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.

The Many Injuries of Nerissa

October has been a veritable study in fear and anxiety. As I wrote last month, it started with a diagnosis of melanoma in situ–a creepy black spot on my leg. The question, “Could it be cancer?” was answered in the affirmative, though “in situ” is a very very good diagnosis. “If you are going to have cancer,” I explained to my kids, “this is the good kind.”

“MOM!” Johnny shouted at me. “If you ever get the bad kind of cancer, DO NOT TELL ME! Because what you just said scared me so much, I don’t even want to know if it’s ever bad!”

That’s kind of my M.O., too.

“At least it’s not anything to do with my breast,” I told Tom. I live in fear of breast cancer. I had a scare a few years ago with a questionable mammogram that took 6 weeks to resolve. And now that you mention it, why was my left breast vibrating as though I had a cell phone attached to it? As though it were a snooze alarm. Hmmm. I had recently gotten a FitBit Blaze. Perhaps it was vibrating up into my boob. I took it off. Still, every hour or so, my breast went off, for about 20 seconds.

The weekend the Access Hollywood video broke, Tom and I went up to the Adirondacks to escape from the election and watch the leaves change. I have to admit, we failed at the former, though the foliage was the most glorious I have ever witnessed. img_5674We gorged on the news, and even found a TV at my aunt’s house to watch the second debate. “I wish I still drank,” I told my uncle Mark as we all gathered, most folks with wine glasses in hand. “But if it gets bad, I am going to chew sugarless gum.” Around the time Drumpf started stalking Hillary, I reached for my pack of Orbitz.

We came home Monday night, and as I have done a thousand times, I cooked a spaghetti squash the way my friend Katy Schneider taught me: whole, which keeps it moist and delicious. When I pulled it out of the oven, it exploded into my face. Fortunately I was wearing glasses.

img_5707People! Prick your squashes with a fork!

Yes, it hurt a lot. I took Advil and applied cold washclothes, and eventually burn cream. For several days, I lay low, staying out of the sun, as per my doctors. (Between the melanoma and the facial burns,  I am basically NEVER allowed in the sun again.) It was a good exercise in meditation on the national discussion about how we judge women on their appearances. It is, I got to discover, a great privilege to have an unscarred face.

On one of my many visits to the doctors around my various ailments, I mentioned to my PCP the matter of the vibrating breast. “Huh,” she said. “Let’s take a look at that.”

That’s when she found the lump.

While my face healed miraculously, I hunkered down with my new worry. The lump was pretty big, and I should have found it myself, except I am squeamish about these things and like to adopt a kind of “don’t ask don’t tell” policy with my body. Don’t show me your lumps, and I will spare you a mammogram, is kind of how it goes. But I went for a mammo and ultrasound, only to find that because my breasts are extremely dense, nothing showed up. Except, of course, we could all feel the lump. So. Biopsy.

I did what I always do when I am afraid: I called and/or texted all my friends and family and sifted through their responses. It was lovely to have that support–part of the Blessings I wrote about last month. Though it was becoming a comedy routine of Nerissa Injuries, and my loved ones had trouble keeping them all straight. “Which biopsy? Which surgery? Good thing you are seeing a plastic surgeon for your leg–she can handle your face and boob, too!” My therapist, when she saw my face and heard about the two biopsies, said simply, “What the F*%#?”

But one text stood out from the rest: “You can’t know whether or not you have cancer, and you won’t know till the biopsy comes back. So for now, think positively. Just count your 7 million blessings.”

Good reminder. Though October contained more than its share of losses––the deaths of parents of my dear friends, the last visit to our family house, the shocking dissolution of our democratic values––it is still palpably clear how lucky I am. I thought of the Jungle in Calais. I thought of the earthquake victims in Haiti. I thought of friends who were already living with diagnoses, friends who had lost spouses and children. “We are renting these bodies,” my wise friend Rosie said. “Nothing is permanent.” And I pushed my nose into the ponytails of my school-aged children, watched them play soccer in the backyard and listened to the sounds of their violins, sang with my Local Chorus and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, and with Dar Williams, and with my sweet sister, and re-made a video called “Jesus Was a Refugee.”  I poked at my lump, waited for the biopsy results and watched a lot of Modern Family with my kids, and chewed sugarless gum. Took a media fast from the election. Borrowed a pantsuit from my mother for a Halloween costume.  “It’s OK to distract yourself,” my sister said. “It’s OK to baby yourself. Get take-out, at least.” I fought the anxiety and listened to Pema Chodron and tried to live the motto: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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As a songwriter/novelist, it is my job to make sense out of life events. I am constantly interpreting my reality as if I were reading a story. So what did this mean, that I had a bad mole, blew up my face and had a lump in my breast all within ten days? Was it because I’d pushed myself so hard this past year trying to finish my novel? Was it because I hadn’t taught my guitar class and wasn’t practicing my piano? Was it because I was eating almonds? On the days when the fear caught up with me, as I caught myself bargaining with God, the only thing that nudged at me was my deep regret that I have not seen my kids play a single soccer game this month. I have had gigs every time they had a game. What was my purpose here? Nothing really seemed to matter in terms of my work being left undone. The only thing I could think was, “Please don’t let my kids lose their mom.”

