Our First Vinyl

IMG_4924

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.)

FullSizeRender
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.

2015-07-27 20.05.40

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.

2014-08-28 15.42.46

New Year’s Fire Pit and The Basement Tapes

Last night, we lit a fire in our backyard fire pit and huddled around it, jostling each other to find the back end of the breeze. It was a crisp 19 degrees with a waxing moon, clear and solemn in the star speckled sky. We don’t have a fireplace or a wood stove, but this backyard pit has its advantages (though one can’t hang stockings around it.) Jay and Elle found sticks and persuaded us to haul out the marshmallows. So on January first, we inaugurated a new tradition: the New Year’s Fire Pit Intentions Ceremony.

Sitting in the cold, taking much solace in the warmth from the flames, I couldn’t help but think of how these evening fires created our civilization. “Mom, who invented fire?” Jay asked. “Or, who discovered it,” Tom wondered. “Prometheus,” I offered, and told them the story of the demi-god sacrificing his liver (daily) in recompense for sharing this element with humankind. “Gross,” said Elle. “Yes,”I agreed. And then I commenced to stare into the fire. How exactly has the TV improved on this practice of gathering in the evening and spacing out, transfixed, on this vision of flames dancing, receding, expanding to frightening levels that threaten to lash out of their container, and then finally diminishing again into brilliant red edges along blackened bits of wood? This is where story telling began: around a fire. Same with songs, I am sure. (Probably the first stories were songs, and/or vice versa). How did the expanding and contracting of the flames influence the storyteller as she spun her tale to her fire-bound audience? Did the leaping flames have an effect on the character’s actions? Did dying embers offer an alternate plot twist?

Perhaps my favorite Christmas present this year was a copy of the revised Bob Dylan/The Band Basement Tapes (the “raw” version which is substantially shorter than the deluxe version.) Huge Dylan fan that I am, and Band fan too*, I never cared for the Basement Tapes, at least not the version that came out in 1975. It struck me as a bunch of pot-influenced drunken music. I am embarrassed now by that assessment, as I am completely obsessed with the tenor of this new release. It’s like being in the living room with these guys as they surround us with the sounds of carnival. (How I love Richard Manuel’s piano! And voice!) I can’t stop listening to this record. I feel as though I have discovered gold. How could I not have known all of these songs before? Well, many I did, and many I sang (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “I Shall Be Released,”) but others I am just discovering (“Open the Door, Homer,” “900 Miles from Home,” “Apple Suckling Tree.”) They seem already like old friends, and I am looking forward to delving into the layers of lyric Dylan always provides.

A couple of days ago, someone flamed me on Facebook. I won’t get into why; suffice it to say that it was unexpected and strange, and while I took in the criticism and tried to see my part in it and how I could make amends to this person, I also just felt burned. When it happened, I sat, powerbook on my lap, and felt the heat infuse my body. This is what shame feels like to me: hot, consuming, total. Because of years of therapy, I was able to do this: to just feel the feelings apart from the story of who said what. I concentrated on the raw feeling. As Thich Naht Hahn says, “When your house is burning down, put the fire out. Don’t go looking for who lit it.” After a few minutes, I noticed the heat abating in my body. I pictured the person who flamed me; fortunately I had known her when she was a young girl, so I pictured her sweet adolescent face. I thought about the pain she must be in today to do something like what she did. I lifted a prayer to her. Then I got up and told my husband about it. “Why do you even go online?” he asked. “People are insane.”

Maybe. But they’re also wonderful.

Back at the intentions ceremony, Elle announced that hers was to help her cousin William get a dog. Tom’s was to accept more the daily things he has to do. Jay’s was a long speech about how he hoped people would be less greedy and recycle more. Also that they would be “mostly happy.” Mine was about commencing to outgrow fear. I know I will never be successful, but I’m digging in my heels this year and trying a little harder. I am tired of being afraid of what others think of me. I am tired of my greedy little inner bean-counter who thinks perpetually she’s getting the raw end of the deal. I am tired of that cold metallic pinchy feeling I get when I sense I am losing control of my kids. (Which happens hourly.) I am going to experiment with faith. I am going to play with trusting and relying on a much more generous spirit than the one I possess on my own, cut off from the rest of you. I’m going to embrace my age–47 at this moment–and try to act like a wise, confident grown up, and also let loose more often and play like a kid. Or my dog. I want to channel some of that joyous non-sensical spirit of those Basement Tapes and make some fun music with my friends. I am going to practice my piano, and use that growth mindset everyone’s talking about to stick with it when it gets hard.

