The recipe.

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Here’s the recipe for all of my childhood Thanksgivings:

  • turkey
  • stuffing
  • smashed potatoes (thanks, Archie Bunker)
  • green beans
  • beer and wine coolers
  • cigarette smoke
  • snow on the ground
  • sitting in my favorite chair with a plateful of food balanced in my lap
  • dogs begging and drooling
  • cats pretending not to care
  • football on the old CRT box
  • music on the stereo after the game is over
  • the boxes of Christmas decorations coming down from the attic
  • early to bed with a book, even if there were no arguments or blowouts

My recipe really hasn’t changed too much. Sure, some of the ingredients these days are different, but all the essentials are still there:

  • delicious food that’s been cooking all day
  • people and animals that I love
  • the din of music
  • an eye to the sky
  • a comfy place to sit and take it all in

Food and music best served hot; friends and furniture are best if they’re warm and inviting.

Here’s wishing you a heart full of gratitude and a belly full of whatever floats your (gravy) boat.

Searching for the sweet spot.

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Recently, the chipmunk who lives just outside the kitchen windows has been, like all creatures around here (including us humans), busying himself preparing for winter. One of his preferred activities has been to perch on the back of one of our patio chairs and plot his moves into our two bird feeders; one is a hanging tube feeder, and the other is a teardrop-shaped window feeder.

We have figured out ways to deter him from the tube feeder, but there seems to be no shortage of energy that he’ll expend trying to reach the window feeder. He doesn’t seem aware of the sunk-cost fallacy. Several times every morning, I listen and watch as he climbs up between the two French doors, braces himself for the jump, and then goes whizzing past it, overshooting just about every time, and falling to the stones below. The first time I saw him do this, I gasped in horror, thinking he must have badly injured himself in the process. But nope – like the song says, he picks himself, dusts himself off, and starts all over again. And again and again.

scrape scratch scrape scratch

a couple beats of silence

then

WHEEEEEEEEE *thud*

I’ve not yet seen him reach the coveted cache of black oil sunflower seeds.

I’ve been pondering something Paul Bloom writes about in his new book about the human relationship to pain and suffering. He says that there is a sweet spot between experiencing too much suffering and too little. Too much or too little can debilitate in different ways; just the right amount cultivates compassion and resilience. Suffering can be voluntary (quitting or forming new habits, exercise regimens, medical procedures, etc.) and involuntary (abuse, accidents, trauma, etc.), and all of it informs our search for this Goldilocks zone, this path towards equanimity.

That chipmunk seems to have found a sweet spot in his pursuit of what he’s hoping for. I wonder if I have, too, or if I’m whizzing past it while reaching for something else?

‘Just look at the photograph.’

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While looking for something else in my storage unit the other day, I found two packs of pharmacy-developed photographs from last century. I grabbed the envelopes without opening them until that night after dinner. One of the gems was this one:

I gasped.

I never thought I’d see this image again outside of my own memory, due to the loss of most of my family photos years ago.

And then there I was, sitting in silence with Shawn, staring into the faces of my deceased parents.

My mind took off:

They look older here than I remembered them looking in this photo. I can tell that it was taken at the Hebron Community Baptist Church, and, judging by their clothes and the fact that my mom is actually wearing makeup (a very rare occurrence!) I’m guessing it was either for a wedding or a funeral. Or it could have been for an Easter Sunday. The colors make sense. But that guest book in the foreground…

After trying to assign a timestamp, I then tried to assign mood:

Wow, they both look so unhappy, or at the very least uncomfortable. I wonder how soon after this he was diagnosed? Hell, I wonder if he already had cancer when this was taken…and who took the photo? And how did it end up in this pack with others that are not related?

Then, some time later, I was remembering my old friend Tom Foley, and the occasion of us taking in a gallery showing of some local photographers’ work. He – a deeply gifted photographer, and framer too – was growing impatient with all of the chatter from other attendees and what he thought of as an overanalysis of the photos. He turned to me and said, a bit under his breath, ‘Forget all that and just look at the goddamned photograph. Do you like it? Does it move you? Yes or no?’

Yes, I love this photo. And it moves me. Very much.

