Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thoughts on Sandy Hook and the Incarnation

I haven't written on this page since December took me down the dark rabbit hole of holiday prep, end-of-year festivities, and of course the terrible news. I have written many posts in my mind, starting with the line, "Dear Gun Owners, Please help me to understand where you are coming from." I have never been quite so shaken by something I learned about from what we call "the news." My reaction to what happened at Sandy Hook on December 14 is much more like my reactions to my own, personal devastating news: my miscarriage, my break-ups, the deaths of friends and relatives. I can't stop crying, coming back to the horrible reality of a nightmare coming true: losing a child in the most violent way imaginable. Wondering what kind of state those children were in when they were killed. Thinking about teachers like Victoria Soto who hid her kids in cupboards and closets and told the killer that they were in the gym. At her funeral, her sister read a letter. "In it, it said they had to sit down with three small children, explaining to them that monsters sadly do exist out there. But they felt relief that because of my sister, they were able to tell them that superheroes also are very real."

A meme on Facebook was going around to comfort us via Mr. Rogers:"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

How do we be helpers? By not forgetting. By not losing sight of the tragedy in the warm wash of our own holiday celebrations, not letting 2013 turn the page on 2012. For me, and for many others this means getting political. I'm not afraid to fight this fight. When I was a child, I remember learning about wars, especially World War II. At the time, I understood that there might be a cause worth dying for. I took in the sacrifice of those soldiers and wondered if there might ever be a cause worth dying for in my lifetime. Would I be brave enough for the fight? I still don't know the answer to that, but hearing about what Victoria Soto did, for the first time I thought, I hope I would make that same choice. Maybe it's automatic; maybe if it's in us, it's in us to just leap into the fray. Maybe it's a choice; I don't know. I just know that she died so that 20 some kids could live on, and forty some parents would be spared the funerals, the never-ending gaping hole. (Though I am equally sure that every family with a child at Sandy Hook is going through some kind of anguish, even if their child was spared.)

I'm doing easy things for now. I sang at a vigil on the solstice sponsored by MotherWoman. I sang songs from our latest CD The Full Catastrophe that seemed apropos: "Your House Is Strong," "Which Side Are You On?" and "I Choose This Era." The last is a song I wrote a week before Elle was born. It's about the ambivalence of giving birth in this crazy time of climate change, violence, the erosion of everything we used to count on, like the simple goodness of the sun. I am writing letters to my congresspeople asking for a renewal of the assault weapon ban. I am talking to my kids about the importance of including everyone in their "clubs"--Elle's new term which I fear might equate to cliques. I hear Elle tell Jay, "Do you know what bullets are? Bullets kill people!" when he "shoots" her.

I thought about my friend Edward who grew up in the inner city in Washington DC and recalled a story he told. When he was fifteen, he got into a fight with another kid. Edward came home and told his twin brother, who handed him his gun. "Go shoot him," said his brother. But even though it's commonplace for kids in the inner city to resolve typical boyhood altercations with a gun death, Edward did not.

And most gun owners don't become killers, either. That's important for a lefty, pro-gun-control advocate (since 1980) like me to remember. Still, I don't buy the NRA's tired line, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." Yes, but mostly the people who kill people do so with guns.

The day it happened, I collapsed on my dining room floor and screamed at God, "What were you thinking???" I don't know where that came from. I didn't think I believed in that kind of God. I guess my own understanding of my beliefs isn't so clear. It's the old Harold Kushner question: if God is both all-powerful and all-loving, how can massacres of first graders possibly happen?

I really don't know. I usually have some equanimity in my not-knowing."Let the mystery be," as Iris DeMent would say. But on Dec. 14, I wanted answers.

I talked with my minster friends, Peter Ives and Matilda Cantwell (who wrote this lovely and helpful piece on the tragedy). I went to my beloved West Cummington Church and prayed, cried, held hands, sang. I sat in the dawn as I usually do, watching the sun struggle up over the horizon and bathe the world in pinks and blues, shed golden light on the trees. It's darkest before the dawn. I think back to 1980, the year I became politicized on the topic of gun control. It was in the shadow of the murder of John Lennon, and part of my reaction was to learn everything I could about the second amendment, which guarantees us the right to bear arms in the context of maintaining "a well-regulated Militia." ("A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.") (Does this mean that we can each own a drone? Where do we draw the line?) Since then, we have watched the debate move sharply to the right. No one was talking abut assault weapons in 1980. We were just talking about handguns. What happened?

We have to take this debate back. I know Obama has other fish to fry. I know it's not popular. We have to make it popular in the truest sense: of the people. We have to put money into ads where we ask the American people if they really intended to make this Faustian bargain: free easy access to guns with the understanding that this will mean the deaths of our children and other innocents in periodic massacres. Really? REALLY?

In the 1980s, mothers banded together to change the conversation about drunk driving and formed M.A.D.D. Drunk driving deaths are down 24% since 1980 when two moms who had lost their children started this remarkable organization. What I know is that as I was growing up, none of my friends would even think about getting behind the wheel after having more than one drink. For my parents' generation, this was not the case. Moms (and dads) need to band together again to stop the craziness that is gun violence in our country. There's M.A.G.V, but I couldn't find a website for this organization; there's the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ( which looks more promising.

I live by the light of a God whose plan seems to have included the murder of God's child. Out of the carnage came a new understanding: death is not the end. We live on--at the very least--in the hearts and minds of those we love; and our teaching, if it tastes of the truth, gets passed on and on. The incarnation, which Christians just celebrated during Advent, is about God entering the human experience, finding us in the filthiest of conditions (in the story, a stable; in reality, our worst pain, at our most vulnerable). If we can say yes to God, we partner with the divine. I keep remembering the heavy heavy weight of free will, of having to make up our own minds to love, to have faith, to believe in each other, even when we so dramatically fail each other. But this is the whole message of Incarnation. God joins with us: us in our guise as filthy stable; us in our guise as perfect newborn baby. We have this connection, and it's up to us to tune in, use it, or not. It's up to us to be God's hands in a broken world, to heal as Jesus did, one leper at a time, one schizophrenic at a time, one alienated individual at a time. It's up to us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And to point out the helpers to our children, so that they know what direction to go in.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Windows Onto Each Other's Lives

View of the new church from the Parish House

Last Sunday, the church that burned to the ground on Jan 17, 2010, rose from the ash and opened its doors to its faithful congregation: we, from many different backgrounds and faiths, who have come to know this little sanctuary in the hills as home. Since the fire, we've been worshiping in the Parish House, a quirky former UU church-turned-Ladies-Auxiliary-Club down the hill which houses a kitchen, bathroom, small office for our minister, Stephen Philbrick, and medium-sized, modest front room where--up until the burning--was the place our children held "kids church." When this became our temporary home, we arranged chairs in rows; another church had donated a shabby but perfectly serviceable pulpit; still other churches had donated hymnals, and Penny Schultz, our miraculous music director, had printed up supplements. Really, we had everything we needed, even a baby grand piano, and a view of the spot where the church had once been in a window behind the pulpit, the spot in most churches where a cross or crucifix would be hanging. As the months went by, we congregants got to watch the "new old church" being rebuilt, growing taller and more familiar with each passing Sunday. We'd worked hard as a congregation to figure out what we wanted, what we needed, what made the most sense. We'd agreed that the new church should look as much as possible like the old church on the outside. We'd agreed that the new church should have a bathroom. (The new church has two. In the old church, we stepped out the back door with our baggies of toilet paper and squatted.) We agreed that the minister didn't need a raised dias. We agreed that the windows--those huge, abundant windows out of which one could stare, half-listening to the sermon, half watching the snow, or new leaves, or atomic blue sky--needed to be the same.

The morning of Dec. 2, we gathered at the Parish House and practiced for the last time our three part a cappella version of "Amazing Grace." Jim brought his baritone sax, Kim her trumpet, Chris Haynes his accordion, Colin banged a tambourine and I strummed along as we all sang "When the Saints" and marched up the hill to the new old church. We paused on the threshold and Penny led us in "Amazing Grace." And then we entered for the first time, the place we had thought we'd lost forever. The place was packed, with the walls lined with folks who couldn't find seats.

