Happy 25th Anniversary Berlin!

Happy Friday everyone! During the last 10 days or so, we’ve been enjoying another road trip around Europe during the kids’ fall break from school. Although I have yet to evolve a stress- and anxiety-free way to enjoy these longish, multi-country excursions with Stefan and the kids, they will undoubtedly still go down as one of the best parts of our time living in Italy.

This journey ended up taking us to interesting places that aren’t only historically significant, but that intermingle with our own families’ histories as well. We found connections in Dachau, Prague, and Vienna, but it was our visit to Berlin and its infamous wall that once separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany, that was especially meaningful for me, and not just because this weekend marks 25 years since it fell. My family emigrated to the US from communist Cuba, and it was both comforting and frustrating to uncover just how similar the German and Cuban experience has been. As in the case of East Germany, the communist government in Cuba has erected obstacles, much like the very long and winding Berlin wall, which have split families apart and isolated a population.

That’s probably why I was glued to my little TV set in my college dorm room in 1989, teary- eyed at the sight of East Germans insisting on passage through the wall. A still very young news network, CNN, was broadcasting all these jaw-dropping images, and I remember calling my mother to ask if she was seeing what I was seeing. We sat there in silence on the phone just flabbergasted by the moment. Most of the East Germans weren’t interested in staying in West Berlin, although some had surely been yearning for that freedom for decades. Instead, the majority just wanted to be able to go where they wanted to go, see who they wanted to see. Shop, eat, visit with family and friends, and then head back home.

Somewhere between the long silences, we decided that my mom should just come over to my dorm room, so we could watch the coverage together. She was there within the hour and we watched as the gates opened and hundreds of faces poured through. Some were crying, others yelling happily, yet others looking completely astonished, as if they couldn’t believe this was happening at all. We were overjoyed for these Germans, as we saw a sister run into the embrace of a brother waiting on the West side; a group of teens, in all their late-80s gear, dance on top of the wall; and an East German soldier smile widely and give a rose to a girl on the other side, as if no one in the whole wide world was more relieved than he was. It was quite emotional up in that university high rise apartment. In part, of course, because the parallels to our family, stranded behind the formidable waves of the Caribbean instead of a cement wall, were far too clear. We couldn’t help but wonder, what if…

 

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

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The part of the wall that has been preserved with murals commissioned right after its fall, is part of the East Side Gallery. The neighborhood now feels like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grittier and cooler than the rest of Berlin, but just as sophisticated and modern:

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This one’s for you, Mami!

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Leeloo’s come up with a very endearing new habit… listening to history through architecture. “Mom! It’s like I’m there and the soldier is giving the girl the flower!”

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For my Italian peeps/ Per i miei amici italiani:IMG_0512

 

This image evokes a way of life with which I’m quite sure my relatives are painfully familiar:

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How do you say “perestroika” in Spanish?

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Somebody made sure that I didn’t get too romantic about the whole thing with this insightful graffiti, in Spanish nonetheless! (Sons of bitches. Stop lying. We haven’t learned anything.)

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Yet, a girl can keep dreaming. IMG_0545

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I like that Leeloo serendipitously added her face to the hundreds in this scene, re-playing what I saw on my TV in ’89. She’s got quite a few cousins that I can’t wait to see pass through their own wall someday. Hopefully, not another 25 years from this anniversary.

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Creative Leaps, Writing, and Libraries

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I love libraries. Big, small, ornate, modest, all of them. And I’m continuously amazed that as a species we seemed to have all (or almost all) agreed on this one fabulous idea, create spaces loaded with free access to books and information, and then put work spaces in there, so people can sit and… ahem… read quietly. In a world where we can’t agree on things that seem pretty straightforward like you shouldn’t be able to carry loaded weapons into a Target store, it’s rather amazing that the concept of the library has endured throughout centuries.