*We opened for the Band in 1995 at Mass MoCA. Though we did not get an encore and we sold a pathetic 1 (one) CD that night, more folks than I can count have come up to us since and told us they discovered us at that show. “The Weight” was one of the first songs we covered as a band.

Gospel of John, Lennon: Darkness and Light

Can it really be thirty-five years ago that John Lennon was murdered? He was 40 at his death; soon he will be 40 years gone. I keep checking my math, and it’s undeniable. I was in eighth grade in 1980, finally shedding some of my insecurity, and just beginning to express myself as a singer and songwriter. John’s death had a dramatic effect on me; I responded by immersing myself in his biography, learning everything I could about him and Yoko. Something in his outlaw identity matched my own adolescent mood, perhaps. At any rate, in reading about him and his courage in the late 60s when he took an idiosyncratic stand for peace (think bed-ins, think “Christ, you know it ain’t easy”), it occurred to me that I didn’t need to spend all my energy, as I had been, worrying about what everyone thought of me. I began the slow process of understanding that I was an artist, and therefore had a mission for the world. I wore black to school (instead of the requisite blue uniform), spoke out for peace, and came home to close myself in my bedroom with my Beatles and Lennon LPs. After months of this, I emerged a different person: braver, more ridiculous, perhaps, but definitely braver.

Of course, Lennon’s death meant something to millions of people. And certainly thousands if not millions of 13 year olds. I could have told this story very differently. I could have said that during this same time my grandfather was dying of cancer, and that my deep grief for the former Beatle was simply a mask for my sadness over losing my grandfather. I could have interpreted my reaction as plain old adolescent drama, but the fact that I claimed it as a positive personal myth shaped the way I have grown into a person. I am glad I saw things the way I saw them.

My Underground Seminary has been reading Richard Rohr’s meditations for Advent this December, and today’s reading was on darkness and light. The Gospel of John says “The light shines on inside the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” (1:5). Rohr goes on to say that “We must all hope, and work to eliminate darkness…but at a certain point, we have to surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been here, and the only real question is how to receive the light and spread the light…What we need to do is recognize what is, in fact, darkness, and then learn how to live in creative and courageous relationship to it. In other words, don’t name darkness light. Don’t name darkness good.”

This is a challenge to me and my theology. I want there to be a silver lining in all darkness, and I want to go farther than that. I want the silver lining to actually redeem the darkness, make the darkness worth it. But how dare I say that Lennon’s death was worth it because I got inspired? Or that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner might lead to a national re-thinking of racial profiling? The people who love them might want that too, but I bet they want their son or brother or friend back more. I wanted to think that something would change after Columbine, after Sandy Hook. But nothing changed that I could see (though my optimistic self wants to cry, “But the story isn’t over yet!”).

How do we tell the story? A baby was born in a manger, born into the generosity of the barnyard animals; born in the cold shrug of the innkeeper who wouldn’t give a room to a pregnant woman in labor. A prophet healed the sick and cured the lame and made the blind to see, and preached liberation theology and encouraged the believers to question the authorities and pluck grains on the Sabbath, and was executed by the Roman government in a hideous, slow, public way. And then his words got twisted for millennia and millions were murdered in his name. And along the way, many people derived great consolation from his teachings and the example of his life. Many found enlightenment through following him.

