(insert adjective here) New Year

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Remember when you felt really hopeful about 2021? Like, a week ago?

Holy moly.

I was at the dentist on Wednesday when the news of the events at the Capitol exploded into awareness. Thankfully, I was up and out of the chair and not being poked and prodded and scraped any longer. (Can you imagine learning about the attempted coup while a dentist is working on your teeth? I actually don’t mind going to the dentist – I really like my dentist – but wow, for a lot of people, that’s the stuff of nightmares!) Dr. C. has NPR playing throughout his office 24-7, and a discussion about vaccine rollout in the state of Maine was cut short with an abrupt sentence from NPR headquarters in Washington, something about ‘the Vice President is safe’. He and I both froze in our tracks as he was handing me my next-time appointment card.

I got out to the car and called Shawn. ‘What’s going on?’ My heart started to race.

After a brief exchange, trying to make sense of things, we hung up and I turned on the radio for my drive home. As I drove along roads that I hadn’t seen in months – the bright, beautiful, frozen landscape of Western Maine in early January – the horror of what was happening in D.C. was sinking in, and I couldn’t stop shaking or crying.

I couldn’t wait to get home, and see and hug my best friend.

Wednesdays are live-stream days for us, so the question bubbled up: Do we go on with the show? Will it seem tone-deaf to start up Facebook Live and sing songs like ‘Pennies From Heaven’?

We did go on with the show. We would have picked up our instruments and played anyway, even if there was no stream scheduled that day. So, why not do it, and share it, and see what happens? We started with a rendition of Horace Silver’s ‘Peace’, and the hour unfolded from there. And we put our hearts into every note, every word, and the folks who tuned in thanked us for it, for giving them a respite from the shock and sadness of the moment.

Using the turning of the year as a pivot point for one’s outlook and plans is a time-honored tradition. There is this sense that we can shape the New Year into anything we want. ‘Happy’? Sure. ‘Peaceful’? That sounds good too. ‘Joyful’? I’m all for it. When we look more deeply into this tradition, this exercise of renewal, we can see that every day, every hour, every moment is the start of a new year, the start of another chance to set things right.

I am no pundit. I just want to live in a world where people don’t believe that they have to resort to violence – ANY kind of violence – to be heard and understood. I don’t want to write anyone off. I want to listen and learn and understand and have compassion and empathy. Boy, is that tough when you don’t agree. But I’m here, and I’m trying. Holy hell, am I trying.

2021’s cape.

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IT’S A BIRD!

IT’S A PLANE!

IT’S….. 2021!

And the new page on my calendar is looking at me shrugging its shoulders, like, ‘Huh? You see a cape on this?’

I get it. There is a ubiquitous feeling of excitement and relief to see the numbers ‘2020’ in the rear view mirror (unless, of course, you’re hoping for a perfect next eye exam).

And I share the hope and excitement! I have a list as long as my arm of stuff that I hope to accomplish in the New Year, though I wouldn’t call the things on this list ‘resolutions’ so much as I would describe them in terms I borrow from my friend Kate: ‘striving for approximations.’

‘2021’ isn’t a benevolent superhero that will save us from the evil villain ‘2020.’ It’s a number on a page on the calendar—which of course is a slice of paper made from the fiber of a once-living tree combined with the muscle and know-how to create a stand-still time-keeping device. And, you know, my calendar is just a boring day planner. No pretty pictures. Maybe I should get a nice wall calendar, with mountains or puppies or something…

See how distracted my mind gets? I bet yours does that, too.

And that’s just it. I think what matters is attention. What am I paying attention to—to some far off moment when everything will be better, and to the hopes and expectations I’m pinning to that moment? Or am I paying attention to what’s happening right here, right now, in this moment—the only moment I can be sure of?

And when I *do* pay attention to the here and now, sometimes all I’ve got is, ‘I’m exhausted.’ And of course! Who isn’t exhausted right now? Last year kicked our asses. And there is still some ass-kicking in store for us. This year, next year. Today, tomorrow, every day.

