Thursday, August 07, 2014

Falcon Ridge 2014 Highlights


The weather. No rain! This is the first time in my memory that that's been the case. Usually it's a mud bath.

Amelia playing with us on the main stage.

Kit Karlson, our producer, playing bass and accordion on the main stage.

Sturgis Cunningham playing with us on the main stage.
Longtime Nields fans really getting "Wasn't That a Time." Not to mention, playing that song for the first time ever in front of an audience and not crying through it. Singing that song to those people felt like a pure communication.


My aunt Elizabeth surprising us. She has never come to Falcon Ridge before. Oddly, my father and I had just been talking about how she wonderfully surprises us all the time by showing up unexpectedly.

Seeing Cheryl Wheeler, Christine Lavin, Don White and Tom Paxton at lunch.

The Pete Seeger workshop on the workshop stage. Here's what was sung:

Annie Wentz: Guantantamera
Tom Paxton: Ramblin' Boy
Ann Armstrong & Stephen Hughes: Lonesome Valley
Joe Jenks: original song for Pete, based on his HUAC testimony. SO COOL!
Louise Mosrie: Down by the Riverside
Magpie: Letters to Eve
Radoslav: Viva la Quince Brigada
John Gorka: The Water is Wide
Us Nields: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream (I played piano for the first time ever at FR!)
Kim and Reggie: original song for Pete "High Over the Hudson"
SINGALONG PORTION:
Where have all the flowers gone
This Land
We Shall Overcome

Going out to dinner with my whole family, including Aunt Sarah, Aunt Elizabeth, her boyfriend Marcus, his son Jason and grandson Max. Seeing my parents. Spending the night with them and my mom's lifetime best friend, Joan Wallstein, who is my kids' adopted grandmother.Getting to go for a run with my wonderful dad.

Amelia joining us on the family stage to sing her awesome "Speak Up." Elle joined in on violin. Elle and Jay made about $50 busking, and they spent all of it on nutella crepes.

My mother racing up to the stage at the end of "Going to the Zoo" when we couldn't wake up Katryna, and the only thing that could rouse her was the promise that her Mama would take her to the zoo tomorrow.

The last workshop at FR where we played "Which Side are you On", "Irene Goodnight" and a finale with The Grand Slambovians playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Me channelling inner Janis.


Seeing the Duhks, an amazing band we met at Winnipeg in 2007. I love them!

Holding Jay in my arms for "Never Turning Back," possibly for the last time. (The above photo is right before he climbed into my arms. Here it is with him. Thanks, Rhiannon!)


Now. Back to work in the studio!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tracking Princess

Kit arrived yesterday, and he and Katryna and I got straight to work, running through all the songs, and refining some vocal arrangements. Kit's first instrument is the piano, and it was a joy hearing him play "Normandies" and "As Big As I Am." Also, we are organizing the Pete Seeger workshop at Falcon Ridge, so we spent part of the day emailing with the other participants. And we finished our newsletter. Today Sturgis and Chip arrived, and we spent the morning getting drum sounds. Kay is coming to take some footage, and bring us tea, help xerox the songbook for the musicians


From left to right: Dave Chalfant, Sturgis Cunningham (drummer), Kit Karlson (producer), Chip Johnson (genius boy).

It's 2:49, and I think we've wrapped up Princess. Yahoo!! Also, to my great surprise, Kit chose my Martin over my 1993 Taylor and Dave's excellent Guild, which I used for both Sister Holler and The Full Catastrophe.


We took about an hour and a half and maybe 7 takes to nail I Put My Treasure in the Rock. Chip and Sturgis are GENIUSES!!! I love playing with them. It reminds me of playing tennis when I was a kid. I am as happy as I have ever been.



Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pre-Production Week



Things I love about what's happened so far:

Monday, we met with Michele Marotta, awesome fundraiser for The Cancer Connection, to brainstorm about ways to raise money to pay for this album. More to come on this. But I feel we now have some great ideas, and I don't feel totally sick to my stomach about asking for money.
-We arranged "Love Love Love" at my house. We both started out in bad moods, and the ease with which we got the arrangement cheered us both up.

Tuesday. I drove up to Sackamusic, and we arranged "Wasn't That a Time," "As Big As I Am," and started on "Victory (Turn It Around)". Also, we talked about our Falcon Ridge set. Kit Karlson, our producer, is playing bass on the songs Amelia isn't playing.

We came back to my house, where our intern Kay was updating our mailing list and entering our shows into Artist Data. She rocks! Here she is:

And here is a poem she wrote at my retreat:
On Being a Millennial:
What gets me
What really gets me
Is that in my years of
Emotional pampering, of
Participational trophies,
Dozens of selfies
Of being told I can be anything
Now people can make a living telling me
How I'm ugly on the inside
-Kay Carambia

Wednesday. Back to Sackamusic. It's 90 degrees, and the guys are working on the roof. We figured out our Falcon Ridge set, after much musing on the requests we got on Facebook. We worked up "Joe Hill," "You Don't Have that Kind of Time," "Dave Hayes the Weather Guy," and had Dave come in to coach us on "Witness," "Wasn't That a Time," "Love3" and "Delilah." All we have left now is "Normandies" and "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream." Dave wants me to Travis pick "Delilah!" Whoa! I haven't Travis picked on a song since Sister Holler. So now I am going out to watch the thunderstorm and practice my Travis picking.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writing It Up in the Garden Summer Camp



Words can't really begin to express how much I loved the Writing It Up in the Garden Summer Camp experience. I am homesick for it already, even though I am still in the same home the retreatants gathered in. It was so much fun to gather daily, to keep my house clean (with the help of Liz Bedell and my wonderful new intern Kailey Carambia), to try out fresh summer recipes, to walk the labyrinth in the morning, to take a vigorous post-lunch power walk with the other writers in the park across the street, to hear the new work, to immerse myself in my own writing. I can't wait for next summer.
Here is something offered by poet KC Ryan on the last afternoon we were together. I wish you could have seen her as she performed this for us, approaching each of her compadres with a verse, like a gift. Thank you, KC!

A Hip-Hop Poem from an Unlikely Source
Ann:
crack the day open
writing up some hope when
curled up spirit
needs the Feast you're offerin'
Write It Up In The Garden!

Beth:
writing up Sweeney
tortured though he may be
thoughtful chronicle
offers back his dignity

Write It Up In The Garden!
Janell:
writing dissertation
too much information!
glad you shared Morocco
we'll await your publication

Write It Up In The Garden!
Jen:
two on Death's row
write him in her bed, yo!
wanna hear the rest of
how they're gonna let go

Write It Up In The Garden!
Jennie:
break up, break down
draggin' wounded Heart around
writing up the pain helps
point the way to solid ground
Write It Up In The Garden!

Laurel:
takin’ on Cancer!
questioning the “answers”
writing bittersweet show
free to take the chance here
Write It Up In The Garden!

Liz:
unmoored un-poem
searching for your True Home
brought it to The Garden
anchored by the writers’ bond

Write It Up In The Garden!

Nerissa:
singer’s voice, writer’s voice
supporting us in this choice
gentle shove to “Write It Up!”
and a Place to rejoice

Write It Up In The Garden!

Robin:
you were only fifteen
had to run away from Mean
writing wit and wisdom
a glimpse into the L.A. scene

Write It Up In The Garden!

Sarah:
gotta get it just right
might crash, might fly!
wrote it up and took us with
two as one, finding Sky

Write It Up In The Garden!

Sierra:
princess, warrior!
wrote so that we Saw ya
saved your own pierced heart
brighter future lies before ya

Write It Up In The Garden!

