Tuesday, November 17, 2015

11. 13. 15

In April of 1995, when I was finishing my CD Life Gets Real, the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown up, an act of domestic terrorism. I had just finished recording “God Is Sleeping” and paired my song with a lullaby version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”

In October of 2002, a plane crash took the lives of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter Marcia, staff members Will McLaughlin, Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and two pilots. The entire state was grieving. I had a CD release concert scheduled the following week. I asked a friend of mine, a close friend of the Wellstones, how she was even functioning. She said, “There is work to be done. I’m going to keep working.”

Here I am in 2015 and I happen to be working on a song about Mother’s Day, the real Mother’s Day. The one organized by Anna Reeves Jarvis whose immediate goal was to improve sanitation in Appalachian communities. During the Civil War, she asked women to care for the wounded on both sides. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation for peace that begins: Arise, then, women of this day!

I am working on this song as I hear about Paris.

On Facebook, people are posting photos of the French flag along with expressions of their sorrow. A friend of mine posts a peaceful picture of his wife taken a year ago on a Paris street. In response, I post a couple of photos I took two years ago when we were in Paris: one of the Eiffel Tower, another of our table at Café de Flore, empty or near-empty coffee cups and plates with crumbs sticking to them.

I hear an interview with a woman who lives near the carnage in front of Le Carillon. She tells the interviewer that after she helps clean the broken glass from the street, she will dance because it is the only thing that will help her continue.

Soon there is a posting that says it is not Paris we should pray for. It is the world. The message is that this outpouring of grief for Paris is all over social media and the press, but there is nothing for the victims of the bombs that went off in Beirut or Baghdad.

When I hear about more attacks by ISIS or learn of another young mentally ill person who decides to slaughter others in a school or movie theater, it feels like a fist in my gut, I feel it take my breath, clench my heart.

Beirut, Baghdad, Mogadishu.
Kabul, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Ankara.
Kambari, Tripoli, Peshawar, Fotokol.
Copenhagen, Cairo, Lahore.
Tunis, Riyadh, Erbil.
Jalalabad, Kobani.
Garland, Texas.

These are only 20 out of hundreds of cities where terrorist attacks have happened this year. I have never had the pleasure of eating their food, gazing up at the sky above these cities, meeting their people, carrying the dirt from these places on my shoes.

But I have walked in Paris and mangled their language trying to order a meal. I’ve wandered through Notre Dame and Père Lachaise. I’ve had coffee with friends at Café de Flore.

I am connected to Paris because it is familiar. The grief is also familiar. It is indeed for the world because the horror continues and I worry that we will all become — or perhaps have already become — accustomed to it. Another bombing. More innocent people left dead, homeless, wounded in body and spirit.

I still believe the world is beautiful. There are some people who are doing their best to turn Eden into Hell, but the world itself is beautiful because of those working to turn it back into an Eden.

I stay open to all of it. The light and the dark. I keep my friends who are my family close.

I write songs. I sing them. It is the only way I know of to continue.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

This concept of being inspired by the seasons and writing to that inspiration has me putting ideas aside because they are not really about a season.

This is not seasonal, I say to myself, pen poised over paper, prepared to cross out what are quite humbly some very nice lines. But then I don’t cross them out. I leave them there. I decide to keep working on the song because who knows? Maybe it actually IS about one of the seasons.

Given some time — in this case, about a week — I realize that it is not solely about the lyrics. It’s how the song feels. Songs just have a seasonal feel. Autumn is melancholy; spring, hopeful. Winter songs can be depressing or ones we warm ourselves on. Summer is energetic.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to be a part of the Junior Composers camp taking place at the University of Minnesota. (For more on Junior Composers: http://www.juniorcomposers.org)

Along with the classical writing-the-notes-down kind of concentrations, many offerings were classes in improvisation, vocal performance, conducting, and songwriting. The person who had been tapped to teach songwriting for two weeks was unable to make it. I received a call.

“Full disclosure,” I said to the woman on the other end, “I really don’t know how to read music very well and never write it down when I’m writing. Also, I don’t have much experience teaching.”

“That’s fine!” she said a little too cheerfully. “You’re a songwriter. I’ve never heard of you but another instructor here says you’re a very good songwriter.”

Can’t say she wasn’t warned.

I think at least one of the requirements for being a good teacher is to actually be comfortable teaching. And I’m not.

The class was small, about six young people as I remember, and all of them much farther along as songwriters than I was at their age (14–17.) Their goal was to finish a song by the end of the week (they had already started writing) and then go into the studio and record it. I gave examples of my own songwriting, talked about how I approach a song. They played what they had been working on. Nothing really clicked until I gave them an exercise I have always enjoyed handing out at workshops.

Out of the newspaper and random magazines, I took a phrase, a headline, things like: “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” “late night hope,” “strangers on a train,” “frontrunner.” Since I couldn’t very well just give the kids the assignment without doing it myself I chose “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” and went to work.

During that one day when we were working on the assignment, I managed a verse or two. I liked it immediately but didn’t work on it again until about a week ago when I saw the verses sitting there along with a bunch of other phrases and thoughts that were not yet songs. The chords and the melody came right back.

Does it have any seasons in it? Does it mention the leaves or the wind or how the air smells? It does not.