What matters, moment to moment, is how we can manage our attention—to remember what is happening now, to stay connected to what cultivates gratitude and celebration in our lives, and to go easy on ourselves when we stumble. Even superheroes trip on their own capes sometimes.

The Return of the Blog Thing

Hey all y’all! Remember me? I used to blog here once in a while.

I haven’t posted anything here since ‘Charlottesville’. Holy moly has so much happened since then.

So, instead of attempting to get creative and cleverly recapture the last few years and fill this space with phrases like ‘such a challenging time’ and ‘where did the time go’ blah blah blah… I’ve decided to just start from here.

Besides—is there really anywhere else from which to start?

So I’m officially announcing 

THE RETURN OF THE BLOG THING

(cue the orchestra and the plate reverb and the cheesy monster movie sound effects)

Starting in January 2021, I’ll post some writing here once a week with a focus on creativity, gratitude, and mindfulness—and whatever else bubbles up.

I’ll be rebooting my podcast in 2021 as well. 

Wishing you continued health, safety, and peace.

Love,
Heather

Charlottesville.

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I’ve just finished spending the last two days working in the studio with a very dear childhood friend, helping her to record some of her original songs. Every moment I spent with her was a gift.

When she and I took breaks from our work, the turmoil that spilled over from Charlottesville into the world weighed heavily on our non-musical conversation, and on our hearts.

To say that all sides are to blame for the violence might be true in a very literal sense – people on all sides of this ideological divide were throwing real, bloody, physical punches – but to blame them all equally strikes me as myopic and knee-jerk, and revealing of a profound misunderstanding.

In human interaction, it seems that there are two choices – conversation and violence. Conversation can take time. Violence can be perpetrated in just seconds. Conversation can fail, and violence can dominate. Self-defense, both with words and with violence, is sometimes terribly necessary.

These last two days, while I did the work that I love, I kept coming back to this: The right answer to hatred is compassion. Though it is hard, I want to take this love I have of making music and point it in every possible direction. I want to open my heart and bear witness to another’s anger and fear, no matter their ideology, and to *really* hear what is being said. Yes, I will fail, over and over again. Yes, I will sometimes succumb to my own anger and fear and impatience and misunderstanding. It takes longer – much longer – than to compose a tweet or write a song or live a lifetime – but little by little, doing the difficult work of loving other human beings, especially the ones with whom I disagree the strongest, is the only hope for peace.

In memory of Gregg Allman. 

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I was listening to the Allman Brothers in the womb.  

My parents were both huge fans of music, and there were always lots of records in rotation. The ones that were always near the top of the stack were Eat A Peach, Brothers and Sisters, and the one that loomed most largely in my life, At Fillmore East.  

By the time I was born in 1976, Duane and Berry were already dead; their status as legends, particularly Duane’s, was an indelible imprint on my young mind. Their music was the soundtrack of my life, and it proved to me over and over again with each listen, I grew to understand, that you could apply a jazz improv, nothing-but-feel sensibility to rock n roll.  

I went through a lot phases with my tastes growing up: pop, heavy metal, punk rock, classical, jazz, electronica, hip hop – but I always returned, again and again, to those records made by those long haired country boys from Georgia.

One of my fondest memories is of the early morning car rides with my dad when I was in high school. I wasn’t yet driving, and I was sick of riding the bus to school, so Dad would drop me off early before going to work at the machine shop. Every cold and dewy morning, he’d back the old Nissan out of the driveway, Camel straight in hand, window barely cracked, and we’d listen in silent awe to At Fillmore East on cassette.

“Okay, the Allman Brothers Band,” the album starts. You hear the ringing for a split second of someone’s open A string, and the very gentle tapping of a hi hat before launching into “Statesboro Blues”. We knew this album so well we didn’t even need to listen to it. We knew every note and phrase, every gritty vocal and screaming guitar note, every organ swell, every strike of Butch’s sticks and Jaimo’s hands, every moment of applause.  

