Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Fires

Our family spent last weekend in New York visiting my relatives, including my 102 year old grandmother. At the breakfast table, we heard about the attempt to bring down the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. "Now they're not going to let people get up to go to the bathroom or have anything on their laps on international flights," commented my cousin, worried because his wife's family was schedule to visit from Central America later this month. I was reminded of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the early 90s called "We Ruined It For The Rest Of You," featuring, among others, the Guy Who Left the Fuel Pump Running So Now They Have To Disable All the Hold-Open Locks.

"Hold my hand tight, sweetie," I said to Elle as we navigated the city streets on the upper East Side. "The rules are different in New York."

An hour or so later, we were driving out of town on the FDR. I checked my email and found "Fire Alert" as the header from a neighbor I don't know well. That's how I learned about the strange rash of arson that hit our small town around three in the morning of last Sunday. The rules are different in Northampton now.

For those of you who don't know, eleven fires were lit in a time frame of under an hour and a half. Some of the fires were in homes within a half-mile radius, and some were in cars. Two people died, and several houses burned to the ground. Two car fires were in our neighborhood, just three blocks from here.

Our town has come together in a powerful way. We are connecting with each other through the internet (there's a Facebook page devoted to the topic, as well as regular emails circulating) but also in the old-fashioned ways: town meetings and the natural manner people connect around a shared tragedy. We're collecting clothes, food and the like for the victims, and a benefit concert is happening on Jan. 7--a tribute to Tom Petty. Meanwhile, we are keeping our porch lights on and listening in the night for strange sounds. Our neighbors' dogs, whose barks are not always so welcome, are standing vigilant along with George Harrison, alerting us to every passer by.

I don't like to live in fear. I don't like to have an enemy either, and when I shake off the fear thoughts, I remember that this person or persons who set these fires is or are sick; that they were and are someone's babies, loved the way my sweet babies are loved. I still want them caught so that they will stop hurting themselves and other people, but I stop hating them.

I was reminded today that one of the great evolutions in human thought is the understanding that, all evidence to the contrary, the world is round. We don't live in a flat world with two diametrically opposed sides. There is no good and bad in a round world; just perspective and dimensions. "And" is a much more helpful word that "but" or "or," and also more true. I hate the fires and I love the arsonist, and I hate the arsonist's behavior and I'm scared and I want to preserve my faith in humankind and a higher power. In a round world, with the word "and" as a highway, there's room for all those feelings. Fires destroy. Fires also warm and save lives at this coldest point in the year. Nothing can take the place of essential human goodness, the piece inside each of us that refrains from harm. It's part of the deal Prometheus made with us when he (illegally) gave us fire to begin with.

But I have a lot of questions, especially at two in the morning when the dogs wake me up and my heart is in my mouth and I listen for the breathing of my babies down the hall. Where is the line the arsonist crossed from impulse control to homicide? When does teenagers-having-fun turn deadly? When do you stop them? When do you take the car keys away? For that matter, where are the lines in the sand about free speech and racist thoughts? I am still troubled by the "White Power" graffiti mostly spray-painted over but still somewhat visible in my park. I run over it every day and think, "I'm going to sneak into the park one night and spray-paint over everything that's left!" only to pull back--it's illegal to spray paint anything at all, so I won't do it. But what about my dear relative who watches Fox News and repeats some of their racist nonsense about Barack Obama and Tiger Woods? That stuff is subtle and insidious and probably more damaging than the graffiti.

I keep coming back to love as the answer: keep softening the heart, even at 2am when I am sure that I heard a bump on the porch and am trying to figure out whether it would be better or worse to set up an escape ladder out of my daughter's window, which has bars on it so that she won't tumble out. We can't see beyond the flat world right now. All our energy is concentrated here, on our friends, children, neighbors. Someday more will be revealed, but for now we have to go on faith and trust. So I am going to ask to play in the tribute concert, we are going to bring over our bags of clothes and send in our donations and stop in the market and on the streets to connect with our neighbors and remind each other why we chose this dear town as our home. I choose it again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Recording Day 5

Dec. 18. 2009
Dave Hower got here around 10:45 and set up his drums while I ate lunch and printed out the lyrics to "Good Times Are Here" and "Between Friends." Played through "Good Times" while sitting on my old amp and DH played along on his kit. He'd played it at Falcon Ridge last July, so it wasn't entirely new to him, but we reworked a few things. Decided to add a guitar solo. We got the song in 2 takes! We might even have a keeper vocal from Katryna. It's worked really well in the past to record with me on acoustic in one room, Dave H in the main room and Katryna in the vocal booth. Dave Chalfant said, through the talk-back, "We should be a rock band!"

Moving on to "Between Friends." It took 3 takes to get the feel right. Dave H, K and I all played at the same time again. I get to play on the futon in the control room which I love! All the yoga I've been doing is helping my shoulders not to tighten up when I'm hunched over the guitar. Come to think of it, my alignment is more conscious, so I'm not hunching as much.

We did "Which Side Are You On?" really easily, changing up DH's drums to muffle the bass. Added 8 measures for our surfer vocal extravaganza which we are plotting. Then Katryna left to pick up her kids. Dave H stayed to play on his knees with twigs for "More Than Enough."

Last we did "Can I Love You Too Much," which DH played fairly straight. All that song needs is bass and it is finished! Only four more basic tracks to go, but we won't get to them until 2010.


It's the winter solstice. I love this day so much. I am glad it's sunny. I have had very little sleep, which is a shame, since everything in my being wants to curl up and hibernate these days. Jay woke me up at 2am and I had the worst insomnia after he went back to sleep. Then Elle woke us both up at 5:45, though having my kids cuddling in bed with me is hardly something to complain about. So I won't.

What I did when I couldn't sleep was count my blessings. I am grateful that the weird hiccup in my heart turned out to be something benign. I am grateful that we have a Christmas tree that Jay hasn't (yet) pulled over onto himself. I am grateful that we get to make this CD, I love this time of year, and my body has finally adjusted to the cold. On Saturday, we went to see Amelia in A Christmas Carol at the Academy of Music. She was sensational as Belinda Cratchett, and the whole play was beautiful to behold. Tom and I guessed there would be a 20% chance that Elle would want to stay for the entire hour and twenty minutes of it, mid-afternoon without a nap, but she sat on my lap commenting on "the grouchy guy" and "the princess ghost" the entire time. She keeps making us tell and re-tell the story.

I am also working on our music book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: the Musical Family. Today I was writing that for some of us (me) context and community is everything. I fell in love with the Beatles when I was nine years old, deeply, madly and permanently, but I will never know for sure how much of my love came from a pure affection for the music and how much came from the experience of listening to them with my best friend Leila Corcoran whom I adored and admired. Her enthusiasm for the Beatles was so huge and contagious, and it was so much fun loving them along with her. How much does my love of Pete Seeger and the Revels, and for that matter, my choice to be a folk musician, derive from the bond my parents forged with me as a baby onward through that shared love of a kind of music?

Speaking of music, I am so glad we get to sing Christmas carols. It's the best part of the whole event, if you ask me. Saturday morning, I pulled out my guitar and played "Here We Come A Wassailing," "Gloustershire Wassail" and "Jingle Bells for Elle and Jay who held hands and danced all over the music room. Jay can now sing "Twinkle Twinkle" perfectly on key, though his lyrics are "Dee do dee do dee doo DAH!" Tomorrow my aunt Elizabeth and her son, my cousin John Colonna who is at Berklee in Boston are coming for dinner, along with my parents, Katryna, Dave and their kids. We are having roast duck, yams, brussels sprouts with Tom's homemade biscotti dipped in hot chocolate for dessert. John C is an a amazing pianist, the best kind, meaning the kind who can play any Christmas Carol in any key and doesn't even mind.

Thank you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 4 in Sackamusic

We've been here all day. Recording starts with Dave playing basic acoustic for "Can I Love You Too Much." I was late; negotiating snowpants and snowboots for the kids, and my own lost checkbook without which I couldn't pay the babysitter. Duncan Donuts has espresso shots, which is very unfortunate for those of us who want to eschew big corporations. But as Dave said, "At least now you are supporting an honestly compromised corporation instead of a hypocritical one."

We record two versions of "Can I Love You": the second slightly slower than the first. Katryna trying for a keeper voc. This is the easiest, most natural first go-round I've ever heard her do.

I am obsessed with Neutral Milk Hotel. Bought the entire CD (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) last night on iTunes and listened to it on my run and commute. It's scary and sad and amazing: based on a loose idea that Anne Frank gets reincarnated and united with the singer. Somehow there's a two-headed boy involved as well. I still can't figure out how we never crossed paths in the 90s. I'm haunted by the fact that they were in the same scene as we were; and Jeff Mangus is haunted by Anne Frank.

