Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why An Artist Needs to Write Fiction, Even When There Are No Marshmallows

Do you remember the marshmallow experiment of the 60s? Briefly, some researchers nabbed a bunch of 4-year-olds and put them in a room together. Each child was given a marshmallow and told, "This is yours to eat. But if you wait to eat it until I come back, you will not only get to eat this marshmallow, but you will also get a second one! All for just waiting a few minutes!"

The results (filmed) were hilarious. Kids sidled around their marshmallows, eye-ing them, fingering them, mouthing them. Some kids just grabbed theirs as soon as the adult left the premises. Others waited a few minutes. Some resisted temptation and got their second fluffer as a reward--and purportedly scored better on SATs, got into better colleges, contributed more to the GNP, etc. These kids were followed all their lives. They are in their late forties now, maybe hitting fifty. And the experiment has been widely touted as proof that the ability to delay gratification is linked to higher performance elsewhere.

As you know, if you have been reading this blog, I participated in 30 Poems in November (I wrote a mere 5.) In January, I am about to start a blog writing class in the hopes of delving into my two blogs more fully, making them richer, more satisfying avenues of expression. Katryna, Dave and I are almost finished recording our new CD The Full Catastrophe, and Katryna has listed five new ideas for future CD projects (a Rock n Roll “Peter and the Wolf”; a tweener CD, a Christmas/Holiday CD; a project called Songs for Churches without Walls; a collection of folk artists covering Gilbert & Sullivan--and that's not even counting our CD aimed at school age children about Greek mythology, which we can't do now since Dar is releasing a record on the same topic. By the way, speaking of freak folk synchronicity, guess what Ani diFranco's new CD is named?)

All this is to say, I am at the stage of my life and career when I have more work than I can handle. I have writing that has to get done. Recently, for instance, I had to edit the edits of our web copy for our new HooteNanny website. Over the winter holiday, I have to re-read How To Be an Adult so I can facilitate a workshop on it for Smith College at the end of March. I have songs to write. I was supposed to write a solstice song. I have a verse and a chorus. Life is full and rich right now: I am producing a Solstice show at my son’s preschool; I came in to sing holiday songs to my daughter’s kindergarten; and Friday we are Caroling to the Animals at Smith Vocational/Agricultural School at 3:30pm (be there if you like Christmas Carols!) Isn't this real life more interesting than anything I could dream up?

But once upon a time, I did dream stuff up. I used to write novels: two novels and half of a third. Novels are the hardest of all literary forms in that one has to constantly re-read one's work in order to be effective, and that means it can take weeks just for a re-read. When I was writing, I would go for a few months with rough draft material, then read everything from beginning to end, then re-write, slashing the print-outs with a red pen. Then I'd edit, write new scenes, print out again, and try to re-read the whole thing as fast as I could--to keep all the story lines straight, to make sure that the characters were consistent. I wanted to write a book that the reader couldn't put down, so I had to make sure that my writing was strong enough for that kind of voracious reader.

My first novel Plastic Angel was published, but my agent couldn't sell my second novel, The Big Idea. I have a print out of it from 2008 in a gigantic three ring binder. I know why it didn't sell--I had plenty of encouraging and friendly rejection letters telling me why. In the end, one of the main characters didn't quite come through the way he needed to. Another character has an ending that doesn't make sense to me today. And finally, most importantly, the big idea wasn't big enough.

I know what I need to do. I need to pick up that big red three ring binder and re-read, with my red pen. But man, that binder weighs a million pounds. And I have SO MANY OTHER THINGS TO DO! Things that might actually earn me money. The marshmallows are all lined up for those other projects (granted, not that many marshmallows for a new CD these days, but still.)

I took the bag of marshmallows up to Jay's room this afternoon, where he and Elle were playing. Jay was stark naked, as is his 3-year-old wont, and Elle was on top of his bureau, about to leap to his bed. I said, "Hey, do you want to play a game?" and shook the bag of marshmallows in front of their eyes. I explained the rules and lay a tiny marshmallow in front of each of them on the bed. Then I left the room and closed the door. From the other side, I heard, "Jay, don't eat that. Don't. Eat. That. You will get another one if you don't eat that!"

I heard the bed springs bounce up and down as I checked the second hand on my watch. "I know," said Jay. I smiled. Perhaps trampoline-as-bed trumps marshmallow. When I came back in, both marshmallows were still sitting on the bed.

"That's great!" I said. "Now we don't have to worry about paying the Princeton Review." The kids shrugged and grinned and downed their treats.

There really is no good reason to try to re-write The Big Idea. In this market, it probably won't sell. Novelists other than the regular crowd from the New York Times Book Review don't make much from their advances anymore, and with the dawn of the e-reader, royalties are getting slimmer and slimmer. My family needs my attention on them. I have precious little time to read anything at all; should I really spend the next few years only reading myself?

But. The red 3 ring binder was up in the attic two weeks ago. Last week I brought it to my office on the second floor. Sometime over the weekend when I was too sick to do anything else, I dragged it to my bed. And opened it. And picked up my red pen. And marked up the first few pages. And scrawled myself a bunch of notes in the margins. And as I went for my run yesterday, I figured out a solution to one of the nagging plot points.

Why write?

Why tell a story?

Isn't this why we are here? Isn't this what we are for?

I don’t know if 2012 will be the year I tackle The Novel again. I do hope 2012 will be the year that I start to read again. I hope to read and re-read and let the stories of others filter and play through my mind. I hope to read to my kids—maybe even Harry Potter!—and to Tom. I hope to play the marshmallow game and win-- resisting the temptation to gobble up that which is in front of me, in favor of putting a little time in to unpaid, unplanned, unpaved ways that will lead me (I hope) closer and closer to my missions.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

House Like a Wheel (apologies to Anna McGarrigle)

What if a house were like a wheel?
How would that be any different from the way things are?
Your days would begin level enough
But then as the sun rose, imperceptibly
(Except for that one moment--which
You only catch on the rare days
When you are actually paying
attention--when the blushing dawn
quite suddenly turns the lights on),
as the day goes on
the shift.

Regularly, as you look up,
you notice that you're turning,
And it's even quite pleasant at first
Maybe it's just a gentle rocking,
and the pendulum will swing back the other way.
(Surely it will swing back, won't it?)

You rest in this denial,
Or rather, you think you are resting,
Until the dishes have crashed to the floor
And the laundry escapes its confines
in the dryer
and is replicating its experience
all over the bedrooms.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Does The Fox Say?

What does the fox say?
"I'm gonna get you!"
What does the rabbit say?
"No you won't. I'm too fast."
What does the tiger say?
"No matter how much I eat, I am always hungry."
What does the lion say?
"It's lonely at the top."
What does the Queen say?"
"I'm so tired of taking care of everyone. When will someone take care of me?"
What does the King say?
"Mistakes were made."
What does the deer say?
" ."

By Nerissa and Johnny Nields-Duffy
Nov. 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011


The last time I saw you
You were the girl next door and
I was the town Bohemian
I'd pegged you for a beauty queen
And I was right.
But I could not see your real beauty.

The last time I saw you
I wore a fat suit
That was more than a joke
Less than a lark
Intended to be
A slight of hand
A slide on a banana peel
My destiny, not yours
To spend the rest of my life
Walking with care
Not to slip again.

You gave me a voice
You gave me a hand
You ringed me in
You championed me

She did too, but in a different way.

She came in sideways, through the side door
So sweetly goofy
I couldn't possibly deny her.
Like a puppy who decides who her owner is
She chose me and I let her.

And then she began to work on me.
"That beauty queen, that beauty queen
I do not like that beauty queen.
Look, how our skin turns green
When we stand beside her.
She says she wants to be your friend
But to what end? It can't be real.
You and I should make a deal
Agree to walk right off the field."

And so I did. I walked right off,
But she didn't follow.