But when something is that great, you just can’t get enough of it.  

Dad’s free hand, once we were in fifth gear, would rest in a place on the lower left hand side of the steering wheel, fingering along with Duane and Dickey. My right hand would play along with Gregg on my right thigh. Dad and I would glance knowingly at each other at our favorite moments – Duane’s first solo on “Statesboro”, the entrance of Dickey’s mournful guitar on “Elizabeth Reed”, and on and on. 

But there was a moment that used to really piss me off. 

Like my dad used to say, “Hire a teenager now while they still know everything.”

I was a smart aleck musical whiz kid. I took classical piano lessons for a lot of years, and I was really good. I wasn’t arrogant about it, in fact I was painfully shy, especially about my singing voice, but I thought I knew more than I actually did. The eternal affliction of youth.  

On “One Way Out”, coming out of Butch and Jaimo’s drum and percussion solo, Dickey and Duane, in that order, would trade fours. And then on the last four, Duane ups the ante with this killer syncopated line, and then what does Berry do? He comes in a beat early and fucks it all up! This was another moment when Dad and I would look at each other, every time. Sometimes I would comment, “Aw, why?” And though Dad would smile, he otherwise never showed any agreement.  

It took me years to see the beauty in that moment. 

I used to think Neil Young was awful. I would snobbishly say, “He can’t sing or play worth a damn.” And maybe, technically, that is true, but when I saw him perform on TV in 1993, just him and his piano, it hit me hard. The raw, pure emotion of his performance got me in the gut. Though I didn’t become a huge fan of his, I never again criticized him. How could I? He was and is brilliant.  

Yes, Berry’s early note on “One Way Out” is technically a mistake. But what I finally realized one day is that my annoyance at this moment had melted away, to the point where it may just be my favorite moment on the Fillmore record. Because after the early note, you hear Duane continuing to dazzle as if nothing has happened, and you hear the rest of the band making tiny little adjustments to make it all turn out right by the time they get back to the root. Just four bars and all was right with the world again.  

The lesson there was so simple. Music for a musician is not just about playing. It’s about listening! Listening as if you have never heard the song, the chord, the moment before, and just bringing your skills to bear on each and every one.  

Gregg is gone now. Another brilliant voice gone silent. Thank goodness we have all those perfect/imperfect records to listen to and rejoice in and shoot for.  

I’ve got a ticket to ride. 

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Good morning, and Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. I haven’t posted anything personal in a while and would like to bend your eyes and ears for a moment in that regard.

I’ll be spending the day today playing piano at the White Mountain Hotel in North Conway, New Hampshire, for folks who are perhaps smarter than most and leave the cooking and the cleanup to other people – people who are, at least in part, giving up spending Thanksgiving with their own families. The almighty dollar looms large, as it must for many. Music is my living, and I’ll be happy to see my jar fill up today as well.  

To be truthful, Thanksgiving is just another day for me. When I was a kid, I loved it – it was just me and Mom and Dad, eating lots of food, and watching football. Dad would drink his Budweiser, Mom would drink her Boones Farm, and the dogs would beg for scraps. 

Dad died the week before Thanksgiving in ’98, and the holidays, and the rest of life, were never quite the same after that.  

Fast forward to January of ’07, and then Mom died one night in her bed, alone, surrounded by the memories of Dad of which she never let go.

I have to admit I feel a pang of sadness when I see social media filling up with photos of happy families gathering together on this day. But that feeling never lasts long. Life is too good for that. 

The last couple of years have been the best in my entire life. My music is making its way into the world, and I’m lucky enough to make my living entirely from it.  

All of this is a long winded way of saying two things:

1. I am so grateful to you, one and all, for being a part of my life and for cheering me on during this one way wild and crazy ride.  

