I am not easy with the summer solstice. I am not like my friends who, last week said, “Oh Tuesday? Isn’t that the solstice? I don’t want to make plans on the solstice. I want to just enjoy it and see what it brings.”
Last week, a good friend of mine, someone who knows me well, and someone who had come to our Iron Horse show for Jam for the Fans, said this to me: “Nerissa. Savor what just happened. Savor what you and your sister did. Take it in. Let it swish in your mouth like a fine wine. Relish. I know you, and you are going to want to jump right into the next thing, not looking back. Please, just pause. Celebrate.”
I wish I knew how to do that.
I tried, I really did. But there were some realities to contend with. I was already playing catch up from the week before when Jay had been hit in the eye by a preschooler’s shovel and we’d spent most of the week caring for him, in and out of the hospital. It just so happened that all my programs (teaching writing, teaching guitar, running HooteNanny) were starting up the week after Jam, and I had to prepare. I had to send out emails, create songbooks and CDs, show up rested. I also had thank you notes to write, both for dinners friends had made for us when Jay was in the hospital, rides folks had given Elle; as well as favors sponsors and donors had done for Jam for the Fans. I wanted to call my family members and play Friday morning quaterback about the shows; write some parting words to guests. I wanted to immerse myself in all the photos fans put up on Facebook and Flickr. I wanted to just sit and take it in. And I did sit, because I do have a meditation practice that I am faithful to. But they say the average person needs to meditate for an hour a day, and the busy person needs two. I found out exactly why (in the mere fifteen minutes I allowed for quiet time). It was like opening a floodgate. All fifteen of those minutes got filled with thoughts about all the things I had to do. I may as well have sat with a notebook next to me and made up a To Do list.
But the usual unusual busyness–let’s be honest: that’s not the whole truth, either. There’s a piece of me that just doesn’t want to gaze into the brightness of the sun at its apex. Because once you do that, you might not ever get to do that again.
One day in about 1999, somewhere in the south, possibly Texas or Alabama, in some legendary but scuzzy rock club, I was perusing the posters on the green room wall after sound check. There was a Lucinda Williams poster from the early 90s, back when she was one of us, just a hard-working artist writing her songs, making great albums and playing the circuit. We had just lost our major label–it had folded several months before–and had signed again with another, an indie with major label backing and distribution. Lucinda, by 1999, had just won a Grammy for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an album that had taken her three years to make and that sounded so great, so natural, so musical, so her. (Just listen to “Right in Time.” It’s the sexiest song I’ve ever heard, and she makes it seem so easy to be a songwriter.) Standing in that dressing room, I knew–knew, the way you know your home or your mother’s face or your favorite kind of apple–that if we did what Lucinda had done, if we stayed the course and kept making strong albums and touching all the bases of the indie rock/folk circuit, we too would be famous one day. We would 1) have a hit and 2) be on Saturday Night Live, which were our two benchmarks of Making It.
In that moment it didn’t occur to me that staying the course was itself an extremely impressive achievement. Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jordan had something besides pure talent and hard work. They had stamina and longevity and a solid belief in their art and craft. Moreover, they had a kind of constitution that was made to endure the formidable challenges that a career in the public eye certainly throws at a person. It didn’t occur to me that the five of us all needed to have that kind of stamina in order to make it (again, I am defining “making it” by those two benchmarks above, however ridiculous that might seem.) Within a year it was obvious that as a group we could not stomach life on the road the way we had defined it.
And as I have said before, I am so glad we did not stay the course, for a million reasons; the biggest three being those who share my last name(s). In the aftermath of the heavy duty road years, I began to discover the delights of simply living. The charm of strolling a baby along the sidewalk. The joy of belonging to an organic CSA. The kind of fame one gets from living in a small town where everyone is famous. The amazing miracle of growing flowers and vegetables. And of course everything that comes with raising children.
