Thursday, October 24, 2013

a poem

Both my cellos have been in the shop on and off this past week, leaving me with time to poke around in other creative avenues.  For a long time, I have felt a percolating need for more freedom in my creative work, a desire to break free of the confines of fitting words into melody and melody into words. I am wildly curious to write a line and see where it ends up; probably not in a chorus — it may not even resolve. In our lives there are so many threads, so little resolution.

None of this is to say that I don’t like songs. I love songs; I love writing them and I love listening to them. There is something that is useful and safe about songs. In most settings where I am playing with a band, they are the expected norm.  Which is why it has felt so daunting, so very useless, to be working on a piece for solo cello and voice; so unnecessary to be writing poetry. Yet I find myself spending more and more time every day doing just these things. I've discovered that this freedom in creativity is a basic necessity for me in order to keep doing what I do. It is the balance of writing for an obvious purpose vs. writing for a less obvious one. I have no idea in which direction either will take me, only that I must continue moving in order to keep all the doors open.

So in the spirit of this post and the breathtaking freshness of autumn, I am going to take a giant risk and post a poem I wrote. I am aching to put a disclaimer here — about how I’m not a poet, that it definitely needs more editing, but I’m going to do the brave thing, reader, and just tell you this: that I was inspired to write it while on a walk by Jamaica Pond a few days ago, during which I realized that I am in charge of the shape of my time, the pieces that make up my days and not the other way around. I hope you enjoy it.


We are the sculptors of our days.

Take a corner, here:
Mold it into a cup of tea
Cozied in the cradle of our palms.

Slice through it with wire.
Turn it into smaller pieces. Shape one into
Our footsteps on the forest floor,
The canopy above
Woven through with flame.

Carve another.  Chip away slowly
For this block of clay is our work,
Our pure thread of focus,
The heat of
Dignity. We'll dip our fingers in water if we need to.

That’s how the cracks get sealed.

Later, with our wheel and our ribbon tool, when the sky is pink,
We arrive like midwives
At the gentle
Birth of dinner, where, only moments before there was flour and yeast,
There is bread.

A. F. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

beginner's mind

Very recently, Mia and I came out with a new record. The process began about nine months ago with the decision to make the record, and from there spawned many tedious hours of stress, planning and existential dread. I won’t bore you with details, but some of this included (but was not limited to) figuring out what to record, who would record with us, how we would afford to record, what the art would look like (and who would manifest it), and how the album would ever possibly come together in time for our first release concert. Now that we have the final product in our hands, it is easy to forget how it got there. 

To acknowledge a cliché, we can all agree that life is a journey.  And maybe it is just me, but I think all of humankind suffers from a problem of overlooking our successes. Although we can always do better and work harder (this being the mantra in my mind that I work tirelessly to change), one of the most difficult things to do is sit back and feel proud of the result of our efforts. Sometimes this is a less obvious result like, say, understanding better how to convey one phrase of Bach. But other times it is self-evident, like the yellow CD that Mia and I decided to call Land on Shore.  In this culture, it is all too simple to write off the hard work that goes into our process;  to say, well, dang, I haven’t created anything since last week, I must be the worst and most useless human on the planet. But before the guilt sets in, before delving back into the universe of self doubt, perhaps it is worth taking a moment to grant ourselves some appreciation for the immense amount of work that gave us a result, however big or small.

Right around the time our album came out, I began taking a class in aerial arts. To clarify, this means that I have admitted to being a rank beginner at something, and am now learning (very slowly) how to climb colorful silks and hoist myself onto a trapeze without flailing wildly. I’ve just invested in my own personal pull-up bar due to an incident last class where everyone else was able to do this special move called a “crochet” and, each time I tried to fling myself upside down, I felt my upper back give way and  gracelessly had to give up.

Though all the zen masters talk about the benefits of having “beginner’s mind,” there are few things more frustrating than being a beginner.  But when the frustration ebbs (which in my case, let me be clear, it hasn’t), we are able to feel this beautiful floating sense of liberation. I don’t have to be good at suspending myself in the air while there is nothing between me and the floor but a purple piece of fabric wound confusingly around my stomach. Oddly enough, dangling in a hip lock (as described above) is something at which I desperately wish to succeed. Will I get there?  Probably, with a little practice. And at that point, to whoever will listen, I intend to say, “look at me!” — to acknowledge and take pride in this small, miraculous achievement. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

no reason to wait

As busy as I am, I often feel that I am waiting for the angel of creativity to swoop down and say Hi, check out this amazing idea I have for you. But for the past few months, there has been no angel sighting. Even though I say I am waiting for it, I am secretly a bona fide expert at keeping it far far away.

