Still here, still thankful.

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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?

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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!

The view from Mt. Junk Mail

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When you’re away for most of October in a very important election year, the mail really stacks up.

When I picked up a month’s worth this past week, I was handed a small box containing just a couple of relevant items, while the rest was a stack of campaign mailers a few inches thick.

I was quickly reminded of that image from The Onion a few years ago humorously depicting a plow truck keeping the roads clear of campaign signs.

As I was leaving the post office, I noticed one of the recycling bins in the main lobby was stuffed full of them. Plopping this mountain of mail on my passenger’s seat, I felt so astonished – and so depressed – by the amount of paper, ink, time, attention, and money devoted by each campaign to each of these mailers. By the little evidence I’d just seen, it seemed certain that very few of these mailers went out the door with their recipients. And I wonder – of those that did, how many were read or even noticed before getting tossed into the recycle bin or the wood stove? My mind zoomed out, trying to calculate all the mailboxes in my town, and county, and state… How much is any of it truly moving the needle?

So much waste. And so much sensationalism in the language. It’s exhausting!

Picking up the phone has been no solace lately, either. I’ve been receiving at least one call a day from someone named ‘Potential Spam’ or ‘No Caller ID’, no doubt wondering if or how I will vote on Tuesday.

The texts have been far more frequent. Being registered as ‘Undeclared’, I receive them from each end of the political spectrum. So-and-so is destroying America! or So-and-so will destroy America! One text urged me to text three friends right away and remind them to vote. Another one sent a slight shiver down my spine, addressing me by my name, referencing my physical address, and telling me that ‘public records suggest you may not have voted yet.’

Rest assured, spammers of the world – I plan to vote on Tuesday, because I want to live in a world in which everyone who is able to vote not only exercises that right, but who cares about that right being protected for everyone, even – especially – for those with whom we disagree.

And all the while, as the mailers and calls and texts keep arriving, I’m longing to experience the healing of divisions; the honoring of everyone’s humanity and dignity; a shared willingness to listen; the prioritizing of love and reason; a shift in every heart and mind towards kindness and compassion; widespread, unabashed acknowledgement of our interconnectedness; a commitment to right relations with this beautiful world and all who share it.

May it be so.

Planet Family.

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It’s quite a word.

I don’t know where to start.

I suppose the beginning works.

The short version is: I’m the only child of a couple who moved the three of us and a few cats and dogs from Kansas to Maine, a place neither had ever seen. Regular readers and listeners of mine know most of the story already, but I’ve never really written much about what that word means to me.

Family.

Honestly? Given the context of that big move to Maine? It has always seemed like an alien world. A world of my parents’ stories and flashes of my own earliest memories. Disembodied voices arriving a few times a year from across the globe through the rotary dial phone that hung on the kitchen wall. Christmas cards with school photos of cousins tucked inside. There was a small handful of in-person visits from my Grannie and cousin Sam; my Grandpa Bill and Uncle Aeryk (the latter whom I’ve been closest since elementary school); brief convergences of other family members upon the deaths of my both my parents. Otherwise, family to me always meant: me and Mom and Dad.

When I was 18 and curious, I made a pilgrimage to Kansas to meet some Piersons. In the years since, there have been more phone calls and emails, more interactions on social media, more attempts to bridge the gaps left by time and distance.

And then one afternoon this past week, I knocked on a door in Houston that opened onto a home that had, just last year, been left a little emptier by the death of my Uncle Chuck, one of Dad’s five brothers. I hadn’t seen my Aunt Mary, nor my cousins Kyle and Chuck Jr., since I was too young to remember any of it.

And here they were. In the flesh. No longer stories or curiosities from my past.

At first (in the privacy of my own mind) I kinda freaked out. What am I doing here? I thought. I’m imposing. I’m a stranger to them. We had conversation. We had dinner. I played with the dog. I imagine we were all feeling a bit awkward and curious.

After a fitful night of sleep in their home, and some meaningful conversation over coffee the next morning, Shawn and I shoved off for errands and for our show in Galveston.

On Saturday night, Shawn and I performed in Houston, and there were some Piersons in the audience. My cousin Andrea, whom I’d also not seen since childhood, laughed, ‘All these Piersons in one room! And not for a funeral!’