Jim, Kim and Chris rehearsing in the Parish House

Marching up to the new old church; Parish House in background

The day before, I'd been in another packed church, this one in Washington DC, at St. Albans Chapel, on the grounds of the National Cathedral. My childhood friend Lavinia Lemon Pitzer had died in mid November of pneumonia, incurable because of an auto-immune disorder only discovered three days before her death. She'd left behind three teen-aged children, her husband Andy, her parents and step-parents, her sister, brother-in-law, nephews, and a league of stunned and striken friends. Vinnie was warm, engaged, thoughtful, loving, funny, sharp and now gone. My parents knew her parents, and so the three of us attended together. I had flown down that morning, rising at 4:20am to catch my plane. We arrived at the funeral fifteen minutes early to find that there was no room left in the chapel, but we could stand in the narthex and listen. I had a moment of frustration--I flew all this way to stand and listen?-- immediately replaced by the thought, "But whose place would I have taken if I'd arrived fifteen minutes earlier?" I had said maybe five words to Vinnie since 1981 when she brought me to Idaho to attend her beloved Van Der Meer's tennis camp in Sun Valley. Here, because Vinnie was 15 and I was only 14, I was separated from the one person I knew and stuck in the "little girl's" dorm while Vinnie went off with the big girls. Fortunately, I'd brought my guitar and two sheets of legal paper with lyrics and chords to two Bob Dylan songs, written out for me by my father. I'd also brought my Beatles songbook. And even though I'd loved the tennis, what I remember most is playing my guitar for the "little girls" who were aged 9-13, finding my place as their troubadour. And so finding myself.

I ran into Vinnie a few times with her family in the Adirondacks, but we had little to say to each other. I’d always thought we lived in different worlds. At the funeral, packed so closely I could see the face lift scars on the women in their tailored suits and perfectly coiffed blond bobs, I was struck by the difference. This was North West Washington, a slice of the Chevy Chase club lifestyle. I had fled this culture right around the time I went to Idaho, spending that summer’s early mornings lying on my back in my bed, realizing I had a decision to make. I could try to play the game Vinnie played so beautifully: get along with my classmates who seemed to have a play book I never received, who went away for mysterious ski weekends, who went to dance classes at Miss Shippen’s, who knew instinctively when to pull up their knee socks and when to let them bunch down over their ankles. I could try to get my hair to behave, to like the boy I was supposed to be “going with,” to smoke and drink at the scantily chaperoned parties. But I had another notion: maybe I was not one of them. Maybe I was never going to fit in. Maybe this insane obsession I had with music, especially the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan was a calling and not just a curiosity. Maybe I was an artist, meant to be a little apart. Maybe I had to find my own drum to march to.

Maybe so, but I am tired of this story, this explanation to myself of my difficult school-aged years. Do others have to be wrong in order for me to be right? Why couldn’t I have reached across that difference when I saw Vinnie in the Adirondacks? Why couldn’t I have made more of an effort to see how we were the same? Like me, she loved her children, her husband, her parents, her choices. Why couldn’t I celebrate that with her? Why see the chasm? Is there even a chasm? If I lived in a culture where everyone got a facelift at 50, I’d line up for mine. I just happen to live in Western Massachusetts where we judge each other by our carbon footprint rather than our wattles.

Back home in Massachusetts by 11pm, Bradley International Airport seemed shabby compared to what is now called “Reagan” in Crystal City, but which I stubbornly continue to call “National Airport.” There was a part of me that wondered if the trip was worth it. Speaking of carbon footprint, I’d spent a lot of fossil fuel and cash making the trip to DC in one day, and I’d spent a lot of emotional capital, not to mention life force to be at the funeral of someone I hadn’t been close to since the early Reagan era. I made my way home gingerly over the black ice on I-91, hung over each of my sleeping children and breathed in the scent of their bedtime skin; then crawled into bed next to my husband. And then, the next morning, at the new old church: yes, I cried as I entered, cried as I took in the sight of Steve standing in back of the same shabby borrowed pulpit (is a new one being made?) and in front of another window in place of cross or crucifix. This window shows the sky, the bare branches of late fall. And as I sat in the place we always chose at the old church—the front pew to the preacher’s left—it hit me. This was not the old church. The quilt Annie Kner sewed, our healing quilt, was gone. The place I’d gotten married seven years ago—unrecognizable. The very architecture of this new church was profoundly different on the inside. Lovely, yes. But not the same. We’d lost the old church. I hadn’t realized it as it was rising up before us from the distance of the Parish House window. I got to think, “The church burned down, but see, we’re getting it back! There it goes, good as new!” This was good; this was new. But I saw for the first time that something precious to me was lost forever. Now, face to face, there was no denying the loss.

Steve Philbrick, our minister

The interior of the old church

My father in front of the old church

So I cried a little more, this time for what was passed. And I realized why I’d gone to Washington for Vinnie’s funeral. There is a value is putting your face right up to death, destruction, loss. Some of us don’t get it otherwise; we just continue to live in our delusions that this one exquisite moment, this one exquisite child, this one exquisite note can be replicated some time in the future, so no need to look up from our tiny screens now. I won’t get another chance to catch up with Vinnie in the Adirondacks. Way more importantly, three kids have lost their mother. Our church—the church we knew—is completely transformed, transfigured, glowing white as Christ appeared to his disciples. And we have to let ourselves be wrung dry by life, by grief, by what is happening now and what is too precious to lose as it’s passing by.

Dancing for joy in the new old church

Elle's drawing during our first service in the new church

Thursday, November 15, 2012

God Is in the Numbers:Republican Math and Self-Disclosure

I feel for the Republicans. It's no fun to confront reality after years of believing one's own math. But of course, I am not a Republican, and this time around, the numbers, AKA the Truth, were on my/our side. I had been passionately, nail-bitingly watching Nate Silver's polling data and analysis. Every time Gallup would say Romney was up three points, my friend Liz would say, "Check with Nate Silver. When he gets worried, I'll get worried." For weeks before Nov. 6, I'd run into parents at pickup and say, "I'm just so scared!" "Me too!" and we'd grimace at each other and hurry off to collect our offspring. Elle voted in an election at her school and refused to tell me for whom she'd cast her ballot. "It's a secret ballot," she said firmly. Although that same day she said, "Mama, what's a saint?" I said, "Hmmm. A saint is someone who is very very good, very close to God and who takes care of poor people." "Oh," she nodded. "Like Barack Obama." "Um, no, not exactly," I said, but I did take it as evidence of how she voted.

I am finally home again after a wonderful weekend away in the DC area. Katryna and I did a benefit for Revels at which three of our lifelong music teachers were in attendance.
with Nancy Taylor

with Katherine Nevius

I also brought my kids who had a fabulous time visiting with their grandparents. The weather was wonderful; coats were left unpacked in the suitcase. My mother and I talked books (Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot) and writing (we are each deep in the midst of our novels), and my father squired the kids around on his shoulders even though he was getting over a cold. On Sunday night, when I told Jay we were going to be leaving the next day, he sat at the top of the stairs and very quietly wept. I knew how he felt.There was a sweetness to this landing spot at my parents, where, though I was woefully low on my normal self-care regimes, I was tunneling my vision into watching the Republicans try to figure out why they lost, and soon I'd have to go back to business as usual (Suzuki, cooking, exercise, teaching, etc.). Call it political rubbernecking, but I really am obsessed. When I wasn't reading the New York Times or the Huffington Post, I was talking to my parents and anyone who would listen to me about this particular delusion.

I am not a numbers person. I never have been. I get easily confused, and I like a world in which the margins are nice and soft. Numbers don't have this advantage. Numbers are crisp and permanent. So I have to take some extraordinary measures to be clear on numbers instead of being vague, which I much prefer. I write down everything I buy, and I write down every penny I earn. As a self-employed person, I keep spreadsheets on all my income and expenses. This is an ongoing process, and I have to keep refining, keep finding my errors, keep working to come up with a clearer, better system. I've come (somewhat reluctantly) to see it as a spiritual discipline. I am not just responsible for myself; these numbers have ramifications for my kids and my husband, and how I give to the world. And yet, now that I am working with numbers every day, keeping track of my income and expenses, seeing where I need to work harder, and just as importantly, where I can work less (so as to be available to my kids, my husband, my writing, my spiritual life), I have a real respect for numbers. I have come to love them. "God is in the numbers," says a friend of mine. I get this. This is a side of God I know--the one who loves me no matter what, yes, but who can't save me or my friends from death, cancer, hurricanes or bankruptcy. This is the God called Reality.

We left Northern Virginia in our ridiculous big-ass black Ford mega vehicle (I let the kids choose--oops) and drove to BWI where, I knew from an email from Southwest Airlines, our flight had been delayed. We went through baggage drop off and were told to get our boarding passes at the gate. We had a lovely chat with a family from India relocated to Albany and I tried to get them to come to our show this Saturday in Cohoes. We made it to the gate a half hour before take off, the kids scooting on their little Melissa & Doug Trunkees. And there we discovered that SW had overbooked our flight, boarded it at the old time and that there were no more flights to Hartford until the next morning. "But," I sputtered. "I am in a unique employment situation! No one can do my job tomorrow! I need to get home!" [I was supposed to teach my Parent Guitar Class at 10am Tuesday.] Moreover, I had no car seat anymore since it was in the belly of the plane bound to Hartford--without us--along with my guitar and our suitcase, which incidentally had our coats and basically everything else except the kids' Trunkees which housed some stuffed animals, cars and drawing materials.