Jay woke up at 3:40am.I nursed him back to sleep in our bed, but after about 90 minutes he woke up playful. I am tired.

Dave is getting Katryna to do several excellent versions of her lead vocal. This reminds me of recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis with John Hampton in 1995 and his 4 vocal takes. I have to check with Katryna and Dave; did he merge the vocal? Or did we just pick one?

Tomorrow we're going to Christamas Revels.

Katryna changed "Give this child roots" to "give the child roots."

I keep thinking about the the article in the NYTimes about marriage. Elizabeth Weil invoked Nikos Kasantzakas's "full catastrophe" phrase. She was brave to write that piece, but I kept thinking she should question her thoughts. This album's all about marriage, family, these choices we make at some point that create a demarcation in our lives; a place after which there is no return.

Katryna and Dave finished their parts and we broke for lunch. Meredith sent me a list of bands to check out. ("Neutral Milk Hotel is so, like 1999...") which I did, or started to. I like Imogen Heap. Not so keen on Sufjian Stevens, though Dave is. I also don't love Rilo Kiley, but I probably need more evidence. Like the rest of the zeitgeist, I am apparently shamelessly song driven. Someone said I must have a thing of nasal caterwauling. Well, I DO! But not just any nasal caterwauling.

I love Gillian Welch. Maybe she has something new.

Now back to "Can I Love You..." which is more Nashville, less indie rock. I did my lead voc on chorus and the bg vox. Now K is dong her bg on chorus. It feels so good to be finishing a track~
Sweet sweet harmonies. We're singing with a lot of sincerity which fits. After all, this is a song to our kids.
On to "Hakatai." Dave sets up the drums and gets sounds while I play "Ball & Biscuit" by the White Stripes on my iPhone speakers, Katryna says, "I find this chord progressions depressing and sad."

"Yes," I say. "It's the blues."

Then I play her "16 Military Wives" and "Sons and Daughters." She wants me to make her a mix and stop subjecting her to my crappy little iPhone speakers. Dave and Katryna and I do what's supposed to be an experiment--all of us playing at once, live-- but we like it so much we decide to keep the take and build on it. I punch out a spot where Dave wants to redo the drums. Katryna perfects a vocal. I want to hear how the bass will sound. (Also, I read David Pogues' NYTimes peice on Dragon Diction. I download it and send Tom an email.)

Katryna writes: I love singing in that vocal booth. The trees outside are swaying int he crazy freezing wind and they evoke just the right feeling for "Hakatai." Nerissa's singing the low vocal right now. I love love love how her voice sounds down there. It's like rich chocolate soup.

The hardest part is always lining our voices up exactly. It's also the coolest part. When it finally happens, if feels like magnets finding each other.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Day 3 in the Recording Studio

We record at Sackamusic in Conway, MA. This studio belongs to my brother-in-law, Katryna's husband Dave Chalfant. He is amazing, and unlike Katryna and me, not at all ADD. He has the ability to sit still and concentrate for hours at a time. His attention is exquisite. When I am meditating, or just generally trying to calm down, it is he I evoke.

Conway is beautiful, as you can see from the pictures of the snowfall I took in the last post. It is quiet, and at night, one can see a billion stars if it isn't cloudy. This evening, I drove away when Venus or maybe Jupiter was out, and the last quarter of the moon. I have missed the moon since becoming a parent; I find myself indoors when it is visible.

Today we just had two hours to work. We recorded my guitar for "More than Enough" and a scratch vocal. Then we explored "Can I Love You Too Much" in terms of an arrangement. And we listened to Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." This is my current favorite song, suggested to me on Facebook by my cousin's wife Courtney Nields. I am blown away. Also, apparently this band existed for the exact amount of time as the five piece incarnation of the Nields: roughly the decade of the 90s. NMH broke up in 1998. What do you know about them? l visited their website and it was like visiting a ghost town. Anyway, Dave and Katryna liked the song as much as I did, and I hope it will inform our entire recording. (Though we will abstain from the use of the theramin.) Tomorrow, maybe there will be drums.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Day 2 in the Studio

First snowfall of the year, en route to Conway.

Day two in the studio. In between sessions, Massachusetts had its first snow of the season. Katryna and her kids went to the circus in NYC, the Nields-Duffys had the distinction of coming in dead last in Northampton's Hot Chocolate Run, and also bought a Christmas tree.

We also went to church. "There is only one story," said Steve Philbrick. "The story of the year. It begins as a tender young thing; then becomes fruitful. It dies, is buried, goes underground. But Life does not die. It comes back to life in the spring again."

I can't decide whom to vote for in the election tomorrow. I initially loved Alan Khazei; then Mike Capuano because of his view on the health care bill. But it's awfully tempting to go with Coakley and have another woman in the Senate. We in MA are so lucky to have such great candidates. I will vote tomorrow. That much I know. And it won't be for the Boston Celtics owner.

I love the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss CD Raising Sand so much it hurts. Also, I have decided I like Journey. I know readers of How to Be an Adult will be shocked to hear this. I just realized life is too short to hold grudges. And "Don't Stop Believing" is just plain fun.

Elle and Jay have broken many of our Christmas tree ornaments already, and we haven't even started decorating the tree. Oh, dear.

Thank you for your music recommendations! One more question: Should I get Pandora or Rhapsody?

Here is a video of my attempt to record the guitar to the song "I Choose This Era." Though we ended up using a subsequent take, this officially documents the beginning of the recording of our new CD which we are tentatively calling "The Full Catastrophe," at the risk of getting some smug and mean reviews a la "Shark Sandwich/ Sh*t Sandwich."

Friday, December 04, 2009

Day One in the Studio

Driving up to Conway, I was filled with a momentary dread. These songs stink! I have no voice! I will be forced to be awake midday which is almost impossible for me to do without huge amounts of caffeine which will burn a hole in my stomach. Turn Back, O Woman!

Then I remembered: it's always like this. This is just resistance.

Today was pre-production: We played through all the songs and did some loose arrangements. "Full Catastrophe" got a new groove and some harmonies. "Back at the Fruit Tree" got a Beatles-esque "Getting Better" treatment; "Fear the Gap" got a new last verse, and we agreed to carry Tracy Grammer up the studio steps if need be to get her promised background vox on the tune ("Gap, gap, gap, gap, gap...") and perhaps some crazed fiddle, too, if she's willing. There are a couple of environmental tunes that I am excited about, songs I wrote two years ago that I'd almost forgotten about: "Hakatai," which is a sort of "Clementine" rip-off, a la Sister Holler, and "Last Train Home," which is the song I am the most excited about of all, at least for this five minutes. "I Am Half My Mother's Age" is pretty much ready to go, and I think we'll start with that one when we enter the studio on Sunday. (Today we only made it as far as Katryna's and Dave's music room; we decided to save the gas and not turn on the heat in the studio and instead record our experiments on Garage Band. What a great invention!)

I love love love love my band. I was saying to Katryna and Dave, "We are organic now. Back in the 90s, we were five people trying to compromise. Now we're just in service of the song and of that elusive person who is meant to hear it and have it mean something to him or her."

And we don't get to know who that person is. We could go all market driven on our audience and try to write and produce songs they will love and want, but that seems somewhat soul-killing. As much as I hated it when my artists took directions I didn't love when I was a passionate young music fan, I now get that artists have to follow the muse, not the dollars. Besides, following the dollars doesn't always work. I won't name names.

The point is to love what you do, what you sing, what you play. We are making this CD for ourselves and for the audience that will organically come to it. I hope that will spark a dialogue; I hope the songs will spark dialogues, inside and outside. I hope someone will see his or her journey and feel less alone, the way I did when I heard Joni Mitchell's "Case of You" when I was a miserably-in-love 21-year-old.

Also, I love to sing background vocals, to layer vocals, and that's the one musical direction I feel sure about on this CD. Lots and lots of vocals, please!

I bought the Robert Plant/ Alison Krauss CD. Delicious. This is more my speed than the White Stripes, though I am also enjoying Elephant. Also, the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives" and everything from Picaesque. YUM!!!! There's so much good music out there! Who knew? And it's so easy to get! I love iTunes! Keep on suggesting stuff to me, friends. I am loving it.

I am reading Sylvia Boorstein recently. I can't recommend her highly enough. She's a Buddhist meditation teacher and she writes anecdotally, short pieces perfect for before bedtime. I am also reading Kevin Henkes a lot. Elle prefers "Chrysanthemum." Jay likes "Moo Baa La La La." Tonight when I pulled it out pre-bedtime, he cackled and went, "La La La!"

