Zen for Ten 19: Let the Light Out

There’s something about spring. Even after as mild a winter as we’ve had here in Maryland, you feel a change in the air when the season officially turns. New energy, new light; a kind of optimism that gets in your blood with every breath you take of clean, fresh air. No wonder we talk about spring fever. As the first new green comes out on the trees – nothing is quite as magical as that first green – everything seems possible.

Spring is a terrific time for beginnings. I’m standing at one of my own, with the launch of my novel in seven weeks and three days (not that I’m counting 🙂 ). But spring can be a challenging time too.

Today, we’re getting a slow, soaking rain. Another spring truism, about those April showers and May flowers, is all well and good, but if you’re like me, the weather can mess with your mood. Two days ago, when we had lots of sunshine, I felt pumped and happy. Today, I’d like to crawl back in bed and wait for the gray weather to go somewhere else.

For me, changeable spring weather is a great metaphor for new beginnings. They can be rollercoasters. You don’t know how things are going to go, how you’re going to feel once the dust settles and you can take stock of the new adventure you’ve embarked on. Will you keep hurrying forward, eager to see what’s coming next? Or will you backtrack, wishing you’d never left the safe, flat-but-familiar place you came from?

As I write this, I find myself thinking about a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can: pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.

In the story, Tolkien gives this song to a couple of different characters. One of them, optimistic adventurer Bilbo Baggins, sings it with the words I used here. Another, the strong but heavily burdened Frodo, makes one small change: instead of “eager” feet, his are “weary.” To me, that’s exactly the contrast of new beginnings, especially when you have a tricky brain, like mine, that likes to undercut what you’re trying to do. As much as I’d like to have a Bilbo-mindset about adventures, much more often I find myself identifying with Frodo.

So this brings me around to this question of letting the light out. As my current adventure gets underway, I’m making a bargain with myself.

Like many depressives, I find it much easier to curl up in my safe place. Putting myself out there, in any way, is dangerous, and change is often terrifying. The status quo might have its problems, but at least I know how to deal with it.

You can’t fight adventures, though. Change will happen whether we want it to or not. I’ve learned from my own experience that struggling against change, or setting up walls against it, is exhausting. In the end, it only makes the depression heavier.

My current bargain with myself goes something like this. You’re used to keeping your light hidden, but it’s not time to do that anymore. You need to let it out.

Reaching for inspiration can help. Today’s musical feature is by my single favorite composer, if I could only choose one: Ludwig van Beethoven. Below the video, I’ll talk a little about this particular piece and why it’s so significant for me. Feel free to skip down and read first, but make sure to come back and listen.

Today’s feature: First movement of Symphony no. 3, “Eroica,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting)

So, why this particular piece? Because this is the one that changed history.

Beethoven stands at a crossroads in music history. He comes from the Classical era (about 1750-1825), and was trained by one of the greatest names of the Classical period, Franz Josef Haydn. Beethoven learned from Haydn about how music was “supposed” to sound: elegant, polite, cleanly structured, restrained.

Even as a young man, Beethoven didn’t have much patience with “polite” and “restrained.” He started getting fed up with Haydn’s lessons early on; the teacher-student relationship was, let’s say, interesting. And then the real change happened.

Beethoven was about thirty years old, taking Vienna by storm with his brilliance as a concert pianist. Then his hearing started to fail.

We’re used to thinking of him as “the deaf genius,” as if his life couldn’t have gone any other way. Take a second, though, and think about what this would have meant for a musician. What it would have meant for a performer, who depended on his ears to tell him what his hands were doing when he performed on the piano. What it meant for a composer, who depended on his hearing to allow him to write the music he heard in his head.

In 1801, when Beethoven was only thirty-one, he knew that no doctor could reverse his increasing deafness. Suddenly the life he had built became a huge question mark. All he wanted to do was make music. He couldn’t imagine, and hadn’t prepared for, any other kind of life. What was he going to do now?

In a famous letter from the time, the Heiligenstadt Testament, he admits that he became so despairing that he thought about ending his life. But, he wrote, “Art stayed my hand.” He still had music he wanted to write. He didn’t know how long he would be able to keep working, or whether, once the deafness became complete, he would have to give up the one thing he loved most. While he still could, though, he would keep making his art.

