Stay in the game: Getting over “hot yoga” and “super-bad MMA” delusions

 

You know the feeling. You tell someone you train in jiu jitsu, and they get this faraway gleam in their eye. Like they are seeing themselves in a super hero costume in a ring surrounded by applauding fans. “I’ve really been thinking about trying that,” they say, “where is it you train again?” You know they will never leave the comfort of their comfy sofa and illusions of what being trained could be. They will never feel the sting of sweat in their eyes as they try for one more round of practicing a technique, knowing that after this night there will be dozens more before it really begins to sink in.

Both yoga and jiu jitsu are undergoing sea changes in American and global culture today. And guess what, it ain’t all good. Big surprise, American propensity for instant gratification and commercialization of experience is pushing both of these traditional arts towards more intensity, more surface-level drama, easy wins, and less deepening of awareness and disciplined dedication to making one’s entire life better, as well as the lives of those around them. Now we want yoga and jiu jitsu to make our egos better. To make us feel like we are more special than the other guy. To make us seem powerful, when really we hardly know ourselves. Nah. This ain’t right and I’m not having it.

A friend said to me recently, “it’s only a matter of time until hot yoga hits Jackson,” with a tone of doom in her voice. Here’s my response to that: NO. Those of us who get the benefits of the deep practice of these art forms MUST hold the line. We must educate others, continue to cultivate strong practice, give all effort towards self-improvement in the context of making everyone else in that class better as well, and for sure we must stay in the game. No quitting. No leaving the spoils to the victors. This is but a moment in time and this too shall pass.

 

 

In the ring: lessons learned from my first Jiu Jitsu tournament

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I get this text from my roommate Jessica, it’s meant to be simply informative. She knows it’s my first jiu jitsu tournament and I am not clear on how it all works.

“Pit times is like being on deck, where they’ll get the people in your division together first and then take you to your ring.”

Simple, right? Merely factual. Yet the words “take you to your ring” sent a thrill of powerful fear and excitement up my spine. For someone who never intended to train in grappling arts, the idea of being in the ring with anybody seemed so foreign – maybe even insane. Life is hard enough, filled at times with complications and difficult people…why voluntarily step into the ring for a fight I didn’t actually have to engage in? Why not stay home and watch Netflix?

The choice to compete in the AGF tournament at Millsaps College was a last-minute decision, based in part on the assumption that competing is an efficient way to identify important holes in my game. Thus, a way to make my training more effective. I was also curious. Maybe I would hate it…maybe I would love it. There’s only one way to find out. As one of my teachers says, “you can’t learn to swim if you won’t get wet.”

So, I signed up and showed up. As I packed my stuff to head out, my well-worn yoga mat beckoned me from the basket I keep it in. “Bring me,” it seemed to say. I thought, hmm, I may be the only person there with a yoga mat. The only person doing yoga prior to a meet. But that did not dissuade me. Over the course of my life it happens more and more that I’m the only one doing a particular thing. If I let that stop me I would miss out on a lot of fun and also not be able to achieve excellence. Think about it – excellence is often defined by innovation. And innovators by the very definition do something no one else does.

I signed in at the tournament, and weighed in. That part was strange because I’ve lost so much weight. I was slightly terrified that the weight I had used to register was a bad reading from the scale at the gym. I feared getting on the scale on tournament day and some huge number popping up that would delay my match and create the need for a reshuffle of weight classes. None of that happened. The number on the scale was a little less than one pound off what I had used to register. Mischief managed.

The fear that had been getting to me in the week leading up to the tournament was my nervousness about the take down. I’ve always been able to have that experience in the controlled environment of a class with a training partner I know. This match would be different. I feared getting thrown hard or slammed to the ground and then having some kind of mental or emotional freak out that would be unpleasant, negatively affect my game, and cause me to not have a good experience.

So far, one of the best lessons jiu jitsu has taught me is to take action – to move – rather than to wait passively to see what happens. Or to wait for someone else to take charge. As I debated how to handle my fear on tournament day, I realized that I could think of some proactive options. Rather than being afraid of how I would get taken down, I thought of a way to initiate a take-down that would help me to avoid the situation I feared, namely, getting slammed to the ground too hard.

I asked one of my coaches if I could do a level change, drop down to one knee, and take my partner down by the legs.  He thought that would be fine. In this way, I would already be on the ground, and so not stuck in my intense fear of getting slammed down from standing. In my match, I applied this technique and it felt so great both to have faced my fear and also to find a reasonable solution or strategy.

I didn’t win my match but I did get the take down. That was fun!

The other key for me was that well-worn yoga mat. While I did take an hour to cheer other teammates on and talk to some friends, in the period right before my match something inside me said, do some yoga, do it now. While most of the students were still chatting, I rolled out the mat. At first I was a bit self-conscious, but yoga, my faithful practice, never ever disappoints me. After a few minutes my focus shifted to my breathing, my balance, and the familiar poses. I allowed my mind to still. And when they called me to the pit I felt ready and at peace. As I stood in line, I felt excitement but almost no nervousness. Even when my opponent came towards me, I had a calm feeling –  a happy excitement I could almost call joy.