And for the first time in ages, I sang lyrics that were about my folks – my family – and there were people in the audience who know the characters in the story, who know what it’s like to share a last name with folks who are scattered across the earth.

Shawn and I spent two nights in the quiet comfort of my Uncle Aeryk’s house, reconnecting and sharing laughter and curiosity and sorrow.

In the hours and days since, I’ve been recalling something my friend Alfred once said to me: ‘There is the family you are born into, and then there is the family that you choose. Sometimes there’s overlap.’

And then I’ve also been thinking, Aren’t we all family? All 7 billion of us?

May we all find ourselves in the nourishing company of those we can call family.

Up a not-so-lazy river.

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Rivers have loomed large this past week in my awareness. As Shawn and I made our way down to Texas from our last gig with Davy in the D.C. area, we made a brief stop in Memphis to pay homage to the history of that city. We walked up and down Beale Street, taking in the sights and sounds (such as they were on a Wednesday afternoon); the names of the many legends on the Brass Notes Walk of Fame; the starkness of W.C. Handy’s little shotgun house; the overt influence that New Orleans had (and surely still has) on that place.

When we arrived in Memphis, it was a hot and sunny afternoon. After we’d been exploring for a while, the sky in the west grew very dark with a coming storm. We got back to our car in the nick of time and drove ourselves and our lunch in a downpour to a park that overlooks the Mississippi, where I took this week’s photo.

As we sat in the car and ate and looked out through the storm, I imagined the many folks in another time who made their way up that mighty river, landing and settling and filling the city with their music and their customs and whatever else they could carry with them on those riverboats.

This past week, there’s been a lot of rain back home in NH and ME, and the lazy rivers of home have been raging and swelling beyond their banks and boundaries, tumbling over the very rocks that have shaped them, and that will continue to be shaped in return.

I’ve also been thinking of the many folks in Fort Myers along and at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee, who will be cleaning up from the devastation there for a very long time to come.

Drop by drop, everything will eventually be carried to the sea, to the place from which all life on our beautiful Earth home originated. Isn’t it awesome to be able to experience any sliver of it in the meantime?

A baker’s dozen ain’t nothin but a number.

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(This past weekend was the final run on the road for the Acoustic Trio. I’m still processing everything, but in short, it was a fun and joyful weekend! For now, I’m going to nitpick about a little something…)

Stepping into the elevator at our Bethesda hotel this past weekend, I noticed something I hadn’t in a while – codified superstition.

The hotel had no 13th floor.

Poor number 13. You get such a bad rap.

Of course, the elevator panel isn’t truthful at all – the 14th floor in this case is the 13th floor. It seems that the hoteliers and the guests they hope to attract don’t want to be reminded of that fact.

Why such fear of 13? And why does that fear irritate me so much? Doesn’t everyone know that you’re just a number? That it’s simply the sixth prime number? A baker’s dozen isn’t evil. Jesus + the original disciples lineup = 13. There are 13 lunar cycles (and for many women, menstrual cycles) in a calendar year. Grades K through 12? That equals 13 too. Every suit in a deck of cards has 13 cards. (Geez, you think that fact alone would send any superstitious gambler screaming for the door!)

My Scottish grandmother was at least aware of, and sometimes a subscriber to, many superstitious customs, which were then passed down to my mother, and then to me. There were the usual ones, like the black cat thing, lucky pennies, and tossing a little spilled salt over your shoulder, and not walking under ladders or stepping on sidewalk cracks. My mom held no truck with the black cat one, but the others did find their way into my mom’s daily life.

Then there were others that I found even more obscure: Don’t put new shoes on the table; don’t open an umbrella indoors; make sure your housework is all done before New Year’s Day; and there are so many more that I’ve long forgotten.

More than forgotten, actually. Rejected. I remember my toes would curl a little with embarrassment each time I heard them repeated.

I suppose the irritation in that elevator comes from a need for clarity and shared reality. Numbers only have the power that we give them. And I reject the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ luck. I think there is just ‘luck’ – there are things that are just happening, moment after moment, and how we respond to them is what fits them into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what determines their place in the unfolding of our lives.

For what it’s worth, our room was on the 9th floor…

Hope and trust written in chalk.

