The truly important questions.

Tags

, ,

It’s corny, I know – and I can’t possibly be the only one – but for the last couple of days I’ve been singing:

I’m goin’ to Kansas City / Kansas City here I come

As I type this, Shawn and I are in our car somewhere between home and the Folk Alliance International conference, which starts on Wednesday. We’re goin’ to Kansas City to perform an official showcase there, several late night showcases, and to gather and connect with others around the warmth of community and music.

In recent days, I have oscillated quite reliably between ‘excited-for-Christmas’ and ‘nervous-for-the-big-test’. We both did a lot of woodshedding, packing and repacking, and worked on preparing ourselves fully for this opportunity. Each movement a step on the path.

Then the inevitable questions bubble up. Not ‘Should we do this song, or that song?’ or ‘How are the tires?’ or ‘Should we leave Sunday or Monday?’ Nah, those questions had come and gone.

I’m talking about the truly important questions, like: ‘Do I have enough clean underwear and socks?’

As a wise person once pointed out, the journey of fifteen hundred miles begins with a single load of last minute laundry. Or something like that.

Whatever is on your itinerary, may all your socks and undies be clean and ready for the journey ahead!

The puzzle of calculating risk.

Tags

,

On a recent walk to the pond, Shawn and I noted the appearance of the first bob house of the season.

‘Geez,’ I said reflexively to Shawn, ‘that seems risky to me.’ We had both just turned a moment before to look down the stretch of the pond and notice the large gaping mouth of dark frigid open water just yards from where the ice fisherman was set up.

‘I’m sure they measured the ice, ‘ Shawn said quietly, ‘otherwise they wouldn’t be out there.’

Of course, I thought. Not everyone is as risk averse about this sort of thing as I am.

‘I really want to walk across the pond this winter once the ice is more fully formed,’ Shawn added, another idea that shivers my limbs.

It’s so fascinating how our feelings and needs lead us all on such a variety of paths – the ice fisherman wants to catch fish, and maybe seeks the peace and solitude of the bob house; Shawn wants to walk across a frozen body of water, seeking that same peace and solitude, and also fun and beauty; I want to simply stand on the beach, where there is plenty of peace, solitude, and beauty for my risk-averse bones.

That calculation of risk never ceases. If all goes to plan, this afternoon I will drive an hour to a gathering of folks who are hoping to learn from me in a music workshop offering. It’s still snowing as I type these words, and so the calculations are being run. When will the snow stop? Will the roads be clear enough?

A week from now, Shawn and I will be driving to Kansas City to the Folk Alliance International conference, where we have an official showcase this year. There’s always a risk in that long of a road trip – or any time spent in a car, really – and yet I feel as confident in all of those calculations as the ice fisherman does in their own.

The travels of both body and mind are plenty enough to keep us all curious, that’s for sure! So whatever you’re up to today and every day, I wish you safe and happy travels, both internally and externally.

So many ways to celebrate in so few days.

Tags

, , ,

I turned 47 this weekend, and to mark the occasion, I posted this photo on my social media, remarking that it had been forty years since it was taken. Though I don’t really remember the moment from the inside, there are so many memories that were conjured by the photo: the excitement of being a kid; the taste of cheap chocolate frosting; Seamus, our Irish wolfhound, hoping desperately for a taste; being nervous about sitting next to a cute boy; the unbelievably loud wallpaper on the dining room wall; the hiss of the radiators throughout that old house; my dad’s old Minolta that he kept in the dining room closet and brought out for these kinds of occasions; remembering how much I loved that shirt I was wearing, the one with the hearts all over it.

Just like that – forty years come and gone, like the birthday candles I blew out with a wide-eyed, Dizzy Gillespie expression on my face.

Forty years later to the day of the snapping of that photo, I found myself sitting in a beautiful barn in western Maine, witnessing the marriage of two people I’m just getting to know. The groom is a friend of Shawn’s, and now becoming a friend of mine. The ceremony was simple, sweet, and heartfelt. I sat with Shawn and two dear friends. I ate food. I met new people. I reconnected with old friends and acquaintances. I blew bubbles. I danced to whatever the DJ spun. I played some blues on an old Acrosonic in a quiet corner by request of the groom. I drank tea and spilled some on my dress. New deposits in the memory bank. It was an awesome way to celebrate life!

