On the road a la Jetsons

July 6, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I am writing this while sitting at the dining room table of one of my oldest and dearest friends, one more temporary home along this path of travel. Just so many beads on a 24-day-long chain. It’s amazing to me to think that this is how Dan and I used to live for weeks on end, back in my touring days. As much as that now seems more like a past life than just part of my own story, I have to admit that I have had a fairly easy time settling into this traveling rhythm. Somewhere in my cells it is a familiar groove.

So. Right here in this paragraph – indeed, in my very next sentence – I am going to tell you something, straight out. I GOT AN ANDROID . Not only that, I added APPS. Many of them. And, though a few weeks ago I would have proclaimed from my very own soap box that I can easily do without such new-fangled high-tech toys, thank you very much, um, it has actually been kind of, well, fun. Chloe and I used it to determine whether gas was cheaper on this or that side of the Colorado-Kansas line (we saved around $3 by waiting until we crossed into Kansas), it led us to the most fantastic restaurant that serves locally-grown and meticulously prepared cuisine (715 in Lawrence, KS), as well as helping us find our way to more than one cleverly elusive destination. It has accurately predicted the weather so I could dress for 70 or 95 degrees (though it couldn’t turn down the insidious overdose of air conditioning once we were inside the building – more on that in some future post. Hopefully they’ll come up with an app for that soon.) It has made it a piece of cake to keep up with my emails. It has located and navigated our path to Whole Foods, music stores, Target, and more. One app supplied us with quotations from famous people for our presentations. I know what the date is every day on the Jewish calendar. If I had figured out how to use it in time (and remembered where it was hiding), I could have helped my teacher by running the stopwatch when we needed it during one class session. I have taken countless pictures and emailed them to Dan and my mother and a college friend of Chloe’s (except it turned out she [Chloe] gave me the wrong person’s email address, so we are actually not sure who received the not-so-scenic view of Salina, Kansas. No offense to any Salinians out there.) And in case you are interested, I am facing southeast at 145 degrees right now, a minor but accurate fact imparted to me by said droid.

Oh. AND I have made and received phone calls on it. Which is, of course, what I got it for to begin with, though it is all too easy to forget that, when trying to figure out how to use all the other stuff, as mentioned above.

Gone are the old days. Dan and I can remember countless occasions when we had to be near a pay phone at a specific time on a specific day for a radio interview or to call a hard-to-reach contact, way back in the 1980s when we drove for all my tours. It was often next to impossible to find a phone when we needed it. Do you ever have one of those dreams where you finally find the phone booth only to discover it is out of order, or someone is already using it, or the buttons don’t work right or you don’t have the right amount of change or your long distance calling card somehow doesn’t work? Or the temperature is either ten below or 95 and humid? It was like that more often than you might guess. I will never forget the time when we called our answering machine from the back office of one of my gigs, and heard a message from our neighbor that was cut off in the middle: “So we don’t want you to worry, and the police came, but they told us—“ It was just like one of those nightmares – I couldn’t get our long distance card to work, the connection kept getting interrupted, and I was frantically dialing (we actually had a “dialer” that we carried around to beep the tones into phones that still had dials) while Dan and I were picturing our front door broken down or our house burnt to the ground. (In the end, it turned out okay, but the stress of getting through to our neighbor took at least eighteen months off my life.) None of this would have happened if we had had cell phones back then.

And now a word from my devil’s advocate, or old self, take your pick.

By sometime in the 90s Dan used all the evidence from the above adrenaline-sucking paragraph to try to convince me of the virtues of an (early) cell phone. I agreed with him that having one in our possession could spare us – or at least reduce the frequency of – the nightmarish challenges of keeping up with communications while being on the road. In my very next breath I always went on to say – and here comes my actual soap box moment (just a warning) – that maybe it turns out that it’s actually good for us to have some private time. Maybe it’s all for the better that there are times that nobody knows where we are or how to reach us. Yes, I can turn my android off, but it’s possible that even just knowing that someone could be calling or emailing me keeps one tiny set of neurons on alert when they should be taking their twenty-minute power nap or meditating on a mantra that bears no resemblance to a handheld superpower device.

So while I’m happy to have this new instrument from the Star Trek era in my employ, I still feel uncomfortable with the fact that our host for this Friday night reached me when I happened to be shopping for lead refills for my No. 7 mechanical pencil and a backpack last night. And while I was able to carry on a perfectly coherent conversation with her as I navigated the aisles of the mega-store, it’s just plain weird that she didn’t have to know where I was while we were pinning down the parameters of tomorrow’s visit. I find it on the edge of icky when a woman in the stall or dressing room next to mine is chatting with someone I cannot see. (Granted, I cannot see the woman in the stall or dressing room next to mine either, but I know you know what I’m getting at. Please don’t let me lose my momentum here.)

When we were kids, my brother and I watched the Jetsons on television together. We wanted what they had – the TV-screen phones, the instant food, the remote camera intercoms, etc. – so bad we could taste it. While I know we have not gotten as far as flying cars (thank goodness – can you imagine bad or raging drivers filling the airways in addition to the highways?) we are using a lot of things that look like Jetson imitations as it is. My android is teaching me that it can be fun, just as that happy animated family from the future made it seem. But I also want to remind all of us that the Jetsons had their daily life issues, as do we all. George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy had all manner of things to contend with at home, at school, and in the workplace, which was what the episodes were REALLY about, even if my brother and I missed the so called point. It’s not how I call Dan every day, it’s the fact that I do get to talk to him. It’s not how we found the gas station, it’s that we are fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for this trip so that I can develop further in my profession, and also so that Chloe and Rachel and I can enjoy being together in our respective musical endeavors, re-connecting with several old friends, and making new friends along the way. I am glad to have my droid’s help so that perhaps I am less frazzled when I get there! But let me remember that the tool, no matter how seductive, is still just a tool.

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Letters to heaven and back

April 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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It’s not that I have been spinning my wheels lately, by any means.  I am one week into a two-week break from school, a much needed respite, and as has been my pattern in the past, it takes a bit of time to let down before I finally feel the current that has been coursing through me, presumably all along.  I have been tending too many fires to be able to pay attention during these recent school-centered months.

Almost exactly two years ago my father, whom my brothers and I called Peter (his insistence, not ours), was diagnosed with colon cancer.  From the diagnosis to his death was six weeks.  Evidently, he had been very sick for some time.  We will never know how much they could guess at the time of his colonoscopy, but the prognosis of surgery followed by chemo turned out to be laughable.

My father and I had a difficult turn in our relationship about thirteen years ago, and though we were able to regain our footing and forge a cautious path together after that, we never returned to the closeness we had had before.  I know he felt hurt by me, and angry at my choices.  I regret that he took my choices personally, choices that Dan and I made for ourselves and our children, conscientiously and mindfully.  And I in turn felt hurt by the fact that his belief system was more precious to him than his only daughter.

Today on Facebook, I came across the status posted by an old friend of mine.  In it, she refers to a book, Letters from the Goddess, that I hadn’t realized she had written.  I followed the link and read the first several pages, into the second chapter.  In it, she guides the reader through a journaling technique to access one’s inner “small, still voice” which of course holds much wisdom.  Like Dorothy, we find out it has been there for us all the time.  So I jumped in and tried it.

My father’s mother, Frances, and aunt Elda (his father’s sister) were exceedingly dear to me.  They lived together after Elda’s husband Mito died, sometime in the 1960s, up until Franny’s death in 1980.  I lived with them in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the summers of 1968 and 1969, and visited them a few times in the 70s in their home in Los Angeles.  After Franny died, Elda went to live with her own younger sister Laure, until she passed away just over a year later, much like a bereaved spouse.

So I wrote to them today.  Okay, their answer was not what I expected – I admit that I wanted magic and line-‘em-up guidance, and that’s not what I got.  But I could hear Franny’s light laughter and see Elda’s smile and hear her wonderful French/Ladino/whatever-else accent, and I felt the power of their love.  And when they brought my father into their answer (were they speaking as one or was only one of them talking?) my tears did begin to flow.  And I have to tell you, I have hardly cried since his death.  All along I have held to my view that my bigger loss, the real loss, took place eleven years earlier.