Thursday, December 03, 2009

New Music

Katryna says we need to listen to some new music to get inspired for our recording (starting tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 4!!!!) the way Aimee Mann listened to The Zombies for Whatever (one of our all time faves.) So to that end, I bought The White Stripes Elephant and the Decemberists' Picaresque. I like both so far, but especially the latter band. What a drummer! I might have to buy more of their CDs. One of my writers suggested both bands recently (thanks, Melissa!) and another asked me to figure out the chords for "Eli the Barrow Boy" in 2004 or something. I should've gotten wise back then.

Please send me suggestions of artists and bands I might like! I am looking for good lyrics, rich acoustic sounds, post 2000.

This new song has nothing to do with these new sounds. It's just something I wrote for my kids.

Fear The Gap
Every evening about 6 o’clock
I fit the puzzle pieces, I organize the blocks
I put all the books back on the shelf
I lie down with you and we say:
All will be well, all will be well, all will be well

Some would say that it’s all about the seasons
There are times for amusement and teasing out the reasons
There are times when the fields
Are refusing to yield
And you feel like there’s no one to blame
There’s no one who feels the same
You fear the gap
You fear the gap
You fear the gap
You fear the gap

Every morning about 6 o’clock
You run down the hallway and I pick you up
You curl up and say, “What are we doing today?”
You seem like you’ve grown up overnight.
I fear the gap
I fear the gap
I fear the gap
I fear the gap

And one day I’ll be convinced it’s true
I’m alone with me, and you’re alone with you.

Every day at some point, I refuse to look
I get my hands busy, stick my face in a book
There’s somebody out there I don’t want to see
Someone needs my help, but there is not enough for me
I fortify excuses I toss them in the fire
I think of all the good I’ll do the day after I retire
And so it’s up to me to do it all
And instead of omnipotence
I feel so small.
I feel the gap x 4
Don’t fear the gap x 8

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2009

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dear Muse

Dear Muse,

First of all, I want to thank you. I take you for granted, I know I do. And after all we’ve been through in my lifetime, I should know better. Remember when the best you gave me was
Pegasus the Flying Horse
Flying over land and sea
Pegasus the Magic horse
The magic horse was he!

You’ve been steadfast and loyal. As one of my writers pointed out today, you are well-trained to show up when I beckon you and give me the goods, or at least goods enough.

So it feels greedy of me to ask for more. But I want more. I want my book to be better, muse. I want my writing to be funnier, wittier, filled with colossus content. I want wisdom to ooze off my fingers into the blank docs on my screen. I want lyrics to whip off my pen, dazzling me and bringing me to tears and gales of laughter.

Here’s what I get. I get that in order for you to perform at your best, I have to feed you. I can’t just read DuctTape marketing blogs and Patti Digh’s tweets. You were satisfied with a diet of The New Yorker and the New York Times for awhile, but I can’t seem even to manage that anymore. But if all I read is non-fiction—realistic, newsy non-fiction—then that’s all I’ll be able to write. You want the new John Irving. You want Sharon Olds poetry. You want songs by the White Stripes, the Decemberists and artists we haven’t even heard yet.

Yesterday I found an old mix on my iPod from 2004—a pre-mom mix. It was like a little window into my old life. I’ve been peeking into my old life a lot recently. My old clothes fit again, and putting them on is like stepping backwards in time. Can I really be a responsible mother in my old Levis with the black-eyed Susan patch? Can I still be a loving, good wife while listening to something beyond Dan Zanes and HooteNanny? Will sarcasm ever be allowed again?

As always, I defer to you. I know that we work as partners, that we are dependent on each other. I know that if I try to boss you around, all the gossamer you give me will end up cobwebbing up my hands. I have all sorts of ideas about the songs, books, essays, sermons, poems, blog posts I want to write this year. So I will do what works best; I’ll see what’s sparking your interest and follow your lead.

And I won’t forget to go for that daily run. I notice that you need that. Sometime about five minutes into the park, the ideas start poking up out of the ground, and my hardest task is to remember them when we get home.

Happy New Year.

Thank you.

Love, Nerissa

Monday, November 30, 2009

More Than Enough

More Than Enough
Happily ever after
Nail it all to the floor
Take the photo now and frame it
I don’t want anything more
I get that it’s not about houses and cars,
The right clothes and all of that stuff
It’s about you and me and the love that we make
And that’s so much more than enough
That’s so much more than enough.

What are we having for dinner?
What do you mean that you’re bored?
What do you mean you’re going out with your friends?
I thought it was me you adored?
I get that it’s not about Yoko and John
And reinforcing all of the binding
It is my mission to protect your solitude
But sometimes I might need reminding
Sometimes I might need reminding.

Follow that crazy gingerbread trail
Follow that constant North Star
See what is calling you deep from yourself
To see who you really are
I get that it’s not about fortune and fame
And my fifteen eons of bluff
It’s about finding flow so wherever we go
We are fully engaged in our stuff
And that’s so much more than enough.

Twenty three hours of labor
Nine months of wondering who
Suddenly something is shifting
Suddenly someone is you.
Smitten for keeps on arrival
New God with a head full of fluff
And all that you have is to want what you have
And that’s so much more than enough.
That’s so much more than enough.

Happily ever after, two kids crawling on the floor
All of our cups are overflowing
Somebody still wants to pour
I get that it’s not about comfort and ease
But uniting when the going gets rough
And to spread it around, to our world, to our town
That's how you get more than enough
I’ll always have more than enough
We’ll always have more than enough.
Nerissa Nields
© Peter Quince Publishing All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quickie for Thanksgiving and a cartoon

In what might be my favorite parental comeuppance ever:
Elle (whose real name is Lila) picked out a get well card for her grandmother who had surgery on Monday.
Yesterday, I said, "Do you want to write something on the card for Mimi?"
She did. So, knowing she can't write, I said, "Do you want to try to draw an 'L'?"
She drew a straight line down.
Pressing my luck, I said, "How about an 'O'?"
She drew an "O."
I said, "I'll do the 'V' and the 'E'." Then I said, "Now here, draw another 'L'..."
She proceeded to write an "L," an "i" complete with a dot, another "L" and then said, for the "A," "You draw a roof here, and a roof here, and then you put a cross between them." Her 'A' resembles a crooked 'H', but the combined effect totally looks like LILA on the page. I freaked out, in my overenthusiastic way.
"Oh my GOD! LILA! You wrote your name! You wrote your name all by yourself! I am so so so proud of you!" and I grabbed her in a bear hug.
She immediately wriggled away, protesting, "NO, Mama, NO! Don't talk to me like that! Don't hug me like that! You are NOT proud of me! You are proud of YOU!"

Wow. She was right. (And I am proud of her.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Know When To Hold 'Em

My sweet little boy has croup. He's been running a fever for a few days now, and last night he woke up at 3am with That Cough. We did all the things you are supposed to do: ran a hot shower with the door closed, then took him outside into the cold. He was so miserable that he wouldn't even nurse. And his little voice was so hoarse and pathetic. We finally called our pediatric nurse, and because his chest was doing that scary indentation thing, she told us to go right over to the hospital.

So I bundled him up and we crossed the street at 4:15am. He started breathing better right away, but as soon as we were inside, the wheezing returned. There was no one in the ER besides staff. Still, for some reason, it took the doctor 45 minutes to see us, and only after I stuck my head out of our cubicle and said, "Um, excuse me, but what are we waiting for?" She was chatting with another doctor and gave me a look. "Me," said she. "I am your doctor." Jay meanwhile was trashing the place, literally. He's almost fifteen months and his motto is "Leave no trash can unexamined." Also manically pulling out the wires he was hooked up to to monitor his oxygen levels. So we lay down on the bed and I tried to convince him to breastfeed. Fortunately, it worked and we both dozed off. Another twenty minutes later the doc came in, asked me some annoyed questions (I suspect she is not yet a mother. She was very very young). She poked at Jay and declared that he had croup. "We'll give him some dexamethasone" (steroid) "and you should follow up with your pediatrician."

Another hour later (I am not kidding) I stuck my head out and said, "I hate to bother you" (she was typing on a computer) "but I really need to go home so I can get to work. It's six am."
She glared at me. "Has the nurse brought you your meds yet?"
"No," I said, trying not to make it sound like it was my fault, though that was her implication.
"He'll be right there," she snapped. And he was, five minutes later.

Before I'd stuck my head out, I was debating: should I stick my head out or should I just calmly meditate on What Is? Is this just the way ERs are? Are things supposed to take forever? At what point do I use skillful means to try to get the show on the road? As it turned out, they really had forgotten about me, and it was good that I acted like a squeaky wheel. I was not rude; just present. And the doctor didn't like that I seemed to be questioning her timing.