Back in our tiny Phillipstown, which includes both the hamlet where we lived, Garrison, and the small town, Cold Spring, where Christine lives, we were incredibly lucky to have not one, but two outstanding local libraries. Whether because of its proximity or its warm and exceedingly helpful staff, I spent a lot of quality time in the Julia Butterfield Library of Cold Spring. They had a fantastic collection of kids books that allowed me to bring home a fresh stack every week that our children, especially the older Zoel, happily plowed through. That little brick building on a hill also gave me a space to escape to when working at home was driving me nuts. I’m particularly thankful for one week in a October of 2012 when I was able to sit in their wood-paneled main room and tap out a first chapter of something… for now, I think of it as a memoir of an important trip to Cuba that I took for my 40th birthday. I may have filed it away after that October and gone on with the hundreds of little things that preoccupy our lives, but the seed had, luckily, been sown.

Almost a year later, once we had gotten ourselves settled here in Bologna last summer, I opened the document, and surprisingly, found that not only was the seed not lousy, but it seemed to have taken root in the depths of my brain. I had more to say on the subject, some things to water the seed with, if you will. Okay, I’ve gone too far with the seed metaphor now, but you see what I’m saying. Libraries work for me, and that’s probably why I’ve found another little one here. After trying out the large, swanky one in the middle of Bologna, and another one in our town, Casalecchio, I found the right fit for me at a small 2-floor library outside Bologna’s center, not far from the kids’ school. Here I sit today with about 2 dozen college students. Most of them are reading, writing and highlighting, while I tap away on my ipad. (They rarely have laptops or iPads, which I always find odd, and wonder if it’s a sign of this country’s struggling economy or it’s conservative education system, or something else.)

In this concrete, light-filled room, I have found yet another quiet and comfortable spot that vibrates with mental activity, and motivates me to let by mind leak out onto the page. I expect to be spending many hours here and at home over the next few months, continuing to put my memories and thoughts on the page.

This creative leap of faith that I’m taking into a very different kind of work then I’ve ever done in the past, has been inspired in no small part, by my husband’s work over the last few years as he developed a book, called The Considered Life and a related EP, The Pressure. In the book, he urges you to take a closer look at all the thousands of little decisions you make every day and assure yourself that they are firmly based in what you, and you alone, believe. And the music is just plain funky and soulful, inspired by the themes in the book. Both works are officially launching July 1, but will be available for pre-order on June 14th.

Vicariously, I’m living the thrill and the terror involved in releasing your thoughts and creations into the world, and surprisingly, I’m finding myself wanting to take the same brave steps. We’ll see what comes of it in the next few months or years, but before I run out of iPad battery, here’s more info on Stefan’s two new projects. I do hope you get a moment to check out the book, audiobook and/or EP later this month!

 

 

 

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Summer Clubhouse Renovation

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The previous tenants of our countryside home included 3 young girls for whom we believe this lovely “bush house” was built about a decade ago. By the time we moved in last year, the girls had become teens, and it seemed the clubhouse had been abandoned quite a bit ago. During our first summer here, we had so much to do with fixing up the actual house that no one really got around to taking care of this little place. As you can see, it’s sitting on a lovely spot at the back of our yard right before the fields of chick peas begin. The Cathedral of San Luca and Bologna are in the distance and in a few weeks the pool will be open a few meters to the right of it. All our pool stuff got thrown in there last year when the air got colder, and all kinds of little critters proceeded to make their home inside over the winter. Cobwebs, bee hives, cocoons and their inhabitants greeted us when we opened the doors up last month to see what we might do with the place, along with some gooey substances that it’s probably better I couldn’t identify. Luckily, my unflinching nature guru and mother-in-law, Francoise, was here to help do the first spraying of several beehives hanging inside. In the meantime, the kids decided they wanted to paint the interior sky blue, and Leeloo and I cruised Ikea for a few things to put in it. She found a Harlequin-patterned pillowcase to make into a curtain, and chose matching rugs that she could arrange into a flower with a black center for her brother (his favorite color.) Zoel started the clean up by hosing down the house, floor to ceiling, and then we (by we, I really mean I) got down to scrubbing and clearing out any remaining critters. Stefan dealt with a second spraying of beehives when we found yet another right outside the front door. Then it was time to blast some Top 40 and have some fun!

