Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Adventures of a Sexagenarian Singer Songwriter

It has been an exhausting few weeks here for yours truly. Summer is by itself exhausting. The only season that comes even close for luring one out of one’s house and into society for pleasure, activity, and enervation would be the Christmas holidays, a season which is shorter in duration.
The fine weather has been calling me (and you) to more than ordinary exertions. There are beaches to walk, picnics to attend, trails to hike, pools and other bodies of water in which to swim, mosquitoes to slap – in short, the fun never stops.
For me the fun has taken the form of songs to be sung to appreciative audiences. I have performed twice this summer.
To be a performer you have to have the willingness to get up in public and make a fool of yourself, and not everyone has that willingness. I call it “being vaccinated with a hambone.” Many talented, clever people would rather be dead in a ditch than have to get up on a stage to speak or sing or dance or act. To the rest of us the interaction with an audience is the breath of life.
I’ve been inhaling deeply lately. I won’t lie to you. I love performing. It’s a pain in the butt to be a performer, though. You have to work when others are playing; you have to leave your perfectly lovely home and wonderful family to go to work; you have to put out a lot of time, effort, and money before you get anything back; and everyone thinks you’re not working, you’re playing.
Women, Women & Song did a set at the Strawberry Festival to a large and enthusiastic crowd of old friends and a few new admirers. It was heady stuff. To get up and sing the favorite old songs was comfortable, and wonderful – and took us four weeks of rehearsal to pull off. I had made up a few CDs of our first album, “I Won’t Wait to Be Happy,” which sold out immediately.
The next week I played solo for the Vashon Saturday Farmer’s Market. Not so many turned out for this gig – I am not so legendary and loved solo as the trio is, but a lot of people did turn out. This time I had to sing two sets solo instead of one set with the trio, and it was hard work for the old sexagenarian. I had made more copies of “I Won’t Wait to Be Happy,” and also of the second album, “The Key of ‘R.’” My cousin Nancy and I spent most of one day and part of another doing what Nancy calls, “Arts and Crafts 101,” burning CDs, designing covers, printing covers and labels, cutting paper to size and folding it, and sticking labels on discs.
It is easier in some ways to be a singer-songwriter than it was when I was younger. I am not so distracted by worldly things, such as, for example, men, as I was years ago. My concerns these days are more spiritual and more prosaic – singing and writing are the only work I can do. I don’t have the stamina for gainful employment of the five days a week sort. The irony is not lost on me that it has taken illness to force me to fall back on the work I do well.
I won’t make a lot of money – perhaps not any in the long run. So why do it? Well, because it’s a calling, and because it is important for people to sing their truth, and to hear other people sing their truth. It’s easy to forget this when you go out to sing and people walk by trying to avoid eye contact. It’s easy to think, who cares? Why the hell am I doing this?
You always have to remember that this is a calling, a vocation, and you’d better enjoy what you do for the sake of doing it. If your art isn’t your joy, there is no point to being any kind of artist.
So this is what it is to be a sixty-year-old songwriter. After decades of striving for self-improvement, of seeking to become transformed through work and prayer and meditation and study into the best version of the person I was born to be, after all that, I find at last that I am left with no alternative but to be myself. I have arrived here partly through my strength and endeavor, but what has really kicked me through the door has been weakness -- the failure of my body to keep going as if I have not aged. I am forced, at long last, to be myself.
Life is full of these odd surprises.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Concerts, Haircuts & so forth

Dear Hearts and Gentle People,
Below find the latest smart aleck essay, which is in fact a rerun from about five years ago. I was too busy rehearsing last week to come up with something new before deadline, so did the desperate thing and looked up an old one to send in. I apologize for the repeat, but hope you enjoy it.
The Women, Women & Song set at the Vashon Island Strawberry Festival last weekend (July 12) was a whopping success. We got into the groove and sang a clutch of clever songs as fast as we could, because we only had 40 minutes, and had to leave out one or two anyway. The crowd went wild, bless their hearts. It was a great experience, and worth the effort it took for the three of us to put it together after all these years.
