Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dream Time

Last night was the end of Hamfist's Winter Tour of Downtown Ashland, our four-week circumnavigation of a six block radius. We closed the "tour" at Caldera and packed the place. Admittedly, it only takes 30-40 people to pack the place, but we knew less than half the people in the room. It's good to know we can draw a crowd of people who are NOT our friends. It was a strong, tight show and I had a blast - well, except for a couple of times when I thought I was about to pass out onstage, but that's another story.

We played every weekend during the month of January and February brings a much-needed break. We will continue working on the soundtrack for Laney's short animated film, but other than that, February is dream time. We can learn new songs, re-arrange the old ones, throw some ideas around. We may even finally record the long-awaited Hamfist Christmas album.

We're at an interesting place musically. I fear that our varied interests may pull us in separate directions. My fascination with early jazz and blues is taking me further away from the cornpone vibe. The deep, old mountain tunes that haunt my mind are about as close as I come to "country" any more. I'm writing some songs of my own, but they aren't really Hamfist material. I don't know what they are, but I probably won't break them out with the band. Our shows are definitely not about people sitting quietly and listening intently. We play music that makes people move. I love that, I love whipping a crowd into a frenzy. It is a powerful feeling. I'm hooked.

But then the crowd thins out, Jesse and I start noodling, he launches into Paul Simon's America and we sing it note for note, word for word. My voice swells, the harmonies vibrate perfectly and a feeling washes through me that is indescribable. Balance and clarity and grace course through my veins. Everybody in the room stops and listens and, for one moment, I hold them all in the palm of my hand. For a few seconds, I hypnotize them with my voice.

Those moments complete me. They make me whole.

Friday, January 28, 2011


The insomnia has me by the balls tonight, the result, no doubt, of a day of spent as the world's karmic whore. That appellation paraphrases something I read on Rob Brezny site, one of my regular stopping places online. His advice this week for those of us who identify as Capricorns was to become a "karma whore," i.e. "someone who performs an abundant number of favors and acts of kindness in the hope of accumulating extra good karma." I tried to act out the role as a karma whore, but ended up as a karmic whore, someone who endures unearned slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as atonement for past sins. I took a hit for the team today, let them use me as their whipping boy for things that 1) I didn't do and 2)were way beyond my pay grade. I saw the shit storm coming all week and couldn't do a thing to stop it. Shit rolls down hill and guess who's desk is at the bottom? However, I had a bit of a breakthough: For the first time , I took it all in stride with a modicum of grace. Rather than stand up for myself and contend with the injustice, as I have done in the past, I allowed the bullshit to roll off of me without a word protest.

And this, friends, is the best that I can hope for in my career: numbness. My great ambition is to not care, to let none of it touch me. It's a good day when I can insulate myself from the insanity, keep my head down and my mouth shut. That's what it has come down to.

Leviticus tells us that, on the Day of Atonement, one must pay for her sins and sin is atoned for by the blood of the sacrificial victim. The high priest, after becoming ritually pure, offered a bull for his sins and the sins of his household. Then two goats were set aside. Lots were cast, and one goat was chosen to be the scapegoat or "Azazel." The High Priest slaughtered the other goat to atone for the sins of Israel and brought the blood into the temple. The scapegoat was sent away to be lost in the desert after the High Priest laid both hands on its head and confessed the sins of Israel. In this way, the sins of the nation were symbolically carried off into the desert.

It feel like the sins of the organization were ritually laid upon head today and I was sent off to be lost in the desert. And I let it happen without a word of protest.

I sweat blood at my job, I work like a field hand, but I get no more support or respect than those who do as little as humanly possible. My ridiculous work ethic earns me more resentment than respect; the slackers suffer in comparison and they don't appreciate it. Since some of my so-called superiors are among them, it makes for a tricky situation.

Look, I get it: I'm not allowed to complain about work. I am employed (peripherally) in a field I love, doing work I respect with people I like. They've even begun to let me work from home part-time. But the pettiness, the back biting, the paranoia, the snobbery, the ruthlessness, the rigid hierarchies, the smug self-satisfaction - it all becomes too much sometimes. My first conscious thought in the morning is one of dread at another work day. The uselessness of it, the years of wasted effort, it wears me down.

Psychologist Albert Ellis identified one of the scripts that runs in a neurotic mind : "I absolutely must, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important -- and sacred -- respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer." There have been times when I've struggled with that brand of neurosis. I have to remind myself daily that, despite my flaws, I'm a worthy person who does not deserve to suffer. Working for an organization that suffers from the same delusion doesn't help.

