Joni and I

Posted by Howard Menaker in Life After Paralysis on August 22, 2022 # Lifestyle

Joni Mitchell is without equal. She is the poet of my generation and of many to follow.

This is not an opinion I have come to in recent months or years. I have listened to Joni since the 1960s. I had every album she made: on vinyl, on cassette, on CD, streamed and downloaded. I saw her in concert in my college days, and will never forget it.

But last month, Joni surprised even devoted fans like me. At the urging and with the support and love of decades-younger Brandi Carlile, Joni sang at the Newport Folk Festival. She first performed at Newport in 1967, and last performed there 53 years ago. In the intervening years, Joni has aged, and has faced several health challenges, including a brain aneurysm in 2015. The aneurysm robbed her of the ability to talk, to sing, and to play guitar as she had in her youth. It was assumed by everyone except Joni that she would never perform again.

Joni Mitchell via The New York Times

And yet, there she was. Center stage. She is surrounded by musicians and singers who respect and adore her, performing her first full set of songs in 20 years. She started slowly, barely audible. But as her confidence and strength grew, Joni Mitchell, the goddess of the folk music of our youth, taught us lessons in resilience, determination, and in the power of the human spirit. 78-year-old Joni sang out in her earthy and resonant voice, and the young performers around her stopped singing along so we could receive the master class in life that her songs impart. Anthony Mason of CBS News described it as “the most emotional concert I have ever seen.” And for those of us who have always loved Joni, tears flow freely every time we watch the video.

How did this miracle happen? Joni’s brain surgeon told her she had “will and grit”. And Joni agrees.

Take note: Will and grit, and the love of the people around us, can propel us to accomplish things no one (including ourselves) ever thought we could accomplish. Joni Mitchell decided to sing. She taught herself to play guitar again by watching old videos of herself.

Joni has always had a gift. She plumbs her soul; digs deep into her loves, joys, disappointments and losses; mines her thoughts and emotions; and puts them to music. She touches us.

Now, this survivor of polio as a child of 9 and of an aneurysm as a woman of 71, reached down into her soul again and touched us as we have never been touched by her before.

Joni sang, as she did in 1969:

“Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way

But now old friends they're acting strange

They shake their heads and they tell me that I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day…”

Our own friends have certainly told us that we have changed as a result of our spinal cord injuries. We have been challenged. We have indeed been changed.

But… “Something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

Thank you, Joni. Thank you for filling our lives with meaning, and for reminding us with your words and music to experience every emotion, and live our own lives every day, because only that way can our lives be full and meaningful.

And with more meaning than could have ever been revealed by the young Joni, she finished,

“I really don't know life at all”.

Perhaps none of us will ever truly “know life”. It is foolish to try to predict what will happen in our lives and how we will deal with it. But if we live our lives every day, if we look at life from both sides, there is promise and love.

Howard Menaker is a retired communications and public affairs executive, with over 30 years of experience in international corporations and trade associations. Previously, he worked as an attorney, specializing in civil litigation. He now devotes much of his time serving on non-profit boards of directors, including a prominent theater company and a historic house museum in the Washington, DC area. He and his husband split their time between Washington and Rehoboth Beach, DE.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.