the miracle of art

“The Weight of a Ring,” by Terry Liu.

Ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life is short. Even the briefest radio story can live well beyond its 11-minute running time, as I learned on receiving this startling work at left: an illustration inspired by “The Weight of a Ring,” my story for “The Moth” chronicling husband’s suicide in September of 2011 and my decision, four months later, to remove my wedding and engagement rings.

The artist is Terry Liu, an MFA student at Cal State University in Long Beach who’s preparing 20 such illustrations for a graduate show. “The theme for my show is about how radio stories can connect people around the world,” Liu writes, “and make people feel less lonely.”

Telling that story made me feel less lonely. Hearing from strangers who’ve heard it or read it or watched it on YouTube and reached out to me, firing off little electronic missives filled with love and kinship, makes me feel less lonely. Reading Liu’s email made me feel less lonely. Opening the attached jpeg and finding this extraordinary portrait of my life, my grief, myself made me feel less lonely — and profoundly grateful for both Liu’s creative gift the gift of creation.

A fellow artist in another medium had comprehended and channeled the smallest details I’d shared and dwelt on them, found some truth or beauty in them, transformed them into art.

There I am. Me, weeping, whorls of my hair draping around me. Me, curled up in a ball. A hammer and saw, allusions to Chris’s years in carpentry and construction. The front door I opened to hear the news of his death. A cop. A TV, a nod to the “Battlestar Galactica” my kids and I watched from the living room floor that long and sleepless and terrible first night. The calendar days, just peeling and floating away. A writer’s quill. My ring, with its ruby stone. My gold chain. My hands — or Chris’s, or ours.

This is the miracle of art: it renews and extends the life that it touches.

Six years ago, something happened to me. Somehow I turned it into narrative. Someone else heard it, found in its intimacy some arcing universal element, then took it apart, studied its pieces and turned them into something else. Something beautiful. Something that isn’t my story but evokes it with insight and compassion, shaping it gently and splashing it with color. And I can see it in a new way, now. I can see myself from a distance, my own eyes filled with tears, my own complicated story filtered through the mind and heart and hands of another. Someone made art of my life, and both endure.

 

turns on the slide

This past Wednesday, I celebrated the day I was born 54 years ago in Booth Memorial Hospital, Queens. That actually happened. Then, this coming Tuesday, I’ll mark the sixth anniversary of my husband’s death (more accurately, it will mark me).  That happened, too. What also happened: I grew up in a singular family, married a singular man, buried my parents, buried my sister, had three babies, bought a house, kissed my children on their first days of school, watched them grow up and up and up and up, wrote books, wrote for newspapers, loved my husband, grieved my husband, wrote another book and kept on living.

And it’s all a blur. I never expected it to be a blur, but who does? Long, long ago, while chatting with an older, wiser colleague in the hallway, she shot me a comprehending glance and said: “You’re at such happy stage in your life. You have a wonderful husband, and your kids are small. Enjoy this.” I thanked her, assured her, then walked away thinking: ‘Stage’? You mean, this moment in my life won’t go on forever? 

Of course I knew it wasn’t permanent. Of course I knew my kids would grow, and I knew that either my husband or I would weep at the other’s grave. But now that I’ve wept at his, I can’t help but look back with shock at the abruptness of the change from then to now, the lickety-splitness of it all, the belated comprehension that even a marathon will feel like a sprint in hindsight.

But still. It was real. It is real. Every inch of it. The fact that something or someone’s behind me doesn’t diminish its presence or lessen its impact; it doesn’t make anything any less treasured or miraculous or true. My husband is real. Our wedding is real. Those nights at home when he wrestled on the floor with our kids: real. The love we felt and made: real. Those trips to Cape Cod, freezing our bodily bits and pieces in the ocean at Coast Guard Beach: real.

Everyone I’ve ever loved, whether they’re alive or dead, in my life or not: real. My best friend from college, her insight, her humor, her calm, all gifts to the world until it lost her: real. Every laugh I’ve shared with a friend: real. Every late-night conversation that bled into dawn: real. Every kiss I’ve kissed, every blush I’ve blushed: real. Every embrace that felt like eternity: real.

The days I shared with my parents and sister: real. The Scrabble we played by the fireplace, the fireflies we chased by the lake: real. The Chopin my sister played at the piano: real. The Bach my mother played on the violin: real. The Franck they performed together, with little bumbling Amy turning pages: real.

That fat Maine coon I had as a kid: real. The purple banana bike: real. That time I went sledding on ice and crashed and flipped and landed on my head and didn’t die and didn’t tell my parents, oh good God, no: real. The boy I had a crush on whose paintbox I smeared: real. The other boy I had a crush on whose stomach I punched: real. The best friend from grade school with the big barn and the big heart and the big hands: real.

