Sunday Morning

Sunday Morning

Back when my smallest was a big toddler and we didn’t have to manage four calendars, he and I were the first people up on Sunday mornings. Depending on how alert he was feeling and how committed I was to being awake, it might be barely-light when he came in and gave me a good morning hug.

We’d proceed to the kitchen, I’d open my laptop, and start playing music I wanted him to learn about—usually jazz or swing—and get down to the important business of making coffee. He would listen quietly and watch me operate the grinder. I’d tell him the stories behind the music, how Nat King Cole was just an accompanist until the night the singer cancelled. Sometimes I’d play him funny songs, like Straighten Up And Fly Right or Frim Fram Sauce. The noise and coffee smell would eventually attract other people to the kitchen, and the moment would be lost.

We’re Jewish, so I always felt a bit conflicted about Sunday morning being our quiet, creative, contemplative time. I still feel quiet on Sundays. But it’s only recently that I started listening to Sunday music on a Sunday morning.

When I want to convey a particular mood in my writing or think about a particular theme, I make a playlist and listen to it hundreds of times while I’m at the computer. (Eventually, I have to put in my headphones or else my family rises up against me á la Moses.) I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual and gospel origins of popular music, so I’ve been listening to the following gospel songs without cease. And, as if by accident, this has been happening on a lot of Sundays.

Sometimes, I put them on as I make a cup of coffee. Sometimes my son pokes his head in; he usually ends up wandering off to play his own music now. I suppose, some day hence, he’ll stand in a darkened kitchen, grind coffee and tell some small, impressionable person all about Beyonce. But I hope he’ll play a little Nat King Cole, too.

Sunday Morning Playlist

If you’re looking for a one-stop solution, my Spotify playlist is at the bottom of the page.

Abide With Me
Thelonious Monk Septet
1957
I first heard this song at six in the morning in the Portola Drive Starbucks in front of a roaring fire. It was still dark. I was probably drinking a white chocolate mocha, because that’s the sort of thing I did in grad school. That may have made every chord even holier. It’s so short and so perfect.

Roll Jordan Roll
Fairfield Four
1992 (The Fairfield Four have been around in some incarnation since 1921)
I first heard this song at about 6:02 in the morning in the Portola Drive Starbucks. That’s about the time I put down my white chocolate mocha and went to purchase the CD at the counter. The chill down the spine comes from Isaac “Dickie” Freeman’s otherworldly bass lead on this a cappella track. This video version is live with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, but after a minute they step back and let Dickie rattle the floorboards in the name of eternity.

Run on For a Long Time
Bill Landford and the Landfordaires
1949
Do you remember Moby’s Play album? Moby is singularly responsible for my first forays into the massive Alan Lomax archival recordings. This was not because Moby inspired me, but because I became infuriated when I discovered that the ancient-sounding blues samples on the album were actual, uncredited samples of blues singers. It would have been nice to let us know who the actual singers behind the platinum singles were instead of just giving “special thanks to Alan Lomax” (who would have been the first to say that he did not actually perform them). Anyhow, when I get mad I start googling. These were pretty hard to track down in 1999, but I was stuck at home being pregnant. Run On For A Long Time is sampled in Moby’s song Run On, and by that I mean “quoted almost in its entirety with a drum track tacked on”. I think the Landfordaires are actually credited, but my rant stands.

Oh Happy Day
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
1967
I did not learn about this song from Sister Act 2 in 1993 (see below). I’m sure I knew about it before, probably, though I cannot remember where I came across it. Definitely not from Sister Act 2though. Nope. Some other place. This arrangement, also performed in the movie that was not the first place I heard this song, was a huge 1967 crossover hit. I love when gospel and Christian rock do that (I was very interested when Flood dropped, for example). Is it in spite of the message, or because of it? Plenty of gospel songs are indistinguishable from contemporary music, so what makes those songs different from other gospel songs? Is it the same thing that makes pop songs hits? Fascinating, y’all.

I’ll Fly Away
John Legend (by way of Kanye West)
2004

It’s safe to say that The College Dropout will go down as one of my life-changing albums. Kanye West merged songs I love with working-class-to-middle-class survivor’s guilt I could understand. He questioned the value of following the expected path at a time when I was about to jump off. He was speaking my language, and I was in exactly the right place to hear it. The future John Legend (still John Stevens, then) is all over this album, but the chills moment comes from an all-John-Stevens a cappella group singing this gospel standard.

By the way, life-changing aside, I hate skits with all my heart, and Dropout’s are no exception. Artists, keep your skits to yourselves. I want no part.