And yet, I endure; they haven't chased me away yet. Mama used to say, "don't let 'em beat you, baby. Don't let them beat you." Bloodied but unbowed, I stand my ground. But damn, I'm tired of the fight. Is this really how we are meant to live our lives, toiling pointlessly in quiet desperation?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Words Fly Up

Scout said, "Neighbors bring food with death, flowers with sickness, and little things in between." In the course of one day, I wrote a comforting note to a friend who has cancer, wrote another comforting note to a friend locked in an ugly custody battle, received notice of an upcoming funeral and sent a photo of a long-deceased friend to his widow. An incurable problem-solver, there are some problems that I cannot solve. All I can do is send my love and support. All I can do visualize healing, peace, resolution, and hope for the best.

It was the photo that sent my thoughts down this track today. I received a Facebook message from my old friend Sue (Facebook - it's a brave new world.) She lost all of her photo albums in a robbery and wrote to ask if I had any pictures of her deceased husband, my long-ago former partner, Toby. I didn't have any photos of Toby (he was notoriously camera shy) but, strangely enough, Sequoia did. Sequoia has been digitizing his father's collection of slides and found some photos of our wedding, including one with Toby in the background. He zoomed in and managed to capture a striking photo of Toby, the only remaining image of him left in this world.

Typical that this photo would surface exactly when needed. Toby had that effect.

Some day I'll write about Toby, but not yet. He's been dead now for, what, seven, eight years? I don't even know. I hadn't seen him in more than a decade when I heard the news. I always expected to run into him at some hippie gathering or Dead show. I was certain I'd turn a corner and there he'd be, waiting for me.

Maybe he's waiting for me "on the other side," but I don't really believe that. I'd pray for him and all the others if I could, but as Claudius said so well, "my words fly up, my thoughts remain below." It's difficult for an agnostic to pray with a straight face. Who do I think I'm fooling? I've long believed that, when the oil is spent, the light goes out. Prayer cannot reignite the flame.

I have no faith, but I still have hope. Maybe that's all prayer is: hope coupled with magical thinking.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Things I Leave Behind

I burned this:
Dear Stephany L Smith Pearson

Congratulations! you have completely paid off your education loans starred (*) below. Your original promissory notes are enclosed, marked "Paid in Full."

Enclosed were handwritten loan applications dated 3/13/87. Under "address" I listed Roca Street, Ashland. Under dependents I listed 2, ages 4 yrs and 7 months. The document had lived in some bank file cabinet for seven years while I worked and scrimped to pay my student loans. It is hand stamped "Paid" in beautiful blue ink. It served as a talisman for many years, but I can leave it behind. I don't need it any more.

I burned the the tuition bills I paid for Arly to attend the University of Oregon. I burned the notes I made at the meeting for parents before she left for her student exchange in Guanajuato.

I tried, but I couldn't burn the list she made prior to her departure: "Clothes, Shoes, Bathroom stuff, Books, School supplies, Pictures, Jewelry, Passport + stuff" written in her neat child's hand. I'll be ready to burn them some day, but not yet.

Is nostalgia merely a mask for regret? Do I romanticize the past in order to dodge responsibilty for the poor choices I made, the damage I did?

I'm feeling the need to purge, but obviously there are some things I'm not ready to release. Conversely I create a file for each of my daughters and seeded them cryptic but significant odds and ends: the drawing a friend made for Kiva when she was born, a cartoon she drew in high school, postcards Arly sent home from her travels.

I imagine them sorting through my crap after I'm dead, just as I did after my parents died, just as Sequoia is now doing for his dad, that inevitable, eye-opening task. I imagine each of them finding her coded message and trying to figure out what it means. I wish I knew.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Un Vie

Recently, young women have approached me after performances to say how much they admire an older woman like myself really putting it all out there. I doubt that my daughters would share that admiration; I think they'd be happier if I had been more of a quiet homemaking mom, a little less like a flamboyant character out of a de Maupassant short story. The grass is always greener, right? I'm glad to act as some kind of signifier in these young women's world view, the strong, confident, older woman, but that's not how I think of myself. There's no-one who second guesses herself more than I do, no-one who tears herself down or beats herself up more. I think these young women are mistaking clarity for confidence. I'm finally, finally at an age where I know who I am and what I want. I know, that I have absolutely no time to waste playing coy. If I want to make music, I can't wait to be invited. I have to put myself out there and risk making a fool of myself because my risk taking, fool-making opportunities are rapidly dwindling and I'll miss them when their gone.