That long, steel slide I rode on the playground in first grade, then stood in line and rode again, then again, then again, because I never wanted it to end, not even in January, not even when the air pinched my chest and the metal bit my butt: real.

Every turn on the slide is real. Every moment now past. Every job I held. Ever book I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-re-wrote. This moment right now, as I bang out a fresh sentence in a blog post? A turn on the slide, and look, it’s over now. Every blip and burp in life, whether a brief interlude or a lengthy stage, is a turn on the slide. My two-decade marriage was a turn on the slide. Our years as a young family of five were a turn on the slide. The phase I’m in right now, a late middle age filled friends and family and music and beautiful, striving, impossibly spirited older children, is yet another turn on the slide. Every tune I scratch out on my fiddle with pals is a turn on the slide, each one a little swinging morsel of forever.

Everything is. Every breath, every laugh, every moment spent learning at work or at home. If I’m lucky, and all my bodily bits and pieces continue to function properly, I’ll take many more turns on the slide before the cosmic kitchen timer rings for me. I have no idea how many, or what sort, or where they’ll take me. My only plan is to savor them.

 

 

the stronger sex

I was helping a stranger push a pallet of really heavy shit through a door a while back. He was inside, I was outside, and he couldn’t see me. I wasn’t saying anything, just lifting here and shoving there, but after the two of us managed to wedge the shit all the way through, he caught a glimpse of me and blanched.

And he said, speaking in the all-caps utterances of undiluted shock: OH MY GOD I THOUGHT YOU WERE A MAN.

I replied: Ha ha ha.

He said: NO REALLY I THOUGHT YOU WERE A MAN.

And I said: Well, I do have arms and legs, ha ha ha.

And he said: APPARENTLY.

And I said: Ha ha ha.

And he said: I HONESTLY THOUGHT YOU WERE A MAN. I EVEN THOUGHT YOU WERE TALLER THAN ME.

And I said: Ha ha ha.

I felt a little sorry for the guy. He was kind of adorbs in his astonishment, like a kid at the zoo who sees a giraffe up close for the first time and can’t believe how long its neck is. And it occurred to me that even now, after decades of advances for women and wide-reaching societal changes regarding what we can and can’t accomplish, there is still this inexplicable, old-fashioned and ultimately nonsensical insistence on casting us as the weaker sex. I was reminded of this recently by the noodlehead on Twitter who retweeted that heartbreakingly beautiful Harvey image of a young man carrying a woman holding a baby, along with the comment: “This is how it ought to be, despite what your gender studies professor says.”

To which my response was: Huuuuuh? Men ought to carry women? Like, all the time? Who says so? What if a strong woman were to stumble across a weak and wounded man in a storm, and she had muscles enough to bear him to safety? She shouldn’t?

Screw that. I’d carry him.

And you know what else? I hate to point out the obvious, but what the hell, it’s worth reminding anyone who might have forgotten that WOMEN ROUTINELY CARRY HUMAN BEINGS INSIDE THEM FOR NINE WHOLE MONTHS AT A STRETCH, then sustain them WITH FOOD FROM THEIR OWN BODIES for months or even years. Yes! It’s true! It happens regularly! I’ve done it myself three times!

Whatever God this guy believes in —  if he does, I’m assuming it’s the same one I do — entrusted one sex in particular with the task of nurturing and hauling around the future of the race, and it wasn’t men. Women carry people. We carry people in our wombs; we carry people after they’re born, juggling a kid in each arm while making meals and tending to our spouses and our jobs; we carry our family, our friends, our dreams, our homes, bustling through life with industry and hope as we muscle past the problems of each day. We do this despite inadequate pay, lingering misogyny, still-endemic sexual aggression and, apparently, the idiotic, insistent machismo of a few men still harboring the misconception that they’re stronger.

They’re not. Sure, most of them have taller frames and bigger muscles, but size isn’t everything. (And do we need to tell them that?)  Mine function nicely, and they’ve served me well over the years. So why is it that Piers Morgan, another noodleheaded Twitter presence, bragged about heading to work with broken ribs and then felt compelled to call this “manning up”? Is there any sillier expression? Dude, I’d love to see you “woman up” sometime. DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT TOUGHNESS UNTIL YOUR JUNK’S BEEN RIPPED ASUNDER BY THE VIOLENCE OF CHILDBIRTH.

Also, I’d like to take this moment to point out that men have nipples. I repeat, MEN HAVE NIPPLES. Which means the woman’s body is the template for the man’s. Think about that. Now think about it some more. Carry on.

Sorry, am I popping off? I am. I think it’s been piling up inside me. I’ve always been rather mulish when it comes to carrying my own shit, but after my husband’s suicide the mulishness became a matter of practicality. I understood from the get-go that I could no longer count on a muscled masculine specimen to help me in my daily shit-carrying, and so I vowed that forever after I would no longer pack a bag that I couldn’t carry alone. I wrote about this in my memoir, and I’ve lived it every day since Chris’s death. I do my best to stay in shape A) because my kids need me to hang around on this planet as long as possible, B) because exercise is a mighty fine mood elevator and C) I want to feel strong.

