and – up close – if you choose – you will see the foreleg of a winter-dressed pony, the extra cold-weather-coat trapping hair next to the skin of the horse, keeping him warmer. he is stopped, gazing at the distant field, ready to canter into it, the exploding of freedom of movement.
and you blink and it is a cattail. one of many in the field, waiting in the marsh through autumn and winter for early spring. as many as 250,000 seeds, white fluff sailing and transported by birds and breezes. and the life cycle continues.
it is winter in my studio. the rhizomes are gathering underground, together with the cattails. maybe around the spring equinox, maybe a bit later, the shoots will rise out of the ground – like a phoenix out of ashes – and new sprouts will grow and grow. the cycle germinates and pollinates and seeds will fly again. the birds and the wind and i will play for you – seeds and notes flying.
in the meanwhile, i wear my winter coat. it is keeping the heat in. it protects me. insulation for shelter in this long and cold winter, to shield in the storms, to brace in this fallow.
but soon, soon, with the sun and fresh air, the pony will run free.
took everything off every surface. dusted everything. put some things away. moved things around. got rid of excess. hung a favorite print. and – with great care – gently vacuumed the inside of my really beautiful piano, for full-stick is an invitation to dust.
i stood back, stood in the doorway, looking in.
the room was breathing. deep breaths.
i was breathing. immersed.
there is still more to go through. there is more to file away. there is former work-trauma to discard and there are calendars of choir music and ukulele band books and handbell arrangements and contemporary solos to box up. the first pass didn’t get all those and now, two years later, i am still a little paralyzed by all of it. that’s why it all needs to go. this process is taking longer than i would have anticipated. “mind, body, spirit,” she said. “it’s not likely others will understand all the layers. they will expect you to just move on, to get over it. they will not grok the wounds; it is all fraught.”
but there were staff lines in the sky. and the universe prompt is haunting me a little.
it’s always had a purpose – my studio – a direct line from standing or sitting in there to actual work. i’ve not just noodled or played because i was just playing. i’ve stood in there to write – to flesh out an album, to practice, to plan – the arc of music for a concert or for a church calendar, to teach – so many students through the years. it hasn’t been a place i go to without purpose, without an end-product, without a result i could see. as an adult, my studio has represented the potential for income; it has been a professional place. now there are questions. many of them. like living in a blank staff, i live – lost – in the questions.
i played my piano. a few carols.
there is one more day this year. and then 2023.
and i won’t carry carols into the new year. it will be time for something else, something less dusty.
there’s some way to go. it’s not as simple as it sounds.
the staff lines in the sky hold no clues, have no notes.
maybe – instead of reading that as tacet – silent – i might – and “might” is the operative word here – read that as a composition without designated key, without predetermined time signature, without definitive expression markings, sans any direction or boundary.
a merger between old navy and, say, dupont could bring play to the whole wide world. stands of thongophones could be simply everywhere. i can see it…people gathering, favorite flipflops in hand, making music.
it was hard to resist the pull of this two-octaved structure. flipflops – the paddles provided – were chained to the wooden stand, laying on the ground, waiting. it was just a delicious invitation – “try me, try me,” it called. and then, channeling the group chicago, “thongophone, in the park…”.
pretty crazy, it had good pitch for polyvinyl chloride, not necessarily known for its musical talent. and the flipflops? well, everyone knows how i feel about flipflops. they are the symphony of summer, so definitely a good choice.
i, generally, don’t walk up to faux musical structures like this. i usually stand back and watch others discover and play, reveling in their adventuring and exploring sound.
but this time was different.
i played first on the lower octave side. for some reason, the first piece i played was the first piece on my first album, galena. the first day i played galena was also in one of those situations i don’t usually take part in…instead, sitting back and watching others and supporting their fun.
that time was different too.
that time – encouraged (read: pushed) by three girlfriends, playing at the piano in the restaurant in galena, illinois – set me on a road i didn’t know was coming. less than a year and a half later, i released my first album. now, fifteen albums and a variety of singles and blahblah later, i look back.
and i look forward. i’m not sure what’s there. but this past week i stood at my piano and played and sang three songs for d and one of his dear friends. it’s been a long time. i apologized for the dust in the studio. i apologized that it was a little messy in there. d said rob cried. despite the dust and remnants of previous work piled around.
by sheer coincidence, today is the anniversary of that first album – 27 years ago. lots of flipflops ago.
today is a good day for a dustcloth, some garbage bags and a storage bin or two.
it’s not a thongophone in the park. it’s my piano.
i wondered if it was too predictable. each spring, now, a dandelion. each spring, now, the song “fistful of dandelions”.
yet the lyrics – “you remind me of the simple things” – they still count. maybe even more than before.
