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.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Equinox


I am writing this during my September Equinox retreat. It's already chilly--I put my wool socks on last weekend when we played the Turtle Hill Festival, and I haven't traded back for cotton since. My sweaters are down from the attic, neatly folded in my closet, like old friends. I haven't written in a few weeks, and I almost don't remember how. Katryna and I have been so immersed in our new record, my mind is there, among the tracks, listening for lines we could use as the title, listening for places we'd like to ask our fiddler to fill in, thinking about the photo shoot we're doing Sunday. But fall is a time for rooting, and as tempting as it (always) is for me to live with my head in the clouds, now is a time when I want to be digging into known routines. Routine--root, right? So alongside the scheming and dreaming about our album, I am also trying to get back to my novel, this blog, my spiritual writing, the daily practice of putting my fingers on the keyboard, or gripping a pen in my imperfect way (the second grade teacher always tried to correct my grip, which is, I admit, inefficient and clumsy) and scribbling out some words, not knowing where I am going, just trusting that something inside of me is smarter than I am.It felt good to clean up the summer clothes, let go what I don't need anymore, fold the winter ones into my drawers and closets, weed the yard, prepare the food for the retreat. These things ground me.

Stella has helped with the rooting and grounding too. Stella, oh, Stella! Dog of my life! Stella has proved to be the right dog at the right time. For one thing, Elle is head over heels for her. For some girls, a dog feels like some kind of divine completion. So it is with mine. Elle comes down in the morning and the two of them roll around together in a big human/canine cuddle. Stella rarely barks, is housebroken, seems to take well to her doggie obedience class, keeps up with Tom and me when we take her on our runs, and mostly doesn't chew stuff. She did destroy the cable to our Roku box, but I don't hold that against her. (By the way, if you chew the Roku cable, Radio Shack will tell you that you can't replace it. It goes with the Roku, and you will have to buy a whole new unit. Sorry, they will say.)

To add to our tech woes, our printer is not talking to our new Comcast router/modem. My receiver still sometimes can't handle pumping music out of four speakers. The Facebook app on my iPad regularly goes so slowly that I give up before I can see what my friends are up to. These irritations burrow deep inside me and color my mood for the rest of the day. It goes the other way too; when I solve a techno problem, I am elated for the day. But it doesn't pay, in the long run, to attach one's moods to whether your gear works well or not.

Ten days ago, my father fell while running and broke a rib, tore a muscle and had to be flown home from Miami, where he'd been working on a case. He spent a week on heavy painkillers, resting at home. Now he is up and about, working 14 hour days from home on the phone. But while this was unfolding--while we were wondering if he would be ok--I couldn't stop crying. I felt paralyzed, too. What did any of this (Roku, Comcast, Best Buy stereo, even our CD) matter when my dad was suffering? What if this did him in? I rode the grief to its natural conclusion, which was that I didn't really care to live in a world where my father was not. The pain in my chest, in my brain, was too much, just thinking about this. How do people survive the loss of their parents?

Fortunately, I still don't know. For now, it seems, he will make a good recovery. But sometime during the weekend in Rochester, a weekend we spent surrounded by folk music lovers, people whose values were sweetly and groundingly familiar,the grip on my heart eased up. I knew I would survive that loss, and that I had to. It was my duty. It was part of the agreement. Besides, my kids needed me to.

Katryna and I saw a movie called Chef last Saturday night, a movie I can neither recommend nor denounce. It was gorgeous food porn, gorgeous actors (mostly the women were gorgeous, which was kind of my issue with the whole thing), a cute kid, some fun social media sidelines, and most of all a really cool road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin, TX, plus a killer soundtrack. But we both left the theatre kind of empty, even though we should have felt full. Here, after all, was a film that had gotten a very good rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was chock full of notable actors (Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey, Jr, Sofia Veraga--the most beautiful woman on the planet), and besides which it was a total coup that we'd actually gone to the movies, which we never get to do. But still, I have to say: WTF? It was a story of a workaholic divorcé (it was never explained why his marriage failed), pathetic and stereotypically negligent dad, who was sort of having a relationship with an incredibly patient and wise hostess for his 4 star restaurant. He gets into a fight with a food critic, loses his temper and then his job, finally listens to his ex-wife who, mysteriously, knows that the cure to what ails him it to drive a food truck around the Southeast and make Cubanos (sandwiches) (she is of Cuban descent) and sell them to hoards of people. This is a fine plot, but the main character evinces absolutely zero development or motive to change or any kind of likeability. He just seems to be an average guy upon whom luck and lovely women regularly rain down.