Maybe clarity projects as confidence, I don't know. I just know that this is what I need to be doing. It is fascinating to find myself adopted as a role model at this stage of the game. Not widely mind you, but still. Being admired is a new experience for me. Live long enough and people will admire you for surviving, if for nothing else.

Friday, January 7, 2011


The summers of my youth were intensely hot out there on the edge of the Mojave. It once topped 110 degrees every day for two weeks straight. We'd go for drives just so we could roll down the windows, but even a 60 MPH breeze was no match for that heat. It washed all the color from the landscape, leaving everything white and dusty as if the world was coated in a sheet of frosted glass. I'd hide in our den for hours, perched in front of the window cooler, twisting the dial till it almost came off in my hand. Around noon, we'd put on our bathing suits and ride our bikes to the public pool, rubber bathing caps swinging from the handle bars. Rubber bathing caps were one of the cruel tortures of my 60s childhood. The were hideously ugly and uncomfortable, but I didn't care; I would have worn a diving mask if that's what was required to get into that pool. It cost a quarter to get in, a dime for a popsicle. We'd swim for hours and hours until our hair turned green and brittle and the brown San Berdoo air made our lungs ache. Every two hours, they'd force us out for a mandatory rest period. I never bothered to bring a towel, Ijust lay directly on the concrete deck and felt the moisture evaporate off my back. I loved to stretch my body out on the concrete and then carefully peel myself up, leaving a wet impression on the deck like some crime scene outline. It was so hot, my silhouette would evaporate in a matter of seconds. I used to love to watch myself disappear.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You Say It's Your Birthday

I've been reading Minerva's weekly horoscope in the San Francisco Chronicle's Pink Pages for, like, a million years. I now read it online. Today, she finally posted her predictions for 2011. Here's Capricorn's:

CAPRICORN (Dec. 21-Jan. 19)
Home is where your heart is as you go merrily about refurbishing houses, mending fences, canning peaches, joining the PTA, etc. Sound ho-hum? You won't think so when June brings a sudden urge to PARTY! Come fall, you'll not only have new young energy in your life -- very possibly a lover-- but a hobby or creative interest that takes off big time. Make a decision about you on Jan. 4. and expect to reap the results July 15.

Notice the "big decision on January 4"? That's today. It's also my birthday. Wonder what I'm going to decide?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Last Stand

Yes, it's odd to start the new year with a post titled "Unto the Gates of Hell." Sometimes phrases pop into my head and, as a writer, I greatly respect unbidden messages from the subconscious. If my mind is trying to tell me something, I ignore it at my peril.

The phrase "unto the gates of hell" reminds me of a warrior on the precipice of disaster, back against the wall, fighting against almost certain defeat. She faces the massed hordes with only her faithful companions at her side.

The future feels shaky to me, like anything could happen at any time. In the face of uncertainty, this is where I make my stand; these are the people I stand with.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Unto the Gates of Hell

"I went to Staten Island, Sharon
to buy myself a mandolin...

Nineteen years old, driving my VW Bug over the Grapevine Interchange into LA with nothing but an AM radio and no reception, I entertained myself by singing Joni Mitchell's album Hejira from start to finish because, of course, I knew all the words. Winding from Buttonwillow and Ventura with the window down and my hair blowing, singing at the top of my lungs. Her Song for Sharon was a touchstone. Descending into the smog, I thought I might be Joni, but it turns out I'm Sharon instead, with my husband and my home. I sang for my friends and my family last night, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with the people I wanted to be doing it with and it was sweet.

"Sharon you've got a husband
And a family and a farm
I've got the apple of temptation
And a diamond snake around my arm
But you still have your music
And I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I'll walk green pastures by and by.

What Joni doesn't seem to realize is that Sharon longs for the diamond snake as much as Joni longs for the family and the farm. Every life is a series of compromises, accommodations. Reality is a bitch, man. I was so certain of who I was and what I wanted when I was 19 years old, but you can't always get what you want, can you? You work with what you're given, make the most of your opportunities. Making choices inevitably narrows the horizon, eliminates options, but the alternative is to become paralyzed, impotent, to do nothing.

So, we make our choices - what do we carry with us? What do we leave behind? Because, it's inevitable: some things must be left behind. But, some things endure. My family, my community, my music; this is what endures. This is what I carry with me unto the gates of hell.