The Perils of Prayer

posted September 26, 2004

Here’s the problem with praying: you often get what you pray for. When Katryna got pregnant (answered prayer #1), I finally saw on my calendar exactly that for which I had been fervently praying: four and a half months of unscheduled time! The time I needed to finish my novel The Big Idea.

“Wahoo!” I said. “I’m going to be a novelist! I’m going to get up at five am and drink coffee, and write all day long in my pajamas! My book will be finished by Christmas!”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love singing for a living, love writing the songs, love traveling around the country with my sister. It’s just that sometimes I have fantasies about having health insurance and weekends off. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to rely on my wits so much. I f I were someone with an honest trade, like a carpenter or a garbage collector, I’d always have work to do. If I run out of ideas, I have nada. This can make a person anxious.

True to form, almost immediately, I freak out. “If we stop gigging, I’ll have no money! How am I going to drink my Starbucks? Dear God,” I pray. “Please send me students so I can keep drinking coffee.”

“But how am I going to get students?” My crafty little brain wonders. “I know! I’ll put ads in local papers! That’ll get students. Soon I’ll have so many I can have a pantry full of coffee! The coffee will smell so strong I won’t even have to drink it!”

But no one, not ONE person signs up for my writing workshops because of local ads. They come by word of mouth and through my email list. So I call the Valley Advocate and say “Will you write a story about me so I can get students and not have to pay you for advertising?”

“No,” they say. “That’s not how it works.”

Even so, God sends me students in abundance, and I love them. I love reading their work and listening to them tell their stories. I love them so much that I decide I’m going to be a teacher. I am tired of being overexposed. Also, I am tired of staying thin and muscular. I want to be round and soft and have some padding to protect me from the glaring eyes of People Magazine and Those Who Judge, Singing is too hard. I will give it up.

“No!” says Tom, my sweet and smart fiance. “I love to hear you sing!”

“I’ll sing just for you, honey,” I say. “I’ll sing love songs and Bob Dylan.”

“No,” he says again. “You need to keep singing. It’s your gift and you love it.”

“I hate it,” I say. “I’m tired. My neck hurts. I have Stiff Neck Virus again.”

Stiff Neck Virus is my father’s term for what happens when suddenly your shoulders creep up to your ears and you have to turn your whole body in order to converse with the person sitting next to you in the car. I always get Stiff Neck Virus after a long weekend on the road or a plane trip where I have to lug my six thousand pound guitar.

“And that’s another thing,” I tell Tom.” I’m sick of carrying my guitar around airports. I refuse to tour anymore unless I get a personal valet who follows me around carrying my baggage.”

I pronounce “baggage” as though I’m French.

Tom rolls his eyes. “With what money are you hiring this personal valet?”

“With the money I’ll save from not spending it on my masseuse. Also with the Tax Relief credit George W. Bush is promising us.”

But Tom’s on to me. I give up singing for exactly one day. Then I’m back at my guitar, my delicious little 1930’s Martin and I write a new song called “Big Red.” And of course I want to play it right away.

But I have no gigs lined up after October 10 when Katryna goes on maternity leave. I freak out and call Patty.

“Patty! Get me some solo gigs! I need to play my new songs.”

“How about a tour of Europe?” she says. “You always wanted to tour Europe.”

“NO!” I wail. “Not without Katryna! I’ll be lonely!”

“Bring Tom.”

“OK,” says Tom.

But Tom also wants to do other things, like, I don’t know, his own WORK. He’s a writer too, writing a book in the morning, free lancing in the afternoon. Plus there’s Cody, our Australian shepherd with the loudest bark on the block. Cody’s a frustrated performer too. Someone needs to stay home and take him out for his Frisbee practice.

Plus, I remember why I needed the maternity leave in the first place.

“No Europe,” I tell Patty. “I have a wedding to plan. And a book to finish. And students to teach.”

“How about some house concerts then?”


Then I pray to God, “Please God let John Kerry win. And if you’re not concerned about the outcome of the US presidential election, and in the grand scheme of things, I’ve got to say, that wouldn’t really surprise or disappoint me if that were the case, then at least please God, let me feel like I am doing something inspiring and useful to make people more aware of their place in a democracy. Let us understand in a first hand and clear way how we all need to use our gifts to help the community, the nation. I am an American and I love this country. Show me how to be of service.”

The phone rings. It’s my old friend and former student Mark Oppenheimer. He’s just been made editor of the New Haven Advocate. “Hey,” he says. “Can you write a 3000 word essay about your transition from rock star to novelist? “

“Do I have to pay you to advertise?”

The thing is, as much as I want attention, as much as I want to write and have people like what I say and sing, I have an equal and powerful reaction against the exposure. It terrifies me and makes me want to hide in my room with a book about Buddhists or Catholics or Feng Shui. I realize this does not make me an easy person to please. Or to live with. I really love myself, but sometimes I drive me crazy.

So I go on a tour to the Midwest with Katryna and we stay with our great friend Jill Stratton. Two hours after I get home, Paul Shoul, the great Northampton photographer, is over at our house to snap my picture. And then my profile is on the cover of the free paper all over New Haven. I feel overexposed and as though my skin in being slowly peeled off my body and I want to hide and never be seen again after the paper comes out. At the same time, I want my picture on the cover of the Valley Advocate too. This is what it’s like to be published. Whiplash. No wonder I’m always getting Stiff Neck Virus.