singer-songwriter: a musician who writes, composes, and performs their own musical material, including lyrics and melodies. (wikipedia)
composer: a person who writes music, especially as a professional occupation. (dictionary)
pianist: a person who plays piano, especially professionally. (dictionary)
i have not written, composed or performed my own musical material in quite some time now. does that change who i am?
when i wrote “i haven’t been playing” a dear friend asked me, “what’s that about?” i didn’t answer. i wasn’t trying to be rude. i just didn’t have an answer. i still don’t.
we, d and i, decided – in a pillow moment one night – to call all the stuff that has happened (to me) since i broke both of my wrists “the burtons” (naming every-single-weird-thing after the brand of snowboard i was on when i fell.) it matters not – the broken wrists, the scapholunate ligament tear, the firing, the oddball itinerant tendonitis, two broken toes, other strange and disturbing body stuff – we are choosing to call it all “the burtons”.
so, i guess i blame the burtons. i wrote, “i’m not sure of much that isn’t different these days.”
i am learning – ever so slowly – that different is ok.
and as i clear out, clean out, declutter, put away all that is no longer useful – i am beginning – again – to see the simplest things that are left. gratitude for those things is starting to overtake any yearning for more. “all the riches i will need today.”
each day now i write. not lyrics. not music. but words. it is part of the natural rhythm of my day and not something i could sacrifice without great regret.
writer: you’re a writer because of the things you notice in the world, and the joy you feel stringing the right words together so they sound like music. (writer’s digest)
“…so they sound like music.”
and one day, maybe soon – maybe after my studio has been cleared out, cleaned out, decluttered and all that is no longer useful is put away – i will put down whatever my resistance is and place my hands back on the keys.
one of nature’s market umbrellas, this toadshade. research states that its prairie trillium leaves – in a salad – taste a little like sunflower seeds, though the idea of harvesting as we hike is not really appealing to me. in due time we will be on the trail and the sessile blooms will burst open, deep red flowers punctuating the woods. the mayapple will spread and vast areas of decaying leaves will be covered by its natural awning. it is a joy to watch the forest wake.
soon i will move into the studio to pare down and rearrange. it has needed this for some time. like decaying leaves, but without the nutrients those generate, i will put away vestiges of places or times i simply cannot tolerate thinking about any longer. a plastic bin will hold the artifacts and, in that clearing out, i suspect light will stream in. i will not merely glance into the studio. i will walk in, breathe, and step the next step of whatever the journey in that studio is. even if only to watch it wake right now.
with the cantilever umbrella of my piano full-stick, maybe i will sow mustard seeds of possibility. and, maybe, just like toadshade, blooms will burst open.
the mallards are back. a male and a female. they were hanging out across the street on the corner in the grass next to the sidewalk by the bus stop sign. i couldn’t help but smile; they are a welcome sight.
the robins have been gently waking us before dawn – their birdcalls, wafting through an always-partially-opened-window, a soft entry into a new day. i wake, listening to them and other early birds, then slip back to sleep for a few-more-minutes.
after what feels like a long winter, accentuated by the pandemic’s limitations, the mallards, the robins, the tiny flowers poking out of the grass and alongside the trail, all harbingers that spring is actually coming to wisconsin. really, really.
there is a temptation to clean out the gardens, to neaten and tidy up. but rule of thumb – wait until the daytime is at least 50 degrees for 7-10 days – puts the nix on this. wisconsin is not 50 degrees even two days in a row yet. the robins and the mallards roll their eyes.
so, the spring cleaning juju goes inside and we spend any extra energy readying our home for throwing open the windows, allowing the sun to stream in, cleaning out the cobwebs and the (ahem!) dust of the past seasons.
we changed our sitting room last weekend. we put up fresh paintings, moved things around, pared down. the sitting room is between the hallway and the master bedroom and, though with a comfy couch and chair, has often felt merely like a walk-through. we pause now. it feels peaceful and inviting. a little re-arranging, a little re-decorating and it is a space luring me to curl up, read a book, write poetry, sit and ponder.
we are moving around the house now, doing the same as last weekend. the dining room has bags and bins and boxes filling up – things to donate. the basement, also. it will take some time. this is not the first time i have written about this lengthy process, nor will it, likely, be the last. it is a journey. i’m taking it bird by bird. (anne lamott)
the next room up is my studio. it has too many remnants of past workplaces, too many packages of stuff, too much in it to feel inviting or peaceful. i stand in the doorway and wonder if the mallards would turn away, grimacing, were this to be where their homing instinct returned them.
i know that the sitting room’s new persona, so to speak, has encouraged me to sit, to stay there a while.
i wonder if the studio will do the same. cleaned out, tidied, pared down. bird by bird.
full stick and an empty piano bench are a powerful invitation.
