Small moments, many times.

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This past weekend was another one filled with traveling and live performances, this time with the Acoustic Trio. Shawn, Davy, and I zigged and zagged across upstate NY and NJ to bring our songs and stories to folks in three different communities, each one hungry for live music, each one warm and sweet and open.

As I continue to weave myself back into the 3D world of touring, I find that my practices of all sorts have become even more important. One of my favorite phrases in meditation practice is: small moments, many times. The idea here is to erase the boundary between formal practice and the rest of life, and cultivate a life that is itself the practice. Bringing one’s attention back to the present moment, again and again, whether it’s always to an anchor like the breath or the body, or in a choiceless awareness of whatever bubbles up – the idea is to keep punctuating one’s day – one’s life – with these small moments of awareness.

The cardinal calling from across the road.

The aroma of this cup of coffee.

The delight and gratitude at seeing two friends who drove nearly two hours to see us.

The tiny spider crawling up my arm.

The steepness of this spiral staircase.

The smile on the woman’s face when I sang that one line.

The beauty of the storm clouds letting go of their rain.

The sweetness of these fresh strawberries.

And while I do appreciate, and will continue on with, my extended daily formal practice ‘on the cushion’, I was and am thankful for the opportunities this past weekend to bring the ‘small moments’ practice into focus, all of which helps illuminate my path, my heart, and my life.

Always arriving precisely on time.

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The early spring window that delights me so much every year slammed shut this week with the arrival of those most unwelcome of guests – the black flies.

And they really like me, always have.

Black flies don’t bite, they suck! So goes the old joke.

Because of these tiny hungry pests, I’ve quickened my steps on our recent evening walks, which can still be so thoroughly enjoyed for their exquisite, kinda-feels-like-summer stillness, and for the salmon colored brush that washes over the sky.

I was so thrilled to hear my first hermit thrush of the year this week, too, with its otherworldly trilling echoing through the woods. And we finally spotted a pair of loons on the pond, and I watched them through my binoculars diving for fish again and again as we swatted at the bugs.

And wow, did it get hot this week. In the 80s with hot dry sun. The high fire danger was finally quenched this weekend with some much needed rain, and the green that was just beginning to bud out is now exploding vibrantly into view.

Everything is always arriving – black flies, birds, leaves, rain, sun – and though my personal clock says, ‘Okay, no thanks on the black flies, and I’ll take the rain at night and sun during the day, please,’ nature gives no damn about that. It just shows up precisely on time, all the time.

I’m trying to be a little more like that, too – showing up precisely on time for everything. And I don’t mean being punctual (although that matters a lot to me, too). I mean in the sense of being present to what’s happening – being reflective rather than reactive. I keep remembering, again and again, to practice zooming out at the beauty of the whole scene, rather than in on each annoyance that distracts me from the larger view.

And I’ll be getting lots of practice as the mosquitos arrive… and that means the dragonflies and bats will soon be doing their zigging and zagging across that same peachy sunset sky looking for their supper.

I’m ‘kind of’ a mother.

A stomach bug swept our little abode this week. Shawn’s illness was a couple of days ahead of mine, so by the time he was feeling well enough to go visit his mama for Mother’s Day, I was still living on the BRAT diet and needing rest.

After Shawn left, though, I had a simple breakfast and was feeling well enough to take a short walk to the pond and back. En route, I was passed by a friendly jogger, who smiled and said, ‘Hi! Happy Mother’s Day!’ and I smiled. I didn’t think much of this friendly stranger’s gesture. She doesn’t know that I’m not a mother, I thought to myself.

And then another thought arose to push back on that one: Hey, I’m ‘kind of’ a mother.

While it is true that I’ve made the choice thus far to not birth new humans into the world, I’ve been lucky enough to engage in mothering practices and instincts in my life – for the kids I babysat as a teenager; the three families for whom I nannied in my 20s; at the daycare center where I worked in the early 2000s; in my six years as the children’s librarian for the town of Naples, Maine; in my nearly decade-long stint as an assistant at a dance studio. I have worked a lot with young children in my life, and I have enjoyed every moment of that work.

The capacity to give and love unconditionally – isn’t that the hope of every mother, every parent, to be able to do just that?

Long-time readers of this blog, as well as those who pay close attention to my song lyrics, will remember and know that my troubled relationship with my own mother and our eventual estrangement have been the source of much pain and grief, and also the inspiration for much self-reflection and growth. While it’s true that neither she nor I were able to find that place of unconditional love for both ourselves and each other when she was still alive, I like to believe that I’ve developed that muscle of mine in the years since her passing – and largely because of the wisdom that comes with aging; you know, that ‘hindsight is 20/20’ thing.

