At the center of everything that I'm grateful for in my daily life glows these three shining lights. I tucked the girls into bed for the first time ten Thanksgivings ago. They were all single digits and glitterbombs, all dolls and painted nails, all make believe and dances. They were so gangly and immediate in their emotions, when they looked to me for some guidance, I think I stepped into adulthood for the first time. They came into my life with a lot of love, but I'd be lying if I said I came in knowing anything about being a stepmom, or that being a parent of any kind, especially during early teen years, is simple. To our girls' credit, it's not easy having two houses and four parents all poking into their business, and they navigated it pretty well most of the time. They made it a little easier for us too: they'd switch around, and one of them always kept our house in laughter even when the other went to the dark side.
Somehow - we might have hit the jackpot on this one - they're both shining pretty bright right now, full of creative energy, navigating the middle and late-teens with drive, inspiration, love. Nowadays, with Em already out in the working world, it's generally some combo of us - rarely all 4 - in the same room at the same time. Our house is a whirlwind of the arts - Es always bent over her drawing pads, Em off at auditions or modeling shoots, Darby surrounded by his synths and drum loops, and me working out songs on the guitar.
Just in a wee little social media post I couldn't possibly say how much these three inspire me, but Thanksgiving always means a lot to me because of them, and I keep trying, in my songs and stories, to do them justice. I still tuck them in at night with lights-out talks and back massages. So deeply, deeply grateful to these three for bringing me into their family ten Thanksgivings ago.
As complicated as parent/child relationships can be, stepparenting has this additional challenge:
There is no guarantee of love. Not at the beginning of the relationship with the kids, not through the years, not from the kids toward the stepparent, nor the other way around, at any point.
Stepmothers, in particular, are difficult and complicated for children, because there are loyalties and alliances to the biological mother that the children must navigate. Most times, if the stepmother is there after a divorce in the first family, and there are two households that the children orbit around, the children must learn to adapt to different values, different rules, different cultures, different expectations, different dynamics.
Those differences in households are likely some of the factors that led to the divorce in the first family to begin with, and so the stepmother and biological mother frequently do not share values, leading to dynamics between the two mothers that the children must also navigate. The partner - biological dad, in this case - can get caught in the middle as he himself negotiates between his former and present partners. Children always come first, which means that stepmothers must many times bite their tongues, step aside, acquiesce.
When the stepmother has come to the family without her own biological children, as I did, she is simultaneously childless and a mother. She may, as I did, have deep desire to nurture the stepchildren as she would have nurtured her own. She may find that the children simultaneously accept some nurturing and reject others -- because, after all, they have a biological mother living not far away. The stepmom in this case must find a tenuous, untrod path to walk that is not depicted in any fairy tale, movie, book, or pop culture touchstone. If she doesn't want to be the "evil stepmother," and cannot be the "good mother," she must invent her own role, and move against every depiction she has ever seen of women's roles in the family.
This is what I want to say here:
I have found that the greatest gift of stepmothering is a gift that doesn't come easy. With no guarantee of love, many times a stepmother can close her heart, turn away, reject the child and the biological mother and, in some way, her spouse. In that case, no one wins. The other way is harder, but I have to thank Darby for supporting me in my efforts to always choose an open heart. To soften when I want to flare. To talk when I want to shut down. To go upstairs and give love to those girls when I have wanted to hide.
There is no guarantee of love for stepmothers, but ten Thanksgivings down, I don't doubt the love between me and my girls. When I say that they have been my greatest teachers, this is what I mean: They have taught me again and again, every day since ten Thanksgivings ago, what it means to choose love.
Voting is not hard, but it's not necessarily the easiest of things to do. We are hard-wired to conserve energy, and going out of our way to vote takes a bit of effort. It's easier when an effort is routine - like brushing teeth or chores; or when there's a palpable and quick positive response, like a paycheck or a grade; or if there's immediate avoidance of a negative response, like a scolding or arrest. It is harder when we can't readily see the importance of our effort.
If you've ever played on a sports team or in an orchestra, you know how intrinsic your part is to the success of the whole. Even in the sea of strings, every violin adds to the strength, power, and poignancy of the music. Even if the listener can't identify your alto line, your presence in the choir has been written into the score because your unidentifiable contribution is of utmost importance to the impact.
