I’m listening to what some columnist called “Classical-Adjacent music”.On now is Ludovico Einaudi, with all the melancholy yearnings that his music evokes. I appreciate this music, even as outside, mud and sunshine replace the snowy afternoon it calls forth.

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The playlist moves to Sakura by RIOPY. The mood is positive but introspective, hinting of inspirational. This is the feel of much of the music: introspective. I think I like this genre so much because it encourages thought and emotion without taking over my mood.

I listen to modern classical (another name, a little less sardonic) when I’m writing. It distracts me from my inner dialogue and from my surroundings and lets me pay attention to what I’m building in my head.

Who fits into modern classical? Start with its philosophical founders: Erik Satie and Brian Eno (my opinion), then include people like Johan Johannson, Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Ludovico Einaudi, and others. On iTunes, you can find them in playlists like Classical Edge, Classical Concentration, and Contemporary Classical.

I end this blog note with Alexandra Streleski’s Elegia, which is as melancholy as one could get. I look out my window, which seems incongruously cheerful. That’s okay; melancholy is the mood I want to write.

Self-care in the Christmas Season

Chronic stress is not a badge of honor. In fact, it’s a life-shortening problem. Stress is, however, inevitable, because there will always be conflict. Without stress, humans would not survive because they would not recognize danger. It’s just when stress gets chronic that it eats away at the mind and body. Therefore, we need to resolve stress and get past it.

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I teach human services to students. They move on to case management careers, often transitioning to some sort of counseling after a while in the labor force. One question I ask them in case management class is what their self-care routines are. It’s important to take care of oneself when you work with other people in high-stress situations which sometimes hook into someone’s personal hurts. It’s important for everyone to decompress and let go of stresses.

As for my self-care, I’m off work until early January, the biggest perk of being a faculty member. I’d argue that I need the 3 weeks at Christmas to recuperate from dealing with students day in and day out. It’s a privilege, I know.

Because my fall semester is rough and my spring semester rougher, and because I manage bipolar II (when it doesn’t manage me), I try to cram in my self-care over the Christmas season.

On my self-care list:

  • Muscle soak baths
  • Plenty of water to drink
  • Christmas scent spritzed in the living room
  • All the Christmas lights on
  • Christmas music
  • Occasional naps
  • Hot Chocolate

So far, so good. I think I’m up to writing some on my novel today after a week of recovering (and maybe writing 500 words a day).

I hope you get at least a few moments for self-care this season.

Reminiscing the Blues

Listening to 70’s music

Nothing sets me to reminiscing quite like the 70’s singer/songwriter playlist on Apple Music. It’s almost painful to listen to, because the music cuts through to my childhood, which was not always a pleasant place. I had to deal with isolation, heartbreak, and the day-to-day chaos of living with my mother. Any memories of my childhood evoke sadness, even if they’re happy memories.

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Listening to “American Pie” by Don McLean or “Helpless” by Neil Young makes me feel like someone is pulling my memories out of my mind and laying them bare for all to see. I feel every bit of loneliness; I want to cry.

Yet I still listen because those are my memories. They are who I am. Remembering them makes me feel more whole, because otherwise I would be drifting through life without an anchor.

Happy memories

It’s fair to wonder if I have good memories of childhood. To be honest, I don’t have many, or at least few that I remember right now. I remember the good Christmases at my grandmother’s, I remember cooking with my parents, I remember sessions with my speech teacher (who was sort of a deputized school psychologist’s aide, I’ve been told), I remember playing in kindergarten, I remember playing outside in the summer.

Strange thing, though, that music doesn’t evoke those moments. I listen to the old music and feel the sadness. Music helps me reminisce the blues.

Music and my past

Music brings my mind back to the past.

The ’80s Singer-Songwriter playlist plays on the stereo, and I realize that it was almost 40 years ago that I was starting college, and Springsteen playing “Hungry Heart” makes me remember that I was curious once, walking into local stores in Campustown and browsing for things I had no money for.

I was hungry for experience. By myself, usually, because I didn’t understand why I needed other people to go explore. I was an introvert even then, but I didn’t understand it. I didn’t seek out music, but it found me in the shops, in the computer lab, in pirated tapes from my friends. I followed my boyfriends to concerts — I remember listening to the Ramones in the most acoustically unsound building on the U of I campus, and Jethro Tull — where did I see Jethro Tull? 

Later, when I gave up on boyfriends and made friends, we listened to local Irish and bluegrass music. A local music “pusher” turned me on to Gaelic pop and Handel’s Water Music. The radio still played on through, and I soaked it up like osmosis.

In a way, I hate reminiscing, because I want my focus to be on the present. I’m not done exploring yet, just because COVID keeps me cooped up. I do intense searches on the Internet for my writing, and for my latest hobby, sourdough bread baking, and for all the little fact-grabbing. I have not studied anyone’s psyche (the intense focus of a crush) lately, and I’m not sure I want another one of those at my age. 

I hate the fact that I just used the phrase “at my age” — I want to be young again, but with the knowledge and the calm with which I meet life now. This is impossible and a waste of time to wish for. So I will let the music tear my heart out, and I will build a heart of calm in its place.

Day 18 Lenten Meditation: Music

A long time ago, a friend told me, “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in music. Music is a force holding together the universe.”

Even to this day, I can’t say he was wrong. The music of the spheres in the greatness of the universe, a lullaby sung by a mother, the communal experience of a mosh pit or a church service, the sad song on the playlist — all have the sense of the divine in them.

