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.
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.