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.

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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.

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.

On transition

August 16, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 4 Comments
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Chloe and Rachel are out for the evening, tie-dying and dining with friends, so it is quiet here. I have a violin lesson tomorrow morning and I want to get some more practice time in tonight, but thought I would write just a little bit first.

The weather was cooler this morning, giving us a hint of fall, bittersweet. I love the crisp air, the deepening colors of autumn, the new shade of blue in the sky, but with this prelude a little part of me begins to pull in, bracing for what’s to come. My acupuncturist speaks of this transition time as the fifth season, deserving of its own mark on the calendar. What would we call it? Threshold? Bridge?

Perhaps in truth every day is a transition. We awake with expectations of what it may bring, and are almost always surprised by something before we yield to the night. It is so easy to ride our time on the ship of complacency, believing that the details we enter on our digital daybooks are the important ones. When Chloe and Rachel were little, I was reminded of what really matters a hundred times each day, startled out of the mundane by those young and unconditioned voices. Now our teenagers look up at the family calendar to see what’s coming as often as they open their eyes to see what’s here.

As long as I can remember every August into September has carried the promise of something new. Even after I had graduated from college, I started something in the fall. I took classes in weaving, yoga, Pilates, Jewish history. I took on new students of my own, settling into a rhythm so different from that of the warm summer months. For years I prepared for and embarked on a fall tour, traversing both familiar and unfamiliar territory each time. A couple of times, Dan and I went backpacking in September, feeling even more keenly the chill of earlier sunsets.

Once our children began attending school, August held a new meaning for them. And through the years our family has navigated the path from relaxed breakfasts to rushed, from shorts to sweatshirts, from evenings of leisure to assignments and requirements, with mixed reviews. The older they grew, the more complicated the mire of gains and losses that came with this passage, with Dan’s and my feelings adding to the tangle.

This year we are all more careful and less sure. Every meal together is a little more poignant, every silence loaded. The floor of Chloe’s room is filling with boxes and packages. The contents of her closet grow a little leaner, as she selects what goes with her, what gets handed over to Rachel or me, what gets given away. We are all too, too busy, though maybe the distractions are at least a partial salvation. One week from tonight Rachel will be rehearsing with one orchestra or another (depending on this weekend’s audition results) and Chloe and I will be finishing the last of the packing.

I go up and down every day now, excited with the ripeness of possibility and promise one minute, devastated in the next by the visceral awareness of Chloe’s pending departure. As much as I detest the quiet in our home this evening, it is allowing me to breathe through this new brand of labor pains. I can hardly believe I will make it through the next contraction, but I do. And I make it through the next, and the next as well. It’s transition. ‘Tis the season.

Pans in the fire

August 14, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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You should see my desk. Of course, that is just an expression, and I would be embarrassed if you even stole a glance at it, so please do not take that as an invitation. What I really mean is you are about to be submitted to a description – or maybe more like a sampling – of what lies literally before me. Between my sternum and the computer monitor: indicators of my pans in the fire.

  • The tailpiece from a bass viola da gamba. Almost three years ago I was putting new strings on my viola da gamba (a hand-me-down) for a concert, when I heard the most horrendous sound of something ripping. As I tightened the high D-string, the gut was pulling right through the wood of the tailpiece, along the grain. The harder I tried to bring the string up to pitch, the farther it tore, until I saw that it was going to continue to cut all the way through unless I reduced the tension, thereby de-tuning the string and rendering the viol unplayable. It made me sick to my stomach to look at it. Dan rigged a temporary fix by inserting a tiny bushing, but then when I tightened the string, the metal bushing shredded the string itself. We somehow finessed it just enough for me to get through the concert.

    I emailed the luthier, who emailed right back, instructing me to take the strings off and send him the tailpiece. He promised to either repair it (I hope not) or replace it (yes, please). Okay, now I had a new challenge. Even contemplating the task of taking it all apart made me as queasy as did the wound itself. So I cleverly put it back in its case and, with the exception of two or three feeble attempts to play the viol in spite of its ailment, I avoided the whole problem. This, I discovered, is a one hundred percent successful strategy, but only in terms of my nausea. So finally, finally, this afternoon I faced my demons (this one anyway) and took it to a local violin maker who removed the tailpiece and handed it to me, flaws and all. Which is how it came to be sitting on my desk. I promise I will be more prudent in emailing the luthier about my progress on this front, in hopes of speeding up the recovery of my poor viol. I’ll update you.

  • Various chord charts, lyrics and program notes. The actual inventory of this small pile: a bar mitzvah service program from September, 2007; one chord chart for an unidentified song; a small essay on prayer; lyrics to two songs, one identified and one not; the chords and lyrics and my concertina part for the final lines of the Beatles’ “And in the end, the love you take…” (as soon as I went to type that, the title of the song flew out of my head); a loose songsheet for a British folksong called “Dockside Cries” by someone whose initials are A.M.B.; lyrics to Lotus Dickey’s song arrangement of Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”; words to a beautiful song about Israel’s Lake Kineret that I taught at school six years ago; and the chord chart to “Stairway to Heaven” to which a friend adapted a Hebrew song.

