My Fingertip


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).


Tangerine Dream Part 3 – The Finished Look

Today I went to the studio on my lunch hour and laid down the final coat of paint on the second side of the room, the small side. I had to be careful as I was almost out of paint, and I didn’t want to waste a drop. I also had to freehand the line between my studio and the hallway, which turned out pretty well. I could have used painters tape, but I have found tape to be more trouble than it’s worth. For one thing, it often doesn’t come off cleanly — then you have to work it off of a wall or molding only to find rips or tears in the paint underneath. For another, freehanding challenges me to keep a steady and slow hand as I paint.

Today I was so excited about how I was almost finished, that I had to tell myself, “Relax, don’t be so excited that you lose your focus!” Painting is a kind of zen practice. If you stay relaxed and focused, it is not that hard to free hand and not rely on tape. If you know how to gently spiral your wrist as the paint goes on, you can keep an even flow. The other trick, at least with latex-based paints, is to keep a moist rag in your pocket (or in my case, the waistband of my old yoga pants). That way if you do drip or smear where you don’t want paint, it’s easy to simply wipe the area gently with the damp cloth and move on! The main problem comes when you rush it too fast, or tune out too much and make careless errors. It’s all about that sweet spot of focus.

After the last coat was down, I began the arduous process of CLEAN UP. It turns out that preparation and clean up for a painting job takes as long or longer than the painting itself. You can’t rush the clean up. I was especially careful as I didn’t want to drip orange paint anywhere in the hallway that led to the sink. I have a plastic tub full of old towels, washcloths, drop cloths and rags. It’s a great resource because then you know there are plenty of supplies in case you need them.

I had access to a utility sink, always nice because it usually already has some stains and isn’t a pristine surface. I cleaned out my brush really well. I started to clean out the roller covers but then I realized they had been used more than once before, had a few pebbles and other gunk stuck in them, and were probably best thrown away. (If I had another paint job coming up soon and no money left that month, I might have saved them. But since I should be done with painting for awhile I decided that for my next paint job I’ll buy new roller covers). I also threw away the paint tray liner, but washed off the paint tray itself. Finally, I kept that final little bit of paint in the can in case I ever need to do a touch up. Later I transferred that paint to a mason jar that I’ll keep in a drawer at the studio, along with a small brush.

I was so happy and even though it has taken me a bit longer than I planned, I feel like the project progressed smoothly. Check out the picture of the finished floor, and also with the furniture back in.

Note about maintenance: as I am moving and settling in, I’m very aware that any kind of painted floor is going to be subject to chips and scrapes. Even with the primer and two coats of paint, it wouldn’t be very hard to scratch the floor. After all of my hard work, that’s the last thing I want! So, I’ve decided that when I’m in the back part of the studio I will first remove my shoes. I’ve placed a small stand at the front of the studio for shoes. I’ll worry less about that front area – if it gets scratches I can touch them up or just live with them. Hopefully by keeping shoes off, I’ll ensure a longer life for the paint on the back area of the floor. I’ve also placed rugs and yoga mats to function as chair mats for my roller chair at the desk. What fun! I love the finished look so much! (see photos)

That’s the story, morning glory!  I hope if you live in Jackson you can come check out the studio in person. In fact there will be a building open house May 17, 2014.

Just be ready to take off your shoes!!!

Part 3 Image 1

Part 3 Image 2

Part 3 Image 3

Tangerine Dream – Part 2 – The paint goes on!

A very big part of a successful paint job is careful planning. You want to plan ahead, because once the paint can is open, you need to have all of your ducks in a row. As I looked around my studio, I realized that the best way to handle this job was to divide it into two sections. That way, I could move all of the furniture and gear I already had in the studio to a small area in the front and paint the big back area. Once that part was complete, I could move everything back there and paint the smaller front area. Easy enough to do, and would not require me to store my stuff somewhere else during the job.

