Monday, March 31, 2008

Aphrodite, Spring, and My Media Fast

As a former Virginian, I find springtime in New England to be not just disappointing (in its lack of flowers, green and warmth) but also violent. And I’m not talking about the snowstorm that’s supposed to come tonight, nor about the way the ice on the river cracks as loudly as a thunderstorm, nor the way the water rushes down from the Green and White Mountains and floods our Connecticut River banks. I’m talking about the deeper forces that caused the Greeks to name this particular sun cycle after Aries, the Ram (temper, temper) and to associate this zodiacal sign with infants and toddlers. (The Greeks also, I just found out, named the month of April after Aphrodite, who was, by turns, charming and aloof.) Stravinsky must have known something about New England springs, because there is nothing gentle and flower-like about his wonderful, terrifying Rites of Spring. It’s more like a rowdy college keg party, with plenty of Bacchanalian madness thrown in.

Perhaps because it’s spring; perhaps because I’m pregnant, or perhaps because of where we are in this prematurely intense election cycle, but I’ve felt like a frayed nerve for the past few weeks. I cry at the drop of at hat; predictably at that manipulated point in every movie where director hope you will cry, but at other times too: when my father calls to say hi; when my almost two-year-old asks for tomatoes and then spits them out in a glob on the table, and also when she says, “I need cuddle you,” and puts her arms around my neck.

But mostly, I’m a wreck about this election. I’ve been following it fanatically since the Iowa caucus, when I first began to believe that Barack Obama might actually pull off a win. I argued fiercely with fellow lefties who said the country was too backwards and racist to embrace an African American with a foreign name. It’s not about race, I said. This is a visionary, a leader who comes along once in a hundred years! And look! He reaches across party lines! I stayed up way too late most Tuesdays in February watching results come in, mourning when we lost Massachusetts, high-fiving strangers with Obama buttons the day after Wisconsin. I spent every lunch hour pouring over the latest polls on I have had many dreams about hanging out with Obama in coffee shops, just chatting about the issues and commiserating about life on the road, and also asking him questions about his church.

Which brings us, of course, to THE issue. Up until the point where Reverend Jeremiah Wright became a YouTube star for his God Damn America moment, Obama was leading both Clinton and McCain in the national polls. In every theoretical match-up, he beat McCain while Clinton just barely lost. And then the endless looping of what I saw as a not untypical African-American preacher doing what many theatrical preachers of all races and political persuasions do: saying things to wake their congregation up and remind their congregation (and perhaps those outside it as well) that our nation is on a dangerous and wrong path. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell both said our nation got what it deserved after 911.

Though I wasn’t bothered at all by what Rev. Wright said, I was very bothered by the reaction to him. And I was thrilled and amazed by Obama’s speech on Building a More Perfect Union. (Predictably, I cried through much of it, but again, that seems to be par for the course these days.) Like many who have written much more eloquently and extensively than I, I believed this to be a transformational speech; one long overdue. I was raised and educated to believe that racism was the number one problem this country faced, and that until we addressed it and vanquished it, our nation would suffer greatly. It’s an incredibly complex problem, and the solutions require all of us to practice understanding and work harder to put ourselves in the shoes of others. I figured once Barack finished saying what needed to be said, we’d all shake ourselves awake and get to work—start practicing understanding, start talking honestly with one another, start recognizing that we need to put our money where our mouths are, and all that.
That’s not exactly what seemed to happen. Instead, I heard more strange insinuations that Obama wasn’t a real patriot, had issues that were distracting the American people from the crises at hand. The poll numbers didn’t move. My best friend called me to tell me her step-father had told racist jokes at their Pennsylvania Easter table. And the media seemed only interested in how the speech played out politically, not that something important had finally been said. I spent our cold, way-too-early Easter in tears, despairing for our country, despairing for my African American friends, heartbroken and furious.
I did my work on this anger, because I have learned that I can’t live with it, and what I came up with was this: I want the world to be about 100 years ahead of where it is now. I bet a hundred years from now we will not be talking about the first woman president, the first Latino president, the first Asian American president or the first African American president. Maybe we won’t even be talking about the first homosexual president. These will all be benchmarks long passed. I’m hopeful too that in a hundred years, we will have solved many of the problems that plague us today. If I look back a hundred years, I see Jim Crow. If I look back 200 years, I see slavery. I hope this ugly period we’re in right now seems as antiquated and backwards as those do.
The morning after Easter, I put myself on a strict diet: no more NPR, no more New York Times, no more RealClearPolitics, no more arguing. My prescriptions include reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Mary Oliver and going outside for walks with my daughter: the kind of walks where your heart rate never goes over 75 bpm because your companion is running up and down the knoll, kicking around dead leaves and collecting pine cones and doesn’t care a whit about getting anywhere fast. And wouldn’t you know it? I feel a lot better. I am still sad and disappointed, but I can see myself and my friends who are working for peace and justice as cogs in the wheel, just as the suffragettes were in the early part of the 20th Century, just as the abolitionists were in the 1840s, just as the feminists and black power leaders were in the ‘60s and just as the advocates for gay rights were in the ‘70s, ‘80s and today.
I know that spring will come. It always does, sooner or later. And I know this as a musician: a great song is one that has great substance—music with integrity, melody and rhythm plus lyrics that lend themselves to many listens, many ponderings, sometimes many interpretations. Those songs might not crack the top ten, but they will be listened to for decades (maybe even centuries) afterwards. What Barack Obama said on March 18, 2008 was akin to a great song. Whether or not he wins or loses, we will look back on that moment as one in which a brave man told the truth in a way that was meaningful, eloquent and provocative.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