Samson and Delilah
Reverend Gary Davis
1956

This song came on my radio careening down the 280 south away from home and I almost drove off the road. This recording is completely insane. Reverend Gary (also called Blind Gary Davis) pounds on the guitar, hoots, squeals, and stomps. I’m pretty sure the verses are out of order, but I don’t care. I like how personally he takes Delilah’s betrayal. He is super angry! That woman better watch her back; Samson is not the real danger here.

I’m sorry this isn’t a video, but this version isn’t on YouTube, and the sedate live version he recorded in the 60s is not at all the same level of weirdness.

Strange Things Happening Every Day
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
1944

Some people consider this upbeat recording of a traditional spiritual the first rock-n-roll song. I get it. It was a crossover hit because the song rocks. It’s bouncy, but there’s still plenty of soul here. Rosetta’s voice is so joyous. She’s excited to spread the news, yes, but she’s also excited just to be singing at all. This is what “singing your heart out” sounds like. Get up and move to this. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Elijah Rock
Mahalia Jackson
1961
Some music is just too chills-inducing. Probably the best version of this in the world, for me, is Aretha Franklin’s little-known first album. It’s live, clearly recorded on whatever the 1956 version of an iPhone is, but it doesn’t matter. She accompanies herself on the piano. She is FOURTEEN YEARS OLD, which is impossible because no fourteen-year-old child has ever sounded like THIS. The audience is practically screaming in places, her passion is absolutely sincere, it is one of the best albums I have heard in my life, and I have heard it exactly once because I don’t want to be just sobbing uncontrollably over my new keyboard. Or speaking in tongues. Or both.

Every Mahalia Jackson song is like that. This is literally the only Mahalia Jackson recording I can listen to and still be okay.

Singing in My Soul
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
1944
Just pure joy behind the guitar. This song is as bouncy as Strange Things Happening Every Day, and the guitar rocks just as hard. Here, though, her vocals are purely gospel. Her runs are every bit as sharp as Mahalia’s, and there’s one “singin’” in particular that cuts just as deep as anything in Mahalia’s arsenal. Rosetta’s no novelty act. She can rock AND she can sing. She could hold her own behind an organ or in front of a choir if she wanted to.

Joyful, Joyful
Lauryn Hill and Friends
1993
Sister Act 2 is time crystallized, a window on a moment in history when a sassy but good-hearted Vegas showgirl could convincingly pretend to be a nun; when we could believe that even a rundown catholic school could be blind to the fact that it was overflowing with improbably attractive and incredibly gifted gospel-singing children; when no one knew the heights to which Lauryn Hill would rise, nor the depths to which she would fall; when it would be not just okay, but somehow desirable for a group of teens to gospel-rap uplifting lyrics thinly based on an ode to sexual infidelity; when, somehow, all these things would combine in one perfect pop-gospel extravaganza. Also, Lauryn just kills it. I take a break from the keyboard and do some aerial flips during this one.

Like Sister Act, parts of Sister Act 2 were filmed in San Francisco. Yay Area! Teach your children.

Jesus, Lover of my Soul
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
1968

There’s a lot of Edwin Hawkins on this list, so bear with me. I really like upbeat gospel choirs with acoustic piano accompaniment. As this list shows, I do not really like modern gospel. This is not modern gospel’s fault, I’m sure. With old-school gospel, I can follow the trail of crossover soul singers back to the originals. You can’t do that with modern gospel. All my efforts lead me to songs that sound like Jodeci outtakes. Saxophone solos do not get me lifted. (Except, of course, this one.) Is it okay that I think the title of this song is kind of strange? I get it, but it’s still distracting sometimes.


Mi Chamocha
Joshua Nelson
2009
I don’t understand why Joshua Nelson is not the most famous singer in America. I think he should have all the awards. I can’t tell you whether he sings gospel music with Jewish themes or Jewish liturgy with gospel elements but the kavanah is so, so there either way. He’s another singer who sounds just so happy to be singing. Unfortunately, there is no full video of his version of Mi Chamocha, so you’re stuck with Spotify, which I hope works. I also own his music from iTunes, if you would like to actually pay for his music, which you should.

To My Father’s House
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
1968
I like that the soloist is slightly offended at the idea you might not believe her when she says there are mansions in her Father’s house.

Maybe God is Tryin’ to To Tell You Somethin’
Tata Vega
The Color Purple
1985

From the first note, this song is designed to get your attention, and it does. Talk about modern gospel music—this song was written by Quincy Jones for The Color Purple soundtrack. It’s meant to sound like a classic gospel song, the kind everyone would know but a very special singer would put a very special stamp on. It comes at a moment in the story where people—in particular longtime sinners—are starting to have second thoughts about the lives they’ve led up to this point. (The video is from the movie.) The song makes you sit up straight, look around, and do a quick inventory of your spiritual life, or, at least, it’s supposed to.

