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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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.

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.

On tension

July 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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I figured something out.  It took awhile, but they say it takes whatever it takes.  Last year I was taking a violin lesson from a very wonderful and insightful teacher while studying at a workshop at Oberlin Conservatory.  He was helping me with a section of a piece that put my hand into an uncomfortable stretch, and I commented that I couldn’t find a way to play that combination of notes without my hand being tense. 

He looked at me – he has a way of really looking at you – and said, somewhat off-handedly, “Tension is okay.”  I was dumbfounded.   We had just spent several days in technique class working on how to hold the baroque violin and baroque bow, exploring our breath as we made big counter-clockwise circles in the air with our right arms, allowing gravity to assist us with an organically heavier beat on the down-bows and the resulting inhale and lighter touch to our up-bow and pick-up notes.  The object, I had been led to believe, was to learn to use the structure of the bow and the inherent qualities of the gut strings to our advantage so that our playing would be graceful and flowing, free of the bad and undesirable T-word.  Tension is our enemy, isn’t it? 

I have spent a lifetime trying to let go of the tension in my body.  I wake up every morning with my jaw and tongue – not my teeth – clenched.  Since my childhood I have walked through my days bracing myself, my gut held tight as if I am about to be punched, bearing down from my head into my throat into my neck and shoulders and from there into my middle.  I was utterly unconscious of all of this until it began to cause pain in my early adult years and then gradually I woke up to these patterns.   The more aware I became, the more I worked to rid myself of them.  And with the help of several therapies and practices, I have released many layers of them over three decades.

As I tended to these habits, I held highest the goal of being entirely free of them.  Drawing from another habit, I saw the picture as black and white, categorizing as follows:  being tense (read “the way I do it”) is bad and wrong, and being relaxed (read “the opposite of how I do it”) is perfect and right.  Corollary:  I should be doing it the right way. 

As I sit here writing this, I am almost laughing, but not quite.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what I said in the previous paragraph is sadly laughable, but I’m not much beyond a wry smile yet.  I still fall into that way of thinking countless times a day without noticing I have returned to familiar territory in the blink of an eye.  Here’s the paradox:  I am still trying to be perfect, even though I have identified perfectionism as one of my greatest faults.  I am even trying to be perfect at not being perfect.  I just slip right back into the echoes of the very thing I think I am overcoming!  At that I can laugh whole-guttedly.  It reminds me of a woman (someone I don’t know) I once heard talking about how very hard she was on herself.  “I need to be MUCH MORE GENTLE ON MYSELF!” she hammered out fiercely.  Those of us listening to her were torn between the humor and the pathos.

That moment from my violin lesson stayed with me, perplexing me for months.  Then recently one day I was explaining a fine point to one of my students.  “There is a difference,” I pointed out patiently (I have patience with my students, just not much with myself), “between tension and rigidity.  It’s not that we want to be limp!  A musician needs to play with strength and firmness, and that’s not about being relaxed, it’s about…”  And then I realized I was on the edge of the issue myself.  What is it about?

Some moments in our lives simply call for us to rise to something.  We work hard to climb a mountain, to learn something difficult, to execute an excruciatingly fine act with grace, precision, care, etc.  It’s just important that we do not stay there!  Nobody can live every moment to the intensity that those moments demand of us.  We all need to breathe out after we achieve them.  Astoundingly, we even need to breathe out while we are working the hardest, right in the thick of the act itself.  The challenge is to continue to focus while we are in motion and then let go of the physical tension and keep breathing and moving.

So I tried it the next time I was practicing violin.  Could I climb the peak of even the most dramatic and gripping phrases with strength and vitality – even with tension – and then release it and let myself back down?  It did not come easily, but it was thrilling to experience it to even a small degree.  I did my best to stay with it all the way through the phrase, ascending the notes as I breathed in and out, moving forward, not grabbing onto anything along the way, so that the momentum could lead all the way to the climax.  Then I experimented with the sensation of letting go – to some degree – of what it took to get there, while still maintaining the musicality of the diminishing line.  Wow!  I could only begin to integrate it all, and no doubt a bunch of other fine points went out the window in the process, but it was exhilarating!

It provided a new touchpoint for me.  In recent days, without consciously thinking about it, it suddenly dawns on me to seize the opportunity to release the effort that I habitually exert throughout my day.  For a few seconds, I am free from that pattern of bearing down.  I experience a lightness and sense of flow almost instantly.  It allows me to breathe more deeply, and then the breathing out brings an even greater release.  I am instantly more gentle with myself (I hope somewhere, somehow, that nameless woman can read this!) and even the black and white thinking vanishes.  I do not expect it to make a permanent departure, but for those moments it is inconsequential.  It misses the point.  This moment, whenever it happens, is utterly filled with life.  And with practice, I am hopeful that it will become easier to integrate it into my violin playing as well.

Thank you, Teacher.  And thank you to the Muse for helping me to understand a little more along the way.

Introduction to the short blog category

July 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Short Blogs | 2 Comments
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Yesterday was the day I finally posted my first blog!  It surprised me how excited I felt about it.  Even in this place of feeling so uncertain about both what lies ahead for me and my family and how I feel about it all, I now have a sense that there is some forward direction, or at least my energy has a little more purpose to it!

When I first thought of taking on this writing project, I was afraid I would not have enough to say.  Having gotten even just this far into it, I am reminded of when I first began to teach music classes.  I was afraid I would not be able to fill a two-hour time slot, so I would start by introducing myself and explaining in detail what we were going to cover and then go into more detail over the content, until suddenly we had five minutes left and I hadn’t covered anywhere near what I had hoped!  As it turns out, having enough to say has never been a problem for me in actuality, only in the mired and complicated neighborhood of my thinking mind.  So one comment I received yesterday pointed out politely that I do not have to offer such long posts.

Since I have this compulsive desire to please everybody, even if Lincoln in his wisdom stated that this is an unreachable goal (was it Lincoln?  I also have a compulsive desire to not make too many mistakes) I found myself with conflicting desires.  I will confess to you that I have already written a few blog entries, stored in My Documents, and they range from long to longer.  And I like them and will want to post them.  On the other hand, I do not wish to scare off any of you who do not have the endless time it will take to read what I post!

Amazingly I did not agonize over this quandary.   (Amazing, because I also have a general desire to have figured out the solution to everything already, or at least immediately.)  I first considered breaking them up and spreading them out over several days, and got a little stuck trying to figure out exactly how to make that work, so I tabled the thought.   And then happily the answer came to me in a flash.  I will post some short blog entries (this is one example) and some long ones.  And you get to choose which to look at. 

This also took care of one blog detail that Dan and I had left hanging when I registered my blog site.  The WordPress structure allows me – in fact, seems to be demanding me – to indicate a category for each post.  This was eluding me, since I had not thought of compartments into which various writings could be filed.  But now I have two categories:  “short” and “long”, which will make it pretty easy for you to make your big Roots and Chords decision whenever there is an announcement of a new post.  If you subscribed.  (That was not a suggestion, just a point of clarification, meaning that you will only receive an announcement if you sign up.)

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to read yesterday’s post.  My intent is to put up three or four per week, which I hope will feel workable for me and readable for you.  But who knows?  I might have too much to say to limit it to that.  As Chloe used to say when she was three years old, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”  Wise words.  So for now, I will say good night!

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