So, I took Tom’s advice. I let go of all the need-to-knows and the questions and the attempts to make sense and assign meaning, and simply looked at the photo, which had been buried for years in the bottom of a cardboard box, now in my hands at my kitchen table, and I finally let the waves of memory and grief wash over me.

Checking on an old friend.

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For the first time in twenty months, I played piano at my old stomping grounds on Saturday night. I was subbing for Mike, who took over for me when I was invited back to the gig a little over a year ago and turned it down. (I even live-streamed a poor quality set on my phone, haha)

The whole evening was an interesting touchstone. I barely recognized anyone who works there now, barely recognized some of the interior of the hotel. So much has changed, within and without. I stopped by to hover for a few moments, as I would often do, in front of the magnificence of the lobby fireplace, which hasn’t changed a bit.

Ah, and there was my old friend, that beautiful Yahama, sitting there in the center of the dining room action (in need of dusting, as ever) – and when I sat down and lifted the fallboard and lightly touched a few notes, I remembered right away what I had missed about this instrument – it’s dynamic range; the feathery-yet-springy action; the rich lows, bell-like mids, and sparkly highs. Even pedalling this piano is soft and easy. It’s a piano that ought to be on a proper concert stage.

From September 2003 until February 2020, this piano was an important vehicle for so much of my creativity and expression. I captured and developed so many riffs and song ideas right there at that bench, cheered on by the occasional listening friend or appreciative stranger, and ignored by so many tourists and hotel guests for so many hundreds of hours on so many nights. The piano itself was a port in a storm located in the eye of another storm.

Though perhaps not the setting, I have certainly missed this instrument very much.

And I’m also happy to have made so many other piano friends in so many places – the Kawai on the stage of Deertrees Theatre; the Steinway concert grand at WFMT in Chicago; the Baldwin at the UU Church of Hinsdale, IL; another Steinway at Dragonfly Barn; my friend Betty’s Chickering in Asheville; that Bosendorfer I got to play in Houston – the list is nearly endless, and I’m so grateful for the life that allows me this luxury!

So, bye for now, Hotel Yamaha, and thank you so much for all the years of inspiration. Maybe we’ll hang out again soon.

Hello coffee, my old friend.

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It was a busy week of weaving myself back into sharing live music with folks in three dimensions. More miles on the car, more hours on my voice and fingers, more hearts and minds touched, more connections made. It’s been really exciting and strange and wonderful to be at it again.

And tiring, too, at times.

I recently started drinking coffee again, after many years of not. I used to drink it all day every day, until a kidney stone literally brought me to my knees in the spring of 2003. At a follow up visit, the doctor who looked at the analysis of the calcium oxalate stone I passed (after two of the most excruciating days of my life) asked in a very casual way, ‘Do you drink a lot of coffee?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well,’ he said gently, ‘you might want to consider cutting back.’

Oh, I cut back, alright. Cold turkey. And it really sucked. No tea, no coffee. I even gave up chocolate entirely until just a few years ago. The pain of that stone was enough to terrify me away from all forms of caffeine for many years.

My Scottish mother was a tea drinker, so I drank black tea in the womb, and then from a mug when I was old enough to hold it myself. I was hooked early. And I thought the black coffee my father drank all day at work and after church on Sundays was awful – until I tried it with cream and sugar. WHOA! That hooked me as a young teenager, and then I became even more of a caffeine fiend – until that damned kidney stone.

For nearly 20 years, I never stopped wanting coffee, never stopped melting at the smell of it, never stopped longing for the ritual of it. I had always wanted to be a ‘just-one-cup-in-the-morning’ person, something my 20-something self was entirely unable to pull off.

40-something me, however, felt ready, and so at some point during the pandemic, I started taking a sip or two of Shawn’s coffee in the morning.

At first, I thought I was being untrue to myself and to my principles, that I was doing something ‘bad’. I had the kidney stone right around the time that I was getting serious with my ex (the controlling and abusive one). He wasn’t a coffee drinker, so it was easy (well, besides the withdrawal, heh) to give it up. He also had very strong opinions about coffee and about addiction in general, both of which were quite harsh and judgmental. He thought – expected, really – that I gave it up for him. And I probably thought that too, for a long time – but no, I gave it up for me, and I started up again for me as well.