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With their mini rollers and brushes, Zoel and Leeloo laid down two coats of sky blue over the weekend.

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Leeloo explained she wanted to a little Jesus thing before painting her last panel.

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One of the hives with bee larvae and honey. Yum?

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If you’re wondering where Stefan is… check the chick pea fields.

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And now, the new and improved “meeting house” as so named by Zoel.

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The view from inside the meeting house.

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Better get the pool open soon. These children are desperate.

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Lunch after a hard day’s work!

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The design of a secret insignia and club passwords are under way.

 

Art School by the Archways of San Luca

Antonio has been teaching art to people who missed the bus to art school for over twenty years. He not only teaches a whole lot of us older folks who never found the time to explore our fine arts abilities, but also twenty-somethings whose need to pay rent keeps them from developing their skills full-time, teens who still have time to explore oil painting, drawing, watercolor painting, etching, etc…, and little kiddies who, although somewhat over-scheduled (here too!), always have the time and will to create. His cozy studio, tucked away on a sunny, quiet street named for a famous “Gino” and close to the beautiful arch ways leading to the Cathedral of San Luca,  is exactly what you’d want it to be, all white, light-filled and packed with art supplies. Tabletop easels, wooden palettes, oil paints, watercolors, color pencils, etching equipment, canvases, paintbrushes of every size and texture, sponges, painting knives, charcoal, and on and on. For anyone who gets a rush when they step into a stationary or art supply shop, this place would delight you. Finally, the students’ work lines the perimeter of the large room, all in various states of completion, some just a sketch of what they will eventually become, and others, finished and drying before being mounted on a frame.

The real allure of the place though, is the joyful and friendly atmosphere that Antonio has created. The coffee and tea that’s always brewing or the cakes and snacks that are always available probably have something to do with it, but there’s something else. When I’ve been there, the room is usually populated with 6-8 adults ranging from well-heeled Italian grandmothers with beautiful taste and a good deal of painting experience, and the South American immigrant honoring his gifts before rushing off to his night job, to an array of middle-aged Italian men and women with a range of skills, and the international ladies, which include quite a few talented women who are also mothers of children at our school. But it’s not just the eclectic mix of artists that make it such a happy place. It might be the 2 or 3 languages that generally fly around the room at once, or the static-tinged Italian pop/rock flowing from the old, beat up radio, which usually dominates the room as everyone gets down to work. Or it could be Antonio’s congeniality or gentle but prodding way of teaching by doing, in mostly Italian but with Spanish, English and French slipped in occasionally.

I suspect, though, that this warm, welcoming ambiance persists, because we all have one important thing in common. We’ve all made the decision to take two or three hours from our busy weeks to explore what we are capable of creating. Knowing what a challenge it is for me to paint (or write!) instead of run yet another errand, or get that one more thing done on the computer, I can’t help but feel respect towards (if not kinship with) others that enjoy creating and figure out a way to get to it. Maybe that’s the underlying thread that ties us, and brings into being this vibe of openness and contentment. Whatever the case, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite spots in this Bolognese life, and I’m thankful that I finally made time for it.

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My first completed painting at Antonio’s studio! (Homage to Emily Proud, the artist who created the original that I copied!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guggenheim Bilbao

Last week’s trip also took us to Bilbao, Spain, about an hour west of San Sebastian, to check out a structure that I’ve seen a thousand times in pictures, and that people universally seem to love or hate, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. I confess that I’ve mostly stood on the hate side of that argument, mostly because it’s always struck me as more architectural gimmick than refined or advanced artistry. But…  lo and behold! it’s actually a joy-inducing sight when you first see Frank Gehry’s “silver fish” from across the Nervión River flanked by a modern pedestrian suspension bridge on one side, and another traditional cement walkway on the other, with a regular ol’ city just a few feet behind it. It’s all shimmery and reflective and undulating and what not, like a happy marine animal swim-dancing to its favorite tune. It’s hard not to smile at it, and feel good about the silly ideas that humans can conceive and later actually implement, for better or for worse. I still don’t feel it’s a miracle of architecture, but I’ll concede that it makes the world a shinier place. On the inside, however, the museum is strangely small given the volumes you experience outside, and awkwardly laid out, and the craftsmanship of the surfaces and their upkeep are surprisingly poor. The temporary exhibits, though, were so entertaining that we easily whiled away a whole day in there with only a short trip back outside for a delicious Thai/Chinese lunch! Here are a few pics of our excursion and a bit more information about our favorite bits.