I always play this song last because I wouldn’t want to be the song that went after it. Once it’s built from one voice repenting to a whole community rejoicing, I’m ready for Sunday afternoon because church is over.

Can I tell you about my son?

Can I tell you about my son?

When my son was born, I looked down at him, tiny and warm and safe in my arms, and thought what a wonder he was. Somehow, another perfect little creature had come, seemingly out of nowhere, into our lives, nudging the little girl at the center of my world just a little bit over, wriggling in to make room for himself.

He seemed so tiny. The world around him was so big, and so full of possibilities, but he was small, and I could hold him in my arms, and keep him safe.

Now he’s nine. He loves subway trains and Civilization and Doctor Who. He reads Percy Jackson on his Kindle, sometimes when he is supposed to be sleeping. He has crooked glasses and curly hair. He speaks French and can reluctantly play the piano.

He’s still young enough to be safe and sure in the knowledge that his mommy will always be there to protect him.

My son pretends to believe in the tooth fairy because he’s pretty sure I do and he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. He reminds me to get half-and-half at the store. He’s serious, and funny, and so sincere that, sometimes, he tells on himself.

When he is scared, he looks for me.

Every time — I can’t believe I have to say every time — every time another mother’s little boy is killed by people sworn to protect him, all I can think is how scared that little boy must have been.

How very, very scared.

How he was once a scared little boy, padding down a dark hallway to climb in next to his mommy.

And how he died that way.

Could you take a minute, please, today, to think about all the mothers like me, holding and comforting their sons, who are just little boys, even when they are nine, even when they are nineteen? Holding them, and comforting their fears, while we are more frightened than they could ever imagine?

Please think about how you would feel. What would you tell your son?

How would you ever let him go?

Catch Us At Outside Lands All Weekend

Catch Us At Outside Lands All Weekend

A note to the parents of young children: it gets better.

We got started having kids earlier than everyone we knew. Our collective age was 43. That is not a large number. We were so young that it didn’t occur to us that what we were trying probably wouldn’t work, and so naive that we didn’t correctly interpret the sadly shaking heads of older, wiser adults.

An example of our mutual state of mind: On our first shopping trip after we got married, we spent over three hundred dollars in 1999 money because we purchased every product we had ever seen in our parents’ houses or on television. We bought things like Accent (it wakes up the flavor!) and celery salt and the kind of frozen chili that is made of equal parts red and lard. And we were six months away from being responsible for the exclusive care of a human being.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that we have kept both our children alive and neither one has ever tasted frozen chili.

In the interim, we had plenty of fun. We hung out with friends, drank white zinfandel because we were fancy, then learned to look down on ourselves for having liked white zinfandel. We saw concerts occasionally and wrote books and did many other things. I would never characterize the last fifteen years or so as not fun.

Well, not, like, super fun either. Coming right out of college, it was a little bit like being hit in the face with a 1984 Cadillac (let me tell you, another time, why our first car actually was a lemon-yellow 1984 Cadillac). We faced it with equal parts humor and flailing, which is about the best anyone can do. We did a great job!

But we didn’t have an exorbitant amount of fun.

Until we realized we had to make our own fun, and started booking a three-day stay-cation at Outside Lands. It’s an immovable date; unbreakable. We schedule our summers around it.

For three days a year, we are young adults out on the town.

We stow the children somewhere far away and safe, pack a blanket, and walk into a Golden Gate Park redecorated for our amusement. On the stages, famous and not-famous musicians; hidden in the trees, cocktails and delicious food. We come early and stay until it closes. It’s like fifteen years of fancy-free packed into three days, and, let me tell you, we are destroyed after it, and, perhaps, a little loopy during.

2012-08-11 20.05.14

We’ve seen Jack White up-close and personal.

2012-08-12 18.05.41

We watched all of Sutro fill up shoulder-to-shoulder to see Alabama Shakes come out, humbled and amazed by the loving crowd. Last night we saw Kanye West and I love him so much I’m already starting to forgive him for being both wonderful and terrible. (I can’t stay mad at Kanye.)

We’ve eaten so much fried chicken. So much.

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Anyway, parents, it all works out in the end. Go figure out your fun thing, and do it. Some people have their fun early on; looks like we’re bringing up the rear. Watch out!

The New World

The New World

(Part 2 of 2: Part 1 here)

Making a world is different from anything I have ever done.

