Most pet owners can tell you about their once-in-a-lifetime pet. Ours was named Cupid.
He came to us as a five-month-old street cat. Wild in spirit, with an intelligence that rivaled a human’s, he was loaded with personality, good looks, and a sleek muscular body that allowed him to bat tennis balls over a net, leap from the kitchen floor to the top of the cupboard, and survive being hit by a car.
I could go on, but I won’t. Leave it to say that for eleven years we savored his magnificence in physical form, and then one day he was gone. He disappeared on a Friday evening late in October 2008, slipping out the back door, off on one of his nightly jaunts. On Sunday afternoon a neighbor found him in his side yard. We’re not sure what happened, but we suspect an attack from an owl or hawk. We buried him on our property.
And have never forgotten him.
Click here for my video (1:35) dedicated to Cupid.
And for a little black humor on the original Valentine cherub, check out this original song called Cupid (2:08) written by my husband, Doug Mahard, which appears on his latest CD Fidel Castro’s Favorite Band.
We left our homes at midnight Friday night to meet up with fellow travelers. By 1:30 a.m. we boarded one of 80 buses leaving Connecticut. We rode through the night to arrive at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. before dawn. We walked two miles to the march. By the end of the day, we clocked nine miles on our feet.
The crowds were tremendous, the numbers so much greater than the organizers expected. Two hundred thousand were anticipated; by the end of the day, the number was reported to be over a million in Washington alone, with several million around the world. A sea of pink pussy hats filled the eye in every direction, along with creative and provocative handmade signs.
I have never been in the midst of so many people, nor felt so much like a sardine as our group of six squeezed through the crowd to reach a spot where we could see and hear the rally projected onto a jumbotron. Yet, in spite of being mildy claustrophobic, I never felt afraid or threatened.
And this is what free speech sounds like (click on names for links to YouTube):
Feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem called it an outpouring of democracy that she has never seen before.
California junior senatorKamala Harrisconnected women’s issues to human issues.
Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore gave us our to-do list for activism.
Civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke eloquently about social justice and inclusive feminism.
Actor and activist Ashley Judd electrified the audience with a bodacious performance of the poem “Nasty Women,” written by a 17-year old feminist from her home state of Tennessee.
The rally continued for five hours, two hours longer than planned. By hour four, we were all tired. The chant to “March, March, March” had begun. We were packed together so tightly that people around us were having panic attacks. The crowd made room somehow as friends helped them move to a safe space, which in our case was the CNN van parked on the corner. I maintained my calm by practicing yoga breathing. My friend told me later she used her Lamaze breathing techniques to keep her cool.
Finally a volunteer marshal appeared and directed us to turn around so we could march a different route. We shuffled down the street and the march began. Then, at last, we had a chance to sit.
After a long trudge back to the bus, and a wearying ride back north, I walked in the door twenty-seven hours after I left. I felt inspired, energized and, exhausted. The experience of being among that many who share your outrage and disbelief as well as your values is deep and profound, both comforting and energizing
All the speakers emphasized that this march was the beginning, that we all needed to go home and become active in our communities. A few weeks ago I tweeted: “Am I REALLY going to have to call my senators every day for the next four years?” It appears the answer is yes.
I stopped crying three days after the election. I decided I would not sit by and do nothing. The change that had occurred was huge and scary, unlike anything I’d seen in six decades. The antidote for feeling powerless is action. I signed up for the Women’s March as soon as I heard about it.
On the day after the inauguration, something bigger than the election happened. People all over the country, all over the world, made a statement that cannot be ignored. As Gloria Steinem said to the marchers, “You are putting your bodies where your beliefs are. Sometimes it’s not enough to hit the Send button.”
Women’s rights are human rights. It’s up to each one of us who believes this is true to take whatever steps we can to ensure the progress that has been secured is protected, and that further progress toward an equitable society is established.
Which means we have to get to work. Progressive change has never happened without a fight. Sometimes a very long fight.
Because that is what democracy looks like.
>>> Want to know what you can do? The Women’s March website is one place to begin. Find it here.
>>> And check out Indivisible for a practical guide, written by former congressional staffers, for resisting the Trump agenda.
