I want to write a book.

December 5, 2011 at 11:37 am | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I want to write a book.  This is nothing new, actually.  One of the reasons I started this blog was to practice writing – not only the process of writing regularly, which I have been doing for decades in a journal, but to practice writing to a real (as opposed to imagined) “audience”.  And let me take this opportunity to extend my thanks to all of you faithful readers out there for serving as listeners!  Another way this blog has been helpful is in teaching me that I can write about almost anything.  As you know, I have often begun with what is immediately in front of my face, and then out comes an essay of sorts.  I am fairly certain that the general fellowship of English teachers in my junior high, high school, and college years could have told me that – in fact, some probably did try to communicate it to us in patience-lacquered exasperation – but, like Dorothy, it turns out I had to discover it myself.  (Chloe used to say “All BY self!” with all of the monumental, exuberant emphasis that only a two-year-old can muster, placed heartily on the middle syllable.)  Unlike lucky youthful Dorothy, I had to wait until the sixth decade of my life, but as we all know, it takes what it takes!

So now I come face to face with the inevitable and obvious quandary.  If I can write about anything, which you have to admit opens the gates stunningly, even alarmingly wiiiiiiiiiide open, how on earth do I go about the process of narrowing down the focus?  I am pretty sure that the book of collected essays about any random thing comes later in an author’s career, probably not first.  So, even though I have now trudged this little line of hopes, desires, requirements, and questions several times in the past weeks, I will walk it again below, for you, but also potentially for my own benefit.  If it goes as it has lately, I might end up even a few inches beyond the boundaries of my last attempt by doing so.  (Not to set myself by having lofty expectations.  I am only going with my own observations.  Just saying.)

One of the big questions that continues to come up whenever I run into any friend I have not seen in awhile, is whether I am still “doing music.”  Yesterday I was at an annual school event that always brings people out of the woodwork.  (Haha – funny phrase to use at a Waldorf school, where everything is organic and all the students from grades 5 and up take woodworking class.)  So Dan and I stopped to chat with this couple and that, all parents of students who have graduated from our school, catching up on how everyone – first the now-college students or graduates, and then parents (don’t we always talk about our kids first?) – is doing.  Inevitably I was asked the key question by almost everyone.  Being the somewhat literal interpreter that I am, my head spins every time I hear it.  “Are you still doing music?”

First of all, I will ask you, how could I NOT do music?  Even during the two times in my life when I have completely quit, never to play again, I would often sit down at the piano or pull out my guitar and play for my own pleasure.  Does that count as “doing” music?  There’s the time I stumbled into a Romanian fiddle class which led to a Scandinavian fiddle week which led to an entire new repertoire on my “retired” violin.  And then there’s the time I was just going to focus on raising my kids and nobody in my new neighborhood knew me or my previous vocation.  One day a woman came to my door and said, “I hear you teach piano lessons.  My twin daughters would like to study with you.”  No matter how I tried to argue that, no, actually I definitely do not teach piano lessons, eventually I found myself setting up a lesson schedule for her twins and then their neighbor, and then some more kids down the street, until I was teaching three or four afternoons each week, a steady stream of neighborhood children letting themselves in the door up our driveway, an instant gang of playmates for Chloe and Rachel, as they would come early or stay after their lessons to hang out.  And then there’s the time I took Chloe to the Aspen Music Festival to fill her ears and her heart, and I ended up sitting in a piano master class, stifling my own gut-wrenching sobs as I realized I had left this world decades ago and now needed to return to it.

Yes, I am still doing music.  I list my present inventory:  playing baroque violin in my chamber orchestra, teaching private lessons on violin, piano and recorder, directing two early music ensembles at school, taking private lessons myself on baroque and modern violin, playing music for services at my synagogue, singing for the healing services at a local hospital, and whatever pick-up performance or recording jobs I get along the way.  Is that “doing” music?

Okay, yes, I’m “doing” music.  But what some – not all, but some – people mean by their question is whether I am still performing as a folk musician.  And herein lies my true stuck and quandarous (I know it’s not in the dictionary, but it is truly perfect in this instance so I am using it) circumstance.  I left the folk circuit behind and do not intend to return to it.  I can honestly say that it was a right and healthy decision, and though I do not regret it, I have to admit that I now feel called to somehow share my music again.  I have felt this pull for two years or longer.

