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.

Day 19: Why Write Songs in the Age of Free Downloads?

My house is full of writers. I am sitting in Couchland North; two others are in Couchland South. Writers are at my dining room table, in my music parlor and in the front room where we gather to read (or sing) at 4pm. There’s a songwriter in my attic studio, and a songwriter in my office. My designated songwriting spot for the weekend is my own bedroom, which works very well for me; I’ve written some of my favorite songs on that bed. Last night’s goal was to find the song muscles, and while I didn’t write something I love or necessarily want to keep working on, I did feel the process start to work me. Results Girl went to bed in despair, but today, with the sun shining in my face and Hudson asleep next to my leg, I have new hope.

Writers’ feet + dog

One of the stumbling blocks is this: always before, when I’ve been in this drought, we’ve had a new album to create. As I’ve said before, we’ve seen our work, historically, as akin for that of an organic farmer. There are seasons to our work: the writing of the songs; then the recording of the songs; then the marketing, placing, ordering, shaping–what is this record about? Then the touring. A short dormant season, and then back to writing the next record. We have made 18 records. 19 if you count our greatest hits collection, which I don’t.

But in the age of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and the like; more to the point, in the age of singles, of playlists rather than albums, of no-CD players-in-new-cars, why go through the mishigas of making a 12-song album? DJs play singles. Do newspapers review singles, or only albums? Would more people play our music if we had a new album? Would we get more bookings? I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I don’t know if anyone does. We have three new songs that feel of a piece so far, in terms of theme: “Tyrants Always Fall,” “Gonna Build a Boat” and our version of “America the Beautiful.” The ideas I have for new songs fit into the theme well enough. Do I really want to write 9 more songs, though? Aren’t there enough songs out there in the world? I think I’ve written at least 180 songs that have been published in some form or another. Isn’t that enough?

But this morning, I had a new thought, which emanated from last night’s experience trying to write a song. If I were writing a play/musical, or a soundtrack to a movie, I would not have any issue with songwriting. I just wrote a song I love for my dad’s 75th birthday. I do have the muscles. If I were writing songs for the characters in my novel The Big Idea, I would not have a problem. I am not saying the songs would come easily as if I were taking dictation from God, but I would have a focus, and I would write, and eventually the song would be good. That’s my experience, and I have no reason to doubt it.

So what if, instead of thinking, “I need to write another Nields album,” I thought,

“I am going to write a song to sing at West Cummington Church.”

“I am going to write a song for The Big Idea, because one day it will be a movie, or a Broadway musical, and it’s always great to have extra songs in the hopper for directors to chose from.”

“I am going to write a song for the chorus I want to start.”

“I am going to write a song for a YA novel I haven’t yet written.”

“I am going to write a song for the Nields. Maybe it will be a single. Maybe we will record an album.”

As I approach February Album Writing Month, I am going to think differently. I am going to dedicate that time every day for songwriting, but I am not going to rush to finish anything. I don’t think that’s the recipe for the best songs. I’ll let some ideas marinate, as Sarah McLaughlin says.

And now, I am going to try to write Katryna’s bicycle song.


Update on J: He is still coughing to the point of vomiting up the food he eats. He is fine, no fever, for long stretches of time within each day, and he appears perfectly healthy. Then at some point, usually 45 minutes after a meal, he coughs and coughs and coughs till he pukes. This can’t be normal. He has asthma, which we have been treating, of course, and he has had this reaction before, but never this long-lasting.

Also, point of order. Can people weigh in on whether or not small boys with asthma should be allowed to go outside on days when it’s flash-freezing wearing shorts and sneakers? I need allies, here, people. I know there is a school of thought that says being cold doesn’t cause colds and viruses, but what about common sense??????

Update on Little Blue: It’s beautiful, and I wish it were finished and that we were back there now. The guys couldn’t work on Friday because of the deluge, but I think they will be back to framing next week!

Little Blue’s western side. Framing the bedroom and bathroom!