I do it all the time. I could do it all day, and I do. I still research obsessively because, at this point, I have truly forgotten how not to be researching something obsessively, but now I can research anything I want. I draw maps and mark them up with color pencils. I put Post-Its everywhere. I gaze dreamily into space.

Sometimes, when I have a lot of coffee (or champagne), I start chattering about Negro spirituals and how they relate to consumer culture and get a lot of silence from the person whose face I have just talked off.

Sometimes I come out of my bedroom waving a Post-It and kind of scream I AM AS A GOD and no one even looks up because this is just what Mommy is like now.
Evernote
And, until recently, when anyone asked me questions such as

  • What are you doing?
  • What is that map?
  • Why have you been listening to Wichita Lineman on repeat since May?
  • Seriously, are you seriously, seriously, learning Babylonian?
  • Is Babylonian even an actual language?

I crouched down in the bushes and clutched my world to my chest and whispered to it no one would understand us, precious, let’s go hang a four-foot-long laminated map of the Silk Road in the living room and take it down when people come over so we don’t look insane. Also there’s really no such thing as Babylonian it’s actually Akkadian.

I spend more time with my black Pilot G2 5mm pen than I do with my family, and this is both haha-funny and hollow-haha-not-funny.

You see, to wall this part of my life off from them is to wall them off from my life. And to do it because I’m, frankly, embarrassed is seeming increasingly cowardly.

Because it’s incredible.

I have lived in worlds created by visionaries. I have followed their rules and kept their boundaries with great pleasure.

But to pack up your trunks and show up in a smooth white room, point in the air, and make a world! To point at the ground and see mountains grow up, and, then, if I choose, stamp them out again. To put people, with their own cultures and gods, on a shaded map in a perfect land, and then introduce a creeping evil, and then give them the strength to defeat it.

And to unpack your trunks and find, inside them, everything.

History

The history of Versailles. Victorian London’s grimy underbelly. My great-grandmother singing the blues on a Pine Bluff street corner. Wichita Lineman. Middle Passage. The Mongols riding up against the Rus, and longhouses, and any spats I want or no spats at all. (Currently, not even one spat.) That insane Silk Road map.

And, everywhere, the mysterious magic that underpinned the world of Oz.

All these things are my life now. The power is exhilarating; the need is sometimes alarming. I spend nights chasing the feeling. It’s there when an arcane bit of knowledge suddenly fills a gap I didn’t know existed. It lives in the moment when a scene suddenly shades in the outline of a character I was longing to intimately know, revealing her humor, her physicality, her one terrible weakness.

But, oh, the voices, and not the good kind.

  • These made-up names will incite laughter in reasonable people
  • No one will take this origin myth seriously
  • The names really are super dumb
  • You’re typing a scene you already know will never make the cut while your house devolves into a Thunderdome with hardwood floors
  • People on the Internet won’t like it
  • Finishing The Hat is not about you
  • You are not a good mother because good mothers don’t spend all day dreaming roads made of brine and water and bone

And, perhaps, worst of all, my own voice, when asked “What are you doing these days?” has actually said these words out loud: “Oh, something ridiculous that it’s hard to even explain”; “Something to paper my wall with rejection letters”; “Writing, kind of, but not really”‘; or, most commonly, “Staying home with the kids”.

Recently, I was having an oblique conversation about this and said “Adults don’t make up pretend places and then live there. This is not making a living.”

And the person I said this to replied:

Many, many adults do this for a living.

And my eyes leaked because I’m pretty sure this is what being a writer actually is, and, perhaps, always was.

So, I’ll duck back into my world now. But, first, I’m going to make a promise: if you ask me what I’m doing, instead of denigrating or minimizing the thing that fills my days and nights, I will, at least, say:

writing“.

For now, that is enough.

Leaving The Old World

Leaving The Old World

(Part 1 of 2. 2 tomorrow.)

I’ve been falling in love with worlds my whole life.

I first visited Oz when I was four years old, thumbing through the first book of Dorothy’s adventures on a hardwood floor in a house with a honeysuckle trellis (its own world).

One day, my uncle led me into a bookstore and said I could pick out anything I wanted. We rounded a corner into the Fantasy section and there they were, all in a rainbow row, tantalizingly out of reach: all fourteen Oz books, the Del Rey paperbacks, carefully numbered and begging to be mine. We carried those books to the counter, and I still remember that, all together, they cost one hundred dollars, which seemed a fortune to me at the time.

We got our money’s worth: I read the covers off those books, quite literally. As I ran through book after book, volume after volume, Oz opened around me like countryside rushing past a backseat window. I could stand in the Emerald City, Magic Picture at my back, and see Oz spread out, all four corners with a Deadly Desert keeping it safe from the outside world.