The lessons learned from this day are this: when facing fears in an unfamiliar setting, it’s possible to take control by assessing options and picking one that suits my needs. I don’t have to wait for someone else to help me do that; I can initiate the process and thus gain confidence. And, I can prepare mentally for any challenge by going back to what always works for me. For some folks, it might be talking to classmates or to their coach. For me, it’s the practice of yoga which inevitably calms and centers me. Even if I was the only person with a yoga mat, it was what I needed and I’m happy I did it.

As I said, I didn’t win my match. The day felt like a personal win however. I tried something new. I faced my fear.  I gave it my best shot. I enjoyed doing jiu jitsu with a stranger, and I found out some of the areas of defense I need to study up on. Are you wondering, is she going to try tournament competing again? If you are, well, I’m wondering the same thing! Stay tuned….

 

 

 

Thanks, Guys! How “Not Today, Motherf$%^&er!” inspired me and my male jiu jitsu classmate

I’ve been taking Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes for just over a year now and I’ve tried a couple of times to write a blog remarking on my experiences. I like writing the blog and it seemed since I wrote about yoga that I might also write about this experience. None of my drafts about jiu jitsu so far have felt right – the angles were too inauthentic – or, to put it more kindly, too shallow.

The depth of impact of this martial art on my life is almost unbelievable. In a year, I went down four sizes in clothing and became bizarrely able to hang in an hour-long intense kickboxing session that leaves me uplifted and bouncingly energetic. Sometimes I wonder to myself, who the heck is this person that I’ve become? I will say there was a time in my life when I was much more athletic, around the time I was 14. Sometime shortly after that I drifted away from it.

And really, it’s taken a year just to allow myself to accept the goodness and blessings that have come my way from consistently and patiently keeping after this. To accept that the blessings are here, and then to want to share them with others. I’m writing now to offer my profound joy and sense of wholeness from training with men who are deeply committed to empowering women to life without violence. It’s truly amazing. I was skeptical and scared at first. I didn’t trust any of these guys – I didn’t know them, and, they are mostly pretty strong and/or fit. Trusting strange men seemed way too scary! And yet, I wanted very much to learn jiu jitsu.

In my life, I have been the victim of the following crimes, all committed by men: armed robbery, physical assault robbery, peeping Tom pressing against the door of my home, date rape, sexual harassment, and cyber stalking. I have also suffered the consequences of lowered energy from countless fear-based decisions: to not walk at night, to not wear a skirt to draw attention to my legs, to be wary of men no matter what.  I promise, I try hard to be optimistic to guys and give them the benefit of the doubt. But after all this life experience, can you blame me for the skepticism and, the fear?

A year later I’m in the thick of it – this contented space of training, improving, getting to know my classmates, laughing with them and also getting on each other’s nerves, and best of all, learning how to power through my own mental resistance. As yoga has been, this place of jiu jitsu training has become a stable and a reliable way for me to improve my life both on and off the mat. A buddy from class told me he saw the story about the “not today mother%^^&er” photo on Instagram and how amazing it was. You may have seen this – the woman who was jogging and stopped to use a public restroom where she was assaulted.

My classmate and I talked about how the woman had been pulled down, but, like we learn in our art form of Jiu Jitsu, was able to persevere and regain the advantage. She had recently taken a self-defense class. We talked about how we wished all women could do that.  Not only that, we were both super impressed with the look in her eyes on her Instagram picture. Not one speck of shame even with her black eye and swollen lip. She wasn’t concerned with not looking pretty. There was only survivor’s thrill and radiant pride in being powerful and alive.  My buddy told me how it inspired him to show up on a night when he’d been wanting to skip class. His joy and his truth in appreciation for her courage and her success really meant something to me. We could both share in her triumph and be inspired.

This is a difficult year for women in America. No matter how you voted in the presidential election, it is genuinely impossible to argue that the new administration is a loyal friend to American women. Sometimes these changes are too upsetting for me to really talk about without sputtering in a rage unfit for civil discourse. I will say the women’s marches creating a new record in American history helped. I still feel fear and yet also determination to handle myself and my own emotions & channel them towards a positive outcome.

So rather than complain or share anger today, I want to offer this – an ode to men who care. Who are comfortable being inspired by a strong woman. Who dedicate time and mental energy to making women’s lives free from violence. Who give girls chances to try martial arts. Who help me on the mat on my good days and my bad ones. THANKS, GUYS! It really means the world to me.

See you on the mat!

 

 

 

 

A clear and steady climb: emerging from a temporary disability

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When I was staring my graduate program at UCLA I had a very difficult year because I was taken down with a temporary disability. Due to tendonitis/carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands and wrists, I found myself unable to write, or play guitar, or even really use my hands much at all. I could not chop vegetables. I could barely brush my teeth. It scared me deeply. I was at a very competitive graduate program with tons of high-quality people and a lot on the line including a big scholarship.

When I got diagnosed I hit this weird place. Traditional medicine first offered me a rolling office chair and ice packs. That didn’t help. Their next offer was surgery on both hands. That seemed an extreme option.  I had a hard time knowing what to do because they were the experts, but, something in my gut was telling me not to go that route. I prayed about it for some time and one night I was filled with the knowledge of what was ahead. I’m not sure how, but I simply knew.  I understood that I had two pathways ahead of me –  either get the surgery, and become worse and need more surgery, or, handle myself. Make some real changes in my day to day life and commit to that. Be willing to change at a fundamental level. Be willing to stop the train I had been on – just – stop. Let go of it.

