Day 26: Empty.

Last week, I got depressed. At first, I was puzzled. I had just had one of the best weekends of my life. Our MLK@JFK had gone better than my wildest dreams. On Friday Feb. 2, we’d put on an assembly at my daughter’s middle school that included SOCA kids reading their poetry, the Amherst Area Gospel Choir singing, Mr. El-Are, local rapper/activist performing, Ousmane Power-Greene lecturing on the power of song in the Civil Rights movement, the A Cappella group singing “Glory” from Selma, and the Jazz band  playing “What a Wonderful World.” The assembly closed with the whole school rising and linking arms as I led them in “We Shall Overcome.” Then our sold-out show at the Iron Horse, with Kalliope Jones opening, on Saturday was as gratifying a show as I’ve ever had. Finally, on Sunday I got to sing my new songs at my beloved West Cummington Church.

Usually, any one of these days or events would have elevated my spirit for weeks. So why was I so sad? I felt empty. My mother said maybe I was a vessel. I treated my depression the way I usually do–by rearranging and decluttering. This time I focused on my library. So now, all the fiction is alphabetized, and I have bags of books lining the back of my van, to sell and donate. All my poetry volumes are together, as is an impressive spiritual library–Buddhist texts mingling with Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, all in alphabetical order.

Other factors contributing to my depression: I posted a piece on Little Blue, as I do every week. But no one read it. My blog’s readership has plummeted in the last month, ever since Facebook’s algorithm switcharoo. I hadn’t realized how much it’s meant to me to feel as though someone is reading this blog, following the progress of my backyard house. Also, I lowered my caffeine dose to half of what it had been (still over the max for my weight, but gotta start somewhere). Also, I have gained two pounds.

My agent still hasn’t gotten back to me. That’s why I notice the two pounds. It’s a handy gauge, being a recovering food addict. I turned in my manuscript right before Christmas, and she still hasn’t responded. Suddenly I am vulnerable. Also, Patty our manager says what I wrote right before the MLK retreat is true: Albums are obsolete. We got our report from CD Baby. Here is a partial rendition:

$0.02 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes – Apple Music – Australia
$0.01 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes Match – Canada
$0.23 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes – Apple Music – Canada
$0.01 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes – Apple Music – Switzerland
$5.44 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes-Europe
$0.01 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes Match – Europe
$0.01 for DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SALES through iTunes – Apple Music – Europe

The Nields might never have album #19. Instead, maybe a loose collection of songs, at best a digital album. No more CDs. Writing this hurts so much, I want to look away. Of course I turn on my body, my sweet under-appreciated body. It’s not so much that I am blaming it–I hope I am more recovered than that. It’s the old threadbare idea that if only I were super thin, nothing would or could hurt me. When I am Awake, I am not fooled by this construction. But it can be there under the surface, a low hum that I am only aware of as a color. Rust red. It comes out as criticism of myself, and exhaustion that can no longer be managed by overusing caffeine. Nothing for it but to feel what’s real.

Little Blue is now neither little nor yet blue. And she is consuming me with decisions. The architect asks me to choose a weathervane. After considering a hummingbird (beautiful, delicate, always in motion, just as artists need to be), and a butterfly (duh), my family settles on the Owl. But which owl?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or, we could mortgage our house and sell our children and get this one:

 

And I had to choose colors for the kitchen cabinets, and then tile to go with them. After rejecting some dead-looking olive green painted cabinets, I choose distressed black. I’ll spare you the details of the cabinet door choices, mitred edges and beaded vs not beaded, and about fifty-thousand other micro-choices.But what about tile? Which of these greens????

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am beginning to merge with this house. Is this the new me? In my twenties, the struggle was how to house the artist in me. And I took it out on my body, making my body conform to the dictates of the pop world, trying to emulate Madonna and all the Waifs who paraded through the magazines and MTV, and through the Grammy parties and the major label offices. I had to learn that my body was a sweet shelter that I dwelt within, and neither Me nor Not Me. I had to learn respect for it. Now, with so much of my attention on this house in the backyard, my future writing/retreat/music studio space, I am wondering if the next step is for me to be a container for others.

In my massive library reorganization, I uncovered a book ordered over a year ago at the urging of my friend, psychologist Carrie Hatcher-Kay. It’s based on Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems therapy, a Jungian/Buddhist/Family Systems blend. The modality is speaking strongly to me right now, and every time I read this book or meditated on my “parts,” I felt calmer, more centered. It shone a light to the tunnel out of my sadness. In the aftermath of the big weekend, I felt like a fist unclenching. Maybe part of the depression was just the emptiness one feels after a lot of energy has been exerted in a direction–in my case several directions. As the days went by, nurtured by the new modality of “parts” work, I began to feel better. My body settled, and I noticed I was much more available to my kids. I was less reactive and more interested in just being with their experience, rather than trying to change it. I stopped worrying about the 2 lbs.

