Thursday, March 29, 2012


I am going to take a break from my assignment of writing on the writing/recording process of each of the 13 songs on The Full Catastrophe (our 16th CD, due out April 10, 2012) to write about peace and love. "Be ye perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," said Jesus. (Matt. 5:48) Though that oppressive word might better be translated as "whole," "complete," or my current favorite, "mature." But as this passage comes in the context of Jesus talking about loving our enemies ("If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?" Matt 5:46), I'm thinking he's not really that interested in the 4.0 kind of perfect. That kind of perfect is way easier than the kind of maturity that's called for these days.

It's late March. We just lived through a thoroughly delightful heat wave, where records were broken all over the country--where the daily lows were seasonal record breakers, for that matter. Sweet as it was to go jogging in a tank top, it was hard to fully enjoy it when, after googling "Climate Change New England" I got this, from that radical web site "New England Aquarium." In the hopes of not losing you right now, I will stop talking about natural (man-made) disasters and instead place an asterisk here* and you can follow it down if you want to read the most disturbing of the forecast.

Somehow, no one really wanted to stand around worrying with me last week when I expressed my ambivalence about the warm spell. Was I really going to look the carpe diem gift horse in the mouth? Anyway, it's basically my religion to try to figure out why today's bad news might be good news sometime in the future; if, that is , we can be fully present to what is going on, inside our bodies and outside, honestly naming what it is. And so that is what I did last week. I sat a lot with my eyes soft like what my friend's four-year-old calls a "prey animal" and tried not to go on the attack. I listened a lot to the Beatles with my son. Another of the tenants of my religion is that if you, like the Beatles, keep hammering the themes of Peace and Love you can't go too far wrong.

This got harder the day we flew home from Florida and read about Trayvon Martin. Living as I do in Northampton MA, I never cease to be amazed at how different the rest of the country is. When I read some of the thoughts about the case--about how this is proof that multiculturalism doesn't work, about how "blacks only care when it's one of their own," I just want to sit with my head in my hands and cry for the rest of my life. I think about my friends and neighbors, parents of African American children, and how they tell me at a certain age they have to sit their sons down and give them The Talk ("No, it's not fair. But when you see a cop, do not ever ever give him lip. When you walk in a white neighborhood, do not attract attention. Do not behave like a teenager, even if your white buddy is.") I think about my own kids, being in the right place (their own neighborhood) at the right time (when is it not the right time to be getting some fresh air?) with some paranoid with a gun trailing them. Only it wouldn't happen to my kids in that same way. And at some point I am going to have to have a different kind of The Talk with my kids, letting them know that they are privileged beyond measure, and that what they do with that privilege is up to them.

Peace and love, huh? I want to rail and scream and physically harm racists and Rush Limbaugh dittoheads. Other than that, my quiet time, sitting with my eyes closed as I pretend to be a prey animal, is going just fine. And just as I recognized during 911 that our rage at the attackers was going to spiral into something far worse, I can (barely) see now that getting angry on top of the hateful shooting and dispiriting injustice is going to make matters worse, unless the anger can be channeled into some more skillful energy. On Saturday night, Katryna and I sang "Black Boys on Mopeds" to our audience at the Common Ground in Hasting-on-Hudson. That's what we do--we sing. Another tenant of my religion is that people singing together can change and has changed the world.

In much better news, Anne Lamott has a new book out. Pam Houston has a new book out. Regardless of the thermometer, the sun is returning, a few more minutes of its glory each day. At my daughter's school, the entire community sang and played (faculty forming a ukulele band) "Black & White" made famous by Three Dog Night. My son loves Yoko Ono and knows that women can rock out on electric guitars. I want to cling to these allies and close my eyes to the rest of the world. I want to stay in my safe little uncontaminated liberal bubble, where no one blinks when a kid talks about his two daddies, where my kids are surrounded by others from completely different economic backgrounds, races, religions and cultures. Last week, Tom and Jay and I went for a walk by the river where we happened upon a kind of guerilla labyrinth, full of homemade totems of personal witness and faith.
As I walked the labyrinth with my hot and tired son in my arms, I thought about how my work is to grow my own heart three sizes bigger so I can love the rest of the country, as my heavenly parent does. Do I really think God likes me better than Rush Limbaugh? Well, yes, I do, but I am still very young and confused.

