Why We Practice

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Like last month’s ground hog, I am poking my head up from the depths of winter to see if it’s safe to come out. Today’s thaw saw me abandon my work at my treadmill desk to dash out the door and go for a run in my neighborhood, slush be damned. I haven’t run outside in Massachusetts since 2014, and it felt like resurrection to do so. No wonder Easter takes place in the early spring. I came home with my lungs full of fresh air, a smidge of vitamin D from the cloudy sky, and a slew of endorphins swarming my bloodstream. I felt like someone had pulled a gigantic boulder off of me.

I haven’t posted recently for a number of reasons. One: we’re on album release. Our seventeenth album XVII came out in early February, and I can’t even believe the number of things I have to do to play the game of Album Release. There’s all the stuff we used to have to do in the 90s, like play a ton of shows, do interviews with press and radio, buy new clothes and get our hair done, scour the radio reports to see who’s “added” us. And then there’s the new post-millennial stuff like working Facebook and Twitter, and getting our e-newsletters out every fifteen minutes. And I am severely messed up in this whole “album release” department in that I have applied my 1990’s mindset onto my 2015 reality. I can no longer play five shows a week in five different states. I can’t even play one show a week in my own home town without hobbling around for days after (damn those Fly Boots! Fly boots, why do you have to be so cute? Why did you make me buy you—twice?)

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My family hates that I am going away every weekend. “All you do is work!” my kids shout at me, which is jarring because I think I am a slouch compared to how I used to be. I have streamlined my schedule to try to be available to them as much as possible when I am not on the road. My writing has been confined to two projects: finishing all the songs I agreed to write for folks who pledged to our crowdsourcing campaign; and continuing to work on my novel, The Big Idea (AKA The Big Neverending Source of My Ongoing Misery and Self-Loathing).

But the other reason I haven’t been posting also has everything to do with those kids. I used to write about them; about my struggles parenting my two fabulous, amazing, headstrong, independent children. But there comes a time in the life of every mother/writer where she has to draw the line and stop publishing information about her children, lest they sue her. Or refuse to practice their violins, in my case. (Here is one reason I make them practice their violins. Another you will read about farther along in this post.)

So I will stop writing about them, but not before I say a few last words. My kids astound me. Every month, they become more creative, independent, funny, wise, challenging and demanding. And my struggle is that I, in my nose-to-the-grindstone way, have forgotten how to play. Most of what my kids want from me is to play with them. That, and to let them have whipped cream on their orange slices, and to read to them and cuddle with them (still. Thank God). But playing is hard for me. I know it’s hard for a lot of parents, especially a lot of moms, so I know I am not a freak. But I feel like a freak none-the-less. I also hate being cold, and therefore anything to do with being outside in the snow, while the rest of my family lives for downhill skiing, sledding and really everything to do with white stuff falling from the sky. I have felt quite left out this winter, and I haven’t wanted to write about that. But I remembered, recently, that when I get into a funk, the only way out is to write; and not just to write in my journal, but to somehow publicly air my afflictions. Perhaps is part of my generational Facebook/Twitter/Blogger-Bare-All mentality––our form of confession––but when I work things out on this page, connections get made, and I start to get better again. Even so, I haven’t been inspired at all. I used to get ideas for posting on this blog*, all the time. Snippets of phrases would come to me during the day, and in the evening when I’d sit down to write with the writers in my weekly groups, the posts would pour out. Not so much recently.

My minister buddy Matilda and I are reading 40 Day Journey with Madeleine L’Engle for a lenten practice. Every day, I read a snippet from L’Engle’s writing, then take some quiet time, then do some writing. It’s gotten the juices flowing again. Especially today. Here’s today’s quotation:

“When I sit down with an act of will, either before the typewriter or to pray, I have to let go of my control and listen. I listen to the story or I try to get beyond the words of prayer and listen to God. Ultimately when I hear, that is the gift, not my act of will, not my act of virtue. It is pure gift. I guess my favorite analogy for the difference between faith and works came from Rudolf Serkin. My husband and I heard him play Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata better than Beethoven could play it. When the last note faded away there wasn’t a sound. Then, slowly, like the ocean waves, the applause swelled. Later I realized that we had been present at a moment of transcendence, of transfiguration. What did Serkin have to do with that? He practices eight hours a day every day. I have to write every day whether I want to or not. I have to pray every day whether I want to or not. It’s not a matter of feeling like it, or waiting until I feel inspired, because both in work and in prayer, inspiration comes during rather than before.”— Madeleine L’Engle  

This shook everything that was akimbo inside of me back together. Sometimes you just have to come to the blank page and listen.