    What are all of these pieces doing together? I have no idea. And the bigger surprise – even to me – is that one of my violin students brought them to me last week saying that somehow the pile had gone home with her after her lesson the week before. Not only am I utterly blank as to the roadmap for the journey of this little collection, I have no idea where they were before last week nor where I should return them now. However, I have faith that I will soon need at least one of these items, since they have materialized so magically and mysteriously. I will report back if I’m right. If I’m wrong, you can forget about this one.

  • A hand-sketched (two-sided page) chart of dates and who is available when. Our synagogue is in the process of welcoming a new rabbi, after over a year of searching. This is a joyous time, and simultaneously an opportunity to fill my calendar and many others. Last month I had one meeting with our executive director, the new rabbi, and two of my three fellow High Holidays music leaders, discussing how to be somewhat consistent with how we led last year’s services when we had no rabbi, how to introduce the rabbi to the services we have created over the past four decades, and also how to introduce the rabbi to the congregation-at-large at said services. Two days later I helped lead the services with one of my fellow music leaders and the new rabbi. The following weekend I compiled this chart of the responses of seven families to a query I had put out a week or two prior about when our group of families could perhaps have dinner and get acquainted with the new rabbi. Soon after that I met with the Shabbat services committee and the new rabbi to discuss how things look for weekly services. A few days later I had a one-on-one with the new rabbi to go through the music for several of the High Holidays prayers, just to make sure I’m singing them correctly (at my request), and a meeting with one of the religious education committees to talk with the new rabbi. The next day I “met” on the phone with the new rabbi to decide how the two of us would lead the Shabbat service for that week, and of course that Saturday we had the service itself. And finally, late last month I attended a larger meeting with the executive director, the new rabbi, and several individuals who put the High Holidays services together.

    After all these meetings, I can say I have met the new rabbi. However, my task was to pick a date for the other seven families in this group to get acquainted with her. After sending out one group email and carefully recording the responses, I emailed our top three dates to the woman in charge of “congregants meeting the new rabbi.” That email got lost in the shuffle, so after some days had passed, I sent another email, which in turn got handed over to a fellow committee member, who in turn called me and told me she would check those dates with the new rabbi. She did and called me back. None of our three picks would work.

    At my next meeting with the rabbi, I asked her directly which dates might work for her. (I do occasionally learn from past experiences.) She gave me four choices and I emailed those to the seven families concerned and charted the responses as they came to me over the course of the next week or so. The most popular choice could only accommodate four and one-half families.

    We have decided to wait until after the High Holidays and try again.

  • The brand new handbook for high school families at our school. Last year, a fellow mom and I established a new group, open to any parents from our high school. We met at her home on a school night every five or six weeks, and sat in a circle, sipping tea and eating munchies while chatting about topics that were brought up spontaneously by anyone in the circle. The purpose was simply to create a sense of community between us, and to share our experiences and mutual support as parents of teenagers. It turned out to be a very positive thing, and we are continuing it this year.

    Last week we met with the new high school coordinator, just to describe last year’s gatherings and to come to a mutual understanding of the role this group fills. It was a fruitful and gratifying meeting for us all, and toward the end I was given this new handbook. It looks great! Our high school is fairly young and we have been growing steadily in recent years, which creates a high need for clarification of things like expectations and policy. The booklet represents much progress in this area. I have only one problem, the title of which is I DO NOT HAVE A CHILD ENROLLED IN THE HIGH SCHOOL THIS YEAR. Just how nuts am I to have offered to help facilitate this group again for 2010-2011? I guess I will find out the answer to this perceptive and perhaps belated question.

  • CD and playlist. This is my desk. This is Chloe’s CD, a good-bye gift from one of her fellow graduating seniors. Her iTunes and my iTunes are both on my computer, so to enter things into her iPod means sitting at my desk. Do I need another reminder that she is leaving? I will not answer this question at this time.

  • A little teeny drawing of a cake, by Rachel. Rachel has a cake decorating business. She does not have her own computer, so she uses mine, which is great for many obvious reasons. The other day she received an order for an organic carrot cake, decorated with cream cheese frosting and “Happy Birthday Chad” on the top. Rachel does incredible work, almost always off the cuff (so to speak). Over the past few months of baking, there have been a few little bumps in the road, many of which could have been avoided had there been a master plan, including a detailed, measured drawing. This drawing is on a piece of paper that measures 2 ½” by 4 ¼”. The cake illustration itself is 1 ¼” wide. The finished product will be a two-layer nine-inch cake. While I am pleased that she followed some advice and drew an actual picture of this one, I am now aware of the need to prepare myself for a possible cake emergency sometime in the next three days. The cake is due Tuesday.
  • To do lists. Yes, plural. Why would I keep old lists? Partly because I am so worried I will forgot something IMPORTANT that failed to get checked off before I ran out of room and had to start on a new piece of paper. And partly because I occasionally lose my list and have to start another, and then the old one turns up again. And partly because they remind me of something. Like a souvenir. Pause. Oh. I CANNOT BELIEVE I JUST WROTE THAT!! WHY would I want a souvenir of the things I have not accomplished over the past several months?

This blog is so helpful for me! I am laughing so hard at myself right now, I can hardly see straight. Okay, I really get it. Do you know that most stove tops have only four burners? Maybe there is a reason you can only cook in four pots at a time.

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