Tuesday, May 22, 2018

My Mushroom Trip

Michael Pollan's latest book How to Change Your Mind, which I devoured in three days, has inspired me to share the story of my own mushroom trip. Before you stop reading, if you happen to be a naysayer or wary of any and all drug use, let me just say that psilocybin "magic" mushrooms were legal where and when I consumed them (overseas, a number of years ago) and I wasn't breaking any laws. I am nothing if not a rule follower and a law-abiding citizen. I believe that Pollan's research, and the stories of those of us who have had mushroom experiences, are important to share because of the potential this drug has for healing and for healthy mind expansion. "Doing mushrooms" is not, in fact, as Pollan underscores, frivolously recreational. His book covers psilocybin and other forms of psychedelic-assisted intervention for challenges including addiction, depression, and end-of-life care.
Set and Setting
Pollan emphasizes throughout his book the importance of set (your mindset with regard to the experience you expect to have once under the influence) and setting (the physical location, people you are with, safeguards and risks of the situation throughout your experience until the drug wears off). I don't remember too much about my "set" although I remember saying to a friend that I had wanted to sit at a desk during the trip because I thought I would want to write or draw, and that I wanted to be listening to music while tripping. My friend and guide (whom I will refer to simply as 'they' throughout this piece) suggested that I might enjoy being outside, in nature, during the experience even if I was not normally an outdoorsy person. Up to this point in life I was not, at all, outdoorsy. They mentioned however that I would probably want to write or draw something afterward, but that I should rest assured that I would remember everything I needed to later on and therefore there was no need for me to take notes or in any other way document the experience. Thus, I had a general mindset that I was going to learn/experience something that I may or may not want to express creatively later.
As for the setting, I was in a hilly rural village near a lake on a bright July day in a dry climate. Most importantly, I was in a safe place, with someone I trusted, and I had assessed the risks, both internal and external, as well as the requisite contingencies in case I decided part way through to discontinue the trip. (Vitamin C will counteract the effects of psilocybin and I had two bottles of orange juice in my day pack as an antidote, should I have needed one.) I remember that it was very hot, even early in the morning when we set out to find a good location in the woods. Although I have endured 99% humidity throughout several summers in West Africa—where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer—and Washington, D.C., I am no fan of arid climates (and so you should not expect to find me on the playa at Burning Man). The only anger, discomfort, or negative emotions I experienced were when my friend and guide tried to accompany me from our initial spot in the shade to a more private location in the woods once we realized how close we were to people on the beach. The beachgoers could not see or hear us, but we could see and hear them, which was a bit of a buzzkill, literally.
I remember being guided up the hill and into a relentless late morning sun and I pleaded to go back to my cool spot under the tree. Before they agreed, I had been walked up the hillside and found the sunlight and dry heat absolutely intolerable on the climb—an ascent which, for all I know, lasted only a few minutes or less though it seemed like a lifetime. Not only was the original shady spot preferable in my heightened state, but on the temporary journey to find another spot I remember feeling an acute obligation to acknowledge and apologize to each and every plant stem over which I trod on my way up the hillside. It felt as if I were massacring them by walking so fast over so many individual, holy objects coming out of the ground, just doing their business to move toward the light. Eventually, we went back to the first spot, and managed to successfully ignore the distant frolicking sounds of the family on the beach—a soundtrack that might be pleasant when sober but that, in its inherent earthly humanness, did in fact dilute the psilocybin effects.
Back under the cool, comfortable shade of the giant tree—a tree that I have since located using Google Earth software (yes, seriously)—I settled in and found once again that there was a comfortable cradle of brush to hold me. Although it was made of sticks and roots and plant stems, nothing seemed painful or sticky or even uncomfortable. And remember, I am not one to sit on the ground when another seating option is available. I settled in and, perhaps because I am an auditory processor, the sounds more than the visuals are what helped me back into a pleasurable trip state. As Pollan writes, “Sound begat space.” Overhead a bird flew by and it was like a physics lesson in every wing beat. The portion of the flight within my view could not have lasted but a few seconds; nevertheless, I understood more about sine waves in those few seconds than in a whole semester of tenth grade trigonometry. Granted, having studied mathematics, I was probably imagining the sounds as soundwaves. Still, this type of condensed tutorial would put the Khan Academy to shame.
I examined all the plants and insects around me and proclaimed more than once that I was “in the terrarium.” I was trying to express something about having a new vantage point from which to view bugs that was not only comfortable but fascinating. I went on at length about the wonder of being “in there” with the insects and watching them build things out of plant fragments and seeing clearly that each and every bit of twig was a veritable set of construction materials and that I was witnessing a massive building project low to the ground. I was all of a sudden aware that there is a whole world of creation going on down there that I am too high up (too tall) to encounter under normal circumstances.  (I was able to simultaneously imagine the vantage point of some creature to whom we are just as small, but just as earnest and industrious in our endeavors.) And this was only what was going on above ground on an infinitesimal patch of ground out here in this forgotten village! Rather than being overwhelming, though, there seemed to be infinite time for me to contemplate these ants, with zero resistance to time or people or schedules or to the ants themselves. All of this I tried to articulate in an enthusiastic stream of exposition and half-metaphors.