But it has the energy of summer.

I’m going to finish the song and when I do I’ll post it to our website (annreed.com) and to my Facebook page (facebook.com/annreedmusic).

Monday, August 24, 2015

Winter Springs, Summer Falls

August 2015

    Spring arrives when I hear — not see, but hear — robins singing in the morning. They start their slurpy song a few moments before dawn, waking up the cardinals who then sing a tune from their repertoire.

    The seasons are experienced through sound: hearing birds before I see them, smelling snow before it arrives, feeling the changing humidity on my skin.

    This summer has been gracious, not too hot, not too dry. As I’m writing this, we are having a few days of heat and soggy air. Jane and I use the air conditioning sparingly, turning it on when it gets to be about 80 degrees in the house, and turning it off before we go to sleep. I do not like hot weather.
    Last week I heard the sound that announces the depth of summer and, like a lookout in a crow’s nest, the first sighting of autumn, still a ways off but approaching.

    I heard crickets.

    The boys are rubbing their wings together. Their fast chirping will start slowing down as the temperature drops each night. For now, they are doing about 30 to 35 chirps every 15 seconds. (Yes, I am a geeky girl. And according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, one can estimate the approximate temperature in degrees Fahrenheit by counting the number of chirps in 15 seconds then adding 40.)

    Wind, air pressure, humidity, the angle of the sun, the length of night and day all affect me deeply. Why not focus in and write about it? Why not write a collection of songs for all seasons, meteorological and metaphorical?

    The working title for this project is Winter Springs, Summer Falls. There are two songs already finished, recorded, mixed and out on iTunes. A third song has been written but not recorded as yet.

    I’ll be posting as I write and record the songs. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Manners and Marceau

There is an encroaching lack of civility, of manners in our society. It is getting worse. And when you go out to spend your hard-earned dollars, well, as they say: you pays your money, you takes your chances. Perhaps the play isn’t as good as the review stated, the artist is having an off night — disappointing, to be sure. But to have the experience marred by the audience is not something I want to get used to.

I may be turning into a cranky older woman but I don’t think my expectations of others are unreasonable. There is a code of behavior when one is in public. At least I think so.

Let me start with an experience from a while ago.

Everyone has one or two favorite artists for whom they would gladly go out and get a loan to pay for the ticket if they came to town. Mine are Bette Midler and Marcel Marceau. Marcel Marceau, without question the greatest artist of pantomime in the world, died in 2007. I am so grateful to have seen him several times and have sadness that not everyone in the world saw him perform. I will never forget his last appearance in Minneapolis, in 2004 at the Pantages Theatre. Marceau was, of course, flawless. The audience, however, was not.

One thing I loved about seeing Marcel Marceau was the experience of sitting in a theater with 1,000 other people in absolute silence. Alas, this time, it was not to be.

I don’t remember how long the performance had been going on. I don’t think it was more than twenty minutes or so. That’s when, from directly behind me, I heard the sound of a straw being rubbed up and down in a drinking glass. You know the sound: the plastic straw in the little plastic hole in the plastic lid? A few minutes after that, I heard a woman’s voice in a not-too-soft whisper, “Isn’t he gonna say anything?” A man’s voice replied, “I dunno …” This went on for a while, the chatter back and forth, a few giggles. When intermission arrived I turned to Jane and warned her I was going to say something to them as soon as they came back to their seats with another Big Gulp.

When the offending couple returned and got themselves adjusted in their seats, I began to turn in my seat to say something but was beaten to it by the woman on the other side of Jane. (I was relieved. I hate confrontation.) She conveyed my sentiments exactly.

“I need to tell you that you are being very rude!” she said, forcefully.

“Uh … what?” the man said with a complete lack of comprehension.

“This is the greatest mime in the world, one of the greatest artists of all time, and you are TALKING through his performance! Please be quiet!”

With that, she sat down. I heard the woman behind me make a short exhaling sound that, if translated, meant “God, what a bitch …”

The performance was marred by this incident but not ruined. Anyone who had the pleasure of witnessing Marceau’s art knows that nothing could destroy it. But it did leave me asking this: Why would someone buy a rather expensive ticket to a performance by an artist they know nothing about? Nothing. You just say “Hey, there’s some French guy at the Pantages. Wanna go hear him?”
“I don’t know. What does he do?”

“Yeah. No idea. Let’s spend a whole wad of money and find out.”

And when you get to the theater and see that it is, indeed, a mime, that you are sitting with people who are all quiet, watching, you do — what? Start talking while lustily sucking down your soda? Get out your remote and try to change the channel?

Last night, my spouse and I went to the Guthrie to see Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike.
We ended up enjoying the play, but only because I had done my meditation that day and was doing my best to practice mindfulness.

We stood in the line for rush tickets, got great seats on the end of a row, which meant that we would be getting up and down to allow people in to their seats. No problem! Fine with this! Our row filled two by two. Jane and I stood each time, pressed ourselves as far back against the folded seat as possible, allowing people to pass. We smiled. They smiled. Two women passed us to get to their seats. They stopped in front of us, their bodies two inches away from ours, to discuss if one had left something in the car but, no, oh wait, here it is! They weren’t there more than 15 seconds, but what made it difficult was their perfume. (Just keep track of 15 seconds, if you don’t think it’s a long time to have a stranger’s body next to yours, a stranger who bathed in some kind of pool of Eau de Choke-Your-Neighbor.)