2. Treasure your own one way ticket and the bumps in the road and enjoy the smooth stretches. And the scenery is great too. 

Oh and stay home tomorrow if you can. Black Friday totally sucks.

A boy and a beetle.

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This past weekend at one of my hotel gigs, I had an interesting interaction with a kid named Alexander, a boy of about 6 or 7 years of age, with thick curly red hair, dazzling green eyes, and an insatiable urge to ham it up. He was seated at the table next to the piano with his parents and what I guessed to be his maternal grandparents. His back was to me, and upon my arrival, his father, seated across from him, remarked, “Oh look, we are going to have some nice relaxing piano music” to which the boy replied, after a quick glance in my direction, “I don’t want relaxing piano music.” He quickly changed his tune, so to speak, and as my first set progressed, I noticed him moving his arms and fingers as if he were the one playing the songs, in hyperbolic gestures that young kids can pull off in such a comedic and endearing way.  

Towards the end of that set, he stepped up beside me, put a tip from his father in my jar, and we struck up a conversation. We introduced ourselves and, after complimenting him on his very fashionable train conductor’s hat and the snazzy toy train he had at his place at the table, I asked him if he had been on the Conway Scenic Railroad that day. He said he had not, but then told me that he had been to the top of what he called “George Washington” and that he could “see this hotel and your piano from up there”. His mother turned around to tell me that they had taken the auto road up to the top of Mount Washington and what a picture perfect day it had been. I joked to Alexander that he must’ve had some pretty powerful binoculars to have been able to see the piano! He blushed with excitement and slight embarrassment that I had seen through his fib. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two friends entering the tavern. They waved and I waved back.  

“Is that your mom and dad?” Alexander asked.  

I smiled and said, “No. Those are my friends Steve and Roberta.”

“Well, where is your mom and dad?”

I paused, not knowing how most people talk to their kids about death, and chose my words of reply carefully: “They’re not around anymore.”

Alexander took this in for a moment and then said, “They died.” It was a statement of fact and not a question. He understood. “Yes,” I said softly.  

“Oh,” he mumbled, shifting his weight and looking at his feet. Then he pointed towards his grandparents behind him and said, “They’re probably going to be dead. Soon.”

I brought my hand up to my mouth to suppress what would have been a howl of laughter and then said, “That could very well be.”   

On a hike that Shawn and I took on Monday afternoon, we found on the ledges a large beetle that was on its back, its many legs flailing in frantic motion. At once I grabbed a nearby twig, held it gently against the beetle’s legs, and it latched on. I placed the twig back on the ground and away we all went. A few paces later, Shawn wondered aloud if the bug felt any gratitude to “the giant who saved him.” I chuckled and said, “Maybe a bird has already swooped down and eaten it.” 

Maybe so.

Maybe Alexander’s grandparents will die soon. Or maybe I will. Maybe my parents died too soon. Maybe that beetle is hiding under a rock on top of that mountain, or maybe it’s already in the belly of some bird that would’ve died otherwise.   

Like Joni Mitchell once sang:

We can’t return

We can only look behind from where we came

And go round and round and round in the circle game

And, as George Carlin once put it: “Oh, by the way, you’re all going to die. I didn’t mean to remind you of it but it is on your schedule.”

So, with all of that in mind, I intend to keep on, for as long as I’m able, playing music and writing songs and hiking mountains and having interesting conversations and waiting for the hummingbirds to visit my petunias. 

Ghosts real and imagined.

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I can’t remember the last time I spoke to anyone I’m related to.

That realization came crashing down on me after talking to a dear friend last night about the vagaries of family.

Then, as I thought about it, I did remember the last such occasion. On a cross-country adventure in January 2013, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be passing through Houston, where there are a lot of Piersons. An impromptu family reunion of sorts was quickly organized, and I was able to spend a few short hours with several of my cousins, their spouses, and their children. I even got to spend a couple nights with one of my uncles, with whom I’d been close as a child and then the connection somehow was diminished.