My friend mentioned more than once during the trip that I may get more out of it if I stopped talking so much. I am verbose, and my trip was no doubt a verbal river of expoundings on the experience ("I'm in the terrarium!") and what I thought it meant ("I totally get it now!!"). My memory is largely auditory, though, and writing this now, many years on, I am glad that I said so much aloud because it makes it easier for me to remember what was going on. I did try to draw some pictures of it, and I wrote one song about it, but hearing my own commentary in my memory helps me to reconstruct what the plants and insects looked like: everything was geometric. It was as if I was given an extra set of glasses (on top of my regular glasses) with which to examine the finer details of every leaf and pine needle. Glasses that magnified not necessarily in terms of size, but in terms of detail. By looking at a plant stem, I could instantly synthesize how the geometry of the cylinder that formed the stem lent itself to the very particular shades of green that reflected and refracted in the light as I twirled the stem. This gave me the idea that the strawberries I ate later (I had brought them for reinforcement but they were way more fun to look at and touch than to eat) were geometric configurations and that the placement of each seed on the flesh of each berry was 100% geometrically determined. Mind you, the physical limitations of language and pixels make it very difficult to express to you how instantaneously all of this "content" configured in my brain during my mushroom trip. I've so far covered about the first ten or so minutes.
Divine Knowledge?
Pollan read numerous accounts of mushroom trips and identified dominant themes that, unlike accounts of other types of drug use, were informational in nature, rather than merely sensory. For example, many people emerging from being under the influence of psilocybin will report having learned something while tripping about love or the universe, or about time, space, nature and life forms. I, too, had this kind of “noetic” experience of being exposed to specific knowledge by some authoritative entity (although the “entity” cannot really be confined to such a word because it was all-encompassing and expansive and nothing like a human or even god-like “entity” as we would normally think of one). It should be noted that my mushroom trip was years ago, before I read Pollan's book, and in the intervening years I spoke with a number of friends who will corroborate that the hallmark of the experience for me was the "content" I acquired, which is the way I spoke about my mushroom trip to distinguish it from even the highest of marijuana highs—experiences that I described as having extreme sensory effects but during which I did not acquire any new "knowledge" or understanding about the world. I had never, to be sure, understood anything novel by smoking pot or learned something that endured beyond the temporary high. Mushrooms were different. I instantly acquired knowledge, or content, or information, or whatever you would like to call it. Or at least I think I did. It was rather simple to acquire, and it revealed itself rather soon after the psilocybin took effect. It has also endured, no doubt reinforced each time I have explained and rearticulated my trip. It was quite important to me to tell people about; I risked a few friendships with people who I thought would judge me for using drugs because that's how important it was to me to tell them about what I had learned.
So, what was it precisely that I did learn? For starters, there was absolutely no distinction among animal, vegetable and mineral. That distinction to me, while tripping, seemed as silly and inconsequential as it might be for us to argue about what defines and delimits "medium roast" from "dark roast" on our coffee beans. Yeah, there's a difference, but imagine trying to explain this to someone who doesn’t drink coffee and make it matter to them. Additionally, I would say that I learned to “trust” the earth and the world in an unfettered way, or at least that it is possible to do so; the feeling didn’t last, but I can remember it. People often wonder if I had an overpowering feeling of love or some such, and I wouldn't describe it quite that way, although I do identify with those accounts and I believe they are a function of the "set" mentioned above that determines to some extent your expectations of the experience. Religious people may have a religiously-themed trip, and I did not, but I am not a conventionally religious person. It wasn't, for me anyway, "love" so much as beauty. Comfort as opposed to divine light. A total lack of resistance or any looking backward or forward. It was a distinctly present sensation or idea that enveloped me. I would describe it as boundless or infinite. I, being very cognitively-oriented, wanted connections and I was able to see, and make, and exclaim aloud, more connections in the space of an hour or two than I had for my entire previous conscious years to date. Everything I had theretofore known still existed, and was true, and made sense, but the new knowledge or "content" I acquired was so vast as to defy description. The new knowledge rendered my old knowledge very small indeed, but no less true or real or significant. It was a matter of lenses—anything I focused on could become deeply significant, but there were so many things to choose from and to focus on, and rather than being overwhelming, this notion was comforting because I also had the sense that there was infinite time available to contemplate any pinecone or insect leg or strawberry seed that I chose and that doing so could mindblowingly fill all of eternity for me if I wanted it to and that the possibility of ever being bored again in life was erased indefinitely.
Unlike the physical, sensory effects of cannabis, caffeine, and alcohol—the only other drugs with which I have any experience—psilocybin conferred content (knowledge, information) alongside the sensory effects. Admittedly, the sensory effects are so extreme that perhaps what happens on mushrooms is that your prior knowledge is enhanced so greatly in an instant that, for example, all of sixth grade biology suddenly becomes clear by examining one plant stem, and in this way people on mushroom trips think they have received some sacred knowledge from beyond. I should emphasize here that there is nothing unsacred about understanding biology, and I often experience moments of awe simply by watching Nova and Nature on PBS each Wednesday night, albeit in a much more ordinary setting than where my mushroom trip took place. While I did not suddenly become outdoorsy after my psilocybin journey, the disposition that endures is that nature is the greatest show on earth.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bring the Funny