But lately I have been noticing more and more little links to him in my days:  my growing resemblance to him, his strong will (stubbornness to the death, really), his many decades of being self-employed (just one example of how he followed his own path), his love of writing and his tendency to encourage others to pick up the pen or laptop, his habit of speaking his mind.  The rosebush he and my mother gave me for my birthday a month before his diagnosis is planted in our garden, courtesy of Dan’s green thumb.  All the years he drove me to my recitals and competitions and Girl Scout camping trips are reflected in the present as Dan and I chauffeur Rachel around.  He worshipped his cup of coffee the way Dan does (though Dan drinks decaf).  Ditto on his being a handyman around the house.  (Thank God.)

I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised to see that I have once again fallen into an old and not-so-constructive habit:  thinking I’m supposed to know what to do with my life right now.  I don’t have to know the big picture – it is not possible for me to have a broad enough perspective.  Let it be enough to keep to my daily rituals and stay focused on what lies in front of me:  lesson plans to prepare, practicing for my violin lesson and upcoming folk and baroque concerts, parent volunteer work at school, the vast myriad of motherly tasks that crop up, both predictable and in the realm of spontaneous.  Years ago, Sue Bender’s book, Plain and Simple, introduced to me the concept of making the ordinary moments of my day sacred by bringing my full attention and intention to them.  I know I feel better when I take that as my task, rather than the god-territory of understanding it all.  As they say, it’s all in the details.

And if you want to read it, here is my letter to my grandmother and great-aunt from an hour ago, and then what came to me as a response.

Dear Franny and Elda,

I am hoping that you really are here somewhere, available to me in this moment.  Up until now, whenever I have spoken or cried out to you, perhaps I have not listened hard enough or long enough (or quietly enough) to hear you.  Today an old friend of mine shared her experience of learning to pray to some appendage or aspect or single face of God, and how she has received answers.  It encouraged me to address you now in this way.  I can hear your voices, both of you, in my mind.  I have been praying – again – every morning for several weeks, to something that is in all probability more like magic than God-like, and am feeling now little and lost, and disconnected.  Or rather, I am beginning to reconnect, and part of what I am feeling is grief and the still-dammed-up tears that probably crave permission to flow.

I feel the deepest yearning to make something of my life right now.  Chloe has embarked, as you know if you are indeed here (or there), and does not need me in the same way.  Rachel does not allow me to be with her the way Chloe did.  Not bad, just different.  And I think part of what I need (want?) is to find a new standing with Dan, my sweet and generous husband and travel (read:  “life’s path”) companion.  So I have been following a daily prayer practice.  I truly believe I receive guidance, probably all the time, but I am really struggling to recognize it these days.

Earlier this afternoon it occurred to me to ask myself this question:  What has been put in my path lately?  And the answer came to me immediately:  music.  And later more of an answer:  music and collaboration.  Suddenly I am working harder and more, with more people, on more arenas, all around music.  This is good, no?

Then why do I feel afraid?  And what is expected of me?  What shall I do?

Dearest Carla,

Answer me this:  Why do you mourn?  Why do you run?  Your words are of the lost, but you are not of the lost.  This is only a part of your life, not the whole.  This is what you need right now.

Peter is in the green branches that blow in this gentle breeze.  He has not left you.  He is not gone.  He loved the spring and he loves it still.  Let him in.

Ambivalence, weaning, and a death grip

March 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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I am so right-in-the-middle of figuring something out, and hoping I can articulate it here.  I guess it’s obvious I am going to attempt it!

I just got off the phone with a friend, someone who knows me very well and has been there for me through many years of my journey.  We were talking about ambivalence and how troublesome it can be.  Ambivalence.  I know it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as a lot of other things, but when I get stuck there it’s not a pretty picture.

The first time I remember someone using this word in reference to me was when I was weaning Chloe at fourteen months of age, under doctor’s orders.  Nursing Chloe was by then a joy, but it had begun with great difficulty.  With hindsight and acquired-on-the-job wisdom, I now understand that she had something called by the benign name of “nipple confusion” combined with another sanitized understatement called “failure to latch on properly.”  In plain English, most likely because the hospital gave her a bottle and a pacifier on her massively impressionable first day, she spent the first eight weeks of her life outside the womb mashing my almost instantly wounded and enfeebled nipples, and I was in perpetual agony, re-initiated anew at every feeding.

Happily, our perseverance paid off, and around the time she turned two months there was a turning point.  From then on, the process reached a level of infinitely greater comfort on my part, and we began to experience, several times a day, that mutually blissful state of milk intoxication that most nursing mothers reach if they stick with it.  But as the year progressed, I began to have some health problems, and, among other things, was losing too much weight too fast.  With the weight went any semblance of stamina that I might have had.  If I couldn’t fit in a two- or three-hour nap each day I was completely wasted.  Finally my friends and family members asked me to consider weaning Chloe.  I refused.  It was a hard-won battle and now it was working fine.  Until the wake-up call when my doctor finally told me he agreed with my loved ones.

My La Leche League leaders helped me strategize the weaning, and with the loving support of my friend Karen, who had raised (and breastfed) four children, I came up with a plan and moved forward in earnest.  The basic concept was to eliminate one feeding a day for the first week, another the second week, and so on.  Chloe was an every-so-often-when-we-feel-like-it drinker, so it meant we had several weeks of stepping down ahead of us, a fact I found immensely comforting.  This was not going to be anything close to cold turkey for either of us.

All was going well until a few weeks into it, I hit a major stumbling block.  First, allow me to back up a little.  When my doctor, a naturopath whose own children had been breastfed, told me he thought I should wean Chloe for the sake of my own health, I found myself backed up against a wall I had never wanted to know existed.  To save myself I had to deny my own child??? This was not an acceptable choice for me to be facing, and yet it was up to me to make it.  Everyone around me was encouraging me to do one thing and my heart was strenuously insisting on the opposite.  It seemed irreconcilable, a literal deadlock.

As I stumbled around on the battleground, weaving on my feet, a kernel of clarity slowly emerged amid the dust.  What the situation was calling for was for me to take an honest look at the status quo.  It was literally taking too much out of me to nourish my sturdy and thriving child.  Even with a lengthy rest each day, I was still declining.  I had to admit that I trusted my doctor, a man who was not prone to portioning out advice.  I was also willing to admit that I had very little perspective and was in a weakened state, both of which make it hard to reach an important decision alone.  This meant, I eventually reasoned, that I had to turn to other people to help me.  And there they all were, telling me from their hearts what they felt I needed to do.  And – here’s the important part – the moment I consented, I felt myself beginning to recover.  It was reaching the decision, not the physical act of weaning, that caused the tide to start to turn.

So now back to the bump in my road.  We were already down to a few nursings a day when I suddenly reared back on myself, questioning the decision I had made a few weeks earlier.  I spun out into an agonizing place, second-guessing and cross-examining myself at every turn.  I was miserable and anxious, so afraid I was damaging and abandoning my tiny daughter.  In the process, I was making everyone around me equally miserable, including poor Chloe.  I do not remember how long I stayed in that place.  What I do remember is when, gently, my friend Karen said to me, “I think your ambivalence is harder on Chloe than the actual weaning.”  With that single and insightful observation, everything snapped back into focus.  Just as making the decision had given me an immediate sense of greater well-being, the self-torture – the thoughts themselves – had inflicted pain, on me and everyone else.  We resumed the weaning process.  As bittersweet as it is, it was indeed the road to health.