Who doesn’t, after all? And what’s so strange, after all, about a woman helping a man? That’s not how it ought to be; that’s how it already is, baby. You got a problem with it, you’ll have to take it up with the widow.

stating the obvious: on bigotry, and america, and trump

After shuddering through the news over the last few days, I’ve decided that a few things need to be said that shouldn’t have to be said, ever. They should be known and felt on a cellular level by all who call this country home. But we seem to be at a moment in history when certain truths, even the ones we hold to be self-evident, need to be expressed in plain and robust language.

So pardon me for stating the obvious, but the obvious is now tragically under fire, and everyone who has a voice and fears for the sanity and integrity of this nation has to state it. Loudly. Over and over. Until we’re heard.

And so:

1. Hate is damaging to our country, and to our souls.

2. Bigotry in all its forms is evil.

3. Combating bigotry in all its forms requires acting against it, speaking out against it, and confirming the humanity and dignity of all people with firmness and unflagging courage.

4. Bigotry is an affront to the dream of America. It’s an affront to our notions of patriotism, what it means to love this country, what love and country mean. It’s an affront to the faith professed by so many bearers of hate and racism, including the very faith built upon the life and death of an impoverished Jewish refugee of color.

5. That impoverished Jewish refugee would have marched against the bigots. He would have healed the injured. He would have preached non-violence. He would have wept.

6. Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white supremacists other torch-wielding bigots are not Christians, no matter what they say. They are not patriots. They are barely even Americans, not in the truest sense, not as a people who share a belief in this beautiful, hospitable, hopeful land of ours and so we share the land itself. We share the dream itself, an ideal that calls out for equality in the ugly face of racism.

7. Those in government and the public eye who fail to condemn the bigots, who silently tolerate or abhorrently minimize them, are their enablers. Those who go further — who equate the heil-saluting, hate-filled bigots with the anger of those protesting them — are worse than enablers. They are bigots, too.

8. And anyone who speaks this way from the highest rostrum of the land, from the all-hallowed apex of power and the focal point of global attention, isn’t a patriot. He isn’t a Christian, no matter what he says. He’s barely even American, not in that one true sense.

And he shouldn’t be our president, period.

 

i got music, part iii: i like my hands (and will not cut them off)

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS

PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Take a wild guess 

I woke and walked to class, my heart thudding away with nerves. In the little sunny room I set down my case, tightened my bow, resined it up and removed my violin – actually one of two I own.

The first is my mother’s. Mama was a concert violinist; it was made for her in 1962 by a Swiss-American luthier named Karl August Berger. It’s a world-class instrument, singing, ringing, golden-toned and bloody loud.

The second is my late father-in-law’s. Eugene was an amateur who studied – extremely weird coincidence – with the same teacher as my mother, Chester La Follette. Eugene’s fiddle is a 1928 German reproduction of a 1685 Francesco Ruggieri. It’s huskier than Mama’s violin, browner in tone, rougher around the edges, softer.

Not something I ever want to see.

I agonized over which one to bring to Django in June, spending an hour sequestered in my bedroom, playing bits of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” on both. I was unsure which sounded better with jazz. I was also unsure how I felt about playing my mother’s, which was so heavily burdened with memory. Playing it brought to life all the music she played on it, all the heights of Bach and depths of Brahms; the music I made on this same instrument could not compare and never would. They are lesser sounds. I am a lesser musician. So her violin has always cowed me a little, even now, 22 years after her death.

And yet I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s her.

I stared at the two violins on my bed, stricken with indecision. Only one thing for it.

MITCHELL!!! I hollered, summoning the genial 15-year-old with whom I happen to share a house and a large percentage of deoxyribonucleic acid. MITCHELL!! I NEED YOUR EARS!!

Mitchell hustled upstairs and listened. I didn’t tell him which violin was which. His keen powers of perception and succinct musical insights proved a godsend in my hour of need.

Me: Which violin should I bring to Django in June? This one? (Plays Mama’s violin). Or this one? (Plays Eugene’s).

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

Me: This one? (Play’s Mama’s violin). Or this one? (Plays Eugene’s)

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

Me: Which one?

Mitchell: That one.

Me: This one? (Plays Eugene’s.)

Mitchell: (Shrugs.)

So here I am, Eugene’s axe on my lap, sitting in that little plastic folding chair in that little tidy building for a little morning violin class that serves to remind me, once again, that I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. I am brought face-to-face with the profundity of my inadequacy on this instrument. I peer inside and find a soul-sucking black hole where the music should be.