I was relieved that they were not sitting in the seats next to us but concerned about the people around whom they did sit. I returned to practicing mindfulness. I said to myself:
They are where they are. Back to the present. Here and now. Let the thoughts about the insensitive, scented people pass through …

There. Better.

The play began. Approximately five minutes in, an usher walked down the aisle to seat a couple five rows ahead of us. Rude, I found myself thinking. Let it go, Ann, let it go. Be in this theater, take in the play …

Five minutes later, the usher came down the aisle again, seating a couple two rows in front of us. Are you kidding? The entire row had to stand, obstructing the view of the stage for the rows behind them and distracting the audience from the play.

I understand people arriving late when the weather is bad — heavy rain, snow — I get it. On those occasions of inclement weather, even the best-laid plans to leave early still don’t work. But when it is a beautiful summer night, not a freakin’ cloud in the sky, and just a light breeze? Do I know what it’s like to get ready to go out when you have kids? No, I don’t. I do know what it’s like to stand on a stage and watch people arrive late, annoy everyone around them and disrupt the audience’s focus and enjoyment. Let’s have some planning, people.

Here’s a hopeful sign: I’ve noticed that several theaters have inserted a note in the program saying they reserve the right to ask people to leave if they are being disruptive. This not only applies to people talking, but also to those who are texting or checking their email on their so-called smartphones. This is progress! But here’s another idea: Each theater will have a row of terribly uncomfortable wooden chairs in the very back. And if you are late, THAT is where you sit until intermission. It will be called The Late Row. We’ll get Target, Cargill or 3M to sponsor it.

You want to sit at home in your underwear and watch a movie, eat and drink, check your email, text your friends about the movie and make commentary throughout? Go for it! It’s your house!

I am not going to stay home because I don’t want to deal with the few people who were never taught how to behave in public. I will continue to go out and support live performance. And if someone shows a distinct lack of manners, I vow to say something. Politely.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


When I heard the news about Pete Seeger — when I heard that we would not have this blessed man walking the earth any longer — I cried.

Throughout the day, I listened to various programs on public radio paying tribute to Pete Seeger’s life. On The Takeaway, John Hockenberry spoke with Dr. Alan Chartock, the CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and friend of Pete. Dr. Chartock made the comment that everyone has a Pete story.

My Pete story involves Minnesota Public Radio and a program called The Morning Show. I honestly cannot remember what the occasion was, but I was invited along with Kate MacKenzie and some others to come to Studio M for a taping. I walked in the studio and there, sitting in a chair with his banjo in his lap, was Pete Seeger. I wondered if this is what it felt like to meet God. For sure it is what it feels like to be in the presence of a person who has been true to his inner voices. It was a holy moment.

He was a songwriter, sure. And a darn fine musician. More than that, he was a troubadour who raised his voice and helped us believe we could make a difference just by raising our voices along with him. He’d start playing his guitar or his beloved banjo and pretty soon the whole room was singing along. Simple and pure. No fancy amplifiers or effect pedals.

I picked up the guitar when I was about 12 or 13. No matter how dark or painful my adolescent life felt, I had the guitar. I believe it saved my life. And the first songs I learned to play were mostly Pete’s: “If I Had A Hammer,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I learned songs by Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio and discovered that they were singing Pete’s songs too.

I am grateful to have met Pete Seeger. It was a moment I hope I will never forget.

This past year, along with Dan Chouinard, I have been helping to lead a sing-along in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul. The songs range from folk to Broadway to the Carpenters and everything in between but rarely do we have an evening when we do not sing a song that Pete brought into our lives. The February sing will be an All Pete sing-along, and you are invited to bring your favorite Seeger song. Come with your guitar, banjo, dulcimer, but especially bring your voice. Usually, our sing-alongs are the third Monday of every month, but in February we are going to meet on Sunday afternoon, February 9th, at Luther Seminary, Olson Student Center, 2nd level, 1490 Fulham, St. Paul. We’ll gather at 2:30, and the singing starts at 3:00.

There are sing-alongs happening all over the country — people gathering, teaching new songs, harmonizing on the old ones. It is a beautiful thing.

Thank you, Pete. We will carry it on.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Love This Life

This is the text of the keynote speech I gave at the AUW fall retreat on November 9, 2013 at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN.

Love This Life
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2012 Turtlecub Publishing

So sad to hear you say you think the joy in days
Is done, over and done
So, yeah, the news is bad, darkens the path, let’s add some
Light when it seems there is none

    Gonna sing in the middle of a great big crowd           
    Gonna do a little dance           
    Gonna live out loud               
    Gonna play with the puppy           
    Gonna ride my bike               
    Make funny faces and love this life               
For ev’ry hateful word I’ll say ten loving verbs
To mend this tattered flag of mine
So, yeah, this ragged piece, within and underneath
Threads, unbroken and bright

    Gonna listen to the giggles of the kids next door
    Gonna give what I got
    Gonna play this chord
    Plant my garden
    Watch it grow and thrive
    Kneel in the dirt and love this life

Bad ol’ Goliath, he’s got two big feet
Ain’t gonna let him step all over me

Oh, if you’re lookin’ down you only see the ground
And miss the colors of the sky
So, yeah, you just might trip
If that’s the worst of it
Lift your head, feast your eyes

    And glide through the water in a blue canoe
    Stand in the glory
    Of a big, full moon
    Laugh till you cry
    Treasure the time
    Weep at beauty and love this life

That song is called “Love This Life,” and it seems a good match for this retreat and the line from Rumi “Dance when you’re broken open …” This is a timely topic, I think. The headline in last week’s New York Times Sunday Styles section was “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention.” Like yoga, mindfulness is now trendy. Entrepreneurs have discovered it. But like yoga, this is an ancient practice, and it will continue long after the clothing, gadgets and apps are gone. This is timely for me, too, and that is what I want to talk about today.