When I finally got out of the hospital, the sun was rising and the sky was November gorgeous: pink streaks across the sky, the air so perfectly chilled, Jay alert and interested in the walk home. When I told Tom about the weird delays, he was incensed. "You should write a letter!" he said. I probably should, for the public good, or whatever, but I know I won't. If I hadn't been delayed, I would have missed the sunrise. On the other hand, if I had waited even a few more minutes to stick my head out each time, I also would have missed the sunrise. There's always a gift, hidden somewhere, sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously. And someday, that doctor will have a child who will have croup and she might remember how completely bleary I was when she finally came into our cubicle to question me about Jay's symptoms, and she might feel some remorse about not hurrying along to get the rampaging toddler out of the ER. Like me, she will look back at all her former impatience with new moms and say, "Oh, I get it." But the timing's not hers yet.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Authenticity and Originality

My friend Lisa Niedermeyer, an amazing dancer and choreographer, sent me this wonderful quotation just now. As I have written before, especially around the release of our fourteenth album Sister Holler, this notion that "Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent" saved me from a life of non-art. When I was a child and a young teen, I used to lie in my bed in the morning and despair about the notion of originality. Every good idea I had seemed like it came from somewhere else. Plus, there were only twelve tones on the keyboard; how, on an earth of 5 billion people (this was the early 80's), was one expected to make up an original melody?

When I was nineteen and working as the music instructor at a day camp, the camp's assistant director came into my classroom with his guitar and played along with me. He was just so obviously much better than I was that I said to him after class, "I feel like a phony next to you. You can really play! I'm such a beginner compared to you."

He said something so helpful to me: "There are as many different guitarists as there are people! You have your own style. And think about George Harrison. He isn't the best guitarist in the world by a long shot. he's got a lot of limitations as a guitarist, in fact. But can you imagine the Beatles without his sound?"

Nope, sure can't. We each really do have our own gift to bring to the world, and I got it that day back in 1986. After that insight, I started writing songs again after a hiatus of three years during which time I thought my chances of ever "going anywhere" as an artist were so slim it wasn't worth even writing for fun.

What a waste of three years!

I had a similar insight last week in yoga class. I'd been going on the notion that I would never really be a yoga teacher because I doubt very much that I could ever do this: In fact, I doubt I will be able to do seventy percent of the poses in my text. So what?
1. I can help little old people (as I will be a little old yoga teacher) and
2. tons of great teachers had mediocre chops, across the board. What is it they say? If you can't do, teach.

Katryna and Dave came over yesterday and at my dining room table with Martin guitars in our laps, we played through a bunch of songs I've been writing over the course of the past three years. Some of these songs haven't really seen the light of day, and it had made me sad to think they never would. I've been so busy with motherhood, writing books, running my workshops and loving my clients (not to mention my yoga practice) that I haven't taken care of my songs properly. Yesterday they got to come out and play, stretch their legs and canter around. Katryna and Dave had all sorts of fabulous ideas for arrangements, and we set up some dates to record them. Afterwards, I felt more mentally healthy than I have in years. I think artists need to be listened to, seen. Actually, I think we all need that. (Really, actually, I think we are all artists.) Our new CD still needs a good title, and there might even be a couple more songs to add to the pen, but I can see it now, and it's thrilling. The idea that we need to be original seems old and quaint to me now, as incongruous as a Betamax. Of course we will be original, because no one has lived our lives and has had our experiences. Of course we will overlap too, because everyone has lived lives and had experiences like ours. Our only job is to be authentically ourselves as we write, learn, arrange, perform and edit. Keep asking ourselves: is this what I want to say? Is this the way I want to say it? And to keep working at it until we get to yes, yes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Easy People at the Iron Horse

This film was made by the wonderful and amazing Robert Jonas. To see more of his films, go here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Kali Time

In yoga class on Friday, my teacher talked about the goddess, Kali. Unlike some of her colleagues, she is not a lovely vision of refinement and beauty. Instead, she's kind of grotesque, with a blue face, her tongue sticking out and a necklace of skulls around her neck. "She wears her insides on her outsides," my teacher explained. She's the goddess of death, of dissolution, of decay. She's the goddess of time, too, and when we see deeply, we see how wonderful she is. "The beautiful leaves, when they die and fall off the trees, fertilize the earth for the next season," said my teacher.

I could see that. If there were no death, this planet would be even more hopelessly overpopulated than it is now. Of course we know this in theory, but that doesn't make it any easier when we lose someone we love. And while my greatest struggle these days is my story that there is "not enough time," the truth is that our time limitations are tremendous gifts, because they force us to make choices. It's within the framework of these choices that we see what really matters to us. It's within this construct that we live our lives.

There is no equivalent in Greek mythology to Kali. The closest goddess of this kind might be Hera who, though beautiful, was jealous and vicious. Medusa is very Kali-esque, but she was no goddess, just a punk Gorgon.

In the Tantric tradition, which is the school of yoga in which I am immersed, Kali represents the Ultimate Reality, Byron Katie's What Is, which I continue to believe is nearly as helpful to worship as that loving, steadfast God/Mother of my own understanding. My hope is that over time, these two will merge for me, but I'm not that wise yet. I respect Kali in her guise as What Is. I love my conception of God––Father, Mother, Black Madonna, Holy Spirit–– the way I love my parents, husband, children, sisters, dear ones.

Kali followed me around all day on Friday, and by evening when our I Wanna Be A Woman Like Me creativity retreat started, she had me by the throat and insisted I dedicate the weekend to her. It was good timing; as I posted last week, we are full on within the season of Scorpio, which is Kali time for sure. Scorpio is about going deep; it's about death; it's about psychological probing, turning inwards, meeting our deepest fears about being unlovable, not good enough, not having enough. And, when we bravely go "down there" and meet these fears, sit with them as if they weren't monsters until they cease to be, we rise like the phoenix, or the Scorpion Golden Eagle, and we are given the gift of sight.

So we gathered together, thirteen amazing women, and wrote together, bringing forth our inner Kali and forging the kind of bond you only get when you are brave enough to share deeply. We ate delicious healthy food. We painted and drew and sang in three-part harmony. On Saturday night, in her father's arms en route to bed, Elle announced in a small, shy voice, "I want to be a woman like me."

I figure my work is pretty much done now.

So many highlights. One big one was that this was the first time Katyrna has co-lead with me, and what a joy to work with her! I think we should go into business together. (Oh, yeah...) It was awe inspiring to watch the magic happen with each woman as she brought forth her inner treasures. I felt refreshed and renewed and reminded again about how much I love to draw and paint and color and work with my hands.

On Sunday, we made vision boards. I had intended to do the whole The Secret thing with mine; trying to manifest HUGE THINGS FOR MY CAREER! through pasting images onto a board and searing them into my consciousness. So I took a photo my mother had sent me of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday party last May. Onstage is Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Pete himself. I cut out an image of myself playing the guitar and glued it into the picture so that if you squint it sort of looks like I'm on stage with them all. But then my collage got away from me. I ripped through a bunch of yoga journals and kept being drawn to the face of Angela Farmer, a 71-year-old yoga teacher from the Greek island of Lesbos.

So I pasted her in. Then I cut out and glued on some family photos that had been waiting to be organized, some more yoga poses, some quotations, an image of a lovely painting of a farmhouse. So much for my grand ambitions. Later in the evening after the retreatants had gone home, I sat in meditation and visualized myself on stage with those luminaries from the photo. I was able to do it easily; after all, I actually have been onstage with Joan, Tao and Pete, and it wasn't too much of a stretch to put Bruce and Dave M up there too. So I put myself on stage with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, definitely my two greatest musical heroes who are still alive. Again, not too hard. It would be fun to be onstage with them, but when I think about the end of my life, lying on my deathbed, pouring through my dearest memories, I suspect that even if I were to be onstage with any of the above, those memories wouldn't crack my top 100. What I want for my future today is deep, loving connections with my husband, children, sisters, parents; I want a strong, healthy body that grows more flexible with age, that weathers well. I want an ever deepening connection with all the forms of God, even the scary ones. I want to love. I want the vision of my vision board, which as it turns out, is a pretty clear reflection of what I already have.

Thank you, Kali.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Happy Samhein

The Nields-Duffy house is a veritable house of virus currently. Elle's teacher is in the hospital across the street with H1N1 (maybe-she's being treated for it but they can't diagnose yet), and three of four of us have succumbed to a stomach virus (Jay has thus far been protected by breast milk antibodies). Our two main babysitters both bowed out at certain (critical) moments last week.

On Halloween, I dragged myself out of the house and trotted down the road into town to a yoga class. It was warm and drizzly, and the room was packed. Someone passed a blond wig around the room, and our teacher Amy finally put it on the statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God who can take a joke. Halloween, she said, is the pagan new year, also known as Samhein, pronounced "Sowen" (sow like cow, emphasis on first syllable.) It's the time of year when we turn to the darkness, we turn within. The root of "intention" is connected to "turn." (Yes, we did some twists in class). The world gets darker and darker for the next six weeks, and this darkness is the best, most auspicious time to plant these seeds of intention.