The two sips from Shawn’s mug gave way to the half cup of black I now enjoy every morning. Once in a while, I’ll have a whole cup—when we were in San Francisco, I took a shine to this little coffee stand a couple blocks from where we were staying that had a fantastic pour over, and I also drank a full cup most mornings at jazz camp in New Orleans this year (and also had some very enjoyable pour over from French Truck Coffee a couple of mornings). I also had a full cup of clever drip last weekend from 19 Drips in Ann Arbor, and had a sip or two from Shawn’s 16 oz from The Coffee Pedaler in New Haven yesterday. Otherwise, it’s been my little half cup here at home, taking sips while working on my morning writing and peeking out at the bird feeders.

I’m enjoying renegotiating my relationship with caffeine, and having so much fun sharing in the adventure of it with Shawn. The Acoustic Trio had some shows in Connecticut this weekend, and while enjoying some French press at the kitchen table and a discussion of brewing methods, our host got up from her chair, went over to the cupboard, and surprised Shawn and me by giving us her Aeropress that she didn’t use anymore. ‘Too much fuss for too little coffee,’ she explained with a laugh.

So, back home now, I’m sipping my first taste of Aeropress coffee as I type these words, and I really like it. And Shawn is having a lot of fun researching and considering more brewing methods. (Have we turned each other into coffee snobs? heh)

My life is now a Ray Charles lyric: ‘Ev’ry mornin’ when the sun comes up / [h]e brings me coffee in my favorite cup’ – and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Empty houses and full hearts.

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(A lovely little spinet that I got to know this weekend)

The acoustic trio was back out on the road this weekend, playing a short run of shows that included stops in Chicagoland and just west of Ann Arbor. It’s been exciting and strange to be out on the road again, and while I have enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, live-streaming, seeing and performing for folks in three dimensions again and watching the corners of their eyes tugged into smiles above their masks has been tremendously satisfying and nourishing.

In the time I refer to as B.C., I had no qualms about asking friends and fans about sleeping in spare bedrooms, on couches, sometimes on floors. It’s part of the touring experience – one of the many perks, in fact. This time around, I was feeling rather sheepish about reaching out and asking for what really amounts to a huge favor. We are still living through a pandemic, after all, and maybe folks would rather not be asked if three musicians can stay in their home, and not have to say ‘NO’ to someone that they would otherwise say ‘YES’ to, because they are feeling understandably uncomfortable. Hell, *I* felt uncomfortable, too! What extraordinary times we are living in.

I did put out a couple of feelers, and so did my Chicagoland buddy Joe Jencks (thank you Joe!), and much to my delight, he reconnected me with someone I already know who has an apartment right in the city. She was going to be out of town anyway, and why yes, we could stay there. Holy moly! An apartment all to ourselves in one of my favorite cities, quiet and clean and comfortable, and I even got to play some rags on her spinet on Saturday afternoon. What a gift.

We performed on Sunday afternoon in Hudson, Michigan, and I’d alerted some friends in Ann Arbor ahead of time, one of whom said she would be out of town, and that we were welcome to stay in her home afterwards… which is precisely what Shawn and I did last night. While Davy headed back towards Erie to be with family, we relaxed our travel-weary bones in the peaceful quiet of my friend’s empty house, surrounded once again by evidence of a full and well-lived life – and by love and support, filling our hearts to the brim.

This morning, the early morning light coming through the backyard oaks is especially clear and sweet, and all I can think is, I am a lucky so-and-so.

Finding – and letting go of – the elusive rainbows.

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Shawn and I hiked up to Champney Falls this week to take in some spectacular fall foliage. As much as I might be tempted to complain about the traffic this time of year, I understand it. I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to come here to take in such beauty if you’re able to make the trip? The yearning for beauty and awe is universal.

I’ve been struggling this week with a lot of emotional ups and downs. A strong network of supportive loved ones and a disciplined self-care regimen have both been my rocks. An important part of my self-care is getting out into nature, and this hike was just what the doctor ordered – stunning to the eyes and easy on the body.

One of our favorite parts of the hike is a place that I call ‘the cavern’ (pictured above). It’s a destination for rock-, water-, and good acoustics-loving hikers. It’s so fun to sing in this spot, especially in the drier seasons when you’re not competing with the sounds of the falls!