So I rented a Prius with car seats and we started to drive back to Massachusetts at 4pm. Like the Republicans, I had not exactly done the math, but somewhere in southern NJ around 7:30pm I realized we were going to hit the Hartford Airport around midnight, if there were no traffic in NYC, and I'd have to, at that point, get sleeping kids from the rental into a van to take to the terminal to collect a big suitcase, guitar and car seat, then another van to our parking lot, put everything plus kids into our Jetta and drive another 45 minutes home. So I called my aunt and uncle in Fairfield and we crashed there, playing with their little red dog and sleeping in a heap on their living room floor. Fairfield was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy; their house had had almost 3 feet of water and sewage in it. They were finally getting back to normal, but they were tired. These superstorms cut a swath through New York and New Jersey that was easily predicted by scientists who study climate change. God is in the numbers, and God is in the science we use to figure out why the weather is becoming so volatile and why the demographics are becoming favorable to the Democrats. Dear Republicans: please wake up. Please come back from your 1950s-era fairy land, put the ball back on the field and play with us. We have real problems to solve, and it's going to take all of us to solve them.

God has no other hands but ours. This is where the soft margins come in. Katryna's sister-in-law reported that after her home in Red Hook was flooded, friends, family, volunteers and complete strangers showed up to help bail her and her family out. The woman at Budget gave me 50% off my rental car and somehow magicked the tolls into the payment, though there was no EZ Pass transducer in sight. (These may show up on my credit card in the future, however. But for the moment, this is my own version of Republican Math). My aunt miraculously lives where she lives, and we were able to find a landing spot.

The last day we were in Virginia, I noticed the picture of God on the floor in my parents' living room. "What is this?" I asked Elle picking it up. "God," she said. We'd gone to church and heard a rousing and inspired sermon on stewardship by our friend Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt, and because Elle's God has a purse, I wondered if she had been somehow able to listen from her Sunday School room. But God is not carrying a purse, she explained. That bag is God's bag of tools. And the headband and long hair is to show that God is both a man and a woman. God's face is the sun ("the actual sun," she emphasized.)

I love the hands most of all. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away--perhaps. Steve Philbrick says, "In Isaiah it says 'I, God, make peace and create evil.' [Elle] shows why. (Or: why you want to be sitting on the right-hand of God...)" There is something comforting about this view of the Divine, too, in its own way: it makes pretty clear our powerlessness.

But what I really believe is that God Him/Herself is happy and sad; God shares with us (if we can listen) God's own grief about our cancer, our election disappointments, our bankruptcy, our missed flights, our climate crisis. And God extends a hand to us no matter what our mood, or God's mood. And this morning, I opened an email from Franciscan Richard Rohr. Here's what he had to say about the hands of the Risen Christ, which I thought was apropos:
Fullness in a person cannot permit love because there are no openings, no handles, no give-and-take, and no deep hunger. It is like trying to attach two inflated balloons to one another. Human vulnerability gives the soul an immense head start on its travels—maybe the only start for any true spiritual journey. Thus the Risen Christ starts us off by revealing the human wounds of God, God’s total solidarity with human suffering. He starts with self-disclosure from the divine side, which ideally leads to self-disclosure from our side. The Bible first opened up for me in the 1960s when the II Vatican Council said that divine revelation was not God disclosing ideas about God, but actually God disclosing “himself” (sic). Quickly Scripture, and religion itself, became not mere doctrines or moralisms for me, but lovemaking, an actual mutual exchange of being and intimacy.

Excerpted from Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, p. 167

Friday, November 02, 2012

Post-Diluvian and My Own Weird Climate Change

I can’t shake the images of the water flushing through the Subway entrances and exits, the cars floating in the parking garages of lower Manhattan. The eeriest thing about these pictures is that I’ve seen them before—in my mind’s eye after watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, six and a half years ago. I left the movie theatre on that scorching June day resolved to do whatever it would take to be a climate change activist, or at least an awake aware person doing her tiny little cloth-diapering, biodiesel-driving part. “Well, now we know,” I said to Tom. “Knowledge is power. Certainly after learning what this movie taught us, we’ll begin, as a country, as a unified world, to change our fossil-fuel burning ways.” I’d had a similar optimistic thought in 1981 when I was 14 and I first learned about nuclear war. Now that we have this power, I reasoned, we’d never use it. We’d know better. War, surely, was obsolete now.

Al Gore and his ilk were predicting the kinds of floods we saw earlier this week to occur in about fifteen to twenty years, if memory serves. When climate change aficionados spoke of receding coast lines, as a former New Yorker I thought first of my sister’s in-laws on West 4th street and Red Hook and wondered if it was wise for them to continue to live where they lived. Maybe in ten years they should think about selling, I thought. Property values won’t diminish much between now and then. I imagined the waters rising up over the Henry Hudson, taking the joggers and the cyclists along with them.

Earlier this year, in July, I experienced my own weird climate change. For the first time in 16 years, I got my period. Without getting too personal and TMI, I’ll just say that the stress of my years on the road in my twenties had taken a pretty significant toll, and one doctor on my case back in the 90s had commented, “Evolution takes pretty good care of these things. You wouldn’t want the matriarch of a starving tribe to be pregnant with twins.”

My bandmates thought that was uncannily apt.

I did everything I could to restore my cycles, trying acupuncture, diet, yoga, alternative healers, psychics and finally western medicine. With the help of a talented endocrinologist, not to mention a patient and loving husband, I was able to conceive and deliver two gorgeous healthy babies. And then a few months after the last one weaned, to my great surprise I discovered I was menstruating.

At the age of 45, chances of my getting pregnant are slim, but not impossible. Every month when I feel that twinge in my side, I start doing the math: if I conceived now, would it interfere with Falcon Ridge? If we had three kids would we have to ditch our extremely fuel efficient Jetta wagon for a minivan? Could we pay three violin tuitions per year? (The answers: yes, yes and no). More importantly, how would a younger sibling impact the two I already have and cherish and want to give the world to? I know the answer: I asked them. “Nah,” is what they each said. No baby brother or sister, thanks. They are smart enough to know that the emotional resources around here are scarce.

I say that with no self-deprecation, which is new for me. I’ve spent the past 6 years feeling guilty about the quality of my mothering: that I am too distracted by my career, too spiritual, too ADD, not willing enough to get down and play with them on the floor, not silly enough, not strict enough, not crafty enough, not soft and flabby enough. I knew about the mom wars, and I thought I was too smart to fall victim to them. I was wrong.

But I got my feminist on recently; probably sometime around Mitt Romney’s reference to his binders full of women. I got reminded by some kick-ass mom friends of mine that motherhood is the hardest goddamned job on the planet, and one that rarely wins its practitioners the Nobel or a Grammy (no pun intended). When a girl was raised to be everything she could be career-wise; when she has a deep abiding love of something other than family (art, God, humanity, the Beatles) and then tries to excel at Motherhood as if it were just another arena, she is doomed. Not that I know this personally.

I’ve gone back to the Winnecott mantra: don’t even try to be a good mother; just be a good enough mother. Just good enough. See this as a long marathon, not a sprint. Your reviews after one evening’s meal and violin practice might be scorching one day, but you’re in this for the long haul. Get the food into the kids. Get their practice in. Read them a book. Cuddle them until they fall asleep. Rinse, repeat. When Elle was an infant and I was on hallucinogens (metaphorically speaking),a friend of ours--father of 2 teenagers--said that he experienced parenthood as being like working in a button factory. “It’s mind numbingly boring,” he drawled. I could not begin to relate then, but now it’s a relief to know that some others feel this way too.

Oddly, as I began to accept myself as wholly imperfect and frustrated, something shifted. I stopped feeling so frustrated. It might have helped that they’ve moved on from 24-piece jigsaw puzzles to those new Lego trucks and campers which I find so thoroughly absorbing that I am tempted to work on them on my own when the kids are at school. So I actually am on the rug with them more these days. (Elle recently said, “Mama! Go away! They are my Legos! Stop playing with them!”) It’s also helped immeasurably that I know this is the last year I have a preschooler, and I am in that sweet spot of treasuring each day I have with him. (Which doesn’t preclude me from sitting him in front of Thomas the Tank Engine so I can get my writing done, as I did today. Also, did you know that Ringo narrates Thomas’s earliest episodes?)