This straight I have visited before.
Each time I leap to capture the disc
they cheer, and I feel complete,
(Perhaps the way you did at the beauty contest?)
But presently I live in fear of losing it.
I grip it ever more tightly in my hands.
And what good is a discus unless you toss it?

So I am back on the field.
Now I will play.
Now I will sing with you.
Now I will leave behind the voices
--and let's face it, they are my own--
that leer at beauty
that do not trust it
That can not see it reflected in themselves.

I should never have been envious of you.
Your beauty was my beauty
As the rose lifts us all up
As we lose ourselves in its gaze.

Finding God

It used to be
The way to God
Was up a tree
Feeling the bark against
New palms
Hoisting torso
Over limbs
Spread eagle
At the top
Swaying in the breeze
Nearer to Thee.

Now I find You
As I sweep the floor
In this crumb
In that tumbleweed
In the careful collecting
Of all the debris
I cup my palm around my cull
And carry it to the compost pile
Where it will find its way in again.
We always do.
Nerissa Nields
Nov. 16, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Last Time You Were Here

The last time you were here
You were driving on highway five in California
Trying not to smell the cities of cattle
Fetid and groaning with institutional dharma.
He was riding shotgun
And you wanted him clean of it.
“Look over here,” you said, pointing to the birds, to the west, to the ocean.
But he turned and saw
And you could not offer an explanation.

You stopped in a small town
Hoping the flowers would distract him.
You found a salon and got a hair cut
Which made you look like your sister.
You left the hair on the cutting room floor.

Over lunch, you told him about the time
You were on the fifty-first floor
Washing your hands at a sink
This was when you were in a wheelchair
The bathroom had no walls
And the drop was a roll of the dice away.
He said, “You were lucky. But why do you take such risks? Stay here next time.“
And later, after mouths full of chicken cooked in wine with artichokes and olives,
“Did you save your hair? It’s good luck to save your hair.”
You kissed him goodbye and got back into the car and kept driving south
Cresting a hill, there was the snow shimmering off the mountain
Larger than life
Larger than Hollywood
So large it might be all a dream
Or a film
Or the afterlife
And you turned around, back to town,
To convince him to come with you,
That this time it didn’t have anything to do with luck.

Nerissa Nields
November 14, 2012

Monday, November 07, 2011

October Snowstorm

It's one of the many paradoxes of life that by the time we really become convinced that we want to--need to--change, it's too late. Not to be a downer; but I couldn't help but think this way during the aftermath of Halloween weekend. A freak snow storm caused massive power outages and caused me to wish my species hadn't wrecked the planet, and also that I had solar panels, a generator and a CO2 friendly wood stove.

Like so many in New England, we awoke the morning of Oct. 30 to a cold house on a brilliantly beautiful day. We'd watched the kids catching snowflakes with their tongues the afternoon before, and at the time, the snow seemed benign, albeit unseasonal.

Fun! A snowstorm in October! And our new gas stove worked, at least the burners did, so tea (caffeine) was had by the grown ups in the house, which meant all was well. We'd signed up to run in a Halloween 5K, so we bundled up and drove downtown after enjoying a warm microwave-less breakfast. So far so good.

But Northampton was dark, even at 10am. The traffic lights were out and the big clock downtown was black. The roads were flooded with dirty snow, and the parking lot where the race was supposed to start was empty. Our cell phones only kind of worked. Not to be deterred completely, we parked and got out the double jogging stroller and pushed it through the slush, thinking we'd get some warm beverages at a coffee shop. But nothing was open. Tom turned back with the kids, and I jogged toward home, trying to get some intel on the ground, passing by my friend Margaret's house to see if her party was still happening that night. I found her and her husband shoveling out their driveway. She is a major activist for climate change; yesterday she joined a group of protesters who circled the White House to protest the TransCanada pipeline--she's serious. It seemed so ironic that her party would be cancelled by a freakish climate-change-induced snowstorm. She was the very person I wanted to be with that day, so I was glad at least that I got to give her a hug and wish her good luck.

I came across my friends Liz and Kris digging out Liz's driveway and learned from them how serious the damage was, that we might be in the cold and dark for days, even weeks. I invited them over for lunch, since I had burners, after all--one does want to share when one finds oneself in a situation like this. As I walked home, my mind kept leaping to fearful conclusions. Weeks! Dark! Cold! WEEKS! Kids not in school! COLD! But I kept reminding it that right now, I was just jogging in the snow. Right now, I had hot water and gas burners. Right now, I had a cell phone that sometimes worked. And soon I had a text from my sister in Conway saying she had heat and power, and to come on up for the night.

So we did; we packed as if we were going to be gone for a week. We took all the food in our fridge and freezer and all our computers and iPads and cell phones and favorite stuffed animals and decamped. Katryna made pizza, Kris cuddled my kids, the kids thought they'd died and gone to heaven, and later Dave Hower's family joined us. We were warm and snug, having a mini Nields reunion. The next morning, with Patty joining us from cold/dark Easthampton, the adults had five computers going around the dining room table, each of us checking FaceBook obsessively, and occasionally communicating with each other via FaceBook instead of across the table, and also barking at the kids to turn off their screens.

Our power, we soon learned from FaceBook friends/neighbors, came on about 10am and we left Conway in the early afternoon to go home and dress up for the Halloween that was officially canceled. Elle was a Ghost/Pirate/Unicorn/Vampire, and Jay was a Kirby Car driver (AKA Herbie the Love Bug--see photos below). I was Janis Joplin and Tom was a Garden Variety Victim (Tom's costume every year is some variation on a particular American flag bandana and fake blood). We set out bravely but as soon as we rounded the corner, we saw why the town had canceled Halloween. Downed trees and power lines made sidewalk travel impossible and impassible, and so we put Kirby in the back of Tom's truck and visited exactly two houses.

The aftermath has been harder than the actual storm. There is a reason it's not supposed to snow on Halloween. Our trees still have most of their leaves, so when the snow fell (18 inches, 27 inches, three feet in some parts), the canopy couldn't hold it, but couldn't drop it either. So the branches bent, and the branches broke. The sight of all these broken trees is more and more disturbing to me with the passing days; the limbs will never grow back. Great beauties all over town are torn beyond recognition. I have this fear that with each bizarre storm we will lose more parts of the trees until eventually we'll just have shards and stumps. I keep hearing stories about trees crashing into houses, into bedroom windows where moms were reading to their kids, into metal roofs like huge accusing fingers. Walking home on the bike trail a few days ago, I saw downed trees with their branches fingering the earth, reminding me of the yoga pose vasistasana. No one holds a yoga pose for long. We are putting too much stress on our trees, asking too much of them. They didn't sign up for this climate.

Even as I fret about our trees, I am contemplating getting a wood stove. At least then I could put all the broken limbs to some use (to me.) But with Jay's asthma, it might not be a good thing. Not to mention the carbon we'd be putting in the air--which is why we have this freak October snow storm to begin with.

How do we consume less? How do we change our ways? Even if it is too late, I want to change, partly out of penance, and partly out of respect. So I pulled my neglected bike out of the barn and have been riding it. Today I took Jay to school, with him crowded into the baby seat in the back. He loved it. "Oh, wook at dose twees, Mama," I heard him say from his perch behind me. "Dey fell down." I dropped him off at school only to find that it was once again Halloween (we've had many make-up Halloweens), and so I handed the teacher his bike helmet and told her to cover it with aluminum foil so he could reprise his role as Kirby Car driver, this time sans vehicle. And then I biked off, meandering around our neighborhood to see how folks were doing. We all seem a lot closer now, more necessarily connected. And I have a feeling it's going to become more that way in the future.