Day 12: Crazy Quilt

To the right is the pit for the screened porch

It’s a Sunday morning, and I am home alone. The weekend was more chaotic than usual, with our gig in New Haven Friday bringing us home very late (for this gal), and an early rising on Saturday to take my 11 y-o to District Orchestra auditions in Westfield, then same child to Springfield Museums for a big Suzuki event, then our Local Chorus concert at the UU church for Northampton’s Holiday stroll. Dear friends took our kids last night so that Tom and I could celebrate our anniversary. It was 14 years ago that we met, and all of this life we have now was set in motion. It’s a more significant date to us than our wedding anniversary. At the time of our meeting, I was heavily into astrology (!!!!!) and knew how to cast birth charts. You don’t need to know anything about astrology to understand the uncanniness of this fact: when one combines Tom’s chart and my chart, the “rising sign” corresponds to the date we met. Not only that, his sun (Aries) is directly above my moon, and my sun (Gemini) is above his. Kinky, right?

I love performing so much. I don’t feel like myself when I go too long between performances. On Friday night, Katryna could NOT stop talking between songs. I think we both need this outlet. And yet. MAN. Even a tiny little drive (80 miles?) and a late night return wrecks my body and mood for two whole days. I wish wish wish wish wish there were a way to perform regularly without the travel aspect. When are they going to invent apparition for non-wizards? We clearly need to create a podcast. The question is: what would we talk about? Besides everything. Maybe we could have a singing podcast. Which would end up being mostly talking.

Us at CT Folk on Friday, with Ben Demerath. Ellen Finney took this pic.

There was a coyote barking last night. The sound is harrowing. Our neighbor saw it in the neighborhood a few days ago, and we are worried about our dog. It’s a gloomy, grey day, and the light that infused me from yesterday’s Local Chorus concert is dimmed by thoughts of my dear ones who are struggling with illness. Their stories are not mine to tell, but suffice it to say I am filled with concern and sadness and grief. Sometimes the world just seems too heavy, and today is like that. I had a really good cry on the couch with Tom. He said, “We will do this together.” That’s all I need.

The foundation is almost done, and yesterday the excavators dug out the space for the screened porch. The new building fills the width of our backyard now, leaving exactly the footage for us to clear the city’s codes. I am a bit shocked at the desolate scene, and part of why I need to write this blog is to remind myself why I am doing this. Why I am trying to justify the destruction of all those trees and grass, forever changing the landscape of my kids’ backyard AKA childhood. It’s one thing to mourn the changes in the earth and planet which are beyond our control. It’s quite another to be a hands-on perpetrator (I write this knowing full well that we are all hands-on perps; but there’s a difference between buying the chicken in the plastic at the store and screwing the head off of a live one. The former is no better–arguably worse––than the latter, but way less traumatizing for the perp.)

Set list from Local Chorus Holiday Stroll Concert

My amazing sister Katryna is spending Advent giving away her gift. She’s singing for free at schools, homes, day cares, wherever. And to whomever asks. I love this. I love her. She’s got the biggest heart of anyone I know. Last night, she texted me and said, “I don’t have a music give-away today. Can I do something in your Local Chorus concert?” So she shook her shaker egg to “Home” and “We Know the Way” and supported the chorus in “Hamilton” and our four peace rounds. As she would say, there’s this crazy quilt in the world right now, full of nasty squares, each of which saddens or terrifies. What can we do? Make a new little square. Ours is about singing and writing. So today I will go to my friend Matilda’s service at Smith Vespers and listen to the students lift their voices and instruments. I will lift my own.

PS: What even is this blue stuff?


Day Three: Foundations

I am writing this from Whole Foods in Hadley. I just came from the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, where I heard my friend and Big Yellow writer Ruth Lehrer read from her new novel Being Fishkill. This book started on my red couch, and it’s now a thing of beauty and in

spiration. I cannot wait to read it, and I plan to give it to several worthy folk for Christmas. Tom and I have a date night, and we are going to see Ladybird, which, according to its preview, shares some similar elements with Fishkill I can’t believe how lucky I am to get this afternoon/evening of culture. And speaking of which, I’ll make this a trifecta: last night I finished one of the best novels I’ve ever read: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (it won the National Book Award in 2011). I’ll write more on these tomorrow.

Now that the trees are down, the beautiful red maple feels like queen of the yard. Every time I look out my kitchen window, I see her giant Y, a big Yes.

Can you see the Y?

The ground is cold. There have been robberies in our neighborhood, so we are keeping all the doors locked. This is one of my favorite times of year, even with the light fading. I love to walk by the river with my dog, my kids and my friends and see the land so clearly, now that the leaves are down. Her contours. The river is still flowing. Everything is dying back, but it is still, essentially, alive.