Voting requires all of us to add our unidentifiable singular voice to the choir for the benefit of the whole. That is the foundational concept of a democratic nation.
Voting is a gift to us from those from before who overcame their own hard-wired impulse for inertia. Every vote -- even those who had the right since the beginning of this nation -- was hard-earned through some kind of revolutionary battle. Our forefathers and foremothers overcame their own impulse for inertia because the desire for freedom for themselves and future unknown generations was greater than their individual impulse to conserve energy. Our forebears understood that it would take effort to have a say in the rules and people that govern their individual lives. Freedom was worth the effort of interrupting their daily schedule. Those forebears in demographics that had less historical power had to sustain the effort to battle their own inertia longer than the original American revolutionaries. But regardless of demographic, because of the efforts of our forefathers and foremothers, none of us today has to battle the United Kingdom or argue with the Supreme Court to gain the right.
We, this week, have a much smaller task. We do not have to fight for the right to vote. We just have to know our values, weigh them against the values of the candidates running, show up at the polls, and cast our ballots.
The US, as a whole, doesn't encourage us to vote. It would, of course, be easier if we could vote online from the comfort of our homes -- imagine if it was as easy as voting on The Voice. Some states have introduced more accessible methods, and some states have made it harder, but either way, we each have the obligation to follow through on the gift that history has given us.
Your personal schedule will be interrupted. You will have to read the ballot, pay attention, and assess it critically against your values. You will have to disregard the advertisements, which utilize advertising psychology and attempt to sway your emotions, and rationally assess what's at stake. To do this, you will have to find the right voter guide to help you with your selections. You will likely need to drive out of your way, or take a bus, or walk, enter an unfamiliar building, and interact with strangers. You might need to leave work early, or figure out what to do with the kids.
Every day of your life you overcome the impulse for inertia. You can do it now, too.
Elections only come around every so often, like mammograms, or colonoscopies, or a visit from the in-laws (or the outlaws). Unlike the former, voting will cause no discomfort to your physical body. Unlike the latter, it doesn't drink all your beer.
And on the way home, with your I Voted sticker proudly displayed on your lapel, you can go out of your way once more -- this time to pick up a sweet reward for your efforts. Go on, eat that doughnut. You deserve it.
Thank you for voting.
Last week, I caught one of those unwanted autumn colds that blows in unexpectedly just as the days warm for a quick Indian summer rebound. Being of hearty stock, I figured it would run its course and be gone by week's end. Instead, it settled into my chest, clenched my voice into a scratchy rasp, rifled through my schedule and canceled my weekend plans. Sunday and Monday were all tea and cough drops, but on Tuesdays I'm down at the college to teach, and by Wednesday my voice was entirely gone. Friday night had a gig scheduled, one that I'd been greatly anticipating not for its glamour (since, on the back patio of an urban bookstore, it certainly had none), but because I planned to sing new songs in front of an audience for the first time. With my voice shot, I couldn't rehearse, and as Thursday turned into Friday, I didn't even know if I'd have enough voice to sing on stage.
The last time I lost my voice, it was metaphor. I could talk and sing, if I wanted to, but I lacked the desire. The sudden desire to not sing, after years of desiring the opposite, took me by surprise. I tested myself time and again, played a few gigs here and there, to see if I'd really lost it. Eventually I stopped trying; the desire was inexplicably gone. With nothing else to do, I practiced a lot of yoga and took up running. I noted with curiosity the cycles of fruit, leaves, and clouds in southern California's subtle shift of seasons. Those changes might have escaped my observation if life had been louder, and my quietude also revealed gaps in some of the foundational logic on which I'd built my life. My former marriage fell away. As inner listening tends to do, I developed new awareness of my own inner workings. I became accustomed to silence's hard questions, and learned to endure the disquieting geological time scale in which difficult answers are disclosed. Among other things, I discovered, for the first time, something in myself resembling trust or faith. I wondered, during those years of silence, if I would ever come back to writing songs, if I would ever again want to sing them.
They say that the Universe will test you. It will throw obstacles in your path to check your dedication to the thing you appear to want. How bad do you want it? the Universe will ask, and if you crumble and skulk back to your room, the Universe will have proven its point. That's what I thought, it will say. But if you really want it, you dig deeper. You find a way to get over, get around, or work with the obstacles. And the Universe will sit back in its chair and say, Oh really? Now look at you, kid. Tenacious little thing, aren't you?