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I’m pretty sure Stefan’s favorite part of the whole road trip is this picture that he took from across the Nervion River.

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Stefan making himself at home on a piano in the middle of a fantastic exhibit by Brazilian artist, Ernesto Neto, who creates enormous works which he believes should be entered  inhabited, felt and even smelled. This and another room featuring a giant netted and climbable worm that rose high above our heads were my son, Zoel’s favorites of the day!

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Another Ernesto Neto installation. And yes, I realize that these nylon sacks are uncomfortably close in appearance to a certain aspect of male anatomy, but these suspended ovals were filled with clove, lavender, pepper, sage and many other herbs, along with candy and other pretty things. The strong and varied scents in the room were delightful!

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Leeloo had loads of fun in the Neto installations but surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly if you know her) she most liked the Yoko Ono (yep, you read correctly) retrospective, especially this 1965 film of her “Cut Piece” performance art work. She and this little Spanish boy watched it 7 or 8 times. His mom and I were a little bewildered but the idea captured them.

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The four of us were riveted by an art installation called The Clock. Christian Marclay’s audacious and inventive work is in effect a film, “a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in “real time””. I can’t fathom how it was put together but it’s beautiful and mesmerizing. We sat motionless for 45 minutes, literally watching time go by.

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Mural under the bridge and across the river from the Guggenheim Bilbao.

 

In the Battle Zone

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The War of Art is the title one of the books I’ve been reading this week. It’s a sort of how to unblock your creativity guide written by Steven Pressfield and I checked it out of the library on Monday hoping to, well, unblock my creativity–which sounds so highbrow and obnoxious when really all I really want to do is find a way to motivate myself to write more. Write more on this blog and for a few other projects that I’ve started and abandoned and, eventually, for the more formidable ones that are still just glimmers on my imaginary literary bucket list.

In his book, Pressfield’s theory is laid out this simply: that there is a force that gets in the way of us humans making art and its name is Resistance. Pressfield begins the book by saying, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Don’t I know it. My unlived life is filled with ideas for excellent poems, daydreams of hours spent at twinkling tables of brilliant food and discourse, travel to sunny, soul-infused lands and a closet full of red-soled shoes. The life I live confers none of those things.

According to Pressfield, Resistance is a self-generated force and its aim is to distract us and prevent us from doing our work. I’m unclear about what its motive might be (Do forces even have motives? I don’t think gravity does…it’s just always there, doing its thing) but I have certainly felt the power of opposition. Right now, queued up in the other tab I have open on my computer screen, is the IKEA website. As I was sitting here writing and looking at the river I remembered that I want to get a few new planters and candles and things for our gazebo and herb garden and since I have most of today free it would be a good day to head to IKEA. So I started googling the closest store and their hours and thinking about which color scheme might work best and planning out everything in my head only to, twenty minutes later, remember that I have this post to write. After just ten minutes of writing or “writing,” my attention had wandered from this blog post about not writing to me…NOT WRITING. Ugh.

So, something’s going on. Maybe I’m distracted by spring and the warm day (dontcha love the way I can’t let a post go by without mentioning the weather) or envious of Gina’s trips to all the fabulous places (see next door) or just plain indolent, but writing usually feels like chore instead of providing my soul the nourishment that I’d like it to be and I’m not sure that forcing myself to endure more time chained to my computer feeling bad that I’m not writing (even though I’m not writing…so confusing) is the most effective way to change things.