I have three beta readers for The Big Idea. Two of them have given me extensive feedback, but I want to corner them and sit them down and interrogate them about every single sentence they highlit, or every chapter they suggest I cut. I want this process to be over, and I want it never to end. I want to keep working on this book for the rest of my life, and I want to move on and write something else. But I want most of all to get it right, and it is still not quite right.

Today, the backhoe is idle, with its long claw extended like a tired brontosaurus. Next week, they will dig the foundation, and, I am guessing, dig trenches in our yard to lay the pipes for the sewer and electrical systems. There is so much to do at the earliest stages of any project. When one is building a house, that lesson could not be more cogent. We are wrestling with the question of how much steel to put in the foundation. Our contractor says less. Our engineer says more. I will have more to say about this tomorrow, after I have seen Ladybird, I think.

Why I Am Not Going To Eat Tofu for 365 Days in a Row

As I stroll merrily through menopause, my daughter has become a vegetarian. She is eleven. She is at an age and stage in which morality is crystal clear. She has been hearing about Climate Change since her parents came home from their first post-baby date (Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.) When she was two months old, her parents bought a VW diesel Jetta which they ran on biodiesel, until the fuel dealer went MIA. The year she was two, she ate only local food. She grew up being dragged around to CSOs, knows all her favorite alt-brands at our food co-op, and marched in last year’s women’s march. She sings Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs, and comes with me to vote every election day. Nowadays, as soon as I turn the key in my van she says, “Mama, put away your phone! Drive! You’re wasting gas!” And when I fantasize about flying somewhere exotic, like, um, Virginia, she snaps, “That’ll destroy our carbon footprint for the year.” So it shouldn’t have come as any kind of surprise that she doesn’t want to eat meat.

I, on the other hand, have had my own lifelong issues with food that have led me to what most would consider an extremely rigid food plan. I haven’t eaten flour or sugar in almost 20 years; I don’t eat processed food at all; I eat copious amounts of vegetables (nearly two pounds a day–and that’s a recent decrease), healthy fats, low-carb fruits, and nuts. But I do eat meat. All kinds of meat. We’re talking bacon, people. Sugar-free paleo, but still. We’re talking grass-fed burgers, the occasional slow-cooker pulled pork, roast duck on Thanksgiving (saving those drippings in which to cook my eggs the next day for breakfast), and closest to my heart, my mother’s recipe for roast chicken. I have tried to be vegetarian at various points in my life. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work. My blood sugar is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, I have had to give up such healthy foods such as lentils, carrots and apples, as their natural sugars affect me adversely. I love the way I eat. No one is asking me to change it.

But given the seeming epidemic of cancer surrounding us (in my own life, at least ten of my nearest and dearest are diagnosed), I am always on the lookout for the healthiest meal plan available. There is something else nagging at me. I am very good at taking care of my own nutritional needs, but I have been quite laissez-faire when it comes to the rest of my family. Peanut butter and jelly every day? Ok, that’s fine. Mac and Cheese more than three nights a week? Great. Easy and cheap. Just give me my salmon and veggies and don’t complain. My daughter’s new consciousness has raised my own, and so I was toying with the idea of going vegetarian for a year. Everyone who loves me (Judy, Tom, even my daughter) tells me that that’s crazy. I limit myself enough around food, and I don’t need yet another way to obsess about it. Still, I argued, I would like to be a better Mama Bear and bring some mindfulness to menu planning that has so long eluded me. And maybe the estrogens in tofu would be good for my hormonally-challenged body.

I haven’t written for this blog in a committed way since London. My last (please, God) draft of The Big Idea is about to go to the agent, and after it’s done, I will need to turn my attention  to writing songs for our next album.

Writing a blog on a daily basis helps me to know who I am. I write, therefore I think. Working on this novel, I forget who I am. I lose touch with myself, and get myself confused with the characters I am writing. I missed the boat on both NaNoWriMo and 30 Poems in November, but here we are at Day 15 of this Noble Month. Something inside me is urging me back to a daily writing practice, and so I am going to try to write every day again. Yes, it’s better to have a focus––say, a food blog called Tofu365 in which the author tries out a different tofu recipe every day for a year. But, like I said, I have good friends who love me, and they all pursed their lips and shook their heads when I pitched this idea.

So instead, I am going to just show up and report and see where the writing and my life take me. There is, for one thing, the story of the barn to tell.