Monday, March 21, 2011

Waiting for Spring, and Thoughts on Little House on the Prairie

The other day I got a most alarming message from my gmail account. In a glaring red box at the top of my gmail page, I was informed that I had reached capacity and if I didn't delete my excessive emails, they would be deleted for me. I felt panic, but also astonishment. I had used up all my space? How did that happen? I'd always envisioned my available space as outer space, my emails over the course of the past 5 years like tiny specks, the size the stars appear to be--dots on a black canvas--rather than what they really are--giant suns. I had loved gmail when I first signed up for it, right around the time Elle was born. In fact, I went into labor three and a half weeks early in the morning after I'd spent the evening before wrestling for three miserable hours trying to get my old AOL contacts to import into gmail. Coincidence? I think not.

Gmail was so fabulous--it searched and found everything I'd ever written to anyone and everything anyone had ever written to me. I was saved! No need for filing, no need to try to figure out what to keep and what to trash. I could just keep it all! Or so I thought. Discovering there were limits to my cache, I was mortified. Being called on my hoarding tendencies in this arena was just as embarrassing as being called on the hoarding of clothes, tchotchkes, pots and pans, mugs, guitars, books, ancient issues of Yoga Journal, and all those scraps of paper with lines of songs on them. Not only that, for the first time I really got that my storage of useless emails of Facebook announcements, the New York Times, freecycle posts and the like were being subsidized by coal drawn from mountains in Tennessee with their pinnacles snapped off, and nuclear energy from the kinds of plants that are causing radiation sickness in Japan right now. I am the problem, and by deleting my copious emails, I can do my part to be on the side of the solution.

Elle has recently discovered the Little House books. We finished reading Little House on the Prairie last week, Tom and I fighting over who got to read aloud to the older child. These were among my favorite books when I was a child--I joyfully read and re-read and re-read them until I had memorized the songs Pa played on his fiddle, the exact items the girls got for each Christmas, the reverence with which Laura created her dowry, the color and texture of her wedding dress (black, silk). I noticed that the Ingalls girls sang "Bean Porridge Hot" while I had learned the same song as "Pease Porridge Hot." The folk tradition lives. Elle noted that she might play "Old Dan Tucker" on her violin someday, just as Pa did.

But what struck me going back to these books as an adult was the existential discrepancy between the ways in which Americans in the 1870s viewed the land, the country, its potential, and the way we do now, in 2011. It must have seemed to those pioneers that land was all we had. Land and time; when Ma moans to Pa in the last chapter that they have lost a year of their lives in building their little house, toiling the earth, establishing a claim, only to be kicked out for slightly vague reasons by government soldiers, Pa shrugs and says, "We have all the time in the world, Caroline."

For as far as Laura, the eight-year-old protagonist, could see there was nothing but the Kansas prairie grass and wild game. "We can eat like kings here," Pa declares, arriving back to the Little House with two jack rabbits in one hand and a prairie chicken in the other. And he notes that it is no longer so back in the Big Woods of Wisconsin where the settlers have already depleted the resources.

But like my blissful ignorance about my gmail account, which I'd assumed would hold every single email I ever wrote for all eternity, we Americans--actually we citizens of the planet earth--have now clearly come to the edge of our space. Hearing from a friend at a gathering a few weeks ago about her view of the Atlantic while living in the Congo--all she could see as far as the eye were oil riggers drilling off the coast--drove home this point. The world has changed radically in 40 years since I've been alive. And of course the world I read about in the 1870s was almost unrecognizable to the one I inhabited in the 1970s, when the Congo was still wooded and plain.

Sunday was the first day of spring, and Tom uncovered his garlic plants while the kids played in the warming sun. Monday it snowed. I carried my mug of green tea (yes, back on caffeine as of today--the snow did me in) to the couch in the music room and gazed out the window at the falling snow. When I let go of the story--it should not snow! It's spring!--I rather enjoyed the silent gentle falling, slowing covering the barn roof with white. I thought about the way I used to binge: spacing out while consuming a half a box of granola, completely dissociated from my body. In that state, I had been suspended in time, floating in space, just me and my mouth. I haven't done that in years, and I hope never to eat that way again, but it occurred to me today that something might have been lost in abstaining from this behavior. Just as an ex-smoker misses that opportunity to step outside the building for some fresh air, a pause and a moment to reflect, I missed that spaced-out feeling I used to get when I did the outrageous (in my mind) activity of eating copiously between meals. And when I stopped drinking caffeinated beverages, I stopped taking the proverbial coffee break. I know, I know, I could have taken small meditative breaks without the coffee, taken herbal tea breaks. But without the physical need to ingest the chemical, tea frankly lost its appeal. Why drink something that might spill and stain? I wasn't thirsty.