After moving all the furniture to the small area at the front of the studio, I mopped the big area that I intended to paint first and let it dry for a few hours. When I returned, I opened up the primer and got to work cutting in around the edge of the room. When painting walls, you can really roll first or cut in first. When I paint walls, I prefer to start with the hardest part (cutting in) and get that out of the way. It’s like having a nice PB&J sandwich, and eating the crusts first while anticipating how much you will savor the pillowy middle part. In my case, when painting walls, the rolling usually comes last – that’s the part where the results are fast, fun & gratifying.

However, because this job was a floor and not a wall, the process was different. if I wanted to cut in and roll in the same session, I had to cut in first. Otherwise I would have been walking on the wet, rolled paint to get to the corners of the room.

As I got started, I was a bit surprised at how runny the primer seemed. Normally, latex primer (for painting walls) is quite a bit thicker than the paint itself. In fact I usually have to spend twice as long cleaning out my brush after using primer than when I clean it out after using paint, because it’s thicker and sticks to the brush.

This is a great reminder to ALWAYS READ THE INSTRUCTIONS! (I can hear my hubs Daniel reading this and rolling his eyes now!) Because I was so familiar with painting walls, I assumed that the cement floor process of “primer + paint” was the same. With great luck I ran into print-maker and building manager Richard Stowe on my way to wash my hands. (Note on that – if you are painting with latex paint – washing your hands frequently will help you avoid stuck-on paint and long scrubbing during clean up). “How’s it going?,” he asked, “have you become light-headed from the fumes yet?” I told him the primer had gone on a bit thin but I thought that after two coats of paint on top of the primer that the floor would probably have good coverage.

“Thin?” he asked, puzzled. “Make sure you wait long enough to put the paint coat on.”

“I was thinking 24 hours, ” I said.

“Well, what does the can say?” he asked.

“Ah, let’s take a look.” We walked back to the studio and I picked up the can of primer. To my great surprise, the directions said that you must place the first coat of paint on top of the primer between 1 – 4 hours after priming the floor. If you wait too long, you have to start over from the beginning and put another coat of primer down! What??? With every other kind of painting I’ve done, I’ve had to make sure to wait long enough to let the primer dry thoroughly. In this case, though, the primer is called a “bonding” primer and it needs to be coated with paint within four hours to make a good seal. Otherwise you have to start from the beginning again, and lay down another coat of primer.

How fortunate I am that Richard was there to offer that simple, yet crucial suggestion to “read the paint can!” I find the biggest challenges with projects like these comes from assumptions I’ve made – often assumptions that I don’t realize I have made. (What is that saying? “You don’t know what you don’t know?”) Luckily since it was Sunday I had the time to go home for two hours and then come back and put down the first coat of paint within the 4-hour window.

I loved the smooth texture the primer coat made – almost a glisten (see photos).  The paint went on very well, though the first coat did not achieve complete coverage. Also, the original floor color was a stained concrete that was somewhat dark, so sometimes it takes a bit more paint to cover a darker color.

I put a second coat of paint down (total of one coat primer, 2 coats of paint) to get really good coverage and protect against chips (see photos). I could go another step further and treat it with an epoxy clear coat. However, my budget was spent for the project, and I was getting tired of breathing fumes. I know I’ll have to be careful to not scratch the floor but I’m okay with that.

After the second coat went on, things really started to gel. What a powerful color! It seemed to me to be just perfect! It doesn’t hurt that orange is the color associated with creativity in the Indian system of chakras. To me it is associated with grounded energy, with the earth, with fun and with abundance.

Stay tuned for Part 3 – The Finished Look

Part 2 Image 1

Part 2 Image 2

Tangerine Dream Part 1: A Studio Space in Midtown, Jackson, MS

Over the past few years I began to record and mix music myself instead of buying studio time. Having reached the limits of what I could do at home, I decided to take a leap of faith and lease a studio space in the North Midtown Arts Center (NMAC) building in the Midtown area of Jackson, Mississippi.

The space itself has lots of light, good natural reverb, and a rich history of art, music and creativity thrumming in its walls. Immediately after entering the space I began to write and sing in beautiful new ways. A blurring of moments filled my spirit: the train nearby…the trees in the courtyard outside…the memory of opening up for Teneia Sander’s CD Release party at Ezra Brown’s club called Seven down the street…the knowledge that Luckytown Brewery (Jackson’s newest microbrewery) would soon be in view from my new studio window…playing improv at Figment and laughing…all of this hums in multi-layered chord that I feel in my cells and in my bones.