I’m not what you’d call a joyful, happy person. I tend to go to the dark side. But I have never given up on experiencing joy. I’ve had moments when I have felt crushed by darkness but have never given up on seeing and feeling the light again. When I finished writing that song, I was bothered by the fact that I had used a line that I had previously used in a song, the line “live out loud.” It appears in another song called “Leap of Faith.” But when I tried to change it and use something else, it didn’t work. And it didn’t work — I believe – because that line is important. To live out loud is to be present in life. I wrote the song as a reminder, a message to myself on this journey that yes, life can be — in current lingo — “a challenge.” But there is a way to embrace all of it — the light, the pain, the joy, the mess.

My father had been dead for five years, my mother was 87 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I knew I was going to be the witness to my mother’s decline as I was to my dad’s. And as much as I didn’t want that role, I could not escape it. George W. Bush was re-elected; I felt overwhelmed by the reporting of daily events throughout the world; and had to force myself to read the paper because I carried the message that being informed was important. Evidence of climate change was obvious, the weather was getting stranger in my own backyard, my living situation was becoming stressful. Friends were getting sick and dying, people not much older than I. I felt a desire to chuck everything and run. I moved through most days in an anxiety fog, feeling internally heavy. And I was about to turn 50.

One Breath
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2011 Turtlecub Publishing

I cannot hear the news
It only stains my heart
Heavy fear comes through
Weighs me down
The smallest ray of hope
I take into my soul
A friend I found

Perhaps the world is flat
I’ve walked out to the edge
With torn, outdated maps and
Wond’ring when
Some blessed clarity
Might find its way to me
But till then …

I’m gonna take
One step
One breath
Then I’ll take
One step
One breath

These things that are not mine
I’ve carried way too long
Neither the will nor time
To sort it all
My weary arms they shake
What difference would it make
To let it fall?

I hold tight
To a scrap of faith
That there lives light
In the darkest place

Too much, too much for me
I’ll cling to what I know:
Rivers of love don’t freeze
They’re deep and wide
Oh, kindness, come, I beg
Forgiveness, move my legs
Help me rise

I was sitting, avoiding writing by rearranging my desk, moving my chair back and forth, my brain skipping around. Suddenly, I felt this clear, almost painful, flash of energy inside my body. Two seconds of clarity.

In that moment, I knew — the way that you know something with your whole being — that my life is only moment to moment. It was not going last. I had more years behind me than I would likely have in front of me. Instead of running away or dream walking or sleepwalking my way through the rest of whatever was left, why not make some conscious choice about how I want to live?

In those seconds, there was a question: are you in or are you out? It was an invitation to step into my life fully, to be more deliberate, more mindful, practice presence in living the rest of my life. It was an opportunity. A simple, intense, formidable, frightening opportunity.

My life, it seemed to me, had been for the most part a series of unintentional connecting and disconnecting. When I was younger, it was rather like model train cars that — when they gently bump into one another — hook together.

And as I got older, busier, and life got a bit more complicated, and there were expectations of me and from me, I started to disconnect. In most cases, I was not even aware of it. Most of all, I was unaware that I had been disconnecting from myself.

There at my desk in 2004, I started asking some questions: What do I actually know about myself? Who are my friends, what kind of people do I have in my life? What, exactly, is important to me? How do I want to live the rest of my life? What does it mean to live mindfully?

I stopped. Other than when I had been immersed in writing, it was rare for me to be fully present. The first thing I realized is this: I have a pretty wonderful life. I have meaningful work. I have an amazing spouse. The people in my life are, for the most part, creative, thoughtful folks with a good moral compass. I’ve met interesting people, traveled …

And I was missing it. I was so busy thinking about six things at once, not really paying attention, worrying about what might happen, and writing alternate endings for actions already taken and conversations long past. I was missing my life.

I met Tom DiNanni, a dear man who was familiar to First Universalist, when he and his wife, Sandy, were doing a cable show back when cable was fun. He brought people on and chatted with them. The first time I was on their show, it was the Christmas holiday season and one of the guests was the marketing person from Dayton’s (it was Dayton’s then, so that will give you an idea of how long ago this took place). The marketing person was a woman who took her job very seriously, and she had brought a full array of Santa Bear merchandise. Along with the Santa Bears, there were Santa Bear lunchboxes, ties, sweatshirts and cookies. The cookies had a fudge topping on them and a little white candy Santa Bear in the middle, and under the hot studio lights, the fudge became … soft. So when Tom walked over to the cookies with the very serious marketing person and tilted the box of cookies up so the camera could get a better shot, the little Santa Bear candies started to slide off the cookies’ fudge topping. And Tom said, “Oh no! Santa Bear meltdown!” The marketing person was not amused. But I was.

