What are my hands up to right now?

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It’s so awesome – and so overwhelming – to be back out in the world making music in front of living, breathing humans.

Three gigs out in the world this past week, in addition to all the other balls in the air – bookings into the end of this year and next; creating content for Patreon; working on new songs; studio time; rehearsals; phone calls and Zoom meetings. And keeping up with all the practices that keep me sane, like yoga and movement, meditation and writing, practicing my instruments, spending time with family and friends.

This moment of what feels like a rebirth is one that I’ve been longing for… and now that it’s here, I am grateful and a bit overwhelmed. Been sleeping like the dead every night, after clicking out the light and noticing my head suddenly buzzing with new stimulus after a year and a half of relative same-ness.

I read with such sadness and frustration that COVID is on the rise in every state, and particularly in younger folks. I remember being 20-something, thinking that nothing could harm me. Now, 20-something years later, I’m fully vaxed and I still wear my mask to the grocery store and the post office. I’m noticing the helpless feeling that creeps in when I read the news, and then noticing it pass away as I focus on the next task:

Hands on the keys.

Hands on the banjo.

Hands in the warm soapy water.

Hand holding a fork or a spoon or a pencil.

Hands folding the clean towels.

Knowing – really knowing – what my hands are up to, how they’re feeling, being mindful of every movement and sensation, is a very powerful part in my daily practice. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed and anxious, I notice the feelings, notice the tingling in my arms and my rapid heartbeat and my shallow breath, and then notice my hands. They are small and able and strong. They have work to do. I am grateful for that work. I will do the work for as long as I’m able.

Soon, as ever, the storm cloud passes, and I’m back at it.

Martin Swinger.

Over 20 years ago, when I was still living in Lewiston, I had a regular music-making habit with my friend Alfred Lund, a deeply talented drummer/percussionist/drum maker/massage therapist and all around curious and compassionate human. One summer, we were slated to perform as a duo in the town of Hallowell, ME, and when we arrived at the town gazebo with our songs and gear, there was a tall, slender, beaming guy serenading some children and their parents with a guitar and with a song that went like this:

‘Jack and Jill went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW!

The window, the window
the second story window
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW!’

This went on and on – with Old MacDonald’s Farm:

‘Old MacDonald had a farm
E-I-E-I-O
and on that farm he had a cow
and THREW IT OUT THE WINDOW….!’

with Jingle Bells:

‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells
Jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride
and THROW IT OUT THE WINDOW….!

with every beloved children’s song.

The kids (and many of the parents, too) squealed with delight every time the new refrain came around. I laughed just as hard as everyone else. This guy’s vibe was infectious, and so genuine!

‘Who is that?’ I asked Alfred.

He smiled and said, ‘That’s my friend Martin Swinger.’

And very soon, Martin was my friend, too. He beamed just as much off stage as on. When he looked you in the eyes and said, ‘It’s so good to meet you!’, you knew down to your toes that he really meant it.

Over the years, I was delighted to hear more and more wacky and beautiful songs from him – songs about everything from oysters to vacuum cleaner parts. Nothing was beyond his wit, his talent, and his love. It was all about love for him. He loved life so much that he wanted to write and sing about every single thing that delighted him, and then share that delight with others – not for his own sake, but for the sake of that insatiable curiosity and delight. Who is immune to such joy, especially when you’re hanging out with Martin Swinger?

When I was figuring out my own solo career (and my life, really) and considering attending my first NERFA conference over 10 years ago, I reached out to Martin – whose name at the time was the only one I recognized from the lengthy registrant list – and I asked him what to expect. He replied with many paragraphs of thoughtful advice that I followed to the letter – and, of course, his absolute delight that I was attending. ‘I can’t wait to see you there!’ he wrote. And when I saw him in Kerhonkson, NY some weeks later, he greeted me with the warmest hug and smile, knowing that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and alone. He pointed to the piano in the lobby, and said to me, ‘Go over there and wow everyone. Just be yourself. People will love you,’ he assured me. So I did. I sat at the piano whenever it was available, did what I do, and people were drawn in, and bonds were formed, connections made, and I found my way through. Throughout that weekend, whenever I noticed Martin walk by from my seat at the piano, he would always smile and wink.