It’s true, as a place for recording music the space does have some drawbacks. Those evocative train sounds for one. And, occasional noise from neighboring studio spaces and sound of the heating unit going on. Since most of what I’ll be doing involves line-in tracking and midi-based instrumental work, these issues seem workable. On the occasion I want to record vocals or mic instruments, I can work around these challenges with careful planning, patience, and a bit of good luck.

The studio is one of those gifts I’ve given myself. Maybe the best creativity present, ever! Though I had moved in several pieces of furniture and some art, and recorded, practiced and written well there…I didn’t quite feel settled in.

Knowing from my training in feng shui that the need to ground and settle can be super important for creative work, I thought about the best way to quickly and inexpensively create a harmonious and comfortable place that felt as if it were mine. I debated painting one wall a bright color. I thought of different kinds of colors that might be fun. I liked the idea of orange. Later that night as I was getting ready for bed, a voice in my head said, “You aren’t going to paint the wall – you are going to use that orange color and paint the floor!”

At first I thought, ah, that’s too much trouble. Painting floors means moving all of the stuff around. But the more I thought about it, the more I fell in love with the idea. The floor is stained concrete, and coated in years of drips, splatters, and other stains from the tenants before me (see photos). After talking to the property manager, I got permission to cover over all of that with a layer of color, called “Baked Squash.” Though it sounds very “fallish” in truth on the floor the color is more of a charming, rich tangerine.

I knew I’d need to prime the floor if I wanted the paint to stick. Even so I want to be careful in the future, once it’s done, not to drag furniture across the floor. Painted floors can tend to scratch but they look great.

I bought a gallon of concrete floor primer and a gallon of concrete paint, asking the paint person at Lowe’s to tint both the primer and the paint with my selected color.

I got my painting clothes on (old yoga pants & a t-shirt) and my other supplies:

  • a bucket for water to store the wet paint roller between coats
  • 2 paint roller covers (one for backup)
  • a paint roller
  • an extender pole that screws onto the paint roller, making big jobs easier
  • a metal paint tray and plastic tray liner
  • rags
  • a stir-stick
  • a brush for cutting in
  • a flat head screwdriver to use to open the paint can (don’t forget that!!!)

Note, I did not mention drop cloths. Though I have painted plenty of walls and a few ceilings, this is the first time I have painted a floor. Best part – no worries about dripping paint on the floor. (I did end up using a drop cloths when I got to the final area, because I had to put my supplies out in the hall).

Also note, I did not list painter’s tape. I have been taught that painters tape is way more trouble than it is worth and can create problems you didn’t have when you started. By keeping a wet rag in my pocket to quickly wipe drips up, and by using a careful technique, I get good results without the tape.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – “The Paint Goes On!”


Part 1 Image 1


Part 1 image 2


The Nautilus Project Participants


The following is a list of the musicians, visual artists, poets, journalists, bloggers, dancers and BBQ-mavens who have participated in The Nautilus Project so far. Many thanks to Emily Mathis, who painted this lovely nautilus for the CD disc art. I look forward to adding more names as “The Nautilus Project PDX” gathers steam in 2014. Here’s the list:

Andi Agnew (Jackson, MS) – writer and event organizer for The Nautilus Project PDX (2013/2014)

Lisa Kislingbury Anderson (Portland, OR) – writer, journalist, and co-curator of “The Nautilus Project PDX” Tumblr (2013/2014)

Loye Ashton (Jackson, MS) – percussion on the CD “Nautilus” and during the 2012 live show

Johnny Bertram (Portland, OR) – songwriting featured on “The Nautilus Project PDX” Tumblr (2013/2014)

Krista Pieper Bower (Jackson, MS) – structured dance improvisation during 2012 live show

William Patrick Butler (Jackson, MS) – photographer of 2012 art show and performance

Valerie Cullaton (Jackson, MS) – structured dance improvisation during 2012 live show

