Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SNOMG! And Our Traumatic Ecstatic Day


I discovered yesterday that Patty, our longtime manager, doesn’t believe in indoor heating. I figure this has something to do with her obsession with women's basketball and subsequent wardrobe of extremely thick Connecticut Sun sweatsuits. Or maybe it's because she drinks so much hot coffee that she is inured to the cold. This was the only explanation I could come up with yesterday, as I sat on her living room floor with my fingerless gloves and my polar fleece balaklava and my filthy yellow parka, addressing envelopes, stamping envelopes with Katryna’s super cool woodblock stamp that says “XVII”, signing copies of the new CD in one of the mirrors of the mirror barn that lays out on the booklet as one opens it.


I put a CD into an envelope, sealed it, and looked at the address. Fans from Missouri. Fans from Texas. Fans from Florida. Several from Seattle. One from Wisconsin. Many from CT, NY, MD, VA. Too many to count from MA. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these fans, some whose names I knew well; some whose names I’d never heard, though perhaps if I saw their faces I would recognize them. I saw names of friends, and names of cousins I rarely see. All four of my aunts pledged, and to see each of their names on our packages warmed me to the point where I almost felt like I could take off my balaklava. And in that cold living room, with Patty’s daughter and granddaughter (one helping, one charming) and Katryna, my kids (also helping, charming) I felt a solid completion, even though we didn’t get every label onto every envelope, and there are still boxes of CDs, a few books and bags scattered around.
It had already been A Day. Jay’s first cavity filling that morning had gone from bad to worse. He has a gag reflex, and is not such a fan of dentist in the best of times, but having been assured by Elle and me that fillings were no big deal, he was not prepared for the horror he encountered. “They are actually DWILLING MY TOOTH!” he wailed, putting his hand up to stop them, to take the horrible beige laughing gas mask off his sweet little tear-stained face. “Don’t cry!” the dental assistant kept saying. “The gas can’t work if you get all stuffed up and breathe through your mouth instead of your nose!”

I wanted to hit her. Instead, I held his two hands and kept murmuring, “Mama’s here. Mama loves you,” as he became incrementally traumatized. Having read Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger, I suggested he shake himself off like a dog when he finally got up, trembling, from the dentist’s chair, but all he wanted to do was be held. So I held him.


When we arrived at Patty’s, I was starving, having had to take my kids to both Berkshire Yogurt (closed) AND GoBerri, because of the dentist (naturally, if one has cavities, and then fillings, one needs more sugar to get over the affront). But just as I heated up my meal and was sitting down to eat it, both Katryna and Patty’s daughter Ashley took one look at Jay and shouted, “He’s having an allergic reaction to novocaine! Go get him some Benedryl!” I hesitated, fork halfway to mouth. But these two Supermoms had no mercy. “NOW! Get him Benedryl NOW!” So, I gave one more reluctant glance at my warm food and made Jay put his coat back on (well, actually, given Patty’s no heat rule, he’d never taken it off) and we set back out to the van.

Couldn't there just be one less thing to worry about? Here we are in the midst of Blizzageddon, trying both to get our Pledge packages out AND prepare for possible power outages. We have no fireplace, wood stove or any other way to stay warm should we lose power. I was planning to get my van filled up with gas and make it to Radio Shack in between the PO and Elle’s violin lesson, plus the requisite trip to the grocery store for extra bananas. So in the van, out of sight of the Supermoms, I decided to call the dentist before driving to the Rite Aid.

“Is it just on one side of his mouth, “the receptionist asked immediately. “Take a picture and email it to me.” I did so, while still on the phone with her.
AH! The joys of a smart phone!

“No worries. He’s bitten his lip because he’s numb. Tell him to stop.” She said, and I brought my traumatized son back into Patty's cold house.

Even with all of us signing, stamping, stuffing, we had to dash to fill Patty’s Prius with the boxes of envelopes to make it to Patty's appointment with the Easthampton PO for 3-5pm. As we were loading up her car with boxes full of stuffed envelopes, she discovered that her Prius's latch was broken, so she called AAA. Finally, latched fixed, Elle and Jay and I helped Patty get the boxes into the small car. We got to the PO at five of, only to find that they were closing because of Snowcapolyse. The four of us stood there with huge boxes of stuffed envelopes in our arms, Jay holding the “special” ones as Patty had instructed him to do. The employees were all refusing to make eye contact with Patty, who was fuming. But we prevailed. I'm sure the kids' cuteness didn't hurt. Who can resist a couple of kids in snow parkas being helpers? So finally, the Postmaster General of Easthampton had no choice but to accept our many (like 500) packages. They might sit there until Snowgas Khan has retreated, but at least they are out of Patty’s Prius.

