Feeling grief and awe in one’s nose.

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It’s been really cold here in my neck of the woods lately, and it’s been reminding me of some moments from throughout my life, particularly from childhood:

  • the radiator in my second floor bedroom that never worked all that well (despite all of Dad’s earnest tinkering)
  • sledding and tubing in ‘The Bowl’ on the Hebron Academy campus and making that trek up the hill again and again and again after every sun-soaked, thrilling ride down
  • watching the chickadees hopping about in the snow and feeding on the seed that fell from Mom’s beloved feeders (usually from the crafty hands of the squirrels)
  • my feet and face and hands getting so cold from playing outside that stepping into the bathtub or the shower seemed like a form of medieval torture
  • nose hairs freezing with every inhalation

This last image is one I remind myself and others of regularly when I introduce my song ‘Starlight’. It was a bitterly cold night that inspired me to write the song, and it’s a story that I’ve told from stage many times—still living in Maine and standing in the driveway and staring at the impossible dome of stars sparkling in the crystal clear night sky, pondering the words of Carl Sagan: ‘We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.’ It was a beautiful moment that I’ll never forget.

The part I’ve always left out of the banter is the circumstances of my life at the time. What my particular part of the cosmos knew at that time was grief—paralyzing grief over the loss of my mother and, with her, the hope that she and I would ever reconcile our deep and devastating differences. I was getting to know grief quite well in those days—because Mom and I had been estranged in the last couple of years of her life, I didn’t know that she hadn’t done anything with any of Dad’s, well, anything. All of his books, clothes, tools, his eyeglasses on the living room table—every last thing he left behind, along with everything of Mom’s, was awaiting my shaking hands and broken heart as I made my way through the impossible task of being the only heir sorting through it all, buttoning up their lives and life together, and cleaning and preparing the house for sale.

Throughout that whole ordeal, I was still working multiple jobs, including my job at the hotel playing piano. I was also grieving something that felt like a long, slow fall into losing my own hopes and dreams—I was longing desperately for expression and sharing of my deepest and most authentic creativity, and at that time, aside from brief glimmers at the hotel or at Norway UU, there was none of it, save for those rare evenings at home when I could work on songs like ‘Starlight’. The night I stood and felt the wave of awe that inspired ‘Starlight’ was a hotel night, and despite my state of utter exhaustion, I allowed myself a moment to put it all down before walking into the house.

And the driveway in which I stood was the one I shared in Fryeburg with an abusive partner who was slowly squeezing the air and the joy and the life right out of me. I’ve blogged in the past about this, so I won’t belabor it now, but the writing of that song—and the rare solitary moments I had to work on it and the others that would become my 2010 Make It Mine album—kept the flame of hope alive in my heart during that dark time.

About three years after that moment in the driveway, I broke free from those tethers of abuse and self-doubt with my heart full of songs and the overwhelming drive to, as I sing in ‘Starlight’: ‘let [my] light shine now for every woman, child, and man’. And though the grief is in remission most of the time these days, the cold January air freezing my nose hairs can bring me right back to that one starry night, drinking in that grief-stricken awe inspired by a world that can so easily and so completely both break your heart and fill it back up achingly to the brim.

Voltaire’s afghan.

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This is a photo of a beautiful mistake. (Hint: it’s in the far right hand column.)

My mom knitted this, and many dozens of these afghans—along with many more baby blankets and dish cloths—as gifts for friends, family, and acquaintances throughout her life, much to everyone’s delight. Her mother—my Grannie—was a gifted knitter as well, who delved into the trickier territory of sweaters (one of which you can see in this photo I posted recently).

Though I may have inherited and developed both the fine motor and organizational skills to create something like this, I lacked two other basic ones required of knitters of this caliber—interest and patience. And I’m sure that this disappointed her. My fine motor skills were focused on and destined for other things, like Bach and Mozart and Chuck Leavell and Fats Waller and Floyd Cramer.