Tony Davenport (Jackson, MS) – visual artist for 2012 art show

Monique Davis (Jackson, MS)- BBQ sliders and superb crowd support for 2012 live show

Lynette Hanson (Portland, OR)- internationally-known blogger with entries featured on “The Nautilus Project PDX” Tumblr (2013/2014)

Clay Hardwick (Jackson, MS)- visual artists for 2012 art show

Brandi Katherine Herrera (Portland, OR) – writer and poet, co-curator of “The Nautilus Project PDX” Tumblr (2013/2014)

Valley Gordon Hildebrand (Jackson, MS)- acoustic bass on the CD “Nautilus” and during the 2012 live show

Andy Hilton (Jackson, MS) – designer and producer of modern art porch swing featured at 2012 art show

Gerard Howard (Jackson, MS)- photographer with work featured in the 2012 art show

Wes Hughes (Jackson, MS)- guitar on the CD “Nautilus” and during the 2012 live show

Rachel Jarman Myers (Jackson, MS) – vocals during the 2012 live show

Emily Mathis (Jackson, MS)- visual artists, designer of CD artwork, and organizer of 2012 art show

David Rae Morris (Jackson, MS)- filmmaker and photographer with work featured in 2012 art show,

Rhonda Richmond (Jackson, MS)- vocals on the CD “Nautilus” and during the 2012 live show

Akiko Sekihata (Jackson, MS)- visual art featured in 2012 art show

Jessica Russel (Jackson, MS)- visual art featured in 2012 art show

Kateri Tolo (Jackson, MS)- visual art featured in 2012 art show

Jamie Weems (Jackson, MS)- mandolin on the CD “Nautilus” and during the 2012 live show

Julia Weems (Jackson, MS)- vocals during the 2012 live show

Dimitrus Williams (Jackson, MS) – visual art featured in 2012 art show

Bebe Wolfe (Jackson, MS)- visual art featured in 2012 art show

The Nautilus Project Explained

The Nautilus Project Explained

Laurel Isbister Irby founded The Nautilus Project in 2012, and it has grown into a multi-year, multi-city interdisciplinary series of art projects.

The projects are created to revitalize communities of artists and art lovers, to connect diverse groups of people, and to envison an alternative to the typical goals of a “CD release party.”


Rather than a one-time, commercialized approach to celebrating the completion of a recording project where the goal is to sell as many units as possible, the goal for the CD release of “Nautilus” by Laurel Isbister Irby is to expand consciousness, connect people together, and tap into a long tradition of artists and art lovers for reinventing the world.

2012 – Jackson MS (visual art, music & dance, held at Eudora Welty Commons)

2014 – Portland, OR with Jackson, MS (writing, visual art, music & dance)

2016 – Brooklyn, NY with Jackson, MS (teaching, food, visual art, music & dance)

2018 – Nashville, TN with Jackson, MS (gardening, love, visual art, music & dance)

Uttanasana, I’ve Missed You!


Uttanasana, I’ve Missed You!

This morning I made it to my first “Level One – Gentle Yoga” class since I was sidelined in the late summer by a fall on my bicycle. I have been going to class and doing yoga, but not standard poses. Instead I did a class called “Yoga Therapy” at Tara-Yoga, which used modifications of poses in a chair. It was very basic, very gentle, and very healing. It’s been good to be aware and nurturing, and yet I’ve missed the classic poses I’m used to doing.

So today, with permission and enthusiasm, my body entered into the yoga pose “uttanasana” for the first time in several months.   The pose, if you don’t know, is a deceptively simple one, also called “forward bend.” You stand tall and then bend at the waist, slowly lower yourself into the pose, keeping your back fairly straight and, while you may touch the floor, you keep most of your weight in your feet.

As with any yoga pose, I made the effort to tune in to subtle elements such as the placement of my feet and the weight of my body as it moved down through my feet into the ground. I made an effort to evenly distribute my weight between the front and back of my feet, as well as between the inside and outside of my feet. And for good measure I remembered to lift and spread my toes to have a nice wide space to make contact with the ground. And that’s just the feet! Breathing is important, too, and there are several other areas to focus on that I won’t get into now.

