This trip is my 50th birthday present to myself. And I feel so ashamed about that right now. I have a long list of places I wanted to see–Tate Modern, V&A, British Library, Abbey Road–– and no one (not even me) feels like going. The shingles is wretched today. My entire left thigh feels like it’s hiked for years–tight, achy, disgustingly ugly and covered in huge red welts. Also, it feels like tiny needles poke at it when I least expect it. The meds make me dizzy and nauseated. But we have joined up with our friends from Northampton, and the kids are in heaven until we tell them we are going to the Tower of London. “Noooooooo!” cries the 8-year-old.
I am immediately brought back to my own childhood dread of being dragged around to museums. My grandmother was a great lover of art, and from my earliest memories brought us to art galleries and museums. My mother is an historian, so her bag was history museums and sites. That’s just what we did on Saturdays: trudged around seeing impressive things that made me cranky. So I had tons of compassion for my son. In fact, his proximity made the tower boring to me, and it was my idea to go! Amazing how one person’s attitude can affect me. Two years ago when Tom and I went to Paris with my parents, I couldn’t get enough of the architecture, the statues, the history. I was with people who were as energetic and curious as I was. But now, all I could think was, “So what? I read about the princes in the tower when I was twelve. I know the story. Big deal.”
Part of the plan for this trip was to finally go to Liverpool. But no one wants to go now, not even me. Maybe my parents were right: it’s just a dirty industrial city.
The girls are into the Tower and race around sharing a sweatshirt; they hope to be mistaken for Siamese Twins. I am intrigued by the evolution of the architecture, the incredible ages of the buildings, including part of a Roman wall from the second century. And I have to admit, when I see the staircase where the two little princes’ bodies were discovered in the 1600s, I have shivers. It’s an amazing, tragic story.
I do not care about the crown jewels. What strikes me, in my crankitude, is how strange these royal rituals are, how uptight and tied to the past in ways that seem rigid and meaningless now. Well, to me–an American. But these are my people, my ancestors. I feel a connection, but a very odd one. The are my ancestors, but not my tribe. I miss music. Maybe I can get the kids to busk with me tomorrow.
Day two was a kind of half a day. We arrived at some crazy early hour, sleep-walked through a customs line that snaked fifteen times across Heathrow. When we stumbled into our flat, we all went to sleep, ignoring all advice to the contrary (stay awake till 7pm the next day…) But here we are in sunny/cloudy London making our first outing on the Underground, which is truly brilliant, as many have said before. We make friends with a woman and her huge Labradoodle, Daisy. She is the first anti-Trump person we have met. In our neighborhood, they kind of like the guy. They also voted for Brexit. Our new friend on the Tube feels otherwise, and it’s like being back in Northampton USA.
I last came to London in 1985, with my parents and sisters. I was in a liminal space between high school graduation and the beginning of my years at Yale. I was terrified, cranky, missing my boyfriend (who was also going to Yale), did I say terrified? and feeling dragged around by my parents. The famous story Katryna told for years from the stage was that we’d spent a week in Ireland driving around in the rain, climbing mountains in the rain, being cranky and bored. We took the ferry over to Wales from Dublin, and we knew the next stop on our itinerary was Scotlatnd. But on the ferryboat, we saw the travel map on the wall, and noticed that the road to Edinburgh passed right through…Liverpool! AHA!!! That was the gold at the rainbow’s end! Secretly, our parents were going to take us to the glorious home of our favorite, most sacred band. This was a surprise they had been planning! We rushed up to them and said, “Thank you, thank you! We see we’re driving right through Liverpool to get to Edinburgh! We have to stop and do the Magical History Tour and see the Cavern Club and Strawberry Fields and walk along the Mersey! This is the BEST VACATION EVER!!!!”
But our parents shook their heads and said, “No, no, no. Liverpool is just a boring industrial dirty city. We’re going to drive around it.”
Three hours out of the way to drive around it!
It took us years to forgive them. But at the end of that trip, we were in London for a couple of days, and there we passed through a tube station and stopped to listen to some street musicians. Two women: a duo. One played guitar, the other the cello. They were doing a version of “Come Together,” with the cellist playing Paul’s phat bass line. I wanted to cry with happiness, with connection, with the feeling of having found my tribe again. I wanted to do what that duo did.