The friend of mine who lectured me last week about savoring also suggested that I tattoo the word “pause” on the inside of my eyelids. Right after Jam for the Fan was over, my family and Katryna’s loaded up our cars (and Tom’s truck) with the furniture and memorabillia from the Nields museum, and as soon as we got home, we unloaded the vehicles and immediately got to work on our kitchen, which was scheduled to be gutted on Monday. We hauled box after box up to the attic, out to the porch to freecycle, back to the truck and to the Good Will and dump. I felt like a rock star when our new kitchen was established in our dining room, the pantry and store set up where the brick-a-brac had been. And I dove into the work I love to do–teaching, coaching, singing with little kids. One of my writing groups celebrated Bloomsday on June 16, and we listened to actors reading Ulysses together on WBAI. The weather turned beautiful over the weekend. We played the Clearwater Festival. My kids came along, and I pointed at a golf cart driving within arms reach: “Look, you guys! That’s Pete Seeger riding in that cart!” We celebrated Father’s Day by climbing one of the Seven Sisters on a perfect 70 degree day, with a picnic lunch at the top. “I am so happy,” I intoned, and I knew somewhere that I was, but I felt like the character in Joyce’s Dubliner’s, coincidentally named Duffy, who lived “a short distance from his body.” My mind was consumed with thoughts about everything I had to do: pack for the Adirondacks retreat, write a letter about Jay’s accident, another to Elle’s new principal, schedule clients, plan menus, buy food, figure out when to get to our CSA, somehow dust the piano, and make a schedule for finishing our CD, Ten Year Tin: The Full Catastrophe. The more I paused, the more Things To Do I remembered I had to do. This morning, I wanted to wake with the birds and take my quiet time on the porch. Instead I slept in (till 6am) and skipped yoga, checking my email instead. Do I think I am going to win an award for busyness? Am I subconsciously trying to recreate the whirlwind of my life on the road?
Another writer commented on a draft of this piece, noting that my posts about Jam for the Fans always had within them a certain quality that reminded her about musings on an old boyfriend–the one who was clearly not so great for you, but also the one you were sort of wistful about. The One That Got Away. She said, “It’s not the reality of the boyfriend that is hooked into our souls, it’s what that boyfriend represented to us at the time and still represents now. I think sometimes we have to figure out what we were yearning for back then– because it’s not ‘the boyfriend.’ It’s something about ourselves that we wish were true. And you may find yourself still yearning for that same thing, whatever it is, even though you are no longer trying to be famous in a band.”
Yes. I still have a part of me yearning for the fantasy that I had in my twenties: that if only I became famous, all my problems would be solved. It would be that easy. But as we age, we get that it’s not about ourselves. It’s not about the glorification of “me”-and for those who become glorified, the problems just get bigger. It’s about us, it’s about the “we” we create, the sweet, unique, dispensable/indispensable part of the whole we find ourselves becoming. And still the problems don’t go away. But we have company to share them with.
Big events, solstices, Christmases, birthdays, 20 year anniversaries of being in the music business–these are hard. They force me to confront just how challenging it can be to live my own mantra, to be in the present moment and show up for the joy. I am much better at showing up for the tragedies. I am extremely present for the tragedies. But today it hit me like a two by four–I don’t want to lose myself in busyness anymore. I don’t want to live a short distance from my body. I don’t have an answer about how I am going to change, but something has to change. But if I were my own life coach, I would start with a couple of things: one hard and one soft. I would say, “Sweetheart. I keep hearing you say you want to meditate, you want to take your quiet time. I think maybe you should just do it. Schedule it in. Do it now. Bite the bullet and set your alarm for 5:30 and keep that date as if your life depended on it. Trust that you will get enough sleep.”
And then a soft one. Music. Just let it in. Listen. Receive. Don’t try to master it, make it, understand it, analyze it, prostilytize it, manhandle it, market it or have an opinion about it. Just listen. Enjoy. It was perhaps your first love. Let it love you, and let yourself love it back. And when you are ready, imagine yourself once again to be on that stage at the Iron Horse. Go ahead and stare into that sun–because this time it’s setting, it’s over and it can no longer make you go blind.