yep. that makes us pretty analog, i’d say. there is nothing in our vw superbeetle, big red or littlebabyscion that even resembles the digital world.
so when we got in my niece’s volvo or my sister’s nautilus we felt a taaad bit lost. my niece said, “hey, while we’re gone feel free to use the car!” as she walked out the door. we looked at each other, laughing. there was no way we would use her car. sheesh. we don’t even know how to start those cars. we would need a littlebitta instruction – remedial help – before taking to the road.
i guess we have some catching-up to do.
in the meanwhile, we will languish in not-knowing.
“thinking notes,” ken calls them. lingering on the same note for an extra moment, an extra beat, sorting what’s next. well, technically, it would rarely just be only one beat or one moment, but that would require more explanation. i suppose most composers are familiar with this.
writing on the fly – improvisational but with a sense of theme – is surely plotting and scheming, figuring out in the nanoseconds ahead what will come. the moments you are deep into a recording and you somehow skew the rhythmic pattern – or the melodic gesture – you’ve developed, and you know that twist will change it all. your brain delivers a quick “plot twist” faceslap to your hands and you keep going. and, for the most part, no one is the wiser for the turn in the road, save for your producer.
outside the bookstore in the little mountain town the sign made us stop, nodding our heads. sometimes it’s the plot twists – and the unanswered prayers – that save us. we think we know best. we etch the plans in stone.
but those moments come and nothing stays the same, for even the tiniest twist in the road changes latitude or longitude, beat pattern, melody line. and they deliver with them the grace to play a little thinking note, take a little breath, close your eyes tightly and then reopen them – and then keep going.
so, yeah, i agree with frankie of ‘grace and frankie’. nine million dollars would solve everything.
i once was in a meeting with a person-in-power who said to me that he could direct me to a financial counselor who would teach me how to budget. it was all i could do to not retort, appalled at his gall. i answered instead that – at that time – it wasn’t a matter of budgeting. it was a matter of not having enough money TO budget. as a life-long math-lover having grown up with a mother who taught me how to balance checkbooks and make soap-socks at a young age, remembering clearly my first $50 calculator and my high school math teacher both fondly, the act of budgeting – and doing taxes and paying bills – is something i kind of enjoy. especially with enough money. that would probably still hold true if i had nine million dollars.
what i do know, even though nine million dollars would be pretty amazing – keeping that out there in the universe – is that it hasn’t taken that kind of money to appreciate here and now, to be present. i know we would love the ability to be more altruistic and generous; those things are gifts that are more rewarding than the money in the first place. but we try to be giving the best we can in any circumstance we find ourselves. and for us, we find joy in the simplest stuff around us – the repurposed, the long-pondered, the deals. each little thing is something we celebrate as we bring it into our home.
there have been people over the last year and a half who have shown up for us. they have acknowledged hard moments and have helped in a variety of ways. when you break both wrists and lose jobs to a pandemic and tear ligaments in your wrist after you had finally healed and get fired from a long-term position – it’s pretty intense. civil unrest, political mayhem, isolation all spice up the anxiety.
but the nine-million-dollar people have written, have called, have sent cards, have helped out with generous gifts. they have surprised us in their magnanimity and we have been the recipients of bounty even from people we have not even met.
there have been other people, who, for some reason or another, have not been there. they have disappeared and would, i suspect, hide behind an end cap should they spot us in the grocery store. they didn’t bring casseroles when i had two casts and didn’t call or write to ask how we were. kind of salt on the wound-ish. but they have their story too and as max ehrmann in desiderata points out, “whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
life has a way of letting you know who the nine-million-dollar people are. they aren’t the ones with an actual nine million dollars. instead, they are the ones whose hearts are huge, who stand up for you, whose compassion is not measurable by budgets, who have reached out, who want to listen, who ask questions, who inquire what you need, who, oftentimes, just know.
this time of pandemic has been eye-opening in so many ways. it has peeled back layers. the isolation has taught us that, though it is difficult, trying at times, we can be apart. it has shown us those whom we choose to stay in touch with, those who stay in touch with us. it has shown us – with wistful hearts – who we miss, who we wish we could see, who we want to wrap our arms around. it has pointed out those who have stuck close by and those who have fallen off.
we don’t really need nine million dollars, though i doubt we’d turn it down. we already have that in the people who have loved us through this time, in one generous way or another.
and that, like those really wise mastercard commercials say, is priceless.
i passed by these words: “try being informed instead of just opinionated.” i laughed and then frowned, thinking it was a great mantra for these times. it doesn’t even need any additional blah-blah. it simply can stand on its own, shining a spotlight on, well, most of us at some point or another.
i was recently reading some writings of noam chomsky, a linguist and philosopher and so much more. he is “widely recognized as having helped to spark the cognitive revolution in the human sciences”. his work is interesting and profoundly thought-provoking. and, he is one of those scholars who have quotes galore attributed to him, smidges of wisdom, tomes prompting controversy, questions that parry ignorance.