Speaking of cranky bored kids, we quickly see that the massive historical significance of buildings that are a good 1500 years older than anything in the States is somewhat lost on an 8-year-old who just wants to play baseball. So we make some compromises. We take a tour boat along the Thames with a group who don’t speak any English at all, so that when the guide tells them to sit down already, they completely ignore him. The kids like this part because we give them our iPhones and let them take pictures of everything the tour guide describes. Their fave is seeing the City of London school because Daniel Radcliffe matriculated there. They also liked learning that there is actually only one Union Jack in London–on the front of a Navy ship that saw action in the Second WW. (You can only add “Jack” to the name if the flag has been in combat. Who knew?)
No one but me wants to go to Westminster Abbey, so I visit the tomb of Elizabeth by myself. Of course I worship at Poet’s Corner as well, standing on Handel’s marker, tracing with my index Mary Ann Evans’ name (better known as George Eliot) and gaping at Chaucer’s (hidden) tomb.
I have wanted to go to London since my senior year in college. That was the year I knew I wanted to be a folk singer, and I had no idea whatsoever how to go about doing that. I just knew London was calling, and I could picture myself standing on a street corner with my guitar, singing my original songs, waiting to be discovered the way Tracy Chapman had been. Instead, I got married to a guy who believed in me and my music and I dragged my sister along. That worked out pretty well. But all these years I have wanted to come back, to see if I could find myself again in some corner of London, the way I had when I heard that duo. So far, on this trip, she is nowhere to be found. I just feel like a frustrated mom with shingles.
When I look back on this, I will remember the tombs, the ancient walls, the connection to the writers. I won’t remember the shingles. Right?
Here I am on a giant two-decker plane, squashed at the end of a bank of four seats with my daughter asleep on my shoulder, my husband reading next to her, and my son watching Boss Baby at the other end of the row. I arrived at the plane with an assortment of travel pillows and accoutrements attached to my backpack, giving me the look of a Sharper Image-thieving hobo. Said pillows were for my aching lower back. Why the aching lower back? So glad you asked!
My lower back started aching the day I arrived home from my Adirondacks writing retreat on July 2. There, I was finishing the latest draft of my novel The Big Idea, something I have been working on for the past 5 months (previous drafts being written since 2005…) Trying to take a day off this endeavor on not be a manic workaholic (who, me?) on July 4, I accompanied my family to Chesterfield Gorge, where I was embarrassingly lethargic and miserable. “My left leg feels as though it’s climbed a gigantic mountain,” I told Tom. “And my lower back feels like I’ve pulled out my S-I joint.”
Five days later, at the New Bedford Folk Festival, I seemed to develop poison ivy. Strange to get it so long after exposure, but I was pretty sure I saw some in Chesterfield, though I’d tried valiantly to avoid it, of course.
On the Monday after the festival, I plunged into another week-long writing retreat, this one at my house. I stuck to a boot-camp-like schedule: rising at 5:30 to meditate, going for a run at 6, getting the house clean, the lunch prepped and the kids off to camp by the time my retreat started every day at 9am. I worked and wrote all day, then spent the hours between the end of retreat and dinnertime going to a variety of body workers to try to re-align my S-I joint, all the while slathering the PI in calamine lotions. Neither situation got any better, and my checking account grew as cranky as my back. What was particularly weird and annoying was that the location of the PI was in the same spots that ached. This, I reasoned, was because I must have rubbed Hudson, my puppy, right after he rolled in some backyard PI and then massaged my back and left thigh because they hurt.
Yes, I also scratched the poison ivy.
Finally, it was Sunday, and I got worried that my PI needed steroids. I wanted to get a script before I left for Europe on Monday, so I called my PCP. He said it was protocol to examine all rashes in person. Thank God. Because when I went in on Sunday afternoon, my doc practically laughed me out of the office.
“That is a textbook case of shingles, my dear,” he said, pointing to the line of what I’d thought was poison ivy along the very spot on my lower back that hurt the most. “And that is where it starts: the spine. From there, it spreads only to one side of the body. in your case, down your left leg.”