We sold all of our CDs on hand on the spot. I've made some more, though, of both "I Won't Wait to Be Happy," our first album, and "The Key of 'R,'" our second album. I will have those for sale when I sing tomorrw at the Vashon Farmer's Market (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). If you think you might be interested in getting some CDs, by all means email me at: mary.litchfieldtuel@gmail.com, and put "CDs" in the subject line so I'll know it's not spam.
I'm planning to make a few CDs of songs we never released -- more of that anon.
Any money garnered from these sales will be charitably distributed to the three of us.
Yesterday there was a meeting at Congressman Jim McDermott's office in Seattle to discuss starting impeachment proceedings against various members of the current administration. I wanted to go, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Linda Boyd, who was in the meeting, told me to call McDermott's office and she'd put me on the speaker phone, so I did, and she did, and I sang, "Impeach the SOBs" for the assembled group (about 18 people, Linda Boyd emailed me later. She said the song "brought a smile to the face" of McDermott's aide). I report this as the first time I have literally phoned a song in.
I have more to say, but hey, you've got a life and probably want to get on with it. More later.
blessings, love, peace, grace & hope to you all
Mary

Island Survival Guide, Part 1: the Haircut
As the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war, climate meltdown, and the extinction of the human race, my thoughts turn to issues of survival. Specifically, how will we get our hair cut?
There are a number of professional cosmetologists here on the island, many of whom have cut my hair at one time or another the last 30 years, and I think they are all great. If you can afford it, have a professional cut your hair. They are trained, they know what they are doing, and they can see the back of your head. Those things are worth every cent of the money you pay them, plus the tip. If you don’t like the results, you can complain, or switch stylists, and you know that what you don’t like is not your fault.
When I was employed full time, I got my hair cut regularly, but about a year ago I decided to pursue that college degree I never completed. I left my job, and started taking classes. Suddenly the professional haircut seemed like a big expense.
My father-in-law has a description for my hair: “Explosion in a Brillo™ factory.” For a while after I left my job, I allowed my follicle universe to expand, and the formerly disciplined curls began to spread out and wave joyously in the breeze. At the end of the college spring quarter, I went to the Cosmetology Department at the college and got a $5 haircut from one of the students. It was a good haircut, and I tipped the young Vietnamese woman who did the job generously. Including the tip it was still the cheapest hair cut I’d had in years.
Time passed, hair grew. I used to cut my hair myself at one time, but when you trim your own hair and then go to a professional, the professional tends to scold you for cutting it yourself, and sometimes they say a few harsh words about how hard it will be to fix the mess you’ve made.
I have a dear friend, whom I will call “Becky,” who cuts her own hair, and has curly hair also. This fall I had a bright idea: we could cut each other’s hair for free. So I suggested this to her and she was game.
Rick and I went over to “Becky and Roy’s” for dinner, and after dinner Becky cut my hair and then I cut hers.
Here’s what I learned from swapping haircuts with a friend.
First of all, be certain that the friendship is solid. Giving a person what they consider a bad haircut can be more divisive than having differing opinions about, say, Hillary Clinton, or George W. Bush. Becky and I both worried about whether our relationship would stand this test (it did).
Second, the wine we had with dinner – I still don’t know if that was a good idea. When Becky was cutting my hair, it seemed like a good idea, because I was relaxed and didn’t give a whoop what she was doing. When I was cutting her hair, it seemed like a bad idea, because it didn’t seem like drinking was the proper preparation for cutting someone’s hair. So if you’re considering this haircut option, ask yourself: How sober do I want to be when I pick up the scissors? It’s a question worth pondering.
Third, if either of you have teenage children, you probably should not allow them to watch the haircut process. They tend to provide running commentary as you work. I’m not mentioning any “names” here.
Finally, keep in mind two old clich├ęs: (1) you get what you pay for, and (2) the difference between a bad haircut and a good one is about two weeks.