It's also the season of Scorpio, the sign of death, depth, determination and occasionally despair. Scorpio is known as the scorpion, but the lesser known avatar is the golden eagle, who rises up like a phoenix and sees farther and better than any other creature. So this is the season of seeing deeply, as well.

So it was fitting that the day after Halloween we also lost an hour of daylight in the afternoon, which always prompts me to turn inward in the evening, cozy up a bit earlier to the kitchen table and put on an extra sweatshirt. Tom and Elle planted last fall's garlic buds on Sunday, and we went up to our church for the first time in weeks. I sang a new song, "Back at the Fruit Tree," my ode to Samheim, and Steve preached about the slow recession of fear in his own experience which gave me great hopes for my future years.

I love this season of Scorpio, as brutal as it can be. I used to be afraid of it, but a dear friend many many years ago told me that if I were willing to sit with my worst fears, really stay with them, they would lose their bite and become like sad and lovable dogs. That friend died in a car crash on Halloween eight years ago.

This season––the six weeks between Halloween and Christmas–– holds such opposites in union, and like magnets whose poles are aligned against each other, the opposites slide off each other in jarring ways. On Sunday afternoon, a perfect New England fall day, as I started my run through the park, marveling at the mottled light through the few still clinging leaves, I saw that someone had spray painted racist slurs and "white power" on the road and the signs and the benches. My mind swung like a pendulum: Horrible! Those kids should be locked away! But they're just confused kids. But so were the kids at Columbine! Beware! Stop them! Lock them up! But silencing them like that will only make them martyrs for other confused kids. And so on.

Halloween contains this truly horrifying aspect, as well as the more traditional graveyard kinds of fears; and it contains the parade shuffling down Main Street in Northampton; a collection of giraffes, princesses, pirates, witches, Star Wars and Wizard of Oz characters and portable-sized ladybugs. It contains the trilling of little voices finding their power in "trick or treat!"

And the season has its share of dark days where it's still too soon for the reprieve of the white snow cover to relieve our eyes; where many of us legitimately feel the spiral down into the darkness and fear that we'll never bounce back up. I don't feel this way today. In years past, I've thought I had SAD. This year, I am embracing the darkness. (Also turning on the lights in the house and playing a lot of music.)

Last week I posted about my disappointment in seeing various aspects of aging in my 42-year-old face. As I grieved my twenties and my twenty-eight-year-old skin which is as dead as the Berlin Wall, I told Tom, "This is going to be good. I need to do this now so I can move past it and embrace aging. But right now I need to be sad." And so I was for a few days. Good and sad. Viruses are helpful with this, in that being sick forced me to be still and contemplate. As the life returned to me, I tried on a bunch of old clothes from the 90s and I and my inner 28-year-old both agreed that they were passe anyway. I put on a sweater from J. Jill and my clunky practical shoes and made some phone calls to older friends who can laugh and sigh and nod and remember what it was like to be 42, right at the midpoint where some still call you young and some, according to my husband who is 47, have no qualms about calling out, "Hey, old man!" as we pass on down the street. And what I learned is that if you love what is, life just gets better and better and richer and sweeter. My grandmother's cheeks were the softest skin I ever felt. Her hands with what she called "liver spots" were so gentle. In my yoga class on Halloween, as I sat in meditation, I vowed to love my body incrementally more with each day that passes. And does my body deserve it! It's survived two pregnancies and childbirths, breastfeeding, not to mention the ridiculous shoes I made it wear in the 90s when every night we loaded in and out of rock clubs around the country, a feat akin to moving a small apartment twice a day.

And my intention goes beyond my own body. Liberation for all who struggle with the jowels and the wattles and the gray hairs! The most radically feminist thing I can do is choose to love my body exactly as it is, exactly as it changes day to day. I think Anne Lamott has a piece in which she discusses her jiggly thighs and refers to them as "the aunties." I love that. In this season of the witch, let's claim Halloween as our own celebration of the crone. My former mother-in-law told us, after she turned sixty, that she suddenly became invisible to the culture. Older women, she said, are either vilified, ridiculed or ignored. But real witches, real crones have wisdom, kindness, power and magic. They are full of the mystery of life, which they generously share if asked nicely. If I ever forget that, I have only to think of my friend who died on Halloween, one of the wisest, most generous, magical women I've ever known.

When I was a young teen, the idea that a woman could rock out was hard for me to get my mind around. There was Heart. There was Pat Benatar. There had once been Janis Joplin, but she was long gone. But by the time I was in my twenties, the popular music scene was dominated by women. Same with Country. Same with Jazz. Though the pendulum seems to have swung a bit the other way in the last decade, I have no doubt it will swing again. I have no doubt that we'll see a woman president in my life time. And I choose to believe that older women will be a powerful, wonderful, inspiring force in the world in the next twenty years. I have to. I see the generation of girls coming along, and there is no force on the planet that can hold these young ladies back.

And if I'm wrong about the power shift, the paradigm shift, that's ok too. The shift has occurred in me. I will still love my aging face, the aging faces of my friends, the graying, the sagging. It's such a waste of time and love not to.

So happy Samhein; happy new year. What is the darkness in you that you think can't afford to be met with light? Is it safe in there? Can you go to it and nurture it, like a mother to an inborn babe? Can you plunge down into the darkness, and like the eagle, rise up, see far, and tell the rest of us what you see? Can you go by yourself, knowing that in just a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving, and you can choose to invite in those you most adore to hunker down with and eat the fruits of the harvest, of all your hard work?

That's what I'm planning on.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Smiles Raise Jowls

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with infinite sighing.
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfillment.
-Derek Mahon

I love this time of year. There is nothing more beautiful to my eyes than the light shining into my bedroom in mid-afternoon, filtered through the golden maples leaves to the west; the unflinching blue of the sky, the stateliness of the oaks, still holding on to their leaves when other trees are bare. I love the dying gardens, the shock of the asters and mums still blooming in my neighbor's garden. Are you still here? I ask them as I pass on my morning run. Meanwhile, i am solidly in long johns and wool socks, refusing to leave the house without some ludicrous head covering.

But this year the dying of the light is getting to me, as is the general mood of anxiety about H1N1 and the recent plunging of the Dow. Last Friday, I scrambled to get to a hair appointment which I'd broken once already because I'd double booked myself. As I sat in front of the mirror, I noticed to my horror that my face had fallen.

Is this even an expression people still use? My mother told me, when she was my age and I was fifteen or so, that faces fall, "like this," she said, pulling the skin on either side of her mouth down, creating jowls. "A face lift is when the doctor pulls it all back up and sews it behind your ears. You can see the wrinkles in old people behind their ears where the pulled-up skin would go." She made noises about not ruling out a face lift now that she was "that age." (For the record, she never did it, nor does she dye her hair which is still, in her mid-sixties, mostly dark brown. I have inherited my father's hair.)

So there I was, forced to stare at my reflection for an hour and a half. Usually I like to do this. I have a practice that's all about engaging myself in the mirror and telling myself kind things to make up for the abuse I hurled on my reflection as a nineteen year old. But something in the fallen jowls bummed me out, and that line from "Maggie Mae" went around and around in my head: "The morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age."

I really thought I'd be more evolved than this, so part of my angst was a disappointment in myself for being so vain. I wrote a song about plastic surgery in 1992, so now I can never have it, which is good, because I am terrified of knives. But somehow I thought I'd be immune to certain aspects of the aging process, like, oh, the whole wrinkles thing, the neck wattle, the sagging, the spread. Pretty much all of it, actually. Somehow last Friday, it felt like one of those storms that arrives this time of year and whips the last of the red and orange leaves off the trees in one fell swoop, changing the season from autumn to fall overnight.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that there are some people who are always going to focus on the first noble truth of Buddhism ("Life is suffering") and some others who are going to focus on the third ("There is a way out of suffering.") The greater part of my spiritual work is about deep acceptance. I am like the prisoners of infinite choice in the poem above, and I have been saved over and over by having limits forced upon me and then figuring out why that limit is the best thing that ever happened to me. But I also believe some of that Law of Attraction stuff about manifesting our desires. It certainly seems to happen to me on a pretty regular basis. (But not all the time.) I am after all a life coach, and the bulk of my work is to see ways in which suffering can be alleviated.