Pressfield’s theory about Resistance having to be wrestled to the ground is troubling to me. Also, his idea the creation of art has to be a trial; an ordeal. Do we, the artists, need to exert an enormous amount of negative force against ourselves in order to get anything done? Why is it necessary to suffer and struggle? Because then–and only then–will we experience success? Only after we’re laying bloody and bruised on the battlefield, can we expect the muses to come calling; can we expect to create?

I disagree with these principles for several reasons. One: what is up with the idea that we have to struggle in order to succeed? The axioms of success in our culture are consistently tinged with Protestant philosophies such as:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
― Winston Churchill

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”
― Frederick Douglass

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
― Thomas Paine

And of course:

“No pain no gain.” (A sentiment that Jane Fonda made famous in her 1980s aerobic workout videos but one that has come to be short hand for the modern American narrative of believing that the road to achievement runs inevitably through hardship.)

I mean, what gives? I’m all for hard work and picking ourselves up after we fall, but I’m not so sure about this idea: that if we want something favorable and constructive to happen in our lives then we have to suck it up, be patient, endure, suffer, work, toil, never give up and maybe MAYBE after many many many years we might (though possibly not) experience some kind of triumph. Isn’t that kind of behavior pretty close to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Forget for a second that all of the truly terrible things that happen in our lives we deem the product of an instantaneous and effortless cruel, cruel fate.)

See the contradiction?

While I don’t want to rebut the brilliant minds I’ve quoted above, I’m also not blind to a possible by-product of all of this prodding and poking we’re to do to ourselves in order to become the artists we think we want to be. (i.e. guilt, regret, self-reproach) Here’s the thing: what if the fact that you have to constantly convince yourself to do your art (to write, to paint, to practice your oboe), then perhaps that said art is not your passion after all. I mean I have all kinds of fantasies playing out in that aforementioned internal life, but some of them are not simply possible. I’d like to win Wimbledon (but being 43 with a pretty weak forehand shot, that’s not going to happen). I’d also love to be a singer (but more than one musician has noted my tone-deaf-ness), so that’s out too.

I’m not trying to argue against hard work and struggle and I don’t necessarily think that life should be easy. I’m more than willing and able to hunker down when I need to–when I want to–but how do we know when our hunkering and struggling is necessary to overcome some kind of laziness in ourselves or when a decade of fumblings and failures are actually big giant road signs, warning us that we’re headed down the wrong path?

Allow me this comparison: Relationships are difficult–we can all agree on that, right? They, like art, require work and are sometimes very often beset with times of hardship and skirmish, but there are clearly limits to what kind of behavior we put up with from another person. There’s a line between accepting a person’s quirks and allowing their peculiarities to devolve into mistreatment or injury of us. The threshold is different for everybody of course, but the bottom line is not doing (nor allowing) harm.

When we wake each morning, dressed and ready to battle Resistance and we head out into our days to slay this dragon of sloth that is breathing fire at our feet, how do we know when to say ‘enough’? Because there is also the wisdom of this poem by Charles Bukowski.

Really. Go read it. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music and Me

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” 

These are the words of acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks whose book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain was the tome I checked out of the library today. Not because I think I’m prone to musicophilia, but because I’m….well, not.

Musicophilia is a term coined by Dr. Sacks and used by him to refer to the uplifting effect that music has on most people. It can also be described as an obsession with or spiritual connection to music. Whether it is interpreted for its extreme or simplistic meaning, many folks believe that musicophilia applies to everyone in some way, but this is not necessarily true. Some people find music to be superfluous; irritating even. For whatever reason, they simply cannot enjoy it. Luckily Dr Sacks references individuals who had previously maintained an apathetic disposition towards music and then experienced a shift in behavior, ultimately acquiring musicophilia over time.

I’m hoping to be one of these anomalies. You see, right now I don’t listen to much music at all–a sin I recently confessed to the high priest of the Church of Music, Stefan.