I hope that forty years from now, the newly married couple will look back at their wedding photos and savor the memories conjured by them – the warmth and presence of their friends and family; the promises they made to one another; the sparkle in each other’s eyes. And I also hope they realize how quickly – and hopefully, how beautifully – the previous decades have flown by.

There are so many ways to celebrate the fact that we’re alive, and we only have so many days in which to do the celebrating. So, get out on that dance floor before the music stops!

A sign of… something springing.

Tags

, , , , ,

Yesterday morning, after a really fun show with the trio in Rockport, MA the night before, Shawn and I woke up in the home of our fantastic hosts and were lucky enough to experience an ocean sunrise. We took a short walk to the water’s edge and spent some time savoring those precious few moments in its presence before we had to rush home for the next thing.

I could easily spend the rest of this blog post riffing just on the ocean – the feelings, emotions, memories, and sensations that it stimulates; the billions of years of life evolving on this planet starting out there in those deep and mysterious waters; the motion of planets and moons being expressed right before our eyes.

What I wasn’t expecting was the presence of about a dozen robins, living happily in the trees there at the start of our walk.

‘Robins?!’ we both exclaimed to one another, having to remind ourselves of the fact that it was January 8th in the northern hemisphere. Yep, it’s winter alright.

It’s almost like there’s something going on with the climate…!

I noticed my attention wavering and my mind spinning a little bit, pondering the changing climate, the impact that human activity is having on this planet that is home to countless species of life, feeling sad and angry. Robins are a sign of spring, dammit! These robins are a sign of something else springing.

And then my attention returned to our walk on the path, and then on the rocks, and then the beauty of the scene that we witnessed at the water’s edge. I’m so grateful for this life, for this chance to be aware of anything at all!

On our walk back to the house, I stood for a while under the trees and watched and listened to the robins, and also the Carolina wrens (another bird species whose range is expanding). They all appeared to be healthy, doing what birds – what living beings – do.

Life adapts – or not.

Then we bid a grateful farewell to our hosts and got in our fossil-fuel-burning car and made our two-and-a-half-hour drive home to prepare ourselves and our gear for a Zoom concert, to sing and play and share about our joy and awe.

And this morning, I am remembering a song I wrote a few years back:

If I can take one mindful breath
If I can take one mindful step
I may never know what kind of change the world will see
But if I can take one mindful breath
If I can take one mindful step
Then I can remember that change begins with me

May we all take mindful breaths and steps on this one beautiful planet that we share with all living beings.

‘Boring women have immaculate homes.’

Tags

,

It was a slogan that my mother proudly carried on a keychain, and a favorite of hers.

As this might suggest, she kept house only as necessary, i.e., when – GASP! – there were people coming over!!

Yes, the dishes were routinely done, and by hand – she often joked, ‘My dishwasher is six feet tall and has a beard’ – and the ashtrays and cat boxes were dumped and dealt with as needed, but I rarely saw her with a duster in her hand. The toilets and tubs were scrubbed ‘when they got bad’. And she certainly didn’t do windows. Old newspapers got stacked up, often for weeks or even months at a time; recycling was scattered about and put off until Dad could get to the dump on a Saturday morning.

But at the prospect of visiting company, she would become even more a bundle of nerves than she already was, hurrying around the house to catch up with the mountain of tasks that had been accumulating, vacuuming this and wiping down that, and thinking out loud the entire time.

There was one time of year when this routine, such as it was, would coalesce, and that was leading up to New Year’s.

I don’t recall anymore if it was a Scottish/British thing, or just a Mom’s family thing, but she didn’t partake in the spring cleaning tradition that so many others observe in this culture. She was instead taught by her mother that it’s bad luck to not have your housework done by New Year’s Day. So, I have lots of memories of my mother the week after Christmas, doing what was still called ‘the spring cleaning’ – windows/mopping/polishing/reorganization.

Of course, once I was old enough to carry an old rag and a bottle of Pledge, or tug a vacuum cleaner around the house, I helped out too – but my room stubbornly remained the cluttered mess that I enjoyed.

And this all had to be done by just before 7pm ET, which was when the phone on the kitchen wall would ring and my Granny on the other end would turn up the radio or TV in her living room in Scotland to transmit the midnight ringing of Big Ben over the phone line to my mom, who would stand motionless with the receiver to her ear, weeping the tears of homesickness.