In previous decades I wrote songs about miscarriage, depression, insomnia, war, love, sexual abuse, loss, motherhood, the catch-22 of the women’s movement, and more.  I have performed traditional ballads on the subjects of traitors, love triangles, murder, loss to individuals during the Civil War, the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, World War I, and other historical times; on the challenges of love – between people of two classes, forbidden love, the desperation of unwedded mothers, unrequited love, and becoming widowed.  I have performed songs by other contemporary songwriters on poverty, hope, transgender love, love lost and won, ancestors…Obviously the list could go on forever.  There are so many stories to tell, so many new ones to add to my repertoire, so many messages to offer, so many questions to pose and explore with my audiences.

But where is my audience?  If I do not care to return to the folk world, for whom do I sing, and where?

To find an answer to this question, I have had little brainstorming sessions with friends and colleagues.  I have pondered the salon setting, which I find appealing for many reasons, but have, at least up until now, come up short in the area of energy.  So far I have not mustered the vitality necessary to start my own salon series, nor have I had the wherewithal, not to mention the patience, to go through all the steps to make it happen.  Writing that helps me see that the synchronicity of details falling into place has not availed itself to me yet.  For three years or so I worked in a trio with two musician friends, hoping that together we could rally the forces necessary to brave those elements, but we found that it provided too little income, too seldom, to justify the amount of work required at the time.  I deeply miss the beauty of the music that we made together, as well as the camaraderie, and hope that someday we will be called to perform together again.  And I have kept my antennae up for other possibilities to present themselves.  Perhaps said antennae missed some signals, but I don’t think the universe has been streaming anything approaching an abundance of solo folk-music but non-folk-venue opportunities in my direction.  So far.

So now a new thought is beginning to form.  I talked it through with Dan a few days ago, and it made some sense, so I’ll try it on for size here.  Thirty years ago I knew that I wanted to go out into the folk circuit, and understood that to do so I would need to make a recording – in the form of a record album, which in that era was no small venture.  I was already performing locally and was developing a nice following.  I had enough savvy to realize that the only way to extend it to a national level was to be heard on the radio.  So I bought the wonderful book, How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording, by Diane Sward Rapaport.  (Incidentally, back then it was …Your Own Record.)  I studied it in minute detail for several months, and then went into action, following her protocol.  In the fall of 1982, my first LP, To Meet You, was released on my own label, Propinquity Records.  My first California tour was in 1983, followed by a second and third on the west coast, and then I branched out to the Midwest, New England, and the Middle Atlantic states in 1985.  My second LP came out that same year, followed by a children’s tape, and a third record, and then finally I accepted a contract with an “established” label and simultaneously moved into the world of CDs.  My solo career was moderately successful on a national level until I stopped touring in 1995.  Perhaps someday I will write about reaching that difficult decision, but that is not part of today’s entry.

The more important piece is this:  if releasing my first album enabled me to jump-start and support a thirteen-year career on the road, it makes sense that releasing a written publication could help me do the same thing in the next arena (whatever that is).  The difference is that this time I feel the need to allow the journey to evolve, instead of starting, as I did thirty years ago, with a clear picture of what I want and trying to make it happen.  I know that may sound backwards to some of you.  So why would I say it?  The picture I had back then was too narrow and I ended up never really reaching it.  The biggest mistake I made in that era of my career was that I kept aiming for my original image.  I now know that in any venture you have to occasionally make the time to take stock, doing an inventory of what’s working and what isn’t, asking questions like How has my life changed since I began this journey?  What is the present status of the industry I chose?  What changes might I consider – in my vision, my goals, my definition(s) of success, my boundaries, etc.?  I now know that back then I remained too stubborn and short-sighted about what I wanted, until the only thing that could crack was myself.  Which is basically what happened.

So this time I am starting from what feels to me to be a very different place:  I feel called to share the gifts I have been given in my life, which include more than a guitar, lyrics, melodies, and chords.  I want my music and my life experiences, together with the higher-self wisdom that has always guided my writing process, to serve a purpose, to help people.  Thirty years ago I knew I wanted to establish enough of a reputation that I could more easily book gigs and expect a decent-sized audience, so I could make a living and put aside enough to pay for my next recording.  In addition, whether I could have admitted it at the time or not, I had another agenda.  One or two layers below the aforementioned goals, I wanted to prove my own self worth, scrambling to compensate for a great lack on the inside.  I thrived for many years on the so-called “waves of love” that wafted up from the audience at my feet, and the bigger the crowd, the more I craved it the next time.  By the time I left that career behind, I only knew that it wasn’t working, but I didn’t understand exactly what was wrong with it.  Lessons learned through a long mid-life reassessment taught me that self worth has nothing to do with ego.