KC:
feelin’ terror walkin’ toward ya
what if my writing bored ya?
hid behind a pseudonym –
my real name’s Victorya!

Write It Up In The Garden!
Write It Up In The Garden!
Write It Up In The Garden!


written July 10 & 11, 2014
in celebration of an indescribably delicious week of Writing It Up In The Garden
by KC Ryan a/k/a Victorya McEvoy


Writing on the porch!


This is me with two of my oldest friends, Liz Bedell and Jennie DeGarmo Wilhelm, both of whom attended and wrote beautifully. So grateful for friends, especially those who have seen us through thick and thin.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weeds and Wheat and Suzuki Camp

My sermon today at West Cummington Church


Elle and Jay and I spent the week at Suzuki Camp, lugging our violins, soccer ball and a gigantic cooler full of snacks into the air-conditioned sanctuary of Easthampton High School. Shinichi Suzuki’s breakthrough was the realization that music is a language, and like any language acquisition, can best be learned from a very early age. As we learn to talk before we learn to read, so young musicians can learn to make music well before they learn how to read music; hence the stereotype of Suzuki kids playing Bach before they enter kindergarten. But Suzuki’s most appealing legacy is his insistence that music creates a beautiful heart, and that “tone is the living soul.” We parents support the kids in their practice primarily by ensuring that they create a space for these qualities. And we teach the children—or more accurately, they teach us—that music is the most direct and clear language of feelings there is. Children from every country in the world can gather together and play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" or "O Come Little Children" and perfectly understand each other. We can play with joy, with sorrow, with anger, with humor, and (more often) with a mix that cannot be named by words.

It’s been my experience of reading the gospels that Jesus’s parables operate in a similar post-verbal way, that the language of the parables, as with Zen koans, is designed to override our logical brains and hit us in the same emotional solar plexus that music hits us in. As Steve said a few weeks ago, Jesus was a shock jock. The stories he tells are intended to jolt us out of our regular patterns and think in a new way, away from dualism good/bad, black/white, to seeing things in a third way, having to do with inner experience rather than a set of rules and regulations. Like all his “Kingdom of Heaven” passages, we need to start with the present moment. And that means we need to include the body.
But what happens when we’ve heard a passage so many times that it just seems like wallpaper? What if we think we know what it’s about? Love your neighbor as yourself. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just as with music, some great song might lose its appeal when played 24/7 on the radio station (or Pandora, or Spotify, or every single day in Suzuki practice.)

Last week, Steve read us Jesus’s parable of the sower who sowed his seed in four different places: rocky ground where it could not take, shallow soil where it started to grow but couldn’t make it through the periods of hot sun, among the weeds and brambles where it was choked, and finally in the good soil, where it grew and yielded a hundredfold. When the disciples ask why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

And then he emphasizes that if they can hear, see and understand, they can be healed.

So, when I first heard this passage, at age 14 years old, playing Judas Iscariot in a production of Godspell (Godspell is basically the gospel of Matthew, with a lot of 70s music and dance numbers,) I was filled with remorse. I was the seed on the rock! I was the seed in the shallow soil! I was the seed who got strangled by the weeds! It never occurred to me that I was also the seed that fell into good soil. And it never occurred to me that––as Steve said last week––Jesus would often respond as an observer rather than an authority figure. So that when Jesus says “Those who have ears hear. Those who have nothing will have less. Those with an abundance will have more,” he was not endorsing this; just articulating a truth.

I want to approach this weed and wheat parable through a similar lens. I think a lot of us come to these parables with the attitude of, “OK, I am going to figure this out. I am going to listen and get it right! I am going to be good soil, damn it! I am going to pull out all the weeds. I will be vigilant.” And so we meditate, we pray, we do good deeds, we cook meals for friends in the hospital, we practice our listening skills, we compost, we use organic fertilizers, we drive Priuses. And then our friend gets cancer. Our partner leaves us. We get bitten by a tick and our brains don’t work any more. We lose a child. We lose our faith. Our soil turns rocky, or scorched or weedy. Why? Is it our fault?