“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”
~Anne Lamott,
Bird by Bird

At this time last year I was an aspiring comedienne. Most of my drafty eight minutes of stand-up consisted of one-liners about coffee, cookie dough, and looking for staples at Staples. I had been unemployed (by choice) for six months, and my sabbatical had been fruitful if not funny. I did have a nice little riff on what happens domestically when the woman stops working: “My husband would come home and I would say things like, ‘Honey, I washed my coat!’”

When asked by the Songwriters Association of Washington, DC to describe my music, I had once offered “Sad, funny, and female—in the tradition of Dar Williams, Meryn Cadell and Danielle Ate the Sandwich.” (I got to tell Danielle this in person when I was cast as an extra in one of her music videos.) Those three ladies really know how to bring the funny in their lyrics. I’d had the sadder-but-wiser thing going on for a while, but I couldn’t let go of the notion that I had some humor in me. In 2009 I completed a manuscript as part of National Novel Writing Month, and while my prose description was terrible, my dialogue was hilarious. Screenwriting seemed too daunting at my age, but I thought I could squeeze out fifteen minutes of stand-up to perform at an open mic.

I had the open mic all picked out. It was to be at Sojourners Coffee and Tea in Denver (I was living there at the time) last July 18. I wrote and rewrote and edited and timed my routine, but it just wasn’t happening. I learned that if you’re not careful, many attempts at comic writing just end up being rants. Truly funny, non-negative, non-gross stuff is hard to create. I abandoned the project without looking back. I knew it hadn’t been a lack of desire or hard work—I just couldn’t write stand-up. Sometimes, Eileen can’t

In January I joined an online songwriting group and have dutifully turned in each assignment on time. I never considered them “real” songs, however. It’s as if each one had an asterisk by it, like I hadn’t created Song 13 as much as Song 12.5. I thought of them as “exercises” with some distain, vainly guarding my writer’s heart. It took three rounds of trying out these random monthly, at times gimmicky, exercises to realize that the songs were real enough, but I had parted ways with my plaintive female ponderizing. It was finally time to bring the funny. Somehow these contrived prompts brought it out of me, precisely because I wasn’t taking them very seriously.