Tom DiNanni once said to me, “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.”

Forgot My Shoes
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2005 Turtlecub Publishing

I open my eyes to a brand-new day
Put on my clothes and I'm on my way
Go down three steps then I get the blues
Gotta go back up — I forgot my shoes

Up one, two, three and sittin' on the chair
My jacket and keys, how did they get there?
I pick them up, four stairs and I'm screwed
Gotta go back up — I forgot my shoes

I can get things done
I know this for sure
I could have big fun
If I could get out the door
Oh I know my one goal before it's over
I'm gonna do it I swear
I will get down the stairs

Four steps up, first thing I do
Set ev'rything down put the feet in the shoes
Six steps, halfway, I suddenly freeze
Gotta go back up — forgot my keys

I can get things done
I know this for sure
I could have big fun
If I could get out the door
You bet I forget but before it's over
I'm gonna do it I swear
I will get down the stairs

Little notes all over the place
If I know where I put ‘em
Then I can make it …

On the way up I hear the ringin' phone
Caller ID says I can leave it alone
Seven steps down and then my memory
Says, "You big, dumb cluck … you still forgot your keys."

So, are you in or are you out? Because it all goes so fast.

The city of Paris, France, is ringed by a circle of highway called the Boulevard Périphérique. You can circle the city in the safe confines of a car or bus relatively quickly and look toward Paris, but you’re not actually in Paris. You have to get off the Périphérique and go into the city. And once you go in, and you walk the neighborhoods in Paris, then you see and experience everything — the beauty, the art, the graffiti, the neighborhoods, the homelessness, the history.

I had spent most of my life on the periphery. And I decided to step in.

There is a poem from childhood that defines one’s personality according to which day of the week one was born. It has been around in one form or another since the mid-1500s:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living
And the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and bright and good and gay

This next song was written as a response to a Facebook posting but turned out to be a perfect place to express something I knew well about myself. The posting was about well-known songs with days of the week in their titles (“Monday, Monday,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Sundays Will Never Be There Same,” and so on.) I posted back to my friend that Wednesday didn’t seem to have much of a presence in this regard. He quickly posted back: That sounds like something a songwriter could take care of, Ann …

And when I started to write this song, that childhood poem came back to me.

Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2013 Turtlecub Publishing

Here’s a day I like just a little
Sits there right in the middle of the week
Couple days have gone before
Up there lay, a couple more, oh, I see

Old nurs’ry rhyme makes me wonder
It’s a verse that’s kind to the others, it’s just so
Fair of face, that’s Monday’s lesson
Tuesday’s full of grace, the next one’s full of woe

    And I was born on Wednesday
    I born on Wednesday

Some folks are light like a feather
But I like those with a measure of despair
They hold this life from A to Z
Know surprise and gravity’s waiting there (I hear them sing …)

Oh, its singularity
That’s what appeals to me
Does not spell the way it sounds
Oh, it’s not a day of rest
Just a place to catch your breath
Faithful friend that always comes around

Halfway done, halfway to heaven
’Cept for some, working all seven, still they know
It’s the night when choirs rehearse
Voices rise, swim the universe there they go (it’s like a little hymn)

I was born on Wednesday. Full of woe. So was my brother Mike. Just as an aside: When I finished this song, I sent him a copy with a note, and he responded by saying that we were also both cesarean section and so technically we were evicted on Wednesday.

I know I am fully capable and open to having moments of happiness, joyful experiences, feelings of contentment. I am drawn to people who feel the world deeply, who don’t get bogged down in the muck but also don’t skip over it. People who are aware, fully compassionate, and can still laugh with their entire body. It’s about finding balance, this life.

I am thinking of the quote attributed to Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” This is the way I have always felt about community or political groups that get a little too rigid. I need people who understand that I’m there for the heavy lifting but there better be cookies.

Community just doesn’t happen. Not Community with a big “c” or community with a small “c.” I knew if I wanted to be deliberate and have a community, I needed to make the effort to know them and to let them know me. It’s true we do not choose our family the first time. But we can, as adults, choose our family the second time.

Words and music by Ann Reed • © 2009 Turtlecub Publishing

Frame the past
Feed the soul
Make you laugh
Make you whole
In the darkest hour you’ll find
A light left on inside

Call your bluff
Keep the faith
Hold you up
When your legs give ‘way
Water, earth and air and sun
A world inside each one

Oh, I thank you
My companions
Ev’ry season we have journeyed through
May love bless you
My companions

Grieve for those
Lost too soon
When they go
There’s an empty room
Never quite the same
It’ll always feel that way.

I felt good about the idea of a more intentional community.

Making the effort to connect brought about another question: am I or am I not connected as well to this earth? The answer: of course I am — the food I eat, the water I drink, the air I breathe. But I felt hopeless. Reports of global climate change were sobering and paralyzing. The BP oil spill, the loss of habitat — I felt such pain and could hardly take it in. It felt too … huge.

In an interview, environmentalist and philosopher of ecology Joanna Macy said, “If your child had leukemia, you wouldn’t just say, ‘Well, I’m not going to be with her, it’s too hard when she’s sick like that.’”