The extent of what I don’t know is truly breathtaking. I don’t know chords, of course. I don’t know their horizontal counterparts, arpeggios. I don’t know scales, modals, roots, diminished this, augmented that. In short, I don’t know squat or anything remotely resembling squat. And here in this wee classroom at Django in June, it shows.

Right now the great man is talking about arpeggios.

“Arpeggios are important, yes?” he asks rhetorically.

Yes.

“You all know arpeggios, yes?” has asks, again rhetorically.

No.

I know so little about arpeggios that he might as well be speaking Mandarin. Or Serbo-Croatian. Or some madeupsky gibberish designed by linguists moonlighting as sadists. Who knows the flipper-dee-whacknut arpeggio? The flitzen-burger scale with the diminished zoinkling? How about the major-minor-seventh-zipplepiffle chord with the diminished splark? Does anyone know that one? Oh! Everyone knows that one! Everyone plays it! Everyone LOVES diminished splarks!

He names more chords I don’t know, then plays them as arpeggios. The Q-minor Augmented Whoodle. The Major-Minor Z-chord with Cream Cheese Frosting. The Marginally Deficient Spleet.

He plays something else. Something I can’t identify and articulate in the language of theory. But something I can hear and translate, maybe, to my fingers.

“Who can improvise using only those notes?,” he asks, then plays them again.

I listen as one brave camper after another ad-libs several bars of decent, melodic, musically fitting improvisation, and I wonder if I have it in me to try. Probably I don’t, but that’s never stopped me from attempting anything else outside my capabilities: All my life, I’ve been the extroverted introvert who cowers in silence before making lots of noise. And if that noise resembles a squirrel, that’s okay, right? It won’t actually kill anyone? And no will shoot me?

Another student plays. Then another. And another.

“Good,” the great man says. “Anyone else want to try?”

I volunteer, then immediately regret it. I think: I must be crazy! I am crazy! Help! Help! Then I think: Someone’s going to shoot me. Cue funeral march.

Hands shaking, I lift the fiddle to my chin. The left hand snaps its fingers down. The right hand waggles the horse-haired stick. Together, they approximate pitch and loose a few sound waves into the air. And I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.

As anticipated, I hit wrong notes. But miracle of miracles, I also hit some right ones, and I make it through the rest of morning class. I do NOT collapse in tears. I do NOT run screaming across campus. I do NOT cut off my hands and burn my instrument, although really, if I decided to go that route, I’d have to burn my instrument first.

And I don’t want to. I like my fiddles. I like my hands. I like music. I want to play it. I want to play it better. I want to grow. I want to swing. I want to feel the thrill of being in the music, the joy of being present with friends, the wonder of being inside that mystical, metrical, syncopated pocket swirling around the two and the four in a four-beat measure.

I want to be here, learning. I don’t want to cut off my hands or do violence to violins of any sort, be it Eugene’s or Mama’s. And, you know, maybe that’s a start.

gratitude, and the gift of betsy

Last night, working on a kitten-and-roses jigsaw puzzle with my sister Betsy, I started telling her about all the music I’ve been making lately with my friends.

It’s her birthday weekend, and I hadn’t seen her in a while.  A lot to say. So I was blathering a little.

I had two gigs this week!, I said,  and then rattled on excitedly, being sure to speak in italics and cap every sentence with a highly emphatic exclamation point. We play gypsy jazz! It’s so much fun! We call ourselves Hot Tuesday! It’s me and these five great guys, and we played at a farmers’ market Saturday morning, and one of my bandmates sent me some videos! Wanna hear them?!

“Yes,” Betsy said, because she’s quite literally the kindest, sweetest and most generous person I know. She’s also the wisest.

Maybe you remember Betsy from a blog post I wrote last year about her, detailing both her utter wonderfulness as a human being and her unsurpassed love of Barry Manilow. (I still haven’t figured out a way for them to meet, so if anyone has any ideas, please shoot me an email.) Betsy is part of the large and marvelous extended family that I wasn’t actually born into. And she is, to quote her dad (belatedly mine, too), “awesome.”

No one is awesomer than Betsy, who happens to be developmentally disabled but also happens to be profoundly comprehending and insightful. I’d be a better and happier person if I had half of her capacity for joy, understanding of people and straight-up acceptance of life.

Take last night, for instance. Pulling up the band videos on my iPhone, I started apologizing for them in advance.

I have a hard time listening to myself play, I explained.

“Why?,” she asked.

Because I hear all of the mistakes I made. I keep thinking of all the different ways I might have played better, I said.

“Why? Nobody’s perfect.”

It’s just a little painful.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

I shouldn’t do that.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t do that. Just be grateful.”

