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.

Equinox


I am writing this during my September Equinox retreat. It’s already chilly–I put my wool socks on last weekend when we played the Turtle Hill Festival, and I haven’t traded back for cotton since. My sweaters are down from the attic, neatly folded in my closet, like old friends. I haven’t written in a few weeks, and I almost don’t remember how. Katryna and I have been so immersed in our new record, my mind is there, among the tracks, listening for lines we could use as the title, listening for places we’d like to ask our fiddler to fill in, thinking about the photo shoot we’re doing Sunday. But fall is a time for rooting, and as tempting as it (always) is for me to live with my head in the clouds, now is a time when I want to be digging into known routines. Routine–root, right? So alongside the scheming and dreaming about our album, I am also trying to get back to my novel, this blog, my spiritual writing, the daily practice of putting my fingers on the keyboard, or gripping a pen in my imperfect way (the second grade teacher always tried to correct my grip, which is, I admit, inefficient and clumsy) and scribbling out some words, not knowing where I am going, just trusting that something inside of me is smarter than I am.It felt good to clean up the summer clothes, let go what I don’t need anymore, fold the winter ones into my drawers and closets, weed the yard, prepare the food for the retreat. These things ground me.

Stella has helped with the rooting and grounding too. Stella, oh, Stella! Dog of my life! Stella has proved to be the right dog at the right time. For one thing, Elle is head over heels for her. For some girls, a dog feels like some kind of divine completion. So it is with mine. Elle comes down in the morning and the two of them roll around together in a big human/canine cuddle. Stella rarely barks, is housebroken, seems to take well to her doggie obedience class, keeps up with Tom and me when we take her on our runs, and mostly doesn’t chew stuff. She did destroy the cable to our Roku box, but I don’t hold that against her. (By the way, if you chew the Roku cable, Radio Shack will tell you that you can’t replace it. It goes with the Roku, and you will have to buy a whole new unit. Sorry, they will say.)

To add to our tech woes, our printer is not talking to our new Comcast router/modem. My receiver still sometimes can’t handle pumping music out of four speakers. The Facebook app on my iPad regularly goes so slowly that I give up before I can see what my friends are up to. These irritations burrow deep inside me and color my mood for the rest of the day. It goes the other way too; when I solve a techno problem, I am elated for the day. But it doesn’t pay, in the long run, to attach one’s moods to whether your gear works well or not.

Ten days ago, my father fell while running and broke a rib, tore a muscle and had to be flown home from Miami, where he’d been working on a case. He spent a week on heavy painkillers, resting at home. Now he is up and about, working 14 hour days from home on the phone. But while this was unfolding–while we were wondering if he would be ok–I couldn’t stop crying. I felt paralyzed, too. What did any of this (Roku, Comcast, Best Buy stereo, even our CD) matter when my dad was suffering? What if this did him in? I rode the grief to its natural conclusion, which was that I didn’t really care to live in a world where my father was not. The pain in my chest, in my brain, was too much, just thinking about this. How do people survive the loss of their parents?

Fortunately, I still don’t know. For now, it seems, he will make a good recovery. But sometime during the weekend in Rochester, a weekend we spent surrounded by folk music lovers, people whose values were sweetly and groundingly familiar,the grip on my heart eased up. I knew I would survive that loss, and that I had to. It was my duty. It was part of the agreement. Besides, my kids needed me to.

