Annual Pilgrimage to Our Patron Saint: Mary Chapin Carpenter: Everyday Magic, Day 944

“Show a little inspiration, show a little spark,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings in her song “The Hard Way.” Kelley Hunt, one of my beloveds and my songwriting partner, happily obliged her by summoning up the inspiration and spark to strap ourselves into my peanut-butter-colored car so we can once again worship at her feet and replenish our songwriting well.

This year we trekked to Wichita for a long day’s night to the Wabi Sabi (beautiful, decaying, and full of soul and vibrancy) Orpheum Theater to see  this shining soul sing some of the greatest songs we know, such as “Stones in the Road,” once the best songs I know of about America. Listen to it sometime, and hear what she says about all that’s on fire in our history and lives, including lines like these: “And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung/ We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing.”

When Kelley and I write our own songs together, I like to think there’s always an invisible and palpable icon of Mary Chapin in the room, right on top of the purple piano where we compose music, occasionally nodding at us and always making eye contact. So many of our songs — such as “Love,” “You’ve Got to Be the Vessel,” and “Let it Rain,” — speak to some of the deep-river themes of hard-won love, healing, and courage flowing through MCC’s songs, such  as her song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” and “Jubilee,” in which she sings:

And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came

So it’s no wonder that we drive, drive, drive to be with MCC and her kick-ass, open-hearted band, including many bandmates she’s played with for decades. She’s someone I would leap over long highways and through 100-degree days to see, well, her and Bruce Springsteen, and you know what? This year, Mary Chapin ended her concert with a Springsteen song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Sitting in an ancient theater with one of my best friends, witnessing this moment and many others together — like when she sang “This is Love” — my heart overflowed and my being exhaled in pure joy. As she sang, “The wrong things aren’t supposed to last,” and “You would’ve thought a miracle/ Was all that got us through,” I realized how some moments, maybe all if I was awake enough, are the miracles that get us through, leading us to do and be all the rights that do last.

Bonus song: You’ve got to hear “Jericho,”  a song that inspired Kelley to write a song and me to write a poem of the same name. Here is Kelley performing this live on Kansas Public Radio (and you can support Kelley writing even more amazing songs by supporting her Patreon campaign here), and here’s my poem:

Jericho

How long have you been lost? All your life?

Then you’re getting somewhere.

The walls don’t fall for those who think

they know where they are.

It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,

like what I sang out in childbirth, each call

a plea to open and let the new one come through.

Or the sound of the handful of dirt the new widow releases

slowly quickly the long way to the top of the wooden casket

where a thousand hands hit the same drum at one moment.

Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running for the first time,

about to trip. Or the inhalation of surprise and verve on the cusp

orgasm in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.

Knowing the path has always been overrated

although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.

Loving and looking for clues is all we have–the slant of the sun

across the dusty wooden floor, the ache of leaf toward earth,

the weary smile of the stranger who gives you his parking space.

When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully

for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed by the brilliant

wings of an Indigo Bunting vanishing into the future

in a stand of cedar where you’ve always lived.

Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.

His feet remember how to follow the outline of the city

ready to unmake itself into something better. Let yourself

stop trying to hold up all that weight. Come and sit

on this beautiful, cold ground. Be as lost as the rain

making its way, through the veins of the universe, home.

I Hear America Singing At a Just-Closed Minnesota Music College: Everyday Magic, Day 921

When Jen Scovell-Parker and Shon Parker, professors at McNally Smith College of Music, got the email December 14th  that the college was closing in a week and they wouldn’t be receiving their next paycheck, they leapt into action on behalf of the effected 600 or so students. Shon, a vocalist, arranger, and educator, is also a chef, so when the college immediately shut down the cafeteria — the only source of meals for students, most of whom had little deposable income by the end of the semester — he took over the cafeteria kitchen with help from Chris, the kitchen manager. In no time, they were whipping up barbecue and slaw to feed hundreds of students for free. Faculty also got out the word about the food situation, and alumni, parents, and local businesses started sending in piles of pizza and other foods.

Meanwhile, Jen, interim chair of the vocal department, and a long-time performer, educator, and arranger, made a miracle happen. Working with other faculty, she contacted dozens of music colleges across the country and  regional colleges with relevant music programs to put together a list of 33 institutions willing to accept McNally Smith credits, and do all kinds of other things to help McNally’s students find a new academic home: waive application fees, offer discounts or scholarships, expediate application processing, find new students housing, and in general turn a nightmare into a new dream (see the impressive list right here). The director of admissions Matt Edlund, Kerri Vickers, and the registar staff also organized a transfer fair, and according to my daughter, a McNally Smith graduate who was there recently, McNally Smith was filled wall to wall with booths from institutions eager to help student sort through information, fill out paperwork, and talk through the sudden situation they landed in through no fault of their own. On top of this, Maria Vejdani, a former grad students and first semester faculty, set up a google doc form to help all the people in need or willing to help so that there was an instant database. People stepped up from all directions.