I have recently begun a practice of asking for the gift of acceptance each morning.  The universe, in its infinite wisdom, is teaching me that, in order to accept something, I first have to be willing to see it and acknowledge that it’s there.  Closed eyes and ears, distraction, disassociating, etc. are all forms of denial, at the opposite end of the spectrum from accepting what is, just as it is.  My prayer has already begun to be answered.  I am experiencing more fully the exact place in which I have delivered myself, much of each day, and it is not all pleasant.  My body is in pain.  Standing in the self-created and inequitable courtroom that is my mind, I now find myself facing the same kind of choice I was looking at almost eighteen years ago, though the characters in this scene are different ones.  Down to the way my breath moves in and out of my lungs and the blood flows through my arteries and veins, down to my very cells, I am courting the same impossible question:  Do I hold on or do I let go?  When one has been holding on for dear life for one’s entire life, letting go requires the peeling off of decades of fists, fingers, fingernails, and all manner of strangleholds, each of which has worn the deep grooves of familiarity, strengthened by belief.  I can truthfully say that I have already decided that I must release my hold, as I have seen the laughable futility of my death grip, not to mention the damage in its wake.  My mind is willing, and my heart has been swayed in that direction, but my body has no idea how to do it differently.  My sense is that the physical pain I am experiencing is that of the rope in this internal tug of war.

So after my phone conversation, in which my friend pointed out that it is my ambivalence that is causing my pain, I felt something come together.  (I know what you’re thinking, by the way.  I just told you that my mind is already made up, which does not sound like ambivalence.  And you are right.  In the big picture, I am actually somewhat clear.  It’s in the individual actions that I am still frozen up – shall I do this or that?  Go with xx or stay home?  Practice or meditate?  Is it okay that I said no to that person and yes to someone else?  Can I actually say what I want, even if it isn’t what the other person wants?  I think you get the picture.  Okay, back to my integration moment.)  Here is what my friend, this dear person who has honored my path for almost two decades, reflected to me:  I am already on the path, taking the action. Remember a few weeks ago, when I wanted someone to grant me permission to do what I already knew I needed to do?  It was my own permission I was waiting for.

I just looked up the word “ambivalence” in the dictionary.  Oxford Pocket Dictionary (it would take some pocket to hold this one) says:  “1. the coexistence in one person’s mind of opposing feelings…in a single context.  2. Uncertainty over a course of action or decision.”  I hold on even as I let go.  I pull back even as I move forward.  I am afraid of receiving the very thing I want most.  We live in paradox.  It is not only entirely possible, but almost always true that we have conflicting feelings along the way, even when there is no question of what we must do.  Thank goodness we have each other when the way can be so hard to find.  Even when it’s obvious.

 

 

Valentines Day, the blob on the screen, and growing up

February 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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It is Valentine’s Day.  I am actually wearing red, coincidentally or unintentionally (whichever way you want to think of it), but don’t tell anyone I didn’t plan it.  We sent Chloe a care package on Friday – two homemade cards (one from Rachel and one from me), a store-bought funny card (from all of us), and a bag of Lindor chocolate truffles.  Not that we have any special family connection with this holiday.  It’s just that Chloe’s roommate always decorates their room in a season- or holiday-appropriate way, and I didn’t want Chloe to feel – left out?  Forgotten?  Perhaps I am merely (desperately?) grasping at any opportunity to do something special for her, now that she is away.

I am sitting in the sanctuary of a church.  It is Monday evening, time for Rachel’s weekly orchestra rehearsal.  This is what they are calling the “dress” rehearsal, though the students are not required to wear their concert black.  The performance is Wednesday night.  In it they are premiering a piece by a local Grammy-winning composer, and he is here tonight.  He and their normal director are taking turns conducting and listening from the hall.  It is a beautiful piece, and we are so excited that Rachel gets to play it, as only the first few chairs in each section were selected for this work.

I have performed with my orchestra and with various other chamber groups numerous times in this room, and I do not often get to sit out in the pews.  Never did I think, six years ago in my first concert here, that in a few years I would be watching Rachel play in such a prestigious group.  Nor did I at that time picture Chloe at music school.  And 1,300 miles away.

Before Chloe was born, I was active as a touring solo folksinger.  Dan booked my concerts and traveled with me, leaving his computer training and consulting assignments behind each time we went out on the road.  I took a few months off during my pregnancy and then when Chloe was four or five months old, we hit the road anew.  She traveled to countless places with us during the first two years of her life, and let me take this opportunity to mention what a super nomad she was – eager and bright-eyed for every leg of every trip, and forever good-natured.  Anyway, once she turned two, not only was it suddenly more expensive to take her with us, it had also become increasingly costly to me in terms of energy and focus.  As she became more affected by the changes in her surroundings, it was harder on her, and therefore on Dan and me, which made it challenging to balance everyone’s needs while we toured.  So I went out there by myself for just over one year more, leaving Dan and Chloe behind at home for each of my four- or five-day trips, twice a month, until I could no longer find enough of a reward so far afield to lure me away from the bosom of my family.  When Chloe was three and a half I gave up traveling and became a stay-at-home mom, doing whatever gigs I could find close to home.

One month after my final tour, I went to Chloe’s nursery school to watch the children in their special Christmas holiday performance.  They got up on their little platform, two inches above floor height, and Chloe, who had never given me even a clue as to her thoughts about my being a performer, turned to me from her place up on the “stage” and said, “Mama, now it’s MY turn to be up here!”  As they launched into their first song, I observed several of the children gazing blankly around the room, mouths open with wonder at what was going on, utterly oblivious to the fact that they were performing.  In the meantime, Chloe and a small handful of others were singing their hearts out, clearly, spiritedly and confidently, fully cognizant of the attention their adorable selves were garnering.

(Note:  Lest you be misled by this quintessentially cute scenario, allow me to bring you back down to earth by informing you that Chloe had at that time almost no sense of pitch.  It filled me with dread and alarm to think that I had actually hatched a tone-deaf child, and for all her early years I did my best to not discourage her vocal efforts with my clenched teeth and too-bright smile.  My anxiety was relieved around the time she turned eight, as by then she had finally settled into a reliable and well-tuned relationship between her ears and her vocal cords, thank goodness.  Until then I had not realized that for some children, developing a sense of pitch is a developmental thing.)

Chloe is now not only playing in her college orchestra as well as the designated string quartet of the music department, and working on solo repertoire with her private teacher, but also was accepted into the women’s chorus for this semester.  Next week they will be performing Handel’s Messiah.  At Christmas, when all the choruses and the orchestra put on the annual holiday concert, it was live-streamed for those parents who live too far away to show up for every performance.  Dan and Rachel and I were way more excited to watch it than I would have expected, especially once we saw that the visual quality was disappointingly far from sharp.  “That blob has to be Chloe!!” we assured each other in front of our long-distance computer screen.  And we were right, of course.  Family members can always tell.

Rachel’s orchestra has just begun the opening theme of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, one of the most lovely melodies out there.  In waves, I find myself overcome with emotion as I listen.  First of all, music is a personal thing, somehow intimate even in a giant hall (which this is not).  When it is delivered in performance it feels as if it has been handed To You, even as you sit among five others, or hundreds or thousands of others.  And the intimacy extends to the others in the room, as you are all receiving it together.  There is that level of it, enhanced in this case of course by the fact that it is my kid up there!

Then there is the piece that is just particular to my family and our experience of performances.  We all have almost always been there for each other’s special events.  Dan has been there for close to every concert I have ever given, with the exception of that dreadful year when he stayed home with Chloe while I was still touring.  Chloe and Rachel stayed with a sitter for a few years, and then began to come to my shows with Dan, even if they fell asleep during the show.  Once I joined the baroque orchestra, not only have they come for almost every single performance (even coming night after night when we have a multi-night run), they generally sit right up there in the front row.  My fellow musicians have come to expect them to be there, and have missed their shining faces on the few occasions when they have either missed the concert or been banished to a seat farther from the stage.

So this year presented me with this multi-faceted loss as well.  We don’t get to be there for Chloe’s shows, and she doesn’t get to be here for mine or for Rachel’s.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big deal.  My words don’t carry the charge that I feel about it.  This is part of how we live together.  It’s part of how we know each other.  We eat together, we talk, we listen to each other practicing and we are there for each other’s performances, cheering each other on – and enjoying it.