Readers: What were your experiences in the storm? What can we do to put fewer fossil fuels into the air, use less? Should we invest in solar panels? Generators? Wood stoves? Where do you see glimmers of hope in the climate battle?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Coat

As I have written previously, I made a vow last December to make peace with money. I decided to let the ways in which I interact with the currency of currency be my spiritual teacher and to let it show me the ways in which I am still contracted and fearful and doubtful--and maybe even a little self-depriving. I wanted to do this because I was spending $1400 a month on groceries on the one hand, and on the other, unable to sleep at night because I was so worried about how my kids would go to college. Also I don't know how to balance a checkbook. And even though I am richly blessed with resources, I can't seem to control the mechanism that begins in my brain ("I need a yogurt maker") and ends with non-appropriate purchases (e.g. spending the money on pretty journals instead, which I add to the huge collection of pretty journals sitting on a stack in my office.) I have never been able to do numbers. I can remember your birthday if you tell it to me, and I will probably remember it even if I haven't seen you for 20 years, or at least I'll pin the tail a few days around your birthday. I remember the names of kids I teach and kids I taught twenty-five years ago. But if you tell me a series of numbers--the amount I have in my bank account, for instance--I will forget it ten seconds afterwards.

I started by just keeping track of every penny I spent and every penny I earned. In order to do this, I had to be present a lot, which was hard. I much prefer to zone out and kind of float about in my daily routines. I had to remember to pull out a little notebook every time I went through the grocery line, which wasn't that hard except that I forgot to do this every other trip. Even harder was tracking the quarters and dimes that go to feed the meter when I parked the car. I wrote down what we spent, and I noticed quickly that we consistently spent a little more than we earned. Not an egregious amount, but enough so that it would affect us if we wanted to save money for our kids to go to college. And I was not happy about this. It gave me the feeling of being porous; not like a sea sponge where water flows in and out with equilibrium, but like a coat with holes in the pockets whose owner is blithely dropping coins into its slippery interior. Clink, clink, clink.

As a veteran dieter, I knew that the solution would have to be more than making a budget. I knew that if I tried to adhere to something like that, I would just feel deprived and act out. I knew that I had to change the way I interacted with money. So I started by saying thank you each time I touched the stuff, even if the "touch" was digital. Thank you. I get it. You are taking care of me. Thank you. I asked for help from some friends who understand this kind of powerlessness and got some great advice. It's the same advice your grandmother probably gave you: Save up for what you want. It will taste sweeter if you do.

By the way, do you know what the interests rates on savings accounts are? Like, NOTHING. I was banking at Bank of America and when I asked to open a savings account, and inqired about compound interest (see, I knew to ask about compound interest) they said, "Point oh five." "Like, five cents on the dollar?" I asked. "Nooooooo," my rep said, shaking his head and looking at me as if I were a child. "Zero point zero five." "So," I said. "No one really wants us to save our money anymore, right? They'd prefer if we contributed to the GDP. That's cool. But I need to save my money so my kids can go to college."

So after some more good advice, I moved my money from that bad bank to Florence Savings Bank where they give you 1.25% if you cross your Ts and dot your i's on a number of items. As the months passed, I created a spending plan rather than a budget. I saved for college, and I saved for things I wanted, like a white Irish Fisherman sweater (I know, I posted about this three years ago, and I still am searching for the perfect one.) And I saved my money until one day, Saturday, I had enough to go shopping. I was sweater-bound--a dark purple cardigan might suffice if I couldn't find the fisherman sweater, and we were scheduled to have a break right down the street from Anthropologie, my favorite store. As I was leaving for my gig at Passim, the kids said, "Mama, pleeeeeease bring us back a present." Guess what? I had even saved enough for that kind of spontaneous treat for my kids.

Our gigs at Passim were so much fun. At the family show in the afternoon, we did "Aikendrum" and as we sang, Katryna drew an Aikendrum and clothed him in the foods the kids suggested. We sang "Wise Mama Witch," our new Halloween chant, and we got our publisher Jonathan Greene to play banjo with us on "Old Joan Clark."

Afterwards, in between shows, Katryna and I went off to spend my savings. Now I should say that part of my goal is to learn to be a good shopper. To buy, for instance, the yogurt maker rather than the journals if that is indeed my need. (Some days I really do need journals, and on those days, it would be better if I got one, rather than a yogurt maker. But, see, I do need to be conscious about these things.) Anyway, I'd left the house at noon when it was in the low sixties and I'd forgotten a coat. Now it was in the high forties and I was feeling it. We ducked into my favorite store and poked around. I tried on a bunch of ugly sweaters. Katryna found adorable mugs with my kids' initials on them. Each mug had a hip piece of thin twine wrapped around the handle attached to a green crayon. Perfect! And as I was sighing, giving up on my sweater search, I looked up and saw a magnificent parka complete with a leonine faux fur stole around the hood and fleecy lining. The coat said, "Nerissa, take me. I am your heart's desire. I fit and I will keep you warm."

"But I have a coat!" I protested. "In fact, I have several. I need a sweater."

"No," pronounced the coat. "You have a dorky dirty yellow parka that embarrasses your husband. You have your grandmother's boring green coat that looks like an old lady coat. I am hip and beautiful. And face it, all anyone ever sees of you in the wintertime is your coat. You never take it off because you're always freezing, even indoors. Buy me, and I will be your complete fashion statement. When you think of it that way, I am a bargain."

Indeed I had to think of it that way in order to apply the word 'bargain' to that coat, but this line of argument worked. Plus I was cold. As I left the store hurrying back to my second show of the night, I felt so warm, so taken care of, as if God were putting Her arm around my shoulder.

Presently, though I began to feel guilty. "What was I thinking?" I thought. "I don't need a coat! And this coat is expensive! And I am supposed to be living within my means! That is a coat for someone who has money to throw around! I just blew my sweater money! Now I will have to wait a whole other year for a fisherman sweater! I am supposed to be buying only what I really need! I am supposed to be patiently waiting for the perfect items that make my heart sing! I am supposed to visualize what I want and trust that it will manifest, and not to impulsively buy furry parkas!"

I wondered if I could return it. I doubted if it would even be warm enough for January winds.

The next morning, I set the bag with the wrapped mugs outside the kids' room. When Elle came shuffling down the stairs wrapped in her blanket, I scooped her up and bounded with her in my arms up the stairs, with Jay following close behind. "Come open your presents!" I shouted, grabbing the bag and running down the stairs again. The kids squealed and exclaimed and bounced after me, grabbing at the bag with the wrapped items. They each unwrapped a mug. Elle pulled at the crayon and said, "I don't like green," and started to cry. Jay said, "I don't wike gween eiddur," and started to fake cry. I frowned, swept up the mugs with great dignity and muttered something about gratitude. I felt completely deflated and even worse about my spending spree. I wondered if I could wrap up everything and ship it back to Cambridge and get my money back.

And so as I was muttering on Sunday morning about gratitude, while my kids wailed in frustrated disappointment, it hit me. We don't get to choose our gifts. That's the point of a gift. They get given to us. What if that coat really was a gift from God? What if I am never ever going to learn how to be an effective shopper who holds out and waits years for the item of my dreams? What if I never find the perfect Fisherman sweater? Maybe I really do need more pretty journals, and the yogurt maker can wait. Isn't it the truth that every single best thing/person/job/experience I've ever had has been way better and more interesting than my dream for it? Hasn't it all been a co-creation with the Divine rather than me bossing It around to match up to my vision? Don't I, too, cry with disappointment when first confronted with the "wrong" item?

I turned around from the sink. Elle said, "I really like the mug, Mama. I just don't like the crayon. Hey! What if we attach a blue crayon to the handle?" A moment later, we'd replaced the green crayons with a blue one for Elle and a purply-pink one for Jay. They spooned some marbles into their new mugs and pretended they were eating them as soup. Shyly, I showed Tom my new coat.

"Wow!" he said, nodding. "It's about time you got yourself a really nice coat. You deserve it."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Go Where the Love Is, Not Where the Love Should Be

My son is in love with a girl a year ahead of him in school who refuses to play with him. He has lost all the color in his cheeks and does nothing but mope about the house, kicking dirt clods with his sneaker toe. All weekend long, he moaned, "Why won't Kaliya play with me?"

