How we hear music

Today I listened, for the first time in too many years to count, to an album that can only be associated with my mother. She was in that nether world between living and dying. At the wheel of my little red (station) wagon, I’d pop that thing called a cassette into the tape player. The year was 1993, and this particular cassette (which I still have even if I have no device on which to listen to it) got me through the drive to and from the hospital.

Enter Apple Music. In a flash, an easy search, and the album was mine for the streaming. Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Special Guess Helen Merrill.

The beauty of an album is its cohesiveness—the segue from song to song. In the days before CD technology took over, fast forwarding to the song you most wanted to hear took a certain finesse, not always worth the effort. Call it comfort. Call it an excuse to let the tears flow after time spent touching, smiling (even making jokes), then planting a kiss on the cheek or forehead of my mother to remind her I had visited. But that trio of songs on Side A—You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to/My Funny Valentine/Here’s That Rainy Day—was all I needed.

Today it’s snowing, even if the mildness of our Northeast winter this year had us thinking/hoping we’d go right into spring after so much snow from just one blizzard disappeared unusually quickly. (Then again, it is February, the shortest month, the leap-year month, the one most riddled with metaphor, on the cusp of spring as it is.) snow feb 2016The gift of looking outside through a picture window as my thoughts lure me inside is not something I take for granted. The snowfall is winding down, more like dust particles or what meteorologists call snow showers. One of things I always relish is the enveloping silence snow holds. And the way it clings to the bark of a tree.   Until it’s gone.

She was a big fan of Billy Eckstine, which always suggested something to me re: her appreciation for voice. Sure, she had a thing for Sinatra, too, but Ol’ Blue Eyes encompasses something even bigger than his voice. An inscription at the beginning of David Lehman’s love song of sorts, Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, says it all:

May you live to be a hundred,
And may the last voice you hear be mine. – FS

 I listen to his voice a lot, with an appreciation that has only grown over the years. If that Come_Dance_With_MeLP with a winking Sinatra (Come Dance With Me!) or the one with a harlequin Sinatrapainting on the cover, one tear dropping from Sinatra’s eye (Only the Lonely) didn’t captivate me as a young girl, there was always a movie (A Hole in the Head) giving me “High Hopes.”  Years later would come late nights in the East Hampton design shop that had me pinch-hitting for the friend/ partner my husband lost to AIDS, the open door and Sinatra on a summer night an invitation as good as it would get to get past window shopping.

But this isn’t about Sinatra per se, even if listening to him can still bring on the tears and the memories. It’s about chords that reach deep, simply by virtue of the music they make.

To my surprise, I did not get weepy at that trio of Billy Eckstine songs. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to time passed, and with it, the smoothing down of those jagged edges of memory. But maybe there’s something else at play as well. Yip Harburg, legendary lyricist who gave us “April in Paris” (not to mention all the songs in The Wizard of Oz) is credited with this quote in Lehman’s book:

Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song can make you feel a thought.

So here’s a thought: maybe music is my madeleine. And even if a song can fill me with a longing for something long gone, listening to it years later is as much a reflection on all that’s changed in my life as it is a reminder that, whatever visitations I get, there’s no real going home to a home no longer there.

Coda: Lo and behold, it turns out that music occupies a room of its own in our brains.  My neurological music room is a full one, for sure, and a mixed bag that surprises even me with the moments of serendipity it conjures.

 

 

 

Gifts

The first week of 2016 found me at a cozy local restaurant, four friends who do our best to keep ties from disappearing completely even when time and circumstance bring separation. One of the women, a gifted poet/photographer/visual artist handed each of us a small box, wrapped and ribboned in her inimitable way.  “Just a little thing,” she said as we tore open the wrapping to find beautiful tiles, each a different image of a woman reminiscent to me of cameos. Aside from how lovely they were, she loved that they fit perfectly into little tin boxes she’d put them in.tile

We caught up on lots of things, including the daughters who really are responsible for bringing us together. How lucky we all know we were, in the early school years especially, when the public school our daughters attended was small and parent involvement (mothers more than fathers) as meaningful as it was welcome. None of our daughters lives nearby, a fact we rue even as we accept the nature of changing times. A fact, too, that makes 2015 something of a gift year for me—the first in the seven my daughter has lived on the Other Coast that my husband and I got to spend every major holiday with her. Passover had us flying to California for a West Coast family seder. A boyfriend working on a film based in New York brought her here, with the kind of timing you don’t often get. Labor Day was too close to Rosh Hashanah not to insist she stay. Then there was a friend’s wedding the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Christmas week was a given, what with it being a quiet time in the entertainment world.

A day earlier a friend from SoCal left after a visit that carried us through New Year’s weekend. It was a gift of a different kind, and I was admittedly touched by her wanting to visit. In the years we met via blog posts we wrote for an online site, our web of writers connected in ways beyond our words has grown. It is indeed the World Wide Web at its best. Her visit had a certain serendipity to it, from its timing (ring out the old/ring in the new) in the macro sense to the micro moments that marked it: There was Pavarotti’s voice filling my living room, bringing us to tears, as we sipped wine, the memory made even more pronounced by the woman singing opera under a bridge in Central Park on New Year’s Day. Minutes later would come a text exchange with my daughter.

Where are you? What’s the plan?

We’re in Central Park.

We’re in Central Park too!

Central Park is a big park, so what are the odds that she and her boyfriend were five minutes from where we were?Alice and Lew copy

We were a party now—my husband and me, my CalGal (Britton) and my BFF from NYC (Joan) who had joined us, my daughter and her boyfriend—on our way to Alice in Wonderland, a statue Sara climbed many times as a young girl when we lived in the city.

You reveal things about yourself in concentrated time with friends and family. Good a writer as Sara and Britton think I am, they’re now convinced there are parts of my past I would do well to tap, fictionally or otherwise. So when they left, how could I help looking through those albums of old clippings? I remembered well the piece I wrote about visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise, but how could I have forgotten that I interviewed Patti Smith? To read through that interview just as I begin reading M Train is another kind of gift.Patti Smith interview 2

Life is riddled with disappointments and struggles, and, yes, joys, all of which I can’t help but internalize. My daughter suffers a disappointment, I take it personally. My husband is in pain, I’m frustrated at my inability to ease it. A friend is suffering, I give her my undivided attention in a phone conversation. Maybe it’s true, actions speak louder than words, in which case it makes all the sense in the world that my sense of self as a writer can’t help, at least sometimes, but defer to my sense of self as someone who takes care of people. Better yet, doesn’t
each sense of self feed off the other?

All of which makes it all the more uncanny to get three particular books for my birthday, not to birthday giftsmention Bruce Springsteen’s latest compilation, which I get to enjoy on the sound system of that
spiffy new car (if you missed the birthday surprise video in Sara’s last post, trust me, it’s priceless). And if there’s a message here, maybe it’s this, a gift in its own right: those who love me won’t let me forget who I am. Even as I write what I think are the last words of this piece on the very day of a rock icon’s death, a friend sends me a text: You will write something that weaves in David Bowie, won’t you?

 

Gratitude

In an essay by Joan Didion that I go back to again and again, she writes: “there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Takes a certain flair with language to successfully turn a stereotype on its head. Writer as bully?  Aren’t writers quiet/thoughtful/maybe even reclusive? I’m not talking Emily Dickinson here, but it does take a certain standing back to get the job done. Actors and musicians, on the other hand, strut their stuff in the presence of an audience.

And, yet, those Didion-esque words do give me pause as both writer and reader. When we make a decision to sit down and read a book, we demand that it grabs us.

It’s risky business, being a writer. From the choice of what moves us to write to the ways in which we do what needs to be done to get people to pay attention, we gamble with our skills. As I move into the final stretch of a campaign to get a novel near and dear to me published, I have nothing but gratitude for every vote cast (and those still to be cast). Wherever the chips fall, as of now Just like February is hot and trending on Kindle Scout; for at least a day it claimed the #1 spot and I had the presence of mind to take a screenshot. I’d be a fool not to share it, along with one more pitch before the campaign comes to an end next week.

February copy 3

From “Why We Tell Stories,” by Lisel Mueller

Because the story of our life
becomes our life
Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and

Ain’t too proud to beg

I’m stretched out in bed, 9:30 p.m., a weeknight.   A little early for me but it’s the stretching out that I crave.

To lie back, my neck propped against a trio of pillows.

Recline. A word that hums, not so much directive as invitation: sink back. Let the shoulders relax, show the heart how easy it can be open. I like to think I even think differently.

My daughter’s boyfriend recently had shoulder surgery. He has to sleep in a reclining position. No fun when it’s not by choice.

My iPad in my lap, I open the music app, randomly choose a song via an Apple Music playlist. Here’s what called out to me.

Immediately followed by

It’s all about algorithms, and I know it, but there’s something particularly wonderful about favorite teenage songs popping up right now. In an instant I’m drawn back to lying in bed in an earlier time, the click of 45s dropping one by one onto the turntable.

Some writers write to background music. I’ve tried it, but more often it has the effect of pulling me away from a train of thought. Its effect is sensory, a body thing, putting me squarely in a particular time and place. Memory is stirred, emotions jarred. Even when it’s soft—of the solo piano, violin, meditation variety—it demands a kind of attention that fights with my writing brain. Not that my writing brain doesn’t call up the rhythms/the sounds/the lyrics of songs evoked in a piece of fiction I’m at work on. In a way, music seems to be a backdrop, better yet, a presence with the power to infuse itself into my stories.February copy 3

Which brings me to the first pages of a novel of mine, with its allusion to Woodstock.

I’ve spent the better part of the last weeks fine-tuning, condensing, trying to find just the right phrases to entice readers into the story. Some of you have already seen my email re: my foray into the world of reader-powered publishing via a new Amazon program, Kindle Scout. Unlike typical kickstarter campaigns, in which supporters are asked to fund a book or project, this one just asks you to vote, maybe even help spread the word by sharing the link. Think of it as ‘American Idol’ for book lovers. Enough interest and Kindle Press may just decide to publish Just like February.

It’s a gamble, and I know it. But to be a writer is to take risks. We find stories, or letglamour-december-2015-w540 them find us. We shape them. Put them out. Then we beg for readers to pay attention in all ways possible.

Yesterday, the supermarket checkout line found me staring at Reese Witherspoon on the cover of Glamour. Take a close look, please, at the cover blurb, top right. I may not need this talented, beautiful woman to tell me what I know. But she does have way of delivering the message with charm.

ruby red slippers

Talk less, say more

I have a dream . . . in which I’m sitting at a kitchen table with my cousins—very close cousins, whom I love dearly—and we’re reminiscing, schmoozing, laughing about old times at another kitchen table, in a small Brooklyn apartment, as mythical as it was real. We tease each other about the kids we once were. We keep nibbling at whatever food and snacks are within reach.

What makes this a dream is one simple wish: when politics rears its ugly head, and we find ourselves across that nasty divide, we listen—really listen—to each other. All one cousin, staunch Republican that he is, has to say is one word to make me cringe: Yes, Benghazi.

I try, really I do, to put things into perspective. I ask him to look at past administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, to see if we might reach some common ground re: fallibility and accountability on both sides. There’s nothing pretty about politics. At its purest, it’s a rather benign word encompassing the ‘science of government’ or ‘affairs of state,’ rooted in the Greek politikos, meaning ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ But even way way back, the ideal vs. the pragmatic and/or power-driven state of governance was teased apart by philosophers. All of which doesn’t do much to mitigate today’s connotation of politics and with it, the encroaching reality that the truth of any situation is hard to come by. We all have mindsets, predispositions, call it what you will. We live in world governed by all the news that’s fit to summarize and spit out to suit a spin mentality that supports those predispositions.

It’s the reason that presidential debates put is into a tailspin or make us fall sleep, and, alas, rarely change our minds.

It’s the reason elections, presidential or otherwise – make everyone I know complain about those hideous placards marring the landscape for weeks and the bombardment of 30-second spots messing with any pleasure I get from watching TV. (Even with DVR capability, allowing me to fast-forward through commercials, I can’t help but feel the offense of it all during the height of election season.) Don’t even get me started on the obscene amount of money that goes into campaigning. All that complaining seems to get us nowhere.

Go ahead, remind me I’m preaching to the choir.

Yes, I take it all too personally. I worry about climate change, terrorism, a woman’s right to choose, the future of the Supreme Court. I worry about people who spout about the right to bear arms without really understanding the nuanced language of the Second Amendment. With cousins living in Ohio, I sometimes imagine myself on the campaign trail, a volunteer. Think of the sense of accomplishment if I could change the mind of just one person, cousin or otherwise, leaning red!   Almost as gratifying would be getting someone to listen—really listen—to the information I’m trying to share. This person, like my cousin, would probably say he’s listening, and, to some degree he is.   But what he’s hearing is something else completely.

He would probably say the same about me.

My brother may be a better (or better yet, more determined) person than I am in his efforts to get my cousin to see the light, to whatever degree possible. I stay away from family dramas on Facebook, but I do read the interactions and sometimes, when I just can’t help myself, I put in my two cents. A few days after the horrendous shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College Campus, my Facebook feed showed me that my cousin had shared a Wired Outdoors link with this message: Making Good People Helpless Won’t Make Bad People Harmless. On their own, the words are hard to argue with. Except that the telling graphic—a rifle underscoring the words—gives a not-so-subliminal spin to it. Wired Outdoors is apparently a hunting TV show, and reducing the complex issue of gun control to a simplistic phrase brought me to a place between rage and tears.

You know the saying: You can choose your friends . . . but family you’re stuck with. Stuck or not, I periodically find myself with a nostalgic longing to be with family, no longer around the proverbial corner. With distance more the norm than the exception these days, family get-togethers take a bit of planning and effort. The alternative—disappearing from each other’s lives completely—is not an option.

There’s nothing original about my scenario, and I know it. Case in point: a good friend tells me about family group emails in which one of her brothers insists on sharing what is now generally understood to be egregiously manipulated Planned Parenthood videos. All efforts at trying to make him see the ruse for what it is are clearly a waste of her time.

But we try . . . and we try . . . and we try. And once in a while, I like to think, we can step outside of ourselves, take the time to listen and read with an open mind.

Like I said, this is a dream.

modern familyAnd even if we can’t cross that political divide, we still manage to sit around a table. And eat.

 

 

The road not taken

Last week I got lost on my way to synagogue.

If there’s a metaphor here, getting lost also speaks literally to my uncertainty (not to mention the spike in anxiety) when driving someplace unfamiliar. Call me a Wandering Jew (better yet, Goldilocks), but the past few years have found me trying out different options in search of the kind of comfort Jewish New Year services can bring. Changes at the Conservative synagogue I’d been affiliated with sparked a need for moving on. The Reform holiday services (even on the resplendent grounds of Caramoor) didn’t quite cut it. The Chabad variation (at the low-key local Holiday Inn) drew me back a few times. The rabbi is wonderful/warm/welcoming, with his stories and sense of humor. But the separation of men and women, with the implication of sexist exclusion, that goes with the Orthodox tradition doesn’t sit right.

So this year I would finally let my shul shopping take me in a new direction, not around the proverbial corner but close enough.

There was more than one Hallelujah; there was reflection, both communal and personal, and meditation. Almost everyone at the service had a chance to hold the Torah.

The service had the feel of coming home, and I told that to the rabbi, a woman.

I’m a spiritual seeker, yes, and a writer, which has me forever questioning the places our life choices take us. All writers, from the highly successful to those forever struggling for some notice, share common ground: we write because we can’t imagine life any other way; we complete draft after draft, send our work out, contend with rejection. Sometimes we feel a bit at sea, lost in a story that’s not quite finding its flow. More often than not, the effort to get published has us feeling tossed about in a stormy ocean. The metaphor really is no different for anyone working hard at any craft or job, hoping to catch a wave. Doesn’t have to be a big one, as long as it brings a little promise, some relief from treading water.

Comes a moment—call it hitting a wall, watery or otherwise—when we inevitably ask ourselves, is there anything we could have done differently, a proverbial road we missed or dismissed? We question whether to throw in the towel, find something else to occupy our spirits. We take stock of our successes, both on the career and personal fronts.

We pick up on cues, do our best not to misread signs. All of which makes it all the more interesting that I happen to be reading David Orr’s new, enlightening book, The Road Not Taken, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of an iconic poem. As Orr tells it, the popularity of Robert Frost’s poem “appears to exceed that of every other major twentieth-century poem.” In large part, its popularity seems premised on readers taking away a metaphoric message that a close reading of the poem appears to negate.   The very title of the poem is often mistaken as “The Road Less Traveled.”

Impressions count for a lot and, let’s face it, don’t we take our messages as we see/need them? What I take away from first readings of a poem, like those first times listening to a new song, is what speaks to me. Closer reading/listening brings to light something not noticed at first glance, and with it, deeper meaning. David Orr’s insights re: the poet himself and the poem definitely have me rethinking what “The Road Not Taken” is ‘about.’ Taking apart the poem, line by line with Orr, I can readily see the speaker standing at a crossroad, projecting choice rather than actually making a decision. And that’s profound enough.
Paradise NZ

Then I think of the roads I’ve taken, the one that have led me to still other roads, the ones I wish I’d taken instead.

And I can’t help wondering if getting a little lost along the way brings an added dimension to choosing between two diverging paths.

 

 

The Circle Game

Change may be the only true constant but it always takes some getting used to. A few days ago it hit me—the shift in light that seems so sudden but really has been incremental, one day invisibly shorter than the one before. One more summer slipping away, autumn around the corner, ready or not.

Every one of those six wonderful years my daughter spent at sleepaway camp got my husband and me on a road trip, the ritualistic visiting day weekend I always looked forward to. In the way that she bonded with bunkmates, we did a little bonding of our own with the parents who became friends, too. On the way home we spent a night with good friends in the Boston area.

In a flash, it seems, those years have gone: the kids grow up, move out, move on. Sure, I get a touch of the blues when I think about how nice it would be to have her around the proverbial corner instead of living on the other coast. Then I read her reflection about her years at camp, and changing times, and the power of friendship—all of which has me thinking that distance is no real measure for closeness when it comes to the ways in which a mother and daughter can bond.

Mixed in a jumble of trinkets I keep in a wire basket is a small ceramic pin in the shape of an elephant. I bought it years ago, along with a few others designed to look as if they were pulled from a box of Barnum’s Animals. These were animal crackers to wear, not pop into youelephant pinr mouth. I kept the elephant, made gifts of the lion/giraffe/bear to a few of my closest friends at the time. Just this year I bought three of the same bracelets for myself and two dear friends.

Something to be said for ritualizing long-standing friendships. In the days before email and Facebook, I’d be on the phone a couple of times a week with my closest friends. These days we call when we can or simply need to hear each other’s voice. By the same token, if e-communication diminishes the kind of personal contact we sometimes find ourselves missing, it also allows us to make up for lost connections.

Intention in the Buddhist/spiritual realm is really a very specific thing, even if it has become an overused metaphor, and I do think we’re basically well intentioned: a friend I haven’t had contact with in a very long time sends an email out of the blue; anoOld friendsther one finds me on Facebook; we start the back and forth, eager to catch up, determined not to let the renewed contact dissipate. We may even meet if geography allows.

But somehow, within a time frame shorter then we like to admit, the emails become few and far between, the Facebook conversation becomes more intermittent. It’s not for lack of interest, though it may be for lack of time in a world that demands so much of our day-to-day, up-to-the-minute attention. We scroll through newsfeeds, skim emails (more than half the time missing at least half of the message), get on with our lives.

Maybe it’s this simple: some knots are tight, others loosen with time.

Sometimes you open a box of animal crackers and those lions/tigers/bears (koalas now, too) come spilling out mostly intact; other times not so much. But even if they’re more broken than whole, doesn’t a bite into what may (or may not) have been a monkey’s head hold at least some of the same  power as a madeleine?

 

 

Snowball Wedding

My parents’ wedding album is, by any standards, a treasure. Leather-bound eggshell white, photo sleeves edged in stitched piping, it pretty much took a shelf of its own in a small foyer closet mostly for sheets and towels. Pulling it down was something I could never take lightly: it was an investment in time, going through the photographs, beginning to end, enamored in a way by the prince and princess who would become my mother and father. She was gorgeous, elegant, smiling. He was handsome, dapper, clearly in love.bride and groom

Takes a certain kind of bride to want a snowball wedding—her bridesmaids all in white, like her. It was November 1948, she was barely twenty-one. From the first pages of the album, a satin doll posed at a vanity in my grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment, to the ceremony and celebration in what seems a grand ballroom, there’s an intoxicating splendor to it all. Not to mention the cheap thrill of recognizing even a small number of relatives and friends in a younger incarnation. We’re talking solid working class, whatever resources it took to do it up with style.

My own wedding album is of a more makeshift variety, put together by yours truly. No bridesmaids, thougThe ring pleaseh the ceremony was traditional by Jewish standards. It was November 1984, I was a few weeks shy of thirty-five. I’d been seeing the man I would marry for about a year and a half. I liked the sound of doing something life-affirming in an otherwise auspicious year. Here’s how the marriage proposal went:

Setting: an Upper East Side studio with a panoramic view looking north (and in which everything, from the colors to the lighting to the custom-designed furniture, speaks to the interior-design brilliance of its occupant).

She says, I think it’s time for us to do something . . .

He says, You mean like get married.

She nods. Yes.

He says, Okay. After which her nerves get the best of her and she goes into the bathroom to throw up.

La Belle Epoque
Within months we’d chosen a venue in downtown NYC , a club/ballroom designed to evoke La Belle Epoque. No wedding planner, just the two of us making all the arrangements—catering, music, flowers, invitations. I had no interest in a formal wedding gown. And even if years on my own made me feel a little awkward about the notion of being ‘given away,’ I took it in stride—pleasurably so—when my mother and father walked me to the Chuppah. It was a granWedding day smilesd day, on every level.

 

Yes, coming of age in the ‘Sixties can do a little something re: a woman’s consciousness when it comes to career/marriage/family. I’d pretty much lost contact with high school friends, and of those I was closest with, only two married in their early twenties. I made my bridesmaid’s dress for one wedding—a jumpsuit—ice blue satin, fitted bodice with soft, flowing pants, which, for all practical purposes, looked like a gown. The bride did not like the idea of pants. These were pure palazzo, so wide I could loosely stitch the inseam of each pant leg together and no one would ever know.

Weddings of post-college friends are what I remember most, few and far between as they were.

By the time this year comes to an end, my daughter, in contrast, will have attended four weddings. Last weekend it was Aspen, a camp friend’s wedding. She was a bridesmaid. A few weeks earlier it was New York, a high school friend’s wedding. October and November bring her back East again. Clearly the wear and tear (traveling long distances for short weekends), coupled with pressure (money spent on air fare, dresses, shoes, bachelorette parties, wedding presents), is no match for the need/desire to be at a best friend’s wedding. Besides which, isn’t there something binding about rituals and rites of passage? And doesn’t friendship itself have a new face in a world where BFFs are only as far from each other as their smartphones?