If the protagonist were a woman, would I be complaining? I don't know. And as I write this critique, something inside of me twists away from it. As my late mother-in-law Mary Duffy used to say to her kids when they'd complain about dinner, "It's better than the dinner you made." I have never written or starred in a film. Could I really do better than Jon Favreau? I think I am going to end with this: I am glad I went to that movie. The images and music will stick with me. And I loved the kid.

An equinox is the time of year when life should pause, just for a moment, balancing like the proverbial egg on its end, as we say goodbye to summer and greet the autumn. We should all be gazing out the window at the last of the tomatoes, at the strange appearance of some random tulip tree blossoms (see above), or at the n ext super moon. Instead, most of us just keep zooming along. I am no different. But I am trying, as I sit here surrounded by other writers, to just be. To breathe. To give thanks. To feel the grief of the inevitable loss. Losses. Writing affords us that, if we stay in the moment, with our characters, waiting for them to tell us what to put down on the page. Dogs help, since they are nothing but present. Tonight I am going to pull out my guitar and sing our Big Yellow songs (there's a playlist on Spotify in my account, or whatever you call it.) We'll follow the lyrics on paper, or through the good old oral tradition, and only look them up if we are really desperate on our iPhones. The leaves are still here. For one more night, it's still summer.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

We Got a Dog

At Falcon Ridge, my kids busked with their little violins, and filled their fiddle cases with dollars and quarters. At one point, their cousin shouted "Donations!" to the passers-by. Horrified, Tom gathered the kids and told them they had to pick a charity to give the money to, and that charity could not (only) be their Nutella Crepe fund. So they chose the Dakin Animal Shelter.

The money has been sitting in a brown paper bag for the past four weeks. "What are we going to do with this?" I said to Tom. "It's $18 in cash and coins!"
"Take it to Dakin, of course," he said.
"No way," I said. "If I go to Dakin, I am coming back with a dog."

Elle has been militating for a dog for about three years. She wears dog socks. She reads only books about dogs. She stops to pat any dog she sees. She cries herself to sleep at night because the day of the dog has not yet arrived in our house. She has pledged what every dog-loving child pledges: when we get the dog, she will walk it and feed it and bathe it and save all her pennies for the vet bills. Her last birthday was a dog-themed party. Her friends all gave her birthday cards with pictures of dogs on them. When she grabs my iPhone, it's not to play video games, but to look up her favorite breeds' puppy pictures.

Last Thursday, the last possible day for me to do anything, I took the brown paper bag and the kids to Dakin in Leverett. I prayed hard. Let them all be ugly. And barky. And smelly. I prayed to be stopped from getting a dog; unless, of course, we were supposed to get a dog.

We gave them our brown paper bag, and they let us see the dogs. The first dog we saw was a tiny dainty Husky-like critter, like what would happen if you mixed a basenji with a chihuahua and painted it with husky colors. Three years old, a dixie dog from Texas, total beta dog, non-barking or jumping, sweet and cuddly. Eighteen pounds. Delicate and graceful as a greyhound. And I was done.

Or at least, I spilled the beans, showed my hand, or whatever you want to say. I let the kids know I was smitten, and they dug in with all twenty nails. We walked her, we played with her, she never barked (except at the guinea pigs), and we put a deposit down on her and went home to tell Tom he needed to stop us.

But Tom came back with us and said, "We could never handle a puppy. This dog even Jay can handle. It's inevitable. Let's do it."

I proceeded to not sleep that night. What if this wasn't MY dog? What about all the other dogs I want to get? The ruby King Charles Cavalier puppy my aunt's dog might whelp next spring? The Aussie pup I've always dreamed of? The big soft Bernese Mountain dog I want to snuggle up next to on a cold winter night? When your dream comes true, you're out one dream. Now I don't get to fantasize about my dog. I will have my dog. Plus, what if Jay is allergic to her? What if she eats the guinea pigs? What if she isn't housebroken? What if she continues to smell (because she did smell. This is because she has not been bathed in anyone's memory.) And if I had doubts, did that mean I should not go forward? Was this like choosing a husband? Would the doubts form a cold wet coating in the pit of my stomach, and remain there for years? Plus there was the cost.

Also, I got hung up on this other dog that Dakin had. A fluffy-haired one-year-old with giant brown eyes and soft shepherd fur. A dog with a retriever muzzle, a dog who looked like all the dogs I've ever had. But my kids were not interested in this dog. They wanted Stella, the miniature husky.

So we put Stella in the van. As we drove, she came up between the two front seats and put her paws on the console and panted in that nervous ways dogs pant when they are in the car. And I don't know why, but suddenly she was my dog. My doubts went away. We went to Dave's and bought hundreds of dollars worth of dog stuff, including a great shampoo. We brought her home and romped around with her. We let her sniff around our park, and I explained to the kids that dogs sniffing in the park is as pleasurable to them as Facebook is to us. It's how they get the local news. We gave her a bath, which she tolerated. After, I put my arms around my sweet smelling pooch and proceeded to sneeze. She crawled into my lap.