Snowgas Khan, or SNOMG! turned out to be a bust. Just as well. I am going to close this almost pointless post with a couple of observations.
#1.Patty totally rocks, and we won the jackpot in tricking her to be our manager lo these 20 odd years ago.
#2.My dear friend Anne emailed me this picture to prove that we were smart in our choice of album cover. Cool People, a piano, a tree. Nuff said.



Sunday, January 04, 2015

New Year's Fire Pit and The Basement Tapes

Last night, we lit a fire in our backyard fire pit and huddled around it, jostling each other to find the back end of the breeze. It was a crisp 19 degrees with a waxing moon, clear and solemn in the star speckled sky. We don't have a fireplace or a wood stove, but this backyard pit has its advantages (though one can't hang stockings around it.) Jay and Elle found sticks and persuaded us to haul out the marshmallows. So on January first, we inaugurated a new tradition: the New Year's Fire Pit Intentions Ceremony.

Sitting in the cold, taking much solace in the warmth from the flames, I couldn't help but think of how these evening fires created our civilization. "Mom, who invented fire?" Jay asked. "Or, who discovered it," Tom wondered. "Prometheus," I offered, and told them the story of the demi-god sacrificing his liver (daily) in recompense for sharing this element with humankind. "Gross," said Elle. "Yes,"I agreed. And then I commenced to stare into the fire. How exactly has the TV improved on this practice of gathering in the evening and spacing out, transfixed, on this vision of flames dancing, receding, expanding to frightening levels that threaten to lash out of their container, and then finally diminishing again into brilliant red edges along blackened bits of wood? This is where story telling began: around a fire. Same with songs, I am sure. (Probably the first stories were songs, and/or vice versa). How did the expanding and contracting of the flames influence the storyteller as she spun her tale to her fire-bound audience? Did the leaping flames have an effect on the character's actions? Did dying embers offer an alternate plot twist?

Perhaps my favorite Christmas present this year was a copy of the revised Bob Dylan/The Band Basement Tapes (the "raw" version which is substantially shorter than the deluxe version.) Huge Dylan fan that I am, and Band fan too*, I never cared for the Basement Tapes, at least not the version that came out in 1975. It struck me as a bunch of pot-influenced drunken music. I am embarrassed now by that assessment, as I am completely obsessed with the tenor of this new release. It's like being in the living room with these guys as they surround us with the sounds of carnival. (How I love Richard Manuel's piano! And voice!) I can't stop listening to this record. I feel as though I have discovered gold. How could I not have known all of these songs before? Well, many I did, and many I sang ("You Ain't Going Nowhere," "I Shall Be Released,") but others I am just discovering ("Open the Door, Homer," "900 Miles from Home," "Apple Suckling Tree.") They seem already like old friends, and I am looking forward to delving into the layers of lyric Dylan always provides.

A couple of days ago, someone flamed me on Facebook. I won't get into why; suffice it to say that it was unexpected and strange, and while I took in the criticism and tried to see my part in it and how I could make amends to this person, I also just felt burned. When it happened, I sat, powerbook on my lap, and felt the heat infuse my body. This is what shame feels like to me: hot, consuming, total. Because of years of therapy, I was able to do this: to just feel the feelings apart from the story of who said what. I concentrated on the raw feeling. As Thich Naht Hahn says, "When your house is burning down, put the fire out. Don't go looking for who lit it." After a few minutes, I noticed the heat abating in my body. I pictured the person who flamed me; fortunately I had known her when she was a young girl, so I pictured her sweet adolescent face. I thought about the pain she must be in today to do something like what she did. I lifted a prayer to her. Then I got up and told my husband about it. "Why do you even go online?" he asked. "People are insane."

Maybe. But they're also wonderful.

Back at the intentions ceremony, Elle announced that hers was to help her cousin William get a dog. Tom's was to accept more the daily things he has to do. Jay's was a long speech about how he hoped people would be less greedy and recycle more. Also that they would be "mostly happy." Mine was about commencing to outgrow fear. I know I will never be successful, but I'm digging in my heels this year and trying a little harder. I am tired of being afraid of what others think of me. I am tired of my greedy little inner bean-counter who thinks perpetually she's getting the raw end of the deal. I am tired of that cold metallic pinchy feeling I get when I sense I am losing control of my kids. (Which happens hourly.) I am going to experiment with faith. I am going to play with trusting and relying on a much more generous spirit than the one I possess on my own, cut off from the rest of you. I'm going to embrace my age--47 at this moment--and try to act like a wise, confident grown up, and also let loose more often and play like a kid. Or my dog. I want to channel some of that joyous non-sensical spirit of those Basement Tapes and make some fun music with my friends. I am going to practice my piano, and use that growth mindset everyone's talking about to stick with it when it gets hard.