After a long decade of weird absence, the desire to create music returned to me. Maybe I needed that time to attend to rebuilding my foundation. Maybe I needed to find some faith. While I did that, my voice had run off on sabbatical. It's reappeared now full of stories from its travels, and for the last few months I've been writing those stories into songs. When this cold swiped my voice, I considered canceling the gig. Especially on Thursday night, I began to contemplate how I might contend with things if my voice never returned (oh, how illness turns me pessimistic). But on Friday I woke hearing the Universe asking, How badly do you want it?
The information age! What a difference it is, starting out as an indie musician (as I feel I am doing, once again) and being an indie musician in the '90s / '00s. Back when I started playing gigs, we collected names and street addresses for our mailing lists, and mailed out postcards (with stamps!) every month to our fans. The way people got "free" music back then was by riding the subway -- and hearing the buskers play on the platforms.
Lately I've been appreciating the number of resources that are now available to indie artists. It can be overwhelming, so I thought I'd share a few of the rabbit holes I've been running down lately. If you have others you think I should know about, email me and I'll check them out.
WEBSITES / COACHING / SERVICES
I want to give you a brief update about something from my last post regarding my new singer-songwriter/Americana/indie-folk album project: After talking with a few different producers here in Los Angeles, about a week ago, I toured a new recording studio nearby (down the street from the studio where I've worked for 10 years!) and had a long meeting with a producer who (fingers crossed! knock on wood!) seems like the right fit for working with the creative vision I have for this collection of new songs.
You might ask where Darby is in this project. After all, he's had a long career in music as a staff songwriter for a major label (Sony) and as a film/TV composer for production music libraries, and has worked with artists to produce songs and albums in a variety of genres. And he's my husband, with a small recording studio right in the house. In fact, without announcing it to anyone publicly, we've written together over the years, mostly for film and TV, and a few of our co-writes have been licensed. And we're currently working on a kirtan music project called The Bliss Drops. That record, or rather, the first finished track of that record, sounds fantastic. I'm quite happy with it. But the slow-going of that project is, partially, what has led us to realize that if I want to really get this songwriter album of mine done, I'll need to outsource away from our family. Between my day job, all the freelance work we both do, and family responsibilities, (not to mention peaceful downtime to nurture our relationship), we'd get nothing done. But, Darby is here being an incredible cheerleader as I venture forth on this journey. His feedback on my songs-in-progress keeps me honing them till they're the best I can make them, and his advice along the recording path is invaluable. And certainly his musicianship will be on the tracks - maybe as bass, maybe keys, maybe both.
Meanwhile, the music industry has radically changed since my twenties when I was performing and recording regularly. It's for the better, I believe, but I have a lot of catching up to do.
Thought I'd share some of the resources I've been appreciating lately. They're in my next blog post here.
"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it,
and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns." - George Eliot
Maybe September has always had a sacredness to it, between my childhood's sticky celebration of the Jewish holidays that practically tumble over each other from week to week in the fall, and the opening of the new academic year that still, now that I am adjunct faculty at Antioch University, rules my calendar. My psyche was, perhaps, already anticipating, when Darby and I kissed for the first time in September nine years ago, the deep journey of love and growth that has many times made me wonder at why we look upward to find sanctity when it is so often shining back at us, holy and pure, through the eyes of someone who loves us. No wonder Darby and I chose a date in September, six years after that kiss, and three years ago today, for our wedding. Darby, and I, and the kidlets - my stepdaughters who are two of my greatest teachers - stood in our backyard under a crystal chandelier hung from a branch of the mulberry, our dear friend Jeff officiated, and a small group of family and friends gathered around to witness our vows.
I'm not sure that I have always believed that I deserved a love like Darby's, but I know that all my life I have hoped that I would be one of the lucky ones to receive such a gift.
What's happening in the first photo below is this:
Right about 5 pm, three years ago today, it was my turn to repeat the officiant as he read, line by line, the vows that Darby and I had written. It was a Saturday, and I'd taken two days off of work at the record label, and put aside for a few days my work for graduate school, where I was also the editor of the program's literary and art journal. I wasn't thinking of any of that, of course.