Katryna and I saw a movie called Chef last Saturday night, a movie I can neither recommend nor denounce. It was gorgeous food porn, gorgeous actors (mostly the women were gorgeous, which was kind of my issue with the whole thing), a cute kid, some fun social media sidelines, and most of all a really cool road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin, TX, plus a killer soundtrack. But we both left the theatre kind of empty, even though we should have felt full. Here, after all, was a film that had gotten a very good rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was chock full of notable actors (Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey, Jr, Sofia Veraga–the most beautiful woman on the planet), and besides which it was a total coup that we’d actually gone to the movies, which we never get to do. But still, I have to say: WTF? It was a story of a workaholic divorcé (it was never explained why his marriage failed), pathetic and stereotypically negligent dad, who was sort of having a relationship with an incredibly patient and wise hostess for his 4 star restaurant. He gets into a fight with a food critic, loses his temper and then his job, finally listens to his ex-wife who, mysteriously, knows that the cure to what ails him it to drive a food truck around the Southeast and make Cubanos (sandwiches) (she is of Cuban descent) and sell them to hoards of people. This is a fine plot, but the main character evinces absolutely zero development or motive to change or any kind of likeability. He just seems to be an average guy upon whom luck and lovely women regularly rain down.

If the protagonist were a woman, would I be complaining? I don’t know. And as I write this critique, something inside of me twists away from it. As my late mother-in-law Mary Duffy used to say to her kids when they’d complain about dinner, “It’s better than the dinner you made.” I have never written or starred in a film. Could I really do better than Jon Favreau? I think I am going to end with this: I am glad I went to that movie. The images and music will stick with me. And I loved the kid.

An equinox is the time of year when life should pause, just for a moment, balancing like the proverbial egg on its end, as we say goodbye to summer and greet the autumn. We should all be gazing out the window at the last of the tomatoes, at the strange appearance of some random tulip tree blossoms (see above), or at the n ext super moon. Instead, most of us just keep zooming along. I am no different. But I am trying, as I sit here surrounded by other writers, to just be. To breathe. To give thanks. To feel the grief of the inevitable loss. Losses. Writing affords us that, if we stay in the moment, with our characters, waiting for them to tell us what to put down on the page. Dogs help, since they are nothing but present. Tonight I am going to pull out my guitar and sing our Big Yellow songs (there’s a playlist on Spotify in my account, or whatever you call it.) We’ll follow the lyrics on paper, or through the good old oral tradition, and only look them up if we are really desperate on our iPhones. The leaves are still here. For one more night, it’s still summer.

The Snag of Not Forever

It’s the last day in the studio, at least until September. Truthfully, we are almost done. I have to do vocals on the choruses of “Dave Hayes,” the chorus of “Witness,” the choruses of “You Don’t Have that Kind of Time” and backgrounds on “Normandies,” plus a few other tiny things. Katryna is completely done. Kit is going to take the project back home with him to Virginia where he and his studio partner Chip Johnson will add some more gorgeousness. Then Kit will return in September and we’ll see what else we all want and need—for surely much will come to the surface as we listen through to all the tracks over the next two weeks.

The album is beyond—far beyond—what I thought it could be. I had liked the songs, coming in, but what they’ve grown into is …well, words fail. I probably say this every time (though I didn’t say it about Full Catastrophe), but this is my favorite record ever.

Making it has been interesting. In the past 10 years, we’ve mostly taken our time with our CD-making. We had that luxury, since Dave Chalfant was our producer, and it was his studio, and we had no label clamoring for a next release. But after Catastrophe (that sounds so ominous!), we learned our lesson. We need a deadline! Plus, we need to make a living, and suspending our lives while we focused on one CD seemed wiser than prolonging it all indefinitely. In short, we could only afford to take a month off. And we have families who want vacations: these dictated the beginning (when Katryna and her family got back from theirs) as well as the end (when my family wants to go on ours) of the recording window.

