Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Music in Rural New England: Family & Community Life by Jennifer Post

Drinking: Typhoo

Thinking: So much to learn

Liner Notes

I’ve been trying, for the last week, to write the liner notes for Red Heart the Ticker’s new record. I want to say something succinct and not-too-sentimental about my grandmother and her music making and this place and why I’ve chosen to make a record of my own from the songs she collected. But the trouble is this: I keep wanting to expand each sentence beyond the appropriate confines of record liner notes. I want to write about how my grandmother came to this part of Southern Vermont at twenty, the mother of a two-year-old with another on the way (my dad), and lived, for a year, in a sugar house in the woods below her in-laws’ house before finding a place of their own. And how that place they did find—what is now a beautifully restored 1803 farmhouse on a hill with a view with running water and a furnace and dishwasher and light switches et al—at that point was a shell of a house: white paint chipping, broken windows and doors, floors eaten by porcupines, without insulation, or electricity, or running water, or telephone lines, or neighbors. Of how, too broke to hire anyone else to work on the house, my grandfather worked two jobs (teaching science at the newborn Marlboro College and, on weekends, working at the Estey Organ factory in Brattleboro), cut fifteen chords of wood each summer, and fixed the house, inch by inch, nail by nail, in his “free time.” And my grandmother? A mother of two, with yet another on the way, planted an enormous vegetable garden and started baking mountains of whole-wheat bread.

What I want to write about is how my grandmother’s relationship with these old songs I am singing is so different than my own; how she learned them and sang them as a way to fend off the deep loneliness that found her. She bore five children before the house got electricity, or telephone poles. My grandfather’s brother was doing research in Panama and my grandfather would join him there, for stretches of the winter, to help count birds and bugs and identify plant leaves, leaving my grandmother, with three, four, five babies to tend to, in a house on a nearly impassable road, without neighbors, without lights, for weeks at a time. What did she do? She sang these songs. To her children. Around the fire. They were wild children; still are. But they sat still for old ballads about murders and drownings and lost loves and Robin Hood’s merciless protection of the poor. It makes my singing seem so blithe.

But see? Here I am, meandering, taking excursions, telling too much of this human story, when all I really need to say is the name of my grandmother, and the name of the songs.

And I would want to say, too, how my grandmother used to work as an artist in the schools in Tucson, Arizona, and found that the only way to get the kids on the wrong side of the tracks to be quiet was to sing the murder ballads—the real dark and bloody ones—and how that has always seemed to me an amazing cross-cultural phenomenon.

Or of how, when my grandmother was a girl, she lived in a National Forest near Bakersfield, California and rode thirty minutes on the mail truck through the lettuce fields with a kid named Fernando to get to school, singing songs in Spanish the entire way.

See? Too much!

Too much for liner notes, too little for a book. And there’s another problem, too: I can’t help but make it sentimental. See how it leaks out, a tender juice, between the lines? I am reading Wells Tower now, a funny writer, a smart writer, a loquacious writer, who does not defer to these sentimental pinings. He writes with wit and irony and a perceptive eye, not drooping, as I do, can’t help but do, towards the purple heart.

But oh well. Tender-juiced I am. And these liner notes? What will they be? And more importantly, what will become of all that gets discarded?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Good Stuff

I am very much into the artwork of Hannah Dancing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: The last few pages of Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America”

