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.

A poem about having nothing to say about having nothing to write about.

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Do I have anything to add to this blank page?
I’m starting to think, as I age
that I don’t have as much to say—
and besides, it’s all been said anyway,
but I sure like to try!
And honestly, I’m not entirely sure why.
I suppose that the happy adult
that I appear to be now is the result
of the awkwardness I felt as a kid
that both enjoyed and hated stayin’ hid.
Back then, I could be awfully shy,
and I’d rather let every chance go by
to receive any sort of attention,
except when it was my intention
to play the piano for you or sing in the choir.
Now, that’s when I’d feel a real fire
in my belly—doing what felt so right and freeing.
And I didn’t even mind anyone else seeing
the love in my heart on full display,
so as long there was always a way
for me to hide my own voice in the crowd
and not ever, for a moment, be too loud.
I always felt safest sitting behind
a piano or a keyboard. I find
that I can say things there
that I find impossible to say anywhere
else. It’s still true at times, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
I suppose every creative person’s bones
are chock full of the same sort of marrow
as they navigate a path that is both painfully narrow
and wildly expansive. It’s a balancing act,
to find and stay on the right track…
Anyway, I have to say that I’m really glad
that I finally got over always feeling awkward and sad
when singing alone in front of a crowd.
Now you can barely shut me up—but I still try not to be too loud.
And at the end of the day, I don’t need
to understand any of it, really. Every seed
that is planted will eventually take root.
And if it doesn’t, it gets the boot—
that is to say, it’ll just add to the fertile ground
and hopefully ensure that the next go-around
will be built on something solid and true.
Well… I don’t know about you,
but, even though the way isn’t always clear
and I’ll eventually lose all that I hold dear,
and in the meantime struggle with writer’s block,
I say this: the time I get to spend on this rock
taking one stab after another at… whatever
is far better than staying quiet forever.

An accidental gift?

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I received a notification last week that I needed to log into my Yahoo email account before it was closed for good.

Why not, I thought.

I typed ‘mail dot yahoo dot com’ into a browser for the first time in ages, logged in (successfully—and amazingly!—on the first try), and found a handful of unread emails from long-forgotten email subscriptions, all of which I deleted without opening.

Then, I looked again, and a realization suddenly took hold of me.

Everything was gone.

Inbox, Sent, Drafts, and the many folders I’d once created to organize nearly two decades of my online correspondence—each one completely wiped clean of its contents.

I set up this email address back in the late 90s, and it was my primary email address until early 2010.

As I stared at this big digital goose egg, I felt twinges of sadness, and also of embarrassment. How could I have let this happen? I thought. An entire archive that I’d taken for granted for years had slipped through my fingers—a record of correspondence with old friends and lost loves; volleys between my mother and me; a zeroes-and-ones trail winding through some of the toughest years of my life; chronicles of a both hopeful and troubled twenty- (and soon thirty-) something trying to figure out her place in the world in digital connection with others—and there was no way to recover any of it.

I did a quick Google search and found similar tales of woe from journalists and bloggers who had discovered their own Yahoo mail accounts erased while searching for something they’d left behind—a high school pal or a contract or an old flame, some ember of the fire that once lit up their younger selves.

And then, as the sadness fell away, a strange relief washed over me. I thought of the pack-rat-ish parents who raised me, who saved every magazine and catalog and Christmas card, and the many boxes and piles of all these things I’d had to sift through when cleaning out the house after Mom died, and how I experienced those same waves of grief and relief in getting rid of so much of it.

Hadn’t I, in some sense, given myself an accidental gift by forgetting about my old email account? Hadn’t my neglect of this archive saved me the energy and time that would have been spent at some stage sorting through it? And would I want to relive much of that correspondence? The misunderstandings between me and my mom, for instance? Isn’t it good to know that there are some things that can be scattered to the winds in this digital age?

Maybe some things are best tossed into the fire without reading them first.

The Yahoo mail account is still active, of course, though I suppose I will let it go entirely into the fire now, once and for all. And I’m smiling.

Thousands of pages later…

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I’ve kept a journal off and on since 7th grade.

My first journal was a bright pink, lock-and-key ‘My Diary’ that was a gift from my Grannie in Scotland, my mum’s mum. I cherished that little volume and the time alone that I spent with it, with my special pen, in my room, recording thoughts and observations that I was certain no one would ever read.

Those pages were the very definition of safety—and for a shy, brainy oddball of a kid like me, playing the piano, listening to music, reading books, and writing in that diary were the whole world to me.

In short order, my need for putting thoughts to paper outgrew the few lines that were allotted to each day in that first diary, and I began dedicated entire college-ruled notebooks. In high school, I abandoned notebooks altogether, and my folks kept me in college-ruled, three-hole-punched paper by the ream, with which I filled many three ringer binders.

Making the leap from the pen to the keyboard was a joyful one for me. Being able to type rather than write meant I could get a lot of things down faster, wow!! And I had a Gateway tower in my first apartment (with an enormous 9 GB hard drive!!!!) with which to journal and write bad (and some not so bad) poetry.

Most especially when I was younger, the act of journaling was an affirmation of my need for understanding and clarity, and also for expression and relief. I’ve often thought of journaling as the cheapest form of therapy, a way to get things off the hard drive that is my brain, and to wring out the sponge and make room for new experiences and (hopefully) new insights.