the file drawers are bursting. there are three bank boxes in the closet, next to and on top of the file cabinets. there is still music to be filed away, but it’s almost done. the ukuleles and the strum stick are hung on hooks. the cello sits silently in the corner. the black metal music stands are cleared of sheets and books. everything needs to be dusted or waxed. the wood floor needs to be swept more thoroughly – to chase away the dust bunnies. a few pencils wait. the storm is gathering. the sustain pedal begs for attention.
i’ve played maybe twice since last november. i stacked music and calendars and binders of slated songs and folders of research in there. i dragged in a box or two of supplies and cantatas that i brought home. i laid the ukuleles on the rocking chair, the poster behind the door. but i didn’t play. except for a day or two after our babycat died and maybe one or two other times. the piano is tacet. and the sustain pedal waits.
because i played and sang constantly for work before the end of november, and i was surrounded in my studio by all the tools and resources i used for that work, it has been, in the these last few days, important to me to finally move all that which i had been playing, all that which is no longer relevant to my life. this studio needs to be clean. it needs space. it needs room for new. it needs to no longer represent life doing that work, that dedication, that place. my studio needs a refacing. the sustain pedal holds its breath.
i got an email from a lovely woman somewhere in new mexico. she wants to order a baker’s dozen cds and wrote that she includes owning them up in her wish list of “large sacks of $100 bills and 25 hugs and smiles received daily for life”. i’m grateful to her and her dedication to analog music. it will be fun to pack it all up and ship it to her, though i will have to direct her to amazon for a few titles i no longer have in stock. her order is a reminder. and even in these days when i have been actively submitting titles to pandora for streaming (there are now nine titles available on pandora.com and everything on digital platforms everywhere) it is refreshing to go to the stock of cds and pull out shrink-wrapped copies of music to ship off. the sustain pedal giggles.
i’m getting anxious to finish the studio cleanse. to walk in and see possibility. to sit and listen to the quiet. to see the new project, the new song, the new composition through fog, fallow and passing time. to one day again depress the sustain pedal and place my hands on dusted keys under a full stick. i don’t know when that will be.
an ice field, this river. devoid of color, devoid of life. but below, it is teeming with fish, perhaps turtles, swimming, swimming, waiting for a thaw.
it is much like my studio. it, right now, is devoid of color, devoid of life. i suppose, like the river, it is teeming underneath. but, for the moment, it is an ice field.
i pass by my studio every day. some days i walk in to open the blinds, to allow the southern sun to fill the corners. i walk in later to close them, to keep out the cold and the dark. especially the dark.
my piano waits, swimming silently like the fish and the turtles; it is waiting for a thaw. mine.
i don’t know what’s next. the notes – scraps and notebooks – for the decades of composing and recording and songwriting i’ve done that used to pile all over the top of the keyboard, spilling into the body, slipping onto the strings under the full-stick lid-up, stacked on the bench – have been put away.
i don’t know what’s next. the music – for the decades of work i’ve done that used to pile all over the top of the keyboard, spilling into the body, slipping onto the strings under the full-stick lid-up, stacked on the bench – has been put away.
i don’t know what’s next. there’s a blank journal. a notebook. paper and a clipboard. pencils. an aspen leaf, a few high mountain rocks. there’s a peg from one of elton john’s pianos and a tiny sign that says “i came to live out loud”. waiting. the sun is gathering in the nooks and crannies and diligently pushes the dark cold away, waiting.
my footprints will fill in like these tracks on the river. the work i’ve done, the work i used to do, will fill in, will look less and less like footprints. little by little the wind will blow snow into the tracks and they will eventually dissolve into the rest.
and next will keep waiting. up the river. in the sun.
there was not room on island for my piano, sheets of blank score paper, baskets of notebooks of lyrics, melody smidges, chord progression fragments. they waited at home for my return.
consumed by many tasks and layers of work since we arrived back home, we are surrounded by boxes and bins still unpacked. there is much to do. we have many other things tugging at us and these packed boxes, although frustratingly in the way, have sunk to a lower rung on the list of things-to-do.
i have been in and out of my studio, grabbing music as i need it, playing through a piece here and there, reviewing music for work. i have added a few notes to notebooks, to my calendar, a line of lyric here and there to remember on scraps i hope not to lose.
the other day i pulled out cds, finding a few with pieces that didn’t get tracked. rough cuts of piano for under lyrics, rough cuts of piano instrumentals. every artist has them…the cuts that didn’t get finished, the cuts that didn’t make it to the album. scraps of paper, notebooks of ideas, rough cuts of beginnings. they all eventually lead somewhere. no idea, no melodic gesture, no lyric stands alone.
and so, my really beautiful big resounding piano waits for me as i am quiet. pencils i’ve saved from The Boy’s and The Girl’s pencilboxes sit atop, next to blank score paper, notebooks and pa pads. they all wait. the muse waits. the music waits.