“the general population doesn’t know what’s happening and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know” is one of these quotes. bracing.
any scroll through news media apps in these times is pretty scary. intense drought, raging wildfires, ferocious storms erupting, melting glaciers and rising oceans, a global pandemic morphing and morphing again but not going away, the rise of authoritarianism in the global world, the attack on democracy and fundamental truths, the support of lies and personal agenda by people in trusted positions, the new climate change report issued by the united nations…the doomsday list seems endless.
we stumbled into a short documentary the other evening about doomsday bunkers. people in south dakota and texas purchasing $35k bunkers and tricking them out into homes in which they live, preparing, prepared. it was kind of daunting to see – these underground homes with pantry rooms full of canned goods, homes with no windows, homes that are more-or-less safe – or at least removed – from all that goes on above ground. i expected to see wily extremists but that wasn’t the case in the short we viewed. these were people who wanted to be ready to go on if all else failed – leaving “all else” to your imagination, easily fed by the horrors we read and watch in the news. i personally cannot imagine living this way. though the bunkers are in a community, the premise is removing yourself from the rest of the world and i wonder what is left of value then. a little more googling and other bunkers emerge – bunkers for the super rich, bunkers that are more extreme. what is really going on here? the things we don’t know.
i used to teach in the state of florida, though i have not lived there now for over thirty years. in the mixed miracle of social media, some of my previous students are friends of mine on facebook and i am delighted to see them in their lives as adults. i am horrified to watch the governor of that state remove protections for the children attending school there, not to mention teachers and administrators and other valued employees of school systems. barring mask mandates, downplaying vaccinations, issuing warnings to remove funding, threatening the withholding of salaries – all power ploys for his own sick agenda, which clearly is not to protect or encourage protecting the residents of his state, his constituents. i don’t understand this. and yet, his actions are mostly undeterred and it is only now that there are some superintendents pushing back, placing lives over one man’s warped authority. i wonder why every parent in the state isn’t lined up, pushing back. had my children been little while we lived there, i would have been appalled by the cavalier attitude about their health and well-being. they – and every single other child in that state – are not expendable. what is really going on here? the things we don’t know.
we’ve all heard the expression “ignorance is bliss.” is it really? is not-knowing the best way to go about living? is getting all hooked-lined-and-sinkered into opinion-land responsible? is watching the circus networks opine and distill truth and hatch conspiracy communal? is it ok to not know what’s really happening and not know that you don’t know? is it prudent – without asking questions – to fetch every bone thrown igniting rhetoric, encouraging vitriol, spewing hate, forwarding inequality, ignoring climate peril, wreaking chaos? even dogdog can discern firestarter sticks from real branches.
long island has nicer springs than wisconsin. considerably warmer temperatures, more consistent sunshine, earlier flowers, i remember my birthday in late march as sweater-weather, with many birthday pictures taken in front of the yellow forsythia at the front corner of our yard where the grass met the curb of the street. not so much in wisconsin. it’s still cold, still windy, still cloudy, still rainy, even still snowy. as my birthday rolls around i am always hopeful that it will suddenly change and there will be 60 degree days and we will hike with no coats and no 180 earmuffs. invariably disappointed, we layer up and hike anyway. saturday was no exception. no in-like-a-lion-out-like-a-lamb for this state.
birthdays always seem to be a time of reflection. the generosity of wishes texted, emailed, called, zoomed, facetimed, mailed, shipped and wrapped on the doorstep are a heaping portion of goodness and they enveloped me in warmth all day. the lion of march did not reign the day. instead, the only roar i heard was laughter on the trail, on facetime with my niece, on zoom with best friends, reading the glittery-unicorn-poop card from my other niece, the lingering echoes of my girl and her boyfriend singing to me, my son’s voice on the other end of the phone, a dinner invite from him and his boyfriend, singing memojis, exploding confetti on a text from crunch, music and spattered painting in an ecard from my mother-in-law, words in messages penned or typed, thoughtfully chosen. i lit my new candle, named my adorable new gardenia bonsai, and pulled my concentric circles ever tighter to me, hugging them back. there are days i think that every day should absolutely be lived like a birthday.