In my younger years, I thought you had to become an expert before you could do your thing in front of people, and I considered myself an expert.  Again, I have no regrets.  I am grateful for all the years that I worked in the music industry, and for all that I learned about music and the biz, not to mention all the friendships – and the music!! – that came from that part of my life.  Certainly, I know that I am a good performer and that the songs I perform, some of my own and some from a broader repertoire, reach people.  I am not saying that it’s a bad thing to aim toward expertise and excellence.  What I am saying is that the term “expert” is never an absolute thing, being difficult to qualify and to measure, and it may not always be the most important attribute.  I want to give myself permission to be an unabashed explorer, fraught with uncertainty and far from an authority, on another front – the amorphous part that I have yet to bring into focus.  Can I stand before an audience of wanderers as a searcher myself?  I believe I can.  Sixteen years after leaving my folk career behind, I long to connect all the disjointed and compartmentalized pieces of my life.  It is so typical of our American culture.  In college you can study biology, chemistry, math, creative writing, music, etc.  But where can you study – and experience – the coming together of all these?  Music provides much-needed nourishment for our very cells, for our minds, for our hearts and souls.  It goes beyond the words that come from our mouths, beyond the notes on the page, beyond even the notes in the air.

When I wrote about my struggles with depression, I was afraid to say the word “depression” on stage because it might seem too heavy for someone who came to the show for a night of entertainment.  Now I know better.  There might be someone sitting out there who needs to know that writing that song was the beginning of my turnaround.  How?  Because to write the song I had to put a claim on depression.  I spoke from exactly where I stood, which ironically enabled me to begin to move.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about being so touched by the writings of Jon Katz, who minced no words in Izzie and Lenore, his account of his own plummet into the depths (see “A question about depression, and a song,” my post of May 2, 2011.)

When I wrote about my miscarriage, I vowed to wait until I had given birth to my first child before I would perform it.  Miscarriage is an experience that puts us face to face with our complete and utter lack of control, and to make up for that terrible and frightening realization, we often paint over and around it with superstition in an effort to regain some semblance of a foothold.  I was afraid of another miscarriage, of my inadequacy as a woman and as a mother.  Out of that fear, I refused to buy anything to prepare for Chloe’s arrival until a month before she was born, just in case I might jinx it.  I finally performed the song when she was almost eight months old, in a concert with Rosalie Sorrels and Claudia Schmidt.  And once I began to bring it to audiences, women began to come up after the show to share their own miscarriage stories with me.  I was so moved by their accounts, and equally moved by their desire to tell someone.  But once I left my career behind, I had two additional thoughts about this.

One thing that came to me was that now there were some women out there who were not sharing their stories, since I was no longer out there performing the song.  The other was even more sobering.  The women that came up to the stage to talk with me were only talking with me, even though they had all sat in the audience together.  I began to imagine what could happen if the song served as only a jumping off place – what if I could have sung the song and then we could have had an evening of sharing our stories?  We could have all served as witnesses for each other.  We could have cried together and laughed together – such a greater good!  We could have had a one-night fellowship of women who suffered a loss and then moved forward in our lives, experiencing the richness of the joys and sorrows that followed.

Okay, so earlier I told you that I would want to enter this new chapter of my journey without a specific picture in mind.  Clearly, I lied!  I do have some specific pictures.  And I openly admit that I have no idea how to make them come into being!  There you go – two true confessions for today’s writing.  Perhaps I am being idealistic, but I do believe there is a way that I can bring my music to people in a way that brings them together, in that evening, in that very room.  That is my hope.  And since I cannot reach everyone in person, I am hoping that writing a book can reach out into other circles and communities, and perhaps I can later go out to them too.  I would like to not only write the book but also record the songs and have the recording and the book come as a package.  And the part I cannot yet envision?  I am hoping that it will simply come to me as the next step, evolving naturally from the actions I take up to that point.

This feels to me like a lot of hope.  The work feels daunting, but doable.  I love writing.  I love singing.  I love performing for people, sharing the stories that go with the songs.  Above all, I love feeling that connection that happens between me and my audience, through and beyond the music, and I want to find a way to extend that sense of connectedness, to weave it like a thread from each member of the audience to the others.  People crave it, but they also fear it.  I believe it to be a healing force, and that the world needs that kind of healing.