"Who's Kaliya?" Tom asked.

"She's a Chameleon," he sighed. (Chameleons are the four year olds. He is a Possum--a three-year-old.) "She won't play with me. She will only play with the other Chameleons."

I sighed too. There's nothing more painful than projecting onto your suffering kid your own suffering from childhood. I imagined a little blond girl, laughing and tossing her head back, giggling behind her hand with her pretty friend, looking sideways at Jay and rolling her eyes.

I spent a couple of nights at Kripalu last week. A gift certificate and the promise to take care of the kids for a couple of days while I got some R&R was my fortieth birthday present from Tom and my sister Abigail. I am forty-four. Someone kicked my ass in August and told me that I had to cash in or else. Or else what? Or else allow to fester a nasty little resentment about how poor me worked so hard while everyone else got vacations. How all my vacations are cleverly disguised as gigs. How I am so good/loyal/mentally healthy that I do not need a vacation.

Fortunately, I proved myself abundantly insane last Tuesday so that my family was glad to show me the door. I had a meltdown about the fact that so few people had come to our Broadside Bookstore reading (I think there were ten people present, including my three immediate family members, two of whom were playing boisterously in the back row), which I concluded meant that our book was terrible, I was terrible, the publishing industry was doomed, our family would go broke and my husband was secretly delighted by my complete artistic failure.

So I packed a bag, tossed my yoga mat in the car, made sincere apologies to my husband, and drove west. As soon as I got off the highway, my blood pressure went down. As soon as I drove onto the grounds of Kripalu, a former monastery-turned-guru-driven-ashram-turned-holistic-healing-center in Lenox MA, I remembered who I was. "Oh, hello," I said, "I remember you!"

I checked in, ate dinner in silence (my choice--they don't make you not talk. I just chose not to. In two full days, I didn't see a single person I knew. I can't remember the last time that's happened.) I found my little room which I was supposed to share with someone named Whitney, but Whitney never showed up.

I proceeded to do nothing. OK, that's not true at all. I made about thirteen phone calls, I posted two blogs, I wrote copiously in my journal, I went for a walk, I called my family and talked to all of them, I did two yoga classes, I browsed in the bookstore, I meditated, and I got a facial. But this, to me, is a perfect vacation. All I want is a room of my own, a lot of space and the encouragement to breathe slowly and deeply.

At the end of the visit, the program director emailed me to say that Kripalu wants to have us come as presenters, based on my failure of a book, to run a workshop on Family Music. They want to run it July 4 weekend when James Taylor is traditionally at Tanglewood. One of the ideas in the book is to find your Family Musical Canon--the music you inherited from your parents and grandparents, the music you discovered yourself, the music you and your children all love--the songs that would be the soundtrack to your family's life if it were a movie. The program director (and Katryna and I) all agreed that JT would be in our FMC. So she is going to include tickets to the James Taylor show as part of the workshop we present.

Dream. Come. True. So next time I come to Kripalu, I will be paid to unplug and unwind and eat delicious healthy food and say hello to myself again.

I am glad my writing career is not over, because I find myself on the page. Don't all writers? That's where I meet God, too. Something in the process of writing connects me to my Source in a way nothing else does. I get my answers through the very process of writing. Some people meditate to find God; some pray. Some feed the hungry. Some go to church or temple or ashram. I write and sing.

One of my teachers said to me today, "Think of the nervous system as a piece of music. We get activated (the sympathetic nervous system), and we get deactivated, or we relax (the parasympathetic nervous system). The sympathetic nervous system is like the notes in the piece. The parasympathetic is like the rests, and the spaces between the notes. You need both to have music. Imagine a piece of music that was all notes. It would just be noise."

Today I picked Jay up from school, and he grabbed my hand and dragged me to the playground. "You have to help me ask Kaliya why she won't play with me," he said, pulling my hand toward the swing set. There on the last swing was a little girl with dark brown hair, swinging quietly by herself. She looked at us with some concern.

"Dat's her," murmured Jay, turning his head into my leg.

"Hi!" I said, grinning as broadly as my cheeks would allow, trying to look simultaneously like a nice mom and her potential best girl friend. "Will you play with Jay? He wants to be your friend."

The girl stared at us and kept swinging. I picked up my son. He buried his face in my shoulder, then without moving his face reached out his left hand and waved in her general direction. I came closer to the girl.

"Hey, Kaliya,"I said. "He's a really nice boy. He just wants you to smile at him, or say hi or something. Can you do that?"

She stared at me. No acknowledgement. I pulled out my ace.

"Do you remember me? I came and sang with you last week. Remember? 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?'" I grinned hopefully, singing the words.

Nothing. I sighed and stood up with Jay still in my arms. Elle leaned in and took a turn. "I like your dress," she said and beamed.

Kaliya looked at her and kept swinging. Slowly I turned away and the three of us started back for the car. Jay started kicking his legs and crying, "Put me down! Put me down!" I did, and he ran back to Kaliya. He stood a few feet from her swinging legs and did his little windshield-wiper hand wave again. "Will you play with me?" he asked, screwing up all his courage. She neither nodded nor shook her head. She was inscrutable.

In my misery last Tuesday--the night before I vacated to Kripalu--Tom said something that really pissed me off. "If you are concerned about how this wonderful book that you and Katryna have written is going to sell, or going to be received, you are screwed. You know better, Nerissa. It's not about the money. It never has been for you. It's about the process of writing it. It already has helped people. But it's really none of your business how much it sells. When you reduce a book to saleability, it's all over."

It's not our business who likes us. It's not our business how we do in this life. It's our business who we like. When we got home, Jay was still grieving. "Why won't Kaya play with me? Why did she just swing and swing and swing?"

I crouched down and took him onto my knee and put my arms around his wiry little body. He smells like boy now. I kissed his dirty hair and breathed him in. "You know, some people are shy," I said. "For them to talk to other people, especially people they don't know very well, it's owie. It actually feels like it hurts."

"Why is Kaya so shy shy shy?"

"I don't know," I said. "But your job is just to keep being you and to keep loving her. She'll stop being shy some time."

A few minutes later, as I was making dinner, I heard him say, "Elle, let's play Kaya. You be Kaya and I be Jay and I ask you to play wif me. Kaya, will you play wif me?"

"Sure, Jay," said Elle, bending in toward him. "Hi, cute little boy. Let's make a fort."

Friday, September 16, 2011


Here is what happened in the last three weeks since we came back from vacation: Elle started kindergarten, Jay had another asthma attack and is now having to use a bunch of drugs that make us anxious (though he loves them, since he gets to watch TV when he partakes). We learned that as a result of his eye injury last June he will always have a slight dilation in his right pupil. No harm to his vision, thank God.

We survived hurricane Irene, but our beloved Keene NY lost their road, their library and many homes and natural elements. Our book came out amid much flurry and fanfare, Elle learned the bowings to Minuet 3 and "Happy Farmer," I am planning to launch our first iteration of Big Kid HooteNanny, plus two new parent guitar groups, Katryna's kids and our kids held a tag sale on our front lawn (at which I netted a grand total of $5. I would have made $15, but I spent $10 buying William's tricycle for Jay).

And finally, wonderfully, our kitchen is finished. Today Ray hung the porch lights, Bill wired the stereo speakers through the basement, and we took the tape off the sill between the dining room and the kitchen.

I cooked a huge meal for the writers for my retreat, and as I cooked, I listened to Revolver. I got stuck on the George Harrison song, "I Want to Tell You." What do you think he means by this:

But if I seem to act unkind
It's only me it's not my mind
That is confusing things.

Huh? Isn't the mind the problem? Or does he think the mind is the seat of God? I wish he were alive so I could ask him.