In the midst of grappling with the final revision of my novel, long in the making and even longer in the rewriting, I turned desperately to an inspiring read. I asked myself, what character remains with me, after years of reading? The unforgettable character that sprang to mind was Fenno, from the middle story of Julia Glass’s 2002 National Book Award winner, Three Junes.
I turned to this section as a way of immersing myself not only in wonderful (understatement) writing, but to revisit this complicated character. I remember disliking him intensely on my first read, then slowly turning in my affection until, by the end, I loved him. When I went back to reread, I wondered what I had found so objectionable in Fenno the first time round. Yes, he was flawed, fallible, tripping himself up, but certainly not hateworthy. Perhaps it is the fourteen years that have passed since my first reading that make me a more compassionate reader.
When I reached the end, the crowning sentence (spoiler alert–if you haven’t read this novel stop reading my blog and go directly to your indie bookstore to purchase a copy)–I wept the way you do when you lose someone. I cried when his friend Mal died, but it was later, in the scene when Fenno is in the attic of his childhood home with his niece, after he has agreed to an unthinkable sacrifice in order bring happiness to his beloved sister-in-law, it is there that Glass slips in the clincher, the sentence that brought me to grief.
In this scene Fenno is thinking about his New York apartment, directly across the street from where Mal lived and died, and where he now watches the new tenant arrive home late.
“If I look out my front windows, stare right across the street, I sometimes see a young woman. I think she works long hours, as she is rarely there, coming home after dark in conservative, mannish suits. When she turns on her lights, I see a poster of orchids where Mal put his Chinese carpet. That carpet through that window, on that night of sleeplessness we shared before we even met, was my first glimpse of a life I might have shared, a love I managed to lose without knowing it was mine.” (Three Junes, p. 264)
I felt overwhelmed by this sentence. It contained the culmination of Fenno’s self-realization, encompassing our human folly. How we try so hard to be good, to be aware, to do the right thing, but we cannot see for our own blindness what we are doing or not doing, what we are missing out on. How life is right there in front of us, the blue jay splashing in my birdbath in the golden afternoon light, the wonder in the eyes of the toddlers in my music class, the sweet gesture of my friend who always stands by her door and waves as I drive off, and how I do not see it, how it doesn’t always register, how I can be oblivious.
What I realized is that this why I write fiction: so I can see what it is I don’t always see in myself and my life.
Fiction, in the hands of a skilled and committed author, gives us an opportunity to understand and know a character in a way we can’t know another person. And for anyone who craves understanding, this feels like heaven.
I remember reading a spiritual book, the title now lost to the river of forgetfulness, whose premise was that our wound is our gift. In other words, whatever it is we think we have suffered, whatever it is we think we haven’t received from life, that is the thing we need to give to the world. So if I feel misunderstood, not seen or fully appreciated, then it is my task to do that for others, to give them what would feel the most luxurious and comforting to me: the gift of being seen, appreciated, recognized. And by doing this I can heal, or at the least, turn my pain into something useful to the world.
And I’m here to say it actually works.
The fabulous Ann Patchett says that she writes the book she wants to read. From my corner, it appears I write the stories I need to read. I can only hope my readers feel the same way.
I heard my first live Shostakovich a month ago and I’m still thinking about it. On a Sunday afternoon in August the impeccable St. Petersburg String Quartet gave a riveting rendition of the Russian composer’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor (Opus 110). The performance was a revelation. By the time it was over, I felt like I knew this man.
A Bit About the Composer
Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) lived through the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Stalin holocaust. His entire life he played a game of cat-and-mouse with the Russian government. The stakes: his physical and creative survival.
In order to please Stalin, and save himself, he knuckled under to pressure to pull certain works, such as his Fourth Symphony, and to write “safer” versions to stay in the government’s good graces. He live an oppressed life. His fifteen string quartets, which for the most part remained private during his lifetime, became the vehicle for his personal feelings.
Quartet No. 8, Broken Down
The piece is marked throughout by a repressed feeling, a sense of constraint and sense of threat. In it Shostakovich reveals his own mental and emotional state.
Five conjoined movements comprise the piece, which is played straight through without pause: Largo, Allegro, Allegretto, Largo, Largo. It’s an odd mix with all those slow Largo movements. For musicophiles, there is a repeated melodic variation throughout using the musical equivalent of Shostakovich’s initials, the notes D, E-flat, C, and B.
