The rest of the trip could have sucked, and because of this, I still would have been glad for every penny and pound we spent. We did NOT stop traffic, but we did wait for openings. Jan Sabach is a great photographer, as you can tell.
We made sure we had all the photos we wanted, and then I worshipped a bit at Abbey Road studios.
And then to a local Beatles gift shop where the owner was playing Revolver. I asked if he ever met Paul, and he said, “No, but he lives in the neighborhood.” And he gave me his address! It was a few blocks away. No, I did not go there.
After that, everything was pretty boring. At least to me. We took the tube to the V&A which none of the kids was into.
I managed to see some Rodin sculptures (my favorite), some stone Buddhas, and a clockmaker exhibit at the Science Museum. But basically I was ready for cafe-hopping earlier than usual. We ended up riding public transit around town, landing eventually on the top and front of a double decker driving through Islington.
We had a farewell dinner with the Sabachs at a lovely place recommended to us by our friend Molly Burnham, and said goodbye to our friends. A wonderful week. Hard to believe we still have one more to go!
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.
After our big 25th anniversary shows at the Iron Horse last weekend, I was so tired I thought I would never recover. As I age, it seems performing takes more and more out of me, or else it takes longer to mop me off the floor afterward. As my friend Steve Philbrick says, “My body tells the truth more these days.” At any rate, I have made a vow not to get up at 5 in the morning for a whole week. Maybe it will extend into a whole month. And then maybe into forever. Who knows?
It’s a strange pull I have to these 5 am wake up calls, a kind of love/hate fascination, sort of like my 7 year old son’s slightly disturbing obsession with Bellatrix LeStrange. At first, it seemed horrific to be woken at that hour. I am generally a fairly early riser—6am for almost 20 years. But last year when my writer friend Molly Burnham suggested I try getting up an hour early to make sure I got my writing time in every day, I balked. Wasn’t 6 early enough?
It turns out it wasn’t—not if I wanted to make sure I made progress on my novel, The Big Idea, a story of a family turned rock band turned family again. In order to pack in my requisite meditation, yoga, family time, violin practice with the kids, run around the park, tidying of the kitchen so that we’re not infested with fruit flies and rats, and then that little matter of earning a living, it seems I really do need to get up at 5. In the past year, I have gone from a hopeless collection of disconnected chapters to a cohesive draft of my 850 page book. It’s still not a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, but it holds water. If I were to die tomorrow, it could be published, and it might even make sense to a handful of people.
I came to love my 5am writing time. I crept downstairs every weekday, made myself an espresso, opened my laptop and dove in. The house was quiet and peaceful, and my first thoughts poured into the manuscript. Best of all, it seemed to set my inner compass for the rest of the day, informing everything. The characters woke up with me, and I had them as company throughout the day. Most days, I had a second writing session later on, and this was when the best writing happened. But it couldn’t have happened without that 5am primer.
Recently, I have noticed, however, that my chronic lack of sleep is also informing my days. I have been irritable and just plain exhausted, and by about 8pm I am pretty much useless, sometimes verging on tears. And yet, even though my husband had on occasion begged me to sleep in, I am almost incapable of doing so. Even if I don’t set my alarm, my body rises at 5 now. And I let it, sneaking down to my writing spot like an alcoholic to the bar.
I have written extensively in this blog about my severely mixed feelings about the very fact of spending an hour or two a day working on this novel. On the one hand, it compels me. I feel strongly that I will not be happy if I don’t see this vision through, a vision I had while jogging down Sunset Boulevard in 1997 while recording Taxi Girl with Paul Fox at A&M Recording Studio. I have been working on the book and the accompanying soundtrack on and off since that time, though the bulk of the writing happened between 2001 and 2005, and then again between 2012 and the present day. The characters clamor to be heard; they speak to me as I do the dishes, as I pick the kids up from school, as I read other novels or listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. During the years when I wasn’t writing––2006 to 2012––I felt there was a hole in me.