On Wednesday, I had yoga with my friend and teacher Sara Rose. She talked about Kali and Shri, the two Hindu goddesses who represent different inner states. Kali is fearsome, roaring, violent with blood dripping from her teeth. She is a black as night, black as the womb; she is the place we all come from. She is the power at the center of the universe, the energy of the river, fueled by the hurricane which destroyed the roads leading to our town in the Adirondacks. She is our left side, in Hindu lore. The right side is represented by Shri, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. She is ordered, lovely, refined; she makes order out of chaos. She is the soft light of the full moon, the one who makes us all look good.

We need both. We need that primordial energy to evolve and change, or perhaps we need to understand that life is fluid and uncertain, that there will be hurricanes and earthquakes and tornedoes (even in Western Massachusetts) and that we all need to learn how to bend with the wind, find our balance as we navigate.

I have been making a practice recently to keep track of my money better. I was one of those proud non-math kids. I wouldn't even write with a pencil because I associated math with pencils. In 4th grade when our teacher gave us our daily math handouts, I'd take a look at them, decide they were too hard, and shove them into my desk. I proceeded to space out (my greatest talent) and somehow got away with this behavior for two months. Then one day in November, Miss Burns called me back from PE and presented me with my forty days worth of math papers. "Do these by Christmas or else!" she shook them at me. I took them home, told my babysitter. She said she would help me. She took the stack and brought them back to me the next day, all filled out.

Anyway, thirty-five years later, I am trying to right this wrong by honoring the energy that is money and, well, noticing it more. Waiting before I buy more lightbulbs to see if maybe I had stashed a box of them in the top shelf of a closet, for example. Cashing checks people pay me. Buying beans instead of salmon for dinner. Not saying yes every time my child wants to go to the toy store. And most importantly, not spending more than I make and giving away what I can. When I do this--when I spend no more than what I take in, and when I do this in an engaged and conscious way, I feel so joyful. Enough is a feast, as I have heard recently, and in my experience, there is a world of difference between a feast and a binge.

They say that cleanliness is next to Godliness. There is something thrilling about a clean, new space. When I came downstairs this morning, I almost wept with joy at the fresh floors with nary a mark on them. I did some sun salutations at the new windows and then I meditated on the couch. The longer I live, the more I think that sitting still and breathing is the most efficient way I can use my time.

The first night we had dinner in the new kitchen, Elle said, "Mama, why did we need such a fancy kitchen, Mama. You're not fancy. It's not your sort."

She's right. I picked her up and held her. "You are a wise little lady," I said. "How did you know that about me?" The kitchen is so beautiful, so Shri-like, and I am so inherently messy and right-brained (I'm assuming here, for the sake of a cohesive essay, that Kali who controls the left side of the body is the right brain and Shri is the left brain, but again, those Hindis who invented these goddesses are not alive for me to consult with.) I will feel more at home when the kitchen has been dinged up. Jay did his part by spilling some bread pudding on the new floors right near the couch. It's been a long 9 months, this period of building this beautiful kitchen, and while I have enjoyed it tremendously (what's not to love about picking hardware from Anthropologie?) I am more interested in plunging into the darkness again to scoop out some mud, slather it on my work table and get dirty. Creation is filthy. But more importantly, the balance has been off. My work is to live within my means, whatever that means at any given time. As I turn my attention to that task, I feel that fulcrum balance under my two feet. I feel the give and the take and I arrive, once again, at the stillpoint.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Gather Ye Roses...

Today in our writing class, we read from a great book called Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring. She encourages her readers/writers to "Conjure a smell that reminds you of a place that has significance for you. Once you identify the smell, bring it fully into your body. Feel it around you...Now drift to images. Don't try to control the images, Let whatever surfaces be perfect. When you feel ready, begin to write."

What came to me, almost immediately, were the rose gardens of my great Aunt Barbara on Mt. Desert Island, ME, and those of my grandmother Lila on Long Island. As a child, I used to sit among those roses, tracing the thorns, strong as horns, sometimes gently pricking my finger with their points. I used to watch for the buds to open into those mysterious folds. I wondered at the powdery softness of the petals, like butterfly wings. Some roses smelled more strongly than others. Some had Japanese beetles hiding deep in their petals.

We are almost finished building our dream kitchen. Actually, we have hired some fabulous men to build our kitchen. The process began in January in the dark and cold, and we drew up plans with our friends who are designers and tried to remember every last little fantasy we've had over the years about what we wanted our kitchen to be. Mostly we cared about big windows overlooking the backyard of the house. Ours is an old Victorian, and like many of its period, it is oriented to the front. In the late 19th Century, one was all about sitting on one's porch watching the folks go by in their carriages and buggies, or on foot, waving at the neighbors. The backyard was for tossing out the dishwater and worse. The backyard was for the horses, cows and goats. (We have a falling-down barn with an opening between the bays for feeding the horses to prove there was once livestock out there.) The backyard today is full of gardens, lawns where the kids race each other, a huge pine tree with branches that touch the ground in a round, creating a sublime space underneath where Tom has built a tree fort and attached a play structure. The back also has a patio with umbrella-ed table and chairs (and forty-five huge colonies of ants which we are not murdering with chemicals, but we do have fantasies of getting some chickens to lunch on them--when the kitchen is finished.) The backyard is what I want to be focused on as I wash the dishes or eat my breakfast. The backyard is why I bought the house eight years ago this month.

Our kitchen is turning out better than expected. The floor is in, the windows already make us giddy, the trim was done today; tomorrow the fine carpentry work will begin on the pantry and mudroom. The stove is in place; plumbing is coming soon. I have samples of gorgeous knobs from Anthropologie for the cabinets; in a few weeks when the kitchen tile comes in, I will match them and order them.

I thought I would be so happy building my dream kitchen. Instead, I have this lingering feeling of anxiety in the very center of me. And today when I was meditating on the aroma of roses, the thought came, "Elle doesn't have a grandmother's garden to go to. She lost her grandmother the gardener."

Which is why we have the money to build this kitchen.

This is why I feel sick about it.

It's not strictly true that she doesn't have a grandmother's garden to go to. My mother has a beautiful home in Virginia with gorgeous flowering bushes and trees in the springtime which we visit. She plants daffodils and basil in pots. But she is not really a gardener, not in the sense of cultivating over a long period of time (she did that with us, and with her tennis game, and now with the novel she is writing.) But she is in Virginia, and we don't usually get there in the summer.

Life is so strange and swiss cheese-like. One moment everything is fine, and the next, someone you know and love is diagnosed with a brain tumor. I found a candle Tom's mother had given Elle when she turned 3. A 3 candle which we'd forgotten to put on her cake. Jay is turning 3 next week, and I have it on the makeshift counter so I don't forget this time. Interacting with the 3--moving it to make space for the dirty dishes, putting it carefully back-- makes me think of her, of her wonderful generosity, of her inability to come into a home without a gift in hand.

On church on Sunday, Steve preached from Matthew 6:19:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And also from the Tao, verse 15: and here I paraphrase): "Can you wait, unmoving till the right action comes? The master is present and can welcome all things."

No wonder I feel soul-sick. We are spending huge amounts of money, time and energy on our kitchen--on ourselves. And this is not a comfortable place for anyone to be, especially not someone who is trying to live a more awakened life. Being so focused on our little kingdom here in the Happy Valley makes me feel guilty and weird, not to mention grieved at the loss of the person who gave us the money to do this project. I thought I had learned by now that treasure is not on earth, but in heaven, and the heaven I have found here on earth is all about serving others, through listening, singing, writing, laughing, showing up, making a space. Could I have spent the money, energy and time some other way, some more generous, awakened way? Yes, of course I could have.

But I didn't, we didn't, and here we are in August, not January when we set the ball in motion. We have made our financial choices, and the work now is to make the best of them. We took a chance, by not holding onto the money. We took a chance by making a decision, and when one makes a decision, one leaves oneself open to vulnerability. Just as one does when one writes a book, releases a CD, gets onstage, does anything that anyone can have an opinion about. For years, I lived in fear of bad press. Then I got some, and it didn't kill me. The worst bad press is the kind you give yourself.