The roof is finished, almost. The guys are building the cupola now. Next week, plumbers and electricians come to put in the circulatory system. By the beginning of March, the metal roof will be placed on the top. Over the weekend, I chose the stones for the fireplace,

and the wood stoves.

 

This one is for outside, screened porch
This one is for inside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have a crazy window from the old barn that I have designs on for a work of art to hang above the mantle. Today, I had the thought, “What if I forget about my novel and my album, and instead become a Family Systems therapist, putter around and make art in my unqualified way, parent my kids and take care of my body? What if Little Blue really is my future? Would that be enough?”

Someone wise said to me today, “Isn’t it great that you aren’t working on a new album, and that your agent hasn’t given you your next set of instructions? Now you can focus on your house! And you would be losing your mind right about now if you had other projects due. You don’t know what the future will bring. This is what is in front of you. This is what you have to do now.”

 

Day 25: Roof Beam Bridge

The space between the roof beams

The roof beam is solid now, on the east and west edges of the house, but there is still no beam between the two ends. How the guys are going to manage this engineering feat is well beyond me.

I am re-reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook,  a journal/memoir kept by a Serious Artist in the 1970s, chronically her interior and professional life over the course of seven years. I was inspired to re-visit this writer/artist by my friend Heather Abel, whose recent essay “The Baby, the Book and the Bathwater” just appeared in the Paris Review. I had read Truitt’s memoir/journal when I was sixteen. My single-sex high school had put it on our summer reading list.

At first, I thought there must be two different books called Daybook, written by two different women artists. That’s how little I remember of my first read-through, some 35 years ago. What I remember is thinking Truitt was some kind of goddess. First of all, her prose was so different from the usual summer reading (otherwise entirely male authors). Second, she was an artist at a time when I knew I was some version of that strange creature. Third, I loved the idea of keeping a daily journal, of writing first thing in the morning. Years later, I see that this had an influence on me: from my mid-20s to the time I had two babies, I did my Morning Pages religiously. This blog is a remnant of that ingrained practice.

I am doing the Marie Kendo thing and taking all my books in the house, putting them in one room and deciding what to keep, what to give away, what to sell. What to send to Little Blue’s still-only-envisioned-shelves (see below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The books are disorganized. I want all the fiction in one place, all the writing books in one place, all the astrology books….just kidding. But I am doing a massive overhaul, and seeing all the books in piles, with their faces up, brings quite a bit of joy, as well as memories. Nothing, other than music, brings me back in time like a physical book that I once held for the duration of a read.

In my Tuesday writing group, for prompt I played Truitt’s actual voice reading from the beginning of the audible version of Daybook. We all settled down to write. The usual quiet was disturbed by the sounds of loud male voices coming from the basement. I went down to investigate. The guys were taking a break from putting up the roof beams, eating lunch together, their jovial voices penetrating through the heating grates. I tried to match jovial and said, “Just so’s you know, I am teaching a writing class right now. We can hear every word you say, so be sure to say only nice things.”

“We love Nerissa!” they intoned, like school boys who had been caught. And then, “We’re done. You won’t hear us again.”

I returned to my writing, worrying that they hated me for silencing them.

Then I had some feminist whiplash. Wait a minute, this is my house! I am working right now! I was totally nice, and all I did was humorously ask them to keep their voices down! But in the middle of all that tangle, I started second guessing myself: my privilege, the fact that I am the Boss Lady whose extra house they are building, the fact that it’s snowing outside, etc etc. Whose rights? Whose rights?

Also, will I ever not have to analyze every single thing that happens through a lens of some sort?

I read Maureen Dowd’s interview of Uma Thurman over the weekend and found it nauseating and depressing. Yes, she was raped, yes, she was assaulted, yes, she was complicit, yes, she was abused, yes, she was ultimately rejected. Amid all the twists and turns of the story, the piece still nagging at me is how she had been a member of a creative trio–until she aged out and wouldn’t play her role as complicit female.

Thurman was the lissome goddess in the creation myth of Harvey Weinstein and Quentin Tarantino. The Miramax troika was the ultimate in indie cool. A spellbound Tarantino often described his auteur-muse relationship with Thurman — who helped him conceive the idea of the bloody bride — as an Alfred Hitchcock-Ingrid Bergman legend.