*We opened for the Band in 1995 at Mass MoCA. Though we did not get an encore and we sold a pathetic 1 (one) CD that night, more folks than I can count have come up to us since and told us they discovered us at that show. "The Weight" was one of the first songs we covered as a band.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Gospel of John, Lennon: Darkness and Light


Can it really be thirty-five years ago that John Lennon was murdered? He was 40 at his death; soon he will be 40 years gone. I keep checking my math, and it's undeniable. I was in eighth grade in 1980, finally shedding some of my insecurity, and just beginning to express myself as a singer and songwriter. John's death had a dramatic effect on me; I responded by immersing myself in his biography, learning everything I could about him and Yoko. Something in his outlaw identity matched my own adolescent mood, perhaps. At any rate, in reading about him and his courage in the late 60s when he took an idiosyncratic stand for peace (think bed-ins, think "Christ, you know it ain't easy"), it occurred to me that I didn't need to spend all my energy, as I had been, worrying about what everyone thought of me. I began the slow process of understanding that I was an artist, and therefore had a mission for the world. I wore black to school (instead of the requisite blue uniform), spoke out for peace, and came home to close myself in my bedroom with my Beatles and Lennon LPs. After months of this, I emerged a different person: braver, more ridiculous, perhaps, but definitely braver.

Of course, Lennon's death meant something to millions of people. And certainly thousands if not millions of 13 year olds. I could have told this story very differently. I could have said that during this same time my grandfather was dying of cancer, and that my deep grief for the former Beatle was simply a mask for my sadness over losing my grandfather. I could have interpreted my reaction as plain old adolescent drama, but the fact that I claimed it as a positive personal myth shaped the way I have grown into a person. I am glad I saw things the way I saw them.

My Underground Seminary has been reading Richard Rohr's meditations for Advent this December, and today's reading was on darkness and light. The Gospel of John says "The light shines on inside the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it." (1:5). Rohr goes on to say that "We must all hope, and work to eliminate darkness...but at a certain point, we have to surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been here, and the only real question is how to receive the light and spread the light...What we need to do is recognize what is, in fact, darkness, and then learn how to live in creative and courageous relationship to it. In other words, don't name darkness light. Don't name darkness good."

This is a challenge to me and my theology. I want there to be a silver lining in all darkness, and I want to go farther than that. I want the silver lining to actually redeem the darkness, make the darkness worth it. But how dare I say that Lennon's death was worth it because I got inspired? Or that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner might lead to a national re-thinking of racial profiling? The people who love them might want that too, but I bet they want their son or brother or friend back more. I wanted to think that something would change after Columbine, after Sandy Hook. But nothing changed that I could see (though my optimistic self wants to cry, "But the story isn't over yet!").

How do we tell the story? A baby was born in a manger, born into the generosity of the barnyard animals; born in the cold shrug of the innkeeper who wouldn't give a room to a pregnant woman in labor. A prophet healed the sick and cured the lame and made the blind to see, and preached liberation theology and encouraged the believers to question the authorities and pluck grains on the Sabbath, and was executed by the Roman government in a hideous, slow, public way. And then his words got twisted for millennia and millions were murdered in his name. And along the way, many people derived great consolation from his teachings and the example of his life. Many found enlightenment through following him.