We know the rest of the story. Beethoven kept working until the day he died. Out of his deafness and isolation, out of his frustration and constant physical pain, he created art that changed the world.

Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world! Beethoven set that line of Goethe’s poetry to music in his Ninth Symphony. When I had the chance to sing in a performance of the Ninth, in college, that line made me cry. So much beauty, out of such a dark time at the end of Beethoven’s life. The size of his soul couldn’t have been clearer.

The Ninth Symphony was Beethoven’s last, but the Third Symphony was the first piece to come out of his new resolve to keep working despite what was happening to his body. The piece was premiered in 1802. When Beethoven sent it to his publisher, he wrote that this music was written in a totally new style, that it would do things no composer had ever done before.

Audiences at the time didn’t know what to think. Some people loved it. Others said it was vulgar, overblown, just plain bad. Without question, though, Beethoven had done something new. After that, music would never be the same.

That’s why I chose this piece, when thinking about how important it is to let the light out. Beethoven did that, in spite of everything he faced. His light reached uncounted millions of people, and still does, almost two hundred years after his death.

If you’re like me, and if you struggle with change and adventures, I encourage you to listen to the Eroica (maybe the whole symphony!), and think about letting the world see your light. I’ve also been doing an exercise that helps: I visualize an actual candle, hidden under a basket, and then I visualize taking the basket away. When you let them, how far do those rays reach?

This spring, I invite you to embrace your adventure. Let us see your light.

Thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time!

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Zen for Ten 18: Rubber meets Road

(Note: the blog will be on break next week.)

A couple of weeks ago, my novel reached a new milestone on its road to release. At the same time that the Kindle pre-order went live on Amazon, the e-version also went up on the online service NetGalley, where you can download a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

For small presses, like my indie Blue Moon Publishers, NetGalley is an essential resource. The traditional way to get reviews is to mail advance copies (ARCs) to potentially interested readers, and hope for a good response, but small presses usually don’t have the money for too many copies. Reviews are important to get buzz started about a new book, especially one by an unknown writer.

I knew this was going to be an important step. I had a handful of early reviews, all good, all written by people who know me and have a stake in the book (a couple of them are big reasons why Stranger exists at all). It’s wonderful to get support from the people who have watched you develop as a writer. It’s a different step, though, to get feedback from someone who has no previous familiarity with you or your book, who takes it at face value, and who can say exactly what they think with no fear of hurt feelings (or, for that matter, mature responses like, Oh yeah? Well, just wait ’til you want a review from ME, pal! 🙂 ).

To be honest, I was terrified about how new people, outsiders, would respond to Stranger. I thought a lot about how we’re getting to the point where the rubber meets the road: where my publisher finds out if their investment in me will pay off; where I find out what the upshot of the years of work and love, tears and joy, is going to be. There’s my book, that huge piece of myself, out on display for anyone to look at.

Complicating this, there’s the issue so many of us artists deal with: shaky self-image. Sometimes, especially when I’m deep in a new project, or when I’m at the piano, I feel like my feet are firmly planted. I know who I am, and I like that person. The problem is, though, that it seems like the world is always there, ready to hold up a mirror showing me how I ought to be instead. We all take in a barrage of messages, every day, about how we should dress, eat, look, and act; how we should spend our time; how we should spend our money. I’m not too worried about appearances, but the “what is your worth?” question is a big one for me. How do I measure it? If my life was a balance sheet (which I’d rather it wasn’t, but it’s an easy trap to fall into), what would the total look like? Would it be respectable, or would I be found wanting?

Holding onto self-confidence often feels, for me, like trying to listen to a song on a badly-tuned radio. The signal cuts in and out. Sometimes it’s clear and strong: that’s when I’m firmly planted in myself. Other times, a lot more often than I’d like, the signal fades or turns into static.

As we’re moving toward the actual release of Stranger, it’s been more and more important to me to think about its roots. What got me started with this book. Why, for so many years, it was so important. What drove me to dive into – and stick with – a project when I had no idea how to do it, how long it would take, or how hard it would be.