This month marks 16 years since my mother’s passing, and also nearly 30 years since I moved out on my own to figure out what kind of housekeeper I would turn out to be (hint – I’m not boring).

Happy New Year, dusty or scrubbed as you are!

Coming and going.

Tags

, , ,

On this morning after Christmas, I am contemplating this quote from Joseph Goldstein:

‘It’s impossible to count on things staying the same, staying the way we want them to stay—because everything is always becoming otherwise.

On the precipice of a new calendar year, this seems especially appropriate.

And he’s right – it’s impossible. And it’s also painful.

So much of my own suffering stems from my wanting things/moments/experiences to stay the same, to grasp at the pleasant, to push away the unpleasant, to capture beauty in a jar and hold onto it for dear life. And all of this is a guaranteed strategy for unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Here are just a few things that came and went in my awareness this past week that some part of me hoped could last forever:

  • this year’s Charlie Brown Christmas tour
  • a flock of evening grosbeaks
  • that gorgeous sunset on the solstice
  • that bag of curry-flavored popcorn
  • singing in three part harmony with few dear old friends

Of course, the flip side of all of that is a list of things that came and went that I was eager to put in the rear view mirror:

  • an argument with a loved one
  • a headache
  • my worry about the winter storm
  • my annoyance with an aggressive tailgater

Every day, every moment, I am reminded that everything that arises will pass away, including my reactions and responses to those phenomena. It is the nature of all things. It’s painful and it’s beautiful.

As the day to swap out our calendars draws near, I’m reminded also of that U2 lyric: ‘Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.’ In one sense, this is correct: a new calendar year is an invitation to reflect on the past year, to plan for the new one, to resolve to change habits. In another sense, it’s not correct – everything is changing all the time, and each day or hour or moment can be framed as the start of a new year, a new slate onto which I can write my life. I can write words of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I can write words of gratitude and joy. I can write words that are simply observations of what is happening: I feel dissatisfied/unhappy/grateful/joyful.

However you’re feeling in this moment, I wish you a clear slate, colorful chalk, and a long and beautiful life in and about which to write.

Hark! These tired angels sing…

Tags

, , ,

‘Is my life today what I pictured a year ago?’

I had thought to write about something entirely different this morning – Christmas caroling, actually – and that built-in WordPress prompt got me thinking…

So, is it?

Sitting here at this table, looking at this laptop?

Looking past the screen at several inches of new snow through which the birds and red squirrels are now digging for their sunflower seed breakfast?

Watching the sunlight come up over the hills behind the house and light up those pines and birches just so?

Sipping the coffee that Shawn just made moments ago?

Listening to a Benny Green/Christian McBride/Gregory Hutchinson live-stream recording from earlier this year?

Feeling joyfully fatigued from another weekend on the road creating and sharing music and memories?

DAMN, this is nice.

But is it what I pictured a year ago?

Honestly, I don’t think I pictured anything too specific a year ago. I knew I was planning to be touring New England with Shawn and Craig with the Charlie Brown Christmas show. What I didn’t know for certain is that we would all have our health, our wits, and our skills intact, that we would shoulder through all the storms, literal and figurative, that we would be here at all to do any of it, and continue to deepen our connection to and love for and trust in one another. There is, of course, never any guarantee of any of that, for any one of us.

But yeah, this current moment, this frame in time, here and now? I’ll take more of this, please and thank you.

And thank you, dear reader! And Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! And happy holidays to one and all. Whatever you celebrate – if you celebrate – I hope it brings you joy.

The gravy of gratitude.

Tags

, , ,

Anything I want to be better at – piano, guitar, singing, songwriting, cooking, birding, gratitude, mindfulness – requires practice.

I’m slowly getting better at birding. I was so excited to spot this big flock of bohemian waxwings on Thanksgiving Day up in Gorham, NH!

I’m getting pretty good at gratitude, too.

My gratitude practice used to be this: at the end of the day before bed, I’d write down a few things for which I was grateful that day on each page of a 4ishx3ish composition notebook. One little page per day.

Over time, the daily exercise moved from pencil and paper to simply contemplating these things before turning in for the night.

After years of practice, I find that, no matter how sour my mood, I can almost instantly tap into a feeling of gratitude for even the smallest thing, like, ‘I’m grateful that I’m wearing my favorite socks right now.’

I think of any skill as a delicious gravy, and my brain is the biscuit into which it is (hopefully) settling and improving.

