The mohair shawl

November 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I haven’t written for a long time. So I promised myself I would use the old writing exercise of starting with whatever my eyes fell upon. I am sitting in Barker Hall, listening to Rachel’s weekly orchestra rehearsal, surrounded by my stuff: the bag holding our dinners and water bottles, my pack, my purse, two down jackets (it is supposed to snow tonight as we drive home and it’s COLD) and all my winter weather accessories. So what is the lucky theme for the evening and today’s blog post subject? Drum roll! A dollop of suspense. And the winner is…

My SCARF!

It’s nothing special, actually. I got it two or three years ago when Sierra Trading Post ran one of its specials (this occurs almost daily, but somehow it always feels like an extra bargain – call me a sucker). It is half silk, half cashmere, hence the key word: warm. But also another key, yet less desirable word: itchy. Around my neck. What makes me continue to wear it is its versatility, and of course the previously mentioned and most important quality. It is a thin and pleasantly drapey woven fabric, and though I think of it as a scarf, it actually has the dimensions of a shawl. I have worn it in many a chilly room over the past two winters, around my neck, around my shoulders and torso, or over my legs as a lap blanket.

Pause buttons “on”. Please do not worry. I am already as bored as you are. Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge my gratitude to you for having enough faith in me to have hung in this far! Let me also tell you that the reason I chose this topic was twofold. Number one, as a writer, I wanted to keep the bargain I had made with myself, and literally the place my glance landed was on the fringe of said scarf. Number two, and from here on, more relevantly, the instant I contemplated the subject of “scarf”, my mind jumped to a significant shawl from my early twenties, a gift from a significant friend, and amazingly, almost a twin to a gift from a different friend the same year.

It was back in the years when I was still oblivious to being Jewish and was celebrating Christmas. Most importantly, I was enjoying the holiday in a new way because I was earning enough money to buy some nice presents for people. I don’t know which was the more fun – the selection process, proudly spending my own hard-earned money, or actually handing each over to its intended recipient. And of course, I was on the receiving end at the same time.

This particular year – I must have been nineteen or in my early twenties – I don’t remember much aside from these two gifts. As I said before, the shawls were almost identical. Both were made of mohair. One is a little on the orange side of red, and the other leans more toward the fuchsia side. The pinker one was woven, and sold in an artisan collection. The rust one was also handmade, but by my friend herself, crocheted, I think.

One interesting detail is that up until then, I had never, ever worn a shawl, not once in my entire life. When I opened the first (I do not recall in what order they came to me), I remember being surprised by it. Of course I expressed my thanks (and I hope I was gracious.) But somewhere in there I remember a twinge of discomfort. Something on the order of “Oh! Does this go with who I am?” There was a lick of fear being fanned as I laid eyes on this gift, as if I was being asked, invited almost, to explore a new flavor of personality within myself. I had a vague image of the kind of person who would wear a shawl, and I did not think of myself as that kind of a person.

I was able to put these thoughts aside until the second friend presented me with the second, eerily similar gift. Let us hope that I was just as polite, just as gracious in my thanks. But now you know that I was socked with a second dose of this discomfiting stirring. Was my understanding of myself somehow askew? “This is not who I am!” I wanted to announce, as not just one, but two of my close friends chose to give me the same uncharacteristic, lovely, and somehow intimate gift.

As I was wont to do back then, I chose the rigid and narrow way. I put the shawls away and never wore them. I was about to write “and never touched them” but that would not be accurate. I did touch them. Every so often I would pull one or the other – or both – off the shelf and say to myself, “So-and-so GAVE this to me.” It is difficult to express to you all the meaning in that phrase. What I can tell you is that it meant a great deal to me that both friends went out of their way to pick out/hand-make this shawl. I felt somehow caressed or cared for by both friends. Even if I never wore either one, I felt warmer, as if I understood that both friends could see something in me that needed the warmth, the holding, and the beauty.

It was my friend Mary Jean who had crocheted the burnt orange, using a variegated yarn with mohair and maybe some other fibers spun together. We had first met when we were nine years old, in a beginning violin class in a summer music program. Mary was learning to play not only the violin but the flute as well, a fact which impressed all of us no end. I’m not sure how she worked out the logistics of attending both classes, and I do believe that eventually flute won out. I had not known Mary before, but my best friend from school knew her from church, which made her all the more significant to me (even if the dual instruments status hadn’t already won my admiration.)

Mary and I attended different elementary schools, went on to attend different junior high schools, and continued to run into each other at summer music events. We came together in high school and though we had some of the same friends and occasionally hung out in the same crowd, we were headed in different directions. Mary was a gifted art student, and I was continuing along a musical path. She must have been in the audience for some of my shows with my band, as I know she enjoyed my music. (And by the way, it was one of my bandmates who was later to give me the other shawl.) But all through those years we were not close friends.

Finally, after my band had split up and we were both college students, Mary and I both got a job at the same restaurant. We started off bussing tables, being too young at first to wait tables in a place that served liquor. We both served as hostesses, greeting customers and seating them at their tables, later we both trained as cashiers, and then, once twenty-one, we continued up the ranks into waitress and cocktail waitress, where the real money was.