At which point, gobsmacked with awe, I just shut the hell up for a minute. With her usual, plainspoken discernment, Betsy had nailed it. My reflexive self-criticism does nothing constructive — that I already knew. But I had never before seen it as a blindness to all the gifts around me, as a stubborn fixation on what I lack over what I have. And I have friends. Gigs. A love of jazz. A fiddle, and two hands to play it.

When I spoke again, all I could say was this: You’re right. I should just be grateful. And thank you, my sweet Betsy.

I cued up the videos and played her the snatches of music — “Sweet Sue” and “All of Me,” two bouncing early standards that we’d rendered with audible spryness. Betsy smiled. I smiled, too, fighting off a powerful urge to cry. All I could feel was gratitude: for all of the music in my life, for all of the friends I’ve made, for all of my family and all of the love.

Tonight is Betsy’s birthday party; she’s turning 51. Barry, at some point, will be celebrated, and it’s a safe bet purple will be involved. Cake will be eaten. Presents will be opened. But as you can see, Betsy herself is the gift.

mystery of the magic pockets

it seems mama had some magic pockets, too

A colleague asked, earlier today, whether I had any analgesics with me at work.  I wasn’t sure but thought so, explaining that my bag was, in fact, a Cavernous Vessel of Miscellaneous Crap, although I didn’t exactly use those words.

Instead I said something along the lines of: Ummmm, probably. Lemme take a look. I kind of have everything in here. You know. Just in case.

And as I clawed around in the bag’s vast sunken reaches, reaching past pens and reporter’s notebooks and band-aids and bacitracin and chocolate and moolah and moisturizer and hand sanitizer and CDs and thumb drives and nuts and cough drops and tights and spoons and earrings and cats, and yes, I’m joking about the cats, I told my co-worker about my father’s magic pockets.

I’ve written about them before. I‘ve written about him plenty, my late father Louis, a brilliant, eccentric, complicated and profoundly decent man with THE biggest heart and THE largest pants pockets of anyone who ever lived. He was born in 1907 — which means he was 56 when I was born, which also means he’d be 110 today, which totally blows my mind — and wore the smashingly high-waisted pants of a 1940s fella, the sort that buckled above his belly button and featured large, billowing pockets of voluminous capacity.

Whenever I needed or wanted something, I ran to my father with a Daddy Daddy Daddy! And whatever it was, he always, happily, miraculously had it on his person. “Well, let’s just check my magic pocket,” he’d say, then reach down, jangle around for few seconds and then haul up a gleaming pile o’ stuff topped with a Lego or a mint (no thumb drives in those days).

This isn’t exactly a repressed or traumatic memory. No trips to the shrink to parse my feelings about capacious paternal trousers. But until this morning, as I handed my coworker a bottle of generic ibuprofen retrieved from the depths, I had never fully realized that I’VE INHERITED THE MAGIC-POCKET GENE FROM MY FATHER. Oh my God, I’m Daddy!! I thought, flashing back to all those diaper bags I once packed with toys and tricycles and travel playpens and extra playmates for my children; to all those overstuffed backpacks filled with Every Possible Medical Supply and Every Possible Snack that I still bring on day trips with offspring; to all those winter-parka pockets crammed with extra hand warmers and extra mittens and extra money and extra skis.

Is it a pack-rat’s instinct? A Scout’s instinct? An expression of some need to control an uncontrollable universe? A throwback to my hunter-gatherer’s roots, illustrating a lingering atavistic urge to haul wild celery over the plains? Who knows? It’s a mystery.

But whatever it is, you could well argue that this same gene explains the hideous purple paisley harem pants I wore (IN PUBLIC, SHE NOTES) in the early 1990s, which, now that I think of it, did indeed have extremely commodious pockets. I’ve never been able to explain to myself or anyone else why I wore them. Now, thanks to my late-life revelation, I have my answer. I get to blame dad.

 

i got music, part ii: gypsy jazz and holy terrors

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION

Click here to read PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)

PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Still panicked. Maybe even a little more so than usual. No. A lot. 

I came late to gypsy jazz. It is a world unto itself, rich in myth and music, created more than 80 years ago by the original gypsy gods: guitarist Django Reinhardt, violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintette du Hot Club de France. For gypsy-jazz enthusiasts, that world still exists. It’s still 1930s Paris. Those who do not speak French wish they could speak French. Those without skinny mustaches wish they had skinny mustaches. Those who do not wear little straw fedoras wish they wore little straw fedoras.

As for me, I do not speak French. I wear no mustache, not any I will confess in public to having, and I seem to have missed the memo about fedoras. As a violinist and a woman, I’m part of a teensy-tiny pie slice compared with the frets-and-facial-hair demographic that prevails at Django in June: of the 240-odd campers and teachers, around 220 are men, and most of them play guitar. I am also distinguished by the sheer and awesome force of my ignorance. I know almost nothing, having only played (at) this music since February, when I decided it was the answer to everything — all of life’s woes, all of my messy, lingering grief over my husband’s suicide four and a half years before, all of my sundry psychosocial heartaches since then. Plus MENOPAUSE! Hurrah! Which I’m confident the men with little mustaches are not struggling with at the moment.

