Day 1: Bell ringer.

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I arrived at the retreat center on Wednesday, December 29th, and the first thing I did – after showing my negative PCR test, taking and receiving a negative result from a rapid test, and bidding a tearful goodbye to Shawn – really surprised me.

I always swore I would never be a bell ringer. ‘Too much responsibility,’ I always said.

And then, after I got my room key and visited the bulletin board to sign up for service jobs, without hesitation I picked up a pen and wrote my name in one of the 13 daily slots, choosing 3:45 pm.

Hey, what the hell, I thought. I’m here to pay attention – might as well get curious about my resistance to being a bell ringer.

And after the bell ringing training that evening at 6 pm with a dozen others whose names now filled the remaining slots, I thought, What was that resistance all about?

Turns out that being a bell ringer is AWESOME!

First of all, you get to walk around the entire campus once a day, up and down several flights of stairs. And you get to carry this badass heavy brass bell around. And at a dozen different spots, you get to ring the bell! Making music – I was born for this.

And the sound of the thing. The B flat fundamental, with a super high D harmonic. So full and warm and clear with just the right amount of sparkle. Just stunning.

The tour takes about 10 minutes to complete. And when I was done each day, I would carefully hang the bell, listen to the last ringing fade, then walk to the meditation hall for the 3:45 sitting.

As the retreat went on, I noticed that I really looked forward to 3:30 – ending my walking meditation practice, taking a seat on the square stool, noticing teachers and staff and other retreatants coming and going, watching the clock on the opposite wall as 3:35 approached. I would get a little nervous, excited.

And I noticed my tendency to organize this part of the day around this task – making sure I was in a walking meditation room at 3:00 that had a clock, making sure I was wearing my hat so I wouldn’t get chilly when I went outside in those two places to ring the bell – and my tendency also to stay wedded to time and the keeping of it.

And that is perhaps what I was resisting – wanting so much to relax around this, to not be so serious about and bound to time and punctuality.

So each day, I walked more slowly as I rang the bell. I savored each step, each ringing. I noticed the rhythms of my walking, and of the ringing, and of the bell swinging slightly in the grip of my left hand. I noticed the rhythms of others’ walking when they saw me approach with the bell. Sometimes they would speed up, sometimes they would slow down, sometimes they would stop altogether, or even step out of my way.

And I noticed my longing for the purpose of the bell ringing, and I got curious about that, too. Yes, I enjoyed the music-making aspect, and the chance to break through the silence – and I also loved that I was, in this small way each day, helping the whole community stay on task with this reminder. Each ringing of the bell was my way of saying out loud, Here we are. Let’s practice together. Let’s go get curious about what we’re each and all doing here, alone and together.

And each day we did.

And then I noticed something else start to happen as I sat down each day in the hall at 3:45 – my letting go of the concept of time. I could be a bell ringer, just for those few minutes a day when I was holding and ringing the bell, and then relax when I was no longer a bell ringer. I didn’t need to hold onto the identity, or to time. Others were holding those things now. I could sink into the fullness of my practice, knowing that the teacher leading the sit would sound the bowl when the sitting was over. And then, that someone else would pick up the bell at 5:00 to let us all know that it’s time for dinner. And so on.

On the final day of the retreat, on January 7th, I got to ring the bell one last time, at 9:15 am – the bell that summoned all of us back to the meditation hall for the last sitting together, one last instruction, one last chance to be in that particular place in which to notice everything about our relationship with time, with curiosity, with trust, with the concept of self.

And the bells are ringing still.

‘…but I gotta go.’

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If all goes to plan, this coming Wednesday I will begin a ten day silent retreat. I’ll be hours from home with no internet, no screens, no journals, no coffee, no instruments, no Shawn. Just this breath, this step, this moment – and then the next, and the next.

I’ve sat two silent retreats before, each five days in length, each full of challenges and rewards.

Sleep – stand – walk – sit – eat – work – walk – sit – stand – walk – sit – eat – stand – walk – sit – stand – walk – sit – eat – stand – walk – sit – stand – walk – sleep.

Each day, each hour, each moment an opportunity – an invitation – to pay attention to the present moment without judgment.

Can I really do ten days? I’ve been asking myself. I will miss (insert person/place/thing here) so much. What will I notice? What will happen?

Years ago, my dear friend Leah went on a vision quest in Montana, and wrote an album’s worth of songs about her experience, called ‘Up The Mountain.’ (I would link it here, except that much of her music, with the exception of her ‘Songs of the Circle‘ album, isn’t available online.) A line from the title track has been running through my mind and voice lately:

I don’t know what I’ll find with my searching
And I don’t know what I’ll see with my seeking
And I don’t know what I’ll call with my asking
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know
But I gotta go.

It’s that last line that hooks me.

but I gotta go.

It’ll be difficult, no doubt. And I gotta do this. I gotta sit with the mind, sit with all the joy and grief and anxiety and bliss, and look at it and be with it. In silence and solitude. For ten days.

Why? you might wonder.

I yam what I yam.

I gotta because I gotta.

I wanna look after the very thing that is with me at every moment of this life, see what it’s up to, take good care of it.

How one spends one’s days is how one spends one’s life.

So, I’ll be taking a break from the blog for at least a couple of Mondays.

I am looking forward to sharing whatever presents itself for sharing from the silence and solitude of this experience.

In the meantime, I wish you happiness and joy, strength and ease, freedom from suffering, and peace.

The first sizable snow.

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Our show on Saturday night in Framingham was cancelled because of Mother Nature, and though I was sad that our fantastic run of shows this year ended with such a whimper, I was also grateful for an easy, early night. (And we have one more private show tonight, so all is well.)