This weekend as I was facilitating a writing workshop for people with serious illness, I shared Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” in which he writes about each of us making a kind of music that lifts up the world through our particular role, whether we’re carpenters, shoemakers, or mothers, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” I told the workshop participants of how Jen and Shon, through their night-and-day work to feed, comfort, guide, and love students, are the best of America singing, and the best of America. Their actions are born out of their deep love for their students, and expansive recognition of how this college transformed, as Jen wrote about on Facebook, all who walked through the doors of the campus. “We worked there because we believe in the future of music, and we see how bright it was through the magic of our students. It was a calling to teach buy generic cialis from india this music. In some ways the call feels even louder,” she writes.

Jen , Shon, and other faculty and staff heeded that louder call with a series of celebrations that also allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to grieve collectively: graduation on Sunday (which only happened because of Sue Brezny, the director of Student Affairs), a Sing-Out concert featuring students and faculty Monday, and a series of concerts and performances in between Shon and others feeding the masses, all week long. Not only is America singing through Jen, Shon, and other shining stars (including alumni who have dropped by to perform, encourage, bring food, and help students pack up dorm rooms and faculty pack up offices), but a whole lot of people at McNally Smith have been singing their hearts out to make a bridge of music and hope for all those who need to cross over from this college to their Plan B. 

At the same time, I can imagine many reasons a college would close: the college where I teach, Goddard College, has occasionally accepted transfers from like-minded colleges that went down, but those closings were gradual, at least a semester and sometimes years in the unfolding so that students, faculty, and staff could transition to new situations. I can’t imagine any reason that a college would close on a week’s notice, especially since colleges (and particularly for-profit institutions) rely on tuition as their main (or sole) income.

The owners could easily have discerned back at the beginning of this semester, if not a year ago, that they were in trouble. That they didn’t act — either to work with the community to save the college  (I read the college was in the process of being not-for-profit), or to let everyone know the campus would be shutting down — is unethical, and a breach of trust. That they would not pay their faculty and staff, and ask them to continue on should be illegal. That they would leave so many students in a lurch — including students who already paid tuition for the spring semester, international students without adequate visas for such a closing, and students in the dorm who suddenly had to move out on no notice — is horrendous.

But that people like Jen and Shon — along with the real community of and around that college (excluding its owners) — would rise up singing in all these ways shows us what we’re capable of at our best. Then again, I’m not completely surprised — I’m extremely graduate to faculty like Jen and Shon who worked closely with our daughter and gave her and so many others a superb education and the most soulful mentoring possible. Our educators are, in many ways, our truest artists and most authentic heroes. And this is how America sings.

If you’d like to contribute to Jen and Shon’s Go Fund Campaign, please click here. Another Go Fund Me Campaign supports the faculty as a whole.

The Everyday Miracle of Rainbows: Everyday Magic, Day 904

I didn’t see my first rainbow until I was 12 on the day my newborn brother died. In the middle of our house stuffed with grieving relatives, my younger brother and I quietly sipped soup at the kitchen counter early that evening until I noticed something strange and beautiful in the backyard. Within seconds, all of us were outside, amazed by a perfect arc over our house while my grandmothers, first in Yiddish, then in English, hugged us and said this was the miracle God gave us after taking our brother.

Why I didn’t see a rainbow until I was 12 was because I wasn’t looking, not having imagined rainbows were possible in real life. Growing up in Brooklyn, then central New Jersey, there were also a lot of buildings, trees, houses, and shopping malls in the way.

After I married an rainbow whisperer, able to read the sky and aim us toward wherever the most likely rainbow is, I learned that rainbows, especially in areas of the country prone to late afternoon storms, can be everyday happenings. “Not rare but precious,” Ruth Gendler wrote about beauty in her book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Nothing could be truer of rainbows in summertime Kansas, where mountains and an excess of trees don’t get in the way.

How to see a rainbow? When the sun is nearing one horizon, and dark clouds fill the other horizon, look carefully at those dark clouds directly across from the sun. Although I’ve slept through many early morning rainbows, I do catch early evening ones. When our often southwest-to-northeast storms have moved past us, and the setting sun breaks through its western clouds, poof! There’s a rainbow somewhere.