Beautiful women have this Thing. It’s ephemeral–it only lasts till the woman is around 40, max, surgery and botox notwithstanding.  It’s also valuable; currency. Thurman was used for this Thing, along with aspects of herself that she gets to keep for her entire life–her smarts, her talent, her instincts. But her creative partners did toss her aside after Tarantino forced her into a Carmen Ghia with a stunt camera jiggling on the trunk, and made her drive it on a winding road at 40mph until she crashed the car and permanently damaged her knees and neck.

“When they turned on me after the accident,” she says, “I went from being a creative contributor and performer to being like a broken tool.”

As the snow falls, I am left with these thoughts about women and what it means to be a woman artist. How do we age? How do we let go of the part that society values, and continue to make satisfying art? It’s not as complicated for a visual artist or a writer. Anne Truitt’s book came out when she was almost 60. Betye Saar, Judy Chicago, Marisol Escobar are all seeing success in their late 70s-80s. But what about the performer? I have no illusions of being The Next Big Thing anymore. Folk/pop singers don’t pop after 50. For that matter, am I, as a consumer of music and films, guilty of participating in this? Do I find movies and recordings by aging artists as interesting as those by youngsters? (Well. I have to say I do now, because I am going through this passage, and I want to see how my peers are doing it. But I have to admit, I bought some of those 21st century Dylan records and Joni records sheerly out of loyalty.)

The guys are not here today, as it’s snowing. I have a long list of choices to make: which color for kitchen cabinets, which wood stove, which stones for the fireplace, which salvaged window for the loft space. Hooks for the bathroom. Toilet paper holders. Eco-friendly washer/dryer. Someone asked me if I was having fun. I feel guilty for saying no. I asked for this huge project, I am grateful to have it, and I feel devoted to it, as though it were my installation, my work of art. It is. If I were a man, would it be different?

That moment with the guys in my basement. It punctured a membrane. I want to talk to them. I want to explain to them that when one is a prey animal, as all women are to some extent, the usual rules of material position don’t necessarily apply. Women are inclined, unconsciously at times, to appease. You had gender on me, I want to say. Here, read this. And I would hand them Anne Truitt, hand them Heather Abel, hand them Maureen Dowd. But that is not the bridge that needs to be engineered now.

 

 

Day 23: Architecture and the Novel

Grassless, desolate yard

My Tuesday writing group is scribbling away in the front room, while Hudson and I sit back in Couchland, gazing at the new building. The guys are taking a break today because of the rain. This morning, our son said, “Dada, when are we going to plant some grass back there?”

It’s hard to imagine spring, or grass, or that the building will ever be finished. It’s pretty desolate. But I am less concerned about the spacial issues than I was last week. My contractor suggested I make some blank floor plans and print out copies, cut and paste some furniture models and move them around on the blanks. Kind of like Legos for grown ups. The whole process feels less daunting. And the act of moving the pieces, considering the possibilities, is very like the process of writing. You move some scenes, you cut a character, you re-write.

Last year at this time, I became obsessed with two things at once. One was the puzzle of my novel. My agent had just sent me back my manuscript with a giant plan for revision. I had to take apart the entire manuscript, re-write huge swaths from different points of view, and rework the ending and frame. The first thing that came to mind was that in order to do this, I needed a new office, and specifically, a huge flat empty desk.

This dovetailed into my second obsession: the problem of my house. Don’t get me wrong, my house is magical, as I have written. But after 14 years of living here, and having added a husband, two kids and a puppy, it was no longer the spacious funhouse it once had been. No more did I have an entire room to use as a wardrobe. Instead, we were wading through clutter, and the kids were cooped up in the winter, in dire need of a playroom. My guitar students were knocking elbows with each other in the music room. My family was infringing on my writing groups, and my writers were pushing my family out of their downstairs.

To solve the first problem, I escaped to the attic, where I fashioned a desk out of a big door. Every morning at 5am, I crept up and wrote, laying the scenes out on the desk, or the floor, or the wall, so I could get a visual on what went where. As I worked out the architecture of the novel, I was also puzzling over the architecture of my home. I needed more space to teach. The kids needed more space to play. Tom needed less clutter. Should we take a wall down between the writing room and the music room downstairs? Should we make what is now a kind of glorified hallway into a bonafide office by bumping out the dining room wing of the house? Should we finish the attic and put a playroom and bathroom up there? But in order to do so, we discovered after much research, we’d have to structurally engineer the whole house up. Eventually, we decided to build Little Blue. But my confusion about the layout  of Big Yellow remained. When would we get clarity on what we should do?