I wasn't thinking about the cheese table, which friends had laden with flowers and fruit that afternoon. I wasn't thinking about the sitar, or the harmonium, or the friends who had walked us down the aisle from our bedroom to the tree with a sweet rendering of Buddy Holly's Everyday, or the caterer standing by with portobello mushrooms and lasagna, or the cake I'd made that was in the kitchen melting. I wasn't thinking about the malformed signature that I'd just affixed to our beautiful hand-drawn and hand-calligraphied ketubah. I wasn't, for the moment, concerned about family dynamics, or overhead airplanes.
I was just here, standing beside my loving stepdaughters, with my hair in some unexpected 'do that the stylist had chosen that morning and wearing a friend's borrowed shoes, with more people in our backyard than I thought possible, about to officially wed the love of my life who looked terribly dashing in his fine linen three-piece suit.
But an editor is an editor, I suppose. Just a moment before the photographer's shutter snapped, the officiant read a line that was ever-so-slightly not quite what we'd put on paper so many weeks before. Not consciously, I simply turned the phrase back around when I recited it to my almost-spouse. My mind was, I guess, trained to it. I'd been close-reading, proofreading, and editing for two years straight. The officiant looked back at his notes, laughed aloud about his error, and shared with everyone my editorial correction. The shift in attention, the jovial reaction of my almost-spouse, and the reference to my quotidian that felt so outside of the reverent moment caught me by complete surprise. I was so present, and this moment of laughter was authentically joyful. The shutter snapped. The photographer pinned the moment down forever. And we were married.
The best thing I never decided to do was fall in love with Darby. It happened of its own accord - if you know Darby, you can surely understand how. Who knew we'd be even better married?
Happy anniversary to us!
I could go crazy on a night like tonight
When summer's beginning to give up her fight
And every thought's a possibility
And the voices are heard but nothing is seen
Why do you spend this time with me
Maybe an equal mystery
- from "Mystery" by the Indigo Girls
My letter writing this summer went to the birds because I've been tingling with creative endeavors so nascent and fragile that I haven't known how to write about them. They were born in the shed, the magic little house that went up between the back fence and the orange tree in April. Even in February, though, when I first started clearing out the space, I felt something simmering. Two voices vied in my head as I dug up the old garden and paid the contractor: Nothing you do will prove the worth of this cost. And, defiantly, quietly, truthfully: It's worth it to me. When the plywood room was finally erected with a glass door fitted with blinds and two windows that slide open for a breeze, I painted the walls, laid the flooring, and felt pulled.... pulled... I almost couldn't tell anyone, almost couldn't voice it... but....
Music and I were life-long lovers before a fracture came between us around eleven years ago. Prior to that, music had been my compass, my late nights and weekends, my journals and earphones, the miles on my car and, later, tour van. It had been the reason to get over stage fright, learn Photoshop, risk ridicule, debt, cold, poverty. But something fundamental wasn't working. We broke up. Fractured and songless, empty and quiet, instruments packed away, NPR news on the radio dial, I moved to Los Angeles.
My newly empty calendar filled itself, mostly, with yoga. Through the Sutras, which examine identity, narrative, and suffering, I gained insights to the fault line between me and music, how we had fallen apart. Then I engaged with writing, not just journaling as I'd always done, but more literary, for others to read. The imagined audience further pushed me to untangle knotty issues with generous compassion. To discern the differences between perfection and wholeness. Slowly, slower than I would have ever thought possible, over more than a decade, the fissure sealed, the fracture healed. What they say about time? Sometimes they're right.
And sometimes, also, we need a space. After these eleven years, stepping into my own room felt like the final knots on a Persian rug. I desired -- actually craved -- to play music again, actually play as I once had: because I love it, without expectation, without demands that it pay the rent. Simply for the enjoyment of it. Bringing breath into sound, into melody, into a story that is more than words, because it is married to music.
On a retreat that I attended with him last summer, songwriter David Wilcox, advised trust. I am trying to listen to my new songs -- because yes! I have spent the summer in the shed writing new songs every week -- as if they are children. Let them be what they want to be.
Here are two of the new ones from my Instagram channel.