I have this hope that as I age, as my face falls and my muscles get soft, that my heart, which is a muscle too, will soften as well. That it will become easy for me to love the racists and the hate-mongers, that I will look out of my leathery face and see each of them as an angry three-year-old.

*"The potential for transmission of diseases such as malaria, Dengue fever, West Nile virus and Lyme disease is expanded with warming as the habitats of disease-carrying insects expand. Warmer seas could contribute to the increased intensity, duration and extent of harmful algal blooms, which damage habitat and shellfish nurseries and can be toxic to humans. Massachusetts loses an average of 65 acres to rising sea levels each year. Much of this loss occurs along the south-facing coast between Rhode Island and the outer shore of Cape Cod, including Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I Choose This Era

Here is me playing the acoustic part.

This song is actually the oldest song on the CD. I wrote it a couple of weeks before my daughter was born, and like "Don't Wait Too Long" (which appears on our double CD Rock All Day/Rock All Night and which I wrote when I first found out I was pregnant) I still didn't know the being I was writing to. It was also right before Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth came out, and news about the various ways in which we were trashing the planet were being regularly broadcast. That evening on the news I'd heard (again, in a new way) the ways in which the rays of the sun are so much more dangerous now than they were fifty years ago. Who knows what we are going to witness in this lifetime? But do we have a choice?

I Choose This Era

We go round the sun
The Moon goes round the earth
When the day is done
Sometimes something hurts
There’s danger in the papers
Danger on the radio
But I’ll put my arms around you and I
Will not let you go.

There’s a place called Kansas
Dorothy called it home
To me it’s just a grassland
Where I’d be frightened to be left alone
I’d much prefer a city
Even if it’s Emerald green
Home is where ever I find you
But it’s also wherever I’ve been.

And it’s not the same sun my father knew
It can burn in ways that don’t heal
But I’d take these rays with this place and your face
If that is going to be the deal

I’ll take you to the ocean
To every edge that invites me close
And there I'll make my vow to you
Before everything I love the most
There’s danger in the ocean
Danger from the sun above
But I’ll put my arms around you
And surround you with my love.
I'll put my arms around you
And I will not let you go.

Nerissa Nields
April 20, 2006

We recorded the acoustic very early in the process--I think in December 2009. We didn't put the final vocals on until December 2011, maybe even January 2012. I love the way the song came out. Katryna and I did some three-part harmony, and I am trying to get Abigail (our other sister) to learn it so she can jump up on stage with us and sing it sometime. A girl can dream.

Writing The Full Catastrophe

Third in a series of posts about the songwriting on our new CD The Full Catastrophe, due out April 10. This photo is of Dave Chalfant figuring out a kick-ass acoustic part which he played on the CD and taught to me. I now try to replicate it onstage. Dave is my favorite guitar player ever.

The genesis of this CD really began in January of 2009 when Katryna called me up, as per usual, to tell me to write a song.

"Patty just called and told me that some study just proved that people without children were happier than people with children."

"Well, yeah," I said. "The highs get higher and the lows get lower. True happiness is about sane and useful contentment. That's the exact opposite of parenthood."

"Whatever," she said. She'd been tussling lately with her four-year-old who had taken to calling her "the worst Mommy ever." "I want you to write a song about post-happiness. How having a family gives you fullness and richness and complexity."

"Ah," I said. "The full catastrophe."


"You know, that line from Zorba the Greek* that Jon Kabat-Zinn riffed on for his book Full Catastrophe Living? It's a book about stress, basically, that teaches the average stressed out American how and why to meditate. I remember reading it ten years ago or so, and I read it like any self-help book, trying to get the big secret of life out. You know, do these three things and be happy and healthy for the rest of your life. I kept looking for stories about how divorcing people fell back in love, or how cancer sufferers got cured. But meditation isn't like that. It's about learning to calm yourself so you can handle the fact that no matter what you do there are no guarantees for health and wealth and fame and easy relationships and slim thighs and six pack abs. But learning to meditate can help you find that balance."

"Balance? You mean like having a career and two kids and a husband and somehow managing to raise them well, occasionally have sex, go on dates and make a five-figure income? Because I've given up on that long ago."

"I know, me too. But I like to think that my acceptance of the fact that for the next 18 years I am not going to do anything particularly well is kind of balanced. Don't you think?"