The Earth is not well. I understood that maybe there was a way to practice feeling the pain without becoming the pain.

Gas prices were going up. In 2004, the big shock was when the price of filling your tank started edging up to $2 a gallon. Those were the days.

I decided it was time to stop complaining and put my beliefs into action. This was no time for savior mentality. I did not need to save the Earth. I could make a difference by choosing to be less a part of the problem and true to what I believe.

If I believe that global climate change is real — and I do — and that burning fossil fuels is part of the problem, then it’s time to drive less. I began to ride my bike during the day in decent weather, on trips of five miles or less. Pretty soon, the weather didn’t matter as much and I began riding farther. Then I started to ride later into the year. As I rode my bike more often, I noticed that most cars contained one person.

When the snow and ice came, I reluctantly put my bike in the garage and covered it up. Still trying to use the car less, I walked or took the bus. Even though I saw other people riding their bikes in the winter, I had a difficult time imagining myself doing it. But I knew it was coming.

Spring, summer and fall, I ride a recumbent. Before the recumbent, I had a standard bicycle. It stood patiently in the garage, tires flat, waiting. After a few years of riding my bike three out of four seasons, I brought my old standard bike to Calhoun Cycle and the merry band of bicycle mechanics changed it to a single-speed bike with shiny black fenders and nice, knobby tires. Perfect for winter.

There’s something about making my way around the cities on two wheels that lightens my heart, no matter what the season.

I Can Go Anywhere
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2013 Turtlecub Publishing

My little Huffy
First set of wheels
Wobbly, uncertain
Freedom I’d feel
Trying to ride …

Oh, my dad
Held tight to the seat
To my surprise
He let go of me
So I’d ride my bike

    I can go anywhere
    Any any anywhere
    I can go anywhere
    Any any anywhere
    I can go anywhere

Neighbors would watch
They’d never know
I was cruisin’ through France
’Cross the Rockies I’d go
When I’d ride my bike (refrain)

Isn’t it simple:
Pedals, a chain
Moving some muscles
and I’m on my way

Rusty and beaten
No longer new
Seats that are squeakin’
Knees that are too
But we ride

Here is my plan
Think what you like
When I turn 80, I might get a trike
And I’ll ride, I’ll ride

Not many people think winter biking sounds like a good time. And, no matter the season, the reality is that not everyone is able to get themselves around on a bicycle. Some people have physical limitations. Others are fearful of riding in traffic. Some are stuck with a very long commute. If I have this guitar with me, I’m not riding a bike. If I am taking my mom grocery shopping, I’m in the car. She’s up for almost anything but she’s 95 and I don’t think she wants to be on a bike. For me, safety is key. I don’t ride at night. We can make reasonable choices — we don’t have to be extremists.

What I hope for is that more people will leave their cars at home when they have errands that can easily be done on foot or by bike. What I hope for is that we all start being mindful of how we, individually, use resources. That where it starts.

Leonard Cohen's Zen teacher told him: The older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper love you need.

Now that I am closing in on being 60 — I turn 60 in another year — I am beginning to understand what a balancing act aging is. I do whatever I can to lighten my load, ridding myself of both physical crap and internal, old baggage. Occasionally, I get concerned that I might not be relevant anymore and what if what I’m writing doesn’t connect with anyone? I take a deep breath and remind myself that I need to be relevant to myself. I start there.

I try to meditate every morning, 15 to 20 minutes, and I start by taking a deep breath and saying, “I am. And I am here.” That’s about all I know.

Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2013 Turtlecub Publishing

Beginning and the end it seems
Life’s a freestyle dance between
Oh, my soul
Knows where a moment lives
Knows where a moment lives

A smile, a photograph, a song
Through kindness shared we all live on
Oh, my soul
Learns what a gift it is
Learns what a gift it is

    Sailing on uncertain seas
    A glow above with stars to lead
    And in a storm then what I fear
    Is ever slowly they’ll disappear
A thousand suns and moons reveal
The hurt I’ve caused and cannot heal
Oh, my soul
Learns what forgiveness is
Learns what forgiveness is

    Sailing on uncertain seas
    Wounds above and scars beneath
    What I know and what I fear
    Is ever slowly I’ll disappear

Humbled both by joy and grief
There’s deeper, wider love we seek
Oh, my soul
Knows how to welcome in
Knows how to welcome in

Oh, my soul
Learns what a gift it is
Learns what a gift it is

As I said, my mom is 95. She will occasionally say to me that she is not quite sure why she’s still here. I think one of the more difficult things about being 95 is that there is no one left who remembers you when you were a young person.

The quote we have all heard, “getting old is not for sissies,” is about the truest thing I’ve ever heard. Feeling a little sore after our workout? Think football is tough? You have some aches and pains after running that race, do you? Try trading places with someone who is 80 or 90. And then add isolation and loneliness on top of it.