The anecdote about writing—or anything, for that matter—that I quote more often than any other is Anne Lamott’s notion that writing is like milking a cow. The cow gets relief even if the milk is discarded. Yes, I am the cow in this analogy. And yes, writing to a perfunctory assignment generated by a stranger brought me much comic relief, not to mention a built-in opportunity to write about The Big Lebowski. (The songwriting group is taking a break for the summer, so I should be back to maudlin very soon.)

Prompt 1: Write a "feel good" theme song. Try to create the chorus so that whatever the hook is the listener can feel/know that you are "feeling good" "happy" etc.

I Don’t Mind

I'm out on the curb, feeling absurd
I left the house after our fight
Now I'm in the yard, it's getting hard to stand the cold

But I don't mind when our house is cold if we're in it together
And it's alright if your jokes and puns just really aren’t that clever
I don't mind

When you're on a trip
I always save your last voice message on my phone
Even if all that you say is all that you've eaten
and what time to pick you up

And I don't mind if your flight is late as long as you're home safe, dear
And it's alright if your bag is lost and then we have to wait there
I don't mind

And if our street is taken over by zombies asking
for whatever zombies ask for we'll give it to them because...

It's alright to stand with your lover during Armageddon
And I don't mind holding hands with you until our fingers deaden
I don't mind

Prompt 2: Write a song about life and renewal....with a reference to a hedgehog.


Low clouds for miles over Kansas
Thousands of steel windmills turn
The landscape is changing as cities collapse
There's less here and more here to learn

Pull the car up through the road rocks
See the noon sun on our place
It's just as you remember and not what I thought
The east wind grazes my face

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, and nothing's as firm as it seems

Your pitch for this plot was convincing in our stubborn battle of wills
Now add to the mortgage a trailer out back, and a lifetime of pest control bills

The old man says, “Just get a hedgehog--it'll eat up those critters right quick."
You say, "It's worth a try," and then I start to cry
This farmhouse is making me sick

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, just those termites working in teams

The kitties press their ears to the floorboards; for a moment it's quiet except
A split in the distance, a crash in the yard
I say, "Honey, there goes our deck."

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, just those termites working in teams
Like alarm clocks that cut into dreams, underfoot buzzing like tiny screams
And nothing's as firm as it seems because these termites, they're eating our beams

Prompt 3: Write about a 'comedy of errors.'

Comedy of Errors

And there goes Bunnie in a halter, unaware she’s being tailed by Walter
Me, too, I’m mixed up in this crime with some of the greatest actors of all time

Chorus: It’s a comedy of errors featuring one of history’s most famous bathrobe-wearers
When it’s on the screen, I’m tied there like a tether ‘cause you know that rug, it tied the room together

That Maude is such a special lady, but her father seems very, very shady
The Dude is trying to untangle this mess, and what it all means, well, that’s anybody’s guess


Interlude: Poor Donny, with his haircut and his soda. Is it true that he doesn’t even really exist? We only ever see him at the bowling alley. Is it true that he is just a figment of Walter’s imagination, an old Nam buddy? And the Dude goes along with it, just to be a good friend

I can’t get enough of Jackie Treehorn, and I know all he does is make porn, but it’s all right

It’s about a rug, and a couple of thugs, and other things that I dug, some guys who love to bowl, and being on the dole, and saving your soul. (Da Fino’s a mole!)

