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.”

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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.

 

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.

The nature of moving forward

September 27, 2010 at 9:46 am | Posted in Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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There is a moth frantically dive-bombing the walls and lights in the kitchen tonight.  As desperate as it sounds to my ears, perhaps every moth making a beeline (haha) from one lumen to the next is actually filled with carefree abandon.  But here we are, in the final days of September, and it hit 90 or higher today and a summer insect is careening through my house like it’s June.

Chloe has been a college student for exactly one month. 

I have rarely in my adult life had a busier month, and am relieved to be able to say that the crush of too-much-at-once is behind me.  I would try to enumerate it all here, but that’s not really why I am writing tonight.  I am writing tonight to explain why I did not write yesterday, as I had intended to do – and actually did do.  Until the computer challenged me and I retreated.

One of the factors that has contributed to my busyness is that I now spend Monday evenings taking Rachel to an orchestra rehearsal 45 minutes away (each way).  We go straight from school at 3:10 so that she can have a snack and short homework session before her violin lesson, fit in another study break and a hasty bite for supper, and then orchestra from 6:00 to 8:45.  We finally return home a little after 9:30.  Once the snow season starts, we will get home even later some weeks.  It’s a very long day for her, and for me as well. 

After the first four Mondays, it dawned on me that I could use the time during her rehearsals to write my weekly report to the parents of my students, and also to write my blog.  If only I had a laptop.  I casually mentioned this to Dan last Tuesday, and, computer geek that he is (I assure you it is his own term for himself – in my opinion he is much too well-adjusted socially to be considered a geek) he was willing, even eager, to find me a refurbished model.  Eager, indeed.  I had myself a “new” laptop before the end of the week.  Dan loaded the necessary software and virus protection onto it and presented it to me after lunch Thursday.  Cool!

It happened to be one of my “orchestra weeks” during which my baroque chamber group – this time our concerts involved thirteen performers – spends three days rehearsing for a weekend of local concerts.  This means that I spend several days floating from one rehearsal to whatever classes and lessons I am able to teach to a quick meal and back to the next rehearsal  – happy, usually more than a little stressed, and definitely stretched in terms of time and energy.  So it wasn’t until yesterday, the second concert day, that I actually had a little uncommitted time. 

It was a beautiful day outside.  Sunny, clear, a little breeze, and that little touch of autumn that starts to make itself evident in those days when the sunlight takes on more of a slant.  Since I had spent most of the week inside, I decided I would take advantage of the perfect weather.   I went out in our backyard and settled myself onto a patio chair, a little giddy with the romantic image of working on MY laptop, which I placed before me, small 21st century altar on the picnic table.  Dan was mowing the lawn and Bella was merrily cavorting between the flying bits of grass and the bees she loves to chase around the raspberry bushes. 

I opened with a paragraph about the splinters emanating from the rough wood of the table, moved from there to Bella’s bee habit, and was just segueing into yesterday’s theme – no small feat, it had taken me so many weeks to be ready to actually put words to paper – when my new ally, my dear refurb, abruptly interrupted with an alarming announcement that something very serious was happening and it was forced to abort all present activities in order to protect itself.

Barely three paragraphs into my fragile beginning, my words were erased.     

It’s not that it had taken that much time to write them.  It’s not even that it was that good.  But in that shattering moment (not quite the blue screen of death, but those big white words on the black screen are a little scary – just saying) I was demoralized.  The universe doesn’t want me to write?  FINE!  I cursed the very laptop I had been worshipping only moments before.  I made an angry and upset show of closing it down, Dan all the while instructing me that I need to use the computer some more so we can see if it happens again.  HAPPENS AGAIN?  I’m going to pour my heart out onto its soulless – not to mention conscienceless – keys again, JUST TO FIND OUT IF IT IS FUNCTIONING PROPERLY?  Which by the way I just expect it to do because THAT’S ITS ONLY JOB AND PURPOSE IN LIFE! 