With my mom, I know that I am her witness, and so we do things like have lunch together, go grocery shopping and when Macy’s has a sale on Estée Lauder cosmetics, I take my mom to Macy’s. On our last trip there, the woman who usually helps my mom was busy and so we were assisted by a young woman. I think she was probably 14. She helped my mom get everything together. My mom had brought the empty containers, wanting to be sure to get the correct shade of lipstick and so on. Mom was then told by the young woman that she was going get a free gift. We walked over to another counter and, without hesitation, the young woman said: “You get to choose. You can have the anti-wrinkle cream, or you can choose the age-defying night cream.” My mother smiled at her and said, “I’m 95 …”

Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2011 Turtlecub Publishing

When I ride the trees go by
More slowly
I’m satisfied and, no, I
    don’t mind I’m late
Hey, you might
Wave at me in a friendlier way

Ev’ryone is passin’ me by and I don’t care
I’ll get there eventually

And each day there’s things I may
Or may not learn
I’ll concentrate to find a space
    and clear some room
Inside my brain
Think I need a sizable broom

Ev’ryone is smarter than me and I don’t care
I’ll get there eventually

Never too late, I’m tryin’
To be OK where I am

Am I old? Oh, I don’t know
Compared to what?
Well, I suppose there’s some roads
    I don’t go down
’Cause some are closed
I just take a diff’rent way ’round
Ev’ryone is younger than me and I don’t care
We all get there eventually

I have a confession to make: I really like IKEA. Even though you have to walk through the whole store to get just one item, I still like it.

When we moved into our house, about six years ago, we needed new dressers and we were trying to save some money so we went to IKEA and got two Malm six-drawer chests. And of course IKEA being IKEA, we had to put them together once we got them home.

I don’t like instructions. And these instructions only had pictures, little Swedish cartoon characters, and I just wanted to get the dang thing together. It had been a long couple of days moving and setting up our new home. I was not exactly present. After a bit of cursing and admitting to myself that I needed the directions, I got the first chest of drawers together. Having successfully assembled the first set, I found I had very little problem with the second one.

So, simple, right? Follow the directions, pay attention. The message is: When you are putting together the chest of drawers, put together the chest of drawers. Did this experience help me to be present, to be mindful in all things including reading directions? Of course not.

Recently, I applied for a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. I was invited to apply for the grant. Let me say that again: I was invited to apply. I was encouraged to apply. Those of you who have applied for grants know that the most important part of applying is not the writing, it’s the reading. And I did. I read the application. Or at least I thought I did. I am not going to stand here and tell you I was in a hurry or I had a headache. Once again, I was not mindful, not present to what I was doing. I missed a key sentence — one sentence. I received a notice that my application was ineligible.

One of my favorite series of books is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. This is a quote from one of those books, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive:

The world, Mma Ramotswe believed, was composed of big things and small things. The big things were written large, and one could not but be aware of them — wars, oppression, the familiar theft by the rich and the strong of those simple things that the poor needed, those scraps which would make their life more bearable; this happened, and could make even the reading of a newspaper an exercise in sorrow. There were all those unkindnesses, palpable, daily, so easily avoidable; but one could not think just of those, thought Mma Ramotswe, or one would spend one's time in tears — and the unkindnesses would continue. So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one's own life better: acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter. Clever people might laugh at such simplicity, but, she asked herself: what was their own solution?

It has been almost ten years since the little internal flash. If it is a trend, it’s a good one. For me, it is not a trend. It’s my life.

It is pretty easy to sit on beach or on the porch of a beautiful cabin and be present. To be present in one’s daily life with emotional or physical pain, anger, depression, your own screw-ups — that’s where the real practice kicks in.

I mentioned Joanna Macy before. Along with being an environmentalist and philosopher of ecology, she is also a translator of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. This one is taken from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.

The hour is striking so close above me
so clear and sharp
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and the come toward me, to meet and be met.

I think I got it. Finally, I think I got it. I do know some things about myself, today, right now. I know it fills me up to sing; I know I do not burn bridges; I know I don’t have to read the paper, there’s nothing wrong with taking a short break from the news, and in fact, it can be a very healthful thing to do. I know I love my community of people, my chosen family.

I know it’s all practice.
Making a mistake without feeling like I am a mistake.
Feeling sad without being the sadness.
Feeling the mess without being the mess.

Just as I was finishing this presentation, the same friend whose post inspired the song “Wednesday,” posted another piece from NPR. The piece was called “Always Go to the Funeral,” written by Deirdre Sullivan. It had in it this: “‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it … In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”

I’m going to do one more song and then, if you have any questions or comments, we can chat.

I have a 7-year-old neighbor. She lives there with her parents, she doesn’t own the house or anything. But I have not had a lot of experience being around kids. I opted not to have children and I just never have been around them, and so this is a new experience. And what I have discovered about children is that they haven’t hired editors yet. They just say stuff.