This movie gives me a good feeling; I can’t follow it, but I know that it’s healing

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Poet in the Laboratory

Marie Curie“If all the stories are placed on top of each other, everything ultimately becomes invisible. Then you have to choose.”  ~from The Book about Blanche and Marie by Per Olov Enquist

I read a lot of biographies, mostly of women. And though I am not a feminist (it gets in the way of being a humanist), I find that immersing myself in the life of another woman through reading conveys lessons to me that are not transferable through any other medium. Audrey Hepburn is brilliant on the screen, but it was not until I read a biography of her that I learned what a great cook she was (and got some of her famous recipes). Fans of Marlee Matlin know her strengths as a dramatic actress, but parts of her autobiography were laugh-out-loud hilarious in a way I hadn’t expected. A fair chronicle of Joni Mitchell's life gives equal coverage to her painting and her music. And Shawn Colvin had a new memoir out this year that left me soaked in her struggle for survival, her love of clothes (Who knew?), and a wholly intimidating sense of her expert guitar skills, told through anecdotes from her years on the road.

Some women I become truly obsessed with. Last year it was Diane Arbus and this year it was Marie Curie. As women go, the two probably could not be more different, yet biographies of each of them had similarly profound effects on my grasp of modern history; of couples working as partners in their professions; of mothers and daughters; and of tireless, relentless efforts toward what each considered her passion. Both criticized for their sexual choices, each woman consumed in her work, and each leaving behind a remarkable legacy. 

When we read biographies, we draw the lessons that we need to, filtered through our own flaws and experience. In trying to craft a fictional narrative in this song, I explore the motivations of a young girl who has drawn different lessons from the life of Marie Curie than perhaps you or I would. It is not as successful as my non-fiction songs, but I was ready to try something new.


Shine Like Marie Curie                                    

The evening star is rising with all the owls advising. Her teenage body wising up for good
A girl like many others, she courts her best friends’ brothers, adventuring outside her neighborhood
Faded initials in a heart carved in a tree—a silent warning of the woman she will be
In heaven’s backroom they’re conferring on a pin. They can’t let her in because…

Chorus: She’s in a hurry to shine like Marie Curie would. Her parents worry for her and themselves and all the rest. She’s chasing Saturn and she sees a pattern: her world is flatter when saints are conspiring overhead.

A humbled adolescent, she lay there luminescent, staring at the crescent high above.
The planets all revolving, and all her problems solving. The Earth, in turn, absolving all her sin.
She tells him, “I can’t give you any less of me.” She begs him, “Promise not to make a mess of me.”
Those helpless angels, now they’re off on spinning spheres whispering for years, saying…


With August disappearing and autumn surely nearing, the cricketsong is steering her to sleep.
Her father in hysterics consults suburban clerics: oppression so generic she’s ashamed.
But when it’s over she shows off her battlescars, proudly displayed like streamers from her handlebars.
Her friends will tell her that she’s just like all the rest, but she’s got an answer:

She uses science to channel her defiance and she stands on giants—their shoulders grow limp beneath her weight.
They call her sorcerer. They know the force of her. There’s no remorse in these women who get their hands so dirty.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Empathy Problem

I feel it all. ~Feist

I’ve cracked the code. People have been telling me all my life that I’m too sensitive. And I think they’re right. I absorb everything that goes on in a room, and I am not easily able to forget stuff. I usually stay up all night processing it all – everything anyone did or said throughout the day, as well as my reactions. It’s a problem. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between my own emotions and someone else’s. It’s also very hard for me to deliver bad news or stand up for myself in a situation where I know I will rock the boat; I am simultaneously experiencing my own feelings and the predicted response of my interlocutor.

I was extremely fortunate this summer to be gifted with a half-day horseback ride through Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, perhaps the prettiest place I’ve ever been. I’d only been on horseback once before, but was told then I was ‘a natural’ at it. However, I wouldn’t want to discount the importance of having a good horse. This time, too, I had a great horse, and a great ride.

For hours I let my body assume the rhythm of the horse and think about only these few things: no sudden movements, no loud noises, and—no matter what happens—don’t let go of the reins unless you are already on the ground.