One thing I’ve loved doing over the past year or so, ever since I signed the contract with Blue Moon, has been going back to some of the music I listened to when I started Stranger. Novels, of course, change while we’re writing them, and the novel in my head at the beginning wasn’t the one that ultimately ended up on the page. When I started mine, I thought it was going to be set in a different decade than the one it ended up in (it changed by a solid fifteen or twenty years), and because I hadn’t actually lived through my target decade, I thought the best way to get a feel for the time was to listen to its music.

That was how I first learned about Bob Dylan. You can say a lot of things about him: about his voice, his harmonica playing, his chameleon musicianship and the styles he experimented with over the years, his lyrics. At first, I couldn’t understand anything I listened to. I didn’t like his voice, couldn’t follow the words, couldn’t get into the free-form style of his early folk music, where phrases change length at random and seem to wander around at will. I didn’t understand why this man had become an icon.

It took a while, but somewhere along the line, something reached me. I first noticed it when I watched footage of Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. This fresh-faced young man, with his guitar and harmonica, sang a song which – even if I couldn’t really follow it – haunted me somehow. Forget about today until tomorrow: I liked that. I watched him, and the audience that his music enthralled, and started to see how he had become the voice of a generation. His music let me reach into the past and touch a time very different from my own. For a little while, I felt as if I had been there too.

Then there was the album Blood on the Tracks. During the first few months when I was writing the book that became Stranger – months in which I still hadn’t realized that I didn’t have the first clue how to write a book – I practically wore out that CD. My favorite track on it was “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” I’d hoped to find a video of Dylan performing that song, to include in this post, but all I could find was covers. So here are the lyrics:

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
I’ve been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, Queen Anne lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

I’ll look for you in old Honolul-a
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

This particular track hit me in the gut. By that point, in trying to plot my novel, I knew my main character was going to lose someone he cared about very much, someone who had been an anchor in his life, because of a choice he later regretted profoundly. I listened to this song many times, and that relationship fleshed itself out for me. I heard it not from my main character’s perspective, but from the perspective of his loved one, the one “left behind.” It was so real that I remember driving home from work one afternoon and sobbing as I listened to the track. I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love…

A lot of my first ideas changed as I wrote the book (and rewrote it, and rewrote it), but that particular relationship stayed. That song stayed in my head too, and was one of my anchors over the years of work. It reminded me why I had started working. That particular piece of the story was so clear and so moving to me; a driving force.

Which brings me back to the question of reviews, especially reviews from people who don’t know any of Stranger‘s history. When I started working, I imagined a book that would move other people as deeply as my image of it had moved me, something that might even change the way people thought and felt. I imagined reviews that would have words like “searing” and “breathtaking.”

It turned out that my style tends more toward the “quiet” and “gentle,” something I couldn’t change even though I tried. But when my first NetGalley review did come in last week, and my publisher sent it along to me even though I was afraid to see it, I learned that wasn’t necessarily a problem.

Reviewer Sara Marsden gave Stranger five out of five stars. When I read the first line of her response, my jaw dropped. An incredibly moving and beautiful piece of literature. A couple of lines further down: A lyrical masterpiece that punches you right in the gut. And finally, I look forward to future work from Faatz.

The book didn’t turn out the way I’d initially expected, or necessarily hoped, but this was the kind of review I imagined ten years ago. I don’t know how other people will feel about Stranger, if they’ll agree with Ms. Marsden or wonder what on earth she saw in my work, but her words give me a huge piece of encouragement. I did at least some of what I set out to do.

If you’ve never listened to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, give it a try. It’s an incredible album. Meanwhile, this is the video of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that first inspired me.

If you’d like to pre-order the print version of Stranger, and also help support the Human Rights Campaign, please visit the 10 x 10 x 10 Society page. As always, thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time.

Zen for Ten 18: Positive Energy

Today’s post is about sending some good energy into the world, in a couple of different ways.

Music first. My featured piece today is Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, KV 280. It’s my favorite Mozart to perform, and includes one of my favorite slow movements ever. It has three movements total: Allegro, Andante, and Presto. The two outer movements are bright and cheerful, both in F Major, and the slow middle movement is meditative and lovely, a little darker in F minor.

Mozart belongs to the Classical era in music history, about 1750-1825 (this period is considered to end with Beethoven, who got us into the Romantic era). Mozart and Haydn were two of the biggest names of the time.