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This past Saturday night was the first of the last Acoustic Trio shows, and it was a big deal for us – Caffe Lena, the legendary listening room in Saratoga Springs, NY. We’d played there before, and it is always special there.

I’ve been experiencing a strange mix of excitement and dread recently. The sudden return to what feels like the normal I remember of ‘B.C.’ – driving, setting up, soundchecking, playing, greeting friends and fans, sleeping, rinse lather repeat – has been the driving force behind this recent emotional tug of war. The pandemic is still very much here, and still leaving 400ish dead each day, on track to 100k Americans dead each year.

So, I’ve been making friends with anxiety again.

Part of normal touring life is staying in cheap motels, and also with friends of friends and friendly strangers. I’ve always enjoyed this aspect. But as I put fingers to keyboard recently and put out feelers for housing, I was fully aware of what a huge ask this is. Putting on in-person shows and getting butts in seats is hard enough in these strange ‘pandemic-is-kinda-over-but-not-really’ times – but asking some friend of a friend of a friend if you can sleep in their guest room? It’s a big deal.

So, as I was connected with a friend of friend, I felt so grateful – and also super anxious.

The show was great – the friends and fans who came out, and the venue staff and volunteers, were all beautiful.

Shawn and I got the last of the gear loaded up, and navigated to the friendly stranger’s house. And I was feeling nervous. The street was dark and quiet. We didn’t even know which door to go to.

I’ve forgotten how to do this, I thought.

Then, there was the light on at the side door and the two friendly smiling faces (human and dog) to greet us as warmly as you could hope. And there, just in front of her kitchen door – a message of hope and trust written in chalk: ‘Welcome Heather & pals.’

And in a flash, I felt so much more at ease.

As we made our way in with our gear, I briefly expressed my anxiousness to our host, who understood completely and responded by putting the kettle on for tea. She showed us around the house, and then excused herself to bed.

Perfection.

The next morning, we all shoved off in our respective directions, all feeling a bit more hopeful and trusting in a future that has always been uncertain, even before the pandemic.

And the coffee was delicious.

More road adventures await this weekend, and for the rest of this month. I’m taking it all one mile and one moment at a time.

A free woman in Copenhagen.

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The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is a lot of things – a collection of music memorabilia; a monument to the power of songwriters, performers, and record label executives; a pile of history that exits through the gift shop.

During my recent visit there with Shawn and his mom and uncle, I saw many objects, like Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket; Bob Marley’s hat; Ray Charles’ sunglasses; Gregg Allman’s B-3; Joe Strummer’s Tele; Roger Daltry’s microphone; stunning photos of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder taken by Bruce Talamon – you get the idea.

My favorite things, though, were the tiny windows into the worlds of the songwriters as living, breathing, creative humans moving across the Earth’s surface in pursuit of what is true – lyrics handwritten into college ruled notebooks or onto hotel stationary – the looping and scribbled cursive of Kurt Cobain, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, and many others. One that deeply moved me was this foreshadowing of Joni’s ‘My Old Man’.

Seeing this 50+ year old piece of paper sure got my mind moving:

I pictured a 20-something Joni at the Palace Hotel in Copenhagen, guitar in her lap, pen and hotel stationary on the bed or desk beside her, one lamp on, digging in the post-performance Danish air for the gem that would become one of the most beloved songs on what is arguably her most beloved album.

And she ultimately took out if I’ll come for the recording session, but it persists here, not scratched out. Was she in doubt about Graham Nash, and herself, from the very start of their relationship?

And I wanna know more about what happened that time in London, and about those rock n roll children on that rock n roll Sunday.

And was it in that room where she first sang one of my favorite lyrics of all time? We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keepin’ us tight and true.

And look at how the paper was folded, but not neatly – maybe she was checking out of the Palace and in a rush, and the idea was hastily stuffed into her purse or guitar case.

I’ll keep pondering, I’m sure, and I’ll keep digging in the air around me for more questions and answers and hypotheses.

Laziness continued

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After practicing medicinal laziness the week before, I had to practice something a little different this past week—something I’m calling ‘medically induced laziness’.

I thought for sure I had COVID.  I arrived home on the evening of September 11 from a weekend gathering—the same one I had been resting up for—and woke up Monday morning with all the symptoms.  