The second option was the path I took – to make a real change. It scared me because it immediately made me different from all the other people I was competing with. I took advantage of every bit of assistance at school that was offered (like a note taker for my classes when I could not write my own notes). And I reached into the realm of alternative medicine. Some of it was just not for me at all. There are definitely a lot of quacks and clueless people out there.  But I found a few things that fit very well.  Yoga therapeutics was one. Stress management another. Ayurveda medicine had some good remedies for nerve damage. Introspection and prayer became my regular start to the day. And I walked a lot, taking time to really look around me and not be so focused on competing or proving myself.

The hardest part was not being able to play my guitar for about 9 months. I was terrified that I would possibly never play it again. For me that would have been a hard life because my guitar is my outlet. I was also scared that I might not be able to work a job because my hands were weak and sore and I couldn’t use them. I could not envision any future careers where I could do them without typing or writing.  I worried that my future was just going to be horrible.

Slowly I found release from the injury and the fear. Strangely, people I didn’t know that well would reach out, offer help, give me options and free or inexpensive treatment resources. It was sometimes hard to accept help.

I was used to being the top student and so being injured was a real shift. I had to let go of this sense of not being able to compete with my classmates. They were all fully functioning and I was sidelined.  I took notes with an audio recorder. I took exams verbally instead of writing them. I had to work all these modifications and alternatives. I was really frustrated because none of the other students had to do that. It felt so awkward having to admit I couldn’t do what they were doing. I was the only one who had to deal with that and work around it.

Well, when that academic year was done and the rankings came out in letters to each student, I was amazed that I was ranked number one in my class. Even though I had to modify, I kept up and learned all that I needed to learn and then some. I kicked that year to the curb.  I didn’t do it by going along with what everyone else was doing. I did it by taking the time for contemplation and prayer and by listening deeply to my intuition. This led me to take a path that was much different from the people around me. I trusted that and the results were very satisfying.

My injuries healed to a moderate level in about a year. I was able to make it and get out of the sidelines and back into the norm. But even better, about 4 years after that, I was not only back completely, I was stronger than before. I could notice stress in my body more quickly and adapt long before it got to be an ongoing problem. I found that I could play a three-hour set on guitar with hardly a break, something I’d never done before the injury. That to me was an amazing accomplishment – a testament to my own power and also the spiritual wisdom available when we make the decision to listen.

I’m aware that not every story of injury or disability will have a happy ending. However, for me the pathway out of that horrifying experience was a clear and steady climb. I made my way by accepting lots of help, and trusting my instincts about how to make things better for myself, even when it meant doing something very different from everyone else around me.

 

 

 

 

Roses for Nona Mae

The gift of good memories – that’s what she gave me, and many others. My maternal grandmother Nona Mae Knight Prichard lived a long and valuable life, contributing hope and encouragement while maintaining a strong barrier against the forces that can knock us down: discouragement, despair, loneliness and regret.
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The best part of growing up, hands down –  the annual visits to Sunflower County, Mississippi. Early on out in the country by Macon Lake, and later in the very small town of Inverness.
Driving there recently, I felt the pull of these good memories like a strong magnet. I made the trip to visit the cemetery where my grandmother was laid to rest. The air was alive with memory; a breeze lifted the leaves on a nearby tree, and scores of dragonflies hovered high in the air like living kites.
The time shared in the company of someone you deeply love makes a mark on you. Though she was like all of us –  imperfect – my grandmother had values that I admire. To focus on blessings and be thankful, to invite everyone to the table – including ex’s, new spouses – I mean, everyone, and to always love deeply the things that are most special about a person.
It was a gift she had – to recognize someone’s passion or that thing that made them light up – and get them talking about it. She also had a knack for the small details that made gatherings special – the ever-present red and green foil-wrapped Hershey’s kisses, Mr. and Mrs. Claus skating on a mirrored surface on the coffee table in the same spot every year, and that moment of arrival where she burst through the front door to come out and welcome you. That moment made the long drive well worth the effort.
As I knelt and placed roses on her grave, I thanked her for all of these good memories. They are strong enough to last a lifetime.

 

“It was just a big beautiful blue kite” – Interview with Matthew McGee about Johnny Bertram’s Neon City

Friday, July 11, 2014
10 am
Downtown Jackson

Laurel: So how long have you known Johnny Bertram, and how would you describe your musical connection?

Matthew: A few years. Let’s see, about six or seven years. I met him at a show in Jackson. Wooden Finger was playing. I think he was opening up for us, and he said, hey man, you want to be in our band? (laughs).

Laurel: He did? That night?

Matthew: Yeah, that night! And I was like, wait second, who are you? (laughs).

Laurel: That’s bold.

Matthew: Well, then I heard his music, and he was great. So, I was like, very cool. He was making the record Sing Your Song and also Days That Passed and was needing some violin parts. So I just came in and played with them, and it was easy.  It was like…when things come together and it’s easy…easy to play with him. And I loved the songs. There was one song that I played guitar on. And I just picked it up and it made it to the record. I really enjoyed that one.

Laurel: Did that surprise you?

Matthew: Yeah, well, I was just playing around. I’m trying to think what year it was. It was the year that Jamie Weems got married. Whatever year that was!

Laurel: So, as far as the record Neon City, can you talk about your involvement in that project?