Meteorologically, we know light , reflected, refracted and dispersed through water droplets, cooks up rainbows. Looking at the meaning gets more tricky although symbolism abounds bout light piercing darkness. After the flood, the crew, animals and humans, on Noah’s arc witnessed a helluva rainbow, which we can call a symbol of hope, miracles, redemption, new beginnings, and according to the tale and film Finian’s Rainbow, our heart’s deepest dreams coming true (check out Fred Astaire and Petula Clark singing “Look to the Rainbow”). Living in Kansas, we can never escape all manner of Wizard of Oz references (step outside of the state, and someone is bound to say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”).  But of course, we also claim one of the best rainbow songs and singers of all time — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the ever-vibrant Judy Garland, who yearns to get the hell out of Kansas until she escapes. Then she yearns with all her being to be back under the rainbow.

Yesterday, walking into the Merc to buy a bunch of zucchini, one vibrant curve surprised me. As I stood at the entrance to the store in wonder, I pointed out the rainbow to a woman about to shop also. “Look like God has given us!” she said while starting to cry. “Yes,” I answered her. We both stared into the rainbow, taking many photos with our phones, which alerted would-be shoppers to stop and look up.

Driving home, it was rainbow slivers and half-arcs all the way until  a full rainbow, so vibrant and stunning that I couldn’t help but back myself up into the chigger-and-tick-filled tallgrass to take more photos. I remembered how the arc is just part of the full circle of a rainbow, which puts me in mind of a song Kelley Hunt and I wrote called “Miracle” with this chorus:

A round rainbow is called a glory.

What you survive in life is called a glory.

You never see the arc of it until after the storm.

To see the whole miracle, you have to hold on.

The workaday miracle is where you belong.

Last night’s rainbow, like the first rainbow I ever saw, soared over my home, reminding me again of the everyday miracles we’ve given, and also how we can never see the whole miracle until after the storm.

"I Will Not Be Afraid of Women" and Other Dar Williams Inspired Poetry: Everyday Magic, Day 886

xrm4tiidlrvud8m074mkTonight, I have the delight of opening for one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams, in her performance at the Lawrence Arts Center. To get ready, I wrote a bunch of new poems, all inspired by Dar’s lyrics from songs on her Mortal City album since her current tour is a 20th anniversary celebration of that groundbreaking album (“Iowa,” “The Christians and the Pagans” and lots of other Dar classics are on it).  While I’ve spent the last month writing these poems, the one I’m sharing here — dedicated to my sister-friends — came in a rush while taking a break from revising other poems). If you’re in Lawrence, come on down tonight to the arts center at 8 p.m. and join us! This poem steals lyrics (italicized) from two songs — “As Cool as I Am” and “Iowa.”

I Will Not Be Afraid of Women

 

Because I learned early and often that when it comes

to all those falls from great and gruesome heights,

there is no one like a sister, and it’s worth driving all night,

ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt,

to sit at her table and drink her tea while she agrees

that we’re here to dance out of the lines even if it means

we singe our hair in ways we can’t remember the next morning.

I will not be afraid to go to her, and to her, and her, and her

my whole life: the ones who hold my stories

like Christmas ornaments, careful not to drop the glass ones

or make fun of the ones made by my children’s baby hands so long ago.

I will hold her 3 a.m. phone call, when she says,

“it’s all broken or it’s all better,” and when I call,

she’ll remind me why we’re lucky in this life,

sistering me away from hoarding the horizon, and toward

the new song we’ll write, then sing over and over until we’re sure

it always existed, just like this friendship, and this one, and this one—

each made of of cedar and wind in the long walk at dusk,

lukewarm coffee we drink anyway because it makes us laugh,

or a long nap on her couch in the middle of a December day

when I didn’t know where else to go, so I went to her

with my tattered heart and shining breath, to say, “please,

gather me up,” and she did. I will never be afraid of the mirror

she is or holds up, and the real life beyond that mirror

where we get in her car and drive for the love of motion.

Saved (Again) By Music: Everyday Music, Day 860

Celebrating Claudia's birthday at the concert with Michel Loomis
Celebrating Claudia’s birthday at the concert with Michel Loomis

Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”

Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.

Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.

Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.

Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:

The Thread

 

My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”

the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.

The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch

shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.

The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped

my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.

The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity

in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes

of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath

of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.

All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,

afraid at the start, but about to do something

to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back

of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,

an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger

before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.

The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles

coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed

of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed

by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering

willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,

at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine

in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled

through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal

carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.

For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!