When I played at Carnegie Recital Hall back in 1980, I don’t think it ever dawned on my parents to fly out for the concert, nor did that possibility occur to me.  Since both of them were from New York and had many friends and family members who still lived there, they simply wrote to everyone they could think of to tell them I was coming.  And my fan club definitely showed up, stand-ins for my parents, who waited excitedly back home for the reports of the event.  I think they may have sent flowers, but I can’t remember for sure.  And my aunt went with me to the Russian Teahouse and a long string of other places after the show, as we celebrated well into the night and then some.  Expectations have definitely changed over the past thirty years, as has the world of travel.  While Dan and Rachel and I cannot possibly fly out for every show Chloe is in, we certainly plan to be in the audience for the big ones.  I don’t know how we will distinguish between those that are important and those that aren’t, but I assume we’ll figure that out.

Nobody tells you, when you hold your precious little newborn, that this is going to be only one season in your life.  Let me try to explain this from my own point of view.  There was the season of my own childhood.  The season of college and young adulthood.  The mating season that resulted in marriage, those early years with Dan that were filled with music and travel, the wrestling with career and dreams of starting a family, which took time to sort out and clarify.  Then there was the season of early parenthood, mixed in with the loss of Dan’s parents.  And then all the decisions that come with that phase:  school, activities, priorities, the forming of new traditions.  Somehow my view of that season was often blurred by and partly merged into the recollection of my own growing up.  And in a way, “growing up” came to feel like a permanent state to me.  After all, my parents remained my parents even after I was technically an adult.  Maybe because that felt permanent to me, I took up with the idea that the tangle and closeness that is the nature of raising children would be, similarly, without end.

Of course, everyone tells me that it would drive Dan and me absolutely crazy, off the deep end, if our kids stayed with us forever, and I believe them!  Isn’t it amazing how we humans can want two opposing things at the same time?  In the early years, I wanted Chloe and Rachel to remain forever small, adorable and snuggly, imbued with that kind of worship that only the young bestow upon their doting parents.  And at the same time, I can remember how crazy-making it was to have them on my skin every waking (and, often, non-waking) moment.  I remember saying to Chloe as a baby, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”  Of course I want them both to grow into adulthood and find their respective paths.  And I want some sunset years with Dan, bookends to our early years together.  And I want Chloe and Rachel here with us because that is what feels complete now.

I can still remember the last time Rachel fell asleep on my lap, two or three years ago maybe, at the concert of a friend.  It was a Sunday afternoon, those sleepy after-lunch hours of the day, and she leaned on me, and then when I looked down into her face, she was asleep.  I sat there in the concert, tears streaming silently down my cheeks because I was fully aware that it was likely to be the last time that would ever happen.  The end of an era.  She may still be my baby, but she is definitely not a baby anymore.

In less than four months, we will attend her 8th grade “continuation” – in every way a graduation, even though, yes, she is continuing on into high school.  Chloe will be home for the summer by then, and will be sitting in the audience with Dan and me.  It’s not that our times together are all behind us, and, God willing, we will certainly be in each other’s audiences for many years to come.  I am seeing that these four years are indeed an extended transition into something else that might also be considered a transition into something further on down the line.  Maybe each stop along the way in life is more of a transition than a station.  I am beginning to think so.  May the valentines and bouquets and phone calls say it as loudly and clearly as applause and smiling countenances, in both directions.  And may we all ride the continuing surf, sometimes lulling and sometimes tumultuous, of transformation.

 

Lessons, a square peg, and the issue

February 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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You have no idea how much I have missed writing.  Not only the writing process itself, but even just having the time and psychic space necessary to sit with myself long enough for it all to pour out and come together.  Right now I am sitting in on Rachel’s violin lesson with my laptop, which I brought with me so I could attempt to keep up with my work correspondence.  Even though the icons in the lower right hand corner of my screen are telling me I am connected to some local wireless internet source (a mysterious wasteland to me at best), I cannot pull up my browser, and my email refuses to either send or receive.  Flexible person that I am, I seized the opportunity to write instead of fighting with the cyber void.

From my seat on this second-hand couch in this classroom/youth lounge in the church where Rachel has her lessons, and later tonight, in a larger room, her weekly youth orchestra rehearsal, I am privy to a quintessential winter scene outside.  There is still plenty of snow on the ground from Saturday night’s storm.  The clouds are high but beginning to thicken, and looming with a darkness that foretells of the next wave, due around midnight.  Even so, there is a wan slice of late afternoon sunlight breaking through the clouds just above the horizon, from behind the branches of the large neighborhood tree, my view of which is perfectly framed by the edges of the window, a striking arboreal silhouette.  I find this kind of picture to be one of the richest gifts of this stark and frigid time of year – how many shades of white, blue, and grey can there possibly be?  I would never find this palette satisfying during any other season, but these few minutes have been like a visual feast.

In this calm before the storm, I submit to the admittance that this has not been an easy year.  On top of the fact that my family is negotiating the bulky and uncomfortable transition of letting go of one adored offspring, and I am walking my own musical labyrinth toward I know not what, I have taken on one year-long working assignment that is siphoning too much out of me and failing to satisfy me.  In my typical fashion, I have been battling with, instead of listening to, my twice-weekly inner experience of engaging in this project.  Every week, as I approach Monday and then again Friday, my step lags and I feel a sinking sensation in my stomach.  I think they call it dread.

I have never thought of myself as an optimist.  I do not tend to look on the brighter side of things, except when faced with someone who is looking at the decidedly darker end of the continuum, in which case I usually feel called upon to find the more luminous lining.  Yet, amazingly, I find myself doggedly showing up, week after week, dragging along the frail yet stubborn hope that I may suddenly stumble into some kind of love affair with this work.  In my more desperate moments I have sworn that after I wrap this up in June I will walk away from it forever.  Yet two weeks ago, when I had to indicate my plans for next year, I found myself unable to make it final on paper.  “Surely we can make this work!” some inner voice sings (or is it whining?) in my ear.

As I write this, I can see the theme that is crying out for my attention.  How many times in my life have I forced myself to do something because my intellect judges it to be good and I am capable of carrying it out, ignoring all the while a tiny voice inside me that is saying, “But.  I.  don’t.  like.  this.”  Bully that I am with myself, I have driven myself straight into many a situation without it even dawning on me to hold an inner committee meeting first.  Even once it becomes clear that we’re not looking at what you would call a good fit, my self-appointed internal judge and jury has usually insisted, tyrannically, on saying yes to the next offer, and again to the next.  “C’mon!” the court-cheerleader is stridently urging my square self, “Keep it up!  You’ll nestle into this round hole soon!”

Warning:  Please brace yourself for what may seem like an about-face.  In all honesty, I am actually very glad I accepted this position.  And, in my own defense, I did confer with myself, heart to heart (okay, I know I only have one heart, but you know what I mean), before agreeing to it way back in August.  I admit, I only had about one week to decide, because it was offered to me on short notice, so it was a rush job.  But the truth is that I could never have known what it was going to be like without just doing it.  And if I had said no and moved into autumn the way I had been planning, I know I would have been annoyed with myself, many times over, for not having been willing to try it.  I have no doubt of that, knowing myself as I do.

What’s more, I’m good at it – certainly not stellar, since, after all, I am a novice at it, and I have made plenty of mistakes along the way – but in general people are happy with the job I’m doing.  And even I can see the results, and they’re good!  My co-workers seem to accept me as one of them, and I by no means have a corner on the market when it comes to my complaints about the challenges that are part of the package.  In fact, my colleagues are bending over backwards to help me, so I feel very supported, and those that have come to observe me have complimented me, saying I’m doing a good job.  It’s hard but it’s not bad.  There is a difference.  So what’s the problem?

I had a rabbi who once said to me, “The content is not the issue.”  Truer words have rarely been spoken!  As much as it always seems that it is these particular circumstances, whatever they are, that are causing the problem, it is always my view of and reaction to them at the heart of the matter.  I could list for you the details that continue to make my work difficult, but that is not what is at issue here.

Regardless of the fact that Dan and I are now paying for our FAFSA-determined share of college tuition and we are happy to have the added income, that my learning curve is greatly enhanced by this new venture and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to grow from it professionally, that I am doing something good and that is a pleasant feather in my cap, and that it is possible it could grow into something even greater over time; regardless of all that is good about it, it is simply not where I want to be putting my energy.