My son has had a difficult fall, in some ways. For the first three months of school, he dragged his feet every morning, clinging to his Legos, our legs, refusing to get dressed some days, even weeping as he trudged up the stairs and through the school doors every morning. We held him, we comforted him, we gave him consequences. We talked it over with his teacher, a wonderful women whom our older daughter had had, and whom we loved. Maybe she was the wrong fit for our son. We considered asking the school to switch him to a different class room. I fantasized about home schooling him (for about three seconds.) Finally, I consulted my parenting Bible, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The next time he threw himself on the carpet during morning violin practice and yelled, "School is stupid! I hate school! Teachers are stupid!" I took a page from the book, and instead of trying to reason with him, as I usually did, ("Well, you might not like school, but it actually is the opposite of stupid," and "it's not very nice to use that word about anyone!"), I gave him a piece of paper and said, "I am so interested in how you are feeling! Could you show me so I could understand? Why don't you draw a picture of that!" So he did. He drew a stick figure of himself, and then a bigger stick figure of his teacher. Then he drew a line from his hand to her head. He paused and said, "How do you spell 'lightning?'" I paused too. Anger was one thing. Homicide another. But as I looked at my boy, I thought, he needs to know his anger is okay, and this is exactly the way I want him to express himself. So I gave him the correct spelling, and when he took his marker and scribbled out the teacher's face with it (because, of course, the lightning had blown her head up!), I said, "Wow, you are so mad at her!" and nodded. He looked up at me, a satisfied look coming into his little face. This was right before Thanksgiving vacation. I didn't hear any more complaints after that, and in fact noticed that he was a lot lighter and easier going. Last Friday as I was kneeling in front of him to zip up his winter coat, he said, "I love school, mama. I don't hate it any more. I can't wait to go to school!"

"Really," I said mildly. "What changed?"

He shrugged. "I just grew into it."

Yet as I write this, I know that, for myriad reasons, some mothers don't have the freedom to trust their son's (or daughter's) darkness. I don't claim to have the solutions to how we eradicate racism or violence. I just know that the frame that the story comes in is extremely important. And I would add to Rohr's admonition to call the darkness darkness and light light, that some of that discernment is in the eye of the beholder. And that, as we all have darkness, we need to stop being so afraid of it. I think it helped my son immensely to have me come into his darkness and witness it and not tell him that he needed to be afraid. Maybe by saying, "Wow, you are really mad!" I was simply naming the darkness, and affirming that "mad" was an overlay. "You" are full of light, and this is just a dark spot on your essentially light background.

I have been lucky enough to outlive my own fears of the dark––of my own dark, anyway. Over the weekend, Katryna and I played a show in Virginia and got to hang out with my parents who are two of my favorite people who ever lived. Long gone are my adolescent conflicts, my petty criticisms of what I once called their bourgeois lifestyle. All that's left is sweet, gentle, tender love, and more gratitude for them and to them than I can ever communicate. When I went through my own series of crises in my late twenties and early thirties, I was taught how to shine a light in my own darkness and untangle the stories, see them as just stories, frame them appropriately and make my amends; move on. Once I did that, forgiveness ceased being a choice; it became as obvious and necessary as breathing. Forgiveness seems to me a river at the base of it all, underground, like the river Styx, perhaps, and that when I get baptized in that river, I come out clean, and able to endure the beams of love, which were there all along. We all shine on, as John Lennon said. Shine, baby, shine.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

First Fundraiser of the Week for our PledgeMusic Campaign: MotherWoman!

Back in 2011, Beth Spong, then-executive director of MotherWoman, asked us to write a song for Mother's Day, and MotherWoman made a beautiful video of it (see below), using photos by our friend and photographer Sarah Prall. But today we are calling your attention to this wonderful organization which supports mothers in myriad ways, by making them our first Fundraiser of the Week for our Pledge Campaign. This means that if we raise 10% of our total between November 10-17, we will donate a concert in which all proceeds will go to their organization.

MotherWoman supports mothers on every level, creates support groups designed to be inclusive of women of all backgrounds, makes a space for women to speak ALL of their truth in a supportive environment. They are also dedicated to building community safety nets, and impacting family policy at the national, state and local levels. We have been deeply moved by their principles; their "Universal Realities of Motherhood". To support the MotherWoman Performance, all you have to do is pledge between Nov. 10-17.

Universal Realities of Motherhood:

* Parenting impacts every aspect of our lives; physical, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual
* Parenting creates stress and difficulty in many areas; relationships with partners, parents, friends, concerns about money, work, physical needs for sleep, food, exercise, leisure time, etc.
* Becoming a mother brings up issues from a woman's past such as how she was parented, past trauma, mental health history, relationships with her own mother, grief, losses, etc
* Parenting can make us see ourselves more clearly- the good, bad and the ugly.
* Becoming a mother can motivate us to make necessary changes in our lives.
* Motherhood can motivate and encourage a woman to become her best self.
* Becoming a mother can overwhelm us with joy and challenges.
* Parenting is an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows.
* Parenting can make us feel very insecure. Mothers are typically very hard on themselves.
* We go into parenting totally unprepared and yet are expected to be "experts."
* Self care is essential in mothering and, for many reasons, seems impossible.