Drinking: Typhoo
Thinking: I don't know why, but until last week I've stubbornly resisted reading "Birds of America." I think it has something to do with the jacket descriptions; the word “funny” has always been a turn-off for me, a sign of my morbid disposition and tenacious suspicion of superficiality. I saw that the stories in the collection had no universal theme—no place they resided from, no political or cultural persuasion or mission—and thus decided that Ms. Moore was a mere suave linguist with just the right mix of contemporary zeal and humor to please the gentile New Yorker reading set.
And so I nearly almost never read her. How foolish I nearly was. Or maybe it is that books come to us (if we’re lucky) at just the right moment in our writing and reading lives.
A year ago I wrote an essay about landscape in contemporary fiction in which I said that I found myself disconnected from much contemporary landscape-less fiction. I wrote, “This includes much of the fiction in The Best American series and in The New Yorker. I find myself asking, “So what?” (quietly, and in the confines of my own home) while reading stories about the interpersonal dynamics of people without the context of place.”
“Birds of America” is very much about the interpersonal dynamics of people, without a fixed context of place. It is very much what Annie Proulx termed “interior fiction”; fiction (influenced by Freud) that delves into personal psychology without dwarfing that personal with the larger context of time and place. And it has an even more challenging asset: the stories are about academics, artists, writers, and rich (and failing) actresses. If I had known that, I may have never picked up the book. I have a particular aversion to the literary complaints of the privileged elite. Oh you poor are not enjoying yourself at the Hyatt? Are bored by your stay in a European mansion, or on a bed-and-breakfast road trip: Oh DEAR!
And yet. And yet! I found “Birds of America” to be an astoundingly and arrestingly beautiful book of fiction. Part of it is Lorrie’s prose. My god, it’s so fresh and surprising and beautiful. The collection is speckled with radiant and arresting sentences that make you pause and smile and begin to see the world in a different way.
And part of it is her intelligence. Once I allowed myself to disengage my interior critic, I found that I empathized quite a bit with her privileged, literary characters. Questioning love, questioning our mothers, questioning our artistic and intellectual aims. If I’m honest with myself I’ll acknowledge that those are the pressing questions of my life, so why do I not deem them worthy of fiction? Does fiction always have to have a political or social mission to illuminate lives other than our own? By writing about the poor or displaced or outcast, “the others” (because let’s face it, the audiences for short stories are the New Yorker crowd, or at least we all want them to be,) we are attempting to shed light on other kinds of lives and cause buds of empathy to pop in less than down-and-out hearts. But isn’t fiction that causes self-reflection also worthy? Isn’t it one of the most glorious mystical acts of literary artifice? That we can learn not just about others, but see our own weaknesses and fears and ugliness reflected, glaringly, back at us? Isn’t it amazing to be guided by someone smart enough and lyrical enough to undress the neat clothes of our comfortable lives, and leave us standing naked amidst our own bazaar and absurd and empty and sad strangeness?
And one last thing. Lorrie Moore may not be writing about landscape, but she uses it, sparingly and beautifully, in ways that are so original and surprising and fresh it made my arm hairs stand on end. Her snapshots of the natural world do something essential for her work (as do the “birds” that litter her pages); they exist as contrast to the un-groundedness of her characters' lives. They manage to do what Annie Proulx’s extensive landscapes do, in very few words: portray the smallness of our human lives, not in contrast to a sublime landscape, but to a natural landscape that is, in many ways, just as small, and bazaar, and sad as the human lives she depicts. It’s a new way of using landscape, with new language to describe those landscapes. It’s lovely. And perfect. And an inspiration.
I will never be a Lorrie Moore. I do not have the same eye for absurdity she does, or the bazaar, or her air-borne twisted tongue. But I think it is a blessed gift when we encounter art that challenges our notions of our own taste and style; when we read a book that makes us want to throw out everything we’ve ever written. Not because we should try to become that other writer, or really throw out our doted-on manuscripts, but because that art leaves us standing naked amidst our own fictional dressings, able to see clearly and with new eyes what, up to this point, we have made. Able to see (at last!) our crusty habits and predictable tropes. And because in that seeing lies the ability to see (at last!) a new vision for what our words might, someday, have the fresh-sprung capacity to become.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


A few nights ago we had an old friend from high school, Emily Sweeney, and her husband Bilwa for dinner. Emily is a talented dancer and choreographer who has lived and worked, since we graduated in 1997, in many places other than Southern Vermont, most recently Philadelphia, Vienna, and Berlin. But this past summer Emily and Bilwa moved back here for a teaching job, and so we found ourselves sitting around the fire drinking wine and talking about what Ty and I always talk about with old friends who grew up here with us; the push and pull towards and against this place we still, at some level, all consider home.

I have stopped questioning whether or not this is the place I should be. I’m planning on sticking around, at least for a while. But Emily isn’t. She talked about how the place has changed for her since coming back, how the hazy romanticism of memory has fallen away, and what she’s found here isn’t, in fact, a place she feels at home or wants to be for long. I asked her what she thought it would be like before she came, and she said she thought it would be like it was in high school: “Train bridges and fields and bonfires.” She smiled. “Like it is in Red Heart the Ticker songs.”

She asked what it’s like for me, and I said that we wrote most of the previous songs on our first two RHTT albums while living other places: Philadelphia and New York. I talked about how our yearning for this place created those songs (as yearning informs, in my book, all art). And I talked about how different it is to write about this place from within its landscape, as opposed to from away, and how I keep writing in order to keep that vision of this place alive.

Bilwa is an electronic musician who grew up in North Philly and has, like Emily, lived all over the world living amidst circuits of avant-garde artists and musicians. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the fact that as much as he likes to visit Brattleboro, he doesn’t ever want to live here again. He wants to live places where there is motion, movement, dialogue, and constant opportunities for connectivity. Berlin is his favorite place in the whole world. He wants to be able to see shows any night of the week, meet people to collaborate with every day, and have more streets to walk down.

We poured more glasses of wine and talked about the various archetypes of the artist. I said I have always imagined being the loner in the cabin in the woods, the Emily Dickenson type, who finds a place so quiet and still she hear her own original and authentic and true voice. But now that I’m here, I’m discovering that’s not all I want. I want dialogue and communication and collaboration, too. Emily said it’s the same for her. Vermont and Berlin. Isolation and connectivity. She talked about this landscape and how it shapes our community and the art we make; how the rolling hills make for pockets of thought and creativity rather than flee-flowing lines. She talked about how green things will grow up between any two spaces if you let them, immediately thwarting direct and open dialogue.