Composers in the Classical era had certain ideals in their writing. Elegance was a major point. Music should be – generalizing here, but it’s fair – polite, restrained, with clarity of structure and an emphasis on grace. It wasn’t expected to be overtly dramatic. Symphonies during this time were thought of as small pieces, appropriate to play in the intermissions between acts of an opera. (Try doing that with Beethoven’s Ninth.) In general, this was the gracious music of the ballroom and the afternoon tea party.

Mozart fit into that environment…mostly. If you’ve never seen the movie Amadeus, I highly recommend it. People pretty much agree that the jealous-Salieri-poisoning-Mozart business didn’t really happen, but the actor who plays Mozart gives us a brilliant view of his character. He belonged to this gracious, refined time, and moved in elegant society, certainly: but he loved to laugh, loved to drink, loved to party. He died very young, at age thirty-five, but he lived life to the hilt.

The sonata in today’s recording shows us a couple of different sides of Mozart. One is the polite Classical-era composer, writing a sonata according to the ideals of the time. Three movements are standard. You definitely want to start and end with fast movements, and slow down in the middle: Classical composers liked symmetry. The overall style of the piece has that gracious Classical flavor.

But already, we see a composer who’s getting away from some of the norms. Mozart has fun here. We hear lots of contrasts, soft moments interrupted by a crash of sound, fast fingery passages that sound like laughter. He’s pushing the boundaries of politeness, getting more into drama and fire. The slow movement is beautifully introspective and deeply felt. Then, in the last movement, he makes us laugh again, and shows off his own piano technique at the end.

I guarantee this piece will make you smile.

 

The other part of “positive energy” I wanted to mention today goes back to earlier posts, and also involves shameless horn-tooting (apologies!). I’m delighted now to have two books in the world, or on their way there. My short story chapbook Unraveled Souls is still available for Kindle: half of all proceeds to go to 826 National and support literacy and creativity for under-served students. If you’d like to help out this cause, you can order here.

My novel To Love A Stranger is also now available for pre-order, two different ways. You can currently buy the Kindle version on Amazon; if you order now, you’ll receive the e-book on its launch date, May 23. Print copies will be available to order on Amazon starting on the launch date.

Alternatively, you can pre-order your print copy now, through this website. My publisher and I have set up a special offer: for each print copy pre-ordered during March, one dollar will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign, supporting equality and LGBTQ rights. Additional bonuses are available, this month only, if you’d like to order more than one copy. You can place your order here:

https://krisfaatz.com/books/to-love-a-stranger/the-10-x-10-x-10-society/

As an artist, it’s very important to me to use my work to do some good in the world. These days, it often feels like there are more problems than anyone – or even all of us together – can possibly address, but it’s important that we each keep doing what we can, when we can. I would like my music and my words to be part of that.

As always, thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time.

Zen for Ten 17: Past and Present Sight

A few days ago, I got a piece of advice: to write a letter to my eight-year-old self.

We know that we’re shaped, as children, by the people around us. We imitate their speech and behavior, and we base our goals and dreams on what they show us. We want to be like a parent, or a grandparent, or an older sibling. We model ourselves on those examples.

Those people also shape our views of ourselves. When we’re children, we’re wide open. We’re figuring everything out. So we take in the messages other people give us, and these tell us who we are.

Sometimes, those messages are positive. You’re smart. You’re funny. You’re great at cooperating. I love your imagination. Other times, they are hurtful. Why are you so slow? You never do things right. You look dumb in those clothes.

We grow up with those pictures of ourselves  lodged in our minds. We usually develop different pictures along the way, but the first ones we got tend to stay with us. In moments of change and uncertainty, they often come back to us like echoes. When we look at those old reflections, what do we see?

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I have depression. Certain things tend to rear up at certain times. Right now, as I’m getting ready for the release of my first novel, which became available for pre-order this week, I feel the ground shifting under me.

This book means a lot. A lot, a lot. More than that. It’s been almost ten years in the making, and as anyone who’s worked on a creative project knows, you put a lot of yourself into that kind of work. This book isn’t just a story: it’s a piece of myself, going out on display.

It’s also a big professional step. Writing is what I want to do. I want this book to be the first of many. Ten years ago, I started planting seeds, and now they’re growing. I want them to be healthy and strong.