Yesterday, as the late October snow began to fall, my cell phone rang. “You are fine,” said my doctor. “Benign breast tissue was all we found.” Benign. The most beautiful word in the English language. We came home from the co-op, roasted a chicken, curled up on the couch with our books and twined our legs around each others’. On another day, I will schedule another surgery to remove the vibration-causing benign lump. For now, I will continue to count my 7 million blessings, thank my dear scarred body for letting me live in it for the present moment, and look forward to Saturday when I will watch both kids play soccer games on the last weekend in October.

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Summer and the Swing

…Death kept following, tracking us down
At least I heard your bluebird sing
Now somebody’s got to show their hand
Time is an enemy
I know you’re long gone; I guess it’s gonna be up to me.

-Dylan, 1974

There have been an unforgivable number of deaths this summer. Maybe it was all the deaths. Maybe it was the drought. Maybe it was the relentless drumbeat of Trumpism. But the cumulative effect for me was that when people ask me how my summer was, I have to force a smile and say, truthfully, “It had a good ending. How was yours?”

In many ways, my summer was great. It included what seemed a family smorgasbord of travel, violin, soccer, theatre camps, Adirondack hikes and a certain kid finally learning to swim competently, thanks to the ministrations of a family friend. Professionally, too, it was pretty sweet, with our two 25th anniversary concerts at the Iron Horse, which included performances by all four of our kids and our dear friends Ben Demerath and Kalliope Jones. Tom and I got to see Hamilton (with the original cast!) which was life-changing and inspiring. I had the privilege of running and participating in two fantastic retreats, one in the ADKs and one at home in Northampton, learning so much from my participants as I always do. And then in late July, Katryna and Dave Chalfant and I started work on the soundtrack to go along with my novel The Big Idea. With the help of our longtime drummer Dave Hower, Dave C breathed passion and life and youth into songs I’d written as long ago as 2002, as well as songs I wrote this past June. I now see a whole different aspect of the characters I’ve been living with for fifteen years. Dave found angles I’d never considered, brought the songs to life in full color animation. At summer’s end, Dar drove up with her daughter Taya and was my character Liv First, singing my new song “The Shame Wars” with her trademark generosity, love and vulnerability. The next day, all three of our daughters sang backgrounds on a new version of “As Cool As I Am” which will be released as part of her Return to Mortal City tour. Afterwards, we had dinner on my porch and watched the kids play soccer in the back yard, caught up and talked about her book on small towns and cities, community building and music, and I felt so deeply grateful for our long, sweet, sustaining friendship. These moments, like luminous pearls on a necklace, are the point. They are the Big Idea.

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But the deaths. The news. The grass turned to straw. I had to scratch and claw my way out of a dark place that had threatened to obliterate these moments, keeping me trapped in my head instead of enjoying my blessed, precious life. I find myself in this place often––I always assume it’s part of the package of being an artist––but it usually doesn’t last so long. This summer, it seemed so interminable I was considering setting up furniture inside the trap. At times like these, I experience others around me joking, bantering, enjoying each other, using words to make connections, and it as if I am in the audience watching a play. I know I am supposed to be up there on stage, but I have forgotten my lines.

Three things usually save me: prayer, honesty and music. For two of the three, I depend on other people. For all of them, I need some element of the Divine. But none appeared to be working by the time I got to the main stage at Falcon Ridge, where I was still in the trap, unable to connect to the music or my bandmates in the way I usually could. We played, my bandmates were incredible as usual, and we tore down, hugged each other, and this time packed up for our next show at the Workshop Stage, an hour plus with one of our favorite other bands, The Slambovian Circus of Dreams. On that stage, electrified by the energy of that wonderful band, and my own drummer, bass player, guitarist and sweet amazing sister, rocked by the rhythms and urgency of “For What It’s Worth,” buoyed by the audience, I came back. I remembered my lines.