I like the Reality that "Parenting can make us see ourselves more clearly--the good, bad and the ugly." I always joke that before I became a mother I was *this close* to enlightenment. That's because, before I became a mother, I wouldn't let anyone get *this close* to me, not even my husband. Well, OK, my husband. But, you see, my husband is a really nice, polite, well-bred guy with excellent boundaries and infinite patience. When I annoy him, he takes three deep breaths and asks God for help, or something. My kids, not so much. when I annoy my kids, which I do on an hourly basis, they yell at me, roll their eyes, or ignore me, depending on the extent of my annoyingness. Lately, both kids are practicing their teen-ager 'tude. They have learned what sarcasm is and are going to town practicing sarcasms many applications. I do not like this and tell them sarcasm is very unattractive. Somehow that doesn't convince them to stop.

The problem seems to be that I want them to do stuff they don't really care to do--everything from taking a bath to eating something other than chips-and-bread for dinner, to cleaning up the fifty bazillion lego pieces off the floor. But that's all par for the course; every mother knows she will struggle with that. Where it gets really wiggy and unenlightened is when I sit down with them to witness their violin practice.

We do the Suzuki Method, and I explain why in great detail on my other blog, Singing in the Kitchen, which is all about our adventures in family music-making. If you don't know the Suzuki method, I'll just say it involves the kid taking lessons, which the parent goes to (and does not get to play on her iPhone while she is there.) Then the kid practices for a half hour to an hour a day, and the parent not only makes sure s/he practices, but actually kind of coaches the kid. So if, for example, the teacher tells the kid to play eight pieces and a scale and do some sight reading, all the while focusing on keeping her wrist straight, it's understood that the parent is supposed to watch the whole practice, and intone "wrist, wrist" when the wrist (inevitably) goes floppy.

A few weeks ago. after we'd come home from New York, we had one of those famous terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, which you can read about here. On Monday, my son Jay refused to practice violin. In fact, he quit. I was so cooked, I actually let him quit, even though it's long been my feeling that kids don't get to quit math, so why should they quit music? But I was done with the tantrums and the forced practices, the bribes, the legos (which were the bribe, usually). For ten days, he was in official Quit mode, which for us meant he still had to practice every day, because his wise teacher Emily had encouraged him to work toward a finale: a One-Half Book One Recital in which he would perform all 16 of his pieces, then take a final bow around mid-December and give back his tiny violin to Stamell's String Shop for good. But something strange happened during those ten days. I felt really sad and mad at myself for quitting, and for letting him quit. What ever happened to my commitment to raise gritty kids? There were so many pros to sticking with violin. 1. He is actually really good. 2. It's helped his fine motor skills tremendously. 3. The local Suzuki community is fantastic, supportive and fun. 4. Some of his best friends are doing Suzuki.

I felt as though a dark cloud had settled over his whole future, and it was all my fault. All my own issues of musical perfectionism come to the surface in that half hour to an hour of practice. That was me with the little fiddle and the floppy wrist. And somehow, when I'm sitting on the witness couch, all my own critical voices come swooping down, so afraid of being anything less than musically perfect. But why couldn't I just let him play the little fiddle and dance around the room with it the way he wants to? Isn't that where I ended up as a musician? Dancing around the stage with my guitar making a big, imperfect sound? I looked carefully at the way I'd been sitting with him as he played, my eyes glued to his bow hold, ready to pounce as soon as I saw it slip. "Bow hold!" I'd shout, as if I were going to be in trouble if I missed it. Not for the first time, a voice in my head said, "It might be better to be a B minus student than to not be in the class at all." (And I'm not talking about Jay being the B minus student. I'm talking about his Suzuki Mom somehow not being the shining star). Why couldn't I let him progress at his own rate? What if he stayed in Book One for 4 years? Would that be so bad?

On the tenth day of Quitting, I sat with my older daughter as she practiced. She'd gotten into trying to pick out the theme from the Harry Potter movie ("Hedwig's Theme"), so I'd printed it out for her, and her teacher had told her to read it for sight-reading practice. She picked out the notes, hung up her violin, and I called Jay over for his practice. He got out his tiny violin and brought his bow to the strings. Incredibly, he too picked out the melody for "Hedwig's Theme," which, you may know, is not easy.

My eyes filled with tears. He looked up at me, over the neck of his violin, with big shy eyes, a pleased smile on his lips. And though I knew I shouldn't say things like this, I couldn't help it: "Oh, Jay, I wish you wouldn't quit. I am going to miss you playing violin."

"Ok," he said. "I won't quit. I don't want to quit!"

"You don't?" I practically shouted. "You don't? That's great! Let's tell Emily!"