It became clear to me in the third hour that the way to explain being ‘a natural’ at horseback riding, though I have done it only twice, is just to say that I trusted the horse. That way, I had very little to think about and could just gaze around at the wild burros, pronghorn, and bison that dot the landscape of the Black Hills. During this time, the chorus came to me, and the rest unfolded to the reliable cadence of the horse’s movements.

I had the keen sense that the point was not for me to feel what my horse, Doc, was feeling. After all, she had shoes nailed into her feet and had to cross eight rocky streams and several narrow mountain passages. The key was to know that I was not, in fact, the horse, but the rider—whose job was entirely different: to trust the animal.

Too Much Empathy (Traveling III)

You see from my expression I’ve been taken by the reins
The slightest raw emotion and I fold like paper cranes
The body is a bellows and I soak in what I breathe
The squeals of kids on swings, the screams of babies as they teethe
The empathy’s too much, but I can’t help but feel it all
I throw back all your angst, I say your name, I hit a wall

But I trust the horse I’m riding even on the steeper hills
And I trust the healing process after cuts and cramps and spills
I trust the clothes I’m wearing—my jeans and spurs and boots
These things I’ve made mine; I have my wings, I know my roots

But I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling
I just want to know what you know
I hold fast to my own heart, high or low

The volumes that I process I’m unable to forget
My memory’s off the charts; my turning radius is set
But I’ll take the straight and narrow on the mountain that I climb
I trust the dark and stony cave; my eyes can see through time

And I trust the horse I’m on; he knows which animal he is
And I trust the bit and bridle and the things that he’s made his
I trust the clothes I’m wearing—my spurs and boots and jeans
I'm out here on my own; I know the way, I have the means

And I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling
I just want to see what you see
I need to know there’s a difference between you and me

I trust the horse I’m riding even on the steeper hills
I trust the healing process after cuts and cramps and spills
I trust the clothes I’m wearing—my boots and jeans and spurs
I keep my chin up all along. They say an optimist endures.

I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling
I just want to know what you know
I hold fast to my own heart as I go

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and know the place for the first time. ~ T.S. Eliot

Some songs whisper for a long time, while others come screaming. I have learned that when I sit down with lyrics, even half-baked or bad ones, I have to have my digital voice recorder nearby in case a melody reveals itself right away. You can make tiny adjustments until you feel that everything's falling into place, but at some point, the song emerges, wriggling through its afterbirth.

There are those who find it untoward to write negative things about one's family, or to post such things in public places. There are others who, like my favorite fiction writer Lorrie Moore, say to "write something excruciating" in order to reach into the deeper places. And while I am not in the habit of badmouthing people for sport, I side with Moore. There is indeed a cruel volley among my sisters and me, and I am in fact partially responsible for keeping it going.

I strive for transparency in my lyrics, even if it means falling through a glass door.

Venus in Transit (Traveling II)

Years are full of nighttimes, carving different moons
Days are full of mornings, blinding us in noons
And through another lens I see my journey in reverse
I practiced all my manners, but some things you can't rehearse 
I'm in transit, I'm in transit

Oh, Venus, I watch you cross the sun
Oh, Venus, how will they know my work's not done?
I'm in transit, I'm in transit

I'm standing in a room with all my sisters
We snap these little twigs, we break each other's nests
We orchestrate more cruelty, we take each other's tests
Oh, Venus, where will this volley come to rest?
Oh, Venus, how will I know I've done my best?
I'm in transit

I can't arrive before my time, but now I'm finally here
My will is louder than my fear
I can't arrive before my time, but now I'm finally here
My day is longer than my year
I'm in transit, I'm in transit

There are no pictures in my wallet
All the old and known things are worse than the unknown
I pack a few good memories and I walk away alone
Oh, Venus, my year is shorter than my day
Oh, Venus, I don't do anything half-way
I'm in transit

Friday, June 8, 2012

Flowers, Witches

Kill your darlings. ~ Annie Dillard

I was extraordinarily patient with this one. Fifty-one days of bad rhymes in ¾ time, fifty-one nights of alphabets dancing in my head. And twenty-eight days to finally process the whole thing into this write-up. I had the chords and melody for a long time before the words, which is unusual for me. At one point I was sitting in the customer lounge at a Ford dealership, waiting for a repair, and writing verses in time about how hard this song was to write. That did actually yield a seedling of something that ended up in the song, but it is probably unrecognizable by now.