Someone in one of my writing groups, on hearing a draft of this piece, said, "But your kitchen will be all about service. You will be cooking, creating meals, feeding your family and your friends and the people who come to writing retreats." This is so.

It's not about having objects. It's about having experiences. Kitchens are about experiences.

Roses were my flowers. Born in June, I claimed them as mine and let my April-born sister have the more fragrant lilies of the valley. Roses have thorns, and dream kitchens have a price tag. And all I can do with this long-standing dream is to bless it, to accept it, to know now that I can dream way bigger than a kitchen, and to cook a meal in it for my family, cook a meal in it for the family we know who is dealing with brain tumors, to thank God that my rose is in full bloom today and to appreciate it as deeply as I can.

Monday, July 18, 2011


While I was in the Adirondacks, I lost $500. It was an expensive vacation: Jay dropped my camera and now it's broken beyond repair. Ironically, I was going to spend the $500 on a new camera, but when I returned home, the envelope with the $500 cash was missing.

Don't ask why I had $500 cash in an envelope. I know. I won't do that again. But it was supposed to be my "fun" money, money to spend on whatever caught my fancy, as opposed to the funds earmarked for Elle's violin, our groceries, books to read for professional enrichment, funds for new toothbrushes, monies for utilities, the ever increasing line item for gas and diesel, funds for various kinds of therapy, cell phone plans, Netflix (don't get me started) and my $15 month subscription to the iPad version of the New York Times which I don't have time to read.

I think the envelope was in my wallet which is a reasonable place to keep cash. I think it might have fallen out when I was making a purchase. I called the establishments where I was a patron just to check if anyone had turned in an envelop with $500. (Would you?) I ransacked the car, called my dad who ransacked the house we'd stayed in. I checked the places it should have been over and over (since that's the rule of where to look for what's missing: where it should be). I twirled around three times and said, "Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please return my money to me!" That always has worked in the past. No dice this time. The money kept taunting me, too. I would resolve to let it go, to trust that God would take care of me as surely as the lilies of the field, that I didn't need whatever it was I was going to spend the money on, that I could still buy a camera. I began to feel better, free of attachment, abundant, etc, and I'd be extremely close to enlightenment, and then a few minutes later, my mind would snap back on the loss of the money, like a dog sniffing around for that buried bone. Where is it? What did I do with it?

Last week, I took Elle to Suzuki violin camp down the road at the Williston-Northampton school, where the Western Massachusetts Suzuki Institute creates magic for a week in mid July. It was like going back to high school, or grammar school. I'd forgotten what that kind of a schedule is like, when you have five minutes between classes to go to the bathroom and gossip with your friends. We made a lot of friends and floated like the whiter than white clouds on a summer day on the breath of the music wafting out of every room.

My current favorite thing about Suzuki is the way we all come to know each others' kids and root for them as they progress through the repertoire. I have now watched kids grow from hesitant and quiet to confident, musical, sensitive players in less than a year. I loved watching the kids in a slightly different context too, not just playing their violins. At lunch time, we all sat on the green picnicking and watching the kids race around, making up games, being kids. And then we'd scoop up our trash and cross the street into the chapel where these same kids picked up their small instruments and performed works by Weber, Bach, Beethoven and Schumann, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes so masterfully that it took my breath away.

And then there was the recital at the end of the week. My other favorite part of Suzuki is when, during performance, the moment when every single child is playing one of the Twinkle variations along with the big kids who have just blown us all away with their Seitz or Vivaldi concerto. It's the looks on the little kids' faces as they rise to the occasion, lift their little scrolls to the ceiling and raise their bows proudly to the strings, the warm, rich sound of those many violins joined together in common purpose.

Friday morning was the fiddle concert, and if I ever had any question about what my true soul music was, it was quelled then and there. The big kids (aged 13 or so) played "Ashokan Farewell" a song written by fellow folkie Jay Ungar, and made famous as the theme music from Ken Burns' PBS The Civil War series. Hearing them play this music, my music, so beautifully I felt for the first time all week, spoken to directly. It's not that I don't like classical music. I do. It's just not my music.

The retreat in the Adirondacks was fantastic, by the way. We plan to do it every year, even with the bugs being so nasty. It was such a pleasure to have a break from the internet and the telephones, though of course when I came home I had such a deluge of correspondence to respond to (which is why, coupled with the Suzuki week, I have not posted until now). The writers seemed to tap into something deeper up in the high peaks. Perhaps it was the altitude, perhaps the lack of internet, perhaps the influence of the foxes who barked their strange non-doggy barks at us at nightfall. I worked on a novel I haven't touched since 2008. I was moved to tears more than once by what others read to the group. I can't wait to do it again.

And I am making a list of what I lose on a regular basis, and also what I find. Money comes and goes so regularly in our lives that to focus on this $500--which is indeed a lot of money--seems arbitrary. If I had kept it, I would have gotten a massage, some Dr Hauschka skin product, probably some clothes, or of course the camera. What would that have given me? In a few years, those things would be either gone or broken. Maybe with some luck, some of the clothes would be keepers, but really, let's be honest--I often buy clothes which seem fabulous in the store but end up languishing in the back of my closet. Can you imagine the delight of the person who happened upon that envelop of $500? How awesome must that have been for him or her? Maybe it was someone who was desperate for a miracle, had been praying for one? And here was this envelop! I love thinking of this. Just meditating on the pleasure that person experienced is worth $500.

Moreover, I decided at some point after losing the money that if I found it, I would give it to my church. As soon as I decided this, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and the strange pull it had on my thoughts loosened its grip. The kids I watched this week lose their fear and gain confidence from their constant opportunities to perform for each other. They lose their baby faces and gain composure. What they find inside of themselves is this little catcher of tunes, this observer who mirrors back the music they hear and recreates it in their own fiddles and bows. The music is free, absolutely free for the taking, and hearing it, I know I have everything I need.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Solstice and Last Jam for the Fans Post

I am not easy with the summer solstice. I am not like my friends who, last week said, "Oh Tuesday? Isn't that the solstice? I don't want to make plans on the solstice. I want to just enjoy it and see what it brings."

Last week, a good friend of mine, someone who knows me well, and someone who had come to our Iron Horse show for Jam for the Fans, said this to me: "Nerissa. Savor what just happened. Savor what you and your sister did. Take it in. Let it swish in your mouth like a fine wine. Relish. I know you, and you are going to want to jump right into the next thing, not looking back. Please, just pause. Celebrate."

I wish I knew how to do that.

I tried, I really did. But there were some realities to contend with. I was already playing catch up from the week before when Jay had been hit in the eye by a preschooler's shovel and we'd spent most of the week caring for him, in and out of the hospital. It just so happened that all my programs (teaching writing, teaching guitar, running HooteNanny) were starting up the week after Jam, and I had to prepare. I had to send out emails, create songbooks and CDs, show up rested. I also had thank you notes to write, both for dinners friends had made for us when Jay was in the hospital, rides folks had given Elle; as well as favors sponsors and donors had done for Jam for the Fans. I wanted to call my family members and play Friday morning quaterback about the shows; write some parting words to guests. I wanted to immerse myself in all the photos fans put up on Facebook and Flickr. I wanted to just sit and take it in. And I did sit, because I do have a meditation practice that I am faithful to. But they say the average person needs to meditate for an hour a day, and the busy person needs two. I found out exactly why (in the mere fifteen minutes I allowed for quiet time). It was like opening a floodgate. All fifteen of those minutes got filled with thoughts about all the things I had to do. I may as well have sat with a notebook next to me and made up a To Do list.

But the usual unusual busyness--let's be honest: that's not the whole truth, either. There's a piece of me that just doesn't want to gaze into the brightness of the sun at its apex. Because once you do that, you might not ever get to do that again.