Here are the tracks on the new CD, plus some bonus material for a little Kickstarter premium:
Princess
Wasn’t That a Time
Love Love Love
Normandies
As Big as I Am
I Put My Treasure in the Rock
Victory (Turn it Around)
Delilah
Witness
You Don’t Have that Kind of Time
Dave Hayes the Weather Guy
Joe Hill
River
Bonus tracks:
I’m Pretty Sure That My iPhone Is Making Me Sick
Acoustic Joe Hill
Lonesome Valley
Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Earlier this week, the world learned that Robin Williams had hanged himself. For some reason, this hit me very hard. Perhaps because he was in recovery. Perhaps because he came on the scene when I was a certain age (eleven), and was old enough to be struck by his unusual talent and brilliance, and the right age for his first hit, “Mork and Mindy.”
What must it have been like for him to be catapulted to superstardom at the age of 27? Intoxicating, surely. And for a bi-polar self-proclaimed alcoholic, this high must have always felt wobbly. Or maybe not. I have no idea what happened, why he would kill himself, but I do know that the worst pain I ever suffered was when I harmed myself and others, doing things without my permission. Rumors get piped in through every channel: Parkinson’s, relapse, mental illness. We will all take this story and project our own experience onto it. I think that’s part of the reason so many are fascinated by celebrity dramas. For me, it brings up a theme I’ve been struggling with of late.

What happens when you get to a point in your life when you see the big view? I am not arrogant enough to think I see the whole view—but I am at midlife. The top of the “Hill,” over which I will (arguably) soon be. We get to this place where we see how far we’ve come—look! Our kids are getting more independent! Look! The paint on the house is peeling. Look! Our marriage is settling into deeply rutted routines. Look! The audiences are dwindling. Pretty soon….fill in the blank. The kids won’t need us. The house will need a paint job we can’t afford. We’ll be taking each other for granted. The performing career will be over. It’s the snag; the hook of nothing lasts forever.

This summer is the summer of Whoa. Not yet.

Playing at Falcon Ridge on the main stage with a full band was a sharp reminder that there is still plenty of juice in the old girl, or girls as the case may be. We still rock. This new CD is proof of that. I thought the worst thing that could ever happen would be that Dave Chalfant would stop producing us. I thought no one could get our ideas into digital grooves the way he could. I thought his departure from the engineering throne would be our demise. It turns out what we really needed was fresh ears, new hands, an objective view of our 23 year career.

This morning my almost 6 year old climbed into bed with us. He still does this, fairly regularly, and when I am not living in my head, I notice that I actually still have two cuddly little kids; they are not yet teenagers, and they still need me, play with my hair, snuggle in my lap. I am still alive.

Weeds and Wheat and Suzuki Camp

My sermon today at West Cummington Church

Elle and Jay and I spent the week at Suzuki Camp, lugging our violins, soccer ball and a gigantic cooler full of snacks into the air-conditioned sanctuary of Easthampton High School. Shinichi Suzuki’s breakthrough was the realization that music is a language, and like any language acquisition, can best be learned from a very early age. As we learn to talk before we learn to read, so young musicians can learn to make music well before they learn how to read music; hence the stereotype of Suzuki kids playing Bach before they enter kindergarten. But Suzuki’s most appealing legacy is his insistence that music creates a beautiful heart, and that “tone is the living soul.” We parents support the kids in their practice primarily by ensuring that they create a space for these qualities. And we teach the children—or more accurately, they teach us—that music is the most direct and clear language of feelings there is. Children from every country in the world can gather together and play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “O Come Little Children” and perfectly understand each other. We can play with joy, with sorrow, with anger, with humor, and (more often) with a mix that cannot be named by words.

It’s been my experience of reading the gospels that Jesus’s parables operate in a similar post-verbal way, that the language of the parables, as with Zen koans, is designed to override our logical brains and hit us in the same emotional solar plexus that music hits us in. As Steve said a few weeks ago, Jesus was a shock jock. The stories he tells are intended to jolt us out of our regular patterns and think in a new way, away from dualism good/bad, black/white, to seeing things in a third way, having to do with inner experience rather than a set of rules and regulations. Like all his “Kingdom of Heaven” passages, we need to start with the present moment. And that means we need to include the body.
But what happens when we’ve heard a passage so many times that it just seems like wallpaper? What if we think we know what it’s about? Love your neighbor as yourself. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just as with music, some great song might lose its appeal when played 24/7 on the radio station (or Pandora, or Spotify, or every single day in Suzuki practice.)