Last spring, it was the end of my neighbor’s first year in school and I was doing some yard work and she came home from school. I asked how school was going. She said, “Good.” She said, “I got my report card!” I said, “Wow, how did you do?” She said, “Good. I got a prize.” Then she told me all about the prize and when she was done I said, “You know, I don’t remember getting a prize when I got my report card.” And she said, “That’s because you were born in the olden days before they gave prizes …”

And I looked at this kid and the only thing I could say was, “Pretty much …”

This Is Where My Heart Is
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2012 Turtlecub Publishing

My little neighbor at the fence
Here I am, her audience
Looks at me and smiles
I know somethin’ …
    Just as she’s gonna let it slip       
    Her tiny hand comes off her hip       
    Points to herself and sighs           
    “This is where my heart is”       

As she swirls and turns she leaves
Me in my garden, it talks to me
Ev’ry root and vine says
I know somethin’ …
    Here I stand and here it is
    There it grows and there it lives
    I throw my arms out wide
    This is where my heart is

My heart, mon coeur, mi corazón …

I pedal through a day so clear
Pushed by autumn’s breath I hear
A tune I recognize
I know somethin’ …
    Of all the things I’ve left undone
    I whisper to that song unsung
     I do believe it’s time
    This is where my heart is

I know where I belong
Love and care
My heart, my home

Of all the millions walkin’ ’round
A miracle it’s us we found
I hold you close and sigh
I know somethin’ …
    When you take my hand in yours
    This is it, I don’t need more
    When I look in your eyes, I know
    This is where my heart is

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Creative Process

I am sitting here not writing. Well, I was not writing until I started tap-tapping on the computer.

Most mornings, my routine goes like this: Following breakfast, I write in my journal. This I do every day without fail. Most entries are a page at least, but I also have the rare entry that consists of: “More later” or “Nothing to say.” These still count. Following the journal entry, I write one haiku. Every day. Here is an example of a haiku I wrote this summer:

days of steamy heat
I begged for you to visit
in January

After writing the haiku, I head for my office space downstairs, take my beloved guitar from its case and start noodling around, usually playing a surprisingly upbeat bunch of chords. I stop because I realize I have not checked my email. I log in to my account and see that no one has written to me. I wonder why. I start to feel that perhaps I have no friends. I don’t understand this. I log out. Now I am friendless and lonely. I pick up my guitar and play only minor chords. Wait a second! Maybe everyone is communicating via Facebook. I set the guitar down and log on to Facebook. 

Forty minutes later, I pick up my guitar again. I have shut the computer off and decided that I do have friends but they are all very busy posting things on Facebook. I now give my best effort to create a song.

The chord structure is first. I never know what will be appealing. The rhythm? The patterns? Who knows? When I connect with whatever chords I am playing, I am relieved because I know that the person inside my head lounging around my brain wearing an old stained T-shirt who casually remarks “maybe you won’t ever write another song …” is wrong.

Might be wrong.
There is a limited amount of time a person can focus on creating a song, a script, a painting or what we lovingly call “works of art.” I don’t have the data in front of me but I need this to be true. My limit is about two hours of truly focused time.

The afternoon is given over to the business of the art — tending to bookkeeping, emails and whatever else has accumulated on my desk. But I do try to force myself to sit for another 30 minutes to an hour to work on what I call “other writing.” This blog falls into that category. Short stories and plays also are known as “other writing.” I have seven short stories and five plays all in various stages of not being finished.

Back to the song. If I keep bonding with it, if it resonates, the next day will find me tinkering with the chord structure, defining the melody and maybe, just maybe some lyrics will form. One of the most important components of a song for me is that the words need to be the perfect fit for the music. Peas in a pod. Corn in the husk. Now I am hungry and must have lunch.

Oh, the hours I spend on lyrics. There is nothing so rewarding as having words join together in poetry and perfect expression. They are alphabet letters who decided to organize. Every word, every phrase we utter has rhythm and pitch. Their sound can be funny, harsh or gentle.  I do not believe I have met anyone who speaks in monotone. We have natural inflections; our voices go up and down. Unfortunately, this does not mean that everyone can sing beautifully. 

Words can also not get along and make me so frustrated I wonder out loud why I did not get a degree or learn a trade instead of sitting at my desk believing that Mr. Roget, that mischievous scamp, did NOT put all of the words in the thesaurus. There are words missing and I need help!

I do have days — okay, weeks — when I think that meaningful work is overrated, and I envy the person who goes to work, comes home and isn’t thinking about things like “oh, maybe I need to use ‘the’ instead of ‘a’ there in the second line … did I mean ‘and’ or is it ‘but’ …?” I mean, really? Does anyone even notice stuff like that?

At my last stint as a juror for Hennepin County, during the voir dire, the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney asked the jury things like where do you live, what do you do for a living, what does your spouse/partner do for a living. One can learn a great deal about people this way. The defendant can also learn about everyone on the jury, and this bothered me a little because it was a criminal drug case — but that’s a whole different story.

Most of my fellow possible-jurors seemed to enjoy what they were doing in their lives. I listened to them and tried to picture myself doing what they do and came to the conclusion that I have a great job. I like what I do and I’m a very fortunate human being. Of course, when the prosecutor heard I was a musician, he asked if I knew a lot of people who took drugs. I told him that maybe 25 or 30 years ago that may have been true but it’s folk music after all and right now we’re all busy trying to stay healthy and get used to our new knees.

Songwriting is both art and craft. I do believe there is some kind of divine intervention/inspiration that is a part of the creative process. One writer friend of mine said it was like you become temporarily insane. You lose touch with time and there’s all this stuff coming out and suddenly you’re jerked back to real time and you look down at the page and think, how did THAT happen?

And that’s where the craft starts.

I sit with melody, words and phrases that come from I don’t know where, start to move them around, get to know them and get a sense of where they belong, rearrange the furniture and give that T-shirted critic a place to sit down.

And change the “the” to “a” because it does make a difference.