One day in about 1999, somewhere in the south, possibly Texas or Alabama, in some legendary but scuzzy rock club, I was perusing the posters on the green room wall after sound check. There was a Lucinda Williams poster from the early 90s, back when she was one of us, just a hard-working artist writing her songs, making great albums and playing the circuit. We had just lost our major label--it had folded several months before--and had signed again with another, an indie with major label backing and distribution. Lucinda, by 1999, had just won a Grammy for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album that had taken her three years to make and that sounded so great, so natural, so musical, so her. (Just listen to "Right in Time." It's the sexiest song I've ever heard, and she makes it seem so easy to be a songwriter.) Standing in that dressing room, I knew--knew, the way you know your home or your mother's face or your favorite kind of apple--that if we did what Lucinda had done, if we stayed the course and kept making strong albums and touching all the bases of the indie rock/folk circuit, we too would be famous one day. We would 1) have a hit and 2) be on Saturday Night Live, which were our two benchmarks of Making It.

In that moment it didn't occur to me that staying the course was itself an extremely impressive achievement. Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jordan had something besides pure talent and hard work. They had stamina and longevity and a solid belief in their art and craft. Moreover, they had a kind of constitution that was made to endure the formidable challenges that a career in the public eye certainly throws at a person. It didn't occur to me that the five of us all needed to have that kind of stamina in order to make it (again, I am defining "making it" by those two benchmarks above, however ridiculous that might seem.) Within a year it was obvious that as a group we could not stomach life on the road the way we had defined it.

And as I have said before, I am so glad we did not stay the course, for a million reasons; the biggest three being those who share my last name(s). In the aftermath of the heavy duty road years, I began to discover the delights of simply living. The charm of strolling a baby along the sidewalk. The joy of belonging to an organic CSA. The kind of fame one gets from living in a small town where everyone is famous. The amazing miracle of growing flowers and vegetables. And of course everything that comes with raising children.

The friend of mine who lectured me last week about savoring also suggested that I tattoo the word "pause" on the inside of my eyelids. Right after Jam for the Fan was over, my family and Katryna's loaded up our cars (and Tom's truck) with the furniture and memorabillia from the Nields museum, and as soon as we got home, we unloaded the vehicles and immediately got to work on our kitchen, which was scheduled to be gutted on Monday. We hauled box after box up to the attic, out to the porch to freecycle, back to the truck and to the Good Will and dump. I felt like a rock star when our new kitchen was established in our dining room, the pantry and store set up where the brick-a-brac had been. And I dove into the work I love to do--teaching, coaching, singing with little kids. One of my writing groups celebrated Bloomsday on June 16, and we listened to actors reading Ulysses together on WBAI. The weather turned beautiful over the weekend. We played the Clearwater Festival. My kids came along, and I pointed at a golf cart driving within arms reach: "Look, you guys! That's Pete Seeger riding in that cart!" We celebrated Father's Day by climbing one of the Seven Sisters on a perfect 70 degree day, with a picnic lunch at the top. "I am so happy," I intoned, and I knew somewhere that I was, but I felt like the character in Joyce's Dubliner's, coincidentally named Duffy, who lived "a short distance from his body." My mind was consumed with thoughts about everything I had to do: pack for the Adirondacks retreat, write a letter about Jay's accident, another to Elle's new principal, schedule clients, plan menus, buy food, figure out when to get to our CSA, somehow dust the piano, and make a schedule for finishing our CD, Ten Year Tin: The Full Catastrophe. The more I paused, the more Things To Do I remembered I had to do. This morning, I wanted to wake with the birds and take my quiet time on the porch. Instead I slept in (till 6am) and skipped yoga, checking my email instead. Do I think I am going to win an award for busyness? Am I subconsciously trying to recreate the whirlwind of my life on the road?

Another writer commented on a draft of this piece, noting that my posts about Jam for the Fans always had within them a certain quality that reminded her about musings on an old boyfriend--the one who was clearly not so great for you, but also the one you were sort of wistful about. The One That Got Away. She said, "It's not the reality of the boyfriend that is hooked into our souls, it's what that boyfriend represented to us at the time and still represents now. I think sometimes we have to figure out what we were yearning for back then-- because it's not 'the boyfriend.' It's something about ourselves that we wish were true. And you may find yourself still yearning for that same thing, whatever it is, even though you are no longer trying to be famous in a band."

Yes. I still have a part of me yearning for the fantasy that I had in my twenties: that if only I became famous, all my problems would be solved. It would be that easy. But as we age, we get that it's not about ourselves. It's not about the glorification of "me"-and for those who become glorified, the problems just get bigger. It's about us, it's about the "we" we create, the sweet, unique, dispensable/indispensable part of the whole we find ourselves becoming. And still the problems don't go away. But we have company to share them with.

Big events, solstices, Christmases, birthdays, 20 year anniversaries of being in the music business--these are hard. They force me to confront just how challenging it can be to live my own mantra, to be in the present moment and show up for the joy. I am much better at showing up for the tragedies. I am extremely present for the tragedies. But today it hit me like a two by four--I don't want to lose myself in busyness anymore. I don't want to live a short distance from my body. I don't have an answer about how I am going to change, but something has to change. But if I were my own life coach, I would start with a couple of things: one hard and one soft. I would say, "Sweetheart. I keep hearing you say you want to meditate, you want to take your quiet time. I think maybe you should just do it. Schedule it in. Do it now. Bite the bullet and set your alarm for 5:30 and keep that date as if your life depended on it. Trust that you will get enough sleep."

And then a soft one. Music. Just let it in. Listen. Receive. Don't try to master it, make it, understand it, analyze it, prostilytize it, manhandle it, market it or have an opinion about it. Just listen. Enjoy. It was perhaps your first love. Let it love you, and let yourself love it back. And when you are ready, imagine yourself once again to be on that stage at the Iron Horse. Go ahead and stare into that sun--because this time it's setting, it's over and it can no longer make you go blind.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jam for the Fans and Bloomsday

Katryna and me at the open mic/Nields Karaoke Friday evening at the Tuesday Market Space behind Thornes. (Photo by Jeff Strass). We thought at the moment to sing a non-Nields song, and so chose "Lovely Rita," which we ought to remember. But she forgot the words and I forgot the chords. So we sang "Easy People" instead.

Below are photos from the May Day Cafe, AKA the Nields Museum which we set up in the old Dynamite Records space as a place for our fans to hang out between shows.

Waiting for the open mic to begin...

Singing Red Red Robin with Blair and her sweet girl...
The inimitable Ed McKeon from WWUH was our MC.

Here we are with the CrackerJack Band Saturday night at the Iron Horse. Photo by the amazingly gifted and talented and lovable Jake Jacobsen.

Today is Bloomsday: June 16, the date (6.16.1904) described in James Joyce's wonderful Ulysses. My writing group celebrated by listening to part of WBAI's marvelous Joyce-athon, which began with Alec Baldwin reading Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses." Somehow, it seemed apropos.
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

More photos of Jake's are here.
Adam H's photos of the Gospel Brunch are here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Nields Newsletter for Jam for the Fans

I promise to post more in the next few weeks. I am as tired as I have ever been, but oh, so full of joy and gratitude. Thanks, fans, for coming out to celebrate! For those who weren't there, katryna and I put together a newsletter like the ones of yore to welcome fans to town last weekend, and this is the text from it. Photo at right by the brilliant and wonderful Jake Jacobson.

When we think about our career over the last 20 years, we think about our music, our miles logged on America's highways, the stages we have been lucky enough to play, our colleagues whom we mostly get to see at Festivals, the studios where we have created our CDs, but most of all, we think of you. The community of people who have come to our shows, bought our CDs, listened to them and sung along to them in cars and showers, worn our t-shirts, spread the word about our little band, read our books and blogs, commented on our ridiculous status updates. You are our employers. You are also the reason we do this. You are definitely the reason we are still able to keep doing this after 20 years. We thank you from the depths of our hearts and souls. We choose you because you're funny and kind.