On this particular day, at this particular hour, with the sun shining down into the cavern just so, a small rainbow would appear, then disappear, then reappear, changing with just about each step. I found myself not paying any attention to where I was stepping, only focused on keeping the rainbow in view. This choice ended up biting me in the butt shortly after, when my wet boots proved to be too slippery on some of the mossier rocks, almost falling at one point! And hey, that’s par for the course for me, a lifelong klutz. I’ve always joked about how ‘I am fine motor, not gross motor’, and my dad used to often jab me with, ‘We should’ve named you Grace, kid.’

In trying to hang onto beauty, I miss out on ways to tend to other needs, like safety. Everything is about balance, physically and mentally. Those little rainbows that bubble up here and there with each step are waiting, like last week’s roses, for the right conditions to appear. It can’t be forced, at least not without some imbalance.

And when they do appear, wow, is that special!

And then a cloud passes by and the sun is now behind that white pine and the rainbow is gone – for now. Until the next one appears, I’ll try to keep my boots dry.

I know this rose will open.

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There has been a Rose of Sharon at the corner of the flower garden outside our kitchen window for as long as I can remember. Being the black thumb failed gardener that I am, I never knew what it was until our landlord-housemates told us this summer.

‘It’s never bloomed,’ they told me. ‘The conditions have to be just right for it.’

Every year that we’ve have lived here, it’s been the flowerless place where birds wait their turn for the feeders, where chipmunks hide from hawks and neighborhood cats, and where hummingbirds and butterflies stop with curiosity before moving on to other parts of the yard. Its slightly darker green leaves have fanned themselves in the sun and wind along with every other living creature in the yard, plant and animal alike. I’ve enjoyed many moments gazing upon it, wondering when, or if, it would ever bloom.

Finally, this summer, dozens of tiny, tight, pink buds appeared at the ends of its many branches – an embodiment of hope and promise. It was so exciting!

And every morning, I would check to see if any had opened – and each day, with a sigh, I’d notice that none had not. And each time, I would notice a contraction in myself – the disappointment that comes with clinging to the idea of being rewarded with beauty after a long period of both doubt and curiosity.

So, I decided to stop looking one day, and thought, Well, one of these days, the buds will either open or they won’t.

And then just the other day, I happened to look, when I went out to check on our spider neighbor, and there it was – an opened bud. A much brighter pink color than I would have imagined, and somehow smaller, too. I immediately took the photo and texted it to everyone else in the house: One of the blooms opened!!

And then, standing there in the yard, I began softly singing to myself a familiar melody from the UU hymnal, composed by Mary Grigolia:

I know this rose will open
I know my fear will burn away
I know my soul will unfurl its wings
I know this rose will open

Since then, all the other buds have remained tightly closed, which makes the open one so much sweeter.

The conditions, after all, have to be just right for it.

One of the first to feel the cold.

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On a solo walk to the pond this week, I saw three guys bringing in the dock at the public beach. They had tools, a boat, and know-how, and I and a few other onlookers stood for a spell on the beach and watched them work. All of us were there in the stunning warmth of sunshine, under the impossibly blue dome of sky and with barely a hint of fall color in the trees surrounding us. It seemed unbelievable to me that it was already time for this annual ritual, even though signs of it have been apparent for weeks.

Really what I was asking myself as I stood on the beach in the 70° sunshine is, Where did the summer go?

When I was a kid, summer seemed like an almost agonizingly long expanse of time, an enormous canvas of time to paint with swimming and practicing and reading and whatever else floated by and grabbed my attention. I was oblivious to the chill in the air that August slowly rolls out to us every year, and focused instead on the heat and the unstructured out-of-school boredom, and the many creative ways to beat or avoid them both.

Now in my 40s, I feel right to my bones how short the summers are here in New England. I am one of the first to feel the cold now, one of the first to go digging for sweatshirts and scarves at the slightest hint of any breath of air that feels remotely chilly.

I understand more and more those nuthatches and titmice who have been reliably emptying the feeder every day this past week. They’re preparing for the cold to come.

In another month, perhaps sooner than that, there will be snow on the summit of Mount Washington, visible to all of us down here the valley. Some time after that, I will be able to walk on the very surface of the pond that still now so beautifully reflects the surrounding landscape.

For now, though, like a slow-moving house cat, I will soak up every available moment in the sunny warmth.