I think the lack of music in my life is less a symptom of derangement and more a quirk that can be attributed to the glut of literature that presides over most of my days. I’m a bibliophile. At any given time there is a stack of books on my desk and another one on my nightstand (each at least four volumes deep) waiting to be read. Most of the time I’m a chapter or two into each one–the words and ideas and thoughts and philosophies of a thousand conflicting minds–taking up space and residence in my already-addled brain. Not to mention all the blog posts I read each morning. And the news websites. And the pile of New Yorkers staring at me from a basket in the bathroom. And Twitter.

I’m not saying that literature isn’t soulful and good (and utterly necessary), but there are only so many words and poems that one can gorge one’s self with at a time. My particular fondness is the pasta/carbohydrate load of the literary world: the poetry of brilliant, depressed and very pissed-off women (Anne, Virginia, Sylvia, Adrienne)–a diet that, if not diluted with something a little less concentrated, can leave a person feeling bloated and miserable. And not at all ready to write or for create one’s self.

After I offered my confession to Stefan he reacted in kind, like all good clergymen are wont to do. He did not punish me, not this time anyway, but absolved me of my sins and assigned appropriate penance in the form of eight iTunes links, which I have been faithfully listening to each morning–instead of the monotonous blogs. There’s some good stuff in there–the scent of hope and inspiration–riding in on this new (to me) and heady music. It’s something I’m not ready to talk about yet, but it’s the soundtrack that I have running right now, in the background, as I’m writing this post.

That said, there are a few songs that my family Here loves. I’ve included a song (or two) from each of us in the links below. Songs that we reach for when we’re feeling any kind of strong emotion–high or low. (Musicophilia status, here I come.)

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For me, and my limited appreciation of music, Bruce Springsteen is God and his concerts are Church and this song is the prayer that I recite on the high holidays. It is also a tune that has accompanied me through more breakups and friendship wrecks than I can count.

Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road

 

But if Bruce is God, then Dar is the power behind the throne. She lives up the street from us and one of her albums is called: My Better Self. We’re fucking soul mates. It’s impossible for me to choose one song of hers as a favorite (The Hudson was my first love and can, in certain moments, take the breath out of me), but here’s the one that makes me weep:

Dar Williams, Mercy for the Fallen

 

For Ray, it’s Sly & the Family Stone, a groovy band that he listened to with his family when he was a wild child in Baltimore, MD. This particular song, and its particular message, is one that I know he reaches for (and plays in his office) when vendors are slow to answer or interns are difficult to get in touch with or there are bills to be paid.

Sly & the Family Stone, Thank You

Noah is 11 so his taste in music is pretty much focused on Top 40 hits. (He likes Bruce, too, because I’ve forced him to.) I’m not sure how that happens–we listen to very little Top 40 radio in this house–but it does. This song is ubiquitous right now. And great. (And, seriously? 123 million hits on this video?)

Pharrell Williams, Happy

Also, this one. (Especially when he misses Zo):

Michael Jackson, Smooth Criminal

Music.

Yep.

 

Imagine Siblings… Spinning Stories.

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Aaaahhhhh… siblings. Sure, no one can drive you crazier than a brother or sister, and around here, it’s the same as anywhere else. There’s lots of bossing, bickering and button-pushing, but every now and then, there is also hours and hours of…playing! And for the past year, their favorite thing to do together has been to weave a tale and play it out. Above are just a few of the characters I’ve stumbled upon when we’re all at home during a lazy afternoon, weekend, or school break. Superheroes, spies, travelers, knights, gladiators, tourists, kings and queens, and many more have traversed our hallways, rooms and backyard. There are almost always supplies and weapons because you never know who you might meet out there in this big crazy world, or where you might have to camp out for a few days should you get lost whilst looking for treasure. There may be mountains to climb, innocents to rescue, messages to decode or ancient rings that must be destroyed to save civilization as we know it.