Last week, Steve read us Jesus’s parable of the sower who sowed his seed in four different places: rocky ground where it could not take, shallow soil where it started to grow but couldn’t make it through the periods of hot sun, among the weeds and brambles where it was choked, and finally in the good soil, where it grew and yielded a hundredfold. When the disciples ask why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

And then he emphasizes that if they can hear, see and understand, they can be healed.

So, when I first heard this passage, at age 14 years old, playing Judas Iscariot in a production of Godspell (Godspell is basically the gospel of Matthew, with a lot of 70s music and dance numbers,) I was filled with remorse. I was the seed on the rock! I was the seed in the shallow soil! I was the seed who got strangled by the weeds! It never occurred to me that I was also the seed that fell into good soil. And it never occurred to me that––as Steve said last week––Jesus would often respond as an observer rather than an authority figure. So that when Jesus says “Those who have ears hear. Those who have nothing will have less. Those with an abundance will have more,” he was not endorsing this; just articulating a truth.

I want to approach this weed and wheat parable through a similar lens. I think a lot of us come to these parables with the attitude of, “OK, I am going to figure this out. I am going to listen and get it right! I am going to be good soil, damn it! I am going to pull out all the weeds. I will be vigilant.” And so we meditate, we pray, we do good deeds, we cook meals for friends in the hospital, we practice our listening skills, we compost, we use organic fertilizers, we drive Priuses. And then our friend gets cancer. Our partner leaves us. We get bitten by a tick and our brains don’t work any more. We lose a child. We lose our faith. Our soil turns rocky, or scorched or weedy. Why? Is it our fault?

No way. We are powerless over all these things. I know this when I witness other people in their tragedies, but when the seed falls in the wrong places in me, I still think “It’s my fault. I should have had softer, deeper, weed-free soil.” But I am the soil. God made this soil! I cannot weed myself! The conditions aren’t always up to me.

I know and work with a lot of addicts, in recovery as well as addicts who are out there, dying, making their loved ones miserable, and these parables remind me how hard we are on our addicts. We try to control them, rope them in, force them to listen. If only you would listen! If only you would be like that recovered person over there, who followed directions. Just Said No! We put chains on their feet, we do urine tests, we make the conditions of their freedom so narrow in the hopes that we can keep the weeds out. Because our hearts break every time they use, and we think the solution is ever more control. But this last parable, the wheat and the weeds, gives the lie to this. We’re not the ones who get to rip the weeds out. That’s God’s work, and much of the time, it doesn’t get to happen in this lifetime. Those parts of ourselves that are weedy are often so entwined with the parts of ourselves that are big, wonderful, heartful, hilarious, loving people that we would destroy ourselves if we were able to uproot our weeds. And sometimes those aspects of ourselves that we find weedy are really useful to other people. I have a friend who is extremely organized, and she always sees the way to get the task done. Alongside of that gift, she can be kind of bossy and controlling––a trait she sees in herself and hates. She wants so much to be serene and mellow. But when she’s serene and mellow, nothing gets done. We all like it much better when she’s bossy and controlling, even though it makes her unhappy.

It’s also dangerous to try to do the weeding for someone else. How do you really know that weed isn’t wheat in disguise? (The word in the Bible is “darnel” which is a kind of weed that closely resembles wheat, by the way.) In another case of “Everything Nerissa Knows She Learned from The Beatles,” I’d like to point out that John Lennon’s aunt Mimi hated John’s guitar so much that when he finally got rich and famous, he made her a plaque that read, “The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make your living with it.” Now, what if she’d succeeded in weeding out his bad guitar habit?