Well, I was helping produce him, and what that means is actually to get it done. Let’s actually make something happen. I had a bunch of recording equipment and I was like, let’s make this record. And that’s what happened!

Laurel: So you said, this is gonna happen?

Matthew: Yeah, because he was about to move, and we only had a certain amount of time. You know, I had all this equipment, and I just went into the 121 Studios (now NMAC) and did a lot of tracking there. And then, he would work nights, and around the clock.

Laurel: Well, I think a lot of people don’t know how much is involved in recording. How much time and focus. So having somebody produce that way and say, yes, we’re going to do this, here’s where we are, keep this rolling…

Matthew: Yeah.

Laurel: Did having that deadline that he was moving, in a way, was that a good kind of pressure?

Matthew: It was a really good pressure. I think it was like, we got to get this done, because we want to release something we’re proud of. And let’s work really hard to get it done, and that’s what happened. And Johnny worked really hard on it, I mean he just spent night and day working on it.

Laurel: Did he have his own gear at home that he was using or was he coming back in there to the studio?

Matthew: He was using mostly..I think we had one of my laptops, and a lot of ProTools interface kind of stuff. He was doing it all around.

Laurel: So you would share files…?

Matthew: Mm hmm. He did some of the tracking in Boise, Idaho, where his family lives.

Laurel: During that time period?

Matthew: Yeah, he made a trip up there…

Laurel: He just brought it all with him…

Matthew: Yeah! I think he put some Rhodes on a song, and maybe a Casio keyboard.

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Laurel: Well it’s neat sometimes how using an unexpected instrument can really put a new spin on a track.

Matthew: One of those songs there’s an organ that goes (demonstrates a sound, like rrrrrrttttttt!) but I wasn’t expecting that and it sounds so good.

Laurel: What would you say about working with Johnny that made the strongest impression on you?

Matthew: Oh man. Well, just his drive to do something great. It’s an awesome friendship to have, and musical friendship…

Laurel: Mm hmm, he’s got that drive, and it sounds like that may have inspired you to say, “yes, we’re going to make this happen.”

Matthew: Yeah…we were playing a lot of shows as Johnny and the Golden Bicycles, we were playing all over…

Laurel: It was almost a wave…

Matthew: It was a wave!

Laurel: I remember being a part of that – I think it was Jacktoberfest – it felt like the city was responding with you in this way…

Matthew: Yeah, it was so…just, awesome. I loved it!

Laurel: I bet it was nice to be a part of that, from the stage side.

Matthew: Yeah, it was.

Laurel: Do you think that when Johnny Bertram left, that he left a gap or a hole in the music scene in the city of Jackson?

Matthew: Mmmm…I like to think so. I mean, I still wish he was here. Just because I miss him, and loved playing with him and hanging out with him. He’s one of my best friends ever!

Laurel: And that kind of friendship…it’s rare.

Matthew: And I really miss him. But, you know, I talk to him a lot, texting and all that (laughs).

Laurel: So you stay connected…

Matthew: Yeah. I’ve been meaning to go up there, but I’ve just been crazy busy.

Laurel: Well that leads directly into my next question, which is, do you yourself have any connections to Portland, Oregon? Have you been out there? Is it a special place?

Matthew: YES! We did a tour one time, and we went from Jackson to Portland.

Laurel: With Johnny?

Matthew: Yes. I think that’s where we turned around (laughs) it was like, we got to Portland and then, we can’t go any further!

Laurel: (laughs)

Matthew: But it was great, and I love the town. I spent a few days there…you know his wife’s family is there. So we spent time with them. And went out to Cannon Beach.

Laurel: Oh! I went there…

Matthew: So amazing! I bought a kite….we flew a kite there…

Laurel: You did? What did it look like?

Matthew: Oh it was just a big beautiful blue kite.

Laurel: The wind there is just amazing.

Matthew: Oh, I know. But the day we were there was just the warmest day of the summer and the whole band was out on the beach just watching the sunset. It was just, really really really cool.

Laurel: Wow!

Matthew: Yeah, but we spent about a week there, just hanging out, and playing, you know, it was really, really really great.

Laurel: When you all play, do you write new material together, or is it mostly Johnny?

Matthew: Mostly Johnny comes in with some songs, and we’ll listen to them, and then he’ll have the ideas and you can just kind of improvise. That’s the way I play.

Laurel: So it’s not necessarily that he says “play this,” but he’s got the framework and you jump in on it.

Matthew: Yeah, exactly.

Laurel: So do you think you might ever do a project with him again?

Matthew: Oh, yes. Yes! Yes, indeed.

Laurel: What would you like to do? I mean, is it shaped in your mind yet, or do you just know you want to?

Matthew: We just know we want to.

Laurel:  Is there anything else you want to add about anything we talked about?

Matthew: Well, hopefully sometime in the future we’ll make another record. That’s what I hope. The thing that we did already…I’m just so glad to be a part of that.

Laurel: Yes! I remember when my husband Daniel put “Neon City” on the record player for the first time and we just looked at each other…!”

Matthew: Me, too! I was just like “whoa” I put it on the record player and laid on the floor and just listened to it with my eyes closed and…I don’t know…it just made me feel great.

After the microphone was off, Matthew and I talked a bit more about the power music has to keep us connected, and how the musical communities in Jackson have something special that keeps people together.