You can do it too and here’s how: stay very busy.

If you are anything like me, you have a deeply ingrained certainty that your art is who you are. If you stay still long enough to start a new project, there is this tiny chance that it will suck so, naturally, you avoid this at all costs.

This presents a problem for obvious reasons. As much as I talk about sitting down and writing every day — as an act of courage and defiance and as a way to have a voice — I have let myself down, and possibly you too, kind reader, as I have not practiced what I preach. After all, I’ve been busy. If there’s no time to practice or to write, then I’m off the hook. To this I often utter a silent Oh Well and do an invisible shoulder shrug.

But I have a story for you.

This past Friday night I was out to dinner in New Jersey with three of my best friends from college. The occasion was that one of these friends is getting married in August and this was her bridal shower and bachelorette party weekend. The four of us had traveled from Boston, London and Chicago to be together for the first time since 2008. We were at a kitschy Russian diner and our food had just come. I glanced around the table and thought to myself, isn’t it a miracle that we are all here? That five years have passed since graduation and we are all able to be at this table right now? (And would I still get to have this thought in, say, five more years, or fifty?)

As that idea briefly shifted in my mind, the thing I didn’t know was that an old friend of mine had just died, moments earlier. This was a person whom I had not talked to since our bar and bat mitzvahs, this person was not even my facebook friend. But this person — Jordan — was a piece of my life. To make an analogy, he was one of the pegs on the elaborate Lite-Brite board of my childhood. He and I had grown up beside each other, spent our young years in Hebrew school sitting at the same small checker-patterned kitchen table, making matzah and learning the story of Moses. Later on, every week during Hebrew school lunch break, with the other kids in our class, we played a ridiculously fun ball game with a name I can’t remember and had to be coaxed to come back to class by our frustrated teacher.

Jordan was not sick or old or injured. He was literally and tragically plucked from this earth. He was someone who added to the intricate color on the canvas of my childhood and innumerable others’, a light on a board that has now gone out.

I’m not sure if it is irony or coincidence that I, uncharacteristically, spent this entire weekend living fully in the moment and feeling grateful for such exquisite friends whom I rarely see. I did not hear the news of Jordan until I was on my way home.

To be honest, I did answer a myriad of emails this morning, but now, from my living room couch, I am taking the time to write this, to create something, because there is no reason to wait.

It is at moments like this, upon hearing the painful knock on the door, that we get the stabbing reminder that our friends and loved ones are not always going to be there, and that sometimes we do not get a heads up. This is why we must fight with all our heart against the busyness that calls us. It is why both of us, you and I, should sit down today and create something in the face of despair, why we should not let a day go by without letting in a little quiet, without calling a friend or sibling or parent and making sure they know how much we love them.

My heart goes out to Jordan’s family.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

a short note on inspiration

Every time I finish one post, it seems impossible that I will ever write another. But inevitably I watch a movie or a documentary or I come across a significant paragraph in a novel or, in this case, read Zadie Smith’s article in the December 17th issue of The New Yorker called “Some Notes on Attunement.” First, I am plastered to the couch, overwhelmed that something so true, so personally applicable, exists in my hands. Then comes the jealousy which goes something like, God, I wish I was cool enough to write something so authentic and smart. And finally, I remember that this is what inspiration feels like. That this is why I am a voracious reader, constantly searching for affirmation, comfort, truth, the thing that makes me say yes, makes me rush to my computer or my cello, to try and make sense of it.

First of all, read Smith’s piece. Its layers astound. But the main thing I want to address is not how to write a nice essay based on the brilliance of Zadie Smith (I would pale miserably in comparison), but rather, how to find inspiration in this life.  All the great artists and writers say that you cannot wait for it to strike. You must sit your butt in your chair every day at the same time and write down all your bad ideas. I hate this.  In all honesty, I am not usually inspired. And it is so easy to blame its shortfall, to say Bummer, Inspiration did not visit me today, I’ll just have to read The New Yorker instead.