I remember sitting next to him the year that he won the New England Songwriting Contest (a contest I would win the year after him). He listened very intently to every other performer, and had something so kind to say about everyone. He’d lean towards me with, ‘Oooh, what a great line!’ or ‘Wow, what a nice rhyme there’ or ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting THAT chord change!’ Everything, everyone, everywhere, was a delight to him. And whenever I was near enough to Martin to experience this joy, it also felt like I was the only one in the world he was sharing it with – his presence really was palpable, and such a beautiful example to follow.

I was so sad to learn of Martin’s sudden passing this past week. A little light in this wild world now extinguished, and now it is on the rest of us to carry it forward. My heart aches for his husband, for all of us songwriters and musicians of all ages who looked to him for the strength, wisdom, patience, and kindness that he never stopped offering so freely with all of his huge heart.

www.martinswinger.com

I’m grateful for complaining.

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July 4th weekend is usually a big hairy deal here in the Mount Washington Valley. Lots of tourists and weekend warriors coming up to the mountains to get away from it all – or to bring it all here.

And, after a week of blistering heat and humidity, it rained non-stop starting on Friday morning.

My heart goes out to the kids who wanted to be playing outside all weekend; to the parents who were looking forward to putting their feet up and watching those kids run around from a safe, sunny distance; to the carnies who aren’t making any money on town greens selling their snake-oil-style-games; to the waitstaff who are on their feet all day, no matter what the weather is doing; to all the folks who planned and built their float parades for weeks and months, only to be kept parked in their garages the morning of.

And add to that list of complaints now the incredible sunshine that is now shining down from the cloudless sky as everyone packs up and begins the drive south. I can just hear all those drivers now, shaking their heads in disappointment as they watch what is arguably the nicest day we’ve had in ages shine through their windshields.

I found myself complaining a bit this weekend, too – about my anxiety about the future; about having an overwhelmingly long to-do list; about – you guessed it – the rain (and only just a little – I *had* been complaining recently about the worrying lack of rain).

So much disappointment, so much to complain about – and with each harangue, I try balancing it with a measure of gratitude. I mean, aren’t I lucky that I can complain about anything at all? That I’m happy and healthy; that I live in a safe, secure, beautiful place with people I love, creating music and writing that I share with folks who, in turn, support me in countless ways that sustain and nurture my needs? Lucky indeed.

There will always be uncertainty. There will always be something to complain about. We’ve all gotten lots of practice and we’re good at it! And so long as I always practice gratitude, too, then the anxiety and the frustration will be like those rain clouds that hang around for a bit – sometimes for a whole weekend – and then move on.

I know what all of it means.

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I’ve been home for less than 48 hours as of this writing, and I already miss it all:

The din of air conditioners from our balcony.

The hum and hiss of the street cleaners in the early morning.

The slow and steady glide of the tankers and barges on the river.

The constant movement of hot, humid air moving over from the crescent.

The meat-locker-cold clouds of air billowing out from open restaurants and art galleries.

The ever-present ‘big four’ thundering from some street corner brass band.

The dusty shelves in every corner market.

The mournful lilt of a clarinet solo.

The spiky shouts of a nearby trumpet.

The bored looks on the faces of tourists taking a haunted walking/talking tour.

Even the strange smell of garbage and piss and sugar, and the strident rat-a-tat-tat of the bucket kids.

And my friends – all the fellow jazz camp faculty, the return campers, and all the new campers who rolled up their sleeves for two jabs and for the experience of a lifetime. I miss all the jokes; the shared cups of coffee and conversation at breakfast; the shining moments of real breakthrough in the ensembles; the eager eyes and hearts looking around the room, looking for that solid musical handshake – and then the joy of finding it! Thank goodness for the willingness we all had to get vaccinated, travel from around the country, and bring our horns and hearts together again!

How long will it be until we’re back in our favorite city? At this point, I don’t know, and I’m trying like hell to let go of any attachment or expectation. For now, I will continue to gather my thoughts, work on these new songs, reconnect with the scent of pine and the footfalls of our upstairs neighbors, and look to the goldfinches and chickadees for clues.

Let’s slowly boil together, shall we?

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Two years ago this month, I was in New Orleans, working at the Traditional Jazz Camp, happy as hell, as I always seem to be in that city.