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It’s been better since then. I’ve been sleeping more, waking more slowly, being gentle with my creative process, savoring my kids. Up until this morning, I took a long summer break from my 5am writing sessions, trading inspiration and the hit of productivity for sleep. Perhaps I “discipline” over my feelings the way some people eat, drink, screw or shop over theirs. But I have committed to myself and a bunch of other people that I will finish this book, hoping to get the draft to my agent by December. In order to do that, I am going to have to go back to the disciplined lifestyle from which I’ve been blissfully vacationing.

I still haven’t figured out how to live as a creative artist with a family. It seems I’m either courting my muse, in which case my family is mad at me and I am stuck in the dark place, or I am refuting it, in which case I am in the play with my family, saying my lines. But something is missing, then. I don’t feel like myself if part of me is not lost in my head, spinning the scene, writing the song, planning the tour. I seem to go from one extreme of the pendulum to the other, and when I hit the extreme, I go “bonk, bonk” against whatever it is you hit when you go extreme. But now that school has started, and I am back in my routine, up at 5 (OK, 5:45. Let’s start easy…) I’m thinking it’s not so bad. What’s wrong with swinging? Tom says, “You know, I have known this about you since we met. You just have to let me get mad at you and keep doing your art.”

Hamilton, Ambition, Perfection

IMG_4976“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

If, on the night of June 2nd, you heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from a neighborhood in Northampton, that would have been me on learning that, for my birthday, my incredibly generous parents (via the urging of my hugely thoughtful and loving sister Katryna) had bought Tom and me tickets to go see Hamilton the Musical. On June 28. Two weeks before the Tony-awarded cast’s contracts were up. I was going to get to see the original Broadway cast. In person. I screamed for a full 10 seconds. More on that below, but first I have to say that I was going to post that picture of me surrounded by my new Hamiltome (a huge, beautiful libretto with photos, notes and essays on the production), my soundtrack and my copy of the Ron Chernow biography. But Katryna said, “You can’t tell people about this! They will kill you! Plus, it’s rude.” So I didn’t say anything until we actually went. That was still probably rude. But I could not keep quiet.

I am in the Adirondacks right now, writing with my retreatants at my parents’ house. Up on the wall of the kitchen is a snapshot that captures a moment of pure perfection, taken about 4 years ago, of my two kids when they were still in footie pajamas. They are sitting, side by side, at the foot of the stairs, waiting for their grandparents to come down. The morning light shines in on their brown heads, and they are both turned slightly to look at the photographer. One of them has an eager look on her face; she knows the glories that will come when her grandparents descend. The other is along for the ride, because he knows his sister usually has a good plan. They are alert, attentive, on the cusp, sitting up straight and tall, criss-cross-applesauce legs. They are snuggly and delicious, and when I see that picture, I melt. I want to scoop them up and hug them. I regret ever having done anything other than scoop them up and hug them, hold them to my chest and savor this rare period of time. Why, in the face of such wonderfulness, would a person do anything else? And yet I know that during that time, my mind wandered, just as it did (a very little bit) as I sat in the equally perfect production of Hamilton I was lucky enough to see.

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Like most folks who have heard the soundtrack more than once, I am a huge Hamilton fan. I love pretty much everything about it:
-the incredible songwriting (which I think is even better than Sondheim’s because it has so much heart and pathos)
-the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea from reading that big fat historical biography of Alexander Hamilton
-the amazing history lesson our kids are getting (mine are obsessed and know every word, ask me unanswerable questions about John Adams and Lafayette, are furious about Washington and Jefferson owning slaves)
-the politics (how much have things not changed???)
-the humor (King Louis’ head)
-the cast that looks more authentically like today’s America than any play I’ve seen
-the cast, the cast, the cast, oh my GOD, the cast!!!!
-the incredible study of ambition that we get in comparing Hamilton and Burr
-the awareness of privilege and class that we see as Alexander rises up from his origins in the West Indies
-the vast scope of the musical’s ambition
-The beautiful, inspiring love story
-the fact that it is the first musical I have been interested in since I was in high school
-the fact that it has made me fall in love with live theatre again
-the way in which L-MM composed the “mixtape” on Logic (what is Logic? How the heck can I learn it??? Can someone help me? please?)
-the references to the Beatles (of course)…

We arrived at the theatre at 3pm, and I was so nervous I was trembling. I was stuttering. I couldn’t believe I was at the Richard Rodgers theatre and that I was about to see my new musical heroes and heroines. I have listened to the soundtrack *nonstop* since my nephew William introduced me to it in April, and I have come to love the cast members the way I loved the Fab Four. I feel like I know them. I can’t imagine seeing Jefferson played by anyone other than Daveed Diggs. Or a different George Washington; who can possibly fill Chris Jackson’s shoes? So I was trying hard to pre-emptively lower my expectations on the experience, since there would surely be at least one understudy taking the place of one of my beloved leads. But when we got there, there were signs up everywhere warning the ticket holders that this production would be filmed.