But today I was. I got it into my head that I wanted more than anything to build a small room at the top of my house, with glass all around, and to spend an entire year just sitting there and looking out the window. Just watching the trees change, the birds come and go, the sky turn blue, white, grey, black, purple, orange, pink. I wanted to watch spring come, crocus by crocus, bud by bud, leaf by leaf. I wanted more time and space. I wanted to just watch.

Laura and her sister Mary spend a lot of time just watching. Many chapters in Little House mention this. Laura and Mary sit at the window for three days watching the horizon to see when Pa is coming home from Independence with their ration of sugar, cornmeal and coffee (notice that these pioneers did not do without coffee, though they did without vegetables for an entire year. As far as I could tell, the only fruit they ate was wild blackberries.) Were they more or less bored than a typical child of the 2010s? What would they have made of our swarms of emails? Ma comments to the girls at one point that if they send a letter to their family back in Wisconsin in the fall, they might expect a letter the following spring. It would be less disrespectful to the planet to save one's correspondence if letters came just once a season or less. My emails to my family are copious, though short and usually not precious, though occasionally full of priceless moments: "Jay announced that from now on we should call him Sosuke," I recently wrote (Sosuke being the little boy in Ponyo). I would like to be able to look back and remember this.

I like to think that I am enlightened enough not to berate myself for my email disorganization, to sigh and accept that this is the way it is and let gmail delete all my past correspondence for me. If in a life we leave behind only traces of our past, the way ancestors of Laura Ingalls (of which there are none, actually--none of the four sisters had grandchildren) might have discovered that one letter of 1875, I needn't fret about a dearth of evidence. Even without a single email, I have left plenty. Even if the house burned down (God forbid) and I lose the papers that contain my writing, it will be all right. Songs get lodged in the ears and hearts of listeners and get passed down generation after generation. I think I'd best spend my time writing songs, sitting in a glass-enclosed room, watching the seasons changing rather than deleting emails. Though then again, there was an awful lot of busywork a person had to do back in the 1870s--it probably took fifteen or sixteen trips to the well to haul up enough water for a bathtub, never mind the time it took to heat it up. So I will do the 21 century equivalent of chopping wood and carrying water. I will go through my in-box, say goodbye to what I might let go of. And then I will write a song.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Shiva, Shakti, Seeger, Suzuki

Today in yoga class, our teacher Amy Reed, talked about the dance between Shiva (our bare, pure awareness) and Shakti (the ways in which we harness our awareness to engage with the world.) The two are always at play with one another, going back and forth. Some times we are more introverted--more Shiva--observing the world as it goes by, just noticing, not getting all hooked up in the story. And at other times, we are plunging in, seeing where the holes are that only we can fill. "Blessed are those that play, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," wrote Emily Dickinson. As a musician, I think about Shiva and Shakti all the time. Musicians need, primarily, to be listeners before they ever strike, sing, pluck or blow a note. We need to observe what the others are playing, or even what the silence is compelling us to. And then, at just the right moment, we engage. We come in. We join the symphony, the chorus, the jam, with the part that is ours and only ours to share.

All of which makes me think about my new career as Suzuki Mom. If a year ago you had said, "Hey, Nerissa. What is your biggest parenting nightmare?" I would have said: any situation that would put me in a position to force my daughter to do something on a daily basis. Make that one thing "music" and we move from nightmare to horror show. How could forcing a child to practice for a half hour a day breed anything other than resentment? I would resent her for not wanting to practice, and she would resent me for...well, for being me. Queen of the Daily Practice (be it unloading the dishwasher, writing a song per day, running, yoga, making gratitude lists-whatever if might be, you can be sure I will be compulsive about it. This is not so bad when it's just me we're dealing with, but I feared exposing someone I loved, especially one of my children to this facet of myself.) When the phrase "Suzuki" was mentioned, I cringed at the vision I saw before me. Me barking, "Stand up straight! Bow hold! Bow hold!" My daughter in therapy twenty years later, telling some long suffering analyst how her love for music had been drained out of her one Twinkle variation at a time.