Jay’s pneumonia is getting better, but not healed completely. In January 2018, as of today, he has gone to school for only 6 days. We were desperate to leave no stone unturned, we hypothesized that perhaps he was too cold in his bedroom. His bedroom, which was once the master bedroom, is for reasons unknown the coldest room in the house. Elle’s room is unusually hot. So one day last week when she had run up to the attic to talk on the phone with her bestie, I had the thought: what if I gave her my attic lair?

She jumped at the chance to move rooms. And Jay was happy to move to hers. I hired 4 Guys and  Truck, and on Friday, we made the big switcheroo. As is often the case, the moving uncovered years of clutter. We gave away and threw away much. (Not 80%, but a good effort!) Cleaning, tidying, decluttering creates a powerful energy of its own. Today I sorted through years of papers and memorabilia and created a new filing system. My house has never been so organized. Also, thanks to your comments, I did not sell my treadmill desk! I moved it to what was recently J’s room (the cold room, now the guest room/workout room) and have even walked on it for 15 minutes as I poked at my iPhone. (This is my favorite form of exercise, by the way–poking at iPhone while walking slowly uphill. I could win the Olympics event of this.) Elle loves her new upstairs space, Jay loves his warm room, and I now have my flat door desk in the glorified hallway. It feels as though the plan is settling into place.

We couldn’t have figured this out any other way than by just living into it. So often, the solutions don’t become clear until time passes. My draft may or not be finished, but the only way I could solve its problems was to just. keep. writing. Eventually, with enough time and slog, clarity arrived.

The other profound wisdom which has now passed through my bloodstream is that no expensive renovation or even new home can give the profound peace and satisfaction that a clean, organized, uncluttered space can give. We are not 100% there yet, and I will never be That Person who has gone all Marie Kendo, but my whole nervous system sighs with relief when I walk into any of the rooms in my home now.

Day 22: The Nields Rehearse a New Song

Katryna and I sang “Tyrants Always Fall” yesterday at the Women’s March in Northampton. So many people, so many pink hats, so much courage and strength! 2018 is our year, people! We will take back the House and Senate! We will put a stop to the madness! We must act, and quickly.

So now, after all my griping and despair about the viability of the record album (what some call “CDs” and what young people have no word for anymore), I now appear to be writing one. Yes! YES!!! I think we might even record it this summer. We might title it Songs of Hope and Resistance (though Patty and Katryna will certainly veto that as being too obvious and Brechtian, though they will not say “Brechtian”). (It’s a terrible title. Come up with a better one). Here’s what we have so far:

Tyrants Always Fall
Gonna Build a Boat
America the Beautiful
Butterfly
Bicycle
Hudson

Six songs is halfway to 12, and I have so many ideas now! It’s so funny how you go from not thinking you can write anything to feeling like that muscle is just on, and that everything makes you think of a song.

Songs come in two ways, for me. One is through Katryna. I feel as though, at times, I am her giant blond writing pen. She gives me an idea, I start to write it, I come back to her, she coaches and encourages and supplies some more ideas. Voila!

The other way is when a song melody pops into my head after I wake up from a dream. These song starts sometimes contain a bit of lyric, and it is then my job to grab the thread and follow it through the labyrinth.

We, the Nields, are rehearsing for two upcoming shows. The first is this Saturday Jan 27 at Rockwood in NYC. We’re on at 7pm on Stage 2, and we will debut this new song called Bicycle, which I wrote over MLK weekend at my writing retreat. We debuted “Tyrants Always Fall” in the exact same space last year. And then we’ll bring our show home to the Iron Horse, where we’ll do our annual blowout on Feb. 3. Expect to see some special guests, including our children.

How lucky am I to still have my band after 27 years? A friend posted on Facebook about Tom Petty’s coroner’s report. My first thought was for his band. We are all so deeply interconnected, and I can’t help but think that Petty kept playing and performing over the intense pain in his hip in part because he belonged to so many others besides himself.

Here’s a video of us learning “Bicycle.” Lyrics below. Our first rehearsal ever at Norfolk Studios!

Bicycle

My daughter rides her bike to school
When it’s rainy, when it’s cold
It doesn’t matter, it’s her rule
And you could call her a feminist
Committed environmentalist
But I call her a girl.

My girl says she will not eat meat
It’s the carbon, it’s the cruelty;
She is voting with her feet
And you can call her inspiring
And sometimes a little tiring
But she just calls it obvious.

If there’s a God above
And if she’s a god of love
Give me the strength to follow that girl

I drive my mini van to work
It’s convenient, I’m a member of
A great progressive parent herd
And you can call me compromised
Overworked, ironic, civilized
But I call me asleep.