I suppose that I’ll always be ‘kind of’ a mother – to my songs and writing, in the memories of those kids (most of them now adults!) whose lives I have touched.

Every one us, regardless of our sex or gender, has that boundless capacity to be a nurturer, an unconditional lover, and an unflinching supporter of the lives around us. So, to every single one of us, Happy Mother’s Day – which really should be every day, huh?

Riding on the wind

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I spent some time last week with a borrowed electric guitar while I was ‘helping’ Shawn choose some plugins for the home studio set up. (All that means is, Shawn was dialing in sounds while I was playing along with old Judas Priest and Metallica, haha)

Suddenly, I was a young teenager again, with my SG plugged into a Marshall Valvestate combo, rocking out to all my old favorites. Songs that were and are loud and intricate and raucous – and so deeply satisfying.

On this recent occasion, Shawn put the album on and cranked it up as I took this borrowed axe into my lap, hunched over it, hair covering my face – just as it did 30+ years ago – and somehow, like riding a bike, my fingers remembered where to go, stumbling a bit here and there, and each crunchy power chord thrilled me just as much now as it did then when those same big six-string yells cut through the drafty old house of my childhood. I played along as best as I could with Glenn and KK’s relentless riffs, all while singing along with Rob Halford’s shattering voice:

Well I’m riding / riding on the wind
Yes I’m riding / riding on the wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind

holding that last note forever right along with Metal God…

Contrast that recent experience to the one I had this past Saturday night, when my friend Leah and I were making our debut as our new duo, Peaceful Means. No raucous power chords that night. Originals that are all about peace and harmony – and covers, too, by folks like John Gorka, The Indigo Girls, Bill Withers. These notes were all sweet and gentle and joyous – and just as deeply satisfying.

I met Leah around the same time that I was playing along with those headbangers. She and I started off in a rock band together, and then our musical relationship evolved and moved into other places, most of which involved singing in intricate vocal harmonies with each other.

As I get older, I realize that, for me, there is no bright line between all these forms of music, these dialects of the same shared language. Music that moves is music that moves. Why not recite every word of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton album and then sing every single note of every instrument of The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East? Or scream along with Rob and scat along with Ella, hang on to every slip note of Floyd Cramer’s and then marvel at Oscar or at Art Tatum? Life’s too short to do otherwise.

So whether I’m rockin’ out at home, or sharing the stage with a dear friend, I intend to keep on riding on the wiiiiiiiiiiiiiind………!

Honesty in the darkness.

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This past weekend was the trio’s first short run on the road with our new sound, and it was awesome!

At Saturday night’s show, I introduced my song ‘Lines and Spaces’ as I often do by dedicating it to anyone who is currently taking piano lessons. Though the hall was dark enough and the stage brightly lit enough that I had a tough time seeing a show of hands when I asked who was currently taking lessons, I did see one young arm (maybe 10 years old?) shoot up into the air from the second row.

‘Oh hi, I see you there. So you’re taking lessons?’

‘Yup,’ a small young voice chimed.

‘Do you love it?’ I asked.

And after a slight beat, her reply came: ‘I don’t know.’

And I smiled and said, ‘That’s a great answer! Sometimes you just don’t know if you love to do something until you’ve done it a while.’ And I sensed some nods and murmurs of agreement from the audience.

I did get to speak to the young piano student after the show. I asked her again, away from the spotlight, if she enjoys the piano. She shrugged and said she doesn’t love it, and that she’s not even sure if she likes it.

‘So, tell me what you do love!’ I replied.

And then she lit right up! She loves singing and dancing, and she especially loves cats. She told me about her cats, about her nicknames (‘Loon Cat’, ‘Crazy Cat Lady’), and then even more about her love of cats.

I want to always be brave enough to say ‘I don’t know’ when that is the only honest answer. I want to keep cultivating my curiosity about it all. And yes, uncertainty is a really unpleasant place sometimes – and it is also a place of tremendous learning and growth.

The blinder I get, the more clearly I can see.

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It started happening the moment I turned 40 – I’d either move my arm a little further away or tilt my head back slightly to see the text in a book or on my phone a little more clearly. No big deal, just a slight adjustment. No squinting required. Maybe it was just some dust in my eyes.