I remember when my and my sister’s bunk bed was a pirate ship in dangerous waters with man-eating sea monsters all around. We draped the bottom bunk on all sides to create the captain’s cabin, flew a flag from the crow’s nest and concocted all kinds of methods for getting on and off those beds without touching the floor, and thus, avoided being eaten alive! The picnic table in the backyard with a striped umbrella in the center also doubled as a time machine that took off through other dimensions when you spun the umbrella as fast as you could, then the yard, the trees, the cars in the driveway, and the garage would transform into dozens of different places, times and planets, each offering its own unique adventure.

Every time I see my kids inventing a new world, part of me wants to take off with them, and sometimes I do. But most of the time, I’m just very thankful that they have each other, and their wonderful imaginations, so that while they voyage to the farthest reaches of the universe, I can steal away for a few hours to do whatever needs doing.

 

 

Pluck & Possibility

I love how brave Gina is being in her post over there to my left (and, moreover, in her life). Moving to a foreign country is dauntless enough, but now skiing? In the Alps? With the French folks? Dressed head to toe in canary yellow? Bra–aaave. Gina’s family—who moved There—has kind of cornered the market on valor these days. Meanwhile, life Here is pretty monotonous. Snow. Snow. Ice storm. Snow.

I’m the kind of gal who likes routine. Who doesn’t mind being holed up during wearisome times such as these….and, well, not even during the most mild weeks of springtime. Alone. In my house. Armed with a case of Vintage seltzer, wearing yoga pants with my Netflix queue set to play (and repeat) a West Wing marathon. Forget skiing for cripe’s sake (remember I don’t like to be cold (or on a MOUNTAIN careening through SNOW)). This week, however, I had the opportunity to do something that simply terrified me–that was so far out of my comfort zone that I said ‘yes’ before I realized what I was agreeing to–and yet I didn’t turn away.

Before I tell you what I did, I’ll admit that having gathered my nerve to do it in the first place is a marker of my copycat tendencies. I’m a bit of a mimic when it comes to favor and farce. When I hang around with a person who speaks with an accent or a specific vocal intonation, I’m sure to be parroting their speech pattern within two hours’ time. The reason for this behavior is most definitely a post for another day, but in admitting to this habit I’m laying the foundation for my story today…which is agreeing go into the city this past Monday night to read some of my poetry out loud. In front of people. In New York City.

New York. You either love it or you hate it or are ambivalent to its (equally seductive) charms and horrors. I fall somewhere in the middle of all of those things. In love. In hate. Mostly in awe. But what I do appreciate about New York is its literary pedigree. Joan Didion. Willa Cather. Audre Lorde. And though I hold not one single notion of ever being in same league with these fine women, there is something about getting to read in the city where they practiced their craft that prompted me to remove my flannel and don my tightest, bluest jeans and hop the Metro North train south for forty seven miles so I could spend a few hours in the basement of a bar in the Village, listening to and reading….writing.

The importance of this past Monday evening to me wasn’t the writing or the poetry or how many people told me, afterwards, that they liked what I had to say (there weren’t many). The significance to me is the realization that courage rubs off. That courage begets pluck. That surrounding yourself with people that are saying ‘yes’ more often than they say ‘no’, who don’t find value in being on guard or acting frugal, but are vulnerable and intrepid and sometimes shout at the rain, are the very folks you want to surround yourself with. Like, all the time.

This week, Gina is going skiing after falling hard on her derrière the last time she went. Noah is attending basketball camp–a sport he knew nothing about until three days ago–with a bunch of kids who have been playing for years. Stefan has embarked on a magical mystery tour (that’s all I can say, or really understand, about his spectacular journey). Ray interviewed with a fancy headhunter…in a SUIT. Michele left part of her heart on Long Island so that she could glorify its other half with her beloveds in the Magic Kingdom. My Aunt showed up for her fifth round of chemotherapy, thirty six hours after her father died. My grandmother turned 90 and embraced the day, and the coming decade, with more optimism that I have at half her age.

I decided that I had to do more than to just stand on the sidelines, breathless. (With all of these sages in my midst, who was I to chicken out?)