He took my iPhone and stared at Emily's picture. "Hi Emily," he said into the phone. "If it's OK, I'm going to keep playing violin. I'm becoming a better violin player. It's inside of me."

Being a Suzuki parent is like the MotherWoman Reality exponentially. I see the good, bad and ugly every time I sit down with the kids to practice. We see each other's good, bad and ugly. And we grow. And at the end of the day, there's music.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Music Alone Shall Live, or A Perfect Weekend In NYC Has a Tiny Cost

On the Monday after we got back from NYC, these things happened:
-The Jetta went in to be drained because one of us put gas in its diesel engine. Yes, we drove it.
-Jay quit violin, and more importantly, I quit violin.
-While talking to his violin teacher about how to manage his quitting so he feels good about his experience, I hooked my iPhone on a kitchen drawer pull and it fell to the ground, the screen shattered, and the home button stopped working.
-Stella refused to pee or poop all morning.
-Instead of going for the run I desperately needed, I had to spend that hour on the phone with Apple and AT&T, getting misinformation about whether I could get an upgrade for $99. (No, I can't. It would cost me $23/month for 18 months instead. Can anyone out there tell me why I shouldn't switch to Verizon? Besides that they are the devil? And that I don't need to waste anymore time stuck on hold by a corporation when I should be going for a run?)

Anyhow, I thought of the people I love who are struggling with way worse problems, like cancer and MS and divorce and serious concerns about their kids (way worse than a 6 year-old's tantrum and throwing of his violin on the floor thereby breaking the bridge), and I found some packing tape and taped my phone's screen. There's this neat work-around you can do where you go to the accessibility settings and get a "soft" home button which floats around your screen. So now the phone works, well enough. It's kind of hard to read on account of the multiple shards of glass, but it'll do.

All this happened, I know, because we had fantastic gigs in New York. I say this, not in a kind of morbid "when good things happen, they're inevitably followed by bad things" way. On the contrary, I firmly believe that good comes from good. What I mean is this: we had a full house in Manhattan at the Rockwood (just south of Houston), and we had my sweet, amazingly talented 30 year-old cousin John Colonna playing piano with us for two of the songs. My other cousins came; my aunt Elizabeth came; fantastic NYC fans whom we haven't seen in years came; Armando did a fabulous job on the sound, and in short, we were inspired to sing our hearts out. It was one of those shows that lifts my energy so high I have trouble falling asleep afterwards. Which was fine, as we stayed up late at the club talking with our cousins and Aunt, had a hilarious drive back to Brooklyn where we were staying, and when I got home, there was an email from our videographer with the latest version of our video for the PledgeMusic campaign we're launching Monday Oct. 27 (THIS MONDAY!). I stayed up to watch it. And then I lay in bed and listened to the sounds of Brooklyn, my head full of John's playing. It was well after 1am.



The kids got me up at 7:30, which is so not enough sleep for me. They insisted on breakfast, so I skipped my yoga. We walked the three Jack Russell terriers, we played with blocks and remote control cars, we rehearsed some more with John Colonna, Katryna went to see her mother-in-law in a play, the kids and I went trolling for Halloween costumes, and then we had a show at Jalopy in Brooklyn. And another full house, five songs to play with John, another reunion with fans we haven't seen in years, deep connections with family, and another extremely (for me) (and the kids) late night. And early rise to walk to the soccer fields on Brooklyn Bridge Park, visit with Kathy Chalfant, hang out and have lunch with our aunts and uncle and cousins, load up our van and return to MA, via hours of traffic, kids screaming over who had the better iPad in the backseat.

The fantastic gigs and fantastic time with family drained us. We used ourselves up, over the weekend, and that's not a bad thing. As I once said, What are we for if not for this? We're here to love the people we love, and that takes time and energy. We're here to sing the songs we wrote, to deliver them to the people who are supposed to hear them, and that takes time and energy. We needed a day or two to recover, and we did not figure that into the equation. (Next time I will know better.) Getting what you wanted means you are frequently exhausted--I've known this for years. What we want now is to raise money for this new album XVII so we can perform more often with other musicians like our cousin John, like the Daves of yore, like Kit and Chip, our production team. We want to see our old fans, and we want to make new ones. I live for moments like the ones I had on stage Saturday when John played "Normandies", and I felt something pure and clean in me fly up to the top of the room––for joy, for music. I love to hear from fans who tell me their daughter refused to read anything but Plastic Angel for two years. I love to hear from fans who discovered us with Bob on the Ceiling.