But those weren’t exactly unhappy unfulfilled years. Instead of writing a novel, I wrote literally hundreds of songs, blog posts and two other (non-fiction) books. I wrote sermons, I made friends, I practiced yoga and I breastfed two babies. It would be just as true to say that in these past four years since I’ve hunkered down on The Big Idea (especially this last when I’ve been getting up at 5am) that I’ve had a hole in me because I haven’t gotten to do these things, at least not as much.
It turns out, as Tom and I keep saying to each other, you can’t do everything. Huh. We can’t do everything we want to do, be friends with everyone we want to be friends with, write everything we want to write, eat everything we want to eat, or look like a supermodel if we aren’t spending our entire time working out, eating watercress and tuna fish and drinking fourteen glasses of water a day, and in my case, being elongated on a medieval stretching device. I say this last thing because this came to mind last night as Tom and I were bewailing our mortal status and inability to excel in our careers while simultaneously have a social life, parent our kids the way we want to and also have fun hobbies and a lot of sex. It reminded me of how for more years than I cared to admit I tried to look like a supermodel. “Did you know,” someone finally told me—or perhaps I finally heard––“that those people are airbrushed? Those photos are not actually real people.”
People really do win the Pulitzer Prize, just like there really was once a band called the Beatles who changed the face of cultural history and wrote 10 amazing albums in 8 years. There is now a musical on Broadway that is having a similarly transformative effect on culture. Every now and then, something comes along that blows us all away, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda. But by and large, even the Pulitzer prize winning novels get read, get their seals of approval, get bought and then end up on a dusty shelf and forgotten about.
What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life? Well, sometimes I want to write my book, write it as best I can possibly write it, put in it everything wise and wonderful I have been taught, make every sentence shine as brightly as possible. Other times I want to sleep. I want to lie on my back on the carpet and look out the window at a blue June sky and gaze at the fading roses along the fence and listen to my son as he takes a bath and tells me about Messi’s assist in the game against the US. I want to fold the laundry. I want to clean out a closet. I want to play the piano badly. I want to hear about my friend’s struggles and drink a can of seltzer. I want to smell the ocean. I want to make a pesto and goat cheese frittata. I want to sleep until my body wakes me up. I want to read an article in the New Yorker. I want to hold my daughter while she cries about her best friend going away to Europe and leaving her behind. I want to know where all the towels go. I want to toss my careful plan out the window and see what the day’s plan is for me. I want to go to bed at midnight and sleep till noon the way I did in summertime when I was a teenager. Maybe one day, I will. Or at least till 6am.
This band started as a dream, like most bands do. Two girls, born 10 years too late, pouring over the cover of the Beatles Blue Album, which is not even, as it turns out, a real album. Two girls singing into their hairbrushes when no one else was nearby enough to hear. Two sisters, amazed to discover that the other one had a secret desire to sing, too. Two sisters, amazed to discover that her sister had a really good voice. Two sisters, brought up on Seeger and Dylan and determined to make a difference in the world, convinced music could change hearts and minds.
Parents loving enough to suspend disbelief and not insist on graduate school or real jobs.
A guy named Dave who loved them both and was willing to put up with them and put them up while they built the band.
Another guy named Dave who loved them both and was willing to lend his ear and genius and bass parts and nervous system to the project.
A third guy named Dave who played the drums with the passion of Animal and the precision of Edison.
A booking agent named Patty who turned road manager, then co-manager, then manager-babysitter-pastry-chef-maker-barista, who loved and laughed and kvetched and shook the trees and sometimes the sisters’ shoulders.
Tens of thousands of fans, who came and went over the years, but who floated the boat, sang along, believed and encouraged.
Seventeen CDs. Three books. Thirteen songbooks. A DVD. One vinyl double album. 44 states, 6 provinces, three countries, too many cities to count accurately (though Patty probably has a close approximation….)
Two grateful women, sisters, mothers, wives, friends, aunts, daughters, artists, writers, singers in the same old band. They thank you. We thank you. Thank you.