She agreed, and so I sat down and wrote this song.

Full Catastrophe
When we met, I thought our journey was over
Lock the door and shut me in.
Buy a ring, invite our friends to come over
Celebrate the holy sin
But love’s much bigger than either one of us
We knew love can’t be contained.

Don’t wanna be right, don’t wanna be wrong
Don’t wanna be smart, don’t wanna be strong
I don’t even want to be happy
If you tell me what’s true, I’ll know what to do
Then I can be me, you can be you,
We’ll have the full catastrophe

I want to see the sunset in the desert
I want the moonrise by the sea
I want our kids to sing a Bach cantata
And Appalachian harmonies
I want to be there when the early morning monsters come
I want to hold you when the spokes pull free

Don’t wanna be right, don’t wanna be wrong
Don’t wanna be smart, don’t wanna be strong
I don’t even want to be happy
If you tell me what’s true, I’ll know what to do
Then I can be me, you can be you,
We’ll have the full catastrophe

They say the hours drag but the years fly by
Some days it’s hard to find a moment to ask why
We think we’re in it for the memories
But I’d trade in every scrapbook for an hour more of sleep.

I want to rise before the kids start us spinning
Take your hand and say a prayer
I want to take you back to our beginning
Unsuspecting chose pair.
And how we traded all of our worldly goods
Bet it all on that double rainbow.

Don’t wanna be right, don’t wanna be wrong
Don’t wanna be smart, don’t wanna be strong
I don’t even want to be happy
If you tell me what’s true, I’ll know what to do
Then I can be me, you can be you,
We’ll have the full catastrophe

Nerissa Nields Feb. 2009

We recorded this song with a drummer we hadn't worked with before: Zak Trojano from Rusty Belle. Dave Chalfant played the acoustic guitar, which was good, because I didn't like the part I'd been playing. Dave gave me a whole new way to approach the song.

PS Later that year, Katryna gave her four-year-old his first ever cheese croissant. "Mommy," he gasped, chewing slowly. "It turns out, you're the BEST mommy ever!"
At the end of the movie...

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Stop Wearing Out Your Shoes

Stop wearing out your shoes.-Jeremiah 2:25
It's because of the writers in my writing group that I got to see the full moon tonight. They insisted. And I had absolutely no defense; it's a mild lambish night in early March. The sunset, I'm told, was spectacular, and we were waiting for some group members anyway. And so I got up from my comfortable chair and the lot of us traipsed out into the sweet gentle night. There she was: filigreed with a few wisps of cloud, framed by the bare branches of our neighbor's oak. Yes, we howled.

In less than a month, our 16th CD The Full Catastrophe is due to be released. We are scrambling now to do the artwork. Right now, I should be proofreading the lyrics our graphic artist sent us. I should be posting about the writing process of one of the songs, as I have committed to do. Instead, I am worrying about my family, about what my daughter said over dinner when I mentioned that I wouldn't be home tomorrow night because I'd be in Maine doing a show, and that she should do a practice recital for her father and brother. She said, "Why are you always not at home, Mama?"

"It does seem that way, doesn't it," I said. Putting aside for the moment the notion that I might not be "home" in a more figurative way, given my disconnection to the moon and the sunset, It's true that we're facing a lot of travel. This month, we were in southern CT last week, Florida next week and Westchester county the night before her big Suzuki book one recital, the show in which she performs all 22 pieces she has learned thus far. And April is busier still. We'll be doing a "blog tour" for our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family which came out last September, and another one for the CD; we'll be doing radio, and traveling up and down the eastern seaboard doing shows. Am I complaining? No way. I can't wait. We are so lucky to have these shows, this media interest and a work of art we love and believe in. But I do feel absolutely torn, as countless artist/entrepreneurial moms have felt before me. How can I leave my children? How can I leave my husband? And somewhere nestled discomfitingly in there: How dare I?

Well, I'm grateful right now to the most unlikely source for the fact that I can answer that. Yes, I dare. Pardon me while I rant for a minute. The heinous ridiculousness that came spouting out of the mouth of Rush Limbaugh last week has done a lot to help me get my feminist on. In fact, the whole debate about contraception has been a refreshing reminder to me that
1. I live in a bubble and so do my kids and husband.
2. There are people out there who think Rush knows what he's talking about (and by the way, does he think birth control pills function like viagra? That's the only way to make any sense out of his rant)
3. I really care that my daughter and son are well educated about contraception, about dignified ways of expressing their opinions in public and most importantly that the small voice of reason inside their own hearts is the voice to trust, and not that of some institution that purports to be their spiritual guide.