Here we go again, I thought.  I looked at what was coming up—a lesson with a student, a community sing, a live-stream, a studio session, a Friday night show, an upcoming road trip with Shawn and his mom and uncle we’ve been planning for ages—and I fell into despair.  So many endeavors that, by design, are for cultivating joy and community—you know, the good stuff!—would need to be cancelled and rescheduled.  

I got into a blame game:  If everyone could have pulled in the same damned direction early on in this pandemic, this wouldn’t be happening.  

And I pointed the blame at myself: If I wasn’t such an overachiever, I wouldn’t be feeling so disappointed.  

Round and round my mind went, and with a suddenly much emptier schedule, I had nothing to do but ruminate.  

This past week, daily rapid tests and one PCR test all announced that I was negative.  My voice was still in no condition to create anything for prime time or posterity, and I was feeling run down.  

The online community sing still happened—with so many songs already programmed into my looper, I was able to rely heavily on technology as I sipped tea and Bernice and I shared songs with folks from around the world, including our first participant from Australia!  This really lifted my spirits. If not for the pandemic and the precise way it unfolded, I likely wouldn’t be connecting with so many awesome folks all over the world.

At some point, I did find equanimity with the whole situation.  This is how things are right now, I remembered.  Simple, yes—but not always the easiest point of view to take!  I noticed my aversion and disappointment, and I attended to those feelings.  I napped.  I cried.  I stared at the bird feeder.  I read a good book.  I wrote some poetry.  I was taking care of my health, and that of others, with this medically induced laziness.  Things would be, and have been, rescheduled, and those experiences will perhaps be all the richer for everyone once they do unfold.

The road trip we’d been planning for months was in question until the last minute—and as Shawn and I continued to test negative, the answer was clear.  

As of this writing, the four of us are happy and healthy and in Cleveland, Ohio, making our first time pilgrimage on Monday morning to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  I slept well after connecting with folks at ‘Sharing The Journey’ on Zoom last night. The train rumbles by with a soothing regularity. There was a wild and kinda wonderful thunderstorm this morning. This is how things are right now.

I am excited and grateful to be on an adventure with Shawn and his mom and uncle!  We’re getting to know each other, and ourselves, a little better with each mile.

Ask your inner critic if laziness is right for you!

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I experience such a deep sorrow when I can’t get to everything on my to-do list in the time in which a much less exhausted version of me drew it up. I hate to cancel or postpone anything, especially creative projects. I figure I’m gonna be dead a long time, so why not fill up every hour of every day on my calendar now with all those things I want to do?

Sounds… not so great, doesn’t it?

Oh, if only we could come up with a way to not need so much sleep…

I had to cancel a studio session last week, and I really hated to. I am always up for everything – until I burn myself out and I’m not. My mind was and is always eager, and my body was saying, ‘You’ve got a hell of a busy weekend coming up – you need to be fully rested for it.’

So, instead of going to the studio last Thursday, I sat in the front yard for a while, staring at the bird feeder. Nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and goldfinches, all in near constant motion preparing for the coming cold. I was really enjoying the peace and ease and calm, feeling gravity settle me into the chair, noticing the regeneration of stamina moving through my mind and body – and of course, I started thinking, Hmm, I’m feeling better. I could’ve gone to the studio today after all…

Shawn came out to chat at one point, and I told him what I was thinking.

He smiled at me and said, ‘Everyone needs medicinal laziness from time to time.’

Medicinal laziness! I love that.

And there’s that word I use to criticize my need for stillness and rest – ‘lazy’. Why do I so often, in my own case, frame the act of taking time out as ‘laziness’? Even in my daily meditation practice, I view it in part as working on something, working on the project of being more present and aware. I’m very often creating more work for myself, even when I’m sitting still and literally doing nothing!!

I do enjoy staying busy.

How many times have I supported the choice of others to take that same time out, but then criticize my own need for that same restoration? I gotta keep a little bit of that care and compassion for myself.

(More work on self to do, haha)

The birds are busy as hell these days, and I have been too. And it’s okay, like them, to rest on a branch for a bit, taking stock of what’s happening and what’s to come, and show up as fully to this body and mind as I always hope to for anyone else’s.