My personal connection to Matthew has been in and around the Jackson music scene for years – he is unfailingly cheerful and polite. I saw him about 4 days after a serious bicycle accident in the summer of 2014. Matthew said, now you have something new to write about! And he was right. I was grateful to him at a time when my spirits were low. His enthusiasm translates to his playing, as he genuinely shines in the joy of music each time he performs.

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This interview is the second in a series of interviews connected to the making of the record “Neon City” by Johnny Bertram (2012). The next interview forthcoming will be with Richard Stowe, manager of the building where “Neon City” was recorded.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, amesh ng
Gohomenew.png From : Eravathur Village, Thrissur District, Kerala, INDIA

A Reflection on Numbers: 1,000 plays on Sound Cloud!

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This week my Sound Cloud website page crested the 1,000 mark!

That’s over 1,000 plays of the songs and compositions I have there! I’m pretty excited about it. I want to first thank you, if you are reading this and you have ever listened to something I put up at Sound Cloud. Thank you! I also want to thank Jamie Weems for telling me about Sound Cloud several years ago. It’s a great way to get music into the world. To have my music heard.

Sound Cloud allows me, via analytics, to track the source of the people listening to my music. For instance, one week last year, I had 26 plays of my music tracks from someone in India. Pretty amazing! The website allows me to tag each music track with words like “folk,” or “guitar,” or “violins,” so that users around the world who search for those terms can find my music and give it a listen.

While I’m on the subject of numbers, I have a few more for you:

Amount of money I still have to recoup to pay back the investment in my 2005 CD Nona Mae’s Wishes: $1200
Amount of money I get paid when someone buys one of my tracks digitally on iTunes: $0.637
Amount of money I get paid for one song stream on Spotify: $0.00780000 (that’s not a typo!)

That’s the thing. Numbers can boost you up, and numbers can bring you down. And while I’ve had three successful small businesses in my life, there is one small business that I can’t ever seem to make money on and that is the business of recording and selling music. With such dismal prospects you might think that I’d give up. You know, let go of the dream. Try knitting or hockey, or cake decorating or something.

The truth is, I’ve tried! Twice in the past decade I came to the point of giving up. Once in 2008 I had a gig where I did the exact same amount of publicity (a lot) I always did, only – this is embarrassing – a total of 4 people turned up. Four people. Nice people, yes, very nice people.

Number of CDs sold that night: 0.

After that show, I felt so down that as I was driving to work the next day, I thought to myself – enough! Why put yourself through this anymore! Screw it, we’re giving up! And just at that moment, I heard my own voice coming out of the radio!

You see, I was listening to WLEZ, a local Jackson, MS radio station, and a year or so prior I had gone there to make a promo bit. You know, the, “This is singer-songwriter Laurel Isbister and you are listening to WLEZ” type promo. Edward St. Pe, who at the time was running that place, had invited me in to do the promo. The coincidence of this timing was not lost on me. It reminded me of how much fun I’d had at WLEZ, and also how far I’ve come, whether or not the financial numbers add up.

In 2014 I had another of these “giving up” moments. I started a new day job last year, one with pretty intense hours. I was feeling tired, very tired. I was in a bookstore, gazing longingly at some fiction. I thought, what if I gave up trying to always have two careers – a day job and music. What if I just had one? I’d have so much more time to read…maybe to wander in the woods and read a book all day. Oooh, yeah that sounded so good. And just at that moment, I received a text message from my friend, a web designer, letting me know she had just finished up with the new website we had been building!

By the way, the website, http://www.laurelirby.com, is up and you are most welcome to visit!

Once again, I felt the mystic pull of music tugging at me…reminding me to look beyond the typical numbers of “success.” I have a gift that not everyone gets…and I have 30+ years of training, learning, writing, gigging, scoring, arranging, tracking, mixing, you name it! I have had total strangers stop me as I was singing randomly in the airport and say, “You sing like an angel!” or “I thought I was listening to the radio – but that was you!” I can honestly say I feel thankful and blessed beyond belief to have this gift.

At the end of the day,  I measure life, music, and success by more than numbers. Can I live with myself if I don’t make music? Nope. Can I look back at projects I’ve done, whether or not they made money, and feel proud and fulfilled? Yep. That I can.

Enjoy life, my friends. And celebrate today, with me, for topping that 1,000 milestone! Hell, I didn’t even get paid for those Sound Cloud listens, but they make me feel good – people all over this country and all over the world get to hear what I make, what I create! And do me a favor – encourage the people in your life who create music.

For without music, how much would we enjoy life? The answer for many of us: zilch!

My Father’s Ashes

Before last week, I’d always thought funerary ashes were something to scatter – at a beloved place – not something to ever keep. The very idea of having someone’s ashes nearby, or in my home seemed, well, unpleasant. Beyond the obvious, there was a sort of ‘out of fashion” feeling to the idea. In fact I got a lot of laughs out of the scene from the film “Meet the Parents” where the uptight character played by Robert DiNiro reads an ode to his mother. As the family gazes up to the mantel, her ashes ensconced in an urn, there is a shade of the misguided or even perverse in the moment of filial intimacy. (What happens next is really taboo, and will probably either offend you or amuse you).