I’m not sure what all of these folks know that I don’t, but I suspect it has something to do with hope. And faith. And taking a risk. And feeling afraid but Doing It Anyway. So I did…And you know what? It was okay.

It was okay.

reading

 

 

A Job Seeker Looks at 40

Actually 43, but I’m not going to split hairs. The point is that I’m creeping towards middle age and (still) looking for work (again). (Or, more accurately, looking for work anew.)

Many factors led me to this circumstance, most of them my own doing; almost all in some way connected to an inherent sense of restlessness and my tendency towards temporization (and, apparently, alliteration).

I’m a bit of a rolling stone, you see. During the past twenty years I’ve lived in eleven cities and approximately two dozen homes. I’ve been a yoga teacher, a temp, an inn keeper, a house cleaner, a school administrator, a freelance writer, a reunion coordinator, a dog walker, a kindergarten teacher and a house sitter, not to mention a mother and wife. Part of what’s going on with me being out of work right now is my failure to launch. I get high on possibilities but bottom out by go-time. All of my energy expended during the roll out, none of it left for the voyage at hand.

I also secretly want to be a pirate. And not for the raids and plunder, but for the creativity, innovation, and implementation the lifestyle allows. (Also, tangentially, the hats and the jewels.) Every job I’ve ever left (and I’ve left every one of them at some point) has been riddled with mediocrity, both in function and in form. And what I mean by that is this: there are 1,647 different things that I could spend my days doing and what I’ve learned I want to spend my days doing (are only) the things that I both love and that I am good at.

I have yet to stumble upon that balance/bonanza.

My biggest fear, of course, is that perhaps I’m not really very good at anything at all (and middle age is certainly the time when that reality must be finally, honestly confronted) but no matter the verdict of that particular ballot, my own partiality is non-negotiable. I know what I like. I’ve been miserable for long enough to know its rival. Plus, I’ve learned to recognize the moments when my hair stands on end and I’m lost to time and space wanting nothing more than to keep doing what I’m doing f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

It’s the pirate’s life, you see? Pleasure, yes. But also fearlessness. And strength. And an integrity of purpose. To me there’s no higher aspiration.

Or, a more impossible one.

I’ve worked as a teacher four (separate) times in my life and after every single, without exception-multiple-year tenure I’ve agreed to, I’ve ended up totally and completely hating my days (not the kids, mind you) but the hours of my days and…eventually, thankfully quit. And then over and over again (due to shoddy finances or (shoddy) fear or plain old guilt) crawled back to the very same work like a repentant sailor, hoping that my earnestness might be enough to make me stay; to make me love it (this time) somehow.

What of this coercion? Of this march I’m doing towards a(nother) duplicitous fate? In the past two months I’ve watched myself brush off my resume and polish my credentials and sit with the principal of the local elementary school, look her directly in the eyes and say, “I can’t wait to be back in the classroom again.” Seduced by a (decent) salary and an ostensibly short work day; by health insurance coverage and summer vacations (which free up lots of time to visit Gina, to be sure) I’m seemingly willing to once again to sacrifice my happiness–my life?–for a shorter, sexier gain. For a semblance of respect. For money and an indication of (some kind of) victory.

It’s a good thing you learn a few things by the time you’re looking for work after 40: you’ve become familiar with your own tricks. You’ve learned to observe your own slights-of-hand that try to convince you that stability is more important that passion; that solvency is more urgent than art. Sure, I’m still sending out resumes for jobs I already know I’d hate, but I’m doing it now with an awareness of something I didn’t want to admit when I was sending out (the same) resume when I was 22: It’s okay to wait for what you love.

At 4(3) I’m learning to recognize that which I love: Poetry. Words. Quiet. Conversation. The hard lock of Friendship. My thesaurus. Waking up at 5am. Identifying a bird’s song and naming the tree they’re singing from. Embarking on the open sea at dawn.

I have no idea what kind of job might bring all of these things together, but I’m confident that, with time I will find the treasure. Until then, there’s always hope. And pillaging.

pirate