That’s why I started thinking about my eight-year-old self, and some of the messages I took in when I was little. The image of that child, with her bangs and glasses, wearing the necklace she made out of pop-beads (remember those?), reflected back to me. I winced for her. I remembered her hearing how she wasn’t pretty, how she was too clumsy, how she never got things right.

Words can be careless, casually thrown. If you’re on the receiving end, they can feel deeply personal even if they’re not: even if they have more to do with the person who throws them, whatever anger and frustration and regret that person is struggling with. But the words stay with you anyway; especially, I think, if you’re a child.

If you have depression, you know how it can sit quiet for a long time. Then suddenly – usually right when it’s the last thing you need; there’s probably a Murphy’s Law in there somewhere – it pops up like the nail in the road that punctures your tire. Sometimes you can tell why it happened; other times, you have no idea.

I’ve gone around with it a lot, and more than usual during this time of change. So when I was asked to write a letter to my child-self, and tell her about the things she was going to do, and how her life was going to look, and especially to tell her how those messages she took in were wrong, I decided to try it. Here are some of the things I told her:

  • When you are twenty-two, you’ll go to school full-time for music. You’ll go to a place full of musicians as passionate and talented as you are. It will be a fantastic time. Not only that, but you’ll win a grant to go back your second year.
  • While you’re at music school, you’ll meet the man you’re going to marry. He’ll be smart, handsome, funny, and he’ll love you unswervingly. The two of you will have adventures and fun together. He’ll make you laugh every day.
  • You and your husband will have cats. I know you’ve always wanted a cat. The first one in your life will be Jackson. Then, later, there will be Max and Robin, and then Alafair and Templeton, and probably others too. You will love having cats just as much as you thought you would.
  • I know how much you love reading and writing, so here’s the really exciting news. You will be a writer, an author, just like you’ve imagined. You’ll start out by publishing short stories. Then, the summer before you turn thirty-eight (I know that seems like a long time from now) you’ll see your first novel published.
  • I know you’re shy about your glasses now, but when you grow up, you’ll realize you look good in them. You look smart and pretty, like the scholar and writer you are. They suit you.
  • Each and every time you make up your mind to do something, you will make it happen. You are strong, determined, and resourceful.

I felt different after writing those things. The internal rollercoaster is still there: one day fine, the next day down. Now, though, I feel like I have a new kind of protection. The part of me that’s still connected to the little girl has a new picture in her head. She sees herself differently than she used to.

**

My novel, To Love A Stranger, has a lot to do with self-acceptance. Both of my main characters, Sam and Jeannette, grow up with flawed pictures of themselves based on the messages they got from other people. As hard as they try to deny and ignore those messages, they can’t move forward in their lives until they confront them. Sam and Jeannette deal with issues and situations that I’ve never experienced, so I had to draw on my imagination there: but when it comes to the struggle to know, accept, embrace who you are, I was on solid ground. That struggle was a big driving force for me in writing the book. It felt essential to get it on the page: an experience which is so familiar to so many of us, but not as often openly shared.

One of my biggest hopes for Stranger, as I’ve talked about here in the blog before, is that it might do something to make the world a little better. If the story can connect with someone who needs its message, and if it can also say a bit about love and acceptance, and about how music can help and heal, I’ve done my job.

My publisher and I are running a special campaign this month, in which $1 for each pre-ordered print copy of To Love A Stranger will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign (hrc.org). We felt it was important to support an organization which does so much on behalf of equality and acceptance. If you might be interested in pre-ordering, you can find more information on the 10 x 10 x 10 Society page.

I’d like to end this post with a video I posted a couple of months ago, when I first saw my  advance reader copies of Stranger. I read an excerpt and played some of the music that inspired the book: a movement from Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye. That was a particularly joyful time. I want to hold onto it.

If, like me, you struggle with self-image and shadows from the past, you might find it helps to write a letter to your younger self. As an adult, it can be hard to appreciate the things you’ve accomplished, but when you tell that child who she will grow up to be, and the amazing things she’s going to do, you will feel proud. (I promise.) That exercise has helped me to tap more of the joy of this exciting time, seeing my book going out into the world, and more of the sense of possibility and promise that goes with it. Fear and nerves are still there, but they don’t weigh as much as they did.

As always, thank you for stopping by. See you next time.