Still, the message came last week and hit me quick – I was being shipped a portion of my father’s ashes. My sisters already knew what they would do with their packets of ash, arriving via USPS in a cardboard mailer. They would take them to special places…Colorado…California…places of beauty and places of good memories with him. I loved it. Yet I felt anxious and uneasy about my own decision. My Dad traveled far and wide, for business and for fun. He tried everything he wanted to do – from piloting a glider alongside a hawk, to teaching and mentoring business school students, to living fully and completely until complications from Alzheimer’s took his mortal life.

I clenched my fists and tried to fathom it. Ashes. How weird.

As I contemplated what place I’d been the happiest with my Dad, it wasn’t in my home state of North Carolina. I knew the best moment of my time with my Dad – hands down. Though, as it was considered, it turns out there were many to think over and choose from. The best memory was a ski lift, and a powdery breeze on a sunny day, pines and the cleanest air in our lungs, runs that smoothed and bounced us a little and made us wide and peaceful; silent and peaceful and happy. Together.

That run called “Harriet’s Hollow” was the place our finest daughter and father connection lived. Yet as I contemplated going there, or maybe paying a pilot to fly there, I knew I was on the wrong track. What if it rained the day I went? How could I trust a pilot if I wasn’t going to be there? I knew that even when we try and go back we cannot, as the river is never the same twice. Add to that the pace of modern change, and the way that newness brings intensity and at times anxiety to our world. How could I make a day in 2015 compare to that one fine day possibly a decade ago? The day I had with my Dad and skied the best ever, no worries or bumps or spills. Just smooth sailing. I knew trying to recreate that was not possible and possibly could disappoint me.

As it turns out, after some thinking, I understand now that I want to be nearer to the ashes. Nearer! Surprise. Now they are something more personal, something not abstract. And, they are a sacred substance to me. And now I get it – I understand that they are not him. As my partner Daniel put it, that is not him, it is the ashes of a fire that consumed him. What a beautiful way to say it. My father’s ashes.

My father’s ashes are here now in my home, in a special box that stands on end and looks like an old fashioned, fascinating book. I put a picture of it up at the top of the blog. On the book shelf where this book sits, I have my journal, and my daily reader,  and a box he once received that had his name inscribed. It’s a way of remembering this month of my life in 2015, when the ashes came, and where I came to know and understand even more what it means to me to be my father’s daughter.

God bless my Dad, may he rest in peace.

“When you put the instruments in the cases,” an interview with Jamie Weems

Interview with Jamie Weems
Saturday, March 8, 2014
3:30 pm
Belhaven Heights area of Jackson, Mississippi

Laurel: So how long have you known Johnny Bertram, and how would you describe your musical connection?  

Jamie: That’s a great question. I think it we met in 2007. Yeah, I think we met when he and Emily were living in Midtown, in a place that my friends Joe and Ellie used to live.

Julia and I would throw this thing every year called “The Golden Bowl.” We’d cook this big vegetarian dinner. And I think I had met Emily but not Johnny. Joe and Ellie brought Emily and Johnny over to the Golden Bowl, which would have been December 2007. After we finished eating, and Julia and I had cleaned up the kitchen and everything, I walked outside and Johnny was sitting there with the guitar, playing some music, and I went and got my mandolin and then we sat there and just played for like awhile, I don’t even know how long…

Laurel: So you just fell right into it easily?

Jamie: Yeah, we just fell right in. We just had a blast playing together and then over the next few months we would see each other. I guess he was working at Rainbow, and we’d see each other here and there. Then he emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m getting ready to record this album.” It was when he was working on Days That Passed and then he released that and another one at the same time because we recorded all these songs together. So, he called me and we kind of went back and forth and set up a time, and he asked me to play on some of the tracks.

Laurel: And was that as natural as the jamming after the Golden Bowl?

Jamie: Absolutely. And right around that time, either before I’d laid down some stuff for the recording or just after that, he and Tyler Tadlock and I started doing a trio. So it was guitar, mandolin, and drums. And we did some gigs around town. And so I think that was the spring of 2008.  It just fit. We really enjoyed hanging out and playing together so it just kind of fit.

Laurel: So, as far as Neon City, that’s not a project you were necessarily involved in a lot…were you around?

Jamie: I recorded on, I think, two or three of the tracks. At the time my day job was taking me to Austin and I was out of town a lot during that so I missed a lot of the recording process. And he was moving to Portland, so he was trying to get it done while he was still here, so we were just kind of heading in different directions.

Laurel: What would you say about working with Johnny that made the strongest impression on you?

Jamie: We just became good friends, is the first thing I would say. A lot of people I make music with, that’s at the core of it, the kind of fellowship part of it. When you put the instruments in the cases, that you enjoy hanging out with people. That’s probably number one.

Number two, he’s just a great songwriter. He had a great way of writing good, solid, clever songs that were also very easy to like. He had a good sense of how to make a pop song, but not a one-dimensional pop song. That was great because from right away when he would bring new songs to rehearsal – I think we played together for four years or more, maybe more – bring new songs to rehearsal and instantly you’d like them. You’d find parts to them easily because they were just well written, and you knew that people were going to like them, so it was just easy. Everybody always fell right in and they were eager to get with what he was doing.