1/ In the first movement (Largo 4:33) the four instruments (two violins, viola, and cello) weave a spare, layered sound that is both melancholy and slightly menacing. The atmosphere created is hypnotic. I was immediately drawn in and caught, like a fly in the spider’s web.
2/ The abrupt launch into the frantic second Allegro (2:52) movement filled me with a panicky breathlessness. My heart beat faster and I leaned forward in my seat. The notes themselves sounded as if they wanted to break out of their dissonant harmonies but couldn’t. This movement appears as number five on a YouTube list of “50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music.”
3/ The jaunty and eerie waltz of the third movement (Allegretto 4:05) is dubbed by some critics as a dance of death. In it, Shostakovich communicates a sense of inevitability and hopelessness, along with a bizarre carefree quality. In some ways, this combination made it the scariest movement.
4/ The ominous fourth movement (Largo 4:45) enters with three low notes hammered out, threatening blows. Swafford writes that, “… the string quartets … were all along his private rebellion against his times.” As I listened, I felt the terror Shostakovich must have experienced in his own home as he worked away on his “private music.” I felt the crush of oppression, his conflict over the artistic compromises he made with the Russian government, the strait jacket of his survival. And the fear of the knock at the door, expressed so unequivocally in this movement, signalling who knew what awful portent.
5/ Yet the fourth movement ends with an ethereal, almost pastoral sound, moving directly into the last movement, another Largo(3:40). This section initially contains more movement and melody. By the end it dissolves into a slow harmonized melody, a drifting away into the void, a wish for release, perhaps only known through death.
Music’s Emotional Alchemy
I have known some scary emotions in my life, frightening ones so huge I felt they could overwhelm me. I have stood on the edge of craziness, fearing for my own sanity. But these moments passed. The most difficult circumstances of my life cannot compare to those that Shostakovich experienced, circumstances I can only imagine.
Yet sitting in the acoustically vibrant hall at Music Mountain, listening to the outpouring of this repressed composer, I felt connected to the composer. Music created a bridge across fifty-plus years from the time the piece was written in 1960 to today, a bridge that linked an oppressed composer living in the dark days of Russia to a 21st-century American woman.
I walked across that bridge and I was changed.
Music can do this, both construct the bridge and show the path across it.
Through sound and vibration I experienced the visceral physicality of repression. I was transported to another place, another body, another time. My heart was softened up a bit, and my view of the world expanded.
This is the power of music. This is the emotional alchemy that can take place in live performance.
I made myself watch it. The Trump phenomenon is disturbing to me. I have a hard time viewing videos of the candidate, let alone his unrestrained jeering crowds. As a citizen I’ve never seen anything like the spectacle of Trump’s triumphant and unlikely march to presidential nominee.
And as person who is committed to a decades-long avocation of spiritual growth, I needed to know if my personal beliefs could hold up to the vitriol I witness in the campaign, expressed both by the candidate and his supporters. My baseline belief is that, on the ultimate, mysterious level beyond the knowing of both scientists and theologians, we are all one. If I am “one with everything,” can I be one with Trump supporters, too?
As I watched the video again, three things struck me:
1/ The strong language used by the Trump supporters, such as:
F**k Islam – on a man whose t-shirt caused him to be ejected from a rally
F**k that “n word’ – about Obama
As upsetting as these are, the worst are three chants about Hillary:
Unsettling: “Hillary is a whore:
Disturbing: “Hang the bitch”
Chilling: “Kill her”
Can I relate to any to these? I have known anger, even rage. I’ve said the words, “I could kill her,” but it’s been a long time since I’ve uttered that phrase. The only time my father slapped me was when at age nine I shouted at my mother “I hate you.” I learned an early lesson on the power of those words.
2/ The cathartic glee in the expression the young man repeating “F**k political correctness” outside a rally. He looked so happy to finally be able to say, shout actually, what he had been thinking, out in public, in the sunshine of acceptance.
As a writer and musician, I understand the delight in being able to express myself freely. It is exhilarating to speak my authentic truth, and to be heard. I know how that feels. Can I find a commonality in this man’s happiness?