And I also love my routine, of morning yoga, meditation, running with Stella, practicing violin with the kids, practicing my own piano, going to River Valley Market, writing with my writers, meeting with my spiritual buddies, staring up at the sky, walking my labyrinth, going to bed next to my husband and sleeping for 8 hours. It's a good life. I know it. And this life sustains me so that I can exhaust myself on occasion, destroy my property, and shrug. It's just money. We'll fix these problems which are not really problems. But, as the song says, music alone shall live. Everyone needs to live for something greater than oneself. Yes, I live for my kids, for my family, for my community. I also live for music.

Addendum:
The Jetta ended up costing us less than $500 to fix. It seems good as ever. Jay did quit violin, but he has agreed to play through December and have a 1/2 Book One Graduation. We are exploring the possibility of Bass lessons. (He wants to play "Bass Guitar, which is a bass with five stwings, Mama. A bass with four stwings is just a bass.") The home button on my phone magically started to work, so I might just go to a kiosk and get them to replace the glass. Stella did eventually pee. But as for me, I can't shake the feeling that what I most need is to go to the Adirondacks for three days with only my husband for company, sit on the couch and watch the leaves fall with a cup of hot tea in my hand.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What It Means to Do Work

I am sticking my head up for a moment to say I am here. We are playing two shows in NYC area this weekend: Friday at Rockwood Music Hall on the lower East Side, and Saturday at Jalopy in Red Hook (Brooklyn). I am bringing both kids with me to the City, and my beloved aunt and uncle are taking care of them. (In between gigs, we are going shopping for items for Elle's Mad-Eye Moody costume). I say "sticking my head up" because I have been spending the bulk of my time gearing up to release our new album XVII. Though the official release date is not till Feb 2, 2015 (Groundhog's Day! Imbolc! St. Bridget's Day! Midwinter!), our Pledge Music Campaign starts October 27, and we are scrambling to film our video, write our copy, meet with our team, post the new photos by the amazing Kris McCue to the page, prepare the newsletter, send it out, pray for donations, etc. etc. Kit (our producer) is mixing tracks as we speak, and as soon as he sends them to us, we'll be scrutinizing them (or whatever the aural equivalent of "scrutinizing" is) to make sure they are note-perfect. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Part of me wants to stay away from NYC because of Ebola (my kids are terrified about getting it), and most of me just feels so deflated that people are dying and their loved ones are standing by, helpless. This is just what the Climate Change scientists predicted, back in the innocent 00's. Tuesday, in my guitar class, we played through Pete Seeger's "Quite Early Morning," and as I was singing the lyrics, I realized that though this song is about the Cold War, and the fear of nuclear annihilation, we're now facing an entirely different form of annihilation with climate change. The more I learn about climate change, the more I want to hide my head in the sand, which is another reason I am sticking my head up now. A folksinger who hides her head in the sand, who doesn't stay current, is not doing her job.

But neither can she do nothing but worry. We hiked in the Adirondacks last weekend, bringing almost-10-year-old cousin William with us. He is on Harry Potter 5, and even though Elle has technically finished all 7 books, most of them were read to her several years ago, and thus she does not have the same grasp of the details that William does. So as they marched up and down Hurricane Mountain, he instructed them on all the different spells they could cast with the wands they fashioned out of twigs (only certain twig shapes could be wands, of course. There was much searching for wands as we hiked.) They also decided to speak only in British accents. I, meanwhile, had downloaded a free pedometer app. Interestingly, while I now know I am way more sedentary than I'd previously thought, and though before the download I would have maintained to anyone who cared to listen that at 47 I am in the best shape of my life, after I downloaded and saw with dismay the meager number of steps I take on a daily basis, I immediately gained three pounds. But even though I am sorely tempted by the new Apple Watch, I am instead going to save my pennies for a treadmill desk.

As much as I do want an Apple Watch--and oh, doesn't it delivers the promise we all had as kids, fantasizing about watching TV on our wrists?--I have some concerns about turning my body over to a device, or perhaps into a device. I have a strong feeling that Apple has already taken over the better part of my brain. Plus, I don't want my kids to see just how obsessive I would be if all the answers to my potential questions were actually on my body at all times. Which is the problem with the pedometer and why I have resisted for so long in getting a Fitbit or any such thing. I'd rather just shoot for getting outdoors every day, breathing the air at its various temperatures and consistencies, feeling if my jeans are getting baggy or tight and adjusting accordingly.