Another reason that I really felt like I meshed well with him is that I had studied Latin American guitar styles, and also bluegrass mandolin, then Bach, and Celtic and old-time music, and jazz and improvisational music. I was playing a lot of old time music and then I was playing with Wooden Finger as well. And I had gotten some stuff to play electric music, and then I met Johnny and we started playing. And I felt like Johnny, what I heard and what I was able to add to his music was a great synergizing of everything I had done up to that point.

It was one of those things where I met this person at the time when I had done a lot of different things and become well-versed in some things and I hadn’t had a chance to put a lot of it together in the same place and it work, and really fit with something else. Johnny could craft these great pop songs….it could be rock oriented but then it was folk-like, too. It had this folk quality to it. So it was real easy to put all that together.

Plus he was a West coast kind of guy who was living in the south, so his music definitely had that Pacific North-west feel but it had something real honest, like an honest “southern” kind of thing even though he’s not from here or been here enough to where…he had some real local kind of flavor to his music. And because you and I share the Grateful Dead thing, so like, part of me is always like feeling like I should be on the West coast.

It was like, here’s all these different things that were going on in my head musically, and all of them fit a little bit with what Johnny’s doing, so it was real comfortable for me to play real honestly and not feel like I was trying to do any one thing. It was real easy to let stuff kinda come out.

Laurel: Do you think that when Johnny Bertram left, that he left a gap or a hole in the music scene in the city of Jackson?

Jamie: Yeah, you know, it’s hard for me to answer that from a perspective of “the scene,” you know. The easiest way for me to answer is that he left a big gap for me. Because I kind of play a few different styles and a few different things musically in Jackson, and there was something I did with Johnny that was unique for me and I feel like I haven’t really – that’s not there anymore…

Laurel: You can’t replace that…it’s not replaceable…

Jamie: That’s right, exactly. So for me there’s definitely a gap there. As kind of a – thinking about outside – looking at the scene. I would say, probably so, to an extent. I think that there’s …I don’t know if I can think of anybody at this point who is coming at the rock and roll scene from that kind of “honest folk” angle. It seems like…

Laurel: like the “Neil Young” kind of approach?

Jamie: Yeah, exactly…

Laurel: I hear that in his singing, too.

Jamie: Neil Young is a great reference. He’s a huge Neil Young fan. Matthew McGee and I have talked about that. We both loved playing with Johnny and I think one of the reasons was that we both loved Neil Young. It seemed to fit really well.

I think another reason it’s hard to answer that is that the scene in Jackson is so great right now. I’ve been living here for twelve years and it’s just this constant, continual evolution, and it’s hard for me to think, like, I wish we could go back a few years because it’s evolving in such a great way.

But, I don’t think that there’s anybody doing what he was doing. And things are coming from a little more, heavier rock kind of thing and a little more…not necessarily punk driven, but kind of like, more simplified songwriting…from a harmonic perspective…the word craft, not really commenting on that, just the textures and the harmonic language is more stripped down, direct, and to the point.

That’s another great thing about Johnny’s music is, he made some atypical decisions about chord progressions and harmonic movement that I love.  I’m all about that. There’s some little surprises in there, and I don’t hear anybody doing as much with that.

Laurel: So do you yourself have any connections to Portland, Oregon? Is it a special place to you?

Jamie:  I’ve never been there. I’ve got a couple friends there. It’s always been one of those places I wanted to go to. In fact, I’d say the first four or five years after I moved to Jackson one part of me was always headed toward Portland, the other part always toward Asheville, North Carolina.

Laurel:  Oh really?

Jamie: Yeah…maybe because they are in opposite directions I never left? (laughs) I couldn’t figure out which way to go, and then, the next thing I knew I really loved Jackson and had so much great community here, that I stopped thinking that I wanted to leave because all I could that was that I want d to keep creating something here, you know?

Laurel: Yes, I do.  Is there anything else you want to add?

Jamie: I was going to say that you asked me if having worked with Johnny influenced my own creative strands, and I was going to expound on that a little bit…

Laurel: Sure, that would be good…

Jamie: I would say this about both he and Taylor (Hildebrand) who I’ve played with a lot, and like I was saying earlier…I’ve done a lot of folk music stuff, I’ve done a lot of improv, jazz, modern classical music, that kind of stuff. So, I tend to kind of think of things in a real expansive way that maybe doesn’t communicate that great to an average listener, you know what I mean? More exploratory…for some people maybe it’s harder to follow, you know?

Laurel: Maybe they would like it if they had time, but maybe they don’t grab onto it as quickly?

Jamie: Yeah. So when I started playing with Taylor and also with Johnny, both of those guys are so good at song craft that it made me realize that even though when I write music I want it to be more exploratory, that there’s a certain need to really spend some additional time to try to craft a little more direct message. Even if it is a more expansive or dense kind of thing, there’s this need to have the discipline to craft things a little better and try to communicate things a little more clearly with what you are creating. So, I think that has shaped the way I think about writing instrumental music, too, because I’ve been inside of the songwriter and pop song kind of thing with those two guys, and particularly Johnny. Since I’ve been inside that and see how it works and how things get put together, I think a little more like that than I used to.

Laurel: Do you find that you are getting some traction as you apply that goal, or is it still eluding you?

Jamie: I don’t know, that’s a good question.

Laurel: I think it’s good to have those qualities to strive for, I mean, it keeps you challenged to grow…

Jamie: That’s the great thing about music is that you always learn something from the people you collaborate with. Nobody’s got all the answers. Everybody’s got something to teach and something to learn, so if you are open to that then you are always picking up something.