Shawn and I first attended the camp in 2012, after learning about it on WWOZ, a New Orleans radio station we’d discovered and fallen in love with during our first visit to the city in 2011. All these years later, we now come back year after year as members of the faculty and staff, helping each year to create and hold this big-hearted container into which we all pile up as much joy, hard work, harmony, and connection as we can all muster. You know, all the best things that life has to offer.

Twelve months later, in the middle of a pandemic, the camp couldn’t happen, of course. This year, with the miracle of and trust in vaccines, we are BACK!

It’s a tired analogy, but it’s absolutely the center of the bullseye—last night was a family reunion with a few new members brought into the fold. Most are return campers—the giddy cousins, the goofy step-siblings, the shy sisters, and the grumpy uncles—all of us stirred together and flavored by the heat and humidity and the sass and the brass of the city that gave the world one of the greatest gifts to ever emerge from humanity—jazz. From the friendly handshakes of the rhythm section to the clear direction of the bells of the horns, this music bounces and brags and also caresses and croons, and it carries the heart to a place that is beyond tradition. It’s a form that rests in the knowledge that every damn one of us has a place in the band. Everyone can blow, everyone can step, everyone can play. We can always find a place for you. We will support you. We will hold you up. We will listen to you. YOU ARE WELCOME HERE.

I saw so many tears of joy last night—a few of them my own—and so many unmasked smiles and hearts, ready to be slowly boiled in this stew that we will cook together this week, allowing the best parts of ourselves to season all that we bring to the pot.

Boy, do I love my job and my life!

We sang inside a tree.

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Last weekend, my friend Bernice Martin and I had the honor of sharing and teaching from our Heart Songs & Circle Songs repertoire at the annual Song Village gathering that takes place every year (except for 2020) in the Santa Cruz mountains. To be invited alongside such great song leaders as Laurence Cole, Heather Houston, Roberta Kirn, Laura Sandage, and so many others in the singing community was quite thrilling. I can’t even begin to describe how much I rejoiced in being able to hear and really feel the singing of others again. I could write so much about this experience, and yet there is a part of me that wants to keep letting it marinate, keep holding the whole thing close to my tender heart, and let both the joy and the overwhelm continue to wash over me until I can make more sense of it with my music and words.

One of the most surprising and amazing moments came just after Song Village was over. We moved to a campsite on the edge of the Henry Cowell State Park, and in our wanderings among the many fairy rings of redwoods, we encountered an old stump, just a few hundred yards from our campsite.

It’s hard to tell from the photo, but this stump was ENORMOUS. The largest tree stump I’d ever seen. This stump, and the tree that it once supported, has been in this forest for many centuries, perhaps millennia. And to think that we got to sit inside of it, all four of us, and admire it from the inside, to ponder its life and its death, to marvel at the ring of descendants who stand around it, as if protecting and bearing witness to its continued presence in the awareness of any and all who pass by.

So, of course, we sang inside a tree. How could we not?

There is a video of one of the songs sung from inside this stump. Another one will follow soon.

What a joy to share our songs with fellow humans once again, and then to bring that joy out onto the land and continue the sharing and stumble upon such inspiration.

This is what trust looks like.

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We arrived in San Francisco on Friday morning after a grueling night of travel—90 minutes in the car, 75 minutes on the bus, nearly 7 hours on the sold-out flight. With next to no sleep, stiff and sore, we gathered up our luggage and stepped out into the fresh air and hailed a cab.

Everyone in sight was masked, including the four of us, and keeping at a safe and respectful distance.

We made our way to the Airbnb in North Beach, stunned into silence by both the beauty and the hustle and bustle that surrounded us on our way. We met our masked hosts outside, made our way upstairs to the apartment, got the lay of the land, got settled in, and then dived right into wearing ourselves out even further on the first day—food, coffee, hot chocolate, the constant wind off the ocean, gawking at everything in sight, racking up thousands of steps walking up and down hills that would be impossible to navigate in a New England winter.

Everyone in sight was masked, including the four of us, and keeping at a safe and respectful distance.

I could launch into a detailed list of everything we’ve seen so far, but I won’t—not because I don’t want to share the awe and excitement of what we’ve been experiencing here, but because I’m feeling more moved to express how incredibly grateful I am to be here at all, to experience any measure of this world, the very idea which, after the last 14 months, seems like a miracle to me.

It hit me most clearly when Shawn and I made our way on Sunday afternoon down the steep path to Mile Rock Beach and we took in the stunning view on offer there.