You probably don’t know that I used to be a bookkeeper.  It was before the computer age, so I would have to go through a considerable updating process to return to that line of work, but I could do it.  I am a perfectionist (NO! you are exclaiming, in shock.  I know.  But I digress.) so I was a darn good bookkeeper, accounting for every penny, and it always came out right at the end of the week.  I could do it again, but that is not where I want to be putting my energy either.

Okay, this is where I am cringing inside.  The battering voice rises up, and I will share it with you.  Who-the-hell-are-you, it rumbles, that-you-get-to-be-so-discriminating?  Other-people-would-be-grateful-for-a-job-like-this.

Well, I am grateful.  And I want to move in a different direction, even if (and here’s where I feel defenseless against the voice-with-hyphens) I don’t know exactly which, yet.  I love writing this blog and would like to try my hand at writing something bigger than a blog.  I gave up a career in folk music years ago, but would like to take my music into new venues and new rooms and begin to create a meaningful connection with new listeners.  I have for years wanted to bring the arts into the corporate domain to nurture the hearts and right brains of people whose left brains are very effective, to see what could be cultivated.  You should see the pile of books I continue to check out from the library on paper and fiber arts – I am itching to get my hands on color and texture and see what I can do!  I completed the first round of training a couple years ago to teach people how to improve their visual acuity through relaxation and good ocular habits, and found I loved working one on one with clients, something else I would like to expand upon.

And here’s the thing that came to me as I wrote the above.  Yes, I’m busy – too busy – right now.  Yes, I have too many pans in the fire.  And yes, that’s an old and familiar pair of shoes.  (Not to mention the obvious fact that I could add many more pans.  Or shoes.  I’m not sure which metaphor I’m carrying here.)  And, probably like most people, I don’t always love everything I have (over-) committed to.  But that is not the issue.  As true as it is, and as much as I have repeated that history, it is still just a deeper layer of the content.

What lies even deeper than that is the fact that I know what I need to do and I keep resisting it because my mind thinks it knows better.  But how can I allow my mind to rule on its own, without tapping into my heart and intuition?  Surely creativity and wisdom spring from something more than mere intellect.  Six weeks from tomorrow I will turn 57.  My father’s father took up oil painting in his 50s and died in his 60s.  What am I waiting for?

What am I waiting for?

Permission.

From whom?

I am finishing this writing a day later.  The snow came upon us last night with gusto, with a whipping wind and such cold that the dry white drifts squeaked under our boots and tires today.  That serene and achingly spare glimpse of winter beauty that bequeathed itself to me lasted but a few moments and then yielded to sunset, which yielded to darkness lit by a clear crescent moon, which yielded to more clouds, which emptied themselves upon us in a fury, all through the rest of the night and most of this day.  Not one of them asked for permission from anywhere, neither the clouds nor the moon, neither the sun nor the tree.  Each played its part with both grace and passion.  And acceptance, that divine gift of nature.  Thank you, God, for helping me pay attention and for making me teachable.

 

Bittersweet as the pies bake

November 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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I am in the middle of pie fixings, Dan rolling out the dough for the crust.  My good friend Doug Berch’s CD is coming to us through the kitchen speakers.  Chloe, freshly (one hour) home for Thanksgiving break, is ensconced with Rachel in one bedroom or the other, admiring Rachel’s recent happy Goodwill purchase (a prom dress or concerto dress, whichever comes first).  Bella the dog is enjoying her bone in the girls’ company.  All is right in the world.  In this house.

My aunt, at age 80, moved here from New York City, where she had lived all of her life except for her college years.  She was married sometime in the late 1940s or early ‘50s, a brief union that ended in an annulment.  This past summer, on July 4, she celebrated her 84th birthday with a sandwich and a cupcake that Dan and I brought to her senior citizen apartment house.  As we dined together at the picnic table, she commented that her mother, my maternal grandmother, died at the age of 84.

I called her today to see if I could convince her to join the four of us, along with my mother and brother, for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.  She is as low as I have ever heard her.  In all the complaints she has spewed out during these past four years of living here – the noisy college students outside her apartment, the thumping on her ceiling and/or walls, the lousy care when she was recuperating from a broken hip and wrist after a fall, how her newly claimed home town can’t hold a candle to the Big Apple – never have I heard one word about not feeling well.  Until today’s phone call.

A woman in her apartment building took her own life two weeks ago.  To my aunt, who is suffering from a chronic and worsening respiratory condition, it was a stark tolling of what lies ahead for her.  What can she look forward to but the same four walls within which she has found a peaceful refuge, an increasing struggle to take each breath, and an occasional trip downstairs to visit “the ladies” or across town to the doctor’s office.

I do not believe she is lonely.  Having chosen to live alone, I am fairly certain she has been content that way.  I believe she is beginning to let go of her attachments here.  And though it saddens me to think about it, I cannot blame her.  I have watched her these last few months coming to grips with the disease that evidenced itself shortly after she settled here.  “I didn’t expect this,” and “I’m still getting used to all this,” her succinct hints at how she feels about her body betraying her.

Betraying us all!  I was so looking forward to trips together to the art museum, the movies, lunch and tea together.  When I was a child she would visit us once a year, staying with us for about three weeks.  My father would drive us to the train station – she was afraid of flying – and we would get to go ON THE TRAIN and see her sleeper compartment, truly a highlight of her visits.  I loved her voice, her New York accent, the leather brace on her left arm from a serious car accident during her college years, and her straight dark hair.  I would sit and watch her unpack her suitcase, fascinated by the amazing versatile manner in which she used her right hand, which often had to do double duty, and by the scars on her leg where they had to take bone to try to save her damaged limb.  As plain as she always was in the areas of fashion and self-expression, I found her glamorous.

I have not seen her as much as I thought I would, these past four years.  She definitely prefers solitude.  She has had little or no interest in going out together.  We mostly talk on the phone, and sometimes I visit her or take her to my mother’s house for a holiday or birthday.  Tomorrow after lunch I will call her and see if she feels like she is up to a family Thanksgiving dinner.  If not, then Dan, Chloe, Rachel and I will pay a short visit to her on the way to my mother’s.  Either way, it will brighten her to see my two teens, reminding her of me when I was that age.  I hope my presence can offer a little comfort, even if it cannot help her lungs take in more air.  Not touchy-feely, she probably wouldn’t let me hold her hand, so we will chat and she will reminisce a little and ask Chloe a few questions about college and then not listen to the answers.

I know I need to enjoy what we have now, and I will.  The passing of my father taught me to listen differently – she is beginning to speak a new language, sprinkled with hints and clues.  I will do my best to atune my ear and hear with my heart and my intuition.

May we all take in whatever blessings avail themselves to us during this holiday of gratitude, and may we spread them as we receive them.  Speaking for myself, they are all around, even when it’s hard to distinguish them through the tears.

On Shabbat

October 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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I had the opportunity to talk with some of the seniors at our high school last week.  They are studying world religions and I shared with them my experience of being Jewish and some background on Judaism.  This is the fourth year I have been invited to do this, and have enjoyed it each time.  The students always come up with great questions, which together with the fact that I have to pull a presentation together, turns it into a chance for me to take another look at my life as a Jew, as a woman, an American, musician, mother, daughter, friend, wife, teacher, etc.

In the midst of each year’s talk, I explain about the idea of Shabbat, the Sabbath.  Their teacher pointed out that one of the ten commandments is that we should observe it.  Of course, as soon as something is required, any of us who have issues with authority start to bargain with and resist.  And not only is there the commandment itself, but also the list of thirty-nine acts that are prohibited on that day.  Talk about a great way to stir up creative rule-bending/breaking!!  So why – and in what ways – do I observe it?

Ironically it was a Christian friend of mine who first inspired me to consider the possibility.  She was a neighbor of ours at the time, in a rural section of town that had first been settled as a large orchard.  All the homes, built mostly between 1920 and 1940, had the feel of old farmhouses, and our neighborhood had many qualities of the quintessential old-fashioned small town.  Our children (her three daughters and my two) were together often, swinging in one backyard or the other, going to a neighbor’s pool for their swimming lessons each morning, and playing house on rainy days.  My friend and I were both of like minds about letting our girls be little girls for as long as possible, resisting the urge to rush into all the extra-curricular activities, and keeping our families’ lives as simple as we could.  Somewhere in there she decided to make Sunday a real Sabbath, and she shared her thoughts with me.