Maybe we need to sit on the floor and cry, eat a bowl of hopeless ice cream or cereal, escape into a movie or a run. Maybe we need to devolve into panic and fear, for an hour or a day. There may be one particular issue, or a hundred, that hits you like a wallop to the gut. Me too. And #metoo. In a very real way, at the most basic level, this administration's corruption threatens actual mortal lives. We feel hopeless and scared for ourselves, our children, our loved ones, our community, and, (for many of us who know that there but for fortune any issue that doesn't impact directly could) our fellow strangers.
BUT -- This is what we get in exchange for growing up, for getting to choose what to put on our plates, when to go to bed, what to do with our extra cash, what to do with our time. We get to drive and work and purchase goods from companies of our choosing, set bedtimes for others, choose our own reading material, watch NC-17 movies, and vote once or a few times a year. WE ARE THE ADULTS.
When robbers bang on the door, do we throw up our cynical adult hands, pessimistically rationalize that because the neighborhood is threatened we should simply stand by as thieves raid the house, loot the china cabinet, dig through the sock drawer for the Ajax container of stashed away cash? No, because WE ARE THE ADULTS HERE.
So go on, feel sorry for yourself and for the muddled shitshow. Have a good cry on the living room floor.
THEN: tuck the child-self in bed. We need to use our voices, our pens, our ballots, our signs, our letters, our town halls, our ACLU and EMILY's List, the local and national Democratic party (because like it or not, that's the party that's fighting against this gaslit-led erosion of human rights) -- and SHOW UP.
If the purpose of voting for a third-party candidate or for Trump was to disrupt the establishment, well done. It worked. Maybe the establishment needed to be disrupted so that we would collectively grow up.
Children -- my children, your children, our communities' children -- and others who are most vulnerable -- depend on US (as in We the People, not the USA). Maybe when the kids go to bed we have our own little pity parties and a stiff drink.
But I hope you got a good night's sleep, because it's morning, and it's time to wake up, get over the cynicism and any other excuse to be lazy. If you're doing nothing but crying on FB and dousing activists' passion, you're part of the problem.
Sign up for Resistbot, show up to a protest, take an hour to understand the ballot issues, and know that it takes all of us doing any little thing, a little every day, to get things back on track.
Some Action Steps
In my twenties, I spent summers in a Thoreau-like lakeside cabin in the woods, not far from Walden Pond. Even now, when it rains here in Los Angeles, and especially at night, even happily married as I am, I imagine I’m there in my cabin bed listening to the patter-ping of raindrops on Long Pond. I’d fall asleep to that music, or to the pulse of crickets and critters scampering along the mulchy path, and wake in the strange quiet before sunrise to mix bread dough for the retreaters who stayed in their own cabins down other paths. One summer there on the pond, a city friend accused me of having fallen in love. I had: with the pine-needled forest, the moonlight that draped like fabric to the sandy pond floor, the sunrise through the kitchen windows, the rain, and my cabin. Even so, every winter I returned to the city. And one summer, regretfully, inevitably, like Wendy grown up, I stopped returning to the woods.
Ana Maria Spagna immigrated in the opposite direction, from the urban sprawl of her southern California childhood to the Pacific Northwest woods. Her descriptions of her adopted home in Stehekin conjure feelings of sparseness, far-off neighbors, evergreen-scented air, crackling autumn leaves, whispers of snow. Though Long Pond is on the other coast and I’ve never been to Washington, Spagna’s accounts of Stehekin in her newest book, Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going, echo of my old home, the one I pine for when it rains or in the noise of daily living.
However, if my memory of Long Pond has blurred into a sepia-toned former romance, Spagna knows her Stehekin like a time-tested marriage. Under her frank pen, the paradisaical forest is denied neither its beauty nor the choke-hold of fire season, racket of chainsaws, and slide of valley walls that are washing away in changing-climate floods. She fell in love with a place that is “pristine, spectacular, majestic, maybe even sublime,” but tied the knot with all its off-the-beaten-path pleasures and pains.
Read the rest of the review here.