We’re all this way; a glorious mixture of weeds and wheat. If I weren’t so spaced out and unfocused, I’d never write songs, let alone get up and sing and play guitar. If Bill Clinton weren’t such a womanizing swine, he probably never would have gotten elected. If my kids weren’t so opinionated and obstinate, they would not be the strong, healthy, passionate people they are growing to be. And if Suzuki practice weren’t hard, boring, repetitive, frought with discord, my kids wouldn’t be able to stand up with fifty other kids and play “O Come Little Children,” let alone the Bach Bourrée.

In the Tantric tradition, there is a story about a demon named Rakta bija, whose name means Blood Seed. He is really bad. But every time one of the gods tries to chop his head off, every drop of his blood creates a new Raktabija—kind of like a dandelion. Pretty soon, the world is overrun with Raktabiji—terrifying demons! Finally, the gods call Kali, who is the most fearsome goddess of all. She wears a necklace of skulls and has big vampire teeth, and she comes into town riding on the back of a lioness. She lifts her sword and chops Raktabija’s head off—and then she sticks out her enormously long tongue and drinks up all the blood drops before they can hit the ground.
It is in turning toward our demons, our weeds, our addictions, our most shameful places, taking them in to our core selves, that we begin to heal. Remember, Jesus was all about healing, getting us to see with our eyes, hear with our ears, understand with our hearts––oh, yeah! It’s a body thing!––so he might heal us. We can’t heal the body without the body. And we can’t just cut off the offending body part.

So what about the fiery furnace? Is this hell? Is this damnation? Again, in the yogic tradition that I study, fire—agni—is an internal feature (often having implications of digestion). When we take our weeds and wheat in at harvest time—when we get to that place where we can look back at our experience with our seeing eyes and hearing ears and understanding hearts, with honesty and compassion—and I’d add, when the conditions are right (bonfire season=wet, not when we’re in California in forest fire season) we really can burn up the weeds and feast on the wheat. When we look back on our lives this way, everything gets used. We make amends for the harms done. We learn from our mistakes. Yes, we all want to be light and bright, positive and happy all the time. It doesn’t work that way, at least it doesn’t for me. My work is not to reject myself when I’m less than light and bright, but to take those parts in, with love and compassion, learn from them, digest them, use them as compost, and then use what I’ve learned to heal others, if I have experienced some healing.

And boy, do I need healing. I have to say, this passage speaks directly to me as a Suzuki mom, where my role is to go with the kids to their lessons and group classes and play ins, and most significantly, be their practice coach every single day while they practice the long list of tasks their teacher gives them. This means I am sitting for an hour and half a day with my two kids, asking them to do what is occasionally boring, repetitive work, certainly as boring as weeding a garden. Play “Twinkle” again. Ok, now with your pinky like this. That was great! Now do it with a tall head. The practice goes well when I can be playful and creative. Pinky! Jay is working so hard! Help him out here! Sometimes they come to practice with joy and enthusiasm and we laugh and I dance the minuet like Martha Washington, or Elle just plays something so well the hairs on my arms raise up, or Jay suddenly gets that he can play “Long Long Ago” as if he’s Idina Menzel from the Frozen soundtrack. And sometimes all of us cry in frustration, someone throws their bow on the floor, Elle stomps out of the room, Jay falls into his wet noodle position, I storm out of the room and resolve to quit this idiotic practice that will certainly, definitely kill their love for music.

But I hear over and over an over again, from grown up musicians, “I am so glad my parents made me practice.” Or “I wish my parents had made me practice.” There are some musicians who are completely internally motivated, but just as many are not, or are not so at first. I have no real faith, most days, that what I am doing with and for my kids is the ultimate best. I don’t know if they’re going to go in to psychotherapy when they’re adults to deal with their PTSD from having to play Bach Minuets till their heads exploded. That will have to be dealt with at harvest time, whenever that is.