It got late, the wine got drunk, and Emily and Bilwa said goodbye and stumbled down our ice-covered path towards their car. After turning off the lights I lay in bed feeling inspired by the conversation, thrilled to have had it, but wistful, too. Emily and Bilwa will move back to Berlin, or somewhere else, at the end of 2011. We will be staying here in our cabin in the woods amidst small rolling hills, extended family and close-knit trees. It’s hard on us when people like this move away.

But my insomniac wistfulness led me to think about different planes of connectivity, too. Of how we live here in a house we built ourselves made out of trees cleared from this land. About the fact that my daughter is growing up on the same land that I grew up on, which is the same land my dad grew up on, and how she will learn to see landscape as interwoven with story and history and artifact, just like I did. (This is the place the barn burned; this is the section of creek your great-uncle named “Towering Beauty Falls;” this is where the pot plants grew.) Of how well my daughter knows her grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, great-aunts, and the roads that lead between them. Of how she knows, intimately, where her food comes from and how the milk we drink comes from the teats of the cows down the road. It reminded me how shocked I was at eighteen to find myself living in a dorm in a city where no one knew where their electricity or heat or water came from, or where their shit went, or cared, and how that made me feel physically strange and sad and alone. It made me think of these trees outside my windows, and how much peace they bring me, and how there are sometimes birds in them, and how I am learning to identify the songs those birds sing. It’s not the intellectual or artistic kind of connectivity we have chosen for ourselves here, but the natural and familial.

If I have to choose (and I think, to some extent, I do,) I’ll choose this one, for now, because it’s the kind of connectivity I want my daughter to know in her bones. She can go looking for all sorts of other kinds later, but this is the kind I want her to know beyond the terrain of doubt. Because I believe (hope) it will teach her about humility, and responsibility, and belonging, and the expansive world beyond the human.
Emily said, in a later conversation, “I am still grateful to the landscape here for giving me clear eyes and wakeful skin.” I hope it will give my daughter such clear eyes and wakeful skin, teach her about quiet and sublimity and the true song of herself. And then she can go out into the world, and do what she will, and feel the electricity, and hear the noise. But still have this place, and this kind of knowing, like all my old high school friends, whether in body or in mind, for short periods or long, to return to.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Sherman Alexi’s story “Salt.”
Drinking: Water
Thinking: It’s absolutely brilliant. It defies all the standard (and predictable) formulas of the short story and yet procures what every great one wants: the reader’s engagement, surprise, self-reflection, and sorrow. Every astounding book leaves me in love with its author. Damn—I am blushing. And feeling sad. And capacious.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Dream Trailer in Park Nowhere

My dear and talented and wise writer friend Lauren Markham sent me an e-mail today in which she wrote: "Don't you think "blog" would be less of a turnoff if it didn't have such a terrible-sounding name? Maybe you can reinvent a softer and more meditative name, as you are reinventing your relationship to it... I would love that."

I think she's right. And so here's my initial round of alternative names:

virtual log cabin
atmospheric lodging
trailer at camp nowhere

Terrible, all of them. Really, I'm posting this because I'd love to hear your ideas. Pray tell!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Margaret and Robin, 1981

I have a 9x12 black and white photo of my grandmother and I from 1981, taken at the Old Songs music festival. We’re sitting in the grass on a hillside, my grandmother’s bangs slick with sweat, her eyes looking off into the distance. I’m three years old and I’m sleeping in her arms, my small limbs limp across her thighs.

My brother and I used to travel all over in the backseats of her blue touring van. We slept at the edge of stages at folk festivals and concerts. I knew those songs like they were water. It’s a body kind of knowing, the melodies and her singing. The picture almost says it all: about her, and about me. About being held by someone strong like that. When they die it’s a strange thing that happens.

In 2006 in the northwest room of her house I watched and heard my grandmother's final breaths—far apart, slow with morphine, the raw and astonishing gasp of each one after we thought we’d heard the last. And then no more came. And something escaped, loosened. But that’s when the surprise came. I looked at the bed and the wall and her. She wasn’t gone. She was still in the room. She was in our singing and she was in the house and she was in our bodies. I could feel her there, the fierce love she’d planted in us. That deep, unquestioning love. The strength of those arms that had held us, every one, and would have fought for us, and died for us, and wept for us. I knew right then that if you live this life right you won’t ever die. Just look at her face in that photo; she isn’t the kind of person who dies.

I don’t say this to be sentimental. I say it because I mean it. I miss her, yes—the way she was rude and funny and passionate and direct and made me laugh. But she’s not gone. Her love is planted so deep it’s the taproot spreading down through my feet. Her music is still the brightest thing I hear. Look at that face. She was a mountain and a mountain lion at once. She was tender, vulnerable, proud, easily hurt, but when she loved you it was like a rock planted under you. Sweet with trickling water.

When I hear her sing “My Dearest Dear” I know why my grandfather can’t listen to her records. To listen to her records makes her too close and too far away at once. It makes her something of the past. A false-lover, like in all those songs. It’s when you close your eyes that she’s yours. That you can feel that rock and that root. That you can hear her. That you can feel her. That you can let your limbs surrender, knowing those arms will hold you for as long as you dare to dream, for as long as you need to feel brave.