Here's the thing. Even though every part of my rational mind knows that I should not have another child, and for most of the month I really don't want another child, for those two or three days when I am ovulating, all I want to do is procreate. And no, I am not endorsing this insane article suggesting that women while ovulating were more likely to vote for Obama. I am just saying that even I, a well-educated mostly sensible person who has deep roots in addiction recovery, have a hard time not just going for what I want when I want it. If someone with my level of dedication to restraint (not to mention fear of what others will think of me) could lapse and find herself with child, what hope is there that billions of people will voluntarily band together and agree to drive a lot less, consume a lot less, procreate a lot less?

A child is supposed to grow up. I am supposed to feel the gap, feel the grief of separation. It’s part of life. Losing Manhattan—not so much. So this new ache in my heart, this helpless helpless feeling, I can’t get my mind around. I am left, yearning for connection with others who are willing to seek answers, policies, leaders who can speak the truth about what’s happening and give us orders. We can’t dig ourselves out of climate change perfectly, and we probably can’t even slow it down, even if we were a united front. I am left with these words from Job:
38 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:
2 “Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
3 Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
7 When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors,
When it burst forth and issued from the womb;
9 When I made the clouds its garment,
And thick darkness its swaddling band;
10 When I fixed My limit for it,
And set bars and doors;
11 When I said,
‘This far you may come, but no farther,
And here your proud waves must stop!’
12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
And caused the dawn to know its place,
13 That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It takes on form like clay under a seal,
And stands out like a garment.
15 From the wicked their light is withheld,
And the upraised arm is broken.

42 Then Job replied to the LORD:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why a Pro-Life Christian Is for President Obama

When people ask me why I am voting for Barack Obama in this election, I say, “Because I am a Christian and I vote my values.” I am pro-life, and when you line the two candidates up side by side, there’s an overwhelmingly clear choice. Which
candidate supports the life that is wriggling all over our public school’s playgrounds? Which candidate supports the lives of those who cannot afford health care, or who might be denied health care because of pre-existing conditions? Which candidate supports the lives of those on death row, who may or may not be wrongly accused? Which candidate supports the lives of our future descendants by pro-actively encouraging green, sustainable energy sources? True, Mitt Romney calls himself pro-life, but only on one issue: abortion. Given that we cannot truly know when life begins but that it’s pretty obvious that life abounds in the above situations (playground, hospitals, prisons, and—oh, yeah, the planet) I’d say Obama is the real pro-life candidate.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to Write a Novel

Disclaimer: This post is really just my scribbling about process. So skip this if you are looking for deep spiritual insights or cute stories about my kids and read this instead.
Damned if I know. Well, OK, I do, actually. I have written a novel, and really I have written two novels. The first one, Plastic Angel, was published by Scholastic in 2005, and it's a YA about two girls finding themselves (and each other)through music. The second, called The Big Idea, is about a folk-rock band who is also a family (write what you know...). I finished a draft--five years in the writing--in 2005 and my agent tried to sell it and could not. I got many kind and encouraging letters back from various publishing houses which I stuffed away somewhere and concentrated on my growing belly and eventual daughter, and the son who came two years later. Every year or so, I would revisit the pages, making small changes. Almost every day I have thought about the characters. It feels as though they are in prison. I want to set them free. But the task seemed so gargantuan that I needed to give myself a pep talk and a plan.

And so this fall, I threw The Big Idea into the midst of a group of five incredibly talented writers, my Weeding & Pruning group. Every other week, I submit a chapter from TBI and they go at it, telling me where they are thrown out of the story, what they like, where they want to know more. We talk about what we should be reading to strengthen and inform our own writing practice. I am writing new scenes. I feel reborn, and my characters are talking to me again.

What are my professional and artistic goals in life? I ask myself this question all the time.
-I want to write gorgeous inspiring funny vibrant books and CDs that will make people feel, smile, cry, relate, understand, feel connected to each other, and grow.
-I want to be able to spend more time writing and making music. (but I need to make a living, and right now, those pursuits don't pay the bills. So....)
-I want to make a greater income than I do now through sales of my books and CDs. So...
-I want to finish my ebook How to Be an Adult, sell it online, and thus learn how to self-publish
-I want to write The Big Idea so that it is as perfect, complete, absolute as a book can be. Then I want to publish it myself.
-I want the book to come with the CD of songs the characters write. I want the CD to be a recording of a band just like the Big Idea, which will necessarily be different from what Katryna and I can do. So I want to find these musicians, find a producer, executive produce that soundtrack.
-I want to be able to pay these musicians and producer, so I need money. Maybe I will do a Kickstarter campaign when the time comes.
-In order to do any of this, I need to re-write the book. I need to find times every day to write AND to read, for I am convinced that in order to write well one must read well.
-In order to this, I need some more discipline, self-control, grit and determination, and I need to schedule my time even more precisely than I do now.

The book I am reading now is Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. I am a little more than halfway through, and I am quite taken by the premise and ideas. In a nutshell, Tough argues, it's character that makes the difference between success (a happy, productive engaged life) and failure, and not cognitive skills. Moreover, failure--or rather, learning how to use failure--is as important as success.

Paul Tough: That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private school in the Bronx where they’re now doing some interesting experiments with teaching character. Here’s how he put it: "The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything."

That idea resonated with a lot of readers. I don’t think it’s quite true that failure itself helps us succeed. In fact, repeated failures can be quite devastating to a child’s development. What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop--but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.

I can't tell you how bummed I was every time I opened a letter from yet another publisher rejecting the book I had poured my heart into for over five years. A (bestselling) writer friend of mine said, "Just write a new book. That's what I did." And I was tempted to. I was also tempted to just say, "Well, I guess I can cross 'novelist' off my list," and focus instead on music, or non-fiction, or blogging, or the hardest and most important of my jobs: mothering. I have a full, rich life. Do I really need to be a novelist? Being a novelist is so all-consuming. It requires me to read and re-read "my own princess self" as Anne Lamott would say, encouraging my already frighteningly narcissistic tendencies. Who cares about characters who don't even exist? Pay attention to the sweet souls around my kitchen table!

Shorthand: in How Children Succeeed, Tough lists these character virtues as being the most critical:
-social intelligence

I took the grit test on the UPenn website and to my shock and disappointment scored about a 33%. My husband laughed when he heard this; to him I am nothing if not gritty, which may or may not be a good thing. But the questions really gave me pause. One was, "Do you finish what you start?" Another, "Are you easily distracted?"

Oops, just left this page to go check Facebook to see if my old high school buddy Wendy Gabriel had "friended" me yet.

So here's what I need to do.
1. Re-read the book.
2. Write new scenes
3. Re-read the book with the new scenes
4. Make changes accordingly
5. Read some other novels by writers I like
6. Read Suzzy Roche's novel Wayward Saints and Scott Alarik's novel Revival: A Folk Music Novel so I can see what my peers are doing with a similar subject.

In the end, finishing this novel--and by finish, I mean to my artistic satisfaction-- might be one of the most important things I do as a mother. Someone asked me recently what my goals are for my kids as little Suzuki violinists. Orchestra? A career with the Boston Pops or BSO? No. No. No. My goals for them are about the day-to-day. I want them to have music. That's it. And I know, as my sister Katryna would say, that while listening to music is powerful and can be transcendent, making music, the actual play, is always transforming. After we enter this particular communion, we come out different, changed. But having music by making music, by participating in this particular way, as a player, demands a daily practice--and grit, self-control and zest. So I will continue to practice with them, and I will model my own practice by working on my novel every day too.

Besides. The Big Idea needs a fiddle player.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

September Garden and Life is in the Practice

I look out at my garden these days and drink it in, knowing that by Saturday morning it will likely be gone. All that work in September. Worth every bit for these morning viewings from the couch in the new kitchen. St. Francis in the foreground, Kuan Yin in the back. But still, it breaks my heart that in a few days the pansies and impatiens will be gone forever, and the cone-flowers and hydrangea will wilt and brown.

Jay has had four violin lessons and one group class. It’s so strange to see how different two children can be. After years of telling friends that my kids were more alike than not, as violinists at least they show their proclivities. Elle’s bow-hold was right-on from the start; Jay grabs his fat marker in his fist and doesn’t comprehend that one does not wield it like a sword. We are supposed to be clapping out each of the six Twinkle variations to our new teacher’s words, but Jay wilts after one-half of one, where Elle dashed ahead, graduating from her Twinkles in less than nine months. I take his fists in my two hands and tap them together for claps, but he says, “Dis gives me a stomach ache.” And more painfully, “Dis is my body and I get to do what I want!” Who can argue with that?