There have also been periods of time in life when I haven’t journaled at all. Often I was just too busy. Other times, the raw emotions of grief or anger were too volatile, too close to the surface, for me to dare to lift the lid on any of it. For several years when I was in an increasingly abusive relationship, I didn’t feel safe keeping a handwritten journal, so I learned how to password-protect documents on a computer. Those rare moments of solitude at the screen were precious to me, and reminded me of the nights under my parents’ roof when I stayed up into the wee hours nearly falling asleep with my journal in my lap, pen in hand, trying to make sense of the world and of my place in it, one hastily scrawled word at a time.

Right now, as I type these words to share with others, I am reflecting on the many thousands of pages, both physical and digital, that I have amassed in my lifetime, most of which will never be read by anyone.

Why do it at all? I have often asked myself in life.

After another period of years of not much journaling (this time, because I was so happy and busy with life and other satisfying forms of expression) I rededicated myself to daily journaling a few years ago, and especially during the pandemic, I’ve rarely missed a day—until a couple months ago. Then it was every other day, and now it’s only a couple of times a week. Then just the other day, on the 17th, here is the entirety of that day’s entry:

‘The urge to document here, in this way, is fading from me, and I am really okay with that.’

I still write every day—object writing, poetry, song lyrics—but the emptying out of the previous days celebrations and grievances is an impulse that I seem to be outgrowing. For now, at least.

Once in a great while, I dare to open one of my ancient journals, and I find myself holding my breath as I read. Teenage angst; the anxieties of young adulthood; this boy; that song; this situation; that argument; these places; those feelings… as I read, I appreciate how much I’ve survived, how much I’ve lived, and how much I’ve learned.

So maybe that’s why I journal—messages and lessons for my future self. Or is it just entertainment?

Maybe there doesn’t need to be a larger purpose to the journaling. Maybe the act of coaxing those lines from my experience and my fingers into document form is simply a flexing of a creative and expressive muscle for its own sake, in those moments when I have needed a safe place in which I could whisper my secrets and my celebrations.

May all beings feel safe and protected. May all beings have a place to safely share their joy and their sorrow.

‘Just another extraordinary Wednesday’

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Last Wednesday started out like an ordinary day, or as ordinary as they have been during a pandemic—I woke up around 7:30 and moved through my usual morning routines and practices, took (with permission) a single sip of Shawn’s coffee, and set about my Wednesday morning work list (I am lost without my many lists).

More than I usually do, I kept glancing at the time on every available device. At 10:40 a.m. I got in the car and headed to Hannaford in North Conway. I walked in, breezed past the carts and baskets, and headed straight to the pharmacy.

Four of us arrived at about the same time, checked in, submitted IDs, and filled out some paperwork. As I took the clipboard and pen into my hands, the friendly pharmacist rolled her eyes a little and smiled, anticipating the question that never left my lips but certainly bubbled up in my mind: ‘And yes, this is the exact same questionnaire you just completed online… this is Hannaford’s version.’

I took my seat with the others and filled in my answers. No one spoke until a young woman named Anna wheeled out her cart and introduced herself, telling us that we would be receiving our first dose of the Moderna vaccine today, that our second appointments would be made for us, that we would be cursing her that night for our sore arms, and asked that we stay for fifteen minutes after our shots to make sure there were no adverse reactions. And were there any questions?

There were not.

Suddenly, purses were set down, jackets were coming off, and sleeves were being rolled up. I watched the other three people get theirs first. The first recipient took a selfie and said nothing. Anna wheeled over to the next two, a married couple, and asked, ‘Are you excited?’ And after a moment’s hesitation, the wife said, ‘I suppose’ and everyone laughed along with her. The wife got her shot, and then the husband, and then more silence.

Anna wheeled over to me. I asked her, ‘Do you mind if I take a selfie?’ She said, ‘Not at all, please do!’ I added, ‘I rarely take selfies, but this moment seems pretty important.’ She said, ‘Absolutely!’ The first recipient then chimed in, saying, ‘My selfie didn’t turn out, I missed it somehow.’ Anna said, ‘We can stage one for you afterwards,’ which made both of them very happy.

I felt her swab my left arm, and as I looked at the screen of my phone, I felt no hint of pain as she administered the shot. As she was finishing up, I looked in her eyes and said, ‘Thank you,’ and she smiled and said, ‘You’re so welcome’—and it was at this moment that I felt the enormity of the whole experience. Suddenly, there was a lump in my throat, and tears of gratitude welling in the corners of my eyes.

I watched Anna with the first recipient as they reenacted the moment for the missed selfie, everyone smiling behind their masks. After I quickly posted my own photo, I put my phone in my pocket and decided to spend the fifteen minutes sitting as mindfully as I could. I paid close attention to the warm and strange feeling in my left arm; to the beating of my heart, now much more relaxed and settled; to my breath coming and going on its own; to the motions of those picking up prescriptions; to the small, friendly conversations that bubbled up here and there; to shoppers wheeling by with fresh vegetables and bread and toothpaste; to the sounds of a barely perceptible pop song playing through overhead speakers (‘Just another manic Monday…’); to a feeling of awe at the marvels of modern medicine and the human triumph over disease; to the thought of the many thousands of people who were not fortunate enough to live long enough to receive this vaccine that could have saved their lives and those of others.

Every Wednesday, every moment, is extraordinary, when I look closely enough.

Fifteen minutes later, we were sent on our way with our IDs, new vaccine record cards, and information about our next appointments. I walked out into the early spring sunshine, more aware of my posture and of my left arm, feeling lighter, happier, and so full of hope and gratitude.

I arrived home to the intoxicating smells and sounds of pancakes cooking on the stove. I really am lucky beyond belief. I hugged and kissed the chef and thanked him, ate my pancakes, and got back to work.