For the Love of the Song & the Singer: Remembering Martin Swinger: Everyday Magic, Day 1040

Martin singing to us at my kitchen table (Deb in purple)

Martin Swinger, a virtuoso singer and songwriter, died suddenly in early July, leaving behind his husband (and partner of 35 years) Brian and many broken hearts in his Asbury Park, N.J. home community, and prior to that, central Maine, where he was a mainstay of the music scene for years. But when I think of Martin, I see him at my kitchen table, serenading the then-coordinator of the TLAN, Deb Hensley, volunteers Nancy Hubble and Laura Ramberg, and me as we stuffed folders for the 2014 Power of Words conference.

He was like this: always bringing joy, humor, and the power of music to wherever he landed. He was gifted at helping in multiple other ways too: for the conference, he coordinator participant transportation, helped Deb with many pieces of the conference coordination, and generally brought a sense of peace and homecoming to all of us.

Then again, Martin knew how vital hospitality and art are to this world. He grew up gay in the South, falling in love with music and books of all kinds. In recent years, he went on to be quite decorated as a songwriter, winning many notable big-time contests and performing across the country, even to the delight of the late Pete Seeger and very-much alive Vance Gilbert and John Waters. His seven CDs won lots of well-deserved awards, including from American Song Competition, SolarFest, Rosegarden Coffeehouse and more. Audiences have adored him for decades for his warm and vibrant voice and eclectic blend of Americana, swing and jazz, traditional music, show tune, Klezmer music, and improvisation. Deb and Martin sang together like angels from an enchanted land, including in the group Brio.

Deb says of Martin: “Martin was a true prince of friend to me and to so many others who knew and loved him. He had a heart the size of Mars and talent to match. Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay.” But Martin’s songs will stay. Oh yes they will. And so will his love.”

Martin getting a standing ovation for his spectacular last-minute keynote concert

His generosity extended in other ways: when one of our keynote performers for the conference didn’t show up, Martin graciously volunteered to perform on the spot and for free (although we did extend to him a small stipend anyway). When he performed, he lifted a full house of conference goers, who had been waiting a while for the keynote, to their feet with original songs such as “Betty Boop and Buddha,” “Consider the Oyster,” and my favorite, “Little Plastic Part.” That song, about how breaking a tiny part of a vacuum that “makes the whole thing work” speaks to having a little part of our heart broken so that it doesn’t work anymore.

I can’t help thinking about how Martin himself was a little vital part with a big impact himself.

Find more about Martin here, and you can see him perform live on Youtube here. This post was published on the Transformative Language Arts blog.

“Life Will Break You”: A Year Since Everything Changed: Everyday Magic, Day 1031

Louise Erdrich, from her novel The Painted Drum

“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.

I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.

But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.

But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.

On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.

P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.

When I Don’t Know What Else to Do: Everyday Magic, Day 1025

Since the riots of hatred last Wednesday, it’s hard to get my bearings. Like most of the people I know, the word “unbelievable!” peppers many conversations which are often about despair, fear, insomnia, and especially how little we can do to change this situation at the moment. This is not to say that we-the-people don’t have some power and agency overall, but between now and the inauguration, there’s just a fog of foreboding and uncertainty.

What do when I don’t know what to do? Something/Anything, to riff off the name of one of Todd Rundgren’s old albums. I broke through some of the stagnancy Sunday by cutting colorful things up or out: fabric and vegetables. Finding a quilt pattern involving 128 triangles helped tremendously even if the pre-requisite was searching through my fabric collection, then ironing a whole lot of things. Slicing and dicing cauliflower, pears, potatoes, onions (for a great soup recipe), apples for an apple crisp, and a mess of tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, and zucchini (for a veggie lasagna) helped enormously.

Yesterday, I played with color in designing some memes for upcoming workshops, and later, I immersed myself in the chilly sunset sky by walking the wetlands with Kris. I remember how, in much more dire circumstances depicted in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (also one of the best books in the universe), Baby Suggs — anything but a baby and dying — could only find meaning in the colors of her quilt. “Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green” is a line that stays with me.

Right now though, I look across my room, thankful for the blues and golds in the quilt on the bed and the sky-filled windows. And that’s enough.