That outside world is shaky and uncertain; Oz was my bedrock. Friends change and move on; cliques form and exclude; Ozma, Dorothy, Betsy and Trot were my fast friends, and I could and did visit them whenever I wanted. Oz was safe, Oz was magic, Oz was mine.

My next door neighbor had a set of children’s classics she’d lend me from time to time. I read the real, terrifying Pinocchio, and the Swiss Family Robinson. There must have been many more, but they’ve since faded from my memory, because, one day, I lay down across my bed and opened A Study In Scarlet.

I packed up my luxurious bedroom in Oz and moved out.

The fact that I had recently discovered boys was probably not a coincidence.

The Detective was testy, impatient, sometimes full of righteous anger, sometimes casually cruel. He punished evil, and, when he wished, let wrongdoers go free. He died, was reborn, and accepted worshipful admiration as his due.

In short, Sherlock Holmes took me to church.

We lived in his world, not mine. We inhabited the cluttered flat at the top of the seventeen stairs, air choked with the smell and smoke of shag tobacco. I sat quietly in an out-of-the-way corner, hugging my knees, and pitied Mrs. Hudson. Then I followed him down Baker Street, jumped into a hansom cab, and plunged into his Victorian London.

Oz was self-contained, bounded by the uncrossable desert; the world of Sherlock Holmes stretched from Utah to Tibet. I was, again, obsessed; in the days before DVDs, to say nothing of DVRs, I combed over TV Guide every week and set my VCR to record any Sherlock Holmes-related show or movie. In the days before eBay, to say nothing of Amazon, I walked through used and new bookstores and read each and every book spine to find Holmes pastiches and coffee table books and speculations.

For scale, this photo represents less than half my total collection:

Sherlock-Resized.jpg

There’s a pattern, here, and it continued to repeat itself. Victorian London became Georgian England, the island’s last hurrah before Victoria’s disapproving glare. I pitched my tent in the History aisle and wrote a historical romance that was as authentic as I could make it, gave it a hug, sent it out into the world, and got a series of polite no’s that felt like individual sucker punches. “It probably wasn’t authentic enough,” I thought, and went back to the drawing board for six years.

In sudden bursts of creativity, I wrote 5,000, 10,000, 50,000, 75,000-word projects that stuttered and stalled. I refused to read fiction and, instead, doubled down on history, forcing myself to inhabit a 900-year span of European and American history. I have a book about 18th-century silverware and a 1910 edition of the Memoirs of Madame du Barry, and also dozens more. I have checked out a frightening quantity of library books over the years. I spent three years of unpleasant commutes listening to every pre-19th-century history audiobook I could find, enthralled by some, jerking awake and turning up the air conditioning during others.

And there I was, feeling the weight of history—history as hobby and history as compulsion—lighting my life and crushing me flat. I loved studying history, and spent years of my life making myself hate it.

One day, I left my job and found myself at home.

I stay-at-homed with kids and wandered the back hallways of consulting, until one of my old stories—set in prerevolutionary Versailles and rural New Orleans—drifted back into my consciousness. It played with slavery and race, it was, of course, a romance, and I’d been confused by it because it kept washing up on the shores of fantasy when I was all about making sure spats existed yet and then making sure people were wearing the right kind of spats.

This had happened a few times before, and I kept getting stuck on the spats.

Sumner & Longfellow & Spats

But, this time, I wasn’t really thinking about spats. The world around me kept shifting all over the place and shifting back, and that history I’d studied long enough to probably qualify for a master’s degree was remixing itself and turning upside down.

what if the United States had abolished slavery before racism had time to get hard-coded into law

and what if also the Cistercians had kept using the forge at Laskill and the industrial revolution started during the Reformation

no what if the Cistercian monks were extremely shady and all-powerful but also smart

no wait up what if there never had been any Christianity and there was no United States in the first place

what if magic

There were dozens of directions, and, honestly, the world was getting really…weird. If there had never been any Christianity, for example, there weren’t any churches, and the entire period I had been researching for literally six years…wasn’t. And, for each direction, I’d try to do my customary obsessive researching and fret and get confused and tired.

One day, over dinner, when I was complaining how difficult I was finding it to redesign 1800 years of human history with magic in while somehow making it historically accurate, my husband, who is very clever, said something for which I will be forever and profoundly grateful:

Why does it have to be our world at all?

My brain crashed and I got up and probably did a weird dance.

Then I ran headlong into a new world.

I broke this into two parts. This one is already a novella as it is.Part 2 tomorrow.