National Album Writing Month

On January 31, our friend Anne-Marie Strohman emailed us from Mountain View CA to tell us that February was National Album Writing Month. Since nothing compels me to write songs more effectively than a deadline, we decided that in between finishing How To Be An Adult and painting its cover, running HooteNanny, shoveling snow, playing all over western NY state and raising Amelia, William and Lila (and taking copious pregnancy induced naps-Nerissa, that is) we would take on this challenge. We recorded these songs on our Macs using the Garage Band program and Katryna’s Blue Snowball mic. They are rough demos, done in one take, so we apologize for the flubbed chords and missed pitches. We plan to record some of these for future projects, like our new family CD, Rock all Day, Rock all Night, and the soundtrack for my novel The Big Idea. Some might end up as part of a HooteNanny curriculum. There seems to be a theme to these songs. Anne Lamott says there are two major metaphors in literature: The River and The Garden. I say there’s a third: The Road. Below is a run down of all fourteen songs. You can hear them at

1. Who Are You Not To Shine
I took as my prompt for this song the wonderful passage by Marianne Williamson, which is often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I wanted to write a song for my children and my nieces and nephews about being yourself no matter what. Here are the lyrics:
Who Are You Not To Shine

Sometimes you wish you were someone different
Sometimes you want to start all over again
Sometimes you want to go back to being a baby
Sometimes you want to jump ahead to the end

Maybe you could start to see it different
Maybe you could sit down here and rest
Maybe you could hear it once from my side
I think you are the best, the best, the best

Who are you not to shine?
Who are you not to glow?
Who are you not to be your own best self?
You can be who you are
You can change as you grow
But be you, don’t be anybody else

If you weren’t you then who would tell your stories
If you weren’t you then who would walk your miles?
If you weren’t you then who would help your sisters?
If you weren’t you then who would smile your smile?


Nerissa Nields
©Peter Quince Publishing

2. Thank You
I wrote this backstage at Kripalu on Feb. 2. I love Kripalu. I first went there in 2001 when my first marriage was in its last months. Since then, I’ve seen it as a haven and a refuge. Nestled in the Berkshires, it’s known mostly as a yoga sanctuary, but I’ve also used it as a personal writing retreat. I studied with Julia Cameron there, and taken a meditation workshop with Sharon Saltzburg. It’s sort of like Falcon Ridge to me; I know I will find members of my tribe there.
Here are the lyrics:
Thank You All The Time

Thank you for the earth
Thank you for the sun
Thank you for my family
Thank you for the fun

All I ask is this:
That some one down the line
Finds the same old simple bliss
And thank you all the time

Thank you for the moon
Thank you for the sea
Thank for the different folks
Who share the world with me.

All I ask is this:
That some one down the line
Finds the same old simple bliss
And thank you all the time
Nerissa Nields
Feb. 2, 2008
©Peter Quince Publishing

3. ABC
I wrote the first verse of this song last year for HooteNanny as an a cappella number, but this February, Katryna suggested I expand it and give it extra verses and a Sesame Street beat.