As for Hurricane, it's a pretty big mountain, and when we started out around noon, I felt ambivalent about ascending. What was wrong with a long walk in the woods with Stella and the kids? I had no need to actually go to the top of a peak. It was overcast, and there was no view. But as we hiked, and especially as we neared the summit, some internal chemistry shifted, and I was overcome with the desire to touch the fire tower at the top.


I wanted to pause, up there in the clouds, put my hands on my hips and sigh, turning 360 degrees to see what I could see. I wanted to say "I did it."


Turns out there was a view after all.

We have to raise $30,000 for our new album, XVII. I guess we don't HAVE to. We have to eradicate Ebola and figure out a way to consume less fossil fuel and save the planet and try not to kill off any more other species. But it would be nice to raise $30,000 too. I could just as easily go with a plan where we do the bare minimum, like we did with our last album, The Full Catastrophe. In that case, we made 1500 copies, did a super cheap cover (in fact, I took the picture. If we'd asked Katryna--an actual photographer--it would have cost more.) We did almost no publicity, and certainly no radio. We did exactly one CD release show with a band. Releasing that way, low budget, felt like going for a long walk in the woods. There is merit in climbing to the top inherent in the climbing. We artists are communicators. If we don't do our job as fully and as well as we can, we feel we have failed, even as the work stands strong and proud (and I firmly believe that The Full Catastrophe is a strong, proud, truthful, helpful, beautiful record.) If you are reading this, we have already succeeded in communicating with you. But there are people who love the Nields and don't know it yet. We need to reach them. This money that we are raising, we hope, will do just this. Someone's life will be saved by "Witness" or "Princess." Someone needs to hear "Victory" and "River." Someone will be changed by "Dave Hayes the Weather Guy." To paraphrase Pete Seeger: we want to put our one grain of sand on the beach we believe in. We really really really love this record and we firmly believe you will too.

Last winter, when faced with the choice of writing new songs or starting a new book project, I wrote new songs. When the first one wasn't great, I wrote a better one. When that one didn't totally get at the issue, I wrote another. I wrote until Katryna said, "You've written the album. Let's record. These are the best songs you've ever composed." I hope they tell the truth, that they bring hope, that you can dance to them, that kids will learn them on their guitars and pianos and that one day I will hear them being covered. Then I will feel as though I have done my job.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why You Should Think About Your Fans Instead of Your Critics

People want to like you. They want to like your band. They want to like your novel.

When I am listening to the radio, I am not in critic mode. I am in consumer mode. I am looking for the next artist to fall in love with. I am listening for a song I might want to download onto my iPhone.

When I walk into Broadside Bookstore, I am looking for my next great read. I want to find it. When I pick up a novel and read the first paragraph, I am not hoping it will disappoint me. I want to be captivated. I want to take the book home with me and make it keep me from going to bed on time. I want to be caught.

I want to like it, in the same way when I walk into a clothing shop I am looking for what might work, rather than what won’t work. I am hopeful. I want to leave the store with something in my hand.

I say all this because too many of the writers I know (myself included) go at their writing with the idea that the whole world is holding its proverbial breath, just waiting to pounce on your questionable plot, your clunky dialogue, your too-long beginning, your two-dimensional side character. We songwriters think everyone’s going to notice that the tenses changed in the third verse, and so dismiss the song outright.

Wrong.

There are people out there who will love your book. There are people out there who will love your song. They have been waiting for it. When they see it, or hear it, they will come to full attention and dive in. They are your fan tribe, and they want to like what you have written. They are looking for what’s good in your work. They want to take you home with them. They are waiting for the next thing you might have to say.

Here at Big Yellow (the name my retreatants have given my house, where I hold Writing it Up in the Garden workshops and retreats), we train participants to listen like fans, not critics, because it’s ultimately the fans that count—not the critics. Critics don’t buy books. They get given books. It’s their job to point out what doesn’t work. Editors don’t buy books. They get paid to see what doesn’t work and make your book better. They have their place, don’t get me wrong. But they are not your fans, and they are (therefore) not your employer. Your employer is the one who pays you. That would be your fans.

So when listening to a writer’s new work, I ask my retreatants and workshop participants to listen like a fan. What works? What phrase are you going to take away with you? What part do you want to hear again? What intrigues you? The amazing thing about this process is that when we listen for what works instead of for what doesn’t work, we not only seem to fall in love a bit more with the other writer, but more importantly, we gain trust in our own ability. When we sit in a room full of enthusiasm, we see (eventually) that folks might just find something to love in our own work. And that maybe it’s selfish, and even a little mean, not to share that song, that poem, that book, with those fans out there.

You will find each other. But only if you keep writing and putting it out there.