In Paul Tough’s new bestseller How Children Succeed (which I am supposed to be reading but haven’t started yet, but I did listen to half the This American Life piece about it) he argues that the skills most necessary to teach kids are self-control, to learn to focus attention, and to delay gratification. The exercises our teacher gives us are all about these skills. We start with a bow in which Jay says, “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or “Good evening,” depending on what time it is. We listen to the Suzuki Slow Twinkle CD and clap along, as I said above, and we listen to the Twinkles up to speed while he sways back and forth, his feet in playing position and his box violin on his shoulder. Then we do “Up Like a Rocket” with his pen-cum-bow and his bunny bow-hold. He wants to make up his own lyrics, but his teacher insists on hers. Delay gratification. He wants to make his pen go horizontally for “back and forth like a choo choo train,” but his teacher makes him keep it vertical. Self control. He ends each practice with “Thank you for the wonderful lesson,” and a bow. Nothing to complain about that. It’s teaching him good manners.

So why is this all so hard for me? Because he doesn’t always want to do any of it, and I feel foolish, frustrated, helpless, and most of all like a Tiger mom. A failed Tiger mom at that. We set up his foot chart (a 20″ cardboard with construction paper cut outs of his feet positions) and it can take 20 minutes for him to get in rest position and bow. Before he can do this, he has to fall on the floor a few times, balance on one foot and go, “Whoa! whoa!” and wave his arms around, ask for a drink, decide he has to pee, take off his shirt, roll up his pants legs, look out the window to see if Gulliver the Cat has come over, look out the window to see if his dad has biked home yet, set up his favorite cars to watch the practice, go get his ducky to watch the practice, count the marbles in his marble jar and then fall on the floor crying and insisting he hates violin and never wants to play again.

And we haven’t even picked up the actual violin.

Elle’s teacher Emily Greene says that whatever you are dealing with in terms of family dynamics will come out in the violin practice. As an author, and a teacher of writing, I notice that whatever is hard for me in life is hard for me on the page, and so it goes with my students. If a student doesn’t know herself, it is hard for her main character to be known. If a student is impatient and in a hurry, her scenes will skim by. If a student is fluent in the language of emotion but slow to take action, her scenes will be rich studies of humanity but lacking plot. And if a person cares more about being liked and well-thought of by teachers and other authority figures (but not little boys) and is the tiniest bit afraid of confrontation, violin practice sessions can turn into the Clash of the Titans.

Today I wised up. I looked at what we were being asked to do and decided to do exactly the minimum amount needed to make both of us feel like we had some kind of productive practice. Jay can’t make it through even one Twinkle, either in the swaying exercise or the clapping one. Our teacher doesn’t know this because I haven’t told her. Instead I have brought her practice sheets covered with stickers (and let’s be truthful: the stickers are for me, not Jay. I am the one who puts them on and gets a big hit from seeing them taking over the yellow lines of the paper.) But I will go in on Thursday and tell her we need to slow down, even though progress seems snail’s-paced to me as it is. And this morning, I got down a shaker of non-pareilles which I used to bribe him to do each item on our practice sheet. I had Jay bow, do one Twinkle variation for swaying, one for clapping and his "Up Like a Rocket." It all took five minutes. I hugged him and praised him and he bowed deeply. “Sank you for a wonderful lesson,” he murmured.

He may or may not continue with the violin. He may be a perennial or an annual. What matters is that he get this space each day, this moment of my full attention and love (which includes structure, boundaries, firmly holding the line) the way I have my moments with the pansies and St. Francis every morning.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Practicing it Up in the Garden

My niece, with her band, has recorded her first single, which she wrote, sings lead on and plays bass on. It's a rocking song called "Speak Up!" and my kids just got their mitts on a CD of it.

"Speak up, stand up/Don't let anyone tell you what to do..." sings my 6-year-old daughter, along to her beloved cousin's vocal. Her little brother Jay mimes playing the descending bass line. We've listened to the song four times in a row. I am blown away by the confidence, the mastery, the reedy sweetness of the eleven-year-old voice. And, to make matters even more delightful, the song is about music itself, and the deliciousness of coming into one's identity as a young musician:

"In music there are no lines to cross/In your own song you are always the boss."

Tom and I just came from a Suzuki parent class, a two-hour affair held for all parents of Suzuki kids of all instruments. I felt tearful--in a good way--by the end of it. Other parents shared their reasons for taking on what is the equivalent of a college class (and we're talking about just the parents' role here!):
-"It gives my son confidence and something he can be proud of."
-"It teaches my daughter that if you practice something, you will get better."
-"If I am there to guide them, it keeps them from laying down the wrong neural pathways," -"This is an opportunity to give my child the ability to master something."
-"She whistles the themes of the music all day long!"

Interestingly, none of the parents said, "Because I want my child to be the next Joshua Bell." Everyone present was more interested in process than product. In fact, the teacher (Emily Greene) even referred to playing the violin as a by-product of the method. The real fruits are compassion, frustration tolerance, self-control, appreciation of beauty, self-esteem and a closer parent-child relationship.

I am all for all of this. And the above are the reasons I show up day after day to the practice sheet our teacher makes and insist Elle pick up her fiddle and play her repetitions of "Allegro" and "Witches' Dance," even when she responds by becoming boneless and falling onto the floor. But I would add to the list: a life-long relationship with music.

We parents also went around and shared what is hardest for us about Suzuki. Most said the conflicts arising around practice. I added that for me the biggest fear is the thought that plays in my head when Lila doesn't want to practice and I am making her: I am destroying her love for music!

Why do I have this thought? Because sometimes I hear from other rock musicians that they were forced to take music lessons when they were kids and they hated "that classical sh*t." (Of course, they went on to become professional drummers...) Or because my father said he hated having to practice his cello growing up (of course he plays guitar now, all the time, whenever he can get his hands on it, and no one makes him...) Or that my daughter herself says, "I'm sick of practicing!" (But if I tell her she can quit, she immediately goes running for her instrument.)

Music is hard. There's no getting around the fact that in order to play half decently one has to put in some hours. And most musicians have some kind of internal struggle with practicing. (Some don't. My friend Pete Kennedy told me he still practices 3-5 hours a day, and I can't imagine he "makes" himself do this. His guitar seems like an appendage of himself.) But anything worth having a lifelong relationship with takes time and perseverance and has hard spots. Somehow we (I) get the idea that music should be all pleasure. Nothing is all pleasure. Everything that matters in life takes work: getting to see a great view from the top of a mountain. Having an incredible relationship with another person. Writing a beautiful poem. Painting a picture. Creating a garden from a patch of weeds.

"At the outset of lessons, neither parent nor child counted on the struggles that can often come between them during practices. First lessons often start after children have seen other children performing – or perhaps playing games in group class. The parent-child duo takes up an instrument with beautiful images of working together happily to produce delightful sounds. There’s usually a honeymoon period, but before long, parents begin to realize that the work of practicing resembles gardening with your bare hands more than arranging fresh flowers in a vase. (And don’t be fooled: even the parents who appear that have practices as graceful as an ikebana also run into a thorn now and then.)

"An important truth from gardeners can help parents who practice with their children: you can’t tug on a play to make it grow. You have to trust the process. But there’s nothing wrong with fertilizing, watering, and generally caring for a plant. That’s what gardeners do. Parents need to do it as well. In the process of tending beautiful flowers and nutritious vegetables, gardeners also encounter weeds. And pests. They also get some dirt under their fingers. In their own way, so will parents.” (from "Building Violin Skills," Ed Sprunger)

This beautiful quotation from the Suzuki teacher, violinist and psychotherapist Ed Sprunger hit me where I lived yesterday when Emily read this to us. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I realized the universality of this thought. You can't tug on your writing, either. You can't tug on your relationship. You have to leave space for the serendipitous, like your 11-year-old-budding-rock-star niece lighting a fire under your 4-year-old pre-Twinkler. For as soon as he'd finished listening to his cousin's single (5 times in a row,) Jay, who just had his first lesson last Thursday, grabbed his tiny 1/16th size violin and started playing her pop song's rhythm on the E string.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita While Climbing Mount Colden

Last weekend, Tom and I took our first ever 2 day weekend away from our kids. We've gone on overnights before, but two nights away? It seemed impossible. Thanks to our most trusted friends and relations, a dream became a reality.

Where to go? The Adirondacks, of course. What to do? Hike for 9 hours, ascending a +4700 foot peak, naturally. What, do you think we'd just sit on our butts reading old copies of the New Yorker? Well, actually, that's exactly what I wanted to do. But Tom has 46r fever, and I am a loving and supportive spouse, so we got up at 7am, made a quick breakfast, packed a gigantic lunch, filled our water bottles and packs and headed off to the Adirondack Loj.