Whenever that is. It might come sooner, it might come later. I started the week resolved to quit because Jay was so impossible and said he hated violin. The week ended with Jay declaring Suzuki Camp an “infinity” on a scale of 1-10, and telling me he wanted to play every piece through Book 8 (he’s on Book One.) Elle said she wished Suzuki Camp went for four weeks instead of one. And I got to see that the biggest problems with our practice had to do with me and my insistence that we do things the “right” way. I think my job is to help them weed out their bad alignment and wrong notes, when it’s really just to create the space for them to explore what their teacher has given them.

And The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. It’s not “when the kids get into Harvard on a music scholarship.” It’s certainly not “when the kids play the Bach Double.” As Jesus says at the beginning of our text, “This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: weeds mixed with wheat. We sort them out later.” It’s this moment: Elle concentrating so hard on her orchestra part. Learning how to deliver a punch line she learned from a joke told to her by two older kids. Jay running in his soccer cleats down the long corridors of Easthampton High School because he’s figured out his schedule and knows where to go to get to his next class. Elle handing out notes of appreciation to her friends, saying good job on your piece at the recital. Jay handing out flowers to his teachers, and kissing his fiddle goodnight. This, to me, is our weedy, wonderful Kingdom of Heaven.

Texts:
Matthew 13:12 “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]

Matt 13: 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
******
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fiery furnace, so it will be at the end of the age.41
*******
Mulla Nasrudin decided to start a flower garden. He prepared the soil and planted the seeds of many beautiful flowers. But when they came up, his garden was filled not just with his chosen flowers but was also overrun by dandelions.
He sought advice from gardeners all over and tried every method known to get rid of them but to no avail. Finally, he walked all the way to the capital to speak to the royal gardener at the sheik’s palace. The wise old man had counseled many gardeners before and suggested a variety of remedies to expel the dandelions but Mulla had tried them all.
They sat together in silence for some time and finally the gardener looked over at Nasrudin and said slowly, “Well, then I suggest you learn to love them… I suggest you learn to love them.”

Nike and Rainbow Flags

Though I’d intended to blog daily in the weeks leading up to the making of our 17th CD, June found me in a whirl of end-of-the-year parties, potlucks, celebrations, graduations, baby showers, the World Cup, birthdays and most germanely, songwriting. I wrote three new songs for the CD; songs which may have effectively changed the nature of the album. We are now unsure what the title will be. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are some of my musings.

It’s Sunday evening at La Veracruzana, a Salvadorian restaurant in downtown Northampton. My family dragged me here (on a school night!) to watch the US play Portugal in the second round of the World Cup. The restaurant’s main TV is broken, so everyone has pulled tables and chairs toward the west side of the room to see the TV on the eastern wall, craning their necks and jockeying for position in order to watch. My back is to the screen. I am watching the watchers.

I did slip around at one point to get our dinners from the counter, and this afforded me a good look at the screen. It was still pre-game, and there was a lovely shot from the stadium of the Rio sky, almost violet, with wisps of clouds floating through in the shape of the Nike logo.

“What a sky,” I murmured to no one.

“Ehhn, it’s OK,” said the young man standing next to me. He was wearing a black tee shirt and looked a little like Jian Ghomeshi. “Better than Massachusetts. New England skies don’t impress me.”

I pulled down the corners of my mouth. “I like them.”

“I’m from Colorado,” he shook his head. “No contest.”

I nodded. “I’ll give you that.”

But, he conceded. “I will say that yesterday I drove back here from Boston. Right into the sunset. Now that was a sky.”

Today in church, Steve preached on two different texts. The first was a parable of the Buddha’s, the one about the guy who comes to a river and builds a raft to cross it. He is so thrilled to have crossed safely that he carries the raft with him wherever he goes. “This is not a skillful use of the raft,” says the Buddha.

Then he preached on the end of Luke 9. Jesus tells a guy to follow him. The guy says, “First let me go and bury my father.”

“Let the dead bury their dead,” says Jesus. “But you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Harsh. But effective. Jesus and the Buddha are essentially saying the same thing: let it go. Move on. Don’t cling. In the Jesus passage, the message is even more direct: get over your parents. Whether they were “good” parents or “bad” parents, get over them. Move on. Live your life.