Nine Reasons to Give a Little (or a Lot): Everyday Magic, Day 978

One of the beautiful cards with Stephen Locke’s photography for patrons

As many of you know, I’m leaping from my day job of college-level teaching to creating more transformative writing, community-building writing workshops, and a podcast series on the power of words. I’m also asking for your help in supporting this leap. Here are nine reasons to consider being a patron through Patreon, a great online platform that helps writers, artists, innovators, and others do cool stuff in the world. You can see more here.

1. Perks: You get a signed book of your choice, gorgeous greeting cards with Stephen Locke’s photography and my poetry, and even a poem I write for you for a beloved.

2. Weekly Inspiration: All patrons get a post every Friday with something to spark creativity and magic in your life, art, and work, such as “The Care and Feeding of the Artist,” a podcast poetry reading, and tips on inventing your own inspiration.

3. Poetry Party!: Every time I cross the $100 mark each month (and we’re really close to another crossing), patrons get to call out (via the Patreon site or emailing me directly) words you want me to weave into a spontaneous poem I make up on the spot, record, and share with you. You can also watch the often hilarious and sometimes moving past poetry parties.

4. Satisfaction: Doesn’t it feel good to help someone live their dreams? Patrons get the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping me follow my calling.

5. Making Good Things Happen: Your contributions help me create new writing, workshops, and a podcast series (to launch this fall) on the power of writing and witnessing our truest stories.

I dress up a bit more than for the Poetry Party!

6. Ease: Becoming a patron is simple: You just click here, follow the directions, and within a few minutes, you’re in.

7. What a Deal!: For as little as $3/month, you can be a patron. Also, those little payments are easy to swallow each month.

8. Your Fellow Patrons: I’m not exaggerating when I say my patrons are exceeding passionate, innovative, and soulful change makers in this world. Come hang out with the cool kids;

9. The Power of Being a Patron: You don’t have to be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the work you love. You have the power to do that right now. Just wave the magic wand of your credit card over the Patreon page, and there you go!

You As a Poem (for Denise Low): Everyday Magic, Day 973

Last week, I had the honor of being one of the poets giving tribute to Denise Low, the past Kansas Poet Laureate and dear friend of 35 years. She was celebrated at the Spencer Library as a new part of its New American Poetry collection at a special event that also happened to occur on her 70th birthday. While one poem, even while full of references to Denise’s splendid writing, doesn’t do her justice, I wanted to share the poem I wrote for Denise. You can see much more about her at her website, on her blog, on the Map of Kansas Literature site, at Poets.org, and at the Poetry Foundation.

You As a Poem

for Denise

The poem would rise from fossils and columbarium

time-traveled from your memory or the continent’s,

through two ancient gates, rusting in the sun after hard rain.

 

You would watch the poem from behind a window,

your grandfather’s calm breathing behind you,

as you sipped a mocha from a chipped porcelain cup

painted with twining white clematis and one ruddy robin.

 

The poem would feed you a small butter cookie, shaped

like a shell to remind you of the inland ocean we once were,

while you listen as you often do for what the snow

or heat or first explosion of lilac sings now.

 

Later, the poem would take you and Tom to Wisconsin,

in January, in a near-blizzard of course, telling you stories

about the taste of bear or what dreams lived in ice.

 

There would be a woolly mammoth, but because Kansans

excel at elegant understatement, it wouldn’t be obvious,

but a silhouette of the great beast on the western horizon,

only visible when lightning strikes.

 

Like the sky, the poem would spin torrents of fish,

speed, and spirits breaking the drought tides into rivers,

many underground that your walking feet would trace

while you sip wine and regard the sky for what matters,

which once was a dog named Burroughs, low to the ground

but functional, and lately encompasses Jackalopes

and your granddaughter’s face turning toward you.

 

Maybe a martini would mosey into the poem, and certainly

trains at 3 a.m., leaving their whistles echoes as evidence.

There would be wind-leaning switchgrass, and a circular

silence below a solo cottonwood on a ridge of your childhood.

 

Mostly, though, there would be birds: stanzas of the quick

blue fire of Indigo Bunting, an exodus of wild geese,

a charm of goldfinch, and at dusk, a tunnel of chimney swifts

spiraling down to to a single word on each rooftop —

all the birds, you too, from so far away and so near,

coming home all the time, line by line by line.

~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Please consider supporting my Patreon campaign so that I can create moretransformative writing, workshops, and even a podcast series on the powerof words. More here: https://www.patreon.com/Carynmg