This Thursday marks the 14th anniversary of my mother’s passing, and the urge to knit has struck me precisely twice since 2007—both times to knit simple square blankets for the chihuahuas who currently live upstairs from Shawn and me. As my hands worked the needles, I recalled the many hours my mother spent sitting on the couch, smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, and watching TV while knitting—and how when she would occasionally check back over her work, a snarl of anger would capture her face whenever she found a mistake—and then the agony of her having to ‘rip it a’ th’ way back oot’ and start again.

I’m honestly not sure if she enjoyed knitting. Every step of the process seemed to stress her to the point of devastation—right down to the very last stitching of the ‘Made Especially For You by Edie Pierson’ labels that were sewn to every creation after they’d survived the washer and dryer. I’m sure it was all for the joy of the recipient. She beamed at every thank you card or phone call that came into the house.

At her funeral, the pastor asked everyone in attendance, ‘Who here has an afghan knitted by Edie?’ I looked around the sanctuary to see many hands in the air, and it was at that moment that it hit me—and hard—that both of my own hands remained in my lap.

One of those hands in the air belonged to my friend Annie who, several years ago, decided to give her own ‘Edie afghan’ to me, and it now lives on the bed I share with Shawn.

The afghan is still breathtaking, even with the mistake. It proves that a human being made this, labored over it, tried like hell to get it just right. Maybe it’s an Easter egg. I didn’t notice it right away, so I suppose it’s possible that Mom never noticed it, either—though I really doubt that. I’m guessing she didn’t notice it until after the last stitches had been cast off and there was no turning back. And if she’s anything like me, she probably never forgave herself for it once she noticed it, and then ultimately said, ‘To hell with it.’

It brings to mind all the errors I’ve let go on every single song I’ve ever recorded and released, the ones that pang me every time I hear them or even think of them—every little glaring bit of evidence that, try as I might, I can’t play or sing anything perfectly.

’Perfect is the enemy of good,’ as the old saying goes.

And though I wasn’t the original intended recipient of this very uniquely human afghan, I’d like to think that Mom wouldn’t mind that I ended up with this particular one.

A half taken breath.

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I turned 45 this past week.

I’m not sure why, but this number is landing in a way that no other number has. And I think, ‘How can that be? It’s just a number, right?’

I’ve been reflecting on what my parents were up to when they were 45:

In 1984, Mom was still packing her eight year old daughter’s school lunches in the mornings and working at the Academy, knitting afghans and dish cloths, baking lots of birthday cakes, and worrying about everything. She hadn’t yet opened the pizza shop, and she was not yet mourning the death of her own mother, which would follow just four years later.

In 1992, Dad was still a machinist at MMPCO by day, delivering Edie’s Pizza in the evenings, driving me to school in the morning in the little ‘shitbox’ Nissan (his words) as we listened to The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East over and over and over again, and then watching me graduate from high school rather unceremoniously (a year early, no cap and gown/marching to Elgar stuff–I just picked up my diploma from a secretary in the office, and that was that).

For my 45th, I was home with Shawn in the midst of a pandemic, in front of a screen, eating homemade pizza (imagine that) and uttering the most commonly used phrase of this time in human history: ‘You’re on mute.’ I had a really fun virtual hangout with friends and family. Some folks Zoomed in for a few minutes, some stayed for the whole two hours. There were beautiful songs, hilarious stories, moments of joy and grief and cheer. It was, in some sense, a microcosm of what my life has become—an opportunity to shared and be shared, to connect and be connected, to remind myself of the beautiful people in my life and also of how much joy, love, music, and mirth have passed through so many beloved hearts and hands in my life.

I do wish my parents could have been there, and that they had lived to see what I’ve done with my life. Would they have looked at the life I have built at 45—very different from theirs—and given their blessing? Or would my mom have worried herself sick about, well, everything, like she always did, while Dad stayed quiet and kept leaning into his work ethic and his love of music and his fantastic jokes? It’s likely that it would be a mixture of all those things.

When Mom turned 45, she still had another 22 years to go. When my father turned 45, he had just six years left.

These milestones are growing more significant—and more frequent—as I get older. A little more silver up top, and—hopefully—a little wiser, a little less prone to reactivity, a little more careful with food and language and my heart.

It all brings to mind that lovely quote from Rumi:

‘With life as short as a half taken breath, don’t plant anything but love.’

(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.