I was at the time studying Judaism through a local chapter of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-school, which offers a marvelous two-year curriculum now available in 60 cities throughout the US, England, Canada, and Australia.  My teacher, a modern day mystic, cultivated for our class a rich and deep foundation for learning.  When the subject of Shabbat came up, the seeds had already been planted by my neighbor, and I decided to explore it by trying to experience it.

The traditional interpretation of the Sabbath comes from the Creation story, which tells us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  Obviously, many modern Americans in the Judeo-Christian world do not take that literally, but the idea of a day of rest is still a valuable one.  Just as we need to sleep at night, we also need to plant breaks into our daily rhythm.  Practices of many kinds recommend taking two to five minutes every hour to get up, whether from the desk or assembly line, take a walk around the room, do some deep breathing.  We digest our meals better if we pause from what we are doing to eat them.  Most studies reveal that if we work too long without a reprieve, we become less productive.

I have to admit that the very first time I heard about the Jewish Shabbat, I stepped right up onto a feminist soapbox.  I was nursing Rachel, a toddler at the time, and Chloe had just turned six.  As a mother of young children, I was not going to get much of a rest, and I spoke up – hotheadedly – to protest that Shabbat was perhaps more about men getting a rest than the women who really needed it.  The person teaching that class was diplomatic, helping to make it a little less black-and-white than the territory into which I had leapt, but I was only a little bit consoled.  Those were my reactive days, and my learning curve was steep enough that I pretty much had to put the kernel of the Shabbat concept aside.  What my family did do at that point was simple (though not easy) and basic.  On Friday nights we ate in the dining room instead of the kitchen, and we lit candles and said blessings over our juice and bread.

So now, two years later, I decided to see what Saturday could feel like, now that our Friday night ritual was intact.  To be honest, I remember no details of the day itself.  What I remember is that I reached a moment of great discomfort.  I wanted to do something.  DO, with a capital D.  And that’s when it hit me that my life was centered around everything I was doing, and what I needed was to take a break from that by just being.  This was not about what my hands were doing.  I could nurse Rachel and at the same time be focused on all the things I was going to accomplish during her ensuing nap, which was what I did all week long.  Or I could sit and nurse Rachel and have it be totally about nursing Rachel.  I could chop carrots for dinner and be thankful that I could feed something nourishing and tasty to my family.  I could breathe more deeply if all I was paying attention to in that moment was my breath.

What came to me that day was that observing the Shabbat is about taking that day to be mindful and present, and not about doing, no matter what I was in fact doing.

So last week, as I stood in front of that class of seniors, summarizing briefly my understanding of Shabbat, I found myself filled with a longing for a real Shabbat.  Fast forward from those precious days with my young girls to now:  Chloe away at college and Rachel a full-fledged teenager, in every sense of the word.  Some Friday nights Dan, Rachel and I are actually home, and we set the dining room table for three, light the candles and say the blessings.  If we are not too exhausted, we play a box game or watch a DVD after dinner and dessert.  Many Fridays Rachel and I have violin classes and we get home after 7:00, to that blessed dinner, prepared and set out by Dan.  Some Friday nights are centered around something that precludes our dining room altogether.  Saturdays are often so busy I totally forget it is actually Shabbat.

The gift of doing things like speaking to a class at the high school and writing this blog is that it gives me the chance to take another look at something.  Pulled away so gradually from the purity of my practice in those early years when the girls were young, I had completely forgotten that I can still carry the spirit of Shabbat with me, no matter the circumstances.  In my own mind – and heart – I can make everything within those fully-booked Saturdays more about being there than about what I am accomplishing.  I’ve had a lot of practice.

 

On cool calendar dates, reunions, and synchronicity

October 11, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I have always loved dates like today’s:  10/10/10.  My first memory of such a date was June 6, 1966, only days before I graduated from the 6th grade, which made the day feel personally special.  And in that morning’s paper was an article about twin girls who were celebrating their sixth birthday that day.  I think they lived on 6th Street in their town, with a zip or area code with numerous sixes in it.  I was so excited by that.

I’m not the only one who finds things like that attractive and intriguing.  Tonight Dan and Rachel and I will be attending a party.  The host couple has commemorated the appropriate date for the past few years:  5/5/05, 6/6/06, etc.  (As I am writing this, I just want to say that in five minutes it will be 10:10 on 10/10/10.  Yes, my heartbeat accelerated just a wee bit as I typed that.)  And remember when we could actually watch the numbers turning on our car speedometers turn over from 99.999 to 100,000? (Assuming your car made it that far.  And let me just note here that one of our two cars still does have that old-fashioned mechanism.)  And who of you knows what I mean by our golden birthday?  That’s when you turn the age that is the same number as your birthday date.  For me it was turning 22.  Poor Rachel had to celebrate it on her 5th birthday, before she was old enough to understand it.  At least the rest of us enjoyed it!

I don’t know if it was the stars and planets lining up because of this date approaching, or just coincidence (though I have to say I hardly believe in coincidence anymore), but I have intersected with three different threads from my past in the last two days.  I feel a little stirred up by having so many memories and connections sparked by all three.

One was an email from someone I have not seen since Chloe was very young, I think even before Rachel was born.  She was one in a circle of friends.  Though the two of us were never super-close, as a group we were bonded.  For me, one of the most significant ways in which she affected my path was after I had written a particular song, back in my active folk performing days.  It was such a personal song that I could not imagine anyone understanding it, let alone identifying with it, which made me very reluctant to sing it in concert.

I’ll back up a little here to try to describe what it used to feel like for me to perform a new original song for the first time.  Somewhere pretty early in my solo career I was practiced enough that I was never very nervous in concert.  I really enjoyed the interaction I had with my audiences, and felt like I could ride that energy and have a very relaxed, fun, and also meaningful exchange with them from the stage.  But performing a brand new song was nerve-wracking by nature.  There was always the strong possibility of forgetting words or messing up a guitar part, as it just wasn’t completely a part of me yet.  If it was a song I had recently written then there was even more heaped on top of that normal anxiety.  One aspect was that it felt like I was exposing something about myself.  (Usually this was justified, because I was!)  This always made me feel like I was taking off all my clothes and performing naked, it was such a fragile thing to share from my heart this way.  Another piece was that I was always, at that point in the life cycle of a song, totally in love with this newest piece of work, and desperately wanted everyone to share in that love.  It was not unlike whipping up a self-invented delicacy and wanting everyone to feel deep rapture while eating it.  And finally, there was the precedence set by my previous songs, and the fear that perhaps this one would fail to live up to a higher expectation.  Rather lofty, and clearly daunting on all counts, though also clearly self-created and perpetuated.

So back to my friend and my newest song.  This particular work had been forcefully ejected from me by a powerful muse, and though I kept running away from it mid-stream (literally leaving the room right in the middle of composing it, hoping to escape the painful birthing process of those verses), I was consistently marched back to the drawing table by something far stronger than my own urges, until it was finally completed.  I had never experienced such a wrenching creation process.  I truly felt I had written a song against my will.  It took over a month before I had the courage to play it for one other person.  I was attending a music conference and found a willing audience in a fellow songwriter.  She sat on my hotel bed as I sang it.  When I finished and looked up at her, she asked me if I would sing it again, which I did.  I think she had me sing it a third time before we talked about it.  Agony.  But she liked it.  Very much.

So finally a month later I decided to debut it at a small concert in an intimate setting.  My friend, along with a few others from our circle, sat in the audience.  It was her face that gave me the courage to start, execute, and finish it.  And again the response was good.  So it became part of my repertoire and eventually the title song of the next album, though I never would have foreseen that!  And two days ago, after years of silence between us, she emailed that she had been thinking of me and listening to my music and felt like reaching out to me.  It was like a little electrical jolt to see her name there on my screen after all that time.  What do you say to a friend, fifteen years later?  So I answered her, with a brief update, and will see what is to follow.