In a way, it is a relief to know that I haven’t destroyed my back. When I thought this was a pulled S-I joint, each bodyworker had some advice for me, usually about posture and exercise. I went around sucking in my gut, re-aligning my shoulders, making sure not to sleep on my stomach, etc. I felt guilty for pretty much everything I did; mostly of course for the fact that I am writing a novel, which is the major source of all maternal guilt for me at the moment. Now I feel like I have a reprieve from the governor on this. When you have a communicable disease, mostly no one blames you, including yourself. Of course, I did see on WebMD that the reason most adults get shingles (a reappearance of the dormant chicken pox virus) is that their immune system is straining under unusually stressful circumstances. But for now, I can accept that I won’t be sleeping tonight. Who sleeps on a red-eye anyway?
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
-Mary Oliver, “Blackwater Woods”
On June 2, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned fifty, and so did I. I’m not sure who made a bigger deal out of this anniversary, me or Apple Records, but a splendid time was had by all, so that’s good. My parents flew up from Virginia, and all four of my beloved aunts came to my gathering over the weekend. Tom got me tickets to see Sir Paul McCartney––a huge bucket list item, as I have never seen a Beatle perform live. Paul’s about to turn 75, just like my dad. No time to lose.
The other big present is a trip to London in July, which will include a side jog to Liverpool, where we hope to do some of the Magical History Tour or at least see the Beatles Museum. Katryna got me the fabulous new box set of Sgt. Pepper, and I have been listening to all the podcasts on Fresh Air (which I highly recommend!) Also, I learned “A Day in the Life” on piano. I made my musician friends play it with me on Saturday night, with Lila doing the entire orchestra part on her violin. Ben Demerath shook his head in wonder as the final E chord rang out, and he turned to my father and said, “Man! What did you THINK the first time you heard that ending?” And my father said, “Well…that was the first time I heard that ending. And I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it.”
I’m still trying to figure out what I think about turning 50. On the one hand, it’s no different from 49, or really 48. On the other, the actual number, especially when people write on birthday cards, “Welcome to your second half-century!” and such, freaks me out a bit. Me, 50? How did that happen? I got my passport photo taken at the CVS for our Britain trip, and I thought the woman in the tiny square they handed me looked like a “before” for a plastic surgery ad. There must be some mistake.
There also must be some mistake with the world. On the night of my birthday, someone mowed down a crowd on London Bridge–this just a few weeks after the Manchester bombing. Besides the now too-familiar grief for the lives lost, there’s a new, practical thought: Why am I taking my precious family abroad right now? What am I thinking? Can we even begin to enjoy ourselves in Europe (or anywhere) in this climate of fear and violence? Not to mention, will we have to disguise ourselves as Canadians, or make pins that say “I Was With Her; Don’t Blame Me”?
And yet, I have three beloveds right now who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They are each living vigorously, snatching all they can out of life, understanding clearly that now’s the time to live. One of them is driving all the way across the country to see the full eclipse in a desert to make sure clouds don’t cover their once-in-a-lifetime chance. They are teaching the rest of us well.
My son has quit the violin, finally and for good. He hasn’t played since February, and even though I bought him an old beater violin to busk with, he hands it back to me, shaking his head, and said on Monday, “Sorry, Mom. I just don’t like music.”
“That’s like saying you don’t like nature!” I screamed, and then I promptly burst into tears and said out loud the biggest fear I have been harboring for the past five years: “It’s my fault! It’s because I pushed you so hard! It’s because I am a Suzuki mom from Hell! I have ruined everything!” And I wailed, tears gushing from my eyes. I was driving. It was raining. It was really bad, not to mention dangerous. Both my kids tried to comfort me. Johnny said, “Cheer up, Mom. I’ll still sing in your chorus. I have to. All my friends are in it.” Lila said, “Yeah, Mom. Kids go through phases. And Johnny will have to choose an instrument anyway when he’s in Middle School Band.”
“Yeah,” agreed Johnny. “Maybe I’ll like music a little.”
I was part of a women’s circle recently where we discussed the role of ambition in our lives. We defined the word broadly: as in “what do you want your life to be versus where is the River guiding you?” The original Latin means “to go around” and usually in the context of “going around courting votes.” The English word had a pejorative connotation for most of its history; it’s only in recent times that we’ve seen it used more positively, nodding with approval as we say about our daughters, “She’s very ambitious.” I wondered aloud what the difference is between ambition and desire. Desire for something is certainly informs my ambition. These cravings in my soul, I have discovered in my half-century, need to be listened to. They don’t necessarily need to be indulged, but it’s always important for me to give them a fair hearing. Is it desire or ambition that pulls me to bring my family to England this July? I long for it. I longed to know the Beatles when I was nine and first heard them, and so I made a study of their music. That music still enchants and fascinates me, 41 years later. Ambition feels different; like too much strong coffee. It’s me exerting my will, going against the river. Desire is the river. The trick is to figure out how to align your inner desire to where the river is taking you.