The Nields started in the trunk of our parent's Plymouth Barracuda when Katryna was just a toddler, but we mark the beginning of our band by the first paid gig we ever had. June 7, 1991, Trinity College hired us to play a show for Alumni Weekend. Appropriate because Katryna had just become an alum. We played with Mary McCormack- now starring on USA's In Plain Sight and shooting this weekend so she couldn't make it to our celebration. We played Black Boys on Mopeds and Tripping the Light Fantastic, This Happens Again and Again and The Beatles' This Boy. We then moved to Williamstown, MA where we pounded the pavement, played in the basement of a Deli and got a big break playing the hotel lounge. There we honed our chops and got our first press from the great Seth Rogovoy: "There is never a cover charge." He's written more complimentary stuff since....

We moved to Windsor, CT and started playing all over the East Coast. Nerissa taught us to have the motto: "Say yes to EVERYTHING!" So we did. We were a trio. Our first manager wanted to call us a Neo Folk Trio. We declined. We played some of the greatest clubs in the northeast: The Bottom Line in NYC, The Iron Horse in Northampton. We recorded our first CD: 66 Hoxsey Street with Huck Bennert in Newton, MA. In February of 1993 we recorded a LIVE CD at the Iron Horse Music Hall. That June we invited Dave Chalfant up from New York CIty for Nerissa's birthday party. "Bring your bass!" we said. He did. Meanwhile his Mom was at the Tony awards because she was nominated for her amazing work in Angels in America. We watched her look glamourous on TV. Then we played music and wept at Dave's awesomeness. "Will you play with us every gig from now on?????" He said, "Well, if I'm not busy." We brought him to play with us at The Birchmere in Virginia. From then on, we were sad every time he was busy. Soon we convinced him to build a recording studio and make us a CD. So he did. He found Dave Hower and we made Bob on the Ceiling in Dave Chalfant's apartment on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn above a funeral parlor.

Soon we were officially a fivesome and we travelled the country first in an Isuzu Trooper and a Subaru wagon and later in the gorgeous Dodge Ram Van- Moby Wan Van Kenobe. We got the best booking agent in the world, Patty Romanoff and started kicking butts and taking names. Soon we had a record deal with Razor and Tie and we got to make a CD at the big fancy studio at Long View Farm with the amazing Kevin Moloney of Sinead O'Connor fame. We lived in Motel 6s and ate baked potatoes at Wendy's and played in rock clubs and church basements and at amazing beautiful festivals: Newport, Philly, City Stages in Birmingham, AL, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Telluride, Bumbershoot and so many more. Our Gotta Get Over Greta CD had the coolest cover by the brilliant Stefan Sagmeister. We played at SXSW in Austin Texas and were seen and heard and then we got love from major labels. We had a bidding war between a couple of companies. One of them was EMI Guardian and the presidents drove up form NYC to Burlington, VT in a limo to see us play. And to impress us. And to give us a big cardboard cutout of The Beatles that Nerissa had admired in their offices. We signed with them. They sent us to LA to record with one of our favorite producers: Mr Paul Fox. He requested the pleasure of our company. We stayed at the famous Hotel Roosevelt and recorded Taxi Girl and bought a faux leopard print coat at a thrift store that later was found in someone's Closet. We are fancy dinners paid for by other people and Madonna's record company gave us a bunch of money for no reason and we felt kinda famous. We traversed the country in Moby with a trailer named Astro. WE saw little of our beds and counted the number of times we crossed the Mississippi. We played in Bloomindales in Palo Alto where we were the muscial entertainment for Seventeen magazines rip off of a modeling contest. We were asked not to play Greta because it might offend the pre-teens' parents, but it was ok to sing Taxi Girl. Whaaaaa??? We started noticing that just because people had fancy job titles, that did not make them smart nor did it make them have good judgment nor did it mean that they were actually DOING the job that they were being paid to do. Soon Moby started to get very sick. 3 transmissions later, we were getting the hint that he wanted to be put out to pasture. That Astro was getting to be a drag. Then the record company imploded and it was Christmas and we were a little confused.

But we remembered the two most important things about our career. The first was that all we ever wanted was to Play. No one could take that away from us. We had written so many new songs; we had our very own producer and recording engineer and we knew how to play. So play we would. But wait. There was one other thing... Moby was not going to enable us to go places to play. We would need a new van. Record companies are unreliable, but fans are not. You are the other most important part of our career. You, our bosses, our community, our benefactors. And so we turned to you and asked you to help us buy a new van. We held the legendary Jam for the Van. We raised $26,000 and bought Nessie the Loch Ness Vanster and her trailer, Kitty Box. We recorded TWO CD's 'Mousse and Play and we signed with Zoe Rounder and continued our rompings round the country. We played Lilith Fair and sang the National Anthem at Fenway Park and grooved at all those other great festivals and amazing rock clubs all over the country. We toured with amazing musicians like Dar Williams and Moxy Fruvous, Ani DiFranco, Jump Little Children, Eddie From Ohio and The Kennedys. We recorded our favorite CD of our career thus far- If You LIved Here You'd Be Home Now. We took the time to make it everything we wanted it to be. We toured all over spreading the word about it. And you danced and sang and made us happy every minute we were on stage. Maybe if you'd been in the van with us, we could have kept going forever. But you wouldn't fit.

We recorded a double LIVE CD at our beloved Iron Horse Music Hall. We finished the artwork and the next day Amelia Nields Chalfant was born. We played our last show as a 5 piece band with Nerissa, Katryna, Dave Chalfant, Dave Hower and David Nields in August of 2001 on the New Haven Green.

Soon Nerissa and Katryna turned to Dave Chalfant to create their first duo CD: Love and China. It lulled Amelia in the back of every car that took them to our next gig. Nessie the Loch Ness Vanster was replaced with “Mama's Purple Tar,” a maroon Dodge Grand Caravan. Nerissa and Katryna played with Patty Larkin, Dar, Cry Cry, Cry, Cake, Cheryl Wheeler, John Gorka-- all the folky luminaries. We found the great Paul Kochanski and asked him to play bass. Dave Chalfant played guitar. But mostly Nerissa and Katryna played as a duo. Dave Chalfant was in demand as a producer. He recorded, mixed, or produced CDs with Erin McKeown, Stephen Kellogg, Peter Mulvey, Ben Demerath, and so many more.

Scholastic Books called Nerissa up and asked her to write a book based on This Town is Wrong. So she did. But she also wrote a whole CD to go with it. And we recorded it and released it and asked our band to join us for a tour. They did and we dubbed them THE CRACKERJACK BAND.

Katryna had another child: William and Nerissa had two of her own: Lila and Johnny. We wanted them to have our Dad's voice in their lives. So we made him record and that became our CD All Together Singing in the Kitchen. That wasn’t enough; we needed to make sure that our kids had music the way we had music, so we started HooteNanny, musical shenanigans for kids aged 0-5 and their grown-ups. We made another family CD, Rock All Day/Rock All Night. We returned to our folk roots and wrote and recorded our favorite CD to date: Sister Holler, in which we borrowed and stole many themes and ideas, and even a chord progression from our musical ancestors. Nerissa then borrowed Katryna’s million dollar idea and wrote a book called How To Be An Adult, a manual for young people trying to figure out how to pay quarterly taxes, get health insurance, register their automobiles, cook chickens and navigate relationships with poise and joy. Katryna drew the illustrations. Our beloved Ed McKeon--he who discovered us back in 1991 in Hartford CT and first played us on the radio--said we needed to make a family DVD and that he wanted to be the one to film it. So we made a DVD called Organic Farm, and there was much happiness. Now we are at work on our 16th CD, Ten Year Tin: The Full Catastrophe. We hope to release it this fall, along with our latest book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family, coming out on Shambhala/Trumpeter.

It’s time to celebrate 20 years of making music for fans. We hope you have a great weekend, see some old friends, make some new ones, discover something wonderful in our little Hamplet. We love you. Thanks for being the best bosses ever.

Love, Nerissa and Katryna