In which case, one of two things usually happens:

1) Right after Talk of the Town, you peel yourself off the couch, remembering the awful truth about your butt in a chair, and you trudge to your desk or piano and play the first chord that comes through your fingers.


2) BAM! you open the New Yorker and there is a brilliant piece by Zadie Smith that then inspires you to write a blog post.

It is both these options that keep us creating.  In light of last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, it has become even clearer to me that art is what we turn to again and again to make sense of life. There is comfort in words, art and music, comfort that can only be found there.  And this is why we must discipline ourselves every day, forgive ourselves if we forget to and, as e.e. cummings says, open the eyes of our eyes. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

despair's antidote

Recently I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for the second time. One scene that has stuck in my mind is the part when, after reading Gil’s manuscript, Gertrude Stein returns it to him and tells him not to write such depressing things. “The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence,” she says.

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now. Lately, there is much to despair about.  We are at the brink of a terrifying election. We are entering a new (warmer) climate in Earth’s history, one that we as a race have instigated. It’s almost December 2012, (but don’t worry, lovely readers, I don’t believe in that). The list continues.

When I look at the facts, I don’t feel hopeful, but I do think fictional Gertrude Stein has a point.  As Bread & Puppet’s Cheap Art Manifesto so aptly puts it: “Art is food. You can’t eat it, but it feeds you.” The question is, how do we as artists acknowledge the despair, write about it, sing about it and make images about it without succumbing to it, and better yet, how do we find the antidote? Mary Oliver offers these words:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

It is as simple and as complicated as that.  Isn’t creating art, by its very nature, an act of speaking up? Getting out of bed every morning, sitting down at your desk or your piano with your manuscript paper is an act of defiance. Today, you say, I will write just one new measure. I will not give up. Most likely that puny new measure has been informed by the astonishing things you have seen and heard somewhere in your life. Even though you may be alone in your room, you are now telling about those things. Even though you are racked by self-defeating thoughts, somewhere in your deepest insides, you know that some day, someone else will hear your completed piece and feel as though they have been fed.

And this is why I think Gertrude is right. Even though Romney could win the election, even though my future children may never build a snow fort, I still plan on writing at least one measure a day, wild and defiant, because the mere act of creating, in whatever form, is what keeps us standing, what propels us forward and forces us to have a voice. Despair is real, but so is beauty. We can be present to the emptiness of existence while simultaneously finding its balm.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Among other things, I spent the month of August teaching at fiddle camps, practicing George Crumb’s sonata for solo cello and underlining nearly every other page from Madeleine L’engle’s A Circle of Quiet. Her book is so inspired and honest, crowded with creative insight, that I felt confident I would base my next post on her writing. I tried numerous drafts until I finally realized that the best I can do is recommend you read her book.

And then, last night, I began watching Under African Skies, the 25th anniversary documentary of Paul Simon’s Graceland.  Maybe it’s because I don’t get out enough, but it is rare that I find myself in a moment of undiluted, aching beauty; when my heart surges for a brief and breathtaking fifteen seconds with awe at what music can do.  This is precisely how I felt during original 1985 in-studio footage of “I Know What I Know” in which the background singers are wearing matching outfits and dancing like they’re onstage and the guitarist and bassist are twisting in crouched circles around their instruments, left legs over their fingerboards.  Not only are the women wearing matching outfits, they have choreographed their moves.  Simon’s shoulders are humming.  One drummer says that they didn’t know when they were rolling or when they weren’t, they just played and played and, at the end of the day, listening back, thought, we just did that?

One night, when Mia and I were in the last stages of mixing Unruly Heart, we had finally arrived at a good mix for Track 3. It was late. We were exhausted and starving and we had to listen to the whole track one last time. As we did this, something in the stale studio air shifted and we began to spin each other, a contra dance swing, unhinged and wild, this unexpected delight rising from the embers of a tune.

All I’m saying is I wonder what would happen if we danced a little more. Not alone in our rooms, no.  But out, out in the world, colorfully, loudly. This is, after all, why Graceland is on so many of our top 5 lists, right? It’s not just Paul Simon’s brilliant songwriting; not just the talented musicians and their incomparable South African grooves.
It’s the dancing. 
It’s that we can hear them dancing.