I’m calmer now.  It didn’t even take me that long to regain my normal heart and breathing rates.  Dan expressed his sympathy for what I lost and I thanked him for showing me that he has much more of a heart than the machine that provides most of our income, as grateful as I am for that.  My higher self knew that I would find a new starting place and compose a new set of paragraphs, and still be able to post a blog within a day or two.  And in the meantime Dan identified a few outdated “device drivers” that may have contributed to the crash.  He is replacing each one with a newer version.  For my part, I will employ the “save” function sometime during the first paragraph from now on, instead of being so cavalier as to trust a mere hard drive with words that often do not come easily.  Lessons learned, little harm done.

By the way, in case you are curious as to the theme of the lost essay, it was this.  For those of you who remember how it felt to go from two to three, from a coupledom to a threesome – how suddenly it hit you that life would never again be the same – exactly, word for word, the phrase that our houseguests, a couple with a one-year-old angel boy – used oh so casually during a mealtime conversation on Wednesday – that is exactly and precisely what Dan and Rachel and I are experiencing.  But this time there is no fanfare.  No shower with gifts.  No sweet bundle to caress.  I can no more retrieve the days behind me than recover the lost words on my screen.  So instead I offer these.  And we all continue forward, since we cannot go back.  

Neither can the moth.  I found it this morning, nestled in the pages of one of Rachel’s violin books for its final rest.

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.

Hit the ground pausing.

August 31, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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In the years that I used to be a touring folksinger, I bonded intimately with the expression “hit the ground running.”  I would usually be working on several projects at once right up until we packed up the car to go, and then we would drive cross country for two days, or three, or even four, to our designated geographic region of the month.  Upon arrival, I often had only hours before entering the first concert venue to open the performing portion of the trip.  We always tried to fill as many days as we could with gigs, as down time is generally not too attractive during a tour.  After the last gig, we would turn around and start the trek home, and once home, I invariably had commitments almost right away.  It became a lifestyle.  I am married to a “do” kind of person, we are both self-employed, and there is always something begging for my time, and for his.

For the past year and a half much of my energy has revolved around all the steps toward Chloe going to college.  Each campus visit required an inventory of detailed planning:  flight, accommodations, and rental car reservations; schedule particulars, both on our end and those of the school; signing up for a campus tour, for which we encountered different hoops to jump through for each school; setting up a violin lesson with a professor; and often many more.  The application process provided a new and exhilarating ride to say the least.  Preparing for auditions involved providing support for Chloe’s musical efforts as well as all the travel logisitics.  And auditions themselves were nerve-racking for everyone in the generally vicinity.  (I wish you could measure the quality and quantity of energy circulating through a conservatory on audition day.)  Waiting for acceptance packets (or, in contrast, the dreaded rejection letters) to arrive in the mail was its own frontier to navigate.  Then the month-long big decision, which led us back to more campus visits (see earlier in this paragraph…)  And after that, the transition period between everything-being-about-getting-ready-for-college and Being There and Saying Good-bye.

Dan and I drove home as fast as we could.  Six hours the first day (we left campus at 4:30 in the afternoon, after the last parent session, entitled “Letting Go”), fourteen hours the second day, and four the third.  In one sense I followed my old protocol.  I had Sunday afternoon and evening to catch up on email, put my teaching schedule together and contact all my students, and respond to last minute fall-semester questions, not to mention catching up with Rachel after the days apart.  And on Monday I made announcements to three middle school classes, taught my first two violin classes and took Rachel to her lesson and orchestra rehearsal.  Busy, busy, busy.

On another level, I feel as if I am walking through a different kind of atmosphere from the one I left last week.  It feels thicker and heavier to walk through.  Breathing can be challenging for a moment here and there.  Time is ticking by in a new silence I had never noticed before.  I am passing through a threshold I had not expected to be encountering.  Raw is the best word to describe this new place.  I know it is also filled with promise.  The path that led to Chloe’s entrance into our family fold was one that multiplied the expansion of my universe exponentially, internally as well as externally.  So it should be no surprise to me that her first step of departure from this nest would send me gear-shifting into the next catapult.  I will not lie and tell you that I am eager.  But I am willing, and I am as ready as you can ever be, if only by virtue of the fact that I am able to put it into words for you this afternoon.  Thank you all for receiving it, and thereby standing witness for me.

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