many years ago.

Deerwood woke me out of the dazed nightmare of my childhood in a family of hysterical people at a terrifying time in the world, a time of depression when beloveds had not "come back from the war" and those at home became literally paralyzed or went mad.

How I ever got to Deerwood in the first place and against all odds was the first miracle - it was my ticket out to safety, and it let me take my first steps of independence away from a seriously disturbed household.

My parents' objections to my going had been overruled by the director himself, who took me in hand and faced off with them after I offered to work in the kitchen for free so I could study dance there.

Bless Sherwood Kains forever. I was 15 years old.

I found home there and friends for life, and I was tutored by grownups who found me worthy of their efforts. There, I finally felt it was safe to come alive in my skin, with my own voice.

* * *

This all came back to me last night in a rush of emotion at the Yellow Barn, when this new generation of young people walked out onto that stage with their instruments, nervous but ready, bowed to their audience, and then played their hearts out, like angels.

I wondered how many among them had been saved by someone who recognized an artist in a shy young person and reached out a hand to help.

Oh, how glorious their talent and energy. Their music took my breath away. They are beautiful, and brilliant and coming from a whole new gene pool that had barely existed when I was their age.

One young woman told me later, when I asked, that her mother was from Colombia and her father from India, and when I wondered how ever they met, she answered, "At work," as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which, in fact, it now is.

I see them as "the new people" and am heartwarmed by their beauty and brilliance, as if we have collectively been refreshed by a new infusion of minds and talents in our midst, and I listened to them in thrall.

Their technique and depth of interpretation bowled me over, and I kept holding my breath so I would not miss one note of their music.

* * *

In the 1950s at Deerwood, the students and the faculty were mostly all Caucasian - even those others who were Jewish, like me. But there was a wonderful family of African-Americans who ran the kitchen - three meals a day, with snacks.

And then there was Donald McKayle, our dance teacher, a tall, dark Apollo in his prime, who we were all in love with.

Oh, the memories of those early-morning classes on the outdoor stage, the warmups in the morning chill, stretching everything out before going into the ballet routine at the barre.

For me, it was what life was all about - and it was mine!

We took ourselves seriously and worked hard by the most beautiful lake I had ever seen in my life. And, surrounded by beauty day and night, of course we fell dramatically in and out of love with one another wherever it struck. And then we gossiped back in our cabins about all the little dramas that followed.

Donny McKayle, needless to say, with his long, muscled legs and gorgeous torso, took all of our young hearts, and we watched in thrall as he demonstrated running leaps across the floor, his rich voice counting out the beats.

Donny would later become a well-known performer and choreographer, showcasing themes of the Black diaspora with his racially mixed company, all of which was new and uncommon in the day.

His work had a quality most of us had never experienced before, work that today I might call "indigenous genius." It woke up something very deep in me, and I recognized it as birthright even though I had never before even known it existed.

It was my heart's language and, both fearing it and treasuring it, I knew I belonged to it.

And when his classes morphed from Modern Dance into Indian mudras and African rhythms, I came totally alive! I learned to let loose and to trust myself, body and soul, and that is where I have tried to remain. We all did, whatever our level, because we were all set free by the dancing and totally smitten with him.

But, while it was acceptable for students to worship their teachers, it turned out not to be acceptable when a white cello student and the son of our Black cook got together, because then all hell broke loose! Suddenly, race was an issue!

Donny, himself married to a white woman, intervened behind closed doors and managed to talk the young couple into toning down their public relationship to restore some peace in the community. None of us students were privy to any of these negotiations, but my fear of personal loss went deep because my personal paradise was in danger. So I went down to the kitchen after meals to help with the washing up.

Full-out racism, I knew about - we all did - but the more subtle kinds were still way above my head, and I was terrified that Deerwood, like everything else I had ever loved, would disappear out from under me just as I was finding my place in it.

So I haunted the kitchen and, in retrospect, I believe that the mama who ran the kitchen understood what this girl needed, and she mothered me.

Thank you, dear woman.

* * *

Recently, reading the autobiography that Donny wrote much later in life, I learned that the racial incident at Deerwood had pierced deep for him - too deep for him to return to teach there.

The place that had been a saving grace in my own life had been, for him, a disappointing disgrace to which he would never return.

The reality of that still hurts.

That summer's angst only heightened my sense of rightness and wrongness, and I began to have the courage to trust my own instincts and create my own kind of beauty, with my own mind and heart, and my own non-dancer's body.

I began looking for people who spoke my language and dreamed dreams that resonated with my own. It grew me up, revealing both the beauty and the desperation of the world I would inhabit as I grew into an adult.

And yes, I came back to Deerwood for the next three summers to be on the lower staff, making it my own - not as a dancer, but as a flutist. A beginner - again - but so what?

Finding my place and feeling my way forward, I gradually grew up.

* * *

I will never forget the cry of the loons over the lake at sunset during chorus rehearsals in the boathouse. Singing the Fauré Requiem in thrall, and falling into Philip's arms after the final amen. Gazing across the lake to the mist over mountains while someone practiced the violin nearby. Flute lessons with Ethan Stang, who taught me way more than just the flute.

Huge rainstorms when we would gather around the fireplace at the Lodge. Philip playing a whole opera on the piano and singing all the parts, his falsetto impeccable and the rest of us in stitches. Sleeping on top of Mt. Marcy with my friends after climbing the mountain for days. Seeing the world from above for the first time in my life.

It all came back to me last night at the Yellow Barn, watching these brilliant young people making music as if they were making love to one another, feeling that heart-filled high of shared performance that reached out to us in the audience, and knowing that once I had been one of them - young and passionate and in love with the world, as they were.

And then afterwards, their flushed faces and untied hair, high as kites in mutual congratulations, knowing how beautiful they were and how powerful, knowing that they had moved their audience, their souls bowing to us long after the music was over...all of that went through me last night.

I recalled my triumphant past when, despite all obstacles, I got to make music alongside a majestic lake with friends I loved, encouraged by adults who saw promise in me and applauded for my gifts by strangers. I recalled crying with gladness to be alive in the world in that magical moment in time. All that had once been mine.

It was still mine!

Because as long as the world was still mine, there was hope and there was beauty to create. As long as I lived in a body and was informed by my own soul, I knew that I had everything I needed to know - gladness, love, and life's ecstatic wonder - and that we all did.

The new generation is in, and these young ones are wonderful! Beautiful and brave and brilliant, they surpass us and somehow know what they are here to do. Some of them - may there be enough of them - are quite willing to do the hard work ahead, of tuning this thing up into a higher frequency just at the critical moment in time, when it might otherwise look hopeless.

I pray for them, and wish to help them, however I can.

I also wish for them to help me, however they can.

This Voices Essay was submitted to The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates