On Hold: my corona diaries

The other day I got caught in the rain on my morning walk. More than a drizzle, less than a downpour. 

I don’t relish walking in the rain. I count on a 15-minute margin of error in timing my walks to the local weather forecast. Meteorology is only so precise.

A neighbor passed me on the road, offered me a ride home.

I’m okay, I laughed.

It’s summer, after all. Not a freezing cold winter day.  I let the rain drench me.

I’d recently finished reading D. J. Lee’s beautifully written, multilayered story, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots. What starts out as a journey to seek clues to a friend’s disappearance becomes an exploration of her family’s past and their relationship, as well as hers, to a part of Idaho that holds the most pristine river in the country, outside of Alaska. Chinook Salmon return to the Selway River to spawn.

If you’re able to define wilderness, to pin it down, then it isn’t wilderness, she writes.

Back in 1978, I was riveted by a National Geographic cover story about a woman who went through the Australian Outback by herself (accompanied by four camels and a dog). To this day I recall her thinking, after hearing voices on Day 71, that she might be going mad. Without her being tracked, there would be no National Geographic photos (and a book that would follow) which only served to relieve my anxieties, vicarious or otherwise.

I still have that issue, and a handful of others, despite the now never-ending spring cleaning intensified by an ongoing pandemic. Riffling through the glossy pages I’m charmed by an advertisement for a Smith-Corona typewriter, with its state-of-the-art Correction Cartridge. I had one of those.

At the ripe age of 70, I honor what’s in my comfort zone, which doesn’t negate my envy for women who take treks to remote places, with the deep connection to the natural world it brings. I imagine an aloneness that is empowering.

It dawned on me, as I made my way home, that the pandemic, coupled with the upcoming election, have me feeling as if I’m on hold.

Waiting.

For an answer to something to which there can’t be an answer. I want to know—-right now—when the pandemic will be under control. I need every assurance—right now—that Biden will win the presidency, with Kamala at his side. It’s not a stretch to see this as all of a piece with walking in the rain.

On hold. Reading a lot. Writing very little, if at all. Meditation, yoga, music get me through the day. I think too much about what to cook for dinner.

I spend a lot of time alone, a product of a work-at-home lifestyle magnified by the pandemic—which makes it all the more ironic that I’m not working much these days. I’ve become a master of distraction, today’s joy being the magic of a coral reef Apple TV screensaver that I stare at to a backdrop of piano music.

The world is heating up, literally on fire. Even from a distance, and in the comfort of an air-conditioned living room, it’s hard to process.

Is it an unsimple twist of fate that in these dark COVID-19 times, worsened immeasurably by the lies and greed and psychosis of the monster-in-chief, Bob Dylan has his first No. 1 Billboard hit, seventeen-minutes long at that?

I’m looking for a word to capture the very subtle shift in light signaling the arrival  of autumn. I picture the glow I forever associate with Florence, Italy.

Evening arrives sooner. Rosh Hashanah dinner, a few weeks from now, will be a very quiet affair this year.

A girl and her mother are jumping puddles, in yellow boots.

Children are returning to school in staggered schedules. 

A teenager glides by on a skateboard, carried along by his dog, a beautiful Husky, on a leash.

Bruce Springsteen wrote “Into the Fire” in response to 9/11.

Bob Dylan wrote “Murder Most Foul,” well, because he’s Dylan. The timing of the song, on his new album, have a reassuring effect on me.

The pandemic has warped our sense of time. It was only in March that I began blogging more frequently, with a greater sense of purpose. Little did I know that my own Corona diaries would place me in a collective of writers with the same mindset. To reread The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus, a New Yorker essay by Geoff Dyer that also appeared in March, is to have a real-time reminder of how things looked back then.

Somewhere between then and now, the urgency to write dissipated. If I say, simply, it is what it is, I take the thunder from Michelle Obama’s brilliant use of the phrase during the DNC. I breathe a little easier now that both conventions have come and gone.

There is a Buddhist notion of freedom in confinement. For all the despondency the pandemic has given rise to, I find myself opening to new ways of approaching everyday things. Why did I keep the wooden garlic smasher for so long? The flat edge of a large knife works just fine. All those years of downward-facing dog and pigeon and vinyasas in intimate classes with yoga teachers I’ve learned so much from have given me grounding to pick and choose from an online smorgasbord of programs available to me. It’s a whole new world. I do poses with fresh insights. At its heart a yoga practice is personal.

No one would wish for the kind of confinement the pandemic has wrought. I may be anxious to know what I can’t know but this time warp, reset, call it what you will has also given rise to questions I don’t need any answers to. Will I write another blog post? If so, when?

Or at the ripe age of 70 are my days better spent sipping wine on a stone bench some squirrel has used as a nutcracker, as I ease my way back, fictionally speaking, into where I left off? Inspiration has never been in short supply for me, but all the real-time writing spurred by the pandemic is humbling. Just look at The Decameron Project or The Chronicles of Now. Maybe there’s some fresh start I’m headed for, now that I grasp the vast divide between being on hold and holding on.

This may be as close as I get to a wilderness journey of my own.

September 11, 2020

Transcendence

Yesterday’s walk found me unsettled at the sight of a sign — estate sale pickup – in the driveway of a house I pass by all the time. Cars were lined along the road.  It’s been many months since I’ve seen my neighbor, who I often chat it up with if she’s out during my walk.  I knew they’d been trying to sell the house. Estate sales take me to a place of narrative distress. Isn’t that a last resort? And how is it I know so little about what’s going on just outside my own backyard?

Today a large moving van takes up the driveway of neighbors down the hill.  A young family that moved in barely a year and a half ago, they’re leaving for reasons I may never really know. Not that we didn’t come up with some juicy narratives when the ‘for sale’ sign went up. Divorce? Job relocation? It was all so enthusiastic when they first bought the house—a shared glass of wine, talk of a meal or two together.  One little girl and another child on the way can’t help but energize a cul-de-sac now that the kids raised here are all grown up and gone. All the speculation re: these here today/gone tomorrow neighbors not wanting to get too close once they knew they were leaving does little to negate the discomfort, even sadness, at their departure. 

Empty houses speak of loss. The need for narratives, even if they’re far afield, is built into our DNA, storytelling species that we are. And, yet, Pema Chodron, in her meditative wisdom and guidance, reminds me that letting go of narratives, so often rooted in patterns that reinforce our Very Important Story Lines, is instrumental in moment-to-moment awareness that brings liberation.

The rest is fiction.

***

In Alan Lightman’s latest book of essays, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he describes an experience that, to my thinking, amounts to a transcendent moment. He was in his boat during the “wee hours” of a summer night:

“No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off the engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into the star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.”

I had the pleasure of getting to know Alan during the summers our daughters spent at a camp in Maine. Parents’ visiting weekend was something I looked forward to. The first one still makes me laugh at the memory of my jumping out of our car as we snaked our way out when the weekend ended. My husband, a regular guy by all measures, nonchalantly asks, “Did you know Kara’s father was a writer?”  The realization that I’d been chatting it up with Alan Lightman without knowing it hit me like a thunderbolt. The cars were moving slowly enough for me to get out, walk up to the Lightmans’ car, not too far ahead, just to let him know how much I loved Einstein’s Dreams.

What he does so lucidly and beautifully in his latest work is explore our longing for Absolutes despite the uncertainties and ambiguities our world presents us with. Reconciling scientific truths with spiritual/religious experiences is easier said than done. 

As to making personal sense of it all, well, that’s the reason some of us take to writing.  “My Vocation,” an essay in Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues, begins with these words:

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time. I hope I won’t be misunderstood; I know nothing about the value of the things I am able to write.”

From that starting point, Ginzburg takes the reader through the whys and hows of her stories, including how she moved away from wanting to write like a man. Near the end, she has this to say:

“When I write something I usually think is it very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think that happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.” Even so, she adds, “I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation.”

Ginzburg has more to say about vocations, and relationships, and children, and, yes, shoes, in this gem of a collection, and Belle Boggs, in a New Yorker essay, makes a great case for “The Book That Taught Me What I Want to Teach My Daughter.” 

***

The essence of a transcendent moment is a sense of wonder, quiet in the way it takes hold.  If you’re a writer you can’t help wanting to share the insight or revelation it brings, maybe even concoct a story. It’s the ultimate paradox: try to capture the essence of a moment and you’ve lost it.

 Maybe the world began with a Big Bang, maybe not. And maybe it will end with a whimper.

Maybe Bob Dylan is right when he says, in an interview moment during the new Martin Scorsese documentary: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”

Empty houses also speak of lives created. They echo with family dramas, barking dogs, purring cats. Echoes etched into the walls of rooms cleared to make space for the next chorus of laughter and tears.

Note bene: With this post, I’ll be taking a little break from my regular blogging schedule. Maybe you’ll miss me, maybe not :-). But I would be remiss in not at least letting you know that my novel has earned another honor, a Finalist/First Novel, 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Smack in the middle of Gay Pride Month seems as timely as it gets to read and/or recommend the novel.

Feed the mind. Feed the spirit.

Last week found me a little more adventurous than usual on Instagram. I posted a photo, with a  caption, a bit tongue-in-cheek: ‘Cozying up for some inspirational reading. What will I choose first?”

If the purpose of social media, in its varied forms, is to let people know what you’re up to, get a conversation going, well, this photo says it all loudly and clearly. 

Feed the mind. Feed the spirit.

A day or so later I posted a selfie, the me (almost nobody) knows. I almost never post photos of myself, except within some cultural context: a museum, a reading, a rock concert. But, as I said, I was in a playful mood. Days later I was still getting responses.

Buddhist wisdom tells us intention is everything. What does it suggest when many of the less whimsical photos and posts I share—snapshots I deem artsy, New Yorker cartoons, essays on writers or books, news stories (sometimes political, more often not)—don’t necessarily spark the kind of conversation social media was set up to foster? 

Is it me?

Is it the nature of a beast more eager to feast on the up close and personal, moments as in-the-moment as it gets, than take the time to chew on fodder not so readily digested in the blink of an eye?  

Chanukah, the festival of lights in a season embodied by darkness, has come and gone.  From a standpoint of Staying Healthy with the Seasons, there’s something anomalous about all the frenzied gift-giving and partying that goes hand in hand with what Madison Avenue pumped up as a time to be merry.  Introspection—going inside, literally and figuratively—is the real call of winter. There’s a reason bears hibernate. 

Right now I’m introspecting (yes, that’s a word) about Idris Elba. Retro as the whole notion of ‘sexiest man alive’ may be in a #MeToo world, I can’t help but smile at his smile on the cover of People. It seems he was ‘robbed’ of that title in 2017, when it went to Blake Shelton (a travesty, indeed). But here we are, a year later, where my wait at the supermarket checkout found me deliberating whether to buy the one remaining copy on the magazine rack. A cover line—Did a Romance Novelist Murder Her Husband?—sealed the deal.  Oh, I’m in store for some meaty reading.

Apparently even more beefy than I realized at first glance. Hot Idris is followed by a host of runners up, cleverly anointed: John Krasinski: sexiest man of action. Chadwick Boseman: sexiest superhero. Chris Pine: sexiest dreamboat. And that’s just a sampling. My heart positively throbs when I see Terrance Hayes: sexiest writer 2014.

Glibness aside, I marvel at how the mind works. Months after hearing Terrance Hayes read from his work, his poetry continues to cast a spell. His latest collection, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin is astonishing for its vision, power, and timeliness. 

 In the midst of all this introspecting comes a riveting James Baldwin essay from the New Yorker archives, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” that only adds to the despairing chill. Please don’t remind me we’ve been here before. Please let me believe that some of the progress we’ve made counts for something that allows me to be lifted by a feel-good holiday movie, Green Book and a subtly powerful play by Conor McPherson, Girl from the North Country. Set in Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota, and built on the songs of Bob Dylan, it’s nothing short of a reminder of Dylan’s brilliant way with music and words. 

Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you a king

Inspiration takes many forms, although a more apt description of what happens when a piece of music or a movie or a book captivates me is a sense of being infused with some aspect of it. 

Great fiction is often my best reboot. Then there’s meditation and the simple act of taking a walk. Crisp winter mornings, with the reflection of clouds in a lake, are a particular pleasure.

 And even if I may not, in this lifetime, experience the dissolution of ego that brings with it the sense of oneness with the universe,  I get glimpses of what might be that peaceful prelude to heightened consciousness via meditation.  

Or, again, via music, for the way it can’t help but infuse itself into the body.  In Michael Pollan’s thoroughly researched, personally validated examination of the new science of psychedelics and why they may be a powerful tool in psychotherapy, not to mention our understanding of consciousness, he makes note of an experiment in which  “pieces of music that held no personal relevance for volunteers were played for them while on LSD. Under the influence of the psychedelic, however, volunteers attributed marked and lasting personal meaning to the same songs.”

He also has this to say:

“If you want to understand what an expanded consciousness looks like, all you have to do is have tea with a four-year-old.”

One year ends/another begins

Barely a week into December and already my thoughts are turning to the New Year. Can’t say I feel its approach with a sense of the promise I was counting on. But a certain resolve has crept in. Never one to rush time, I can’t help seeing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year as packaged and pressure-sealed—even as I relish time spent with family and friends in the spirit of it all. Short of a humbug frame of mind, the waning days of 2016 have me wanting them gone. ASAP.

One of the many lasting impressions I took away from a Toni Morrison/Paris Review interview I first read many years ago was the discovery that she wakes before dawn to start her writing. A habit begun out of necessity when her children were young gave rise to a ritual: a cup of coffee made while it’s still dark and sipped as she watches the light come. “Light is the signal in the transition,” she says. “It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Until you do that—watch the light arrive—even once, night and day are entities unto themselves (i.e., you look up at the night sky, stars twinkling/ you wake up and they’re gone). All it takes is one all-nighter to grasp the subtlety, light gradually encroaching, for it to dawn on you—the stars never really disappear, they’re simply outshone by a far brighter one.

Metaphor aside, we are our own stars, the constellations we belong to a mix of circumstance and choice. I was a daughter when my parents were alive. I am a sister/sister-in-law/cousin/aunt/wife/mother/friend/writer. The unconscious, in all its wisdom and mystery, gives me no room to deliberate in rattling off these roles of mine. If the whole truly is greater than the sum of my parts, it’s that singular one (last in the list, with neither least nor best qualifiers) that allows me to step outside of my own story, stand back/observe/try to make sense of the world.

Again, the inimitable Toni Morrison to the rescue. The time is Christmas 2004, and in the very first paragraphs of an essay that appeared in the 150th anniversary of The Nation, she writes of an “extremely dark mood” precipitated by the reelection of George W. Bush. She has trouble writing, feels almost paralyzed, something she’s never before experienced. A friend insists no no no, times of dread are exactly when artists need to get to work, after which she writes:

“I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

It was the 7th of December, 1993, that Toni Morrison delivered her utterly eloquent lecture/speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart of it is a parable of sorts that speaks to the complexities of language and the consequences of its manipulation when we don’t pay attention to what we’re really hearing/reading. Elections, alas, are won on the bastardization of language. On the 10th of December, 2016, a master of more than language will not be there to deliver his acceptance speech. We can speculate forever on Dylan’s silence and evasiveness, but truth be known, his words are needed more than ever. Can’t ask for much more than Patti Smith as a pinch hitter of sorts. Turns out she’ll be singing a song of his at the ceremony.

I’m writing as day gives way to night and a different light, deferential in a way, fills the sky. If I seem to be channeling my literary/music heroes, it’s out of need, not grandiosity.img_4876 The freshness of winter—trees stripped of leaves, a touch of snow on the lawn—is the starkest reminder I have that there’s no hiding from oneself and regeneration is a given. Climate change naysayers may never see the forest for the trees.img_4874

Bruce Springsteen, in his very telling memoir, writes, “In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back.”

“The year 2017 may be a time for some stepping back, doing things a little differently. For one thing, no more news—real, fake, Facebook, or otherwise—until I’ve had a (reasonably) productive work morning. For a time I tried clearing the fluff out first—check email, say hello on Facebook, read the headline news—and there’s something to be said for that strategy. Except when what passes through a newsfeed clouds my brain, messes with the synapses. (Just seeing the face of he who shall remain nameless makes me physically ill.)

img_4882A tree is uprooted, it falls against another that keeps it from completely tumbling. Hermits are a rare breed but they do exist. More of us, thankfully, fall into the “No man is an island” trope given to us by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. If there’s any hope these days, it’s in the broader view, more encompassing. For all the disappointment, I remind myself that it took a wise woman to remind us it takes a village.

Dispatches from the desert #2

In terms of memory banks (we’re not talking the tech variety here), I’m more than a millionaire. Make all the jokes you want about the aging process and slowing synapses, but when it comes to moments I know will demand recall with a smile, I’m the first to quip: “Put it in the memory bank.”

Case in point: Back in May I was lucky to get tickets to that monumental Coachella concert know as Desert Trip. Okay, luck is a relative concept (considering the price of tickets and the bots who take all the pleasure out of online ticket buying) but a line-up the likes of which is not likely to ever happen again got this rock ‘n’ roll heart very pumped up: Bob Dylan/The Rolling Stones, Neil Young/Paul McCartney, The Who/Roger Waters. Knowing I’d be sharing the experience with my daughter, her boyfriend (now fiancé), and a high school friend I hadn’t seen since we graduated heightened the anticipation.img_0004

In the wink of an eye, September rolls around and the buzz, turned down to a slow simmer during the intervening months, is back big-time: tickets arrive, this is really happening, will I need a fleece jacket for October nights in the desert?

So happens that on the very first night of Rosh Hashanah, just days before I would head out to California, my daughter and her boyfriend decide it’s time to commit to that next big relationship step. No rush re: planning a wedding, but the timing of their engagement makes my visit a gift on more levels than one.That vault in the memory bank I go to every September/October when those Days of Awe roll around now holds new treasures forever linked to a very particular pocket of time.

desert-trip-diningWe say it again and again—how quickly time moves!—and here I am, more than a week since my visit, organizing memories into a time piece, my head filled with desert dust still churning itself into a daily sound and light show: I’m tangled up in blue, or driving in my car/when a man comes on the radio, or asking, Tommy can you hear me? Don’t even get me started on that full moon rising or the eerie dark side of it. . . .

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Day #1: Bob Dylan comes onto the stage in darkness, and leaves in darkness, no communication (other than his brilliant music) with the audience. Who cares, really? It’s Dylan, and his singing voice will forever play second fiddle to that musical/literary thing we call Voice. Act #2, The Rolling Stones, rock it from the start, Mick Jagger promising no old age jokes, even as he says, “Welcome to the Palm Springs retirement home for aging English rockers.” Keith Richards makes a point of paying some homage to Dylan. And collectively they pay homage to the Beatles with a cover of “Come Together.” Not the first time I’ve seen The Stones, which makes me qualified to say that Mick still has the strut and the voice.

 

Day #2: Neil Young, with a fantastic band and voice suited to a moon in the desert, opens with “After the Gold Rush, “followed by “Heart of Gold.” neil-youngMaybe I do in fact die and go to heaven when he sings “Harvest Moon” but more to the point, he brings a subtle political tone to the show, with a teepee on stage and songs about Mother Earth and a not-so-subtle allusion to everything I’m here to forget: “Come back tomorrow night,” he says. “Roger is going to build a wall and make Mexico great again.” To admit that his set would be my favorite misses the point that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts in this historical musical event. To see/hear Sir Paul cast a nostalgic net with unsurpassed charm is a rueful reminder that you’re only as old as you feel—which makes today feel like an exuberant yesterday when Neil Young joins him for very hot rendition of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”

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Day #3: Back in my college days, The Who did a run of Tommy for several days at the Fillmore East, one of the few concerts in my lifetime of concert going that I could not snag a ticket to. All of which makes it all the exciting to hear snippets from that extraordinary album, and more. The decibel level is noticeably higher when they get rolling, and, even if it’s a reach for Roger Daltrey to hit some of the notes in the group’s greatest hits, there’s a synergy between him and Pete Townsend that transcends the public acrimony between them. They know why they’re here, they acknowledge the fans who still come out for them after all these years, they pay tribute to the band members no longer with them. And they play their hearts out.

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No small irony that the closer here tonight is a key player in another band I rue never having seen. The sensurround/Roger Waters experience begins even before he takes to the stage. There’s a rumbling, unidentifiable sound that has this East Coast girl thinking earthquake?—until the sound and light Pink Floyd experience takes hold and I’m transported to another planet.bob-dylan

Not an easy task, returning to earth, but the exciting news that Bob the troubadour is now Bob the Nobel Laureate goes a very long way toward helping me bring it all back home. Come on, Bob, your fans are all-forgiving, even amused, at your take-me-as-I-am onstage persona, but is it really possible that receiving the most prominent literature prize in the world leaves you speechless?paul-mccartneyroger-daltrey

Dispatches (soon to come) from the desert

Good things come in the most unexpected packages—

Two weeks ago my UPS delivery man hands me a package, no recognizable return address on the shipping label. I’m baffled, not that I don’t love a surprise.   But when that big brown truck barrels up my driveway, more often than not I can pretty much guess what’s in it for me. UPS tracking is a beautiful thing and I’d been alerted, via email, that something special was on its way.

Humor me, please. I’m a sucker for a great rock show, and when tickets went on sale in May for that mega Coachella festival in California known as Desert Trip, I managed to get ahead of the bots and scalpers. Anticipation tells me it’s a long, long time from May to September; yet somehow as the moment of arrival gets close it feels as if time has moved with the speed of a bullet train. Today those tickets would finally be in my hands and I can be forgiven for expecting a simple flat envelope with the passes inside. Clearly I was wrong.

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A three-day festival featuring the Rolling Stones/Bob Dylan, Neil Young/Paul McCartney, Roger Waters/The Who is a big deal and I don’t care if they call it Boomer-Chella or Oldchella or just good old rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s clear, from even the delivery of the passes, that a lot of thought (possibly over-the-top) has gone into this.

I open the box, the passes and wristbands jump out. There’s more, though, and I lift the insert. Voilà—my very own ViewMaster, the pièce de resistance in a boxful of memorabilia before the event has even taken place.
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Yes, it’s a carefully orchestrated/marketed event. But the spirit behind it counts for a lot. I was in Europe the summer of Woodstock, and even if the Desert Trip stars are in the twilight of their performing career or maybe because of it, you can count on some good old-fashioned dispatches from me.

In the meantime, there’s been the distraction of a presidential election that has gone from sublime to ridiculous to surreal and raised anxiety levels to new heights. Even at the worst moments I have managed to keep the faith that Hillary will prevail. That’s the realist, not the optimist in me, speaking. As we move into the final stretch, my own anxiety drops just a bit as I see a woman in a red suit handle herself with such aplomb before an audience of millions. There really is no contest here, and any sensible person sees it. But this country, alas, is clearly divided between the camps of sense and senselessness.

Awesome may be a word suited to rock concerts, but awe is world into itself, and to be in awe of the woman most likely to succeed as Madam President puts me in a good frame of mind for my upcoming trip—which just happens to come smack in the middle of the ten-day period known as Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar. There’s every reason to get a sense of grounding this time of year. For one thing, there’s that back-to-school mindset, so ingrained and so in tune with seasonal change. The air gets cool, leaves start to fall, a sense of hunkering down can’t help but take hold. Those of us brought up in reasonably traditional households have the added fact of the Jewish New Year. There’s this big, big book, we’re told, and in those ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is watching very closely, giving us every chance to reflect, repent, do good deeds before deciding what the next year will bring.

I do my best.

I honor my parents’ spirit by attending services, notably Tashlich (when we cast off sins) and Yizkor (when we honor the memory of loved ones no longer with us).

I take time to reflect on my life, a very blessed one indeed.

I channel my mother by cooking brisket, and more, for the friends and family who will come for dinner. Chopping onions is not the only thing that brings tears to my eyes.

And this year, I go to the desert, if not with ancestors, at least with kindred spirits—my daughter, her boyfriend, and to bring it full circle, a dear high school friend who happens to live in Palm Desert. We lost touch over the years, and since reconnecting via Facebook, we’ve made up for some lost time via texts, emails, phone conversations. And just the other day I get a surprise package from her via USPS, the goodies she’s been gathering, just a glimpse into all the things to do/places to see in that valley where I picture a sublime sunset setting the stage for pure satisfaction.

 

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A Valentine’s Day Playlist . . .

. . . for aging rock ‘n’ roll hearts.

Dylan singing Sinatra standards? Clapton swinging to ‘All of Me’?  A witty, sexy ‘Always’, à la Leonard Cohen?

Put away the weed. Pull out the single malt.  It’s going to be a mellow, once-in-a-blue-moon night.

 

Lost on the River

Tucked on a shelf in the back of a closet we use mostly for ‘overflow’ is a white cardboard box filled with old 45s. This is not my complete collection, mind you, just what has survived the decades since I last played them. In my adolescent years I had a classic storage box, with a lift-up lid and clasp, and it doesn’t even matter whether it disintegrated or was discarded. What matters are those 45 rpm vinyl discs that survived one move after another. And all that they conjure.45s

Just the sight of them brings it all back in a heartbeat: late night in a bedroom as adolescent as it gets, early 1960s, the 45s stacked, the click of one after another dropping onto the turntable. The Chiffons, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las. The Four Seasons, the Five Satins, the Duprees, the Teddy Bears. The Beatles. Recalling the sound of that click can still elicit a pang—the memories of heartbreak flooding back.

See the Pyramids along the Nile . . .

To know know know him is to love love love him . . . 

Call me maudlin. Call me just a teenager in love, and calling on all the musical comfort I could muster. Many of the labels are marked by my scribbled initials, a reminder that they were MINE if I brought them to a party, not to be mistaken for anyone else’s. Who wouldn’t be a little possessive?

 Singles would give way to LPs, stored in plastic crates. Some of the album covers are (almost) pristine. Others are frayed at the edges, the telling marks of a cat who saw those neatly lined up albums as nothing more than a scratching post. At least she never got to the vinyl.

CDs would render it all so compact—in the car, in the new multi-disc sound system at home—and I admit it, I’m a sucker for sound at my fingertips.   Let the LP collect dust (or frame it and hang it on a wall). Buy the CD, remastered. Or, if it’s immediate gratification you need, download the album. There’s no arguing a slight degradation in sound quality, but pump it up and it’s good enough.

Until good enough isn’t really good. One birthday a few years back would bring me the surprise I’d been wanting, a new turntable. Oh, heaven! The crackle of it all when I put on any old LP. Who knows/who cares what has collectors’ item value. It all comes to down to moments and the memories they conjure. You learn a lot about yourself looking at what you’ve collected. Eclectic as my tastes are—rock, folk, jazz, classical—numbers are very telling: I have more Dylan albums than any other.basement tapes

Music, framed in measures, is nothing if not a measure of time.

Brilliance is nothing if not a measure of something beyond our everyday grasp.

The brilliance that is Bob Dylan—the scope of his music, the changes in direction over the years, the way lyrics seem to trip off his tongue, make it all the more exciting when unpublished lyrics of his become the catalyst for a collaboration that has the effect of spanning decades. T. Bone Burnett is a genius himself, pulling together a coterie of musicians who may, or may never have, met Dylan but have done magic with what he scribbled and never produced. As he himself says in the documentary about The New Basement Tapes: “Can’t publish everything.”

I can’t recall the last time I listened to a new CD as many times, and with as much attention, as I’ve listened to The New Basement Tapes: Lost on the River. Think about it—one of the most creative producers in the industry, T. Bone Burnett, invites five very talented singer/songwriters to spend two weeks mining nuggets of gold and shaping them into songs. They go through several takes; they decide which song ‘belongs’ to which musician in the sense that he or she has dominated its direction. That’s how I see it. That’s how I hear it. The end product becomes greater than the sum its parts, a collaboration that becomes intergenerational, the music seeming to span decades.

Inspiration may be the spark, but it’s commerce that brings it all back home. If you couldn’t get your hands on the original bootleg Basement Tapes—that mash-up of Dylan and a bunch of boys in the band recording over 100 songs in 1967, you’d eventually get a select 24, courtesy of Columbia Records (today you can have it all).  It is, in old hippie terminology, an absolute trip to listen, go back in time, hear what was so fresh, feel the excitement. Connect the echoes of the New Basement Tapes with the original.

I have my favorites, from the old and the new, and it’s easy enough to just pick and choose which to download, put into a playlist for car rides or when I need a dose of Dylan during a cardio workout at the gym. But here’s the simple truth: a single is a tease, as satisfying as possible. It’s the LP you need when you want to hear the full story.