there was a common denominator in messages. my husband cleverly made a birthday book about life and love from a pa-pad, pads of scrap paper cut and glued by my sweet poppo in his effort to save trees and the environment. a dear friend from elementary school wrote that she hoped all my wishes come true. my oldest friend ever, a cherished friendship that has sustained through the years, wrote that she hoped i was celebrating. in one card that wished me “all things beautiful” i read, “may you always see the beauty in this world and be encouraged to keep pressing on, regardless of the stumbling blocks or hurdles that stand in the way.” in another was simply the word “forever”. another made me laugh aloud, poking fun at growing older. another wished me a better year. and one reminded me that “we are all works in progress.” in that card, my wise friend added “to ever evolving you” to the message “to another good year of chipping away…”
the spring rains gather on the deck. they clean off the last of the snow and dirt that have been left there through the winter. like periods on sentences, they mark a new time of growth, an end to fallow, warmth on its way. there have been so many periods on sentences this year. too many. it is a time of wondering. clarity is elusive. it is a time of giving over to not-knowing.
i suppose it is possible that this is the lesson after all. not-knowing. ever. i suppose that spring – even in wisconsin – could surprise me. i suppose no time is really a time of stasis. i suppose that is why riverstones are so smooth. i suppose that, no matter what, the promise is to be ever evolving.
there is nothing certain. nothing totally black or white. but this morning i am in the middle of the grey; fog has closed in and nothing is certain.
in a few hours i will know more. i will know what has happened to my hand and wrist. having already healed fractures from two broken wrists ala snowboarding this winter, i will know what changed the day that i fell recently – a serious fall, hard and directly on my reflex-outstretched hand – on an unmarked wet floor.
soon i will know why it aches constantly, why i can’t extend near an octave, why i can’t pick up my cat or the bucket to wash the car, why i can’t bend my wrist forward more than 5 degrees.
i’m pretty tough when it comes to pain; my threshold is pretty high. usually for me, it’s just a matter of dealing with it and getting used to it. and then i adjust. and people around me don’t actually know that there is any problem because i am making do.
but *this* is different. this is what i do. this is how i make a living. this is my profession. it has always been my profession. i am an artist – and a human with opposable thumbs – and this is my *hand*.
and so i am anxious to know what this hand specialist says, what he recommends, what he forecasts as the route for rehabilitation from this new injury, the arc for healing, the possibility for playing, the chance to ‘have my hand back’.
because, as i told david when we were walking on the trail the other day, this is not short term. this is long term.
there are wooden stages i want to play on, albums i might consider recording, babies i want to pick up, cars i want to wash. there are potatoes i want to mash, hand-whipped whip cream to whip, songs to write, doorknobs to turn, manual cars i want to shift. there are cellos i want to play, dishes to scrub, leaves i want to rake, jars i want to open, hard-to-reach spots on my back i want to scratch. there are boxes i want to be able to pick up, moves i want to help with, conducting batons to hold, guitars i want to fingerpick, waterski towropes i want to hold. there are bikes i want to ride, yoga positions i’d maybe like to try, reins i want to hold, clay pots i want to throw, my strong dog i want to walk on leash, mountains i want to try scrambling up. there are warm gloves i want to wear, rings i want to put back on, glissandos to execute.
but i can’t.
this is no small list. this is no small thing. this is my hand and my wrist and, like you, i have taken it for granted. until now.
there is nothing truly black or white, but i am anxious to be out of the middle, that liminal space, of not-knowing.
to write on-the-fly requires a certain letting-go. one cannot be too exacting. there is always another note, another rest, another phrase, another measure. always a chance to iron out the details, clean up the rough, rake the sandy grit. composing improvisationally is stepping into not-knowing and following threads that show up. because, instrumentally, i am typically an it’s-a-song-without-words writer, i listen and hang on to where the thread brought me, seizing it to wrap back to themes stated, to gestures implied. the starting gate is full of imagery or word-phrases, emotions to elicit. a shred of hope rose up in front of me today and this time, in an effort to not push back against hope, i answered. the call and response to a scintilla of hope spoke in glimmers of 1 minute 42 seconds.
yesterday was an historic day. after days, months, years, decades of not really speaking up, i found myself speaking. processing the balance of liability-seesaws, i wondered why i hadn’t spoken aloud about things that were not ok, things that were clearly unfair, inequitable, people who were aggressive, people who were passive-aggressive, those who were destructive, those who undermined, those who did not help. i felt the confines of the wrapping-which-kept-me-quiet and pulled tightly across my heart drop ever so slightly away, fibers draping and drifting. voice, a deep breath, a little lighter. a beginning. a shred of hope.