3/ The older gentleman at the end (2:51), who says:
“He’s the last candidate to preserve law and order and to preserve the culture I grew up in.”
This was the poignant moment, the one that gave me a glimpse of what may be driving support for the unfathomable choice of Trump. Perhaps supporters are yearning for a past that cannot exist again, or didn’t exist at all. Perhaps the inevitability of change is just too hard to come to terms with. I’ve heard many spiritual teachers say: Change is hard, especially when resisted.
Can I gaze with neutrality upon these people, their reactions, their anger, their frustration, their willingness to follow, in what seems a blind fashion, someone who I consider not only mentally unstable (see these two links below for more on that) but downright dangerous to our country?
What I’m trying to reconcile is this: if we are all one, then what I am seeing in this video is also in me, and I am looking at my shadow. I am capable of these feelings, too. If all I do is push it away and refuse to look at it, or allow it to widen the gap between Trump supporters and myself, then aren’t I perpetuating the divisiveness that Trump is touting? Isn’t that the same attitude that has led the human race to a history of war, rape, and violence against “the other”?
If I believe in a different future for this world, if I still carry hope for the evolution of our species to a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence, then I cannot avert my eyes.
How excited I was when I enrolled in a graduate writing program last year. “I’ll write a lot,” I said. “And I’ll post more often than once a month on my blog.”
I find it quite easy to operate in fantasy land.
Yes, I did write more: essays, short stories, young adult novel revision, academic research paper. And read more. And I’m still doing it.
The first year of school I was able to keep up, for the most part, my monthly posting schedule. But now I’m in my second year of school and it’s become, well, near impossible to maintain that schedule. Unless I want to lose sleep, and sufficient sleep is the most critical element of my “must-do-to-keep-going” list. Other items on that list: good food, supplements, fire cider, kundalini yoga, meditation. And, of course, understanding friends.
Which you, dear readers, I count as part of that group. I may not know all of you personally, but I do think of you as friends. Friends of my writing, and hence my thinking, and hence me.
So thank you for understanding.
And look for a resurrected blog (perhaps even with a new look) in June of 2016.
In the meantime, you can keep up with me on Facebook (Nancy L McMillan) and on Twitter @NancyLMcMillan.
When my father was dying, I grieved in the car. As I traveled between piano students’ homes, I cried and wailed, then wiped my eyes before leaving the car. During the lessons, I never could chastise my students for their poor practicing. At night I woke my husband up, grinding my teeth in my sleep.
My father was diagnosed in 1990. It took two years for the cancer to move from his prostrate to his bones. During that time I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, one I knew would not earn his approval.
I was 38 and had worked for IBM for twelve years. He had retired from IBM several years earlier, after a 40-year career. In my favorite photo, he is at work, white shirt sleeves rolled up, papers covering the surface of the desk, smiling, relaxed, in his element. He had helped me find my job there, yet I was always looking for a career that would satisfy a restless need for more meaningful work. In 1991 the company initiated its first wave of downsizing through a voluntary retirement program. I was one of the first to enroll.
I waited two months before saying anything. At 8:30 on a Monday morning, an untouched bagel sitting on my desk, I made the call. My father picked up, then my mother on the extension.
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
I could picture him sitting up in bed with the breakfast tray beside him on the quilt, her standing in the kitchen, wrapping the phone cord around her fingers.
“I’m leaving IBM.”
“I want to teach music – piano. They’re offering a retirement package.”
“Are you sure?”
We said goodbye. When I hung up, I thought I would feel relieved, but my gut was hollow with disappointment.
The next time I saw him, he said, “Did your piano teacher put you up to this?”
“No,” I said. Did he really not know me?
Later, my mother said, “Your father’s worried about you, about your future.” Yes, I thought, the security, the retirement, the insurance, the paid vacation and sick days. And the part of me that would never be fulfilled in the corporate world.
“I will be successful at this,” I told her. Her response was a worried look.
What neither of my parents understood was this was not a willful decision. In fact, I was following the advice on the poster in my office, which showed a cliff, with a quote from Goethe underneath: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” I took the leap off that cliff because my soul required it.
In elementary school I took piano lessons with a retired music professor down the street. By age eleven I was playing popular movie themes from “Exodus”, “Camelot”, and “Man of La Mancha”, music that made me feel powerful and known. Here I wasn’t criticized for being too emotional, a phrase I heard growing up not just from my parents, but also from my three siblings.
When we moved from New York to Connecticut, the piano didn’t come with us. Perhaps it was too ugly for our new suburban home. A few years later I told my mother I wanted to play again.
The morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was downstairs when I heard a commotion above me. When I came upstairs, sitting against the wall was a new spinet piano, walnut brown, with a curved music desk and scrolled legs.
“Happy birthday,” my parents said. I walked over and brushed my hands across the keys.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
I started lessons, climbing a long set of concrete steps to my teacher’s house, where I tackled challenging classical pieces and lush movie themes. I played Haydn and Beethoven. My favorite was the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the most recorded piece of piano music. It became the music I always returned to when I sat down at the piano as an adult. My teacher encouraged me to consider music school, but never mentioned it to my parents. Neither did I.
After a year I stopped lessons.
“I’ll still play,” I told my mother. “The piano will be my therapy.” I wonder why I thought I needed therapy.
In my mid-thirties, I moved that piano to my new house in North Carolina. In the evenings after work, I played all the music I knew. It was still in my fingers. I entered a world I had abandoned, a world where the notes on the page answered the need to express emotions I couldn’t find words for, and where the beauty of the sound became a physical space I could inhabit, separate from the world of work. When I relocated to Connecticut a few years later, I found an accomplished teacher and took on beginner students in the evenings. Then came the offer.
I knew my father was perplexed by my life decisions, and his disapproval was implicit in the lack of comprehension. I dated boys he didn’t approve of, became a vegetarian in college, left school in the middle of my sophomore year, married a hippie musician when I was twenty, and walked out on him a year and a half later for an older man. I jumped from job to job, working as a waitress, a secretary, a vet’s assistant. As I floundered through my twenties, I wrote my father a letter attempting to explain myself to him. The letter received neither response nor mention. I never asked why.
After dropping out of college, I came home to live for nine months. Whenever I needed to think, I followed the steep path behind our house down to the Rippowam River. One Saturday morning my father asked if he could come with me. We sat on a boulder, just south of the arched stone bridge where cars whizzed by on the Merritt Parkway, and watched the skate bugs move across the surface of the water.
When I felt his hand rubbing my back, I tensed. He rarely touched any of us. I remember seeing him hug my mother only once. Now he was trying to reach out to me, his youngest. I wish I had been able to respond.
When I was twelve, he said to me, “No matter how well you do, there will always be someone better than you.” Although I’m sure he meant well, at age twelve I took that advice to mean I would never be good enough, especially in his eyes.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of him reading “Winnie the Pooh” to me as we sat together in the wide red armchair, my fingers rubbing the nubby fabric. He helped me with my homework, and taught me how to drive in his new 69 Volkswagen bug. Whenever he and my mother came to visit me when I lived in North Carolina, where I was finally settled in their eyes, working for IBM and owning a home, before they left he would hand me an envelope containing a generous check.
During his illness, I was living an hour away, and I stayed overnight at least once a week. Every time I visited I played the piano, for my own pleasure as much as to show them the rightness of my decision. The last Easter he was alive, a month before he died, most of the children and grandchildren had gathered together. I flipped through a songbook of music from the thirties and forties, and played some selections I thought he would enjoy. He sat at the dining room table, watching us, and asked me to play “Thanks for the Memories”. Everyone stopped talking. Afterward the room was filled with the sense that it would be soon.
I wasn’t present when my father died. Starting on a Monday, the entire family held vigil, taking turns sitting at his bedside since Monday, as he lay unresponsive. On Thursday morning the hospice nurse said he had at least thirty-six hours left, so my husband and I headed home. I stepped out of the shower when the phone call came. The regret of not being there at an irreplaceable moment dogged me.
I didn’t touch the piano for three days. Mid-morning, four days after he died, thinking I was alone in our house on the lake, I sat down and played the Moonlight Sonata.
When I finished, my husband was standing in the doorway, looking at me with a raw expression I’d never seen on his face.
“Nice Moonlight,” he said, before turning to leave the room.
He’d listened to me play it a hundred times before and had never commented, but that day he heard everything I was trying to say, everything I was feeling, without a word being spoken. That sums up what music can do: communicate the inexplicable, the inexpressible, and provide comfort and understanding where words fail. It was then I realized that death and grief saturated this piece, which ends with three minor chords I’ve come to think of as the death knell. My father’s death was the first I had experienced of someone close to me. This music helped me to accept it, and to place it in a larger perspective.
At his memorial service a tenor with a rich voice sang the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”, at my father’s request. It seemed fitting, for my tall, clear-eyed father reminded me of the nobility of an eagle.
And He will lift you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of his hand.
Two years later, I received what the Native Americans call a visitation. I dreamt I was on a snowy mountainside, shoveling a path. As I lifted the blade, one of my gloves flew off. I spotted an eagle above me, and thought he would catch the glove. Instead he flew toward me through the trees and landed on my shoulder. I could see the vivid contrast between his white and black feathers. In my dream, I thought, “Oh my God, oh my God”. As I calmed down, I tuned into how he was seeing the world. My perception shifted into a deep tranquility. Everything looked the same, but there was a layer of stillness between us and the world.
When I woke, I knew this was more than a dream. It was an offering from the spirit world, and it was a gift.
I was in the mood for pie, but with no local fruit available yet, I was stymied. Craving a fresh, clean taste, I thought of lemon, but knew I didn’t want lemon meringue. A Google search led me to one of the best pies I’ve ever had: Lemon Sour Cream Pie.
Its charms: easy, tangy with sufficient sweetness, and a hit with everyone, including a 1-1/2-year-old. With a soothing mouth-feel, it’s the perfect dessert after a spicy meal. We had it after Indian food, which we had eaten shamelessly, but as our dinner companion mentioned, “there’s a separate stomach for pie, right?” The balance of lightness, richness, and clean taste make it a winner anytime. I only wish I had come up with the recipe!
The recipe comes from a blog called Inside NanaBreads Head. The link is below the photo.
It requires a pre-baked pie shell. I followed the instructions in Essentials of Baking, a Williams Sonoma cookbook, which has excellent dessert recipes as well as sections on baking basics with clear explanations and accompanying photographs.
1/ Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line your pie crust (click on the link for my all-butter crust recipe) with a heavy-duty foil. Fill the foil-lined crust with dried beans, uncooked rice, or pie weights. (I’ve tried dried beans and the rice, and both work fine. I store them for future use.)
2/ Bake the lined crust until it dries out, about 15 minutes. Check by pulling up one corner of the foil. If it sticks, it’s not dry enough yet. Return to the oven and check every 2 minutes. Once dry enough, carefully remove the beans/rice/weights and the foil by gathering the foil edges toward the center and pulling up and out. (Have a heat-proof bowl or pan ready to deliver the foil package to. It’s hot!) Reduce oven to 350 degrees.
3/ Continue to bake until the entire crust is golden brown, about 10 minutes longer. Let cool on a wire rack.
As the pie crust cooled, I made the pie filling, allowed it to cool completely (an important step, so be sure to leave enough time). Once the pie is assembled, it should be refrigerated at least two hours.
I topped the pie with homemade whipped cream. I did not try the raspberry jam layer, a variation suggested in the recipe, because the custard was so delicious I didn’t think it needed it.
Homemade whipped cream:
One pint (16 ounces) of heavy cream
Sweetener: maple syrup or agave syrup (I prefer liquid sweetener)
Vanilla – about a teaspoon
Whipped cream is made purely by instinct. Let’s face it: you can’t go wrong.
Freeze the mixer bowl and beater. If you have a whisk style beater, use that. Pour the cream into the cold bowl and put the mixer on the nearest to high setting. (On my KitchenAid, I set it on 8.) You can also whip the cream by hand. While the cream is whipping, pour a thin stream of maple syrup or agave into the cream. Then add the vanilla. Whip until peaks form. If you whip too long, and the cream starts to “churn”, add a little milk and it will return to peaks.
Spread on the pie just before serving, or spoon dollops on individual pieces. Prepare to be popular.
I am grateful that I came to writing after years spent as a practicing musician, where I learned perspectives that make my writing life easier, and I came to understand the core secret behind any creative endeavor.
First, the perspectives.
1/Practicing is an act of faith
When I grew frustrated in my piano lessons with Maria, one of my most important teachers, she would say that sitting down every day at the piano is an act of faith. Some days it goes well, my hands feel great, the phrases come together with ease, and I can stay at my instrument for long stretches without feeling distracted.
Other days, I look down at my hands and wonder who they belong to.
On those days, my fingers feel stiff, I’m fighting the piano, my mind drifts off, and the music seems boring. But I stay anyway. I’ve been in this place before and know that tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps next week, I will feel connected and fulfilled. I know that the music will eventually yield to the repeated application of hard work and diligence.
And that if I stop, the ground will be steeper when I return.
2/ Daily time is a necessity
I often tell my piano students, “Even concert pianists practice every single day.” Cellist Pablo Casals said he had to find the E in first position on the cello daily, a simple task that beginners face.
The difference between writing and playing an instrument is that I write every day for many different reasons, so it is easy to lull myself into complacency because I don’t feel a physical disconnection from paper and pen, the way I do from the piano, or cello. For writing, it’s the connection between my hand and brain that needs to be sustained; the connection to my characters and my story that benefits from the consistent attention. I want to stoke that sense of living in my characters’ heads, of hearing their voices, of watching them come alive on the page. They will sulk in the corner if I ignore them, and the music I’m working on does the same thing.
Yes, life sometimes interferes, and I miss a day of practice or writing, but I never think about stopping. In fact I become irritable when I cannot get to the writing, and the playing. It’s a physical craving that is only soothed by engagement with my art. I come back to the instrument and the writing, and start again
In my studio I have an engraved stone sitting on the piano. When a student comes to a lesson ill-prepared because of a skimpy–or non-existent– practice week, I pick it up to remind them: Begin Again.
3/ The beauty is in the details
Once I learn the basics of playing a piece of music, i.e., the notes, rhythm, fingering, then the music making begins: working out the phrases, refining the sound, working on technique to create the sound “image” that’s in my head, experimenting with the dynamics, grasping the inner story and emotions of the piece.
It’s the same with writing. Every sentence, every word, is crafted until there is nothing that stops the flow of the words. I don’t know who first said “Writing is revision” because I’ve heard it so many times, but it is true. When I came to writing, I never had a problem with this because I know how long it takes to polish a piece before it’s “performance ready”. The repetitions required to master a piece of music are like “piling hairs”, another teacher told me. At first the difference is imperceptible, but eventually it adds up.
Bottom line: a first draft is the starting point, not the finish line, just as the first run-through of a piece is the beginning of the journey, not the destination.
4/ The commitment is to something bigger
My teacher Maria once performed the four Chopin Ballades by memory. For those not familiar with piano repertoire, rest assured this is quite a feat. After the concert, an audience member came up to her, score in hand, and pointed out a few measures where she had missed notes. I would have been furious. All she said was, “It just shows us that the music is greater than us.”
Whenever I open a new piece of music, I think about the thousands of players who have done the same thing, who learned and performed these notes in front of me. I sense the presence of a long line of people behind me who have learned and loved this piece. With my writing, too, I am participating in an act that others before me have, as well as others that will follow me. It gives me a sense of belonging to something greater, a sense of being part of a larger, unseen community of seekers of self-expression and beauty.
When I participate in making art of any kind, I belong to a greater community.
And the secret: Making art is, in the end, an act of devotion. I give myself over to the mystery. The commitment is not just to the page, or to the music, but ultimately, to my connection to that sustaining power.
I honor that commitment because I know it’s the only path to the treasure.
Hello readers. What fun to be interviewed by Jack Sheedy, award-winning journalist and author of the engaging memoir Sting of the Heat Bug. I’ve known Jack, and his wife, poet, editor, and journalist Jean Sands, ever since I started writing seriously almost 15 years ago. In fact, it was Jean who started me writing in the first place. I have many happy memories of the now sadly defunct Shepaug River Writers Group.
And be sure to check out Jack’s book. Using crisp, witty, and moving language, Jack recounts growing up in Litchfield County in the post WWII era. At the heart of the story is the love between Jack and his sister, Peggy. If you want to read the sterling reviews, here’sthe Amazon link. You will laugh and cry when you read this beautiful book.