I was really excited on Sunday morning when I opened the shades and the brilliance of the first significant snowfall came streaming through the windows. It got me thinking about snowshoeing through the silent and tranquil woods just a stone’s throw from our door.

We bundled up and took our regular afternoon walk around the neighborhood, and wow, was it cold – and wow, was it beautiful!

And yes, I am certain at some point I will begin complaining about winter – about the sustained cold temperatures against which we must bundle and layer to the point of being unable to move (like this kid), the hazards it presents while driving, and of course all the dealing with the containment of it on vehicles, in the driveway, and on the footpaths. (Ah hell, who am I kidding on that last point? Shawn and Ryan do most of that maintenance around here anyway, as well as the plows and sand and salt trucks that faithfully do their level best to keep us all safe. And wow, am I grateful for all of that, too.)

For now, I will savor every moment of beauty – including the return of more daylight starting this week, YES! – and wait for the next snowfall to inspire me to get the snowshoes out of the garage.

May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

Stage plot

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(just before doors on December 12 at One Longfellow Square, Portland, ME)

Stage left:
1 acoustic piano with 88 keys
1 bench
2 piano mics
1 vocal mic

Stage center:
1 XLR
1 wooden stool

Stage right:
1 XLR

Personnel:
1 pianist/vocalist
1 bassist
1 drummer

Equipment:
1 upright bass
1 bass amp
1 kick
1 snare
1 rack tom
1 floor tom
1 hi hat
2 cymbals
assorted sticks, brushes, aux. percussion
12 limbs
6 hands
24 fingers
6 thumbs
3 hearts
1 Charlie Brown Christmas tree
decades of practice
an infinite amount of gratitude, joy, and love

Doors at 3p/6p
Show at 4p/7p

Christmas time is here.

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This weekend was a whirlwind of being back in the world, performing three shows in three states with Shawn and Craig. Making music with the two of them… ahh, heaven on earth.

We’d been rehearsing for weeks, knocking the rust off. We drove lots of miles. We opened our hearts and leaned into the familiarity of the songs, and took some new chances too, all of which paid off. The audiences were groovin’ in their seats. From above and around everyone’s masks, we could detect eyes and faces crinkled into smiles of joy and gratitude.

Friday’s show was the first, in Bangor, ME. A perfect kickoff! Good turnout, lovely folks, fantastic sound guy (thank you, Torin!). Everyone was so quiet, leaning in, until the end of each song. The applause in that hall was thunderous and joyful every time.

Saturday’s show was in the Northeast Kingdom town of Lyndon, VT, in a congregationalist-church-turned-meeting-house lifted straight off of a postcard. It even started to snow, very softly, as we got into town. Picture perfect. The show brought out another lovely group of folks, one of whom immediately recognized our very non-Christmas encore and talked shop with us after the show about that song and about jazz and piano and Oscar Peterson and New Orleans.

At Sunday’s show – at the community church (and the invitation) of my beloved childhood piano teacher, Helen Davidson – one woman shouted from her seat at the end of the concert, ‘Thanks for the memories!’ to which I quipped, ‘We don’t know that song’ and everyone laughed. Immediately after the show, she made a beeline for me, saying, ‘I really do thank you for the memories – this music meant the world to me as a kid.’ Oh, I wanted to hug this lovely stranger! Instead, I smiled and thanked her.

At every show, at least one person told me that this was their first live music since before COVID.

As the three of us sipped tea together, holed up in our motel room on Saturday night, we talked about the shows, about life, about music… and eventually the conversation came around to the fact that eventually, we will do something, anything, everything, for the last time. And what if this had been our last show? So, we agreed – let’s approach every performance, every song, every lick, as if it’s the last we’ll ever play.

Like I said – heaven on earth with these two.

The last verse from my favorite Christmas song, the one we have been and will be singing all month, sums it up for me in this moment:

Christmas time is here
And we’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year

There are just so many late Novembers.

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The snow has been teasing us here this week. Mt. Washington has been aglow with winter for a bit now. Down here in the valley, we keep hearing forecast of snow, yet all we’ve seen here is a flake or two here and there.

Though each year I seem to complain a little more about the drop in temperatures, and feel the seasonal sadness of fewer hours of daylight a little more deeply, I also still feel that youthful spark of excitement jolt through me whenever I look out the window and see those first flakes falling. There is still that part of me that wants to run out and build a snowman, or throw a snowball or two. And until that’s possible, I guess I feel a little impatient as I gaze out at what at first glance can appear to be ugly and lifeless, or what looks to me like the tan brown animal of the world awaiting its winter coat.

And yet when I pause and really look, it’s quite stunning:

The yard still bears many shades of brown and green grasses. Curled fallen leaves rest quietly. Ground-feeding juncos flit around the gardens. Chickadees and nuthatches zip back and forth from feeder to tree. Chipmunks gather whatever they can carry in their overstuffed mouths. Pockets of frostbitten mud evidence recent rainfall. The bones of bare trees hold up a brilliant blue sky. Dark clouds carry with them the answer to a question: Rain or snow? The air even smells like snow – that sharp, colorless smell that every New Englander recognizes immediately. The shoulders of the road along our regular walking path have been hardening under our boots. The pond, pictured above, is starting to show the slightest signs around its edges of giving in to the freeze.

Don Henley, you’re right – there are just so many summers, and just so many springs. Those bright and beguiling seasons are certainly all that – and so is this strange time of year, if I wear enough layers and take a little more time to look a little more closely. The world is always beautiful, no matter the time of year.

The recipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for the sweet spot.

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

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

scrape scratch scrape scratch

a couple beats of silence

then

WHEEEEEEEEE *thud*

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

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

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

‘Just look at the photograph.’

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

I gasped.

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

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

My mind took off:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking on an old friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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