wednesday was an historic day. we gathered together online again, ukuleles and singers. and yesterday i read a post from one of the young women there, “when you play music in a group where the ages range from 31 to 94 you always feel blessed.” community. shared. a place of i-love-you-love-me. a shred of hope.
tuesday was an historic day. a brilliant woman of afro-indian descent was chosen as the vice-presidential running mate of the democratic party’s candidate. oh, where we have finally come, where we will finally go. a shred of hope.
monday was an historic day. the derecho roared by. our tall old trees were spared. this time the rain did not pour in by the air conditioner. the dog and the cat shared the basement with us until the tornado warning expired. we sipped wine and rocked in rocking chairs, listening to the sound of the wind and rain above us. our little space in the world was safe. a shred of hope.
the prayer flags shred in the wind, sending prayers off into the universe. bits and pieces fall to the ground or fly off in the breeze. a perfect heart landed on our deck. a shred of hope.
it all doesn’t change the lost-ness of last friday’s on-the-fly. we have much to weave back together and so much to let go in this broken narrative, a tapestry of individuals, families, cities, states, a country, a world in pain.
the road from here to there is oft not straight. the way the crow flies is irrelevant. “the only way there is through,” joan told me quite some time ago. we were talking about grief. i had lost my sweet momma and it felt brutal; at any age the loss of a parent is profound. i was talking to joan about it – about getting to the other side of the grief. and she told me that the only way there was through it. a winding trail it was, with switchbacks and no guardrails.
that has happened for me with each encounter with grief. there is nothing easy about it, nothing straight. the grief of loss, the grief of instability, the grief of anxiety, the grief of fear, the grief of insecurity, the grief of aging, the grief of failure, the grief of change, in all its rampant forms.
and yet, out hiking, winding trails are my preference. a hike that takes me past hidden-treasure-vistas, a hike where i cannot see the end from the beginning, a hike that surprises at each turn. these winding trails are gifts in the woods, in the mountains, in between red rock formations high in elevation. there is much to see, much to learn about. they are journeys of not-knowing. they are journeys of wonder, of revelation.
we are not crows; no flightpath in our lives will be straight, no endpoint clear in our sight, no one thing all the way from here to there, no vector traveled without veering a bit off-course. even reverse-threading our lives will not reveal a straight path; instead it will reveal a vast horizon of ping-ponging and circuitous route-making. we will most definitely wind around, through decisions and opportunities, missed marks and challenges at the goal line, defining and re-defining. living.
which winds me back to joan’s wise words of years ago, which i can still hear her saying. the only way from here to there is through. winding trail and all.
“when one door closes another door opens.” how many times have you heard that? people fail to address the hallway in-between. ahh….that hallway in between. full of mystery. full of questions. full of wondering. full of not-knowing. it can be freeing; it can be torturous. bridging from now to next.
two to three months after my big brother died, my sweet momma continued to have nights when she could not sleep. she would rise from bed and go down the short hall to the bedroom that served as her office. in that short walk, she would pass the entrance to the living room. one night, as she passed the living room, glancing in she saw a depression in the very top of the recliner, the way it looks when someone is sitting with their head against the back of the chair. this chair…the very one that my brother sat in so many times in the last months of his life, close to the front door so that he didn’t have to go too far and become too tired.
my momma, not given to fanciful imaginings, decided to walk into the living room to find out why the headrest of this chair gave the appearance of someone in it. she came around to the front of the chair and found my brother. he was sleeping in the chair and did not stir while she stood there. she never said a word, just silently watched for a couple of minutes. her heart full, she quietly walked to her office. an hour or so later, when she was ready for bed, she walked back down the short hall, this time glancing in to the living room to see if the headrest was still shaped as it had been, if my brother was still there. the recliner had returned to its normal state. my brother was no longer there. she went to bed and slept, her time in the hall of grief a little lighter, a little less encumbered, a little less painful. mysterious, full of questions, full of wondering and not-knowing. freeing and a little torturous. but moving into next.
it’s not a complex piece of music. it’s a line out of my heart at the moment in time i was recording it. it’s the mystery that surrounds waiting. it’s the depth of biding one’s time. it’s the expression of sitting tight and holding on, of not-knowing. it’s the tentative simplicity of before…before the time of getting to the end of waiting. it’s the time of anticipation, of advent – the time of emergence, of arrival, of birth.