We had a show at the Iron Horse on Friday. These shows tend to be restorative. They are opportunities for us to take a good accounting of where we are artistically. We tend to debut new material at the Horse, and Friday was no exception. In fact, I had spent the previous week in a frenzy of songwriting, finishing two songs and writing two more besides. On Friday, before the fated hair appointment, I had missed my yoga class because George Harrison (our chocolate lab) had wandered out of our yard when sleep-deprived Tom had opened the gate instead of closing it. (I didn't mention that last week, and this week too, our children have re-discovered that when they cry for us in the night, we respond. They are liking this a lot, and no one is sleeping much.) So Tom went looking for George while I brought Elle to school and was too late for yoga. Instead, I came back home and wrote an entire new song in about a half-hour.

We arrived at the club, my two kids in tow, our beloved Patty not there because she was recovering in New Jersey from having donated her kidney to her sister's husband's nephew. It felt so strange not to see her there; she's an integral part of our Iron Horse experience, not to mention we were concerned for her recovery. Elle had dressed me in a shirt that fit me in the 90s. On Friday, its silky buttons kept opening at inopportune moments onstage. Our dear friend Jonas was filming the show. My dentist was in the audience, as was my minister and some of my best friends. Elle and Jay ran back and forth in the aisles, and as I sang and tried to keep my shirt closed, I kept track of their comings and goings.

The show was not sold out. I am not sure if this was the first time we had failed to sell out the club, but it certainly was the most noticeable. Capacity is 180, and our ticket sales were 140, so it wasn't terrible, just not the usual manic energy one receives from a full house. I watched the stories swirl around about aging and diminishing numbers and concentrated instead on authenticity and the way my sister's voice sounds when mine joins it; the fun of playing with Dave Chalfant and the magical elements he brings to our music. We debuted two new songs and I felt vital again, the way I only can when we are singing new stuff.

But part of me went to that place of being mad at myself for not working harder to envision a sold-out show, to manifest a Beatles-like career, to be a straight A student in the music world. Part of me is still struggling with acceptance about the numbers. Part of me still takes it personally, even though numbers are down at the Iron Horse, among all of my other musician friends and across the board in the music world, folk, pop, rock, hip hop, even country. Why would it be different for me?

A few things helped right off the bat. I remembered that whenever I feel this way, I'm about to hit my edge and see things differently. Nirvana is samsara, and samsara is nirvana. Sadness and grief always lead to epiphany and a new re-ordering. We grow. Also, I had to go to the dentist to have a filling replaced. By the time I came in, it was Tuesday and I had mostly digested the spiritual lessons of the weekend. I was grateful again: grateful that I have had exactly the life I have. Grateful for library books, for the color of my son's hair, for the warm sunny days we had at the end of the weekend, for my yoga practice. On Monday I had gone to a different class (because my teacher was sick) and learned the term Anava Mala, which roughly translated means, "a limited, veiled view of the soul; a minimizing view." When we are in this mode, we experience a false duality. We see ourselves as separate from God, and our ego blooms. I did my practice and reconnected with my body, wept for being so mean to my jowls and forgave myself for my vanity. So I was in a better place in the dentist's chair than in the hairdresser's.

My dentist and her assistant had photos up of all sorts of scenes in nature, including shots of lions and South American primates as well as their two dogs. I meditated on the photos as they drilled and vacuumed, and I began to worry about their livelihood. Does a dentist make enough money in this economy? My dentist is extremely reasonably priced, and I calculated her hourly rate and the number of employees she has, and became concerned. Then I thought about how much this might be costing me; I'd neglected to ask. Oh, well, I thought. Whatever it costs, I am glad to support these folks. I love them. And I did. I just felt waves of love fill me, even as my tooth was being drilled. Eventually they took the purple mouth dam out of my jaws and I was able to blurt out, "I just love you guys! You do such amazing work!"

"Well," said my dentist. "I wanted to tell you the same thing. We were really moved by your show on Friday. And so we want to offer you--you and your family and Katryna's family--a permanent discount on dental services. Because of the work you guys do for the community."

Gifts come in all sorts of ways. As an audience member, I much prefer a moderately full room to a sold out show. The people who came to our show had a great time; no one other than we cared or noticed that every chair wasn't filled.
And smiles raise jowls. That's the best plastic surgery there is. I'll take my two kids outdoors on a sunny autumn Sunday over the version of me who became a huge pop star any day. Anyway, that version is off somewhere in the afterlife of dead leaves. God bless her.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Which Side Are You On?

I wrote this song over the course of the past 3 weeks. Katryna suggested the title and the idea that in a round world, there are no sides. She also suggested the image of the sun creating a silver lining, and how what that really means is that on the other side of the cloud, the sun is completely visible. Elle wrote the line "shake a kula," which is cool because a kula is the word for community in the world of Anusara yoga, which is the tradition I am pursuing as a student. We will be debuting this song on Friday at our Iron Horse show.

Ask me if I smoke? I don’t
Not in my back yard you won’t
Keep to your own side of the tracks
Early morning on the bus
Keep on just ignoring us
Wishing we’d stay hunkered in the back
Stinking freaks out on the street
Messing with your chill we meet
Aren’t you glad that you’re not her
Shake a kula mix it up
Toss us in a giant cup
Turn it in the gyre and stir stir stir

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.

Up in Northern Pakistan
They’re building schools and making plans
And teaching girls their knowledge to increase
Pass it forward, pass it on,
In reaches of Afghanistan
Pennies fill the jar for peace
Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew
Zoroaster, Sikh, Hindu
Each knows how to love a newborn baby
Each knows how to greet the sun
Weep when the beloved’s gone
Fall upon the ground crying, Save me, save me

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.

(Insert wicked cool guitar solo by Dave C. here.)

You tell her she can’t understand
Nothing went as you had planned
Slam the door and slam it again
Get into your car and go
M. Ward’s on the radio
Windshield wipers can’t beat the rain
Driving home you see a cloud
Makes the sun a giant shroud
Makes you understand the phrase: silver lining
Though it’s dark as far as sight
Dark can’t terminate the light
Somewhere on the other side the sun is shining

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.

Nerissa Nields & Katryna Nields
Oct. 19, 2009
©2009 Peter Quince Publishing, ASCAP
All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 19, 2009

Il Sistema

Jay and I watched this today, both of us totally transfixed. Jay's attention didn't waver except during the parts where the conductor spoke. Jay also clapped along (though not exactly on the beat) when the orchestra members clapped. Watch with your kids. For more about Il Sistima, click here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marmosets and Writing and Life Missiony Thoughts

Please don't throw eggs at me for posting this picture of Cesar Millan, AKA "The Dog Whisperer." I know some of you have strong feelings about his horribleness as a dog trainer (see under "comments" here) and I want to reassure you that I am not endorsing him in any way as such. In fact, I did rent three Netflix discs worth of his TV show and was only able to watch one and a half episodes of the program, each clocking in at 20 minutes. I found the show strange and disturbing and not entertaining, so I sent the discs back (also giving up on training my dog George Harrison, but that's another story. George Harrison is great, by the way. Totally not pooping on the carpet and mostly not eating our food since we started keeping it on top of the refrigerator.)

This particular image comes from Sunday's New York Times. I am posting it because I have a huge marmoset reaction to it every time it enters my field of vision.

The marmoset reaction is a term coined by my mentor, Martha Beck. She uses it to denote the look one has when one does a double-take, as marmosets are famous for doing (when something interests them, they kind of twirl their heads and bug their eyes out). She says we need to pay close attention to these reactions in ourselves because they are pointing us to the truth (or at least to something really cool, something one simply must have like this Irish cable knit sweater which I covet. I've wanted one since I was sixteen and my former best friend Leila Corcoran showed up from boarding school one Columbus Day weekend wearing one, but I digress, and I'm not sorry. In fact, I am going to find a picture of it and post it now.)

Anyway, as I examined my strong positive reaction to this image of Cesar Millan, I realized what impresses me most is his carriage. I was impressed with his carriage in the Dog Whisperer videos too. He stands with such natural authority, so full-chested, leading with his heart the way my Anusara yoga teachers do. Would you mess with him? I wouldn't.

My family spent four blissful days in the mountains of the Adirondacks, a place we spend as much of our free time as possible. I have been coming to a small town in the high peaks since I was a baby (before then, actually, but again: another story) and I find the mountain air, the lack of internet, the birches, the bald peaks refresh me more consistently and predictably than anything else. My whole family loves it there, and part of the fun is the four hour drive during which we listen to my iPod. On Friday's drive, we found a talk by Martin Seligman on TEDTalks, a wonderful and amazing resource that all should discover. Seligman has been studying the art of happiness for over thirty years, and as such, he tell us that there are three kinds of happiness one may pursue in order to live a "happy" life.

The first is to seek and attain a life of pleasure and positive emotions. Pleasure is defined by gaining sensory delights: food, sex, beautiful vacation homes, Irish cable knit sweaters, etc. Positive emotions come from being in satisfying relationships, love, marriage, parenthood, deep long lasting friendships. It's about feeling.