In my early adulthood, with aspirations not for wealth but for creative fulfillment, I disciplined myself to live down to the bone. I nurtured thrifty tastes, saving my dimes for guitar strings and reeds. With my vegetarian diet, I shopped frugally, buying from the bulk bin, shopping in season and local, for a time splitting a $200 monthly rice and beans budget with a friend. I did not drink much alcohol, did not frequently dine out, did not indulge in fancy coffees or convenient sandwiches, did not buy frivolous clothes. Glad to finally enroll in what I fondly call Hogwarts School of Music, in my first semester at Berklee, instead of scrounging together $75 for a light-weight guitar gig bag, I drilled holes in my heavy hard-shell case and fashioned it with thick piano moving straps into something I could wear on my back. It was heavy, very heavy, particularly with my clarinet and laptop slung over my shoulders. I walked or took the T everywhere, and my back bent under the weight.
In a recent newsletter to you, I wrote about raking up backyard leaves in a forgotten spot behind the garage, and my nascent vision of a cabin where I could practice my clarinet, try out song ideas, and work on essays and poems. It's been ages since I've had a room of my own, as Virginia Woolf wrote. I have long wished to sit in a windowed room and stare out the door at pale leaves as they unfurl into spring. I have wished for a room strong enough to withstand a thunder of ideas, because I have lately increasingly felt a rumble rolling through my heart, a heady mix of sound and emotion, art and media, questions and exploration.
But I also wrote in that letter about fear of failure. I was worried about wasting money on something so specifically made by me for me. It felt a little arrogant: a playhouse for a grown woman who thinks she's got some talent or ideas worth the expenditure. What if I stepped into that arrogance, that audacity of hope (as Obama says), and nothing, in the end, comes?
My fear might be rooted, in part, in an old Jewish superstition of the evil eye: If I do something so bold as build an artist studio just for myself, the heavens may train their unwanted attention on me, bringing tragedy to me or my loved ones. I should spit three times and hang a blue hamsa on the door.
My frugality (always for my own desires, contrasted sharply, I hope, with my generosity for others) might also come from the valorization of parsimonious rationing in New England, where I lived for college and music graduate school, but whose culture I had admired since childhood. It suited the environmentalist in me: reduce, reuse, recycle. What throw-away materials might I re-fashion into use? How can I avoid purchasing newly manufactured goods, with their accompanying industrial waste and unneeded expense?
But I bent beyond logic under the weight of that guitar case. I hadn't yet read Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but I rued the albatross around my neck. The irony of it: that in my mid-twenties, finally glad to be at an incredible school and immersed in the study of music, I felt my instrument was a psychological curse I was tasked to bear.
It took until my early thirties to examine the cliche of suffering for my art. Till then, I had accepted carte blance the stereotype of the starving artist. Looking back, I realize how easily I could have found $75 for a gig bag, saving my shoulders and neck a little of the physical pain that inevitably comes from the weight and repetitive motion of playing instruments. But I wanted so badly to be an artist, and from the stories I'd internalized, I thought suffering an essential part of a creative life.
Fast forward to the past seven years, since Darby and the girls and I moved in together. It's a sweet house. Darby and I often say how glad we are that it isn't bigger. We want to stumble over each other, and engage with the teenagers even when they may prefer to sequester themselves in far off corners. The downside, though, is that I sometimes want to sequester myself away. As a musician, I need to make noise in order to get to the music. I am a lyrical writer, even in my prose, and tend to speak aloud every word as I write (even this, now). I've longed for a dedicated place where I can excavate my artist heart. A room of my own where I can throw ideas around, many ideas, because a good idea is not something that happens in isolation, but rather, comes out with dozens of bad-idea siblings. I've been yearning to throw spaghetti on the walls (I just love that phrase, don't you?) because something must eventually stick. Right?
But what if nothing does?
In this world of art as commerce, I have feared that the cost of building a little shed for myself won't find a return on the investment.
And then I came across a passage in Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, where she writes, "Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life."
This one struck hardest: "You’re afraid that someday you’ll look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money."
If a friend came to me with an idea, I would urge her to pursue it, to see where it will lead. In fact, after I wrote this post here, I heard from a number of you. Go for it! you said. The compounding encouragement was astounding. Your words amplified a desire deep inside me.
So, this is all to tell you: I did it.
It's a rule of cabins to have a name: Welcome to Seeds & Thunder, where on a daily basis I meditate, write, play music, and watch the pale leaves unfurl.