Elle slept in the kitchen on the floor next to Stella's crate. When we went to bed, we looked down at our daughter's face, totally peaceful, one hand curled under the gate of the crate, the dog's sharp little nose pointed at her fingers.

This may not be MY dog. But this is my kids' dog. And I will do anything to support them getting to have this dog.

Fingers crossed that we are not allergic.

The Snag of Not Forever



It’s the last day in the studio, at least until September. Truthfully, we are almost done. I have to do vocals on the choruses of “Dave Hayes,” the chorus of “Witness,” the choruses of “You Don’t Have that Kind of Time” and backgrounds on “Normandies,” plus a few other tiny things. Katryna is completely done. Kit is going to take the project back home with him to Virginia where he and his studio partner Chip Johnson will add some more gorgeousness. Then Kit will return in September and we’ll see what else we all want and need—for surely much will come to the surface as we listen through to all the tracks over the next two weeks.

The album is beyond—far beyond—what I thought it could be. I had liked the songs, coming in, but what they’ve grown into is …well, words fail. I probably say this every time (though I didn’t say it about Full Catastrophe), but this is my favorite record ever.

Making it has been interesting. In the past 10 years, we’ve mostly taken our time with our CD-making. We had that luxury, since Dave Chalfant was our producer, and it was his studio, and we had no label clamoring for a next release. But after Catastrophe (that sounds so ominous!), we learned our lesson. We need a deadline! Plus, we need to make a living, and suspending our lives while we focused on one CD seemed wiser than prolonging it all indefinitely. In short, we could only afford to take a month off. And we have families who want vacations: these dictated the beginning (when Katryna and her family got back from theirs) as well as the end (when my family wants to go on ours) of the recording window.

Here are the tracks on the new CD, plus some bonus material for a little Kickstarter premium:
Princess
Wasn’t That a Time
Love Love Love
Normandies
As Big as I Am
I Put My Treasure in the Rock
Victory (Turn it Around)
Delilah
Witness
You Don’t Have that Kind of Time
Dave Hayes the Weather Guy
Joe Hill
River
Bonus tracks:
I’m Pretty Sure That My iPhone Is Making Me Sick
Acoustic Joe Hill
Lonesome Valley
Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Earlier this week, the world learned that Robin Williams had hanged himself. For some reason, this hit me very hard. Perhaps because he was in recovery. Perhaps because he came on the scene when I was a certain age (eleven), and was old enough to be struck by his unusual talent and brilliance, and the right age for his first hit, “Mork and Mindy.”
What must it have been like for him to be catapulted to superstardom at the age of 27? Intoxicating, surely. And for a bi-polar self-proclaimed alcoholic, this high must have always felt wobbly. Or maybe not. I have no idea what happened, why he would kill himself, but I do know that the worst pain I ever suffered was when I harmed myself and others, doing things without my permission. Rumors get piped in through every channel: Parkinson’s, relapse, mental illness. We will all take this story and project our own experience onto it. I think that’s part of the reason so many are fascinated by celebrity dramas. For me, it brings up a theme I’ve been struggling with of late.

What happens when you get to a point in your life when you see the big view? I am not arrogant enough to think I see the whole view—but I am at midlife. The top of the “Hill,” over which I will (arguably) soon be. We get to this place where we see how far we’ve come—look! Our kids are getting more independent! Look! The paint on the house is peeling. Look! Our marriage is settling into deeply rutted routines. Look! The audiences are dwindling. Pretty soon….fill in the blank. The kids won’t need us. The house will need a paint job we can’t afford. We’ll be taking each other for granted. The performing career will be over. It’s the snag; the hook of nothing lasts forever.

This summer is the summer of Whoa. Not yet.

Playing at Falcon Ridge on the main stage with a full band was a sharp reminder that there is still plenty of juice in the old girl, or girls as the case may be. We still rock. This new CD is proof of that. I thought the worst thing that could ever happen would be that Dave Chalfant would stop producing us. I thought no one could get our ideas into digital grooves the way he could. I thought his departure from the engineering throne would be our demise. It turns out what we really needed was fresh ears, new hands, an objective view of our 23 year career.

This morning my almost 6 year old climbed into bed with us. He still does this, fairly regularly, and when I am not living in my head, I notice that I actually still have two cuddly little kids; they are not yet teenagers, and they still need me, play with my hair, snuggle in my lap. I am still alive.