On the way to my Nields rehearsal last night, Johnny said, “Can we listen to the Beatles?” and I programmed my phone to play a non-chronological mix, as we are both kind of sick of Pepper, which had been our car soundtrack for all of May. The algorithm chose “Ask Me Why,” “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “I’m a Loser,””She Loves You,” and “In My Life.” Johnny announced who wrote and sang each song, and he was always right. I explained to him how George Martin played the piano solo on “In My Life” and how they doubled its speed to get it to sound the way they wanted. When “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” came on, he said, “Do they know yet what John played on this?” (The last time he’d asked, I’d posted on Facebook, and we’d discovered that this is a controversial mystery. Some say 6-string bass. Some say organ. Some say he missed the sessions altogether.) “Do you really think he’s not on it?” John is his favorite, natch.
“I don’t know,” I said, “But let’s look it up when we get home.”
I feared this birthday for the last half of my forties. My grandmother was 52 when I was born, and she was OLD! I had wanted to be a singer since the age of 7, but even as a teenager, I thought I’d be a musician for a couple of decades max and then move on to some other profession. Probably minister, or professor, or writer, or caterer. By 50 I would be deep into some other career. Still, I play. The rehearsal was with the full band, and shows both duo and band are lined up for the next year. We talked about recording a new CD last night. What does it mean to be a geriatric rocker? Many things. My heroes have taught me you never have to stop. We get to make the rules on this one.
Paul and Ringo at the 2014 Grammys
We got home and Johnny settled in with Tom and Lila, who were watching Bend It Like Beckham. I climbed up to my attic studio and pulled down Mark Lewisohn’s wonderful volume The Beatles Recording Sessions and studied it. It truly isn’t clear. The last take he was definitely on was actually lead guitar, but we all know Eric Clapton ended up taking the honors there. Still, it’s hard to imagine John sitting around doing nothing! The only clue I had was George’s offhand comment later that Eric’s presence in the studio had the effect of making them all behave and play better. Isn’t that what we strive to do for each other? I looked up at my son, cuddled on his father’s lap, moving his body back and forth to the rhythms of bhangra, and I said, “Looks like guitar. Just what we’d suspected. He’s on it after all.”
Tomorrow is the official Day Without Women.We are encouraged to wear red, to abstain from shopping and to tell our bosses to try to live without us. My bosses are my guitar students, writing students, and the characters in my novel, so I might slip some work in on the sly, though I have informed Tom that I plan on skipping all chores. I have a great red sweater and some red pants that will clash with it. And I already gave up shopping on Amazon for Lent, so I’m good there. I love this idea–this is my kind of protest. And it got me thinking about what it means to be a woman.
In 1997, I wrote a song called “Georgia O” about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The refrain goes, “I want to be a woman like you,” until the last chorus, when the singer changes it to “I want to be a woman like me.” This is my experience with women artists: we kindle each other. Maybe men do the same, but as I am not one, I can’t testify. I just know immersing myself in the work of other women musicians, artists and writers helps me to find myself.
I am reading Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir M Train, and I am using her as my latest model for I Wanna Be a Woman Like You. She’s so authentic, so refreshingly cranky and real and surprisingly tender. I love her aesthetic, her polaroids, her passion for black coffee, which threads like a train through all of her chapters. The book was written many years after the death of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, but it as if he is still a very active presence in her life. She is an inspiring loner. She writes about finding her ramshackle house on Rockaway Beach just months before Hurricane Sandy decimated the area, though miraculously sparing her house. Every day this independent women walks across the street to Cafe ‘Ino to drink their coffee, eat their beans and bread (dipped in olive oil) and write, or think about writing. She has mastered the art of living. The cover of the book has an iconic photo of the author:
…which says it all. Here she is, completely herself. Real, sad, tired, beautiful. I want to be a woman like her. But mostly I work my ass off at being cheerful and helpful and positive, and instead I end up driving people crazy.