On March 22, coming down off the high of Don’t Wait Til Sunday, I scribbled a note: “When my dinosaur body returns to the earth, I wanna be flowers and not fossil fuels.” For both artistic and scientific reasons, this did not make it past Day 10 of writing this song. But it got me to Day 11, and so on, and so forth.

Author Annie Dillard suggests that a good writer must learn to “kill her darlings,” meaning that some good writing (not to mention a lot of bad writing) gets in the way of other good writing. If you are not willing to cut something—even something good—you cannot move on, and you find yourself at an impasse.

This song is about the place where pacifists are buried (if there is such a place), but unfortunately I had to wage an all-out war on my “darlings” during the writing process. Many great lyrics were casualties of this war. I haven’t shredded all those pieces of notebook paper yet, but I managed to hide them away when I knew they were not going to end up in the song. Still, every bit gets me closer to every other little bit.

My Jimmy Webb songwriting book taught me that, “There is no crossed-out, blotted word on paper or half-croaked note or stumbling, tripping step toward the songwriter’s goal that is unseemly or shameful.” Jimmy recommends that when one is having difficulty crafting an effective lyric, isolating the song idea by writing a sincere letter to it can lead to a breakthrough. Dear Song 9, I wrote on April 19, I have been extraordinarily patient with you. I went on to ask the song what it was about besides pacifism, or beyond pacifism, or within pacifism. It had to be about something bigger or something smaller. I asked the song what my real issue with it was. Courage? Focus?

It turns out it is about something larger—stating one’s position unequivocally in the face of enormous opposition—but it had to be framed in terms of something much more specific. A forest grave. An unceremonious burial. An earthy dirge.

I recently moved from Washington, DC to Colorado, and while the move probably delayed the development of the song, the ubiquitous evergreen trees here pushing their way through the rocky ground is what ultimately brought the song together.

I imagine someday I could be escorted out of a room for saying some of these things, but I will choose my open mics carefully. Also, all of that is in the song: how painful that it, but also why that makes these things so important to say.

“Flowers” kept kicking around, changing in context quite a bit, but I clung to the idea of the beauty and fragility of flowers, and of peace itself. The hardest words came last. In comparing myself to others who may have an unceremonious or secret burial I had to get closer and closer to what was excruciating about writing this song. “Witches” was the final word that came and that day the song was finished.

What Glory is This

In our high school pictures we all look the same
And we were so sure we knew who to blame
Now we are flowers, we open and close
We’re risking our lives here, but nobody knows

Chorus: Bury me next to the sad punks and sailors, next to the mad monks and jailers, out beyond witches and whalers, under an evergreen tree.

We’ll find a good place for peacemakers unknown
We’ll do without caskets, the wreath and the stone
There’s no celebration, no cross in the ground
We’re buried in silence, no trumpets resound


I walk to the forest and I sing this hymn, I steady my path with a fallen tree limb
When makers of battles find out what I think, they’ll mark my grave with indelible ink
They’ll make of this place a new war—what glory is this?

So I give thanks for near misses and I fly my flag, but no son of mine will wear a dog tag
He’ll plant and he’ll weed and he’ll rake—what glory is this!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Changing My Strings

“If you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six…The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
~Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I decided to change my guitar strings. They’d all been switched out in November when I had William at the Guitar Gallery in Cleveland Park (“the guitar guy”) do some work for me. I chose the ones I wanted—Martin silk and steel folk guitar strings—and he put them on after cleaning my fret board and adjusting my action with a truss rod. It’s not as dirty as it sounds.

Four months later one of my open mic friends said, ”Your guitar would sound a lot better with new strings.” Fateful words. The moral of this story is that a guitar with old strings sounds better—and is infinitely more playable—than a guitar with no strings.