In short, I am a dilettante. I have only been at this a few months. I have no idea what I’m doing, by which I mean I HAVE NOOOO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. I have not yet committed to memory all or indeed any of the 200-some-odd songs regarded as gypsy standards and bound with gold in the Holy Holy Django Fakebook, which everyone wears strapped to their foreheads like phylacteries. But not me. Not yet. When someone yells out, “Who wants to take the head on “Les Fenetres de Moscou?,” I do not tug sagaciously at my mustache, take a drag on my cig, yank gently on the brim of my fedora, and then rasp out, “Je vais. Oui. Bien sûr. Heh heh hehhh.” Instead I sit there panic-stricken, hyperventilating and silently praying in desperate, monosyllabic, all-caps English, PLEASE GOD NOT ME NO NOT ME PLEASE GOD NOOOOOO.

Still, I chose to be here. I CHOSE THIS. I belong. Crossing campus my first evening here, the Kool-Aid coursing through my veins, I passed clump after clump of happy amateurs pumping out Django ditties on the grass, and I knew that I had found my people. This is my dream realm: a place where everyone is as crazy for this music as I am. Where everyone is as madly, precipitously in love with it. Where playing it is all anyone wants to do, bathroom visits be damned. Where we all fall asleep with its melodies in our heads. Where we all wake in the night to its strains.

It eats my brain. It fills me with joy. It connects me to something greater than myself, and I marvel at the universe that bore it. When I play it, no matter how badly I play it, my heart skips and my knees bounce. After jamming with friends back home, I always drive home riding that gypsy high. When my friend John — guitar, goatee — first mentioned Django in June to me back in March, I thought it sounded like heaven, only closer, and with a much snappier soundtrack. Paradise for jazz nerds! Shangri-La for swing addicts! And it’s only 90-minute drive from Albany! It was meant to be. I had to go. I couldn’t go for the whole five days, being a frenzied single mom with a full-time job, but I couldn’t not go, either. So I opted for the half-camp option: two days and three nights of classes, concerts and jamming, plus three meals in the cafeteria, one dorm room, and one large fan. Its reputed purpose: to cool the room. Its real purpose was revealed late last night, several hours after my arrival.

“At Django in June, we jam constantly. All hours. It never stops,” John had said, and sure enough, there I was, cranking away on “Coquette” and “Blue Drag” in a Smith College common room ordinarily accustomed to Kanye West. John was there. Our friend Dave, too —

violin, goatee. A few strangers who quickly became friends in Django. I could barely contain my glee. I’m at Django in June!, I thought. I can do this! Yesss!

We kept going long past midnight, and I improvised on almost every song.

My left hand flailed. My right hand waggled. My whole body buzzed with giddiness and fear. Intense, chest-seizing fear. I’ve known this sensation in many contexts: on roller coasters; in incidents with dogs, monkeys, turkeys and other combative fauna; in the foaming whitewater of the Rio Pastaza in Ecuador; in witnessing a fatal head-on collision on a twisty Connecticut road; in that frozen moment, one that chills me to this day, when a paramedic stopped my careening heart with drugs in the hopes it would restart at a normal tempo.

And then there is the holy terror of improvising.

Improvising triggers the fight-or-flight response, all quaking muscles and rapid breaths: You could dangle me from a cliff by my pinkie toe, or you could tell me to improvise, and my glands would disgorge the same amount of adrenaline. Improvising is time to panic. Improvising is composing on the spot. Improvising is sticking within the sonic confines of a tune – the changes beneath it – and doing something else with it, something glorious and illuminating, something that expresses your deepest inner self while bringing out an unheard facet of the music. Maybe it’s always been in there, waiting silently to be discovered and brought to the light. Or maybe it’s cowering in fright. And maybe, if you screw up badly enough while attempting to play it, you’ll contort your face with shame and bleat SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY while everyone else throws sympathetic glances that say, We do not judge you, friend. But we grieve the dying squirrel.

This is how it works. For me. It works differently for an actual jazz musician who actually knows chords, but I am a classically trained amateur violinist, which means most chords are dead to me. C, G, D: okay. I can do those. As for the rest, I have only myself to blame. I have spent decades honing my Sad and Pathetic Lack of Theory (SPLAT), the effects exacerbated by a lifelong policy of NO Practicing Ever (NOPE). Between SPLAT and NOPE, I am lost.

It all begins when someone shoots me a glance. The glance is thrilling! The glance is terrifying! The glance says: Your turn to improvise, madame!