Then some months went by, and I was stretching my arms further still, and squinting at things up close became instinctual. The people closest to me started to notice. The Acoustic Trio was on a tour that year, and Davy gave me a pair of his 1.25+ readers, with a soft case and everything! I put them in the glovebox and thought Phooey.

More months of squinting and arm stretching went by, and I moved those gift glasses from the glovebox to my nightstand – and I did occasionally use them at night when I was reading and thought, Wow, these do help.

My close-up vision continued to worsen. My arms were truly not long enough at some point, and then there was another feature added to the landscape – never enough light! I found myself increasing the brightness on every screen, and turning both my body and the small print on a label or in a book towards the nearest available window.

Sometime in 2019, I did a very grownup thing and bought a second pair of readers – still just 1.25+ – at Reny’s in Bridgton. I decided that these would be my go-to, keep-on-the-kitchen-table readers, for those rare occasions (haha) when I needed them.

COVID hit, and everyone was home all the time, and I was looking at screens and books a whole lot more. More ocular decline was noticed and measured.

And now, a few months past 46, I need these damned readers for everything – chopping vegetables, reading sheet music, balancing my checkbook, looking at any book or screen. I don’t leave the house without my favorite pair either safely tucked into my purse or perched atop my increasingly gray head.

Just this past week, I admitted something out loud to Shawn: ‘I think I need to consider a pair of 1.5s.’ We both laughed.

It should be no surprise to anyone, especially me, that this is happening. I watched my parents go through these very same motions at roughly the same ages. Dad even got prescription bifocals in his 40s. Shitty eyes are in the bloodline, and I haven’t escaped nature.

Boy, did I hate this at first. I hated admitting that I am in a body that is, slowly but surely, falling apart. I didn’t want to have to rely on some pair of glasses to help me. I can see this, dammit, just give me enough time and I’ll squint long enough to give myself a migraine, but dammit I will read this 8 point font on this bottle of hot sauce with no help at all!

And then I remember – haven’t I always relied on so many for so much? For the glasses, for the food in my belly and in my pantry, for the clothes on my back and the roof over my head, for the technology that has allowed me to stay creative and keep contributing to life, for every single person, place, and thing I’ve ever come in contact with? For my very life?

And won’t I always be so reliant?

Can I honestly believe for a moment that my life and my fate and my very nature are not intertwined and interconnected with that of everyone and everything else?

The blinder I get, the more clearly I can see all of this.

I guess I better get to Reny’s soon for a pair of 1.5+. Maybe two pair.

Donut holes and redemption.

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With Easter around the corner, I’ve been looking back on childhood memories of this holiday, most of which revolve around the small Community Baptist church that I grew up attending. I started singing in the children’s choir the same year I started piano lessons, so I was enlisted every year (and most Sundays, in fact) into musical duty – either singing, playing piano, or playing the recorder. While I never did accept (and still haven’t accepted) any of the theology, I loved and savored my involvement in the music – the harmonies, the melodies, the prosody, the connection with the other singers and with the congregation as we shared our talents and efforts.

Some of my most vivid memories of Easter are of the sunrise services I attended growing up. They were held at a congregation member’s farm, and while we all shivered and struggled to read our programs in the pre-dawn light, we would listen and sing a cappella and greet the sun that was meant to signify the resurrection of Jesus.

(When I was a teenager, my insatiable curiosity led me to learn how the date of Easter is chosen every year – and that, for me, threw the entire exercise – and all the rest of it – into question. This is the event upon which I am supposed to pin the redemption of my immortal soul, and y’all can’t agree on when it happened? Oh, wait… you were just trying to run the pagans out of town? Well. That seems… hostile.)

Anyway…

One year, Mrs. Crist, the beloved church organist and wife of Reverend Crist, asked me to play my Native American flute at a sunrise service. I had done this sort of thing at sunrise service before, with my voice in the choir, or on the recorder – but the idea of playing this flute really excited me. I was, at that time in my life, dabbling in Native American spirituality and increasingly noticing my love and affection for Earth based spiritual practices and the environmental movement. Without hesitation I agreed to do this.

And wow, did I suck.

I don’t know if it was the cold, or my confidence, or the lack of light to see what the hell was going on with the flute or my hands, but I just kept squeaking on the thing. I did manage to relax and do an okay job – I do remember folks saying how much they enjoyed it. But I also remember thinking I was letting people down. Here we all are out in the freezing cold, either embodying piety or pretending to be, and here’s this kid who doesn’t even believe in this stuff squeaking out a melody on this flute.