Laurel: Yep.

This interview is the first in a series of interviews connected to the making of the record “Neon City” by Johnny Bertram. The next interview forthcoming will be with Matthew McGee.

Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My Fingertip

fingertipimages

This morning as I went to put my bag in the passenger side of my car, I noticed a fly on the rim of the top of the car, just above the doorframe. I peered at it closely to see why it was moving so much, yet remaining in the same place. It had long, lovely oval shaped wings, kind of like a dragonfly’s wings. They weren’t short and stout like a housefly’s wings.

It turns out this fly was upside down. Its wings had become adhered to the surface of my car, stuck there in the moisture that had condensed on my car overnight. Bummer. I waited a moment, to see whether this was a momentary situation, or whether it was more serious. As I observed the fly moving, it seemed that no matter how much the fly struggled, the wings stayed flat and stuck. I worried for this fly.

I know, I know. Some might say, Laurel, why worry about a small fly stuck on your car? I am the kind of person, when given the option, will chose to walk around an ant or a bug rather than stomp right on it during the course of a walk. Also, I was afraid that if I did nothing, the fly would die, and worse, that I would be stuck with that image of a struggling fly in my mind all day long. My mind can be my best friend or my worst enemy. I have learned the value of thinking about how long something will stay in my mind and when I have options, what I can do about it.

What to do, what to do? I could see clearly that the wings were flat and smoothed over by moisture, almost like tissue paper would be if someone dripped a dropper full of water onto it. There was complete contact with the surface of the car – no bubbles or edges to pry off. Like a stamp licked and smoothed flat on the surface of an envelope.

I considered gently taking the body of the fly between my fingers and pulling. But, then I thought, what if the action of me doing that sent the fly swirling into a panic that hastened its demise? It was already locked in a struggle it did not seem to be able to win…and I had no way to communicate, “Hey fly, I’m only here to help!” Maybe someday there will be A/I human to non-human telepathic communicators!

Since I don’t live in the world of the Star Trek future, I had to focus on what I could do that wouldn’t make the fly’s situation worse. What if I pulled on the body of the fly, and, God forbid, its wings were torn in two? Or what if its body split from the pressure, even worse!!! Ew, gross! That was definitely not the kind of morning memory I wanted to have in my mind later in the day. That would really freak me out.

I considered taking the edge of my fingernail and trying to slide it carefully under the stuck wing. I hesitated…it’s one thing to leave a struggling being without helping…it’s another thing to try to help and to actively damage that being and make the situation worse. It’s a risk we sometimes have to take. But, I was worried. I know little about biology, but I know that wings are delicate and very important to a fly.

I was stumped. I was also beginning to feel kind of foolish standing out in the street and hoping to help this fly. I needed to get to work. So I took a moment. I took a breath. And I said a little wish, or prayer that I often say when faced with a situation where I know I want to do something, yet I don’t know what it is that I need to do. It went something like this:

“Mind,” I said, “or spirit guides, or God, greater consciousness, whatever might be possibly out there and willing to help this fly live, let me know if I’m missing anything. Let me know if there’s another option.”

Almost with out thinking, I reached my fingertip carefully out, close to the upside down, struggling fly. To my great surprise and wonder, the fly immediately latched on to my fingertip with all available legs. The fly took hold, and within a couple of seconds was able to pull itself away from the car. The wings of the fly were pulled along with it and began to flutter gently. I was stunned. I hadn’t even been able to sense the touch of those fly legs – they were that light! But I saw them hold my fingertip and I was moved by this act of rescue. All it took was allowing the fly access to what was needed so that the fly could take care of business. So that the fly could pull its own wings away and live.

The fly held onto my finger pretty good. As I thought about my next step, I realized that I wanted to give the fly a chance to recuperate. Who knows how long those wings had been stuck? How long those legs and body had been struggling. I’d hate for that fly to be so tired from the struggle that it tried to go airborne and died from a crash landing!

The closest available secure surface was our mailbox, about 6 feet away. I tried to encourage the fly to go to it, but as the fly put one leg onto it there was a sense of “no way, I’m not going on that thing!” while the fly retracted the leg and stayed attached to my finger. I realized that our mailbox is painted white, exactly like my car. I could understand why to this fly that might not seem appealing, given what it had just been through!

I knelt down and moved my hand close to a large rock at the base of our mailbox. All the while the fly’s wings had been fluttering a little. When the fly touched the surface of the rock with its leg, the wings surged in what to me was a joyful flurry of movement! The fly released my fingertip and walked onto the rock with a definite “pep” in its step.

The nature of life is such that, occasionally a single experience can hold deep meaning.

This experience with the fly taught me something profound…maybe more than one thing.

It taught me that there are many options when confronted with suffering. That sometimes we have to be careful not to do more damage when we try to help. That some flies’ legs are so tiny they can hold me and I can’t even feel them!

And that offering a source of strength and letting a suffering being take hold and release themselves can be way more powerful and more effective than trying to do it for them. As someone who struggles with codependency this lesson was perhaps the most valuable. And as a person who has dedicated much of my career to non-profit, “people-helping” types of work, this lesson was the most important.

My heart still swells when I remember those tiny legs taking hold of my fingertip.

(Photo used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).