Books, Ballet and Suzuki

posted June 21, 2010

… The quiet stars came out, one after one;
The holy twilight fell upon the sea,
The summer day was done.” – Celia Thaxter

Katryna and I finished the draft of our book this week. By “finished” I really mean our editor at Shambhala now sees what we have: almost 200 pages of text in various degrees of polish. There are a few places where we write, “Don’t despair! I promise to finish this next draft!” and “Confusing. Sorry.” And “That part about that thing we talked about in the car goes here.” There are some typos and inconsistencies. I’m still not sure about the whole last third of the book. But that, after all, is what first drafts are for.

I noticed as I was getting closer to our deadline that I became surprisingly interested in decluttering my house, cleaning out the fridge, washing the windows (isn’t it true that it is impossible to get any kind of meaningful writing done with smudged windows?) and sorting through every single article of clothing Elle, Jay and I own. I alphabetized our entire library. I made about seven trips to Good Will. And then I got down to work.

The above notwithstanding, I love writing. I love the whole process: from the first giddy splashes to the nit-picky edits. I love to sit with my hard copy print out, a red pen and a cup of green tea, writing notes to myself (and the audience–and in this case, often to my sister) in the margins. I am sad to take a break; I feel like Katryna and I have just found our momentum. But the last editor I worked with forbade me to touch the book while she was reading it. “Think of it as sending your kids away to summer camp,” she consoled me. So I am on a forced hiatus.

Life has changed since the last time I wrote a book for a publisher. Back then, I had no day job; just gigs on the weekends. A few weeks before my due date, I would cancel everything, stop making phone calls to my friends or answering their emails, and hole up in my house reading my manuscript and re-writing until it seemed perfect. I’d send it to my publisher and they’d take three months to get it back to me. There were always major re-writes, but I had time for that.

This book is different. Today I have a husband, two small children, a full life-coaching practice, HooteNanny, a house to clean, cars that need mufflers, a yoga practice, friends whom I refuse to put off, and, oh, yeah–those gigs still. Most weeks, I get about two hours of writing in, max.

The weekend before the book was due, I tried to clear the decks to finish. Still, I had to take Elle to her ballet rehearsal, and then her ballet recital, go out for dinner to celebrate her, run a writing retreat, have dinner with my mom friends, run music at church on Sunday and show up for Father’s Day.

Her recital was stunningly great. What’s not to love about little kids on stage? (Make-up and hair spray and stage moms. But other than that, nothing.) Jay sat on my lap and watched the whole show, transfixed. He seemed at first to have a crush on a three-year-old dancer named Amy. His new favorite game is to race around the house, screaming, “Amy! Amy!” and hurling himself on the couches in ecstasy. But then I found out that Amy was actually his tormentor, and that he might be suffering from a kind of PTSD. We caught him shouting to Invisible Amy, “NO, Amy, I DON’T WIKE DAT!”).

Elle shuffled onto the stage with the other Little Clowns (including William) and they proceeded to do their dance, which was mostly composed of “clown kicks”: straight legged kicks with straight backs and hands at their sides. Then her costume started to fall off, which was my fault since I hadn’t fastened it well enough. An older dancer rescued her, and she went back to her clown kicks and twirls.

Oh, life. Sweet, sweet life.

It was the singing at church on Father’s Day that did me in. Penny was on vacation, so I took over and sang songs my father taught us when he and my mother ran something called Junior Worship back in the 80s at our Presbyterian church. I led the congregation in “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” and “Lonesome Valley” (“You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley/you’ve got to walk it by yourself/ Ain’t nobody else can walk it for you/You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”–new lyrics by Woody Guthrie). I also sang a couple of our original songs: “We Go To the Beach” and “I Choose This Era.” The latter is a song I wrote for Elle a month before she was born. The last verse goes like this:

I’ll take you to the ocean
To every edge that invites me close
And there I’ll make my vow to you
Before everything I love the most
There’s danger in the ocean
Danger in the sun above
But I’ll put my arms around you
And surround you with my love.

Something shifted inside me as I sang this song, Tom sitting next to our friend Kris who’d come to visit. Jay was trotting back and forth between Tom in the back of the Parish House and me behind the baby grand. I thought of the Gulf and the devastation. I try–most days–not to think of it, using as an excuse all that I wrote about above: the kids, husband, coaching practice, car muffler, etc. etc. But the Gulf is me. It’s you. We’re punctured. We are drenched with oil. We are soiled. We have soiled.

So I cried a little, and that was fine, except I left the church feeling like either Orpheus or the Scarecrow, depending on your preferred cultural reference. (Orpheus was a guitar player–ok, lyre, but details–who, after losing his true love Eurydice due to some kind of cruel faith test, went mad, and was eventually torn to pieces by Dionysius’s crazy consorts the Bacchae. The Scarecrow was (temporarily) torn limb from limb by the notorious winged monkeys who were trying to protect the Wicked Witch of the West. “First they took my legs, and they threw them over THERE! Then they took my arms and they threw them over THERE!”)

Why torn apart? I felt, in the moment, connected to my audience, and as though I’d given them a gift, a gift that was given to me by my parents. I love to sing. But there was something missing in the playback loop. People came up to me and thanked me, and I could tell they were moved, but I didn’t feel connected.