Besides that, I had made a career for myself espousing an alternative approach to traditional music education. "Music should be fun! Just make a joyful noise! Dance like Snoopy! Sing loud and don't worry about the on-key part! Shake an egg to the music! Technique schmechnique!"

I didn't grow up with Suzuki. I learned to play piano when I became literate, which is to say I was discouraged from the kind of exploration that all kids lucky enough to have a piano take on: fists on the piano, arms on the piano, one-fingered chicken scratch on the piano, poking out the melodies I heard around me. I was taught in a structured way, to identify those black ant-like marks on a clef with the corresponding white and black keys on the keyboard. I was yelled at to practice, but always by someone in the next room.

And yet, I became a Suzuki mom. Here's how.

In September 2009, when Elle was just three, Katryna and I were booked to be a part of a Pete Seeger Tribute at the Academy of Music in our hometown, Northampton. My parents love Pete Seeger; their second date was a Seeger concert, and they discovered their love for each other over "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream." They came to town, and before the show, we got take-out from Paul & Elizabeth's restaurant. As we exited Thornes Marketplace, Elle spied a busker on the street playing a fiddle. She'd seen a violin a few weeks earlier in the Elmo version of "Peter and The Wolf."

"Mama!" she shouted pointing. "I want to play that!" I didn't take this too seriously. Since "Peter and the Wolf," she'd also decided to play the flute and the French horn. I'd had to explain to her that she was too little for woodwinds or horns (one needs a certain amount of lung power not usually achieved till the age of 8 or 9). But I knew little kids could play the violin, so I said, "Well, you can if you want."

We proceeded to the venue. Backstage, the promoter introduced us to Emily Greene, a friendly looking woman holding a guitar. "Emily teaches Suzuki violin," mentioned the promoter.

"That's funny!" I said. "Elle just said she wanted to play violin."

Elle started jumping up and down and attached herself to Emily's legs right about then, and so I took her number. I looked up and said, "Good luck tonight. What song are you playing?"

She smiled and answered, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."

Emily sent us a packet of information that terrified me so much that I kept it on the far corner of my desk for the next nine months. Suzuki parents were expected to practice with their child for a half hour a day, listen to a CD daily, and attend with the child not only a weekly private lesson, but two monthly group lessons! Not only that, we were expected to read Shinichi Suzuki's book Nurtured By Love and join a group discussion to talk about how it might shape our world view. As Katryna and I were on the road almost weekly doing gigs, and cramming to write our book All Together Singing In the Kitchen (a how-to and why-to raise musical children) I just didn't have the time, although it did occur to me in a guilty kind of way that maybe--just maybe-- being a Suzuki mom could inform my writing.

But Elle persisted. For nine months, she asked me steadily when we would start to play the violin. So in June, tiny violin in hand, we marched up to Emily's studio.

Right off the bat, Emily put us at ease. We didn't have to practice a half hour--only five minutes at first. We had some simple tasks: listen to the CD, hold the violin, make a "bow hold." Elle wasn't even allowed to touch it to the violin. And we were given a chart and some stickers. Every day we did these things, we got a sticker. My inner perfectionist was gratified.

And so was Elle. This, I thought, might just work.

Recently--well, since giving up caffeine--I have noticed the pause in between Shiva and Shakti, the moment before the partners take hands for the dance. And this is a good thing for me. I tend to act without thinking; to leap before I look. Taking the time to really think about Suzuki was unusual for me in that sense. But I believed that if I had let Elle go forward right away with the violin that I would have burned out and given up before the practice could take hold. And while I might be able to do that to myself, I felt I couldn't do that to my child. And so when we finally went forward, I made a deal with myself, similar to the deal I made when I became a parent. "I will do the best I can, and I will make a lot of mistakes. I will not be great, but I will be good enough."

This attitude, when I remember to maintain it, works very well in terms of our practice. We don't practice every day, but we never do less than five days a week. I do get impatient, but I have yet to threaten to burn her dollhouse. (See previous post). And when I do feel my temper rising--when she throws her rented violin on the floor in frustration, when she hits her brother with the bow, when she purposely plays the pieces twice as fast or three times as slow as they're supposed to be played (I recognize that these crimes might seem wildly divergent to you, but to a musician, they're all about the same)--I sometimes, OK, often, raise my voice. And then the image comes back of the poor tortured twentysomething in the analyst's office cursing Mommy Dearest. And that's when I get to soften, as we do in yoga when we find ourselves trying too damn hard. And I say, "I am so sorry. Let's take a break. Let's cuddle." And she puts down that tiny violin, crawls into my lap and we sit. We listen. We observe. And when we are ready, we pick up the violin again and play.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Why We Are Buidling a New Kitchen

Photo of the author and our kitchen by author's four-year-old.