But before we left Northampton, I dropped off my four-year-old at his pre-school and slipped into Yoga Sanctuary for some pre-vacation vacation. Sara, my teacher, preached on my favorite line of the Bhagavad Gita: Better to do your own dharma poorly than another's brilliantly. It was this line, ironically, that led me to abandon my own yoga teacher training two years ago. I had been thinking that becoming a yoga teacher would somehow mold me into the all-knowing, and incidentally gorgeous, guru/life coach I was to morph into now that my music career was in its sunset years. As we worked on opening our shoulders, I pondered this. Instead of feeling sunsetty, I was feeling pretty excited about my music career these days. Over the years, our mission has always been "write and perform songs that kids will one day sing on the back of the schoolbus at the tops of their lungs." We're actually right on track for that. Sure, we once hoped to be the next Beatles, but that ambition faded early on. Fame at that level makes it very difficult to raise a family, deeply know oneself without too many outside opinions, or have a peaceful dinner at one's favorite restaurant.

On the trail to Mt. Colden, there is a 2.2 mile walk in to Marcy Dam. There is a certain pine forest that we both remember well, somewhere on this walk in, but we are too focused on our feet and miss it. It's weird to be on this trail, a trail I have hiked so many times for so many years. Today there are scores of hikers; in fact, we almost didn't get a parking place when we arrived at 8:30am. The trail is also the one for Mount Marcy, New York's State's highest peak, and on this Saturday of Labor Day weekend, everyone seems bound and determined to bag the biggest peak. As we march along, we pass and are passed by hiker after hiker, some with walking sticks, some with oxygen tanks. "Marcy is a highway," said one of my mountain climbing gurus back in the 90s when I was doing the 46r thing. The implication was, real hikers go for the less flashy peaks. Why focus only on Number One?

Marcy Dam used to be a lake: here's Tom and our dog Cody in 2005:

But Hurricane Irene destroyed the dam, and now it's more like a swamp.(Mt. Colden is in the background).

Tom and I talk about the article in the New York Times by Firmin DeBrabender a few weeks back; in it he write about the myth of individualism, much discussed in this presidential election. I am thinking about the many many reasons that right now I am motivated to climb this peak, why I made the choice to exert myself this way instead of resting. There's no right or wrong; it's just curious. Am I climbing instead of resting because I want to be with Tom? Yes. Am I climbing instead of resting because I am driven? Yes. Not to become a 46r (I became one of those in 1993, in a kind of lemming-esque way; my whole family and group of friends were doing it, so I tagged along). Am I like Hillary, climbing "because it's there"? Definitely. And I like hiking. I love the expanse of time, part of it in silence and part in conversation with the one I love best. It's time with God. My mind needs days like this, where I am so focused on a task that it can't wander too much--especially on the steep or tricky parts. As we ascend through the woods, over rocks and soft pine, I feel myself relax, even as I exert. I feel my legs strengthen, my lungs work. I breathe in the smell of balsam, that seminal scent from my childhood, my own madeleine.

What is my dharma? Is it to make music in exactly the way I always have? Is it to encourage others to see the bonds music forges? Am I supposed to go to Divinity school? If so, why? Do people really have a dharma that is so specific, like "be a doctor" or "be a poet"? What if my dharma is just to be Nerissa?

My mission today was to be as present as I could be; to witness the journey, appreciate the birches (which have a relatively short life-span, Tom tells me, and they are my favorites.) I make a point of looking up every few minutes so that I don't get caught in my thoughts. Still, I get pretty caught up in my thoughts.

We come to many false peaks and one stinky stagnant lake (Lake Arnold). We run into a couple of young friendly Cornell students who are happy to just recline at this lake. "Don't you want to get to the top?" I say, bewildered. "We're thinking about it," they say.

At the summit, we sit and gaze at Algonquin and Iroguois, my favorite peaks. Then we pick up our lunches and move to the other side to stare at Marcy and her neighbors. A couple of very professional looking hikers come up behind us. "Is that Redfield over there?" I ask them, pointing.

"Yup, I'll give you that," says the man.

"And is that Grey?" I continue, pointing to a peak in the foreground.

"Sure is, at least I think it is," he says. I continue asking this stranger who surely must know. Then his wife says, "Congratulate him! He is a 46r today!" So we do; and then I realize that he has no better sense of which peaks are which than I do. I wish my dad were with us.

On the way down, my legs are like spaghetti. We pass the Cornell kids who decided to summit the peak after all. We are descending on a dry very rocky creek bed, with rocks the size of basketballs and watermelons for footing. My ankles wobble, and I keep tripping. "God, please strengthen my ankles," I pray. For good measure, I add, "Jesus, please strengthen my ankles," just in case. Then my mind goes off on matters of the trinity, the deity of Jesus, are they really one, etc. And the next moment, I am in midair. My hands go out to catch my fall, and my left knee scrapes on a rock. "God!" I think furiously. "What gives?"

"Are you OK?" Tom calls back.
"Yes," I say right away. But I stay where I am, even though there are a couple of older women behind us, and part of the reason I tripped was that I was hurrying to keep them from passing us, as we'd just passed them. I assessed. Scraped palms, a tiny bit of blood. Everything in working order. I got back to my feet and continued, gingerly down. "I just prayed for exactly this not to happen," I thought grumpily. "So much for prayer."

That's not exactly the point, I heard. Do you think you get whatever you pray for? What else could this mean?

And it came right back: that I will fall, even when my entire will is behind the hope that I won't. But that I will be OK. And even if I am not OK, I will not be alone. We are not guaranteed a life of ease, or to dodge every bullet when we chose a spiritual life, or to be the next Beatles, or even the next cranberries. But we are promised some company for the journey.

We staggered back to Marcy Dam a few hours later. This time I was determined to see what Tom was now calling "The pole forest," because these pines are so straight up and down that they look like they will soon be harvested as telephone poles. We look and look. Everywhere there are deciduous trees, ancient ones, new ones, mixed with all sorts of evergreens. And then finally, about a half mile from the parking lot we come to it. It's just a few hundred yards of forest, but the trees are uncannily uniform. And even with the occasional hiker passing us, it's eerily still, with that trademark whistling the wind makes in tall pine trees. We both stop and let the hikers pass.

"This is my church," whispers Tom.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Mid-August, I am deep in edits and rewrites of How to Be an Adult, which I hope to publish as an ebook sometime this fall. Today, though, I am working on a much grander piece: a play to be performed by my kids and their five cousins on the occasion of my father's 70th birthday. We're decamping to the Adirondacks for high merriment (and some required golf, tennis and hiking.) The play is about a School for Wizardry, Music and Mountaineering called Nieldsworts, and the hero is a grandfatherly character named Granddaddydore. Each of the kids is possessed with a magic instrument (drum, guitar, violin, maraca, etc.) Abigail (our sister who is an actor) will play Granddaddydore, Katryna will be the narrator, the kids will be themselves (only with Potteresque names like Ginny Reesely and Liley Granger and the highly original Johnny Harry Potter and the actually brilliant Ementor). I am going to direct, which means there will probably be lots of fights.

Falcon Ridge seems eons ago. I intended to write a long piece on how great it was, how brave the folks who prevail against the almost inevitable bad weather, and how the whole festival never fails to energize me for the rest of the year, inspire me with new musical ideas, remind me how much I love to play with a band. So even though the actual weekend is now firmly in my rear view mirror, it has left me with a resolve to deepen my musical practice. To wit:
-I'm taking voice lessons with a 78 year old amazing voice teacher in Amherst
-I'm about to start taking guitar lessons, with the goal being to learn the entire Beatles catalog
-I'm thinking about our next big musical project (Katryna, as usual, is full of big ideas)
-We're planning to play the Iron Horse on Oct. 13 with our CrackerJack band. If we could, I'd play monthly with the band. There's nothing, NOTHING like being with those guys to fill me with joy.

In fact, it makes me wonder why we stopped. Then I remember. It cost too much. Too much time, too much sanity, too much gas, too much summer, too much views of highways, too much smelly rock clubs and shows that started at 11pm. Not enough early mornings looking out at my own garden.

Part of me wants to just let the music and the touring life consume me, use me up. And part of me hears my daughter practicing her violin. She is playing Two Grenadiers by Schumann right now. I can hear her wade through the difficult middle section, and when she gets to the phrases from the French National Anthem, she blasts through, playing it three times too fast. Don't we all?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Singing for Old Friends Gone at Falcon Ridge

It's Falcon Ridge Prep week. Fortunately, I did not take the teaching job I was considering last time I posted, and so I have had time to make playlists, run around and clean while listening to Tracy Grammer and Dave Carter, Bill Morrissey, The Band, Lowen & Navarro and oh, yes, our own soundtrack, so I can learn and re-learn songs.