No way. We are powerless over all these things. I know this when I witness other people in their tragedies, but when the seed falls in the wrong places in me, I still think “It’s my fault. I should have had softer, deeper, weed-free soil." But I am the soil. God made this soil! I cannot weed myself! The conditions aren’t always up to me.

I know and work with a lot of addicts, in recovery as well as addicts who are out there, dying, making their loved ones miserable, and these parables remind me how hard we are on our addicts. We try to control them, rope them in, force them to listen. If only you would listen! If only you would be like that recovered person over there, who followed directions. Just Said No! We put chains on their feet, we do urine tests, we make the conditions of their freedom so narrow in the hopes that we can keep the weeds out. Because our hearts break every time they use, and we think the solution is ever more control. But this last parable, the wheat and the weeds, gives the lie to this. We’re not the ones who get to rip the weeds out. That’s God’s work, and much of the time, it doesn’t get to happen in this lifetime. Those parts of ourselves that are weedy are often so entwined with the parts of ourselves that are big, wonderful, heartful, hilarious, loving people that we would destroy ourselves if we were able to uproot our weeds. And sometimes those aspects of ourselves that we find weedy are really useful to other people. I have a friend who is extremely organized, and she always sees the way to get the task done. Alongside of that gift, she can be kind of bossy and controlling––a trait she sees in herself and hates. She wants so much to be serene and mellow. But when she’s serene and mellow, nothing gets done. We all like it much better when she’s bossy and controlling, even though it makes her unhappy.

It’s also dangerous to try to do the weeding for someone else. How do you really know that weed isn’t wheat in disguise? (The word in the Bible is “darnel” which is a kind of weed that closely resembles wheat, by the way.) In another case of “Everything Nerissa Knows She Learned from The Beatles,” I’d like to point out that John Lennon’s aunt Mimi hated John’s guitar so much that when he finally got rich and famous, he made her a plaque that read, “The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make your living with it.” Now, what if she’d succeeded in weeding out his bad guitar habit?

We’re all this way; a glorious mixture of weeds and wheat. If I weren’t so spaced out and unfocused, I’d never write songs, let alone get up and sing and play guitar. If Bill Clinton weren’t such a womanizing swine, he probably never would have gotten elected. If my kids weren’t so opinionated and obstinate, they would not be the strong, healthy, passionate people they are growing to be. And if Suzuki practice weren’t hard, boring, repetitive, frought with discord, my kids wouldn’t be able to stand up with fifty other kids and play “O Come Little Children,” let alone the Bach BourrĂ©e.

In the Tantric tradition, there is a story about a demon named Rakta bija, whose name means Blood Seed. He is really bad. But every time one of the gods tries to chop his head off, every drop of his blood creates a new Raktabija—kind of like a dandelion. Pretty soon, the world is overrun with Raktabiji—terrifying demons! Finally, the gods call Kali, who is the most fearsome goddess of all. She wears a necklace of skulls and has big vampire teeth, and she comes into town riding on the back of a lioness. She lifts her sword and chops Raktabija’s head off—and then she sticks out her enormously long tongue and drinks up all the blood drops before they can hit the ground.
It is in turning toward our demons, our weeds, our addictions, our most shameful places, taking them in to our core selves, that we begin to heal. Remember, Jesus was all about healing, getting us to see with our eyes, hear with our ears, understand with our hearts––oh, yeah! It’s a body thing!––so he might heal us. We can’t heal the body without the body. And we can’t just cut off the offending body part.