It really was an awesome time.

The word ‘family’ has always felt like an oddity to me. More to the point – I’m not sure how I relate (no pun intended) to the word at all. I’m the only child of two deceased parents (Dad died in ’98, Mom in ’07). I grew up in Maine, thousands of miles from the nearest next of kin. Holidays were always just the three of us. Other family members only appeared to me on rare occasions throughout the year, their voices coming through the crackling of the telephones in the kitchen or the living room, or through their hastily written Christmas cards arriving in our mailbox. My mother’s mother and one of my British cousins visited us in Maine a couple of times, as did my father’s father and one of my uncles (the same one that I stayed with during my Houston visit). Sure, there have been Facebook exchanges and a very rare email now and again between me and one of my uncles and a couple of my cousins, but aside from these few-and-far-between digital communications, there’s been no other contact between me and my family.

Last night, my friend said, ‘I’m so close with my family. I can’t even imagine that.’

Another friend once said to me years ago, ‘There is the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose, and sometimes they’re the same.’ These days, I do have what I think of as a very loving family: a scattering of people, yes, but dear friends all, complete with their own idiosyncrasies, with whom I feel a mutual and unconditional love and support.

Even though many of them are still among the living, I have often thought of my blood relatives as ghosts of a sort, drifting along the edges of my awareness. Yes, they’re out there, and I do love them and care for them, even though, sadly, many of them really are strangers to me.

And I’m not alone in feeling this way. After bringing it up once to one of my cousins, he agreed, saying, ‘The Piersons just aren’t close.’

So, maybe it’s in our shared genes. A propensity to go it alone, to find our own stubborn way.

But on both sides of the family?

Aside from encounters when I was an infant of which I have no memory, I’d never met or even spoken to my mother’s brother until she died. He traveled to Maine from England for her funeral – his first trip to the US – and though I did spend some very informative and all-too brief time with him in the sanctuary of the church after the service was over, we’ve not had any contact since then.

Then there are the very real ghosts of my parents. No, not their disembodied spirits (I tend to not believe in supernatural things). But it’s the memories of them, the unfinished conversations with them, the never-to-be-had second chances with them, that do truly haunt me.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and it is the birthday of one of my uncles. I probably should call him, but I know how this narrative goes. It’s the one I learned from my parents (especially Dad, from whom I inherited my distaste for talking on the phone), both of whom were at odds in their own ways with their own families, both of whom were haunted by ghosts of their own. It’s the narrative in which I’ll wish my uncle well in my thoughts and think, as I often have, ‘I really should call my grandmother one of these days.’

Here’s to family, and to whatever that word actually means here in the real world outside of Webster’s dictionary.

A few thoughts on Father’s Day.

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One of my father’s favorite sayings was, “If I can’t make you happy, I can damn sure piss you off.”

He was a man of few words, but boy, did they pack a punch when they needed to.  He wasn’t, as the saying above suggests, a neutral guy.  No, he wasn’t chatty or even all that sociable, but he had strong opinions and, given the right circumstances, he let those winds blow.

And oh, how he made me happy: bringing the love of music into my life, into my tiny little five-year-old hands as he guided them across the keys of the first piano that he’d brought home; that surge of excitement that first time when I realized he’d let go after pushing me on my bike after taking off the training wheels; the sweets and treats he brought home to me and Mom every Friday afternoon after he got his paycheck; those incredible steaks he used to cook on the grill in the summertime; his unending litany of jokes and one-liners.

So many precious memories.

And yes, there were times when he pissed me off, too — most memorably (and humorously) when I was in fourth grade and, after getting into a raging alcohol-fueled argument with my mother about the state of his beard, he went into the bathroom to trim it with a pair of dull scissors.  She was always after him to keep it short, while he preferred it a little more unkempt.  I escaped most of the drama and went to bed.  When he showed up at my school the next morning to chaperone my class’s trip to the Portland Symphony, his beard had vanished.  Though he later explained that he’d “screwed it all up” and had needed to shave it off, I refused to speak to him for a couple of days and even wouldn’t sit next to him at the symphony.   I really liked his beard.  (And I can still recall the deeply apologetic glances he gave me over his shoulder from the row in front of me and just a few seats to the right.)