I want to stop here to make something clear. Lest it seem that I am headed in the direction of romanticizing an old friendship, I should inform you that in many ways Mary Jean drove me crazy. We became roommates for some period of time, I can’t remember how long, and I thought I would end up doing something mean, she was so annoying so often. She would greet me every single time with great flourish and waving arms, crying delightedly, “Carla, Carla!” Never, never did she say my name once. (Look, now she’s even got me doing it, just thinking about her.) I was a moody person back then, and her effusiveness made me dizzy, and I do not mean that in a good way.

But in some ways she was so very good for dark, moody, lost me. I remember one day we went to the big city together, 45 minutes away, and visited, among other places, the art museum. I had never quite seen art the way she helped me see it that day. And for our excursion I borrowed a piece of clothing from her, a skirt, that somehow made me feel beautiful in a way I had never before felt. Fashionable, attractive, and graceful. I suddenly realized I could feel like that all the time if I could dress – and see myself – with a little more flair. As I just now wrote that, it makes me wonder if that was before or after I had received the shawl from her.

We also talked occasionally, that kind of girlfriend talk that just happens if you are there for the right kind of opening in the right kind of moment. She was caring and loving, and there was an air of a certain kind of wistful sweetness all through her that almost made you want to cry. She was quite beautiful. And her artwork was beautiful, with a flourish. You could almost get drunk on Mary Jean. And then you got sobered back up by the quirks that could drive you to distraction.

She ended up marrying someone I didn’t know well, a waiter at the restaurant where we worked. We drifted apart. I don’t know how long they remained married, and then they ended up divorcing. A few years passed. The next time I saw her was at our tenth high school reunion, so we were both 28.

She arrived on the arm of a new husband named Scott, a sweetheart of a guy. And with some news. She took me aside to tell me that she had spent the last year battling lung cancer. She had been sick in the winter, thought it was bronchitis since that was going around until one night she had trouble breathing and began to cough up blood. Scott took her to the ER. She told me that she spent that night in the hospital certain that she would die before morning. But she didn’t. Then came months of treatment. Her hair, which looked like regular Mary to me, was gone – this was a wig. It was good news for the time being, as she was in remission. She and Scott were living in California, and had come to town just for the reunion.

For the next year we continued to stay in touch, through letters and an occasional phone call. The cancer returned. She returned to chemo, which sickened and weakened her. It was her artwork that motivated her to get out of bed some days, and she poured herself into it, as much of herself as there was left. I wrote to her late that winter to tell her that I was going to be driving to California in June. One morning in early spring the phone rang. It was Mary.

“When are you coming?” she asked. I gave her the exact date. She hesitated. “I don’t know if I’ll still be here.” My mind spun. Here? Where was she planning to go? It took a moment for the meaning of her words to sink in. We talked for a few more minutes, though I have no recollection of what we said in that part of the conversation, and then she told me she needed to hang up so she could rest. Breathing took immense effort.

At the end of phone conversations, there are all the normal ways of saying good-by, but suddenly none of them seemed adequate. I was 29 or 30 years old and had never had to deal with anything like this before. “Mary,” I said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

And it was. Suddenly annoying and crazy Mary was the wisest person in the world, and it was safe to be exactly how I was in that moment. I felt a great sense of comfort in the face of such utterly cracked-open-honest permission to admit my helplessness. The conversation closed and I hung up the phone, feeling strangely calm. One minute later the phone rang again. “Carla? I believe I might still be here. Call when you get close.”

The night before I was to arrive, I called her number from my motel room. Her husband answered. He spoke to me as if I already knew, and once again my mind reeled until I grasped the meaning of his words. She had urged him to go for a walk the day before. He left her with the hospice caretaker, and while he was out, she was able to let go. The hospice worker told him that often a person cannot bear to give up while surrounded by loved ones, an understanding that offered comfort to him when he came back and was flooded with remorse for having abandoned her. As he talked, I had the sense that he just needed to tell it all to someone, and I was certainly glad to be that someone. But I was also filled with regret that I had come that close to seeing her and then missed by only two days.

Two or three winters ago, some 35 years after Mary crocheted me the shawl, I took it from my closet shelf and put it on. After that, on various occasions, I rotated the other one into my wardrobe, and began to let the Sierra Trading Post scarf slip down around my shoulders. I even added a fourth to my collection, imported from Spain (purchased at a huge bargain from STP.) I don’t know what possessed me, or why, but it suddenly felt just right to wrap myself in the folds of a shawl. I now dress with more of a flair, and find that I like feeling fashionable and attractive. I can still hear Mary’s voice calling me, “Carla, Carla!” These many years later, it makes me laugh instead of gritting my teeth. I can still see her smile. And I am forever grateful for each of the gifts that she gave me, grateful that her life touched mine, and especially grateful for that moment of raw and perfect honesty on the phone, and how deeply connected I felt to her in that crystallized point of time. It is my hope that I can offer that kind of safety and some touch of beauty and sweetness to my friends, at least occasionally, and that I can be honest and true with my fellows in the grittiest, most basic way, when it really counts.  Thank you, thank you, Mary Jean.

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.

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