The phone rings again. It’s Jill Stratton, the one who coined the term Folk the Vote which I stole for my first Blog post yea those many (two) days ago.

“Hey,” she says. “I know Katryna can’t fly because she’s too close to her due date. But will you be a part of my Folk the Vote show? It’s two concerts in swing states: St. Louis (MO) and Cincinnati (OH) with Carrie Newcomer and Lisa Loeb. Monday, Oct. 25 and Tuesday Oct. 26.”

And of course I say yes, because it’s my patriotic duty, but I am scared to travel alone, sing alone.

“God,” I say. “Is this your idea of a joke? Because I’m not laughing.”

Just to be clear, God doesn’t actually talk to me. I mean, not directly. But this is definitely a conversation we are having, me and the Forces of the Universe. And I am getting the impression that this Force has a sense of humor, even if (for the moment) I don’t.

The Comments

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  1. Nerissa, I can’t get enough…LOL! After a long weekend, that involved 2 of your shows in 2 cities, I had to check the Blog before bed. You girls were amazing this weekend. After only seeing you at glorious FRFF before this, I was incredibly impressed…I laughed (a LOT…Amelia’s egg and Amelia’s hair…Katryna’s GWB impression), I sang, I watched your fingers move over the fretboard and went HOW does she do that?!, and I cried…all in the less than 4 hours that I was listening to you and your sis perform. Thank you for your contribution to my wonderful weekend. Thanks for the great chat before the Tin Angel show.

    Please don’t become a garbage collector or a carpenter. Tom is right…your gift is your music! You said in the Advocate that you do it for the smiles and applause (among other things)…seems to me, you get lots of that.


  2. Nerissa, if I lived anywhere NEAR Northampton I would be one of your students. Someday, someday! I’m a writer too, and it would kick ass to have a workshop with THE Nerissa Nields. 😉
    I absolutely loved your Tin Angel show this weekend. You and Katryna’s chemistry together is fantastic. Good luck with Folk The Vote!


  3. Dear Nerissa,

    Congratulations to you and Tom on your forthcoming marriage! May you have many many happy years together.

    I read your essay in the New Haven Advocate and am looking forward to both of your books.

    A tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer! That’s wonderful.


  4. Hey Nerissa,

    Jen in Ohio here (sadly, near Cleveland), just wanted to say:

    1. Love the blog. My own=not nearly as interesting (though, if you feel compelled, feel free:

    2. Have you seen this posting by Michael Moore?

    It’s what’s been keeping me going over the past few days. I’m still nervous as hell about the election, and will be drinking heavily the night of, but this does make me feel, a bit less, puke-ish.

    3. I know you’ll be great at solo touring! No doubt! Life is all about those crazy, “how did I get myself into this?” experiences. I’m sure people love to see you perform in any capacity.

    4. Bravo on the New Haven Advocate article, very interesting, inspring, and cool.

    5. Don’t you think “Better Things” (Dar Williams version), should be on Kerry’s official candidate soundtrack? I was just listening to it on my iPod and I had forgotten how reaffirming it is.

    Alright, enough rambling out of me. Looking forward to reading more! 🙂

  5. Nerissa,

    You commented on the “Perils of Prayer,” and on sometimes getting what you asked for. Another, greater peril as I see it, is not getting what you asked for. That particular peril is a great discouragement to prayer. “So! Is praying always about me getting just what I want?” 🙂

    I’m pretty sure you once introduced “I Know What Kind of Love This Is” (in early ’95) in a terse way, imagine that. “This is about someone who got what they wanted, but not necessarily what they deserved.”

    We don’t always get what we want, or what we deserve. But fortunately, sometimes we get grace, that is, giftedness, even beyond our imaginings. Personally, I really never imagined you and your Nieldish buddies making such great music. That was a pleasant surprise. Music really is a gift that keeps on giving, even if it can be an incredible pain in the ass over the long haul too. Loved ones are like that too. Loved ones and music, things that mean a lot to us. “The ones we kick around inevitably are the ones that we love best.” 🙂

    The Iron Horse Saturday will be my 400th Nields show. The road to Graceland in search of Sweet Holy Grail has certainly been a blessing to me, but it’s taken its toll too. “Gas, grass, and ass, nobody rides for free.” 🙂

    It’s never easy to “Travel Onward,” but sometimes you just gotta make the most of it, play the hand you’ve been dealt, and keep playing the game. And there are always flowers and rainbows amidst the wind and the rain. Amongst shadows and light, choose the light! Grab for the gusto when you get the chance! Go for Baroque! 🙂


  6. Nerissa,

    I wish I could attend the Ohio Folk the Vote show (hell, for that matter, I wish I could see a show at the Iron Horse). Don’t be apprehensive about singing by yourself – just sing out, because you rock!

  7. If God spoke directly to you you’d have to be Amber Tamblyn. You’re much better as Nerissa.

    Besides, the rest of us would be incredibly jealous.

    Meanwhile, you’ve prayed for Time and Adventures. Looks like you’ve been given both.

    Go continue to do great things with all of your gifts.

  8. I just discovered this blog, it’s briliant! So this is somewhat of a late comment, but pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaseeeeeee come to Europe sometimes! And there are way not enough of your cd’s available over here, I have to order them all from the States (which luckily is cheaper thanks to the high currency rate of the Euro) 🙂 . And bring Katryna, I would love to see you both perform soooooooooo much.

    love, Anna.

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