I looked around this little cove and saw families and couples and lone travelers, folks of all ages and walks of life, relaxing and enjoying themselves in this beautiful place, and still, everyone in sight was standing by with masks, including us, and keeping at a safe and respectful distance.

This is how we got through, and continue to get through. By keeping ourselves and each other safe as best as we could, we get through—to trust those who developed and created and administered the vaccines; to trust every other driver on the road and every passenger on the flight and everyone on every sidewalk and walking path. We trust one another to take care of one another.

And this has always been our circumstance—we each have trust in so many people, most of whom we’ll never know and never get to thank personally. Every single individual in our food chain; the line of people responsible for the successful turn of every water tap and the throw of every light switch. The list is nearly infinite. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is the fact of our interdependence, which can only exist with a certain measure of trust.

And I don’t mean faith, which is belief in something without evidence. What I’m pondering here is a reasoned trust—we believe in one another and we hold each other up because it’s the tried and true way that we hold ourselves up, too. Every link in the chain is only as strong as the weakest, and each one is essential to the health and success of every other.

And this extends to the very trust in this beautiful earth that holds us all in place and provides everything that any one of us would ever need to survive and thrive in this life. Everything is possible because we trust the earth, and one another, to hold us.

Earlier in the day, the four of us were sitting in the restful paradise of the Japanese tea garden at Golden Gate Park. After we had finished our snacks, Shawn asked, ‘I’m assuming that no one wants to visit the gift shop?’ We all shook our heads silently, and then Ann said, ‘The gift is out here.’

Ticking clocks and bursting bubbles.

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On Wednesday, I received some very sad news from a friend who recently received a grim health diagnosis—like 3-to-5-years-left-to-live diagnosis. As we spoke, what struck me most about his accounting of what’s happening in his life right now is his unshakable gratitude. ‘I’d be a lot more upset if I’d spent the last 30 years of my life at a desk,’ he joked. He admitted that he has moments when he feels scared, but went on to reflect how he’s seen and experienced so much in the world, all over the world, done work that he loves, and on his own terms, and that he sees his remaining years as a gift.

Wow.

We made a promise to get together as soon as we are each back from upcoming travels.

The very next day, two weeks out from our second COVID-19 vaccines, Shawn and I drove up to visit his parents and hug them for the first time in over a year. And to have dinner with them in their house! Wow! Another tremendous upheaval of emotions and gratitude.

And we also made a promise to them to get together as soon as we are back from upcoming travels.

There is a clock ticking on the wall for every single one of us. Most of us live our lives most of the time as if there is no such clock. We eat poorly. We hold petty grudges. We do work that we don’t enjoy. We stay in places or in relationships or in situations that don’t fulfill us. We scroll through social media and the news, seeking out elation and outrage.

In this way of living, death is something that happens to other people, but not to us.

Then the phone rings with bad news, and the world grows quiet, except for that clock, which suddenly is the loudest sound in the world.

In that relative quiet, we can instantly see the ways in which we have wasted time and energy. ‘Why did I do/say/not do/not say x-y-z?’ It reminds me of that moment when you wake up from a dream that seems bizarre once you’re awake, but seemed ordinary while you were dreaming it, because somehow you understood everything in the strange world you were just inhabiting. You were beyond thoughts. You were just experiencing things as they arose, and then the bubble burst and you were suddenly and seamlessly experiencing something else entirely—being wide awake in your bed in the ‘real world’—and then were immediately flooded by familiar thoughts and judgments and emotions…

… until the next time you are shaken awake by the awareness of what is most true of anyone or anything—that everything that arises also passes away. Hugs, tears, dreams, promises, friends, life itself.

Impossible as it seems after this past year, I’m getting on an airplane this coming Friday morning with three of the dearest people in my world and heading out to California for almost two weeks. We’re all fully vaccinated, and we have decided not to stay home and worry about whether the vaccine has done the necessary work in our bodies to protect us and others from the ravages of this coronavirus. We’re listening to that ticking clock, to that pop of the bubble, that says:

This is the only life of which you can be certain, so go out into the world and plant the seeds of your songs and your work wherever you’re invited to do so, make and keep your promises to those you love as best as you can, and give the world your care and your gratitude while you have the time.

Is there anything else?

The most vivid screen in the world.