There was a speech given in September of 2004 by Karl Paulnack, pianist and music division director at Boston Conservatory, the welcome address given to the incoming freshman class and their parents.  It has been posted in countless blogs ever since, published in several languages, and I would strongly encourage you to read it.  Here are two links:

http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/s091/Welcome_address_to_freshman_at_Boston_Conservatory.pdf

http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/music/karl-paulnack-welcome-address

Music is not just a form of entertainment.  As Professor Paulnack suggested to his audience of eager and terrified pioneers and their parents who were no doubt (based on my own experience) swirling with mixed emotions, “If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness…If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.”  I want to join that fellowship and serve that higher good.  I hope with all my heart that I find a way to do it.

And the subject for the book?  The starting place?  The direction?  I know I just need to start writing some each day to see what comes.  I know I will be guided, as I always have been, through the process.  I’ll let you know how it’s going.  Thank you again for “listening.”

The school of leavings

September 4, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I played music for a bat mitzvah service this morning, a very sweet occasion.  At the very end, right before the closing song, a passage written by Albert Einstein in 1954 was read:

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space.  We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.  A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.  We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

An optical delusion of consciousness.  What a powerful and apt term!  I sat through the whole service teary-eyed and choked up – rites of passage always do that to me anyway, no doubt enhanced today by the freshness of Chloe’s leaving – and those words showed up as a lifeline, a rope to grab hold of to lead me out of my soggy puddle.  What is my life – your life, anybody’s life – but a meandering path of leavings, and of moving forward even when we want to hold on?

The day Dan and I began to try to conceive, I was thunderstruck by the realization that we had stepped onto the escalator of letting go.  Could we control whether or not we hit the jackpot (so to speak) this ovulatory cycle?  Never.  We had no say over any of it, speed nor date of conception, the nature of the pregnancy, the first miscarriage, the grieving process, how many months more of trying for the next, the nature of the next pregnancy… Obviously, I could go on for years with this list.  And once Chloe was born, and later Rachel, I had no control over the next set of variables.  Each step of developmental progress was another departure – from my body, from our arms and laps, from babyhood and soft sweet cheeks and wide open eyes and clinging, eager hands and ramrod posture and adorable outfits to everything that comes with every single stage of growing up.  I had pictured parenthood as the act of welcoming someone into the world.  What a surprise to learn I had it backwards!  Our children were welcoming us to a whole new curriculum of lessons to be learned.

I know I have not been the best of students in that school, though neither have I been the worst.  When I could not go by my own experience, I looked for others who could teach me.  I learned about being a gentle parent from three unlikely couples, namely, the parents of Frances and Gloria, in all the Priscilla Mary Warner children’s books; of Arthur and D. W., in the PBS series inspired by author Marc Brown; and of Ramona in Beverly Cleary’s classics.  They were great models for me in the area of love, patience, maturity, and understanding.  But their stories show little to nothing of the slow parade of good-byes that lie ahead.  Like Dorothy in the land of Oz, I had to find them for myself.

They did not come on the expected days, like the first morning of kindergarten or even the first time Chloe drove Rachel to their dance school and Dan and I were left waving on the porch, the air oddly sucked out of our lungs.  I felt it more when Chloe would come home from a play date a little farther away from my understanding, a new cockiness in her voice.  Or when Rachel suddenly didn’t need a good-night kiss and hug anymore.  Then who am I?  What am I now?

If I am first and foremost the one who brought them into the world and sustained them with the milk my body produced for them, I stand alone and separate, as Einstein observed.  But if I remember that I too navigated my path away from my mother and father into the world that was awaiting me, they join me as two more children in a long line, and we join all families.  All mothers and fathers were once children, following the drive to leave their parents, forever moving forward.  I can now turn with compassion toward my own parents, who must have grieved my moving out at age 19, though I didn’t notice at the time.  It was not my job to notice them!  I was joining the world – for myself, I thought at the time.  Now I know better.  The baby bird leaves the nest and flies off, to grow big enough to build another.  It is the way of the universe.  I will never know whether the mother and father bird shed tiny tears in their abandoned circle of twigs, but I know it is the same set of impulses, even if I use words to try to understand it all, and they do not ponder but only act. 

I am thankful to be swept up in the fast and fierce winds that meet my face as I hurtle helplessly forward in time.  It is comforting to me to be part of the very nature of things.  That in itself frees me (for the moment) from the prison of separateness and personal agenda.  And by the way, Einstein wrote that magnificent paragraph the year I was born.