If there’s a God above
And if she’s a god of love
Please wake me up to follow that girl

Susan B Anthony salutes
All the girls on their bikes
Trading in their skirts for suits
And you can call it liberty
And why we should learn history
But my girl calls it the way to school.
She calls it the way to school.
She calls it the way to school.

There is a line of girls
That circles all around the world
And we will all follow that girl.

Nerissa Nields
Jan 14, 2018
© 2018 Peter Quince Publishing ASCAP All Rights Reserved

Day 21: Walking Pneumonia, Little Blues

So after seven sick days, three doctor visits, a clear X-ray, a weirdly energetic weekend and a performance at the MLK, Jr Children’s Celebration, the boy showed up at Couchland Tuesday morning insisting he was too sick and tired to go to school. Of course I doubted, but just for yuks, I took his temp with our almost useless digital thermometer. For the first time in its annoying career, the thing started beeping wildly and turned red! FEVER! Tom took boy to NAP where pneumonia was finally heard via stethoscope. Now he’s on antibiotics and a strict indoor policy, which is killing him in this snowstorm.

His ongoing illness has also been the catalyst for a gigantic room-swapping venture here at Big Yellow. His room is freezing, for some reason, and so he is moving to his sister’s too-hot room. She is moving to my attic studio. I am sadly parting with my treadmill so as to make room for my piano and giant desk. The whole house is in flux, and we have to get it in some mode of order by Friday morning when 4 Guys and a Truck come to move all the beds.

I have been waking up in the middle of the night for two reasons. The first is my back, which, after a weekend of writing songs and performing Civil Rights music, is furious at me. The pain rouses me at 3am, and then my thoughts kick in about the terrible mistake I am making in my backyard. The bones of Little Blue are practically set, and what I learned after a weekend with 10 writers is that we are going to be crammed in the new space. Not only that, I watched glumly from my bedroom window as the sun moved across the southern sky, hitting the new house only on its west side. Where there are, currently, no windows planned.

What was I thinking? I needed a bigger house! But I couldn’t have a bigger house because we are currently zoned for single occupancy, and that means a guest house maxes out at 900 square feet. BUT. The zoning will likely change in the next few years. I could have waited. Waiting is not my favorite thing to do.

Change is really hard. My son has been home, puttering around, arranging and rearranging his baseball cards. I have been writing songs, tidying up, making him grilled cheese sandwiches and hot lemon honey tea. He and Hudson snuggle all day. I presented him with his returned homework and a note from the teacher saying, “What is asked for is an essay, not just one sentence,” he broke down and sobbed. “School is stupid!” he wailed. “And boring!” I looked over his geometry problems and, when I realized that real math was involved, and not just the common sense I could previously rely on, I too was discouraged. Homework takes time. It takes slowing down; letting all the sand settle to the bottom of the glass of pond water. I sat with him tonight and we slowly read through the story whose problems were carefully concealed on first glance. But as we unpacked it together, he picked up steam and started scribbling. I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to my tidying.

The tidying is constant and never ending. I have this idea that if only we had 80% less stuff, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time cleaning. While that might be true, there would still be the dishwasher, which I also cleaned today. A dirty dishwater is one of the most disgusting things on the planet. I approached it with rags, organic cleaners and a toothbrush. Now, it glistens.

Today over dinner, we wrote down what our superpowers would be, if we could have any. Lila’s were invisibility, flying, and talking to animals. Tom’s were walking on his hands, living with bears, and riding a unicycle. Johnny’s was moving things with his mind, speed and breathing under water. Mine were never being jealous, healing all illnesses and diseases, infinite patience and being able to explain anything to anyone to the point of conviction. My family accused me of trying to be a perfect saint, so I added having hugely long eyelashes and the kind of beauty that makes everyone do whatever you want.

I ordered those magnetic eyelashes. They arrived, and after struggling for about twenty minutes, I manage to get them on. They looked like bad fake eyelashes, and I did not look like the kind of beauty who could make everyone do whatever I wanted.  Rats.

When and if the zoning changes, we can add a bedroom to the second floor of Little Blue, and we can turn the screened porch into a glassed-in room with heating. The dining table can go in the glassed in porch. The Great Room will be all Couchland.

I found this crazy window in my old barn. It reminds me of the Hollywood Squares. I want to use it somehow in Little Blue. Or maybe behind my own bed.

 

And I persevered on my architect and our builder to add three more skylights to the western roof of the barn, right where the sun hits it as it moves into later afternoon. There is no room–yet–in the attic space where this skylight will be. But someday there will be. I see now how things change.