At the beginning of February, we played a show at our hometown club, The Iron Horse. Katryna and I mostly play as a duo, but we live for opportunities to play with others. For this songwriter, there is nothing on earth to compare with playing with a musician who is better than me, who can take my song and breathe new life into it by finding the right bass line, the right treatment, the right harmonies. Kit Karlson, our producer and keyboard/pianist drove all the way up from Virginia to join us onstage, along with Dave Chalfant on guitar and Paul Kochanski, our longtime bass player, Sturgis Cunningham on drums, and special guests Emily Greene on fiddle, Amelia Nields Chalfant, Katryna’s 13 year old daughter on bass, guest vocals (and guitar on Gotta Get Over Greta.) My own Lila joined us on violin for our song “River” which the great Tracy Grammer had graced with her own fiddle on our album. It’s hard for me to say anything at all about this show; it was such a completely transcendent experience. (This is yet another reason I haven’t posted: how to speak about something that defies words?) But I have to try.

(This is the other reason I make my kids practice violin every day.)

The reason I can’t quit the music business has everything to do with shows like this one. How can we turn our backs on 28 years of the kind of daily practice L’Engle writes about above? Intentionally or not, Katryna and I have been working on our music since a day back in 1987, when a classmate pointed out that we sounded kind of good together. And the kind of daily work each of the musicians who took the stage with us has been doing on his or her own for years and years and years. And the kind of daily work we musicians have done to enable us to play with other people. It all comes down to the daily, to doing these small things which don’t seem transcendent or glamorous at the time, which don’t feel fun, but which add up to moments like the ones I had in spades at the Iron Horse. Like what? Like watching my sister sing a song I sweated over for years, and to see the tears in the eyes of the audience members who got it. Like seeing my beloved brother-in-law/bandmate Dave Chalfant completely nail guitar parts that I watched him create over the summer; his lines and colors the perfect expression of all I wanted to say in the song, without words. Like having Dave Hayes join us onstage for the song I wrote about him and the beautiful work he does for our community. Like having our beloved violin teacher Emily Greene jump on stage at the last minute to play Mike Barnett’s amazing fiddle part on “Love Love Love.” Like singing “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” with Kit on accordion at the top of the stairs, with no mics or cables, looking into the eyes of audience members who are also our dear friends, companions on what appears to be a life long journey, hearing them sing along. Harvesting the fruits of many, many years of labor.

And so I have my practice today. Read to my kids before bed. Snuggle them at every turn. Spray whipped cream on their oranges. And when the weather warms up, just a little, lobby to get them to join me in a 5K. Until then, I am going to hone my Crazy 8 chops. And keep practicing my piano and guitar, keep showing up to the blank page.

*Please note: This is my very first post on this new WordPress site, after eleven years of being a Blogger blogger. I am excited to join the WP community! Let me know what you think, and if you notice any difference. I welcome comments and will do my best to respond to them!

4 thoughts on “Why We Practice

  1. As you keep returning to the blank page (or blank recording tape or empty stage), know that legions of fans eagerly await the magic that you produce.

    Reading your words (or lyrics) and hearing your music flicks a switch in my brain that lets the light in. Great artists inspire me to do my own work (just as L’Engle was inspired by Serkin, and you by L’Engle.) I tell my future-teachers that they will never truly know the impact of their work, but they should still pour their hearts into teaching if only for the intrinsic awards. The rest takes care of itself.

    Welcome back.

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