In reply, I throw back a blanched look of pure dread that asks: What? No? Me? Huh? Really? Now? Are you sure? You must be nodding at someone else, like maybe that hot Belgian over there.

But the glance is adamant. The glance says: Oui oui. Vous vous. Heh Heh.

Defeated, I glance back at the glancer. I gird my loins, which always helps. I lift my fiddle and bow. And I say to myself: Be brave, woman! You have nothing to lose but your self-respect and the respect of everyone here!

And so it begins. Training my ear on the sounds around me, I tell my fingers to play something — preferably something that agrees with the ka-chung-ka-chung-ka-chung of the gypsy rhythm guitar. But something. And something always comes out. Sometimes it sounds like a squirrel. Sometimes it sounds like jazz.

Jamming my first night here, it sounded like jazz. God knows how or why. But I left feeling pretty good about my playing, or at least not humiliated and despondent.

Then, walking back to my room, I heard the gods.

They were there outside my dorm: a clot of teachers in the courtyard, jamming away, their fingers flying at warp speed, their solos illuminating the true and wondrous nature of Django. These were virtuosi of worldwide renown, and their playing struck awe in my heart. Awe and intimidation. Awe, intimidation and the somewhat pathetic realization that I will never play like that, nevereverever, not even if I quit my job, attend music conservatory, learn Every Bleeping Chord Known to Humankind and grow a skinny mustache. I listened to them in this state of awe, intimidation and pathetic-ness until exhaustion tugged sharply and yanked me away. It was late. I needed to sleep.

At the dorm entrance, I bumped into a fellow female camper. We swapped hellos, good nights and a few words of shared amazement at the jamming gods nearby.

Aren’t they amazing?, I asked. They’re superhuman. Unreal. Fantastic. Holy wow!

She agreed, then shot me a knowing look. “This is the time of night,” she said, “when you want to cut off your hands and burn your instrument.”

I laughed. Ha ha! Of course! Cut off my hands and burn my instrument! Then I thought: Hmmm. Where can I find an axe and a torch this time of night? 

My room overlooks the courtyard. The gods kept playing until 4 a.m.

I drowned them out with my fan.

****

Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS.

i got music, part i: my django obsession

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR

PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Panicked

***

I hit wrong notes.

It’s what I do, and let me tell you, I do it brilliantly. It’s my calling, my métier, both the hitting and the wrongness: For decades, I have slammed the misguided fingers of my left hand, a.k.a. the Flailer, onto taut steel wires while my right hand, a.k.a. the Steely Fist of Death, grips a long, light, horse-haired stick and waggles it strenuously across a curvy wooden box in optimistic attempts to approximate pitch and loose mellifluous sound waves into the air. It is in the nature of such actions that many of them fail. It is in the nature of me. Because I am an amateur. I do not play the violin. I play at the violin, a critical distinction once expressed to Fritz Kreisler by that humble amateur-fiddler-cum-fascist-dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Sadly, I’m not a fascist dictator, so I don’t have that to fall back on. Quiet, peasants! You will listen while I play! No matter that I sound like a dying squirrel! I don’t have much of anything to fall back on. When I play at the violin, I play at it for my own enjoyment, but I live in fear that my own enjoyment will cause those around me to writhe in agony and/or cringing sympathetic embarrassment. This fear has taken a marked upward turn since venturing into jazz, as the danger of hitting wrong notes expands exponentially with improvisation. You’d think the opposite. You’d think that improvising means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong! When it fact it means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong, unless you hit grievously incorrect notes out of sync with the chord changes, and then you’ll sound like a dying squirrel!

I’m fearing the squirrel right now, as I slouch in my little plastic folding chair in a little sunny room in a little tidy building on the Smith College campus in Northampton, Mass. I am surrounded by a class of fellow amateurs. They are able. Eager. Informed. I am inept. Terrified. Clueless.

Before us sits a man. A great man. A great, French-speaking man with a gentle manner and glorious facial hair. A man who can and does do anything on the fiddle. A man of voluminous knowledge and astonishing artistry. A man who knows nothing of the squirrel.

The man is here to teach us, and I am here to learn. For I have done a rash and hopeful thing. I have enrolled at Django in June, an annual camp for hardcore gypsy-jazz fanatics who, feeding an addiction for upbeat, retro-swinging, strangely chromatic tunefulness, bring their quirky guitars and skinny mustaches to a gathering that’s part festival, part music school, part 24/7 jazz saturnalia, part cult. I have joined the cult. I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

But at the moment, I am very, very afraid. The great man before me is a wizard of the gypsy fiddle and a god in this cosmos, someone whose YouTube videos have wowed me from afar. And I am about to make a boob of myself in his presence. A large boob. A large, quavering, anxiously perspiring boob who already feels inferior to every other violinist here.

“Play this,” he says, and plays a chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic. When I panic, I can’t do a damn thing. So I fake it.

