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.”


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.


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.


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?


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.


The Story of a Bed, or The Conflicting Theologies of Recent Space Flicks

We often have Friday night stalemates called What To Watch On Movie Night. Having seen all the Harry Potters umpteen times, I’d been recommending the Star Wars movies, but the kids were mysteriously averse. The tipping point arrived along with the advanced publicity for VII, and our friend Sam lent the kids his entire collection of DVDs, and now…well, now I am sorry I pushed the issue. Within the space of five days, both kids became Star Wars-obsessed, and I remembered why I only watched those movies once, and the last of the prequels not at all. Over time, those movies do not hold up as the profound works of genius lauded by Joseph Campbell. I am certain I will get push-back for saying this, but…they just aren’t that good. The acting is wooden; the plots are ridiculous, and the special effects, while state-of-the-art at the time, just don’t hold up. And even though I admire Carrie Fisher (as a writer, as an actor, as something of a feminist activist), I find it baffling that anyone could tout the old Star Wars as having any feminist cred. The Empire Strikes Back, to my mind, is all about Han Solo sexually harassing her for the entire movie, and then it ends with her saying, “I’m in love with you.” And he says, “I know,” in this smug, jerky way, before becoming carbonized. ARGH!! (Sorry for spoilers, for those of you living in even more of a yurt than I do). But the movie came out in 1980, so I suppose we need to take that into account. We’ve come a long way, baby, and all that. Now she’s General Leia. That, at least, rocks.

But over the holiday break, we did go see the new movie, and I mostly liked it better than any of the previous six. (Since we are still in the State-of-the-Art of 2015/16, I totally enjoyed the special effects, though I wondered if we would see through them in 30 years as we do those of the originals now). Watching that movie with my kids in the middle of the winter vacation in freezing cold Lake Placid’s lovely old-fashioned Palace Theatre will go down as one of the great memories. It was just so much fun to experience this new chapter with them, in the midst of their highly kindled interest. I’d venture to say the new hero of the movie does a lot more for girl power than 1980s Princess Leia did. Plus we all sang Bill Murray’s lounge singer version of “Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars” with the other patrons in the theatre before the film commenced. It was a satisfying community experience.

Later that week, Tom and I watched The Martian on my computer, while the kids watched A New Hope for the second or third time. The Martian is my kind of space flick. And even though I consider myself a religious person, and I certainly believe in The Force, I vastly preferred the spirituality of The Martian, with its humanist emphasis on hard-won intelligence and loyalty, to the very strange supernatural telekinesis of the Star Wars characters. The simple miracle of a potato plant is all I need to carry forward my faith. But then, I got to thinking: is the vision of humankind Star Wars portrays actually more honest than the vision The Martian portrays? Let’s take a look!

Over the vacation, my kids swapped bedrooms. This involved unpacking Lila’s Christmas present–– a trundle bed given to her jointly by her parents and grandparents which arrived in multiple boxes (including tiny boxes which purported to contain twin size mattresses. I was so convinced that this was impossible, I told the company we hadn’t yet received the mattresses, so we ended up with extra small boxes and more mattresses than we needed). What the grandparents didn’t know was that this would lead to Johnny ditching the queen-sized extra firm Sealy mattress and box spring which had belonged to Tom’s mother and has been their ultra comfy guest bed for the past six years, in favor of Lila’s old double loft bed, which has a futon on the top bunk and a horrible desiccated full set on the bottom.

Loft Bed. If you look carefully, you will see the graffiti of a 5 year-old on the wood. Can I really tell my parents that they will have to sleep here????