And yeah, a flute from a culture that was persecuted historically by the culture into which it’s now being pressed into service. Talk about original sin…

But I wasn’t thinking that deeply about it at the time. I was just thinking, I sucked and everyone noticed.

My redemption came, not from the sunrise or the kind words from congregants. It came in the form of the relief of finally seeing the red ball of the sun rising through the sky, and then feeling those rays of warmth as we all turned our backs and headed into the house for coffee and hot chocolate and donuts and munchkins from Dunkin Donuts.

That warmth, both physical and communal, was the thing that I looked forward to the most. The quiet early morning chatter. The smiles and nods. The smell of the coffee and cocoa. The tingling return of warmth into my fingers and toes.

And that sunrise, for me, pointed to the most significant of all miracles – that every day is a new day. Every moment is a new moment.

That was all the redemption I needed.

Sure, I still had to go home and have the rest of my breakfast and put on my best dress and go and sing in the 10 a.m. service and smell all those potted lilies and hyacinths.

But first things first – hot chocolate and munchkins.

One bird at a time.

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I heard someone remark recently that, instead of January 1, she thinks of the first day of spring as the first day of the new year, and I immediately resonated with this. Noticing a group of robins landing in the yard in the late afternoon of the last full day of winter this year seemed to affirm this – a group of red breasted birds gathering like revelers in Times Square, waiting for the equinox ball to drop.

One of my pandemic proclivities has been bird watching, and the last couple of weeks have been a flurry of activity here. The chickadees that survived the winter with us have in recent days been joined by the aforementioned robins, plus a family of goldfinches, and a number of pine siskins, nuthatches, titmice, and an occasional downy woodpecker. Just this past week we heard, then finally saw, the first pair of mourning doves of the year, as well as a single red-winged blackbird.

With practice, the bird visits are becoming the perfect way to punctuate my work hours – and all hours – with moments of mindfulness. One bird at a time, I notice their arrival, notice their beauty, notice my excitement, and willingness and even longing at times to be distracted from whatever I’m working on, notice my joy at their arrival, notice the occasional brief glimpse of disappointment when they fly away.

Happy New Year, everyone!

What now?

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After spending the last ten weeks writing about my experience on retreat, I have arrived at an interesting moment in which I find myself asking: Do I have anything left to say about anything?

I know that sounds hyperbolic, but in so many ways, the retreat experience pares life down to the absolute essentials:

There is just this.

It’s just a thought.

Be here now.

Seems like a wrapped kind of deal, huh?

Well, there is theory, and then there is application.

At some point, the retreat metabolizes in some way, and then you find yourself angry at someone tailgating you, or annoyed that you can’t find the packing tape, or a thousand other tiny grievances that can seem as large as the world itself.

I am lost in thought most of the time. Hell, even as I’m typing these words, I am thinking things like Who gives a damn other than you about your navel gazing? and It’s just about time to make breakfast and holy shit am I hungry and Oh yeah I gotta pay my cell phone bill.

Yeah I know, it’s just a thought. Yeah I know, there is just this, blah blah blah.

So, what now?

Everything is humming along. The news from the wider world is distressing and overwhelming. And I still have my work to do.

I learn this week about a dear friend whose sister is dying. Suddenly, the world seemed a narrower, darker, more immediate place. My heart aches for him, for his whole family. I picked up the phone and left him a voicemail that may seem trite, and I mean every word. I love and care about and miss and feel sad for him. I started thinking about the family I still have left – people I love, and with whom I connect far less often than I do.

Again – life being pared down to the essentials.

Yes indeed, there is just this – the world as it is, and the story I tell myself about it. My friend and his sister. The beautiful sunset at the pond the other night. The war in Ukraine. The first purple finch of the season. There is this never-ending flow of thoughts, and the follow up intentions and motivations, that all appear out of nowhere, vying for position in the front of the queue. And here ‘I’ am – whatever that means, right? – making choices about how and where to spend my time and attention.

None of us is alone in this wondering, in this strange place between wanting to communicate and wanting to hide. And I sure as hell ain’t no life coach – I’m just a wondering, wandering soul too, doing the best I can to cultivate peace and connection in my own moment to moment experience. And I have found that sharing helps. Even when I’m feeling afraid and vulnerable. Especially so, in fact.

So, what now?