I really think all my problems would be solved if I could a. go back on caffeine and b. buy a new iPad. Instead, I am going to think about this poem by Josephine Johnson.

This is the need, the deep necessity of every life:
To scatter wide seed in many fields,
But build one barn.

This is our blunder, to have built
Gilt shacks for every seed,
And followed our sowing on fast anxious feet,
Desiring to grind the farmost grain.

Let go. Let go. Return
Heighten and straighten the barn's first beam.
Give shape and form. Discover the rat, the splintered stair.
Throw out the dry, gray corn.

Then may it be said of you:
Behold, he had done one thing well,
And he knows whereof he speaks, and he means what he has said,
And we may trust him.
This is sufficient for a life.
-Josephine Johnson

One of the writers in my Monday group brought us this poem. It came as a gift on a day when we'd gotten two pieces of so-called bad news.

The first piece of bad news was that Elle had just lost her second lottery in a month to the other charter school we'd applied to. The first school we will not be attending is the Hilltown Charter school, co-founded by our beloved friend Penny Schultz, who teaches music and movement there. Penny is our music director at our church, and certainly one of my Knights of the Jedi Round Table (as my friend and mentor Pam Slim would say). Hilltown Charter is a jewel of creativity, inventiveness and just plain love. I cried when our number came in at 64 and I knew it wasn't going to happen for us.

The second school is the Chinese Immersion School in Hadley, about twenty minutes away from here. Although I don't think I would have sought out an immersion school, many friends encouraged us to apply because of the strong MCAS scores and parent cohort. I wanted to apply because all the kids I knew who go there love it. We drew #111.

On the same day, we got word from one of the two contractors who were bidding on our kitchen, coming in at a number that would make the figure in our savings account cower and wither and beg for mercy.

The next day we got the second bid. It was higher. Knowing that one needs to add 20% to whatever the estimate might be, Tom and I picked up the plans, scouring them for areas to decrease, appliances to recycle, tile choices to reconsider. Maybe we could get rid of a few windows. Or live without an oven and instead build a smoke pit in the center of our kitchen.

In fact, we are reconsidering the whole project. Do we really need a new kitchen? How can I justify this anyway, when down the street folks line up for a free meal at the shelter? And now that my daughter won't have a second language (Mandarin at that) in her back pocket when it's time to apply for college, shouldn't I put all the money in a college fund?

Then it occurred to me to learn Spanish. I have always wanted to learn Spanish! I speak and read passable French (well, passable to my sister who speaks about the same level of French. Katryna, that is. Abigail is fluent.) I could learn Spanish, send my kids to a Spanish after-school program, teach Spanish songs at their local public school where there are lots of native Spanish speakers and somehow shoehorn a kind of Immersion into my kids. Take that, charter school! Immersion, Nerissa-style.

Which might be what I suspect this poem is suggesting I don't do. I am queen of scattering my seeds and trying to build gilt shacks for them all. Do one thing well? Too hard. I'd much rather do twenty things kind of ok. Less boring, or so I think, anyway.

Speaking of boring, I read the reviews of Amy Chua's book with a kind of morbid fascination. For those who missed the news cycle of mid January, Amy Chua, AKA Tiger Mom wrote a memoir (note: NOT a How To) on her parenting style, which is somewhat if not completely Pavlovian and includes threatening her children with burning their dollhouses if they don't get their piano pieces error free in their daily three hours of practice. Of course, like the rest of America, I would not raise my kids that way. But sometimes I think that's only because none of my friends would let me. There is definitely a part of me that wants to raise my kids the way (some people) raise prize winning show dogs. And Amy Chua said one thing in the Wall Street Journal excerpt that I keep mulling over: "Nothing is fun until you're good at it."