For example. Last Monday, Johnny quit violin. He has quit in the past, but there was something about this quitting that felt different. He’s older–almost nine. He knows himself better than he once did, and he is just beginning to question out loud whether his mother knows him at all. A friend of mine tells a story about his relationship with his mother, recounting a time when he’d cut off contact with her over a critical remark. His mother was always telling him that he should be a lawyer. At some point, he wanted to say to her, “Do you even know me?” But he didn’t say that. He just cut her off. This terrified me, and I had this story fresh in my head on the day J quit. So I let him. Usually, I try bribery, manipulation, or just plain force. NO, you can’t quit. Everyone in our family has to play an instrument!
So we had a quiet week. At first, I felt good about the severing. I was letting him have autonomy. I was seeing who he really was. Also, he was much more cheerful. I began to frame the whole Suzuki thing in its worst light. Rigid. Enslaved kids. Emotionless performers. Blah blah blah. But over the weekend, I went into a deep funk about the loss, and Johnny stopped being cheerful. I thought of the parents of the 18 year old girl who opened for us at Circle of Friends Coffeehouse four years ago. They said, “We told our daughter, ‘You don’t get to quit Math or English. You don’t get to quit music, either.'” I thought of my own lifelong regrets about quitting piano when I was thirteen. I thought about the sick feeling I always have when I quit anything. I thought about tough love, about the many times I wanted to throw in the towel on violin with either kid in the past. I thought about how good playing an instrument is for the brain. I thought about how every drop of structure can be used by an unstructured mind like my own, and my son’s (we are much more alike in terms of study skills and willpower than my uncannily organized daughter.)
Then my back seized up, as it seems to under certain mysterious circumstances, and I was a prisoner of some internal corset of steel. Am I just completely fused with my son? Probably. I gently hinted to J that he might reconsider. He looked right at me. “Mama, are you taking lessons with Maggie right now?”
Whoa. As a matter of fact, I am not. In early February, I heard back from my agent who had a huge list of suggested revisions. I resumed work on my novel, and tried to disengage from anything not critical to the operation of our home and businesses. And as a result, my soul is a little sick. When I don’t practice my instruments, this is what happens to me. A part of me dies, even as another part thrives. I think this is the price to be paid for not ever being able to make up my mind about whether I was a musician or a writer. My shoulders pay the price, as does my poor family.
Tom took me by said shoulders on Sunday night and looked at me seriously. “Listen. You won’t want to hear this. But you need to lay off him. He is going to play music again. But you have to wait. You can’t nag. It has to come from him, and not from you or any other authority figure.”
I nodded, tearfully. “If you love someone, set them free,” I sobbed, thinking of Sting’s annoyingly ungrammatical song. I wiped my eyes. “You need to be my sponsor on this. I will call or text if I get the urge to nag.” We shook solemnly. I wandered into the empty music room. I stared at our old Steinway, already out of tune (my piano tuner says it’s a goner and we need to find a new one). I sat down and played the piano accompaniment to a couple of Johnny’s Book 3 Suzuki pieces: a Bach Minuet and a Gavotte in G minor, a very sad song. I was terrible. But as I followed the music on the page, my hands came to life a bit. They began to remember what to do. As I labored, Johnny passed through the room, doing some cartwheels and jumping on the couch. He picked up his violin and said, “If I WERE to play a song, I wonder what I would play?” I did not respond, but kept my eye on the page of music.
The next morning, Johnny un-quit. I can’t say I didn’t have anything to do with it. Perhaps I had him sit down with a piece of steno paper, the kind with a line down the middle, and told him to list the pros and cons of playing violin. I did maybe also slightly bribe him with a 100 day challenge (100 days of practice = $100 gift card to Target.). Would Patti Smith do this kind of thing? Uh, dude. No.
But so what. The older I get the more I think it’s about self acceptance, not self improvement. I am a bossy, controlling person. This is not completely a bad thing. I get stuff done. I show up. And I have a really stiff back, at times. And for the past two days, I have a son who practiced his violin. Parenthood is hard. We never know if we are saving our kids or killing them. We can only do what makes sense in the moment, and out of the soup we are in, this seems right. This Sunday, Johnny and Lila and I are going to the Suzuki Festival at the New England Conservatory of Music. We will see who and what my children find when they arrive. Maybe themselves.