4. Seasons
I wrote this one in my Thursday writing group, though I found the first four lines in a notebook I was using during the writing of the Sister Holler songs. (I think it was an early draft of “This Train.”) We plan to put this song on our double family CD Rock All Day, Rock All Night. It’ll be on the Night CD.

One field is ploughed
One field is fallow
One field’s on the way to harvest
Though the confidence is shallow
We go round and round
We go up and down
As we pass through the seasons of our life.

One road is new
One road’s well traveled
One road’s wide and comfortable
While another one is narrow
We go round and round
We go up and down
As we pass through the seasons of our life.

When I think I cannot take the snowstorms anymore
I see that crocus poking up through the leaves on the forest floor

One child is fast
One child is funny
One child likes the rainy days
While another likes it sunny
We go round and round
We go up and down
As we pass through the seasons of our life.

Nerissa Nields
Feb. 7, 2007
©Peter Quince Publishing, ASCAP
All Rights Reserved

5. Last Train Home
I started to write this song last May, but didn’t get very far. I finished it during another Thursday writing group.
Last Train Home

Riding riding riding on the last train home
Got to get to my baby anyway any how
And if the wheels stop turning, gonna jump out and run
I’m gonna flag another train
I’m gonna steal a tired car
I’m gonna show the country what it means
To get to where you are
I’m gonna show the country what it means to find you

Many months of Mondays I have had my way
Basking in the sun of your compassion
Scheming all the time for something more, more, more
Never happy with my handsome ration


I could never read you right when you were mine
I thought you would stick around forever
You gave everything you had, I asked for more
Thinking that you lived to give me pleasure


Beautiful for spacious skies, waves of amber grain
Can you find it somewhere to forgive me?
If not me, then could you see a way to grant
Clemency for those who will outlive me


Nerissa Nields
May 31, 2007 and Feb. 4, 2008

6. Percy On Pluto
Katryna asked me to write this song. She wanted a sequel to Aikendrum, a song about a guy who lives on the moon and wears food for clothes. Percy is his younger sister, and this song is about how she deals with the news that her planet is no longer considered a planet.
Percy On Pluto

Percy lived on Pluto where the sun was far away
And that means you can’t really tell the nighttime from the day
Her older brother Aikendrum, well, he lived on the moon
He played upon a ladle and Percy played on a spoon

Yodelayeeee Yodalayeee Yodalayeee

Aikendrum wore food for clothes while Percy wore a dress.
She also wore long underwear, a hat, a scarf a vest
Two pairs of woolen socks, a coat, some mittens and warm shoes
At four hundred degrees below, you’d probably bundle up too.

Yodelayeeee Yodalayeee Yodalayeee

Aikendrum told Percy, “Your planet’s smaller than my moon
And since the moon’s not a planet, and I bet yours won’t be soon”
Percy said, “Dear brother, does your moon have its own satellite?
I can see my Charon, if it’s day or if it’s night”

Yodelayeeee Yodalayeee Yodalayeee

One day six light years from now, she got this strange report:
“Pluto’s not a planet anymore, you see it came up short.
It’s really pretty tiny and its orbit’s way off course
You can’t really call it a planet anymore, but you can call it Planet Dwarf.”

Yodelayeeee Yodalayeee Yodalayeee

Well, Percy was very tiny too, smaller than a mouse.
If you saw where she lived you would mistake it for a dollhouse
When she heard that her planet was not a planet anymore
She took a breath of CO2, said, “I am Plutette, hear me roar!”

Yodelayeeee Yodalayeee Yodalayeee

“It doesn’t really matter what you call it it’s the same:
A rose is still a rose, after all, by any other name.
And those of us who are little, we matter equally
In fact that’s why they passed the laws of mass and density.”

Yodelayeeee Yodalayeee Yodalayeee

Nerissa Nields © Peter Quince Publishing

7. Molly the Donkey
This is our version of “There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name o.” We live near a vocational agricultural school that has a number of animals, including a herd of cows and sheep, three huge Clydesdale horses and one tiny burro-like donkey named Molly.

I have a donkey
Her name is Molly
And she says “Hee Haw” all the time.
Molly, mine.