And. Jonathan Groff, who had played the role of King George III onstage and on the soundtrack, and who had left the show in April, was coming back (*he’ll be back…*) for this performance.

GAH!!!!!!!!! ON TOP OF EVERYTHING, THERE ARE DELICIOUS BEATLES REFERENCES!!! IN THE AFTERMATH OF BREXIT!!! (which I loathe, but anyway, it’s interesting…)

Speaking of the Beatles, I have to say that I haven’t been this blown away and deeply inspired since 1977 when my friend Leila Corcoran introduced me to the Fab Four. But this brings something else up.

As inspired as I am by Hamilton, I am also daunted by it. I am almost defeated by its perfection. I am obsessed by its genius pacing. How did he figure out which parts of that huge book/huge life to include in the 3 hour story, and which parts to cut? He brilliantly tells the first 19 years of AH’s life in a masterful opening number:

How can any songwriter ever lift her quill again in the face of this? How can I even begin to approach my 850 page novel The Big Idea when I have in my head the perfection I witnessed on Tuesday night? My book is not as good as Hamilton. So why bother.

I told my friend this the other day. OK, my therapist. She looked at me and shook her head, as she often does. “Whaaat? You must be out of your GODDAMNED MIND….” No, just kidding. She said, “Um, why are you comparing a novel to a musical? And what does your novel have to do with Hamilton? Who, besides you, would even make a comparison of you to Lin-Manuel Miranda?”

I don’t know. It’s arrogant (*bastard*) to compare oneself to the likes of L-MM; one doesn’t usually compare oneself to Shakespeare or Mozart or even Lennon/McCartney. One just sighs and knows that there are some who achieve a kind of immortality, while most artists, even wildly successful ones, are content to get paid and to bask in the contained era of their fame.

How was the show? I was on the edge of my seat for the full 3 hours. I trembled throughout the first act. I wept all through the second (except when I was laughing). And yet, there was a way in which getting EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED left me feeling a bit…off. I know that sounds horrible and ungrateful. But what I mean is that it’s a strange thing to be fully satisfied,just as I was fully satisfied when I was cuddling my small children in their footie pajamas. And this is itself one of the themes of the play. “You will never be satisfied,” sings Angelica to herself and to Hamilton. These two characters have almost everything in the moment when she sings these words: wealth, success, beauty, love, family (though Angelica is lacking something very particular, of course….) Still, it’s a very difficult thing, even in the very very best of times, to remain fully and completely present. Even in the face of perfection––and an absolutely perfect entertainment experience––my mind sometimes went somewhere outside the Richard Rodgers theatre. (To my novel. To my children. To my concern about driving home after the show in the rain.) Also, and I am deeply ashamed to admit this, a part of me was convinced that this incredible good fortune (of getting to see the show, of getting to see the entire original cast) would not go unnoticed by the gods, and surely I would be smote somehow. So what is that about?

I need to add here that, besides the price of the tickets, there was a pretty significant cost to my birthday night. I sort of smote myself. My bloodcurdling scream seriously wrecked my voice. At the retreat yesterday, I had intended to do way too many things. Among them were to record a demo of Liv First’s song “The Shame Wars” for my friend Dar Williams, who will be singing it for the soundtrack that will accompany The Big Idea. It’s been a month since I screamed that bloodcurdling scream, but I still don’t have the full range of my voice back. I can’t cleanly sing the D above middle C, which used to be an easy note for me. I warmed up and warmed up, but the note is still not there. And I have in the back of my mind, “Payback. For all your good fortune. For getting to see Hamilton.”

I ended up macguyvering my little Casio keyboard (the song is played on piano) to make it a half step lower, and then I was able to sing the song. I sent it off to Dar, and I sent other songs off to the band. The experience of seeing that beautiful work of art last Tuesday stays with me. The songs are in me, the images and the dances too. Certain gestures I got to witness feel intrinsic now to my whole life. Just as the experience of witnessing my two children grow from babies to footie-pajama’d youngsters to the mountain-climbing violin-playing soccer-ball-kicking infuriatingly rule-breaking wonders they are today is woven into my blood and bones. Just as Hamilton and Burr wove themselves into each others’ blood and bones, so that by the end of Hamilton’s life, he has a bit of Burr’s hesitancy and judiciousness, while Burr has some of Hamilton’s go-for-it ambition. Time will tell if I get my D back. I will go and warm up my voice again today and see. If not, I’m willing to *wait for it.*

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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