We turn to music for celebration, for comfort, for commemoration, for unity. We praise, we seduce, we tease, we shout for joy, we share our humanity, we lament — all through music. To quote my friend Greg again, “Music is a force holding together the universe.”

Words and Music (Essay)

The Words are Important

I’m listening to Counting Crows to wake me up, immersed in Adam Duritz’ (is that possessive right?) lyrics. He paints images, moods, scenes, describing without telling. I want to write like Adam Duritz, but I have to settle for writing like myself. 

Another band I immerse myself in is Dream Theater, which might be on the opposite pole as Counting Crows, but the words evoke a sharp-focus world where people fight internal battles.

Making Room for the Music
I understand the music is important, also, in communicating the mood of the songs. Counting Crows’ roots rock sensibilities invoke moodiness, while Dream Theater’s wall of intricate metal and dissonance convey the intellectual alienation of their music.

I’m a word person — as a writer, this is expected. When I was an unknown singer-songwriter in my home town (before I divorced my guitarist 25 or so years ago), I wrote lyrics to his guitar compositions. I try to understand the music part, but I don’t really get how music can carry mood. I am willing to learn. 

Tell Me Your Favorite Lyrics
If you have favorite lyrics, tell me about them and why they grab you!


So I’m hopefully giving platelets today.

The process behind giving platelets involves doing nothing for two hours while having a needle in one’s arm. You sit in the most comfortable lounge couch with warm blankets and pads and a tv screen in front of you.

I’ve gotten pretty good at surfing the internet one-handed on my phone, and the only tv I ever watch is during these sessions. 

Sometimes I meditate, because it’s pretty quiet in there. Sometimes I watch with wonder as the machine works its magic and seperates the platelets from blood and plasma and gives me back those fluids. 

It’s not two hours wasted. It’s a two-hour break from my mind, which always wants to be busy. And I may be saving someone’s life. 

An Epiphany on a Long Drive

Yesterday, I drove past fields of white against a cold blue sky, scattered with wind turbines like ice giants. My playlist, a random mix dominated by the local bands I have known and loved over the years, lulled me into a sense of introspection.

When I was younger, I declared that local music was the salvation of the universe — said in a dry, understated tone for comic effect, of course. Nonetheless, I believed it. The bands I loved ranged from introspective roots rock to bagpipe jazz to Celtic rock fusion, and I loved their energy, their bravado, their desire to create a sound that wasn’t like every other band out there. At the same time I wanted them to become big enough so that other people could enjoy them, I feared what the corporate music machine would do to them.

I hit an epiphany somewhere north of Creston, IA, in the icy white afternoon through which I drove:

Why did I see self-publishing as different from what my friends in local bands went through? 

Why did I see big contracts as something that would kill my friends’ spirit and creativity, but I didn’t see the parallels in my own life?

I don’t know how ready I am for self-publishing, but I am beginning to see it in a different way.

A little happy cry

Today, my colleague Mary Shepherd presented me with the sheet music to the lyrics I showed you the other day. I heard the chords and melody on her music program — it’s simple, yet creates the mood which switches from anxiety to anger to defiance. It’s what it needs to be.

It’s exhilarating to have the final product in my hands. What’s more thrilling is that Mary would like a recording of it if someone ever records it, and we talked about sorting out royalties with a lawyer if it sells. It’s pie in the sky, I know, to think it will make any money or get more than a limited audience, if any. But I want to hear it sung. I want to make it happen.

Does anyone want to talk to me about singing it?

Part 3: Writing a song: the words person and the music person

Yesterday afternoon, Mary Shepherd and I sat in a music practice room with a slightly off-tune piano, my lyrics, and her notes. In a small room with cinderblock painted glossy beige,  I sat down with her as she explained how she had gone about writing the lyrics. She also explained that she hadn’t played piano since eighth grade nor did she play guitar, but as a music major in her undergrad years, she did understand a bit about writing music.

“You said it was a folk song, and it was definitely a folk song. I decided to go with ballad style instead of rhythmic,” she explained as she pulled out her composition book.

“You understand it then,” I chirped, “because that’s the spirit I wrote it in.” Folk music was a subversive part of my childhood, a gift by my Aunt Peggy, who would play and sing folksongs on a ’70s small boxy white keyboard sort of thing which looked like this:

So, we set to work, and — she captured it. Folk ballad style, with musical emphasis at the right places. I was happy weepy by the end of the session.  It’s now with her to note the slightly different rhythms in the verses because it’s folk music and that means that my rhythm is not necessarily straight iambic tetramater (four feet/measures per line, four accented beats per line, second syllable accented as in duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH duh DUH) .  Folk music tends to get its interest by being mathematically loose; I tend to not care about the number of feet/measures as much as I care about four accents per line.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the session is that I learned about mathematics and creativity after we’d corroborated on the song. I had not seen mathematics as creative at all, thinking it was just analytical left-brain stuff. Not at all, Mary assured me — she used mathematics to create quilt block patterns, find problems that needed to be solved, and even understand music. Music is very mathematical, Mary tells me — John Cage’s compositions come to mind, as does traditional Balinese Gamelan music and even the basic concepts of measures, beats, and chords. Certain mathematic progressions sound better than others.Mathematics and music composition live in a different world than I do, but it was a fascinating world to visit.

Now, on the whole left brain/right brain thing, I’m supposedly equally proficient in both (left brain – math/analytical; right brain — creative) but I prefer to live in my right brain because the scenery’s prettier to me, and I wander to the other side when needed (like editing and my job). I think Mary’s the same way — balanced in the right brain/left brain processing, but she lives in both hemispheres at once. What a wonderful place to be!