Many of us gathered this past week around food and connection to family – and perhaps the sharing of their gratitude – on a day that is set aside for these things. Then, many of us got swept up the very next morning – with Thanksgiving dinner still in the belly – in the hustle and bustle of Black Friday, spending money on things, looking for deals, perhaps pushing past others to get this or that for this person or that person.

Many of us have gotten a lot of practice being consumers in our lives. And many of us are ‘good’ at it.

I wonder – does the skill of being a ‘good shopper’ lead to a more satisfying life? That’s a question we can each quietly ask ourselves, and then listen carefully for the answer.

I also wonder – wouldn’t it be amazing if we could, as a culture, move away from these practices of acquiring stuff and instead creating and sharing more meaningful experiences? To bring more reflective practices into every day, week, month, year, moment of our lives? To cultivate more gratitude, more sit-down meals with loved ones, more connection to one another and to our experience in each moment?

Let that gravy sink in.

Still here, still thankful.

Tags

, , ,

Winter weather suddenly arrived here this week, and with it, a flood (or a flurry, if you will?) of questions:

Where are all my gloves and hats?

Is it time for a new winter jacket?

How are my tires?

And again: Am I ready for this?

And there was another arrival this week – about a dozen evening grosbeaks, eager for food. And they’ve stuck around, too! It’s been awesome to watch them. Every day, about mid morning, they all show up, eat for a while, and then disappear.

The birds are always ready for anything, so long as they have enough to eat.

Ah hell, me too.

Yesterday marks 24 years since my father’s death. That seems impossible to me. I’ve now lived more than half my life without him. That seems impossible to me, too…

…because it is impossible.

Yes, he’s been gone physically – and though I don’t believe, as many do, that I will see him again or that he’s still with me in some metaphysical sense, I do believe – dare I say, know – that he is still right here. In half my genome. In my humor. In both my taste and ability in music. In the values I hold dear. In the mirror.

And my mother is equally still here, too, in those same places. And I thought of her immediately when those grosbeaks arrived. She loved feeding the birds, and in particular enjoyed the many grosbeaks that visited the yard when I was growing up. In my rebellion, I pretended not to notice. It wasn’t until the last couple years that I finally fell in love with the birds, too.

This week, many of us will gather with loved ones to eat too much and shoot the breeze. Every day of the year, every moment of the day, there is so much to be thankful for – family, friends, birds, memories, shelter from the cold, winter tires, home-cooked meals, even grief. Happy Thanksgiving.

Hey me! Hey you! How are we?

Tags

,

It’s a question I find myself asking on the regular:

Am I ready for this?

Whatever it is – prepping breakfast; tonight’s performance; writing a blog; temps in the 30s; the Friday morning phone interview; driving to Massachusetts; the first faint flakes of snow that drifted like campfire ash in the morning air; responding to a text from a friend in the hospital – I find it’s good to check in with myself, before doing anything, to ask myself with genuine curiosity and care: How are you doing?

Just asking the question can help calm any nerves or doubt I might be having. It can also bring me into closer contact with that anxiety, and by doing so, allow that anxiety to express itself in the body, and then quickly subside. I have found that it’s a helpful practice.

‘How are you?’ is a phrase so commonly uttered by most of us in initiating conversation with others that I sometimes wonder if we have lost touch with the meaning of the words.

On our long drive home from Texas recently, we stopped for the night at a cheap motel somewhere in upstate New York. I walked into the office to check in, and an elderly gentleman greeted me with a nod of his head.

I said, ‘Hello.’ He replied, in a small, gentle voice, ‘Hello.’

I asked, ‘How are you?’ – and with genuine surprise in his voice and in his raised eyebrows, he answered about an octave higher, ‘WHAT?!’

I was startled! I chuckled and asked again, ‘How are you this evening?’

He relaxed a little and smiled, nodding his head and answering in a heavy Indian accent, ‘Very well, very well, thank you.’

The shock in his ‘WHAT?!’ has stayed with me ever since.

Being genuinely curious about the well-being of ourselves and others and then expressing that curiosity is one of the simplest acts of lovingkindness that one can practice. Try it! Ask yourself – with curiosity, and with regularity – how you’re doing. And when you ask someone else how they are doing, really connect with the meaning of that phrase, with the intention behind it. You might be surprised at the answer!