Is this true? My kids certainly have a blast banging on our piano and hurling their adorable bodies around the living room to the soundtrack of Peter Pan. Their movements certainly resemble interpretive dance of a certain kind, but are they "good" at it in the sense of mastering skills? Probably not. And yet, I do remember when I was learning to play the guitar I was often so frustrated by my limits that I would give up after a few moments of miserable strumming to do something else. But, as I was self taught, I must have kept coming back for some reason. It wasn't fun not to be good at guitar. And I had what Ellen Weiner calls "the rage to master," which I presume Amy Chua's kids had
too, since at least one of them has played Carnegie Hall. But I only had the rage to master a certain level of guitar. I wanted to build gilt houses for a bunch of songs, including ones I would write myself. I did not make guitar the foundation for my barn. I did not build a guitar barn.

The lessons of this week keep circling back to this: I am building a kitchen partly because it's fun and indulgent and I love pretty tiles and BlueStar ranges; but mostly because I love to cook for friends and family, and like most families, we live in the kitchen more than any other room. The kitchen is our foundation, it is where we meet in the (sometimes cranky, sometimes luminous) bleary morning; where I write most of the day (my desk is in the kitchen now); where we gather at the day's end to thank God for our food, health, friends, family and say what was good about our day, what was bad. It's where Tom and I meet after the kids are in bed for a cup of mint tea and a recapping of the day's events. I clean the counters before turning the lights off--one of the last chores before sleep. And we hold retreats in our house where the kitchen is a whirl of flavors, laughter and activity. Songwriters write in the large bathroom cum recycling center which will turn into a pantry. Weekly writers know where the tea is stashed, how to get hot water quickly. This is a communal house, not just mine but belonging to the muses of the writers who write here.

When I was in college, I hung out at a vegetarian restaurant called Claire's for hours with my fat volumes of Shakespeare, thin Sam Shepard paperbacks and scores of Bach, and my friends from Tangled Up in Blue. One night, on a napkin, I drew my dream home: a place in western MA with three buildings. A recording studio on the left and a space to worship on the right. In the center was a house with a gigantic kitchen where we would all gather to eat and recap the day. I imagined all my friends from college coming and going, making music, sharing stories of their adventures. I imagined myself living here after my touring days were over. I'd take the cue from Voltaire: "Il faut cultiver notre jardin."

I guess I am there now. And so we are joyfully sending Elle to the local public school a couple of blocks away from here, and I hope to give as much as I will get to my community. I will teach our songs, and I will learn the new ones from the kids she goes to school with. Meanwhile, I will clean house, reinforce my barns, cook some fabulous vegetarian meals on my BlueStar stove and let go. Return.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

March Meditations

March. Sweet, heartbreaking March. Today started with promise, and the sheer lake of ice that is my backyard parking area got a gleen of melt on its surface, and I could see a time in the not-too-distant future when I wouldn't have to worry about my children slipping and breaking their teeth (a strange obsession of mine.) And then this evening the wind is whipping up, flakes of snow are flying and I retreated into my warmest sweater and wool socks.

We had a fantastic retreat here this weekend. Writers braved the ice storms and any social anxiety to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard and share what they had just written with the gang. My friend Kris McCue took some fabulous photos of our Saturday evening HooteNanny in which one amazing young writer revealed herself to be a master of the Nyckelharpa, an unusual Swedish instrument that is part lute, part violin (one plays it with a bow) and part harpsichord. Elle and she played every song Elle knows from her Suzuki Book One repertoire. Beth DeSombre and I accompanied (which was easy--all the songs are in A. To read Beth's post on her experience at the retreat, check out her blog--and her music. She is wonderful!)

March brings something else for us this year too. This Friday would have been my mother-in-law's birthday. As readers of this blog might remember, she died a year ago March 13, and we are experiencing what fellow writer Marilyn London-Ewing says is "yahrzeit" a Yiddish word meaning,"a year's time." It is a time of remembering; in the Jewish tradition, families light a candle and keep it lit for 24 hours while they say prayers. I feel as though our family is coming out of a dark time into the light, just as the sun is making herself more available to us here in the Northern Hemisphere. As D.H. Lawrence writes in his poem "Shadows,"
...and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and
snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet
new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new
blossoms of me––

Life goes by very quickly these days. The kids grow, master new powers, tyrants are overthrown in the Middle East, people push away last year's iPads to get the new version; firm beliefs--ideas that used to work-- within seeking individuals are out grown and tossed aside when they discover some new truth.

And my question of the day: John Gardner, the wonderful novelist/writing teacher was purported to say (by his student, my friend and fellow writer Elaine Apthorp), "What actually happens in life, and what you can convince a reader to believe, are two different things."

Why is this?