Nerissa Nields ©Peter Quince Publishing

8. Good Times Are Here
This song is for my wonderful father. When Katryna was in her last year of college, she said, “Daddy, how old were you when you became disillusioned?”
He thought about it. “I don’t know. I don’t think that’s ever happened.”
He is the most optimistic person I’ve ever met. I want to be like him when I grow up. In this day and age, we need hope more than ever. By “hope” I mean that quality that fuels our actions; the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson so famously said. We must have the kind of hope that leads to positive, loving actions towards ourselves and our communities if the human race is to survive.
Good Times Are Here

It’s been so long since we had room to laugh
It’s been so long we’ve been traveling the narrow path
It’s been so long since hope had a season
Always trading sentiment for reason
And now you’re showing me the sunrise

Oh, good times are here, Johnny
Good times are here
You were right, you were right all along
Oh, good times are here, Johnny
Good times are here
You were right, you were right all along

I though your love was too good to trust
You had enough dreams for the both of us
And so I let you dream while I worried
Always gave you love in a hurry
And now you’re showing me the greatest surprise

Good times are here, Johnny
Good times are here
You were right, you were right all along
Oh, good times are here, Johnny
Good times are here
You were right, you were right all along

We ate our fear like the noble men
We built our walls to keep the children in
And every year our tribe became smaller
Trading in our heritage for dollars
And now you’re telling me to turn it around
You’re telling me to tear those walls down
That everything I lost can be found
It was there all along in the ground

Good times are here, Johnny
Good times are here
You were right, you were right all along
Oh, good times are here, Johnny
Good times are here
I am glad, I’m so glad I was wrong.

Nerissa Nields
Feb. 21, 2008

9. Dresses
Katryna wrote this song as a sequel to “The Enemy Called Pants.” When Amelia was between the ages of three and four, she refused to wear pants. Ever.

10. I See Me Walking
Katryna called me up and said, “I just went for a walk and wrote these lines.” She sang the first four lines of this song into my voicemail. That night was a Monday, and I had a writing group, so I listened to her tune and finished the song.

11. This Is My Life
Veteran Nields fans will recognize this as a metamorphosis of a song I wrote in 1993 by the same title, and with mostly the same tune and chord progression (although back then it was in E. Fifteen years later, it’s in the more forgiving key of D.) While driving home from Ithaca on Feb. 23, Katryna said, “Why don’t you rewrite ‘This Is My Life’? I always loved the chorus of that song.” The old lyrics were pretty mean. I’ve mellowed, and I wanted to write a love song to my husband.
This Is My Life (2008)

I never thought I’d be
A person with a history
I always thought I’d be racing to
Uncharted territory
How was I to know
That you would be so awfully slow
Taking your sweet time to get it right
And now I can’t believe this is my life

So who made you kind?
And who made you bold?
And who made you someone
Who knows how to dress in the cold?
All of our wrong turns
Became the moves we had to learn
Stumbling though the dark with one flashlight
And now I can’t believe this is my life

Now my racing days are over, We can argue over who lost
Though I loved the speed I traveled
I just couldn’t pay the cost
Wouldn’t pay the cost

And now I spend my time
Watching your face shine
Watching our love grow
And knowing nothing’s mine
I just get to be
A witness to our destiny
All our disappointments and delights
And now I can’t believe this is my life
I can’t believe this is my life!
Nerissa Nields
Feb. 27, 2008

12. For All The Love
This was the second to last song I wrote. Again, I found part of it (the second verse) in a songwriting notebook from 2000. This is a love song to all the people who chose a righteous path to walk, sacrificing ease for integrity. No small feat in this day and age.

For All The Love

Now and then there is a calling
You don’t always want to take
You drag your feet and get distracted
Until you start for your own sake
Cause sometimes staying feels like dying
And though you know you have to die
You want to live a bit before then
And so you pack, you go, you try

No one said it would be easy
No one said it would be straight
But if you go and keep on going
You’ll find your way to that holy gate
And on the way are other travelers
Some are wise and some are mean
But they’re all bound to teach you something
Something you have never seen

And as you go, you’ll find companions
Brothers, sisters, of the way
Friends to laugh with friends to dance with
Friends to comfort , friends to say
That this road’s been a little harder
But we would chose it again
For all the love we made together
All the life that we packed in.

Nerissa Nields
Feb. 28, 2008

13. Lilalu
A lullaby to my daughter.

14. Ode To Underpants
Katryna wrote this when I called her in a panic and said “We need one more song!” She promptly came up with this. William, her three year old, laughed hysterically when she sang it to him.