Dorm news, the nature of grieving, and a lesson in exponents

August 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 8 Comments
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Yesterday, after several tense weeks, Chloe finally received the email announcing her freshman roommate and her dorm assignment.  Now she has one more tangible piece of the year ahead that she can place in the puzzle before her.  Only somewhat tangible, however.  She found her roommate on Facebook and sent a message along with a friend request.  The latter was granted, but as of eighteen hours later, there is no return message.  Okay, the girl is apparently at Disneyland right now, and was up late last night.  We assume she friended Chloe on her iPhone and went to bed.  As Chloe pointed out, it’s simultaneously fun and creepy to fb-stalk someone.  But we were happy to see that she plays violin and also likes the Beatles and Jason Mraz, so it can’t be bad!  We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that Chloe will move closer to the top of her list after she leaves the Magic Kingdom.  And then they can talk about who will bring the mini-fridge and other domestic details.

For me the new degree of reality brings up a mass of tangled feelings and then the typical aftermath of thoughts, trying to sort it all out.  Last night Dan and I joined friends for dinner and Chloe stayed home and had friends over for dinner and a movie.  As we were seated in the Ethiopian restaurant, I had a sudden rush of awareness:  tonight we are here and Chloe is at home, but in a few weeks, when we return home from anywhere we go, she won’t be there.  After I rescued my stomach from the basement beneath my chair, I knew one thing for certain.  This is no different from any other kind of grieving.  There’s the over-the-top wallop of the loss itself, and then there’s the waves that hit you in any random moment, with no warning.  I haven’t even had the wallop yet.  These must be prelude-waves.

Before Chloe, I had a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.  Dan and I were overcome with sorrow, and then, of course – what else can you do? – we began to carry on with our lives.  Two months after the miscarriage, I walked into the backstage dressing room of a concert hall and spontaneously burst into tears.  Until I set foot in the dressing room, it had not dawned on me that months beforehand, I had pictured myself doing that concert in a maternity dress.  Over the coming months, I came to understand that we walk through grief by mourning each micro-component of the whole.  Every moment, every face, every thread that is attached to what we lost has to be met and felt. 

It’s all around me.  Last week Dan and I went to see “The Kids Are All Right” which had received good reviews and didn’t look too heavy.  Little did we know that (and I don’t think it will ruin anything for any of you who have not seen it if I include this – but if you want to, you can skip this paragraph) the movie includes a main character who has recently graduated from high school and has only a few weeks left before she leaves for college.  The parting scene shows her arriving on campus, dumping her stuff in her dorm room, saying good-by to her family and watching them drive off without her.  Okay, was it really necessary for us to watch this right now? 

And a few nights later I was at a party where Chloe was to play background music with a friend.  I was chatting with another guest who is ahead of me by a few years.  As if to refresh my memory of the movie I already wished I hadn’t just seen, she described her own experience of driving her daughter across several states, helping her unload into her dorm room, and saying good-by.  “And then,” she continued, “I got into my car and began the drive home.  I must have sobbed for two solid hours!  And I was all alone.  Or wait – was my mother with me for that trip…?”  Oh great.  I hope I remember that Dan is driving home with me someday years from now, when I am telling my story to some fragile wisp, trembling before me.  Assuming we don’t have an accident, driving on the interstate while sobbing.  Perhaps we’ll stay on the side roads for the first part of the journey.

I know, I know, I know.  Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it’s wonderful.  Yes, it’s necessary – and right.  And I have lots to do in the seventeen days between now and our departure.  And there is nothing to fix.  There is no one dying.  Heaven knows, I am well aware of the difference between my 80-year-old father passing away a year ago and my 18-year-old daughter embarking on the next chapter of her life’s adventures.  And I am not alone.  Dan and Rachel are moving through it in their own ways.  I guess it’s also true to say that our family foursome is moving through it as a whole as well. 

I remember that after Chloe was born, I figured out that adding a baby to a couple doesn’t just make three.  It’s closer to exponential because you have to add the dynamics of all the relationships.  So to begin with there were three relationships:  Dan and his relationship with himself, my relationship with him, and my relationship with myself.  Adding Chloe gave us four more – hers with herself, that between each of us with her, and the threesome.  Adding Rachel gave us a myriad more, because it wasn’t just Rachel herself and Rachel with each of us.  There were now “the girls”, “the kids”, “the grown-ups”, etc.  Even though Chloe is not a “member” of each of those relationships, it affects all of them.

Everyone tells me that our relationships with Chloe will continue, but they will change, and I do believe that.  It helps me to remember that our family has ridden the shockwaves of past transitions, and it has always been for the better.  So yes, this is uncomfortable, and each of us has an occasional moment of squirming, flailing and/or writhing, but we are in it together, even as we are each negotiating an individual set of bumps and turns.  I feel mighty fortunate to have such a strong set-up.  In this moment, bolstered by what has just come clearer to me, I know we’ll all be okay.  What is it they say – the only constant is change?

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