You can’t go home again, but you can drive by and click through.

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I heard through the grapevine that the house I grew up in is for sale again. I hadn’t driven through Hebron in several years, so I took the chance recently to do just that.

I was over in Lewiston/Auburn (or what many of us called ‘The Dirty Lew’) one day a couple weeks back, visiting a friend and working on her songbook project. While I was in town, I stopped at the health food store that got me started on my journey into plant-based eating, bought a few things. I ordered Indian for dinner from a place on Lower Lisbon, and while I waited for it I sat and looked at kids playing in Kennedy Park, which shines like a jewel now. I can’t believe I used to live here, I thought. Look how much this place has changed.

I drove by my old apartment building on Elm. It’s still ugly and gray, still sagging here and there, though the doors and windows look like they’ve received an upgrade. I stopped briefly on the side street and looked up at my old second floor living room window, and six years of my early adult life flashed before my eyes – boyfriends and neighbors and old jobs and paying rent every month to a French man in a cowboy hat.

From there, I made my way towards Norway for community sing. I crossed the river and passed the Auburn Mall, where I spent hours wandering around with my mom, and later with friends, eyeing things I could never afford, spending all my spare money instead on cassettes at Musicland.

The route home took me past Lost Valley and Wallingford’s Orchard, over Jackson Hill Road and then Center Minot Hill. I took each turn as if I’d never left, hugging every curve of the road like an old pro. I zipped past Slattery’s store, where I once worked as a teenager, selling cigarettes and soda and slinging fried egg sandwiches and stocking shelves with overpriced canned beans and tuna. Then I was on the home stretch on 119, thoughts and memories bubbling up and popping before I could even notice them all. Hey, where’s my buddy Scott’s old trailer? and Oh wow, look at that new place and Geez, they cleared that nice area to build storage units…

I slowed down coming up the hill towards Burnham Road (now named with a green DOT sign for the folks who live, or maybe by now once lived, at the end of what was in my youth just a long driveway), past the fire station, and then slowed as I pulled over across the street from the old homestead. I turned off the car and allowed the silence to rush into my ears.

The house, gray when I lived there, is as white now as the ghosts that some probably believe there – not me, though. The ghosts are all in my memory. I sat and ate a little of my takeout, admiring the big maples that are still standing, though trimmed severely from when I was a kid.

When I got home that night, I realized that if the house is for sale, I bet I could take a virtual peek inside. I looked up the listing to find 50 photos of rooms and hallways that felt familiar and foreign all at once. New paint, new fixtures, new furniture, new life. Even the attic got a super duper upgrade into the spare bedrooms that my parents and I always knew that it could be, and not just the hornet’s nest hangout and Christmas-ornament-and-everything-else-we-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-stuff-that-can’t-stay-in-the-garage storage area that it was while we lived there.

I clicked through the photos again and again, feeling a little like I was spinning on a slowly turning carousel. Where is my old bedroom? I kept wondering.

Oh cool, they kept the tin ceiling in the kitchen! Look at those nice new fixtures. And look, they installed French doors between those two rooms, nice. Oh, I’m so glad they kept all that beautiful trim around the windows, and the floors too. Okay, yep, there’s my parents’ old room. Oh wow, look what they did to the upstairs bathroom! (What Mom and I always called ‘Dad’s library’)

Hmmm, I still can’t find my old room!

Then I finally spotted it – it was the still-silver corner radiator that finally gave it away, the one that rarely worked properly, positioned as it was by the window that overlooked the lilac bushes and the vegetable garden. My old bedroom, where I spent so many hours of my young life reading and writing and singing and worrying and learning and figuring out and forgetting so many things, is now a mostly empty room with a strangely red floor, a desk, a beanbag chair, and, hilariously, the unforgivable presence of a Dallas Cowboys rug (wow, that would’ve frosted my father’s ass, ha!).

I thought I would be sad to see and discover all of this, and actually it’s been so liberating and life-affirming to see things change and grow and improve (even if they root for what my dad would’ve declared ‘the wrong team’), and it’s also been really fun to be able to show my old house to Shawn, and to share the stories and memories that have bubbled up. It’s also been interesting to imagine who will buy the house, and what changes they will make, and what happiness and grief they will experience within those walls.

It won’t be me buying the house, though, that’s for sure!