I’ve always enjoyed uttanasa, maybe because it is one of the poses that my body took to naturally. I have fairly loose hamstrings so I can pretty easily touch the ground with my fingertips. When I’m loosened up, I can usually even extend my arms and fully press my whole hand flat onto the floor. I really love the process of folding forward, too, because I find it akin to a prayer motion where I bow my head.  Only it’s even more intense, because instead of just bowing my head, I bow my whole body. I find peace in this release; great peace and also a kind of simple but deep joy.

When I settled into the pose this morning, it was as if I was seeing an old friend after a long time. The intimacy of knowing a yoga pose, of being “in relationship” with a yoga pose is difficult to explain to someone who has not had the experience. I suspect it may be similar with other kinds of spiritual and physical practices. You can describe them in words all you want, but you’ll not truly “know” them without trying it out. And by trying it out, I don’t mean just one time. Or, doing it a couple of times,  like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Meet the Fockers,” who had been doing capoiera for “a few weeks” and was really into it.  To really “know” is to know the pose in your body over an extended period of time. To have done the pose on good days, on crappy days, and on those middle-of-the-road days when nothing special seems to be happening. There is an understanding that comes from an amalgam of those days, of the pose in multiple frames of mind. You find wisdom in the overall experience by connecting the days together. To me, this is the path to “knowing” the pose.

Just as a relationship with a friend might have ups and downs, moments of joy and frustration, and an ebb and flow of giving and taking, so the relationship to a yoga pose can change. One day I might find it super easy to go into the pose deeply, while another day I might be extra tense and tight, and have to try not to fight myself. I have to remember breathe and be patient – both with myself and with the pose. Patient, yes, and determined with a soft and even kind of strength.

So today, as I sunk into the gentle, self-aware and self-respectful state of being I find when practicing yoga, I noted the joy I felt at doing this pose. Like coming back to a familiar place and looking around. Like finally meeting up with an old friend and finding out what we have to say to one another. It really hit me that I’ve been in relationship with this yoga pose for over 20 years and I plan to continue that relationship until I die or am no longer able to practice it. I’ve become aware that the pose is a friend for life. Uttanasana, I’ve missed you!

Important Note: Laurel Isbister Irby has practiced yoga for 20 years, always under the supervision of a professional yoga teacher. She is not trained to teach yoga and any description of yoga poses is intended to share her reflections on her own experience as a student, not to teach others how to do yoga. If you are interested in learning yoga, please get permission from your physician and seek out a trained, certified teacher who can help you get oriented to the practice of yoga.

Photo courtesy of GNU General Public License via Wikimedia Commons.

Slezni, slezni male mome (Bulgarian trad. arranged by Laurel Isbister Irby)

Last month I wrote a post about a Bulgarian composer, Ivan Spassov, who was one of my mentors during the academic year I lived in Bulgaria. Today I’m sharing an arrangement I worked out that fall while I was working with him. The song is a very simple melody with a complex, additive meter of 11/8 + 7/8. I still recall the happy surprise on Spassov’s face when I chose to move the melodic contour to a c-natural rather than c-sharp in the second section. He smiled at me, like, hey, maybe you do have potential after all!

This version is from a recording produced by Superdevoiche, a Bulgarian women’s choir at UCLA that I founded in 1999 when I was a graduate student there.

Scars & the Stories They Tell (Thank you, Gospodin Spassov)


A few weeks ago I was in a difficult accident involving my bicycle, a pile of gravel and a right turn that never was completed. Before I could even react to the spin of my wheel in the gravel, I was face down hard on the concrete street near my house. Quickly I staggered up, headed home and then on to the E.R. with my partner, Daniel. At the hospital the doctor slowly pulled one of my teeth out of a gash in my lip, cleared gravel out of my grated mouth and other road rash areas, informed me that I had broken a tooth, and then, finally, stitched up a big gash on my knee and let me go home.

As I contemplate the slowly healing slice on my right knee – free of stitches, yet still not closed up, still open and showing my gooey insides to the world – I find myself thinking about Ivan Spassov, the Bulgarian composer who, for a few months in late 1996, guided me in music composition, and in life. The reason I think of him is because of a conversation we had one time, about scars.