The second is to seek a life that's about flow: finding work that is absorbing and engaging, or finding a hobby that is like that. Golf, bridge, gun running, doesn't matter what, as long as you lose track of time when you do it. It's about not feeling.

The third way to a happy life is through meaning. Seligman writes, "A meaningful life consists of again knowing what your highest strengths and talents are and using them in the service of something that you believe is bigger than you are." It's about feeling it all--happiness, sadness, rage and fear--and learning to surf on a wave of equanimity.

As I posted earlier this month, I am reading Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, which is all about how deep practice creates skills in the practitioner. Deep practice is when you engage your focus, take action toward a goal (say, playing a scale or throwing a football pass), make mistakes, correct them, and get it right s-l-o-w-l-y. It's that feeling you have when you really want to achieve something and you're not quite getting it. As awful as that might feel (to me it feels so awful I often quit before the miracle happens), this is what creates myelin, and myelin is what creates talent. I've been trying to apply this to everything I do: parenting, guitar playing, singing, being a wife, friend, coach, writer, housekeeper, lightbulb-changer, etc. There's something in Cesar Millan's stance that speaks to this yearning to improve, especially in the realm of present moment living. He is so there. His very presence connotes presence. His story is inspiring too: he only just became legal here after immigrating in the early 90s. With very poor English, he had aspirations to be on television. His employer, Jada Pinkett, who later became his student, told him he was not yet ready for prime time but encouraged him to pursue his dream.

He's hugely rich now, and I am sure he is able to fulfill all his earthly desires. But what Seligman's work concludes over and over again is that a life of pleasure does not lead to long term happiness. As we all know, there are diminishing returns to pleasure: one bite of chocolate cake is heavenly, the next OK, but by the end of the slice, we're not really tasting it anymore. Eat a whole cake and you feel sick and disgusted. It's the same with anything, even vacation homes and cable knit sweaters (in fact, I'm sick of them already, having spent ten minutes googling them online.)

He's also engaged in his work. The article in the Times talked about how passionate he is about his dogs, how he and his wife Ilusion have built an empire around his work. But does he live for something greater than himself?

I don't know. But I like the way he holds his body. And all this gives me the courage that one can indeed unite practice and play, a question I was struggling with a few weeks ago. In fact, it is in finding one's calling in life--one's mission, one's purpose--and pursuing that that all three forms of happiness come together. For if one does what one does best--in Cesar's case, train people to better live with and love their dogs--one makes the world a better place. And often this leads to wealth, friendships, relationships, and excellent food. Or Irish Fisherman pullovers. But these pleasures that create positive emotions are, as Seligman says, the cherry on top of the sundae. The sundae is the meaning and the flow.

So how does one find one's calling? Sometimes it's obvious, as it was for Cesar. He was known as El Perrero ("the dog man") from the age of seven. For others of us, it's a process rather like the game of Hot/Cold. In order to play this game properly, of course, we need to know what we are actually feeling, which for some of us is no small trick. Do we like the mountains or the ocean? Or both? Do we prefer working with people on a team or working solo? A little of each? Hotter. Colder. Ice cold. Warmer, warmer, warmer. On fire!!

We also know because if we find something we love, we lose track of time. We would pay someone to let us do it. This is the way I felt today when I got to host my first Writing It Up in the Garden teleclass. As I listened to the nine other amazing writers on the line encouraging each other's writing, finding the bits that could improve, I felt as deeply satisfied as I can remember feeling. And even before I was on the call, as I read over and listened to the work of the writers and songwriters, I lost track of time. This is also how I feel when I myself am writing, be it songs or prose. It's how I feel when I am cooking a big meal for a dinner party. The marmoset in me sits up and notices, and it's as simple as, "All right! Let's do more of that, please!"

And I may be naive, but I believe that writing for writing's sake gives meaning to a person's life. I have found for myself and for others that while one is writing, something changes in an alchemical way. I need to write the way I need to exercise, the way I need to eat carrots, the way I need to connect with my husband or other beloveds. I need to write the way I need to pray and feel the presence of something greater than myself. Writing gives meaning to my life, and because I have seen it transform the lives of my friends and clients, I know I'm not alone in believing that.

Plus, I finally found the perfect Irish sweater:

Monday, October 05, 2009

"Oh I was always afraid. but I never let it stop me. Never."-Georgia O'Keefe

A few weeks ago, back when it was still warm in the mornings, I started out on my daily run. I was fiddling with my iPhone trying to find a satisfactory podcast to listen to, changing my mind, changing the volume, looking for the place where I'd left off. By the time I'd settled on a story and was ready to pay attention to my run, I was well into the park across the street from my house. I lifted my head to take in my favorite part of the route--the crest of the first hill, after which it's downhill for awhile--and I found myself staring into the eyes of a black bear.

In all truthfulness, the bear was a good twenty yards away in a copse adjacent to the path, but he definitely met my gaze. The one thing I know about black bears is that when you encounter one, you should not run lest they think you are a meal worth pursuing. So I slowly turned and attempted a saunter out of the park. I almost bumped into a red Saab. The driver rolled down his window and said, "That bear just followed you into the park! I was watching him, and I thought I'd better follow you in too. He walked right past you into those trees over there. Do you want a ride out?"

"No thanks," I said, as the one thing I know about strange men in cars is that you should not get in with them. "I'll just leave now." And I did. I ran for twenty minutes on the streets of Northampton, circling my park and keeping an eye out for more bears. Because it hadn't occurred to me before, but of COURSE there were bears in the woods! Northampton is replete with bears, and we had one on our porch last fall (which I wrote about here.) Why wouldn't they choose to frequent the park? If I were a bear that's where I would go!

The next day, I ran into the park, right past where I'd seen the bear. I can't say I wasn't afraid, but I knew that if I let my fear win, I'd lose something crucial, not the least of which would be my beloved route.

I'm not always brave like that. Fear is a funny emotion, and someone who is brave enough to join the army might not be brave enough to speak in public. Someone who is brave enough to confront her boss on a tough issue might not be brave enough to get through an evening without eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's. As I wrote last week, I'm just beginning to discover that part of my inclination to start (and often finish) hundreds of projects, take on several careers simultaneously (musician, writer, life coach––hey, maybe I'll be a yoga teacher! Maybe I'll go to Div school and become a minister! etc, etc) is a way of not facing the truth about where I am at with some of these projects. If we had sold a million CDs, I would not be career-hopping. By constantly jumping from one project to another, tossing my little fledglings out of the nest and then immediately hatching new ones, I am shying away from my own disappointment.

I'm afraid of disappointment.

When we first started out, we encountered a cadre of older folksingers, mostly men in their fifties, who were in charge of or participants in the open mic nights we frequented. Some of them were really kind to us, encouraging and friendly. Some others regraded us as young upstarts and talked about us behind our backs, dismissing us as pop (which we took as a compliment) and fleeting (which we refused to be). There was a lot of bitterness in the way they talked about their "almost made it" moments and in the way they proclaimed their has-been status. The bitterness frightened me, and we vowed never to succumb to it ("I drink the drug of hope/With my breakfast/To ward off bitterness.") One way of combating the potential bitterness is to never acknowledge disappointments, to always spin them in a positive way. We have become masters of the silver lining, queens of making lemonade out of lemons.

But there was a lot of disappointment, too.

This past weekend, we drove out to Walton, NY to perform at the majestic Walton Theatre, an old vaudevillian venue. It was a great drive; a beautiful autumn day, the views full of crimsons and golds, greens and blue blue sky. Katryna and I brainstormed about our creativity retreat (the theme will be "I Want to Be a Woman Like Me," which is a line from our song "Georgia O" and Katryna will take a portrait of each participant. We will write, paint, draw, make paper mache bowls with favorite quotations, do vision boards, and of course, sing....) We got to see our aunt Elizabeth, a potter from nearby Gilbertsville, staying up way past our bedtime to reminisce and laugh with her.

But five minutes before the show, I peeked through the velvet curtains. There were a scattering of people in the old theatre, none of them familiar (besides our aunt). Sometimes when this happens, I just ignore it, move forward, do the show. That night, I felt like crying.

"There's a lot going on tonight!" the promotor reassured me. "Homecoming, fall weekend, blah blah blah." I still felt like crying. Katryna gave me a great pep talk which I only heard afterwards: "It's amazing that 100 people paid so much to see us! We need to play to the people who are here, not the people who aren't." Still, I felt deeply disappointed. But then I remembered that I was trying to feel these things in general, and that feeling was good, even bad feelings. So I turned to Katryna and said, "We are brave! Lots of folksingers would have given up long ago in the face of dwindling numbers, but look at us! We're still doing this!"