I sat on my bed--coffee and water on the adjacent nightstand, and set about my task, daunted and confident at the same time. I figured I would talk myself through it and it wouldn’t be so bad. I took off all the strings and cleaned the fret board. That was my first mistake. Not the cleaning, but I later found out that I should have changed out the strings one by one. Or not.

In all things guitar, I have found that everyone has a different opinion—how I should sit, whether or not to learn tablature, how important it is to put myself through the hell that is learning barre chords. I fall somewhere between easily led and totally stubborn, but one thing’s for sure: I ask a lot of questions. First, I went back and forth with my friend Jacob via text about whether I could combine strings from different packages (weights). I had three or four half packages of D’Addarios I wanted to use up and figured I could combine them.

Somehow when I got a guitar and broke my first string, about one year ago, I managed to order and replace the string without asking anyone what to do. It was truly a case of beginner’s mind. Now I found that I was clueless as to how to proceed. I ached with the sense that I should have left well enough alone. I put everything aside for a minute and tried to breathe. My computer was playing on random and a track called “The Elvis Song” from Liz Phair’s Girlysound recordings came on. “Elvis, be good to me,” she says in a high-pitched nasal whine. “Elvis, be true.” I grabbed my journal and scrawled out the first line of my song, which would end up being the last.

Great, a song was developing. But I wouldn’t be able to write or play it until I got the strings on. I stared at the naked guitar. While one hour previous I’d been banging away at a Loudon Wainwright tune, now the instrument sat there, defiled, and I couldn’t play it.

For many years I’d had a pretentious ambition to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yes, I am better for having read it, but that book will whack the pretentiousness right out of you. Pirsig writes that the time to do good thinking is not later, when you have the perfect tools in front of you; it’s right now—on the road, as it were—or wherever you happen to find yourself, in whatever state of self-loathing or poverty of mind. Resign yourself to your limitations and act on those, instead of failing to act altogether.  As Tim Ferriss writes, “Boredom is the enemy, not some abstract failure.”  (Gee, what would happen if those two could somehow meet up across the space-time continuum?)

The worst case scenario was not that the strings would all be broken or unplayable or wound backward. It’s only wood and wire, after all. The real tragedy would have been missing this opportunity to be so humbled by an inanimate object that I got a good song out of it. I didn’t miss it. I got my ass to the public library, checked out a guitar repair guide, followed the instructions to the letter, and guess what? Within an hour I had six working strings.

Pirsig says that if you look for the machine, you will never find it. Where is it? In the tappets? The spark plugs? The chrome in between? It’s a cycle called yourself.

Don't Wait 'Til Sunday (Song for Robert Pirsig)

I set about changing my worn out guitar strings, seeking the solace that physical work brings
It proved much, much harder than I had expected: the wood and the wire, my efforts rejected
Someday I’ll be famous with mansions and things
Do Joni and Dar have to change their own strings?

I thought it beyond me, so I’d just take it in and I’d ask the guitar guy to lessen my burden
But amidst all my crying and whining and curses, I found myself thinking about Robert Pirsig
Well, I’ll introduce him ‘cause it’s been a while since he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
He drove ‘cross the country with his teen son in tow; they had many, many, many miles and more miles to go
Someday I’ll be famous and I’ll wear gold rings
And I wonder, does Loudon have to change his own strings?

Pirsig said if you think well just one day per week your tappets will rust and your engine will leak
Instead you should try to be one with the tuning; if not, you might find that your ego’s ballooning
He said that a great man would not wait ‘til Sunday or pine away hoping for riches, for “one day”
Think well right now, do the hard work yourself, don’t count on your servants, don’t lean on your wealth

And don’t wait ‘til Sunday, don’t wait ‘til Sunday

The strings  were all bent and my eyes were all cried out when I noticed the bridge holes were a little bit dried out
I put on some music and I did the repair for what seemed like hours to the sound of Liz Phair

Don’t wait ‘til Sunday, don’t wait ‘til Sunday

“Elvis, be good to me,” Liz Phair sings, and I wonder if Liz has to change her own strings
“Elvis, be good to me,” Liz Phair sings, and I wonder, did Elvis ever change his own strings?