So what about the fiery furnace? Is this hell? Is this damnation? Again, in the yogic tradition that I study, fire—agni—is an internal feature (often having implications of digestion). When we take our weeds and wheat in at harvest time—when we get to that place where we can look back at our experience with our seeing eyes and hearing ears and understanding hearts, with honesty and compassion—and I’d add, when the conditions are right (bonfire season=wet, not when we’re in California in forest fire season) we really can burn up the weeds and feast on the wheat. When we look back on our lives this way, everything gets used. We make amends for the harms done. We learn from our mistakes. Yes, we all want to be light and bright, positive and happy all the time. It doesn’t work that way, at least it doesn’t for me. My work is not to reject myself when I’m less than light and bright, but to take those parts in, with love and compassion, learn from them, digest them, use them as compost, and then use what I’ve learned to heal others, if I have experienced some healing.

And boy, do I need healing. I have to say, this passage speaks directly to me as a Suzuki mom, where my role is to go with the kids to their lessons and group classes and play ins, and most significantly, be their practice coach every single day while they practice the long list of tasks their teacher gives them. This means I am sitting for an hour and half a day with my two kids, asking them to do what is occasionally boring, repetitive work, certainly as boring as weeding a garden. Play "Twinkle" again. Ok, now with your pinky like this. That was great! Now do it with a tall head. The practice goes well when I can be playful and creative. Pinky! Jay is working so hard! Help him out here! Sometimes they come to practice with joy and enthusiasm and we laugh and I dance the minuet like Martha Washington, or Elle just plays something so well the hairs on my arms raise up, or Jay suddenly gets that he can play “Long Long Ago" as if he’s Idina Menzel from the Frozen soundtrack. And sometimes all of us cry in frustration, someone throws their bow on the floor, Elle stomps out of the room, Jay falls into his wet noodle position, I storm out of the room and resolve to quit this idiotic practice that will certainly, definitely kill their love for music.

But I hear over and over an over again, from grown up musicians, “I am so glad my parents made me practice.” Or “I wish my parents had made me practice.” There are some musicians who are completely internally motivated, but just as many are not, or are not so at first. I have no real faith, most days, that what I am doing with and for my kids is the ultimate best. I don’t know if they’re going to go in to psychotherapy when they’re adults to deal with their PTSD from having to play Bach Minuets till their heads exploded. That will have to be dealt with at harvest time, whenever that is.

Whenever that is. It might come sooner, it might come later. I started the week resolved to quit because Jay was so impossible and said he hated violin. The week ended with Jay declaring Suzuki Camp an “infinity” on a scale of 1-10, and telling me he wanted to play every piece through Book 8 (he’s on Book One.) Elle said she wished Suzuki Camp went for four weeks instead of one. And I got to see that the biggest problems with our practice had to do with me and my insistence that we do things the “right” way. I think my job is to help them weed out their bad alignment and wrong notes, when it’s really just to create the space for them to explore what their teacher has given them.

And The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. It’s not “when the kids get into Harvard on a music scholarship.” It’s certainly not “when the kids play the Bach Double.” As Jesus says at the beginning of our text, "This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: weeds mixed with wheat. We sort them out later.” It’s this moment: Elle concentrating so hard on her orchestra part. Learning how to deliver a punch line she learned from a joke told to her by two older kids. Jay running in his soccer cleats down the long corridors of Easthampton High School because he’s figured out his schedule and knows where to go to get to his next class. Elle handing out notes of appreciation to her friends, saying good job on your piece at the recital. Jay handing out flowers to his teachers, and kissing his fiddle goodnight. This, to me, is our weedy, wonderful Kingdom of Heaven.



