Day 24: That Dream Everyone Eventually Has

Waiting on a roof….

It happened last night, a couple of hours before the lunar eclipse. I was in a spaceship circling the devastated earth, with my family, including my parents. All the trees had been uprooted in the great war, and all the water had been poisoned. The only food would be squirrels, while they lasted. “And,” I said to my concerned parents. “You never taught us how to hunt, because you never knew how to hunt.” My mother furrowed her brow and shot a quick look to my father. He could not save us. It sunk in that not only would I die, but all of civilization.

The great grief I felt in the dream did not lift upon awakening at 3:10am. I lay in bed and thought of Neil Young’s song written almost fifty years ago:

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver
Space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun,
There were children crying
And colors flying
All around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun.
They were flying Mother Nature’s
Silver seed to a new home in the sun.
Flying Mother Nature’s
Silver seed to a new home

But in my dream, we were like Wall-E without the planning. We were just escapees on a fossil-fuel rat-a-tat ship, circling madly in search of some spot of the planet that was safe. But we had no resources. No skills that would serve us in this new world. And no guarantee that the new world could sustain itself, let alone us.

I was thinking about what a
Friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie.

Later that night, I dreamed I hunted my Reader down in her apartment. I knocked on the door, and she answered, drenched in tears and sweat. “Oh, honey!” I said. “It’s OK! I just wanted to know if you’d read my manuscript.” And then, I intuited (as one always seems to in dreams) the truth. “Are you….pregnant?”

“Well,” she sputtered, starting to cry again, “Well, yes. But I haven’t told anyone yet.” She was wearing a red satin party dress, and she turned to let me in.

I followed her. “It’s going to be great!” I promised. “Congratulations! And you don’t have to pretend to be anything you’re not. We can be friends.”

“Oh!” she said. “I was trying to keep up an appropriate and healthy boundary.”

“No need!” I sang gaily.

Then I woke up again.

The weekend was intense. My family participated in Jackson Street School’s International Night. The Nields lent out the sound system, which meant that it was run by a thoroughly unprepared incompetent me, which only was possible through the patience of my friend Pallavi. Somehow, between the two of us, we rigged my phone up and got the right tracks to play through for a variety of dances, including a solo hip hop number, an Irish step troupe, some first graders who brought us all to tears with their Indian-influenced dance, complete with costumes, a group of belly dancers and this amazing group from Cape Verde. I wish I had video. They were tremendous, and made me wish I could dance.

The next day, the Nields had a show in NYC at Rockwood. The show was great fun. We debuted the new song “Follow That Girl,” and we played a lot of material from the 90s. A group of Trinity College alums had reunited to celebrate all their 40th birthdays. And another group of 40year olds were high school students when they’d first seen up play “Ash Wednesday” at their Catholic school. Back in 1993,we’d had to get permission from the very cool woman who hired us in order to sing that song. She had gotten a gleam in her eye when she assented, and it turned out one of their classmates had just been expelled for getting pregnant. None of us has ever forgotten that show.

I was reduced to my usual puddle of tearful exhaustion for the next two days. I don’t know why I don’t get it by now, and just book myself into an asylum on the Sunday after a show. Instead, I got up and wrote the band’s newsletter and spent the day doing our finances. I tied myself in bigger and bigger knots, trying to figure out a way to relax. But it was as if I’d forgotten how. I vowed to quit everything I do.

I recovered by Tuesday. I sent out a survey to the writers who come to my weekly groups and weekend retreats to find out what they really care about. It seems they want soft couches and not too many people, my roast chicken, kale salad, and Tom’s crack brownies. They want each other. I am glad, because––smelling blood–– Restoration Hardware sent me its catalogue, and man, that stuff is ridiculously expensive. I sneak peaks at its images as if it were porn. It functions similarly on the shame nodules of our brains. Get this Marbella vintage washed-velvet Italian Jacquard coverlet or this Mustique teak chaise, or you may as well be offering your guests straw and hay for their comfort.

I finished another new song today. It is more complicated, musically, than most of my songs, and I am excited to arrange it with the band. We are playing this Saturday at the Iron Horse, celebrating Dave’s birthday, bringing our kids onstage with us. My mind zig zags every which way, and on Saturday it will have only one job: to sing. As I lay awake in the early hours before the eclipse, this was the thought that brought me peace. If I were circling the planet, waiting for my species to die, I would sing as we flew.

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.