In a way, this is good. I love this bed. Tom built it for the kids years ago, and I’d imagined them having slumber parties there all the way through college. So I am glad Johnny is keeping it. But. Where will my poor parents sleep when they come here? As the Brits say, “There is no room in our house for the queen now.”* We have a third floor attic room, but the stairwell to it is windy and narrow–bad for guests trying to navigate; impossible for movers to move anything bigger than an a/c unit up and down. Then I had the thought that we could throw out the desiccated mattresses and somehow squeeze the queen into the spot under the loft bed, and I was so convinced that this could work that I made Tom measure it three times. The space is 75″ by 54″. The queen is 80″ by 60.” I almost made us both break our backs trying to wedge it in. This is how stubborn I am. And I had the thought, “If Mark Watley could fly through space by propelling himself with the air leakage from his space suit, surely we can fit a queen mattress into a full-sized frame!” But no, said Tom, shaking the tape measure at me. And then, I was so determined to get something for this mattress we inherited for free, I turned down perfectly good offers from people who wanted to take it from me. And now we are stuck with it, wedged vertically in Lila’s tiny room. We are going to end up breaking our backs to tie it to the roof of our van and haul it to the dump.

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My mother-in-law’s queen. Very comfy. My parents love it. In order to get it to the third floor, we’d have to spend $100,000 on an egress to the attic. PS We do not have $100,000.

Why do I cling to stuff like this? I really thought, in the moment, that it would make more sense to keep an $800 bed and spend $100G to make it work in our house than to just give it away. In any case, it got me to rethink my Star Wars vs The Martian theological analysis. There’s a moment in at least two of the Star Wars movies (possibly in all of them, I’m really not sure) where someone presses a button and an entire planet explodes. And as I thought about my insane, greedy clinging to the mattress, it felt tragic and true. We humans have the potential to get so angry we’d blow up a world. Haven’t you felt that way sometimes? (Am I the only one?) In The Martian, there are no errors of this kind; there are intellectual errors, but there are no moments when we see human greed or evil or selfishness block the path of the miracle they pull off. (Correct me if I have misread something here. I only saw it once; but I bought the film and would love to have an excuse to watch it again.) There is even a moment when the head guy at NASA says something like, “If everything goes exactly perfectly, we can pull this off…” (Or maybe Mark Watley says this). And everything does, in part because everyone behaves so well. I’m glad they do. But that is not usually the case, at least not in my house, and we are actually pretty nice, reasonable, generous people much of the time.

So I looked back at the clear good/evil dialectic in the Star Wars universe. The one thing I liked about the George Lucas films (as opposed to the new one, which had little input from him) was the transformation over time of Darth Vader. (SPOILERS COMING!!!) I really liked how he went from bad to good (to bad, although again, I didn’t see the last 2 prequels). And I have to admit, I liked that the Force was something both transcendent and imminent at the same time. It pulls the thread through the needle, even when things look hopeless. In The Martian, even though there is a really lovely moment of irreverent faith (the awesome use of Martinez’s crucifix) the whole movie really is a celebration of human endeavor. Yes, there’s luck, and maybe that’s all the same thing, or maybe it’s just Hollywood–most if not all action films pretty much end the same way, with heroines and heroes overcoming crazy odds to survive; but the luck doesn’t seem as Force-y as the spoon-bending variety in Star Wars. It’s just good science. But what of the power of human emotions? I mean the hard ones. The crazy ones, such as I evince on a regular basis. My hernia-inducing greed over the bed that causes me to hang on to something I really don’t need, that someone else can truly use (I tell myself, though, that I will need it someday, maybe, and that I will be really sorry if, when I do need it, it isn’t there). I need a power that’s both imminent and transcendent.

I ended up compromising. I got the two young, strong dudes who are patching our plaster walls to lug the mattress up to the attic, where it is now sitting in the middle of the office. One day, I will buy a split box spring and find some other young people to lug it up, and then there will be a bed up there, and I will have a guest room at last. But I gave away the box spring and headboard to someone who can use it. And as they took it away, I breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude and thought of Mark Watley, shedding baggage to take off into space, hurling himself towards his friends, hurling himself toward connection at last.


*OK, no Brits probably say that, but perhaps they should.