But then, there were more moments of genuine pissed-offed-ness: his stage fright — how could a man with that much musical talent get stage fright?!

Then there were all those times when he took my mother’s side in everything, no matter what crazy thing she said.   Those really hurt.

And I was really pissed off after he died.  Pissed at him for not taking better care of himself, for not ever exercising or eating better or drinking less or giving up those damned Camel straights that he loved so much, all of which certainly set him up for the terminal cancer that beat him just a few weeks after his fifty-first birthday.

But I’m not angry so much anymore.  It doesn’t feel good to hang on to the anger, to any anger, really.  A dear friend said that sort of thing is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

I’m lucky that I get to complain about missing my dad.  I’m lucky that I got to help the girls upstairs today in getting their Father’s Day cards and gifts ready for tomorrow’s celebration.  I’m lucky to have all those traits of my dad’s that always frustrated me: the stubbornness, the tendency towards shyness, the propensity for unhealthy choices.  But I’m also lucky that I got a sliver of his sense of humor, and his undying love of music.  We’re all lucky to be here, to have a chance at anything.  Happy Father’s Day, everyone.

 

A very special five year anniversary.

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Five years ago today, I finally summoned the courage to leave an abusive relationship.  I’d been with him for seven years.

“Why don’t they just leave?” I used to say of women who stayed with abusive partners. I thought I was too smart to fall into that trap.

I learned the hard way how wrong I was.

He was older and seemingly wiser.   His charms slowly tarnished over time, until words that I’d once used to describe him – like smart, quick-witted, observant, attentive – became what they really were: sarcastic, harsh, cynical, obsessive.   Throughout our relationship, I felt my identity slowly slip away from me, until I was merely a means to his end.  I was not as important.  He made that clear.  I stopped caring about myself sufficiently and considered only him and his opinions, his feelings, his plans.  I believed that he was the most important person in my world, and that I was secondary.

There were no telltale bruises, marks, or scars.  All of my wounds were on the inside.  Words were his weapon of choice, and he was a master of manipulation.

Even with my two closest friends beseeching me to leave him, I stayed. “I can’t leave him — it would devastate him,” I would say, giving very little consideration to how terribly depressed and unfulfilled I was.

One day — five years ago today — with the help of a friend in whom I’d confided my fear, I did finally leave, knowing that it was necessary to preserve my sanity, but feeling terrified that I was making a mistake.

It was no mistake — it was the wisest choice I’ve ever made in my life.

Since February 26, 2010, I’ve accomplished some pretty awesome things.  It’s a long list, but here are some highlights:

I’ve recorded and released 4 CDs of my music.  I’ve toured all over the US in a Winnebago with my bandmates and closest friends.  I’ve learned to how to ride a motorcycle.  I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon.  I’ve been brought to tears by the wonders of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  I’ve watched the sun set on the Pacific Ocean.  I’ve played jazz on Bourbon Street.  And I fell in love and built an amazing life with my best friend, someone who encourages me everyday to be me.

Every single one of these things was a lifelong dream of mine, and every single one was unthinkable in my old life.

Take it from someone who usually learns things the hard way – don’t ever let anyone tell you that your dreams aren’t worth following or that you are selfish for even wanting to do so.  Such sentiment is a poison.  Those admonitions still occasionally haunt me, and yet I wake up every morning feeling grateful for another opportunity to continue living life in full pursuit of such dreams.

Life is beautiful and tragic and, most strikingly of all, it’s far too short.  Get out there and live your life! — because when you do, you smile, and then everyone around you will start smiling too.