Publish this post, finish my coffee, eat breakfast, work on my various creative projects, go for a walk, play with the neighbors’ dogs, watch the bird feeder, continue to find those delicate balances between wisdom and trust, openness and resistance, gratitude and desire, truth and illusion.

And linger at the pond, and squeal with excitement at that first purple finch.

Day 10: First and last, change and no change.

My last morning on the retreat began with a mix of both excitement and exhaustion. That last night proved to be the worst night of sleep for me of the entire ten day experience. I was so excited for post-retreat life – to see Shawn again; to bring my hands to an instrument; to write; to metabolize and share this whole experience.

I began the day as I did all of the others: I went to the bathroom. I drank my water. I went downstairs and did my yoga and movement practice. I went upstairs and sat in the middle chair in the Bodhi sitting room (pictured above) and watched the light slowly return to the world until just before the breakfast bell. I went and got my tray from my room. I got in line for breakfast. I brought the oatmeal and tea back to my room and ate it. I washed and returned my dishes. I performed my morning service – sanitizing all handrails, doorknobs, and common touch points in all three dorms.

Then, finally in the departure phase, I cleaned my dorm room, packed my suitcase, and returned my key. I rang the bell for the final sitting at 9:15 a.m.

As I did each one of these tasks, I was aware that I was doing them for the last time – on retreat, and possibly ever. I noticed that I was taking even greater care in my attention to each step, each bite, each silhouetted tree branch, each shirt folded, each swipe of the washcloth, each sounding of the bell.

Alan Watts said it this way: Are you here now? Are you really here? You see, most people aren’t. They’re bothering about yesterday and wondering what they’re going to do tomorrow. [You need to be] completely alert, and available for the present—because that’s the only place you’re ever going to be.

The retreat ended at 11:30 a.m., and conversations began to bubble up around the center. I checked my phone for the first time in ten days, feeling overwhelmed and unnerved by the weight of it in my hands, and by the flurry of messages that were lighting up the screen.

At moments, my heart was racing. Worry about Shawn’s safety had kept me awake for part of that last night. There had been an announcement from the teachers the night before about a forecast for a snowstorm – the same one that Shawn was now driving through that morning to come get me. He had not yet arrived, and so I quietly walked with my worry through the entire campus – alone, silent still – and took all of the photos that have accompanied all these weeks of blog posts. I stood in many doorways and at many windows. I breathed and walked and greeted fellow retreatants with smiles and a few quiet words. I took photos of several favorite recipes from the cookbooks that the kitchen staff always set out on the dining room tables at the end of every retreat.

Finally, I was near the main entrance, my belongings waiting in the foyer, in conversation with the husband of one of the retreat teachers. My phone rang. The sound of Shawn’s voice after ten days was music to my ears.

Another retreatant near the main entrance, an older woman, had been watching me closely when I answered the call. She must’ve seen my unabashed excitement, and she followed me outside and sat on a bench, watching from the main porch as I made my way towards the car. I spotted Shawn as he got out of the car, his smile beaming. My pace quickened. I forgot everything – the bells, the teachings, the snow, the worry, my suitcase and backpack – and as a volunteer picked up what I had dropped and brought it towards the back of the car, I ran to Shawn and laughed as we hugged and murmured to each other.

The woman who had been watching laughed and shouted, ‘Ah, love! What a beautiful thing to see!’ We both turned towards her and smiled, still in each other’s arms. She asked how long we’d been together. I shouted back, ‘Twelve years this summer!’ She smiled and said, ‘That is wonderful!’

On the long drive home, we talked and listened. We experienced a beautiful sunset. We stopped at a music store and bought a new keyboard!

The next morning, I went to the bathroom. I drank my water. I did my yoga and movement practice.

Change – and no change at all.

The next day, I wrote:

1-9-2022

I did it. Ten days at IMS. Where to begin.

To write about this seems to cheapen it, and also to undermine the intention of and, if there is one, the goal of the experience. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. Moments of deep clarity and peace and then others of deep sorrow and despair. It might take me the rest of my life to unpack it all. And yet, it all boils down to the fact that there is just this.

There is just this.

That is all.

I fell in love with Shawn all over again when he picked me up on Friday. The love and the joy that shined from his eyes and his smile took my breath away. I fell in love with me as well, with my precious flaws, and turned to this body and this mind and this sphere of aliveness with more compassion and care and love than I remember ever having done before in my life. I feel lighter and freer, renewed.

And hey, it’s just a thought.