“Play it again,” he says, and again plays the same chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic and fake it.

“Not everyone is playing it exactly right. Let’s play it again,” he says, and once again blitzes through the run.

This time, while everyone else is playing it, I do nothing. Not with my body, anyway. Inwardly, I am writhing on the floor with matted hair and gnashing teeth while blatting laryngeal moans of utter torment. And as I do, I’m thinking: I AM TERRIBLE AT THE VIOLIN. I AM THE TERRIBLEST VIOLINIST OF ALL TIME. HOW TERRIBLE AM I? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.

I’m terrible at fast running notes. My fingers function in extreme slo-mo. On a scale of 1-10, I rate around 3.

I’m terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. Terrible, terrible, terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. On this, I’m a 2. If I’m lucky. Probably a 1.

I’m terrible at sight reading. 5. On a good day, 6.

Above all, I’m terrible at being terrible, focusing on my terribleness to the detriment of things I do pretty well, or I might do pretty well, if only I paused in my reflexive self-flagellating to actually practice. But I don’t, because I’m terrible about practicing, too. From 1 to 10, I rate a 0. Less than 0. Let’s say -7.

IN A WORD, TERRIBLE.

“Play it again,” the great man says.

I howl silently, then panic and fake it.

holy moly

Growing up in an atheist-agnostic household, I learned that love, kindness and generosity were the only working gospels, and I learned that they do indeed work. But only if you choose to love, and you choose to be kind and giving,  and you choose to set aside judgment of others and bend to help when they’re down. I also learned that people of faith don’t exactly have a lock on these gospels, a truism demonstrated by generous atheists and ruthless believers since the dawn of the frontal lobe.

So, no, whenever we happen across some homeless pandhandler slumped against a wall, looking despairing and exhausted and famished,  we don’t need religion to tell us what to do: Love. Give. Don’t judge. Bend down to help. We don’t necessarily need God in those moments. But here’s what hit me the other day: God needs us.

Let me explain.

Rewind to late last week, when I happened across this fine piece of 1 Corinthians during my regular bedtime bible-flip:

This got me thinking. It got me thinking, because A) like 99.9999999999999 percent of the population, I struggle with self-acceptance; and B) “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam,” is one of my all-time favorite literary quotations, right up there with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?” (And do you suppose that’s the first time anyone has crammed Popeye, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into the same 68-word sentence?)

It got me thinking, too, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the problem of hate and discrimination — the tendency to demonize people, declare them sinners or define Them against Us. As though we weren’t all Us! As though we weren’t all Them! As though we weren’t all struggling with this beautiful but oh-so-pissy business of being alive and imperfect, frustrated with our own shortcomings and irked by the flaws of others.

I’m especially baffled by self-proclaimed Christians who do the demonizing. I wonder which bible they’ve been reading. Certainly not the one on MY night table, the one where Jesus tells us to feed the poor and help the stranger and not judge and not hate and sing kumbayah around a campfire while making daisy necklaces. There must be some other, Exxtreme Edition Bible where jujitsu Jeez-Us rips off his shirt to reveal his bleeding pecs and then instructs his disciples in the rules of Fight Club.

So I read that snippet from 1 Corinthians the other night, and I thought: hmmmm. I yam what I yam by the grace of God. God made me this way. God made you that way. God made everyone every which way, even the most annoying people in the most annoying ways, and if you believe in God, you gotta believe God did this for a reason — some divine reason we can never divine. Then I thought: Holy moly! Wait a sec. Maybe God made us all in this crazy patchwork of singular personalities and predilections and shortcomings because God needs us to be different! God needs you. God needs me. God needs us.  

God needs us to be our most essential selves. Our best selves. Our selves most engaged in life, most available and willing to pitch in. I was already chewing hard on this when, on Sunday, I heard a terrifically insightful homily on the Holy Trinity (Father Richard Vosko, St. Vincent de Paul, tip o’ the hat to both) and the importance of being present in moments when we’re called to help.

The Trinity is something that Catholics accept while quietly and simultaneously fearing that non-Catholics regard us as wacko polytheists slathering ourselves in oil under the full moon. But this time, the God-in-three-persons paradigm kicked me in the teeth (and in the best way!) as I realized, a mere 27 years after converting, that all three guises are present in us at every moment: the God who made us; the God who talks to us; the God who came here, suffered and showed us how to love.

So, okay, let’s say I run across some homeless panhandler on some hot summer morning. In that moment, Creator is present in the panhandler, in me, in the sunshine, in the air. The Holy Spirit is present in the still, small voice that says: That poor guy is hungry. Go buy him a sandwich. And as I hand him the sandwich, each of us is Jesus — the hurting and the helper, both. On some other occasion, he might bend to help me.

I yam what I yam. He is what he is. We are what we are. God needs us.