Texts:
Matthew 13:12 “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]

Matt 13: 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
******
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fiery furnace, so it will be at the end of the age.41
*******
Mulla Nasrudin decided to start a flower garden. He prepared the soil and planted the seeds of many beautiful flowers. But when they came up, his garden was filled not just with his chosen flowers but was also overrun by dandelions.
He sought advice from gardeners all over and tried every method known to get rid of them but to no avail. Finally, he walked all the way to the capital to speak to the royal gardener at the sheik’s palace. The wise old man had counseled many gardeners before and suggested a variety of remedies to expel the dandelions but Mulla had tried them all.
They sat together in silence for some time and finally the gardener looked over at Nasrudin and said slowly, “Well, then I suggest you learn to love them… I suggest you learn to love them.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer Writing Retreat Day 4


It's Day Four of the retreat, and already I am telling myself the lie that there isn't enough time. This is my favorite lie, and I beat myself up with it regularly. A week isn't nearly long enough to write everything that I want to write (my novel, a blog post a day, one more song, a sermon...) To get to write the way I want to write, I'll need weeks! Eternity! How can I get more? I have many varieties of greed, but this lust for more time is unparalleled.

And the truth is, my poor kids are at their wits ends because when I am not writing, I am madly cleaning the house, doing the laundry (cloth napkins!!!) and weeding the labyrinth, trying to get them to practice their violins, cooking tomorrow's meal for the writers and not letting them have as much of it as they want.

I have two friends here whom I have known since before we were ten years old.


In the mornings, we all gather in what most people would call the living room, but what my kids call the writing room. I give them a prompt, and then we all do 20 minutes or so of Brain Drain longhand. This exercise (Natalie Goldberg calls it Writing Practice and Julia Cameron calls it Morning Pages) creates a hive-like effect in the room, all of us scratching and humming away before we each get up and find a new spot to settle in for the morning's work. All of us are working on our own projects. There's a memoirist (or five), several poets, a phD dissertation writer. Some are beginning projects, some finishing. I feed off the energy of this hive, and I've made good progress on the Big Idea, my novel, though it feels hopeless and impossible, as impossible as trying to keep the weeds out of my labyrinth. The root systems are invincible. ("Salt water and vinegar," says Sierra, whose grandmother is one of those wise women who knows everything, and who has a labyrinth and also raises bees.)


I'm working on my sermon. Katryna is finally home from England, and I got to talk to her today. My eyes welled up as I heard that voice on the other end of the phone, and I wondered how I had managed to live without her for the past 10 days? The answer: barely. But I did.

It's beautiful weather. We get to sing a show on Saturday at my church. We are the luckiest.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Summer Writing Camp, The Fiery Furnace and Sugar Snaps

It's Day Two of my Summer Writing Camp. The writers are just finishing their 3 pages of brain drain and are moving around the house, finding the perfect place to settle in for the morning. I just read them a passage from Dani Shapiro's wonderful book, Still Writing. In it, she reminds us that many fiction writers have no idea where their novel is going when they sit down to write. Part of the fun is in watching the characters lead on.

This is exactly what I need to hear. In my revision of The Big Idea, I still don't know what happens to my characters by the end of the book. I have ideas, but I know from bitter experience that when I tried to boss them around, the results rang false. I am still excavating the first half of the book, trying to get the voices just right. One of my main characters recently underwent a name change. Somehow, this changes everything about her--the color of her skin, her diction, her whole sense of self.

Writing this novel is hard.

And so I am distracting myself by thinking of the sermon I am to give later this month. I looked up the passage from the lectionary: Matthew 13. It's a tough one, full of images of sinners being cast into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Did Jesus really say this? Fire and brimstone! Yikes! I don't want to preach on this, and I don't have to--West Cummington is not exactly a lectionary following church. Yet something in the passage speaks to me. I want to explore it a bit before I give up. Jesus, as Steve points out, was something of a shock jock in his time. I want to sit with the shock. More tomorrow.

The last of the sugar snap peas, visible from the kitchen window. The vines are yellowed. Last night, the rain came gentle at first, then forceful. I ran outside with my kids and we whooped and danced. Jay stripped off his clothes and followed me over to the garden, where I gathered what was left--the still-green peas, and the shriveled yellowing ones. Violin practice is a struggle right now. Not enough time. No one--especially me--is behaving well. It's OK. We are learning. We are showing up, very imperfectly. I think that's our main job.