Spassov was one of the best men I’ve ever known. He survived the untimely death of his daughter and continued to embrace life. He directed one of the top conservatories in Bulgaria and wrote brilliant music up until the weeks before his death of a heart attack in late 1996. It was my great fortune that in 1996 I was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, studying music at the conservatory Mr. Spassov directed, as part of my research for a Fulbright Grant. Right from the start he was gracious and friendly to me. We sat, week after week, at the piano in his large office. He’d often smoke a cigarette as we talked, and occasionally he’d perch the filter end onto the piano with the smoking end out over the keys. My eyes would watch the smoke as he demonstrated harmonic ideas and compositional transitions. I would distractedly monitor the ash as it became longer and longer – surely it would drop onto the piano keys soon. But it never did.

Spassov had studied modern music composition in Bulgaria and in Poland and wrote and conducted a wide array of arrangements and compositions. “During his time in Poland Spassov learned and mastered serial techniques, and was the first Bulgarian composer to employ aleatoric devices and graphic notation.” (  During our tutorials we talked mostly about music and occasionally about life, too.

One day I came in to my lesson a bit upset.  The weekend before I had been shopping in Sofia in a large crowd. Someone tried to steal my wallet by taking a knife to my bag. Though she didn’t get my wallet, the knife left a huge rip in the bottom of the bag. I had sewed the rip up but it left a long scar. I showed the fabric scar to Mr. Spassov (or, Gospodin Spassov, as I called him in Bulgarian). I said, “The bag was special as it was sewn for me by my grandmother. And now it’s ruined with this big scar!”

“Ruined!” he exclaimed, “Nonsense! It’s not ruined. It’s not ruined at all.” He looked keenly at me, as he did when he really wanted his point to sink in. “Scars,” he said, “become stories. Scars are how we show we are alive. It makes the story richer. Don’t feel this is ruined at all!”

It’s been close to 20 years since he told me that, but it resonates in me like a truth that can’t be denied. Life without scars isn’t really life at all. Or, if anything, it is the new life of a baby before the scars that will come begin. I think of Spassov as I look at the new scar forming on my knee this week. The scar that will tell the story of my bicycle accident in the summer of 2013, and of the doctors who stitched it up, and of Daniel who held my hand, and of my fantastic skin and cells that healed it.

Thank you, Gospodin Spassov.

Your former student,

Laurel Isbister Irby

More about Ivan Spassov:

The Nautilus Project – Jackson, Mississippi (2012)

Now that the 2013/2014 Portland Nautilus Project has been getting underway, it seemed a good time to post some information about the first project in the multi-year series. The 2012 Jackson project featured a live music concert and a show of visual art created by Jackson artists. The artwork was chosen by the artists in relationship to three songs for the “Nautilus” CD  – “Jackson,” “Gold,” and the title track, “Nautilus.”

Many of the guest musicians featured on “Nautilus” performed live, including Rhonda Richmond, Jamie Weems, Wes Hughes and Loye Ashton. There were also improvisations by two members of the local Front Porch dance company, Krista Bower and Valerie Nicholson.

The event took place at the Commons at Eudora Welty’s Birthplace, a relatively new spot in Jackson’s downtown scene. The Commons has been a place where creative types can gather, put on concerts, shows and other events like yoga classes. The atmosphere is casual and homey there.

The visual artists featured at the show ranged from professionals such as Tony Davenport, BeBe Wolfe and David Rae Morris, to beginners exhibiting in their first formal show, such as Akiko Sekihata and Dimitrus Williams. The show also featured a wonderful hand-made modern porch swing by Andy Hilton.  His swings are now featured at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

The evening that the show opened the space was filled with all kinds of folks, professional types, artists, students and professors, scientists and musicians. The way the Jackson community thrives on such events creates opportunities for collaboration, dialog and hope. This event was a huge success!

When there’s more time I plan to share more about the artists and dancers, and also include some photos from the art opening & music and dance performances.  Next week I meet with the Portland Nautilus project participants and I’m thrilled about that!