My swap haircut was fine, but it grew out, and strangely enough I couldn’t get Becky to commit to another round. You can’t figure some people. So this morning I went into the bathroom with a pair of scissors and trimmed my own hair. What the heck. We’re all going to die anyway, and I don’t need a great haircut to be dead. Although I did spend about ten minutes working on my dead mother’s hair at the mortuary, trying to get it to look the way she liked it. But that’s another story.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mules & Singing My Heart

My email to Terry Hershey after reading his piece, “Rested Mules:”*
Dear Terry,
Just read - all the way to the end, because I didn't have TIME before - the piece which said so much about mules.
I suppose it's just god-incidence that I have been thinking about mules so much lately. I'd like to have one, but that's a dream - no place to keep a mule here at Casa Tuel, no pasture, and besides, not enough money to support a mule in style. But I have this idea that I could find a mule strong enough to carry me. I'm large, you know, and heavy.
When I was growing up on the farm, I had a donkey that I rode, and taught tricks: lie down, sit, shake. He taught himself the trick of going under a low apple tree branch when he was tired of me riding him. Later I had a horse but the horse was not so much fun as the donkey.
Well, anyway - I don't know if you read my column in the Loop, so I'll give you the background - last September I was feeling poorly and went to the doctor and discovered that I had bronchitis (which I expected), AND sinusitis AND pneumonia AND mononucleosis (none of which I expected). And I've been recovering ever since. Spent so much of the winter on the couch, knitting. Kept trying to get up and do things - and realized that no, this was not my time for doing things. I felt frustrated that it took so long to get better.
Somehow the last couple of weeks I've been getting this perspective: I'm still not fit enough to go out and get a job or anything serious like that, but I feel better than I had felt in about four years. Leading up to the mono I thought I must have heart disease - I got tired out so easily; I couldn't do the house work anymore.
Now, suddenly, the picture is coming into focus: my heart is, strangely enough when you consider my family history, not in bad shape. Two angiograms confirmed that. I'm starting to think that maybe I was just...tired?
I was raising a grandchild and being a newspaper editor (which meant also reporting and photography) and doing the rest of life - the house, the shopping, household book keeping, writing my column, singing in the church choir - I expected all that of myself. When people asked me to do something I invariably said, "Sure!" And I was in my late 50s.
Now, after all these months of being sick, of being FORCED to rest, the picture is clearing up. I can't do all of everything, can I? I've rested for about ten months now, and I'm starting to feel better, starting to be able to do a few things, and am taking time to rest intentionally instead of going flat out until I keel over, which I see now has always been my pattern.
I'm starting to sing again. Singing and songwriting was my first career - paid little, but meant so much, to me and to other people, and now I'm back to my first holy call.
Daunting to pick it up at age 60. I don't expect to make a lot of money, or if I'll even be able to support this "career," but I'm feeling called to do it again - in a slow, intermittent, as-I-can fashion. Can't push myself too far or too hard. It is interesting to me that after years of running around like a chicken with its head cut off, life, God, is bringing me back to my first calling - singing and songwriting - and that I feel affirmation everywhere for the importance of human hearts singing to one another and singing together. I keep remembering that if one song touches one person and makes them laugh and gives them courage to keep going or even to hope, then I have "done" enough "doing" to make my life worthwhile in the "doing" category. I know that God loves me because I am, but it feeds my soul to know that my work feeds other souls. Know what I mean?
Your sabbath pieces have been with me through these long months of illness and recovery, and have meant so much, and I thank you. They have made me laugh and given me courage to keep going and to hope - and have reminded me that I will "go" and "hope" in better harmony (harmony is important to a singer) with my spirit if I rest and recover. Amazing to me how long it takes for this lesson to sink in, how every time it comes around it sinks, oh, maybe another sixteenth of an inch into my heart and brain. Well, whatever it takes.
So that's my story as of this morning.
*Dear Readers: I am on an emailing list from Terry Hershey. Once a week he sends out “Sabbath Moments.” The latest one, “Rested Mules,” struck a lot of chords with me, and I wrote an email to Terry with my story, which is what I've published here. To read the “Rested Mules” piece which kicked this off, go to Terry’s web page at: http://www.terryhershey.com/ and click on “Rested Mules.”
For further inspiration regarding the importance of singing, see the movie, “Amandla,” a documentary about the music that was part of the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.
I charge you today to sing your heart.