Last Friday night was pretty special. Shawn and Davy and I had our first in-person show together, just the three of us, since last summer, performing mostly my originals, one of Davy’s, a Billy Strayhorn piece, and an old Irving Berlin tune.

We’d had a bunch of rehearsals ahead of time, and though I felt solid with the songs and the arrangements, I wondered if I’d forget how to be on a stage in front of a room full (or, in this case, because of COVID protocols, not quite full) of people.

I was a little nervous. I did a little bit of pacing around the green room. I ate too much. I had some jitters. Butterflies. But I was never uncomfortable. I simply noticed how I was feeling.

We shot a couple of videos during the down time, after dinner, before the show. (Those will end up on my Patreon.) That work—that joy—kept me grounded. And it was familiar, too—creating something with an eye towards the future, a mindset in which I’ve been entrenched these last 14 months with all the live-streaming and recording I’ve been doing.

Showtime was 8 pm, and we took the stage with Carol, the owner of Stone Mountain Arts Center, and we were greeted immediately by something that nearly took my breath away—applause. That sound of hands brought together by living breathing human beings in person, showing their appreciation and their eagerness to have a real live experience, away from screens, away from phones, away from the idea of archiving the moment for future use. This was a time-standing-still kind of moment. A shining pearl harvested from the oyster of this strange and challenging year.

What followed was about 75 minutes of pure bliss. Singing and playing and living inside each song for its duration and not a moment longer. Sinking into the beauty and the magic of live performance. Looking into the open eyes of each and every person in that room. Connecting across points in space and time. Noticing my feet on the stage and my hands moving across strings and keys and my breath as I sang and spoke each word. We were all pixels on the most vivid screen in the world—the bright light of awareness shining on and through the present moment.

I hope I won’t ever take any of it—the in-person vocal harmony, the applause, the spark of recognition in the eyes of another—for granted ever again.

And I am so ready for more.

The black hole trampoline.

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As much as my mother enjoyed certain kinds of attention, she wasn’t insistent upon Mother’s Day. Maybe it was her Scottish upbringing, maybe it was her aversion to overt commercialism (and ain’t that the truth about Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day, and…), but I don’t really recall ever going out for any big special Mother’s Day outings. No noisy brunches in crowded restaurants, no fanfare. There would always be a card from me, sure, and perhaps some small gift—like some little tchotchke to add to her miniatures collection, or maybe a Rod Stewart cassette that she didn’t already have or that needed replacement—but otherwise it was always just another Sunday morning at church, and then maybe a drive to the ocean if the weather was nice, just the three of us, but no big deal if it wasn’t. Nothing boastful or social—kinda like all the rest of our holiday traditions, actually.

My favorite Mother’s Day memory is this—that she always insisted (often in conversation with others) that my father never ever under any circumstances buy her any sort of Mother’s Day gift. Not even a card. ‘I’m no’ yer m’ther,’ she’d exclaim with a chuckle. To her, the idea of a husband giving the mother of his child/ren a gift on Mother’s Day made no sense.

Oh, and her feelings about flowers? Hard pass. She did love her flower gardens, though, and once in a great while, Dad would bring home flowers if he had screwed up and had run out of gestures to get things back on track. Otherwise, my mom felt how I have come to feel at times about fresh cut flowers—they are beautiful to behold and it’s depressing to watch them disintegrate.

She did, however, insist that Dad call Grandma Mary every year. ‘She’s th’ only m’ther y’ve goat,’ she’d remind him every chance she got.

And she was right, of course.

Dad’s relationship with his mother was troubled. Kinda like mine with mine. Misunderstandings a mile wide and probably, truthfully, only an inch deep.

Mom died 14 years ago, and I’ve written a number of songs about her, including a few that speak directly to the grief I’ve experienced since her death, like Did I Mention, Goodness Knows, Edith, and Lines and Spaces. I experienced a particularly strong wave of that grief as it came suddenly out of remission this past week—not because of the coming second Sunday in May, but… just because. Something, usually an unexpected something, will remind me of her—or remind me of her absence—and that black hole of grief in whose orbit I have spun since even before she died will pull me closer, until I cannot help but fall in for a little while. With lots of practice, I can think of that black hole as a trampoline off of which I am able to bounce, and as I come to rest again on the solid ground of this joyful, beautiful, tragic world that we all share, I am reminded of how lucky I am to experience grief—because it means I’m alive, and that I love with my whole heart.