Earlier that same day, I had had a cup of tea with an old high school friend.  Similarly, we had never been close when we were in school together, but we had gotten to know each other and had a few classes together.  Though on a different schedule, as I graduated a year ahead of my class and then took time off to record and travel with my band, we graduated from our hometown university at the same time.

Three months ago I was part of a concert that deliberately featured music from three differing styles of music, held in a small art gallery.  I was wearing my singer-songwriter cap for the first time in a long while.  Since this performance was being given in a new location for this series, I sent out an email announcement to try to generate a little more interest, as ticket sales were slow.  As a result I knew several people in the small audience.  Greeting people before the show, I was very surprised and pleased to find myself saying hello to this high school friend.  After living on the east coast for a few decades, she and her husband had recently moved back here, where most of her family had remained.  We agreed to get together.

Circumstances being as they are, it took until late last week for that to work out.  We had such a lovely quiet time together, exploring where our paths had led us through all these years, and sharing what we are navigating in the present.  I am sure we will see more of each other.  And she may even become my neighbor, as she and her husband are house-hunting in my neck of the woods.  I came home with a little excited flutter.  All these years that I have been a mother raising two kids, I have shared much with many friends, felt nurtured in several communities, and Dan and I have grown many new friendships.  Somehow this single hour over a cup of red berry tea felt new, like the beginning of a fresh chapter that put me in the center instead of my children or my relationship with them.  I pictured inviting this friend and her husband over for dinner, Dan cooking up a gourmet meal, and the four of us enjoying each other’s company as grown-up friends.  It’s not that this hasn’t happened at all in the past 18 years (though I have to admit it hasn’t happened with great frequency!)  It’s just that the image conjured itself up and it excited me with its sense of promise.  That is definitely new.

The third brush with my past came yesterday afternoon in the form of a get-together to remember a recently passed co-worker and friend.  I spent my college years working in a local restaurant.  My fellow waiters, bartenders and managers were some of the most intelligent, creative and fun people I have ever known, and many after-hours were spent in each others’ company during those years.  The restaurant business often attracts people who are on their way to something, and this group was no exception.  In our midst were future doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, mountain climbers, dancers, actors, writers, poets, teachers, and many more.  Our beloved manager died last month of cancer.  His mother and his brothers celebrated his life – and what would have been his 64th birthday – at his mother’s house, serving the same food we dished up when we all worked together.

It is always such a bittersweet thing, these gatherings.  I cannot help but find myself thinking, “Why couldn’t we have had this party while he was still here?”  And yet I do not want to diminish the gift of having had that time yesterday with these people who all cared deeply for this sweet man we all called a friend.  It was a treat to find out what everyone has been doing all these years, to see how well everyone is aging, who remembers what, and who is still connected to whom.  There were, of course many people missing from our circle, some due to other commitments and some because we have lost touch.

Okay.  So now it’s time for true confessions.  I came home with my mind swirling.  Even today I am calming down from the dizzying effects of over-stimulation.  As fondly as I remember those years, they were also some of the most despondent in my life, fraught with uncertainty about myself in the world, desperately lonely even when I was surrounded by people, trying hard to be someone I wasn’t, and being hit over the head repeatedly with the lesson that I could only be myself, yet refusing to learn it until decades later.  All of the unhelpful and hopeless tapes that were helplessly recorded in my subconscious back then have been trying to pull themselves back into the forefront (wherever the forefront of my sub-conscious could be) since last night, and my very grey matter is tired, all the way to the tips of my just-as-grey hairs.

Sitting here writing this, I also find myself pulling something else together.  A few days ago, after a hard day of teaching beginning violinists, I asked the universe to offer the guidance of a few clearer signposts.  (Interesting.  I had to correct my mistyped word “soundposts.”)  Everyone at the party, my out-of-the-blue email, and my tea date, everyone asked me if I’m still doing music.  Yes.  But what music did they mean?  The last each of these people knew me, I was a folksinger, not a violinist in a baroque orchestra, taking and teaching private lessons.

Just this week I picked up the guitar, for the first time in quite awhile, and a new thought began to come forth.  There is no extra energy or time in my life these days to set up a solo folk concert and do all that is necessary to publicize it.  Could I put a show together and show up and do it?  Absolutely, with pleasure.  But performing is not just giving a concert to an audience.  In fact, that part, which is the most rewarding and fun, is in many ways the easiest part.  So now it suddenly came to me:  what if I were to pick one song and work on it, at my own pace, up to performance/recording level?  And then I could employ our little digital camcorder and post it on Facebook or YouTube, or both, and let my friends know about it, just to be able to connect to people with my music in some way.  It’s not that I have no desire to play the very music around which my entire life revolved for all those years, now in my present tense.  It’s that while I was resting from it, and raising my children, the world – and in particular the folk industry – continued to evolve, and I cannot step back into it without a major commitment on a lot of levels.  It would be hard to do it in a micro or fractional way.  This is the first inspiration I have had to move back out into the public as a soloist, just a little bit.

Just last week I read an article about a singer who goes into corporate settings and rallies these business people in meetings to sing together!  Not surprisingly, it has helped co-workers deal with conflicts, stuck energy, and many other challenges in the workplace.  Just before I left the stage and the touring circuit, this was an idea I had had, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to pull it together and market it.  Reading about this woman rekindled that question – could I work with local companies?  I would love to provide some inspiration to grown-ups who do not have enough music in their lives.

So here I sit, my mind reeling with questions.  For my own sake (and to contribute to your possible boredom or at least overwhelm) I will try to articulate them.  The big one:  what am I being called to do? (This might be an appropriate place to mention that last week I went to the library and checked out a book about finding and following your calling.  What attracted me to this book six days ago?)  A smaller and more immediate one:  can I quiet the noise in my head and find some stillness?  It is out of that stillness that I am usually able to identify something to do just right now, in the short run.

So with that I will close for today.  First, I will do the mundane and necessary thing that string players must do often, which is to clip my nails so I can practice.  And then I will practice.  And after lunch I will lie down and breathe, and do my best to let everything fall away for a short time.  I have a lecture and a concert to attend – as an audience member and friend of the performer – and then a 10/10/10 party to attend.  With dear friends I have known for decades and care very much about.  Hmmm.  Recurring theme a la mode.

10,000 times and counting

October 6, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 4 Comments
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I was working with a piano student this afternoon, going over a passage that challenged her fingers a little.  “Just practice this section about a million times!” was my prescription.  We laughed.  And suddenly I remembered how, years ago, our family explored what it is to do something a million times.

We were driving in the car and someone must have said something about a million – maybe it was Chloe wondering what it was like to have a million of something she wanted, or perhaps a character from one of our books-on-tape said something about a million.  I will have to ask Chloe, because she may remember.  (Rachel was too young at the time.)  Anyway, we set about figuring out how long it would take to count to a million.  I have to admit that the math was way beyond our two daughters at the time, but it was a fun exercise nevertheless.  I have no memory of even a wild estimate.  But I do remember that we had to time ourselves counting pretty far in order to come up with a guess.  And of course it is way faster to say “one” and “fourteen” and even “seven hundred twenty-three” than it is to say “eight hundred seventy-six thousand five hundred eighty-one,” and there are definitely more of the latter than of the former.  So we had to take that into account, and somehow we arrived at our version of an answer.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who developed the Suzuki pedagogy for violin, said that knowledge alone does not equal ability.  “Knowledge plus 10,000 times,” he claimed, is what produces ability.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop extraordinary ability.  So though my recommendation to my student is obviously an exaggeration (and goodness knows how long it would have taken her to follow it to the letter – but I’m not going to go there!) it is more on track than off.

It makes me wonder how many hours I have actually put into violin or piano over the course of my lifetime.  And what else have I repeated enough times to be able to put it in the category of expertise?  What internal tapes have I replayed that many times?  What knee-jerk reactions?  And what have I cultivated, as opposed to enacting by default?

I will have to get back to you on this one.