Jay is obsessed with all things soccer, not necessarily in this order: playing it; watching the World Cup; Messi; and anything that has the Nike logo on it. For those who know my son, it’s just one in a long line of obsessions: The Beatles, cars, birds of prey, guitars, Thomas trains, Ninjago, cheetahs, this band from the 90s called The Nields, Colossal Squid.

The Nike thing started a few weeks ago when we went to Famous Footwear to get Elle some shoes. Jay felt deprived, so I threw him a bone; a pack of socks. I might have noticed they were Nikes, and I might have rolled my eyes and shrugged at my unfortunate choice; the latest in my own long line of eco-transgressions. For many years, Nike has been a target for activists wanting to put an end to sweat shop conditions. Here’s more on why Nike is Bad. I used to do pretty well with my consumer boycotts, but eight long years of motherhood has worn me down.

Besides, the more I oppose him about Nike, the more appealing it surely would be to him. I started on about the sweat shops, but somehow he could not draw a connection between the logo that all his favorite kindergarten pals have on their sneakers and the stories I was telling him about unfairness on the other side of the globe.

And why should I? Recently, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that I don’t get to boss everyone around. I’ve been noticing that without my excellent advice and bits of wisdom, other people do just fine. Especially my family members. Sometime in the last month, the mild voice of my beloved uncle Brian keeps popping into my head. “They’ll figure it out.” That’s my new motto. He’ll find out about bad Nike on his own. We live in Northampton.

My other new motto is, “Everyone is doing the absolute best they can at any given moment.” Even though I might be mightily disappointed with their behavior (or my own), we really are, most of us, doing the best we can with the resources we have. I don’t know if I am right about this, but I do know that when I adopt this attitude, I relax and stop being a pain in other people’s necks.

On the last day of school, Jay announced, “I am going to wear all things that have Nike on them.” He showed up dressed completely in Nike garb, which meant, on a hot June day, he wore a shiny red nylon swim suit top, a pair of navy blue and orange fleecy sweatpants, his royal blue socks, and his sister’s pink and black sports sandals. He could not have been more pleased with himself. Indeed, all items were branded. I looked at him solemnly and nodded. “You are all in Nike.”

He turned on his heel and started out the door; realized it was too hot for the fleecy pants. He ran upstairs and traded them for his favorite pair of Nike shorts, which happen to be hot pink. Satisfied, he left for the day, racing off in his too-big sandals. His last day of Kindergarten. The day before, his class spent all day painting rainbow pride flags. Someone had stolen the school’s Pride flag earlier that week, ripping it down from where it flew underneath the stars and stripes. No problem. The teachers and students of Jackson Street covered the front of the school with rainbows. In the last issue of the JSS Gazette, and 8 year old wrote an editorial about how she thought it was wrong how some people said men couldn’t marry men, or women couldn’t marry women. “Adults should be able to marry anyone they want,” she opined.

So I let my son go to school in his un-PC Nike wear, not worried about what my friends would say about my logo-worshipping son, nor worried that anyone would tease him for wearing pink sandals. He lives in Northampton. These are some of the blessings. Later in the morning, I joined him and his classmates and some of their parents for a last lunch next to the playground. He was racing around the jungle gym. He saw me, and approached the fence, all big eyes and dirty knees. “Can I keep playing, Mama?”

“Of course,” I said and kissed him before he could get away completely. Kindergarten. Over in a flash. His birthday is at the end of August and he wants to invite Messi. “I know he will come,” he says. “He loves soccer, and I am having a soccer party.” I just nod. Why disappoint him now? That would be just trying to protect him from a later disappointment. If disappointment is inevitable (and it always is, isn’t it?) it’s better to let him have the joy now and the disappointment later. I’m thinking that’s the proper use of the raft.