My son has had a difficult fall, in some ways. For the first three months of school, he dragged his feet every morning, clinging to his Legos, our legs, refusing to get dressed some days, even weeping as he trudged up the stairs and through the school doors every morning. We held him, we comforted him, we gave him consequences. We talked it over with his teacher, a wonderful women whom our older daughter had had, and whom we loved. Maybe she was the wrong fit for our son. We considered asking the school to switch him to a different class room. I fantasized about home schooling him (for about three seconds.) Finally, I consulted my parenting Bible, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The next time he threw himself on the carpet during morning violin practice and yelled, “School is stupid! I hate school! Teachers are stupid!” I took a page from the book, and instead of trying to reason with him, as I usually did, (“Well, you might not like school, but it actually is the opposite of stupid,” and “it’s not very nice to use that word about anyone!”), I gave him a piece of paper and said, “I am so interested in how you are feeling! Could you show me so I could understand? Why don’t you draw a picture of that!” So he did. He drew a stick figure of himself, and then a bigger stick figure of his teacher. Then he drew a line from his hand to her head. He paused and said, “How do you spell ‘lightning?'” I paused too. Anger was one thing. Homicide another. But as I looked at my boy, I thought, he needs to know his anger is okay, and this is exactly the way I want him to express himself. So I gave him the correct spelling, and when he took his marker and scribbled out the teacher’s face with it (because, of course, the lightning had blown her head up!), I said, “Wow, you are so mad at her!” and nodded. He looked up at me, a satisfied look coming into his little face. This was right before Thanksgiving vacation. I didn’t hear any more complaints after that, and in fact noticed that he was a lot lighter and easier going. Last Friday as I was kneeling in front of him to zip up his winter coat, he said, “I love school, mama. I don’t hate it any more. I can’t wait to go to school!”

“Really,” I said mildly. “What changed?”

He shrugged. “I just grew into it.”

Yet as I write this, I know that, for myriad reasons, some mothers don’t have the freedom to trust their son’s (or daughter’s) darkness. I don’t claim to have the solutions to how we eradicate racism or violence. I just know that the frame that the story comes in is extremely important. And I would add to Rohr’s admonition to call the darkness darkness and light light, that some of that discernment is in the eye of the beholder. And that, as we all have darkness, we need to stop being so afraid of it. I think it helped my son immensely to have me come into his darkness and witness it and not tell him that he needed to be afraid. Maybe by saying, “Wow, you are really mad!” I was simply naming the darkness, and affirming that “mad” was an overlay. “You” are full of light, and this is just a dark spot on your essentially light background.

I have been lucky enough to outlive my own fears of the dark––of my own dark, anyway. Over the weekend, Katryna and I played a show in Virginia and got to hang out with my parents who are two of my favorite people who ever lived. Long gone are my adolescent conflicts, my petty criticisms of what I once called their bourgeois lifestyle. All that’s left is sweet, gentle, tender love, and more gratitude for them and to them than I can ever communicate. When I went through my own series of crises in my late twenties and early thirties, I was taught how to shine a light in my own darkness and untangle the stories, see them as just stories, frame them appropriately and make my amends; move on. Once I did that, forgiveness ceased being a choice; it became as obvious and necessary as breathing. Forgiveness seems to me a river at the base of it all, underground, like the river Styx, perhaps, and that when I get baptized in that river, I come out clean, and able to endure the beams of love, which were there all along. We all shine on, as John Lennon said. Shine, baby, shine.

Music Alone Shall Live, or A Perfect Weekend In NYC Has a Tiny Cost

On the Monday after we got back from NYC, these things happened:
-The Jetta went in to be drained because one of us put gas in its diesel engine. Yes, we drove it.
-Jay quit violin, and more importantly, I quit violin.
-While talking to his violin teacher about how to manage his quitting so he feels good about his experience, I hooked my iPhone on a kitchen drawer pull and it fell to the ground, the screen shattered, and the home button stopped working.
-Stella refused to pee or poop all morning.
-Instead of going for the run I desperately needed, I had to spend that hour on the phone with Apple and AT&T, getting misinformation about whether I could get an upgrade for $99. (No, I can’t. It would cost me $23/month for 18 months instead. Can anyone out there tell me why I shouldn’t switch to Verizon? Besides that they are the devil? And that I don’t need to waste anymore time stuck on hold by a corporation when I should be going for a run?)

Anyhow, I thought of the people I love who are struggling with way worse problems, like cancer and MS and divorce and serious concerns about their kids (way worse than a 6 year-old’s tantrum and throwing of his violin on the floor thereby breaking the bridge), and I found some packing tape and taped my phone’s screen. There’s this neat work-around you can do where you go to the accessibility settings and get a “soft” home button which floats around your screen. So now the phone works, well enough. It’s kind of hard to read on account of the multiple shards of glass, but it’ll do.