 

Dance: a family history

October 3, 2010 at 9:52 am | Posted in Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I have not sat in this room for years.  Rachel is in her Irish stepdancing class and has to leave early today, so rather than just dropping her off I am sitting in the waiting area for an hour until we have to go.  It brings back such memories.  Chloe started taking classes here ten years ago, and for the next several years I spent every Tuesday afternoon from around 4:30 to 6:00 in this room.  Eventually Chloe and Rachel became such advanced dancers that they were in class for three hours at a time so I could go home during class.  In recent years I began using that time to teach lessons.  And for the last two years Chloe drove the two of them there and back.  So I have not had occasion to sit on this couch (yes, it actually is the same couch) until today’s exception to the norm.

Dancing goes way back in my family.  As a teenager, my mother was a contra dancer in New York City in the 1940s.  As a matter of fact, she can be seen in a segment of the movie “To Hear Your Banjo Play” with Pete Seeger, filmed in 1947.  (See the YouTube video posted below.  The dancers come on around 12:30, and my mother can be seen close up at 14:16-17 on the right side of the frame.)  A few years later, as a classroom teacher my mother taught her students “play party games” – songs with dances to go with them – and years later, once I had joined the family fold and we had moved out west, my mother occasionally taught those dance-songs to my girl scout troop and at birthday parties.  And, once we settled in our new home, my parents signed up for a square dance class (contra dance was hard to find in our community at that time), and met many people who became lifelong family friends.

In my teens I spent two summers in Oaxaca, Mexico.  My grandparents on my father’s side had run a summer camp called High Peak in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  When my grandfather’s health was beginning to decline, around the time I was coming into the world, they decided to retire to a warmer clime and chose Oaxaca because it reminded my grandfather of his birthplace in Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece.)  Finding almost immediately that they missed running a summer program, they started a smaller version, a kind of culture camp, the year I was born, with a group of fifteen girls in their early teens.  There they lived for eight weeks at my grandparents’ place, which held several small buildings inside their gates, amid gardens and courtyards.  It was a success and they continued every summer.  My grandfather died just before my fifth birthday, and then my great-aunt (my grandfather’s sister) joined my grandmother as she continued to steward a small group of American teenage girls.  I am so blessed to have shared those two summers with my grandmother, my great-aunt and fifteen other girls from all over the United States.

One of the very first days I was there, someone put on some music one afternoon and everyone began to dance.  It was an Israeli dance, Mayim.  I had never heard it before, but I was charmed by both the dancing and the fact that everyone seemed to know how it went!  (It being decades before I “came out” as a Jew, it had not yet dawned on me that almost all of the girls who attended my grandmother’s camp were Jewish.)  I followed along until I learned it.  It was fun!  And not so unfamiliar, having learned my mother’s play party games.  Over the next several weeks, we learned several regional Oaxacan dances and attended a centuries old annual dance festival where we watched those dances, and many more, performed by native dancers in their traditional costumes.  We rounded out our repertoire with some more Israeli dances, and a couple of evening parties where we danced to rock and roll hits.

It was also in Oaxaca that I first learned to play the guitar.  My grandmother bought me a classical guitar in Mexico City, made in a local factory.  It cost $24 and I fell in love with it almost instantly.  Several of my campmates in Oaxaca already played, and they taught me what they knew.  I figured out more songs on my own and in turn taught those to my friends.  Throughout the summer we performed together at schools in the city of Oaxaca and in neighboring villages, both Oaxacan and American songs.  That $24 guitar planted a seed for a very tall and strong tree, as it eventually led to my decades-long career in folk music, beginning with my homeboys band in the early 1970s.

One pivotal Sunday night in July, 1972, my band was playing, as usual, at our regular home gig.  We had built over the year prior a huge local following, and I often saw familiar faces in the crowd.  During a break that night I recognized an old high school friend and went to greet him.  He had never been able to come to our show, he told me, because he usually spent Sunday evenings doing Israeli folk dancing.  And on Friday nights (when we had a regular gig in another town) he always went to international folk dancing.  But two nights earlier, at a party after folk dancing, he had accidentally walked into a plate glass door and sliced open his chin.  Because of the stitches he had to take a few days off from dancing, so he came to see me sing.  As annoying as I had found this friend during our high school years together, he now seemed, mysteriously, infinitely more interesting.  Coincidentally, so did the idea of folk dancing.  And it turned out there were Monday night sessions in town.

You might not be too surprised to hear that I went the very next week.  A little bit into the evening my old friend Mayim was played on the record player, and that pretty much clinched my desire to become a regular at the Monday night dance.  My high school friend and I did do the dance of romance for awhile, and then he went off to college.  I stayed in town and became an avid (Dan and I now use the word “rabid”) folk dancer.  I spent the next twelve years participating in many different recreational and performance groups, even including a five-month gig as a musician for a folk dance ensemble performing at the Epcot Center at Disneyworld.

In the meantime, a glimpse into Dan’s childhood.  He was lucky enough to take a social dance class when he was in 6th and 7th grade, and it stuck.  As a young adult he developed a love for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, bought himself a set of tails at a thrift store, and dreamed of sweeping some girl off her feet, just like Fred did with Ginger Rogers and Gene did with Leslie Caron.  After grad school, when he moved east (close to my neck of the woods) for his first grown-up job, an acquaintance mentioned a local folk dancing group to him.  After another invitation or two, he tried it out.  Within a year he was attending workshops, teaching dances to recreational groups, and even co-directing a new performance ensemble.  His name began to be mentioned among my friends, a few towns south.  It took about two more years before we met at the Friday night international folk dancing that I now attended regularly, since my band had long since split up.

We still don’t agree on which dance we first did together.  It was either a waltz or a Swedish hambo.  But we do remember our first conversation, which went as follows:

Me:  “I heard you moved away.”

Dan:  “I did.  But I came back.”

Me:  “Oh.”

Romantic, huh?

Okay, it took a few months, but we did eventually get together (obviously).  He took me to many Fred Astaire movies, where he half-thrilled, half-(well more than half) embarrassed me by waltzing me up the aisle after the movie on more than one occasion.  I bought him a collapsible antique top hat for his birthday, the kind that opens by itself with a snap of the wrist.  We developed lifelong (so far!) friendships with many fellow dance fiends, including some of the people my parents met at their square dance class in the 1960s.  Small world, good people.

So it isn’t hard to make the leap to when Chloe was three and we took her to a festival where she first beheld an Irish stepdance performance.  She turned to Dan and proclaimed, “I want to do that!!”  Being on the shy side, she was seven before she had the courage to sign up for a class (which meant attending without a mom or dad to hold her hand).  She took to it easily.  After her first year we moved her to a different dance school led by a teacher who has since become a life mentor for her.  Which is what first brought us into this very room.  Sometime in the following months Rachel began to imitate Chloe’s practiced steps and we enrolled her in class at age five.  The two of them have performed and competed for all these years.

Until now.  The way the Irish stepdance world works, you join a school and learn their own choreographed steps.  If you move away, to college, for example, you would have to leave your own school to join another, and begin the arduous process of learning all new steps, and then you would “belong” to that school instead.  Chloe saw it coming, even two or three years ago.  During her senior year she enjoyed participating in class and at a few competitions, but felt violin moving into first place, especially in terms of focus and time commitment.  Her last hurrah was dancing the lead part in a dance drama, which competed at the western regional and the national competition, where they placed, respectively, first and third, much to everyone’s delight.  Over the summer she helped teach classes and worked part-time in the office at her dance school, cherishing the time she got to spend with her beloved teacher.  She is friends on Facebook with her dance chums, wants to hear the results of each competition, and hopes to perform in some St. Patrick’s Day shows when she comes home for spring break in March.  But that chapter in her life is coming to a close, at least in the foreseeable future.

And for Rachel?  I know things have to feel different for her with Chloe gone.  This Saturday morning she is scheduled to go to her first local competition after taking a year off from solo events.  She enjoys performing more than competing but feels some peer pressure to remain in the swing of things.  It evolved over time for Chloe, and I’m sure it will unfold for Rachel as she moves forward.  I feel confident that they both will stay connected with their dance friends just as their parents and grandparents have before them.  The world of folk dance is full of very good people.  And who knows?  Maybe Dan and I will start contra dancing some day.

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