American Pie

[Note: this post expresses political opinions.]

And the three men I admire most – the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost – they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died. – Don McLean

It’s been a long, rough, crazy week. We’ve learned about “alternative facts.” We’ve watched branches of our government being put under gag orders, only to resurface as defiant rogue groups on Facebook and Twitter. (Bravo, @altUSEPA. Bravo, @RogueNASA.) We’ve seen sweeping and sudden legislation, the first winds of major – and for many of us, most unwelcome – changes coming. We’ve seen an amazing show of unity and determination from the women of this country and around the world. A lot of us have been caught in a swirl of worry and fear, trying to find a way forward, trying to decide how to put one foot in front of the other when we have no idea what the coming days are going to bring.

I’ve been on a seesaw. Sometimes I’m ready to work: either to get down to my own writing or music, or to jump into some kind of activism, however small. Other times, like the day I’m writing this, I feel drained, and wonder what I can possibly do about anything. I’ve signed countless petitions. I’ve donated to groups who will fight for the issues I care about most: the environment, civil rights and equality, the arts. I’ve done my own small project to try to support an organization that helps students in under-served communities: communities that, I have too much reason to fear, our new President and his administration will ignore. Every day, there’s a fresh load of bad news. I wonder how much any one of us – or even all of us together – can do to stop it.

I was driving home from work tonight and turned on the radio to catch the last couple of verses of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Truth be told (without alternative facts), I have no idea what that song is about, but singing along with it tonight was cathartic. Somehow it was exactly the right soundtrack.

And as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clenched in fists of rage…I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.

American Pie. I belted out those lyrics, driving in the dark, and I thought about Satan laughing on the stage, and the fires rising, and I thought about the immigrants that our new administration wants to keep out, and the wall they want to build, and the new laws they want to pass.I thought about the day the music died and how those words could mean so many things: the end of an era, the loss of hope, the end of decency and truth and compassion. And I thought, for the first time in a long time, about that word American.

My great-grandparents came here from Lithuania and Hungary, from England and Wales. I’ve always identified most strongly with my Lithuanian family, because I know their story the best. I know that my great-grandmother Ona Dubinekas made the staggering decision, at age 16, to leave her family’s farm in Vilnius and cross the ocean alone to meet her brothers in New York. I know about the coal miner she married, how he died young of black lung disease, and how Ona was left alone to raise their four children, one of them my grandmother.

I’ve always been proud of my heritage. Tonight, though, I also started thinking about what it meant that my ancestors made the decisions they did. That they chose to come here, knowing that they would most likely never see their homes again. That, even if they never considered themselves “American,” which I know my great-grandmother never did, they knew their children would be, and all the generations after.

American Pie. I’m an eighties child, but those images from the fifties and sixties are part of my cultural memory. “American” is what I am. I haven’t thought too often about what that means, and lately, I haven’t found much reason to be proud of it. But when I think about that young woman leaving Lithuania, braving the ocean crossing by herself, coming to a new country to set down roots and raise her children: when I think of her, I think maybe I should honor the choice she made a little more.

My great-grandmother is buried in a cemetery outside Plains, Pennsylvania, the coal town where she and her husband lived. It’s in the Pocono Mountains.The wind is restless up there, often fierce. The Lithuanian immigrants in Plains chose to be buried there because the wind reminded them of home. I often think that for Ona, a rebel and adventurer in a time when women were supposed to be neither, the wind probably also reminded her of herself.

Where am I going with all this? It’s almost one in the morning, and I’m tired, and it’s been an overwhelming several days. I’m trying to figure out what to do next. It’s easy to feel lost.

I’m thinking, though, about that idea of American. About the Chevy and the levee, picket fences and apple pie, the American dream. My grandparents born on this side of the ocean, and my great-grandparents born on the other. About what it means to live in this country, to be one of its citizens, in these times.

Am I angry now? Yes. Am I scared? Absolutely. But I think about those words the day the music died, and I think about the woman who decided to come here, and the countless other men and women who have made the same choice, who are making the same choice, and who have made this country what it is.

To all of them, I say: we will find a way forward. We will not let the music die.

 

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Zen for Ten 13: Unraveled Souls

Today is the launch day for my Kindle e-book Unraveled Souls. Celebrating with a reading from the title story.

 

If you’d like to order the book, which you can read on your Kindle or with a Kindle smartphone app, you can get it here.

Half of all proceeds will benefit 826 National.

You can read more here about why I chose to create this collection, and if you didn’t catch last week’s blog post featuring the music of Charlie Parker, as well as more about resistance and the power of storytelling, you can find it here.

Thank you for visiting the blog. See you next time!

Zen for Ten 12: Jazz, Stories, and Resistance

New Year 2017. Challenges and opportunities ahead.

I don’t often do straight-up political posts, but this time, I’m going to start with politics. Like many of us, I’m concerned for our country’s future. Like many of us, I was disappointed and scared after November’s presidential election.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do as an artist, as a writer, given the changes ahead. Given the things I’m afraid of: the loss of our civil rights, the destruction of our environment, a drastic economic downturn, corroded relations with the rest of the world. What can I, as one person, somebody who finds it hard to stand up for herself and never picks fights: what can I do in the face of all this?

This week I decided on one small act. My novel To Love A Stranger will be out in May, and I hope it will do some good in the world. Meanwhile, though, I wanted to do something right now, with my words, to make some concrete contribution to our country’s well-being.

I decided to publish an e-book of six of my short stories. Each of them deals in some way with social justice, with relevant issues of our time, and with the importance of building connections between people. You can read more about the thought process behind the collection, Unraveled Souls, on its page here. I’d never done self-publishing before, but it seemed like a chance worth taking.

As with so much of my work, some of the stories drew inspiration from music and other arts. The first piece in the collection, “Fly Away Home,” was inspired by the life of the legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker. Parker had a committed relationship with Chan Richardson, and he stood in the role of stepfather to Chan’s daughter Kim. But because this was 1950s America, and Chan and Kim were white while Parker was black, the relationship had inherent tenuousness and conflict. Parker’s lifelong struggle with America’s attitudes toward his race had its outlet in a crippling heroin addiction, but also in his music, which inspired the generations after him.

Now more than ever, we need to connect with each other. We need to hear the stories about people who find themselves on the fringes, fighting against the judgments of others. We need to understand what it’s like to be in that place, and we need to be ready to protect each other.

That’s what I want my words to do, as best they can. That’s what Unraveled Souls is for, and why I wanted to put that collection out right now, as our world is changing. For anyone who doesn’t want to watch the inauguration, the stories will be out on Thursday 1/19: you can read them instead. And that’s also why I’m giving half the profits from the collection to 826 National, to support the education of students in disadvantaged communities.

It’s easy for me, as someone with the safety of middle-class status and white skin, to feel that the world will probably keep on going, no matter what happens in the coming weeks and months. I’m relatively safe. I know how lucky that makes me. But a lot of us aren’t so lucky, and those of us who are must be willing to protect those who are not.

I’ll end this post with a piece of music by Charlie Parker: one of his most famous tunes, “Ornithology” (titled after his nickname, Bird). Parker taught himself music. Because of that, he developed his own style, like nothing else anyone was doing or had ever heard before. Out of the conflicts and troubles of his life, he changed music history.

 

If you would like to read the story that Parker’s music inspired, and other stories like it, and at the same time help support students in need, you can pre-order Unraveled Souls here.

Thanks so much for stopping by. See you next time.