It wasn't always like this. In the 90s, we just did our thing, carefully calculating how many times we could perform, which songs to sing to maximize CD sales, and trying to play as many workshops as we could. But over the years, Falcon Ridge has become a family. We have come to know and love the other artists who frequent the folk festival, and so we learn each others' songs, play onstage during each others' sets. And this year, grieve when we lose one of our own.

Eric Lowen, one half of the partnership known as Lowen & Navarro, played Falcon Ridge every year since (I believe) 2003. In 2009, he retired from touring, but I am pretty sure he was onstage with Dan Navarro in 2010. He was diagnosed with Lou Gerrig's disease in 2004, and this diagnosis only sharpened his resolved to devote his life to music and writing and touring and singing his heart out. Year after year, we watched him climb the stage, later with a lot of help and seated in a wheelchair. Year after year, he gazed out over the field, making eye contact with audience members, sharing his craft with his fans, winning over new ones. Year after year, Dan Navarro sat beside him, blowing everyone away with his own singing and killer guitar playing.

This year they will not be onstage. Neither will Bill Morrissey, Dave Carter or Levon Helm. But their music will be.

One thing I have added to my schedule recently is voice lessons. As many readers know, Katryna has long suffered from vocal polyps which have caused her to have to cancel shows to heal her voice. This has been going on since our Gotta Get Over Greta days when we had to cancel our entire fall tour after recording that album. But Katryna is better, thanks to finally finding a most extraordinary 78 year old voice teacher in Amherst named Lois Smith. Katryna, I am sure you will agree, sounds better than ever; more importantly, she now has the stamina to sing all week and still be able to perform on weekends. Why wouldn't I avail myself of this teaching? Besides which, once when we played with Joan Baez, she told me, "Just be sure to get yourself a good voice teacher and keep on studying." What's good enough for Joan...

I started last week. Vocalizing with Lois at the piano. At one point, I wondered if I could poke my eyes out with some sticks; that would have been more interesting. But I did have to admit, she warmed my voice up, and I know enough from my study of yoga that steady, tender, slow exercise works miracles. So I told her I'd be back this week. She wrote me up a practice plan which I promptly folded up and stuck in my backpack.

Yesterday, I arrived again at her house and unfolded my practice plan like a good girl.
"Good!" she exclaimed. "Did you practice three times a day?"

I gagged. "Um, not quite," I said.

"Well," she said, shaking her head. "You have to practice three times a day."

On Tuesday night, the CrackerJack band assembled at Sackamusic in Conway, with Dave Hower on drums and Paul Kochanski on bass. Dave Chalfant played a fine looking Epiphone, and we ran through our songs in an un-airconditioned loft. They all sounded much better like that: sweaty and disgusting. There was also no toilet paper for the bathroom. Very rock and roll.

It happened like it always does. At some point (possibly during the very first chords, Dave Hower locking right in with Dave and Paul; me finally feeling (again) like I really belong somewhere) the smile came to my face unbidden and just spread and spread, threatening to turn to tears. I laughed, I relaxed. My band does this. I had an awareness during the entire rehearsal of just how lucky I am. How many 45 year old women get to play with a rock band? How many get to write the songs that write band then interprets? I can't believe this is my life.

This year, I didn't blow my voice out during rehearsal. And today I practiced my voice lesson homework.

It's taken me 45 years to get back to the place I was when I was seven years old and first knew I wanted to be a singer. I knew then what I later denied; that the voice is (sorry to be so woo woo, but) sacred. This week, it's come together for me. Listen to Bill Morrissey sing "Birches." Listen to Dave Carter sing "The Gentle Arms of Eden." Listen to Eric Lowen sing "We Belong." And now listen to Levon Helm sing "The Weight." And now listen to Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe sing "The Weight." Does listening to these angels do to you what they do to me? Though I wish more than anything to put it into words, I fear I'll fail, but I will try anyway. This is the voice of God. Each one of them. Each crazy, divine, fully human utterance is God to me, each stab at the truth, each blind belting, and even though I am just me, a 45 year old woman who never had a hit song, who drops her kids off at school every day, who shops at Target, who , I get to sing too. I get to sing along alone in the car, and I get to sing to the kids in the music classes I run, and I get to sing onstage in front of thousands of people. I get to do this crazy thing called singing, which is like reaching inside to the softest, silkiest realest part of yourself and turning it inside out and presenting it shamelessly to the world. It's the most vulnerable thing a person can do, and I get to do it and survive.

Us practicing "Snowman" Tuesday night

Thursday, July 19, 2012


"Mama, what are busibombs?" my six-year-old asked me tonight, making a delightful mondegreen out of the number one term the grown-ups in our family offer the children when explaining why we can't do whatever it is we all wish we could do––"busyness." I suspect we'll be referring to busibombs for years to come, though part of me hopes we come to our senses sooner rather than later as busyness is truly the scourge of our times. She asked the question because we were tossing a number of busibombs around and concluding that we were probably too busy to do them.

"Busibombs" are delectable events that get lobbed into the midst of our already full-to-the-brim existence and send us sprawling against the walls, only to pull ourselves up, resentfully and sleepily, too stupid to do anything right, but too attached to let go of any of amazing treats exploding out of this crafty pinata of a missile. Today's busibombs include a new teaching opportunity, an invitation to play music at the church we are almost always too busy to attend, the desire for our youngest child to start cello lessons this fall with accompanying scramble to find the time to add this in, a gig in Vermont on the same day for which our son's birthday party had been scheduled, and the fantasy of trading our truck in for a Vanagon so we can car camp on Cape Cod and Yosemite.

By now you have probably read the recent New York Times piece on busyness. If you are like me, you will be too busy to read it. My favorite line is, "More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter."

My first response was "Amen, brother!" And I would have chortled and nodded my head, too, if I had read this ten years ago. I was like the author: someone who had figured out how to make a living working about four hours a week, not counting the time it took to get to the gigs that paid me to live like this, but since that travel time was perfectly pleasant, who cared? Even if you amortized my salary over the travel time and performing time, I still made off well. I used my travel time to read, write, correspond, see the country and my far away friends, have adventures, and best of all, just stare out the window of the airplane, car or van. I certainly had plenty of time to write my novel and my songs, and even the newsletter that went out to our fans and the occasional email which had not yet taken over my inbox. Somehow I also used to have time to run 6 miles a day, and do yoga and Pilates three times a week. And I wrote three pages of brain-drain in my journal first thing in the morning. And I read novel after novel, lining them up under my bench seat in the van as though on a shelf. And I napped. Oh, how I napped!

Then I examined my own life today and I stopped chortling and noticed bitterly how the guy has no kids and appears to be independently wealthy. He has no clue, I muttered. Today, it's a huge feat if I even open one daily email from the New York Times. I rarely check Facebook, I never watch TV and read almost only audiobooks. This is very bad for anyone, but especially bad for writers and artists who need time to read and reflect. Why do I let myself get this busy? How did this happen? Who can I blame?

The current epicenter of busibombs is a week-long Suzuki camp where my daughter is a camper and I am the music enrichment teacher, though even if I weren't teaching, I'd still be exhausted as parents are expected to be fully present and awake, taking notes on their child's lessons and classes, going to parent lectures, attending (without smartphones) daily hour-long recitals. On day three, one of the master teachers told us parents that she and the other teachers were all horrified at the lack of polishing and refinement our kids pieces evinced at these daily recitals. "They don't need to be perfect," she said. "But they do need to try to be perfect."

I had genuinely mixed feelings about this. No one loves to listen to a Bach concerto played woodenly or with multiple stops and starts, but to my mind it's worth the stumbles to witness the process, to see kids get up in front of their peers and demonstrate their hard work. Also, as a professional musician, I happen to love the moments when we--or my peers-- mess up and keep on going. The music is so much bigger than the musician. I know that we are going to forget lyrics, I'm going to play the wrong chord or speed up phrases here and there, but ultimately, the show is about so much more than the musician's artistry or lack thereof. It's about courage and honesty and reaching for beauty. When I see kids attempting Bach or Brahms it sends chills up my spine, even when their efforts fall short of perfection. So I quietly disagreed with the teacher, and also noted that I can ask more of my child. Sometimes I don't push her on the refining aspects because I am in too much of a hurry and too busy to take the time, to weary to have the fight.