All this happened, I know, because we had fantastic gigs in New York. I say this, not in a kind of morbid “when good things happen, they’re inevitably followed by bad things” way. On the contrary, I firmly believe that good comes from good. What I mean is this: we had a full house in Manhattan at the Rockwood (just south of Houston), and we had my sweet, amazingly talented 30 year-old cousin John Colonna playing piano with us for two of the songs. My other cousins came; my aunt Elizabeth came; fantastic NYC fans whom we haven’t seen in years came; Armando did a fabulous job on the sound, and in short, we were inspired to sing our hearts out. It was one of those shows that lifts my energy so high I have trouble falling asleep afterwards. Which was fine, as we stayed up late at the club talking with our cousins and Aunt, had a hilarious drive back to Brooklyn where we were staying, and when I got home, there was an email from our videographer with the latest version of our video for the PledgeMusic campaign we’re launching Monday Oct. 27 (THIS MONDAY!). I stayed up to watch it. And then I lay in bed and listened to the sounds of Brooklyn, my head full of John’s playing. It was well after 1am.

The kids got me up at 7:30, which is so not enough sleep for me. They insisted on breakfast, so I skipped my yoga. We walked the three Jack Russell terriers, we played with blocks and remote control cars, we rehearsed some more with John Colonna, Katryna went to see her mother-in-law in a play, the kids and I went trolling for Halloween costumes, and then we had a show at Jalopy in Brooklyn. And another full house, five songs to play with John, another reunion with fans we haven’t seen in years, deep connections with family, and another extremely (for me) (and the kids) late night. And early rise to walk to the soccer fields on Brooklyn Bridge Park, visit with Kathy Chalfant, hang out and have lunch with our aunts and uncle and cousins, load up our van and return to MA, via hours of traffic, kids screaming over who had the better iPad in the backseat.

The fantastic gigs and fantastic time with family drained us. We used ourselves up, over the weekend, and that’s not a bad thing. As I once said, What are we for if not for this? We’re here to love the people we love, and that takes time and energy. We’re here to sing the songs we wrote, to deliver them to the people who are supposed to hear them, and that takes time and energy. We needed a day or two to recover, and we did not figure that into the equation. (Next time I will know better.) Getting what you wanted means you are frequently exhausted–I’ve known this for years. What we want now is to raise money for this new album XVII so we can perform more often with other musicians like our cousin John, like the Daves of yore, like Kit and Chip, our production team. We want to see our old fans, and we want to make new ones. I live for moments like the ones I had on stage Saturday when John played “Normandies”, and I felt something pure and clean in me fly up to the top of the room––for joy, for music. I love to hear from fans who tell me their daughter refused to read anything but Plastic Angel for two years. I love to hear from fans who discovered us with Bob on the Ceiling.

And I also love my routine, of morning yoga, meditation, running with Stella, practicing violin with the kids, practicing my own piano, going to River Valley Market, writing with my writers, meeting with my spiritual buddies, staring up at the sky, walking my labyrinth, going to bed next to my husband and sleeping for 8 hours. It’s a good life. I know it. And this life sustains me so that I can exhaust myself on occasion, destroy my property, and shrug. It’s just money. We’ll fix these problems which are not really problems. But, as the song says, music alone shall live. Everyone needs to live for something greater than oneself. Yes, I live for my kids, for my family, for my community. I also live for music.

Addendum:
The Jetta ended up costing us less than $500 to fix. It seems good as ever. Jay did quit violin, but he has agreed to play through December and have a 1/2 Book One Graduation. We are exploring the possibility of Bass lessons. (He wants to play “Bass Guitar, which is a bass with five stwings, Mama. A bass with four stwings is just a bass.”) The home button on my phone magically started to work, so I might just go to a kiosk and get them to replace the glass. Stella did eventually pee. But as for me, I can’t shake the feeling that what I most need is to go to the Adirondacks for three days with only my husband for company, sit on the couch and watch the leaves fall with a cup of hot tea in my hand.