Brave or stupid, one might say. But I didn't say that. I still felt like crying for the first two songs and couldn't say a word to the audience. Then I got into my body (best trick ever) and did the breathing thing. The third song was "This Town Is Wrong," which is about two girls who leave the town that doesn't understand them to pursue their dreams of being musicians. I almost laughed. I didn't laugh, but I didn't want to cry anymore, and from that moment, I fell back into my groove.

Earlier Saturday, I had taken Elle to her first Suzuki "concert." I will have to write another post on Suzuki at some point. The whole experience was fabulous. But what I want to say here is that the kids, all between the ages of 3-5, played many many different versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and not much else. Earlier today, Jay was playing with an electronic toy that had the tunes to "Old Macdonald," "London Bridge" and "Twinkle Twinkle," and without really focusing on it, I kept noticing how superior a tune "Twinkle" was to the other two. I had the thought: "Wow, Mozart wrote his greatest hit at the age of 4. He died penniless in a pauper's grave. It was basically all downhill from age 4." Now of course, I don't believe that. But in a certain frame, one could see his life that way, instead of recognizing that in between "Twinkle Twinkle" and the pauper's grave he wrote some of the best music the world has ever heard, and incidentally forever changed Western music. (Which reminds me of a distinction my fellow MB life coach Pam Slim made to me the other day: if you have a problem with the word "fame," try "reach" or "impact" instead.) We put our stuff out there, and the world judges it and renders a verdict. It's up to us to either believe it or ignore the judgements and just keep creating for the joy of creating.

Elizabeth is a great example of the artist who creates out of the sheer joy of it all. She lives in a kind of potter's paradise which she and her late husband Roy built together in bucolic western NY, and she weaves all sorts of strands through her work: family, food, sensuality, elephants, spirituality, nature, architecture, mythology. She approaches individuals and art with so much spaciousness, compassion, good humor and optimism that to spend time with her is to be similarly infected. She lives with great relish, and her art reflects that. She is going to be 70 at the end of next year. Her work is better, richer, more colorful, deeper, more fun, more serious, more wonderful than it's ever been––and I have always been a fan of her work. She is not living in fear that someday she will be a has-been. She always has a new set of pots to discover on the wheel.

And I bet she's not afraid of bears, either.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Practice and Play

In my yoga class last Friday, the substitute teacher whom I love and haven't seen for awhile asked me how I was doing.

"Could you talk about resistance?" I said.

I have a tiny daily yoga practice in which I do one sun salutation, cobra, some movements that might qualify as push-ups if you excuse the fact that I'm not bringing my body anywhere near the ground, and lately something called dolphin or Pincha Mayurasana prep. I leave ten minutes to practice, and many mornings don't even come close, as Elle thinks it's hilarious to turn my downward dog into a slide. The whole thing turns into a pose called Horse, and Elle rides on me as I gallop her to the kitchen for breakfast. It's fun, but it doesn't do a lot for advancing my strength and flexibility to say nothing of my spiritual growth.

Also, the less I do yoga, the less I want to do yoga, which is true for everything I do. The less I play guitar, the less I want to play guitar. The less I meditate, the less I want to. This is true for relationships, too. I have always been less "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and more "out of sight, out of mind." So then when the alarm goes off at 6am, I don't leap from my slumbers to embrace the mat. Instead I think of all the reasons it would be better for me and the world if I slept for another ten minutes.

So I was hoping for some big epiphany from my yoga teacher last Friday, some wise piece of secret code that would change my attitude forever! Instead, she said, "People say that because I'm a yoga teacher, I must just love getting on the mat every day. That it isn't hard for me. That every time I practice I am full of light and joy. Not true. I'm as cranky as the next Joe. But I do show up. I just do it."

Ugh. That Nike appropriated wisdom again. But it's certainly the wisdom that's proved true for me in my 42 years on the planet. As Woody Allen says, 80% of life is about showing up.

The teacher went on to talk about change, and how most resistance is about not wanting to change. Oh, that one. Yes, I know a bit about that.

I am fascinated by the relationship between practice and resistance. I just wrote a chapter about it for our book on the musical family. I am thinking about it a lot these days because of my yoga journey, because I am trying to write daily and because I am thinking about enrolling Elle in Suzuki violin lessons. Last Saturday at the Pete Seeger Tribute, one of the other artists played "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," and my parents whom I was sitting next to clasped hands and started whispering to each other furiously. It turns out on their second date back in 1961 they had realized during a Pete Seeger concert while he sang that very song that they were in love. (I digress, but isn't that cute?)

Anyway, we introduced ourselves to the singer (Emily Greene), and it turns out she teaches three-year-olds how to play the violin. Just an hour earlier, as we trotted down the streets of Northampton to pick up our dinner, we passed a fiddle player busking on the street, and Elle shouted, "Mama! I want to play the violin!" Five minutes later we passed a saxophonist, and she said the same thing, so we maybe should wait for her to choose between the French horn, the flute and these other contenders before we sign her up for lessons. But at any rate, the idea of my children taking music lessons and the accompanying questions about practice are no longer in the category of "someday, a long time from now."

I am reading a fun book called The Talent Code that addresses the issue of practice head on. The author writes about myelin, this fatty substance that coats the brain's neurons to make the firing of the synapses faster. I am not far along enough in the book to say much more than this: when we practice with deep concentration, with a "rage to master" that manifests in the practitioner channeling the Clint Eastwood Squint, we coat our neurons with myelin and progress at a much faster rate than mere mortals. We create talent in ourselves. This process is hard and frustrating and not a lot of fun, and in order to maintain our intention to get better at whatever it is we are trying to master, be it the riff to "Smoke on the Water" or Pincha Mayurasana, we have to keep stoking the fire of that "rage to master." (I love that phrase! Can you tell?) Also, the building of myelin, which is something like the insulation one wraps a wire in, creates a kind of stress response, which is why so many give up the pursuit before they start to get good at their desired path.

Interesting theory. I plan to finish the book and write something more intelligent and thorough at a later date, but for now I'll just say this. What I notice is that my one-year-old son bangs on the piano every third time he circles around the play room. My daughter pulls two unmatching sticks out of the designated music box and drums on one of the many small drums we own. I know this because I catch her at it and I find the sticks in random places around the house. When I tidy up at the end of the day, I almost always find myself putting those unmatching sticks away. Of course I don’t tell her to practice her drumming any more than I tell her to practice her imaginative play with her dollhouse or to practice her puzzle skills. To her, it’s all play.

So here's where I am today: my life is so sweet right now. It's a delicious balance of family, personal health and harmony, professional satisfaction. But. I want this book Katryna and I are writing to be a beloved best-seller. I want the DVD we are making to be so wonderful that kids and parents alike choose it for car trips and make it the default, the go-to entertainment. Most of all, I want to enjoy these works of ours. I always enjoy making our CDs and writing our books. I am a process kind of gal. Taking a cue from my heroes John Lennon and Bob Dylan, I haven't always cared as much about the products once they become products. I move on to the next one. But doing so can be a kind of cop-out. In always looking to the next project, I can shortchange the current one. I don't want to do that this time. Jumping ahead to the next project while the current one is in its finishing stages is just another kind of resistance. It's a way of not dealing with the inherent grief that comes along with any artistic endeavor. Because no matter how hard we labor on our craft, the vision is going to be a little different from our initial vision, just as no child turns out exactly the way the parent thinks she will when she's a baby (thank God!) Often works of art (as well as kids) turn out much better than we imagined, and usually we can see this. But sometimes there's some disappointment. Rather than sit with it and feel it, some of us want to leap-frog into the future.

Speaking of Bob Dylan, I read an interview years ago in which he was asked what his favorite song was. He paused for a long time and said, "written or recorded?" From his perspective, those were two different animals altogether.

There are two kinds of art: art that takes place in time (dance, live music, theatre) and art that takes place in space (painting, sculpture, photography.) Books and CDs are an amalgam. There is the "time" effect of reading or listening, and there is the "space" effect of the artifact itself. I consider myself a good "time" artist. I love to perform and it's easy for me. I like the spontaneity of a performance. I am not quite as confident as a "space" artist, though I would like to be. I want the book we are writing now to be a beloved experience as it is read and played with today, and a beloved artifact, a treasure that a kid born in 2007 might love when he is five and that he packs away and finds again when he is thirty in 2037 to bring out and share with his small daughter.

Can practice still be play? Can we write this book and have a blast doing so, even when we get to the frustrating parts when the myelin is wrapping itself mercilessly around our neurons? I don't know, but I am going to find out. I am going to hold myself accountable to you, my audience and readership by saying this: I am going to practice and I am going to play. I am going to show up for the page, for the editing, for the mixing. I am going to give it my all. I'm going to make music and video and sentences that I love, that I want to hear again, see again, read again. And then I will let it go and move on to the next project, but I will have gained a new book, a new CD and a new DVD for my collection.