There, I've said it. The Catholic church has done a lot of good (championed the poor and worked tirelessly to provide for and protect the sick and needy all over the world; called for peace when to do so was extremely unpopular) and has given us a lot of great thinkers and writers (Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Thomas More, St. Ignatius, St. Augustine). But they have got to leave to Caesar what is Caesar's. Even my late, blessed, Republican Catholic mother-in-law told me a year before she died that if she had all power in the world, or could ask God for one wish, it would be for all women to have free birth control.

Meanwhile, I have got to make sure my kids know God directly, through their own quiet times, through their own communion with the full moon, through their own journey, and through their own understanding of love and respect. Is it a given to them that women should have an equal shot at those truths we have agreed should be self-evident? Is it a given to them that people (of any gender) who marry and agree to raise children together both deserve work and avocational pleasures that are fulfilling, that connect them to the community in the hopes of making a better world for all? But women cannot have anything like an equal shot if every other year they are puking in a garbage can from morning sickness, blearily trying to keep up at a meeting when they've been awake half the night breastfeeding, cleaning up after the small tornadoes that are their children and generally worried that they might get knocked up again.

OK, rant over. While it's important to look up from my own luxury problems now and then to see what the dialogue is outside of my little world where my problems are "great job but too busy for great family," we now return to our regularly scheduled program, which might be apropos. I am exhausted, as usual. I got home at 1am from the show in Connecticut (at the Kate! What a great theater!) on Saturday morning and was woken up at 6 by both kids bouncing on the bed, delighted to see their wayward mom home again. And somehow I have only just today (Wednesday) recovered from that breach in my sleep pattern. Time to reassess how I spend my precious time and calories. I need to save aside some energy for promoting this CD. I need to do less in order to do more. I need to make time to sit in silence, waiting to hear the voice that matters most. That's the voice that keeps me from yelling at my kids; the voice that comes up with the chord patterns and melodies to my songs; the voice that suggests ways in which our work can serve the greater community and not just myself.

And most of all, I need the time to teach my kids to stop wearing out their shoes, sit and be still and listen to their own inner wisdom, gaze up at the moon when she shines her lovely face down through the clouds.

How do you slow down? Do you drive until you bump into something the way I do, or do you have some kinder checks and balances?

'Full moon over VĂ¥lerenga 2' photo (c) 2011, Peter Krefting - license:

Monday, March 05, 2012

Good Times Are Here

Second in a series about the songs on our forthcoming album The Full Catastrophe

I wrote "Good Times Are Here" in mid-winter 2008, soon after Barack Obama had won the Iowa caucus and it was clear he was a real contender for the presidency. My father had called me up the night he won, practically in tears he was so happy. I realized on the phone with him that night the difference between him and me. My father has never been afraid of optimism. He has never been seduced by sarcasm or cynicism. Once, Katryna asked him, "Daddy, how old were you when you became disillusioned?" He paused, cocked his ear to the side and said, "I haven't."

A few months later, I found out by accident that I was having a baby boy. The ultrasound tech goofed and let the pronoun slip even though I'd said I'd not wanted to know. I knew I wanted to name this boy after my dad, even to call him by the name my dad's family had called him. So this song was a love song to both father and son. I really do believe that everything we lost can be found and that it was (is) there all along in the ground.

My friend the poet Mike Biegner heard the song when I first played it in my Wednesday night writing group. "I hope you always maintain the bittersweetness of this song," he said. "It has a mournful quality to it." I didn't mean it to be bittersweet or mournful, but perhaps this was just as optimistic as this congenital pessimist could get.

Katryna sang the scratch vocal in the vocal booth while I played the guitar part, using as I usually did on this record, our friend Ben Demerath's amazing old Guild. When we listened back, Dave muttered,"That's no scratch vocal."So we kept it, and that is what you will hear when you play the track.

And I do believe good times are (always) here. The trick is to see them that way.

Good Times Are Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerissa Nields
Feb. 21, 2008