That night when I came home, my husband said, "It's a hot day. Let's go to the beach and bring a picnic."

"Sorry," I said. "We have to practice violin."

He looked at me as though I'd just suggested we build an igloo in our front yard. "But she's been playing violin all day! It's summertime!"

I leaned against the counter, knowing if I didn't do some deep yogic breathing in that moment, I might explode--and not like a pinata.

"The teachers require it," I said through gritted teeth.

"So?" he said.

"So I want my daughter to go to camp tomorrow prepared. They have a concert on Friday."

"It's Wednesday," he said dismissively. "She can practice tomorrow."

I wanted to cry. How could he not get it? Were we that far apart? What was wrong with the nuns who educated him? Didn't they teach him to strive for perfection?
And then I was crying. My two kids came and hugged my legs anxiously as they do whenever I cry in front of them.

"You're challenging my every tribal assumption!" I wailed.

And he was. My father regularly woke at 5 and was out of the house before we got up. He'd return at ten and kiss us softly on the tops of our sleeping heads. On Saturdays, he and my mother would drive for hours to compete in professional level tennis tournaments, rush home to shower and go out to a party. On Sundays they'd wake early to prepare for "Junior Worship," a music and Bible story program they ran at our church. Sunday afternoons were family time, but we spent these playing competitive family tennis and going out for dinner, the self-appointed judges of the area-wide Perfect Pizza contest. When my sisters and I woke on weekday mornings, we'd inevitably find my mother head in hand, elbow on the kitchen table frantically grading her high school students' history papers and preparing for her classes. Certainly we were told we did not need to be perfect. But the assumption that we'd better spend our waking moments trying was mixed deeply into the very plaster of our walls.

Tom relented and we made a quick swap: he'd be my practice ally that night if I agreed to go to the beach the next. I agreed (though I made my daughter practice Thursday before the beach.) "We can't right all our parents wrongs," I said. "But we can try. I wish someone had pushed me musically when I was her age."

Tom looked at me funny, and nodded, perhaps as though I were an Alzheimer patient. The next day when I repeated this to another parent at the camp, he said, "But you wouldn't be the artist you are if you'd become a virtuoso."

These busibombs, they come by phone, by email, in the heart of a child bursting into the kitchen with some new plan that sets my carefully worked-out scheme off course; and then we follow it. As we crouched in the cool water of the lake on Thursday, the sun just beginning to set behind the trees, our kids splashing and yelling at us to watch their new strokes and their latest daredevil feats, I sighed and took Tom's hand. "You win," I said. "This is the thing to do. God's here in this lake. We're going to wake up exhausted tomorrow, but this is what we will remember. Thank you."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tangled Up In Blue

"I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that..." -B. Dylan

I finished the amazing Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethrope when she was in her early twenties, at the same time my early twenties meme chose Tangled Up in Blue was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Katryna and I came to celebrate and open the show for them.

Tangled Up in Blue started in the fall of 1987. I'd almost lost my voice to nodes the summer before, shrieking "Born in the USA" an octave up from Bruce to 300 campers a day, and in my forced silence (3 1/2 weeks of complete voice rest plus steroids was my prescription) I made a vow: should I get my voice back, I would no longer hide it as I had freshman year at Yale. Too scared to audition for the a cappella groups, or to play any of my own songs outside my bedroom, I was at risk of drowning in my sea of insecurity. If my voice came back, I would do something. Something big.

But until then, I'd do something fun. Why not start a folk singing group? Yale didn't have one. We could sing some old songs, Peter Paul and Mary arrangements with an added bass part. I asked my then boyfriend Trex what he thought. Previously a non-singer, Trex was always up for anything, "I'll get the entire FOOT crowd," he said. "I'll get the Berkeley common room." And he got both. He said, "Show up with your guitar at 7pm Tuesday," and I did. In my hand I clutched my first arrangement" "Come Go With Me To That Land," in my rhythm-challenged notation. We had about ten people there that day; the following week we had fifteen. The third week we were back to ten, but we had at least one per part (always shortest on tenors) and that was good enough for me. At some point, towards the spring, Leon Dewan joined us on lead guitar, and we had our first "jam" (as a cappella concerts are called, at least they're called that at Yale.)

The other brave thing I did was "rush" the mainstream a cappella groups. In the middle of our second or third rehearsal, members of Proof of the Pudding swept in and sang me out of the Berkeley Common Room, members of what would become TUIB looking on with some pride and perhaps confusion. A few days earlier, I'd heard that I'd gotten into the Yale Glee Club. I was now in three singing groups. Would I come back to them?

Well, of course. In those very first rehearsals, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for: a group of people with whom to share what I loved most: music, activism, laughter, politics. In the years that followed, I eventually quit everything but TUIB, letting the music direction fill the evenings that weren't taken by Shakespeare, classical guitar, poetry and my own songwriting. The first friend to come out to me was a freshman from Tangled Up in Blue. I was initiated into the counterculture; me a nice Democrat from an upper middle class Virginia home.

The fall of my junior year, the group held its first auditions, and to our amazement, people actually showed up to try out. We worked hard those years, but mostly we were having fun. I pushed the group to be more precise musically, and some folks left because of that. During March spring break, we decided to go on "tour" and hopped in some cars and drove down I-95 to stay, half of us at Trex's mother's house and half at my parents'. We performed at my old high school and made enough money to pay for our gas and several huge spaghetti dinners.

That spring, Leon came bounding into our rehearsal space (now Byers at Silliman College) and said, "Hey! I just got us a booking at CBGB's!"
I felt as though someone had pounded me on the back, in a congratulatory manner, but a little too hard. CBGB's? Home of the New York Dolls, the Patti Smith Group, Television, the Raomones, Blondie and the Talking Heads? I was going to bring my little Yale folk a cappella cum guitar band? I had to call my once and future band mate David Jones to tell him. He'd be chartreuse with envy.

We climbed back into the assortment of cars we used to get anywhere--my 82 Chevette with the broken window and missing rear view mirror and Trex's Mitsubishi that I'd totaled the year before--and made the pilgrimage to the Bowery.

It was a crisp spring day, and it was still light when we arrived for sound check. The club was empty except for Jimmy at the bar who let us in and swung around to the soundboard as we clambered up the stage. The place reeked of beer and piss and vomit. The walls were covered with beer cans. The stage was chalkboard black. I was afraid it would bite me. I was not entirely sure this wasn't the headquarters for satanic rites. It was so dark inside I forgot it could be light anyplace else. And I felt like I might levitate with excitement. Jimmy said if we brought him a blank tape, he'd tape the show from the board for us. We ran around the corner to a bodega and brought him back a Maxell casette. As I was tearing off the plastic wrap, Joe Shieber, our excellent tenor said, "Nerissa, you should play one of your songs." I froze. I'd never performed a song I'd written in front of anyone all alone, by myself, other than this group of people.

"Only if Leon plays one of his," I said.

We mounted the stage at 12:30 on a Wednesday night. We did our repertoire: "Come Go with Me to That Land," "Seven Bridges Road," "Hangman," "The Times They Are A Changing," "Ohio" and "Hurry Sundown." I played a new song by myself called "Agape." Leon played "Farm of Isosceles." There were two people in the audience and I think we made two bucks.

A few months later, or maybe it was the following year, we went as a group to see and hear Pete Seeger, along with Mikata, at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven. After the show there was a VIP gala upstairs. We galloped through the red velvet cordons and formed our horseshoe, singing "Wimoweh" to the Holy One. He excused himself from some major donor he'd been talking with and came over to listen to us kids. "Wonderful," he croaked. (He was about to turn 70 if I have my dates right. It's amazing how long a person can be old.) "You all should think about coming to Peekskill. I'd love to organize a workshop on rounds."

We floated home that night, extolling Pete's (underappreciated) skills on the banjo, gazing at his autograph (which we then used shamelessly in a "teaser" for our next Jam), feeling certain that we had arrived.

When I graduated, along with many of TUIB's founding members, we decided to celebrate by driving around the country in Steven Michel's father's Suburban (Ben) and a rented minivan (Jerry). Above is our plotted route. We spent many a night in sleeping bags on the floors of the homes of alums and kind parents, and we ate a lot of pizza. We sang at Old Faithful and made $75, and we saw the Grand Canyon and Paolo Soleri's Utopia at Arcosanti.

As I was unpacking from this trip, in my first post-college apartment, I had Bob Dylan's Dream playing on my turntable. (Yes, a TURNTABLE!!!) I had to stop what I was doing and sit on the bed, tears streaming down my face. It took me about two years to stop grieving what I lost when I left college and TUIB behind, and the only thing for it was to start a new band.

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

Leon Dewan today