I Wanna Be a Woman Like Patti Smith

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.

Post-Iron Horse. Can I Sleep Now? Please?

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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.”

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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.

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Twenty-five Years

IMG_3999This 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.

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Our First Vinyl

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Doesn’t every musician born about two-thirds of the way through the last century dream of releasing a double vinyl LP collection of greatest hits?

I know we did. One of our first purchases–scrimped from birthday and allowance dollars, shared between the two of us––was a copy of The Beatles 1967-1970, better known as “The Blue Album” to American Beatles fans. It’s not really possible to convey in words how important that collection was to us as children (we were nine-ish, ten-ish, eleven-ish…) I can feel the disc between my two palms even now, remembering how I’d place it gently on the spindle, waiting for it to drop, hoping the mechanism would catch.

Then I’d hear it–the music the four lads had made ten years previously, at the Abbey Road studios, yes. But something else, too. I’d hear the pops and crackles made not by them but by us.

We made those pops and crackles, and this is what makes listening to vinyl a fundamentally different experience from listening to mp3s or even CDs. Vinyl becomes, over time, a shared artifact between artist and fan. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it’s more valuable the more worn it is, the more loved. The love, in fact, creates its own imprint.So here is what we hope will become our mutual project. We can’t know who you are, reading this and listening to these LPs. But we hope you are a nine-year-old child, or, barring that, at least have a strong nine-year-old child within you, who will connect to what we did in 1992, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2015.

And we hope in another twenty-five years you will still be playing this disc. Only by then you wiill have overlaid it with your own imprint of pops and crackles, of whispers and ghosts.

Who Needs the Bravermans?

I’ve been watching the now defunct TV show Parenthood recently. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers. I am up to Season 4, and just saw the episode where Victor hits a home run, Julia quits her job and Kristina tells the family she has cancer.  I love this show so much, and like probably everyone, it makes me wish I had a big extended family whose members all live in one city and show up at each others’ kids’ recitals and baseball games and dance around the kitchen after they do the dishes. I also wonder how the women got their eyelashes to be so fat and long. (Seriously, check this out.)

 

But this weekend, my family got our Braverman on. My excellent sister Abigail drove up from Philly with her twins, Emmett and Reese, and the bunch of us hiked up to Turner’s Falls to see Katryna’s daughter Amelia perform with her band Kalliope Jones. 2015-07-25 16.45.27 FullSizeRender-2The cousins were in heaven, and the aunties and proud moms whooped and hollered and took a lot of photos and waved the mailing list around. (The CD is coming out soon….) and then we went for a picnic and came home and danced around the kitchen. (My sisters both have great eyelashes, too, but their only advice was mascara. Maybe it’s Maybelline.) (Sorry.)

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Kalliope Jones, from left to right: Alouette Batteau, Isabella DeHerdt, Amelia Chalfant

As I spent time with my sisters, I felt a sense of resurrection. Tom knew it was coming. “You’re a person who needs your family,” he said when I had complained to him of my low-grade malaise. I am a person who needs her people.

Some part of me had gone numb after the highs of my Summer Writing Camp and my kids’ Suzuki Camp. The only pleasure I got was by counting my FitBit steps (always a bad sign for me). That, and listening to my kids play violin. Lila and Johnny and I had spent a glorious week at the Suzuki Summer Academy in Easthampton, and I certainly got my steps in, running up and down the stairs of Easthampton High School, dividing my time between my kids’ classes. They played like little maniacs all day every day, all week long. And then at the end of each 8 hour day, they came home and practiced. I am not kidding. In fact, they wanted to. Lots of soccer was played at Suzuki camp, and many drawings of Carli Lloyd were composed 2015-07-15 19.28.03in the breaks between master classes. Once again, I was deeply impressed by the Suzuki ethos of practice not for the sake of becoming a good violinist, but rather in the name of building a beautiful character.

 

The other thing that brought me happiness were my 5am writing sessions. I have been working exclusively on my novel The Big Idea, (as you know, since I have barely been posting on this blog at all). But trying to get up at 5am while my kids were on summer vacation and stubbornly maintaining an obscenely late bedtime was making me psychotic.

But part of the reason Abigail came to visit was to lend me her daughter Reese, the 11-year-old phenomenal singer. She and Amelia (14) and I had been cooking up the idea for awhil2015-07-26 14.26.08e now for me to re-release my 2005 novel Plastic Angel as an ebook, and 2015-07-26 13.59.21to re-record some of the songs from the accompanying soundtrack using their voices. So this we did (with the help of my beloved brother-in-law Dave Chalfant), with amazing results that I hope will be published in the next 6 months. Each of my nieces brought so much to the project: incredible style, preternaturally good singing chops, and a delightful attitude. We got four songs done in five hours. Not only that, but the girls had read the book and had lots of ideas for a sequel.

As I write this, I remember the Golden Rule of creativity that my friend Pam Houston taught me long ago: the joy is always ALWAYS in the creative process itself. The joy is in the moment of inspiration, but it’s also (even more, for me) in the refining, polishing, pondering, choosing, and of course, performing. The aftermath is a whole different animal, and it’s never been that great for me. Even when people love my work and gush and tell me that it mattered, or helped them, those moments are just stories, completely disconnected from my body and soul. The work is out of my hands at that point, and really just theoretical. It’s not my own anymore. My nieces kept saying, “This is so much fun!” as they sang their parts. I totally related. It’s among my favorite things on earth to record vocals. I would pay to record vocals. I would pay to write novels. To paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert (whose podcast called Big Magic I have been enjoying), it never works to demand that our creativity support us. Rather, we need to support that precious, dear, sweet little fragile being inside us that is our creativity.

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Last night, we rehearsed with our CrackerJack band for Falcon Ridge. These are the guys who have been there from the beginning, in the case of Daves Chalfant and Hower, and even Paul Kochanski, who joined us in 2002 has been with us now for years. John Colonna, our 31-year-old cousin, drove up from NYC to play his piano magic, and I could not wipe the huge grin from my face during our 3 hour rehearsal. “Can’t we create an alternate universe where we can play together every week and make albums and also still have our kids and husbands and wives and stable lives in Northampton?” I asked them.

My novel is about a band in the 1990s. They are a family, trying hard to make it in the big time, while also maintaining their love for each other. The book is about how we see each other, and how we grow from our struggles and failures; how we as young adults eventually come home to ourselves. My goal is to have a soundtrack that we (The Nields) record to go with the book, just as we did for Plastic Angel. I want this book published. But I realized, as I rehearsed with the guys, that what I really want is the pleasure of writing––the book, and the 90s flavored songs. And I have that already, just as I have a Braverman-like family, and just as I still have that alternate-universe rock band. In the midst of playing with these amazing musicians, once again, I got it. This IS the alternate universe. I am living it. It’s in the daily practice.  It’s in the Creativity Retreat Katryna and I have scheduled for the fall. It’s in the show we are doing on Sunday at Falcon Ridge, where we will play our hearts out, get inspired by the other musicians there, hand our guitars to the kids, and then come home to a calendar full of shows to play. We all come home to ourselves differently. My way is to practice music and writing, to listen to what I have made, read what I have written, and nurture that tender being that makes all the magic happen. And all the while, nurture those tender beings outside myself.

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