I used to be able to use myself up on the stage; turn myself inside out and pour forth all the bits of me, night after night. I knew I’d be put back together by the next morning. But lately, as I become more embodied, perhaps, I don’t seem to put up with this ritual as handily. Maybe it’s the yoga. Maybe it’s motherhood, Maybe it’s breastfeeding. But something has changed.

Motherhood is a process of turning oneself inside out and pouring forth everything one has. Mother birds feed their young their own regurgitated dinner. As tired as I have been recently, I still have to put my kids to bed. Jay has figured out how to climb out of his crib. Last night, he was up playing the Amy Game (screaming her name, running as fast as he can across the house and hurling himself so powerfully onto the couch that his legs fly up backwards over his head.) Elle now plays the Amy Game too, but she has been afraid lately; she wants more cuddles. She wants more Mama.

So do I. All stereotypes of the procrastinating writer to the side, I believe my recent fervor to declutter and clean my house is a way of desperately trying to mother myself. For about a month now, I can’t leave our bedroom in the morning without making the bed. I can’t leave the sink with dishes in it. It seems essential to survival to take care of myself and my family in this way. When I do these things, I feel comforted. Mom’s home.

I think this is why the stereotype of procrastinating artists cleaning madly instead of working on their drafts persists. It’s true. The inner parent needs to let the inner child that she is there, watching from the wings, tying the costume on, making sure to provide an audience. And so before the child can perform, the parent needs to clean.

I was telling a client today that I think of most of our work together as being about seeing our thoughts as books. Books, of course, are thoughts–very organized thoughts, but thoughts none the less. That is all they are: they have no authority other than what we bestow on them. Someone wrote the Bible just as someone wrote The Veleveteen Rabbit and Skateboarding For Dummies. Some people have more organized minds with more organized thoughts than others (Tom was just marveling at a colleague whose mind he compared to a library. “Mine, on the other hand,” he said, “Is sort of like our garage. An old sneaker here, a rusty pitchfork there…”) When we can start to see our thoughts as close-able, we can stop responding from annoying habitual reactions and instead go, “Oh, there’s that book from my childhood. The one where boys are bullies and only like the thin girls.” Or, “The one where Dad stonewalls Mom and the only one who gets attention is the one who’s always getting injured.” When we can start to see our thoughts as books, we also start to take care of ourselves, monitoring what goes in to our consciousness in the same way a good parent prevents her kid from watching horror movies when his little synapses are still forming. (Or, for some of us, ever.)

Any kind of mindfulness practice helps us see our thoughts as books, and can help us not to pull them off the shelf and dive into them, becoming engrossed in the story. I admit to having a meditation practice, but I also like to look for other opportunities to be mindful since I’d rather do almost anything than sit still.

Elle just started Suzuki violin lessons. Part of the deal is that the parent (and it can only be one parent) must agree to attend these lessons, observing and participating, even practicing with the child (daily). I was skeptical at best, terrified at worst. I never would have gone for this–Suzuki runs somewhat counter to my own music ed philosophy which more accurately resembles what my grandfather would have called a well-organized zoo.

Except Elle came up with the Suzuki plan herself. She hounded me for nine months to learn the violin. Today, she ran up three flights of stairs to my office, shouting, “Is it time to go, yet, Mama?” On the way there, I mused, “I’m not actually sure where Emily lives…”

“What?” She cried from the backseat. “Do you have her phone number, Mama? Can you call her?”

“I think I know the way, it’s just that I’ve never been there…”
“Call her, Mama! Call her! Is this the way? Are you sure this is the way?”

Jumping out of the car, she clutched her little violin case to her chest with one hand and held mine with the other. Emily, her teacher, opened her door and let us in. In one half hour, she taught Elle how to stand, how to hold the bow, how not to touch the “magic part” (horse hairs), how to move her body up to four ascending notes, and down to the same descending ones. She gave us “Mississippi Hot Dog” to practice on “shoulder violin” (a scarf on her left shoulder), drew a violin on her left hand and a bow on her right, showered her with stickers and sticker charts and kept the little violin “for a sleepover” for the week. Next week, Elle will get to play it.

The child is giddy. “Can we practice as soon as we get home, Mama?” And we did.

As for me, I was transfixed the entire time. I can’t remember when my attention has been so completely riveted. Sitting on my observer chair, watching my daughter’s straight back, her little shoulder blades riding against the straps of her way-too-big-sundress, raising and lowering her bow (looking extra dandy with a tiny straw hat at its tip), playing rhythm games with Emily’s set of cards) I felt used in the most exquisitely perfect way. Does she love music because I love music? Does she love music because she’s gone to HooteNanny since she was 3 months old? Or does she love music because music is inherently fun? Who knows. But today I am celebrating the fact that I have a daughter who thinks its as fun as I do to tap out different rhythms on the ground, and whose biggest concern was that Jay might want to touch the forbidden magic part of the bow.

“Mama,” she said on the drive home. “When Jay’s a big boy can he play violin too? I want him to.”

I want him to, also. But for tonight I will settle for him not playing the Amy Game and instead curling up with me and falling asleep in my arms. For today,I can close the book on all my plans for my kids and just celebrate the long, warm June day.

The Comments

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  1. The young girl and violin part of this tale is absolutely riveting. And the books and our lives moral is swelling with a zen like sensibility. Wonderful advice, thanks again for it.

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