Zen for Ten 21: For the Wild Places

This morning, on my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I stopped at a park about a mile from my house. I’ve been there a lot: it’s a big parcel of farmland that also, at one point in its history, housed a row of kilns used to produce agricultural lime. These days, as you walk along the little stream that runs through the park, it’s hard to imagine the smoke and noise, heat and smell that must have been nonstop during the peak lime-production years. Instead, you only hear faint traffic noise from the road on the other side of the parkland, and the sound of the stream running over the rocks, and the calls of birds.

I went to the park for a quick dose of quiet green space. My head has been thought-clogged lately; the closer we get to my novel’s launch, the more my brain runs around in circles. (“Is it going to be okay? I’m not very good at promotion; did I at least try pretty hard? Are people going to like it? Is it going to be okay??“) This is one of those stretches of time that I know I’ll like better in retrospect. Later, say in July or August, these final pre-launch weeks will be a memory of happy excitement. Right now, I have more of a “could we just fast-forward three weeks, please?” feeling.

This morning, I didn’t have time for much of a walk, so I went straight down to the stream. It’s a narrow stream with a rocky bed and shelves of exposed pebbles. If you take some time and study the stones, as my husband and I often do, you’ll see a wide variety of colors and shapes, and some relics of the lime-kiln years: worn pieces of brick, old fragments of iron long smoothed down by the water, tiny bits of bright glass. Some of the rocks are as smooth as eggs and others are still skin-scrapingly rough. Colors range from white through rose and gold to red, brown, and black.

Today I went along the bank until I saw a convenient branch to sit on and watch the water. On my way to it, I disturbed a cloud of tiny blue butterflies. They swirled up from the ground and danced around me as I sat down. Against the brown soil, their blue looked surprisingly vivid, and they were so close I could make out the delicate dark edging on their wings.

Another critter made an appearance as soon as I took my seat: a long slim snake, undulating through the water. I like to give snakes a respectful distance, but they’re fun to watch, so smooth and quick and graceful. I watched this one maneuver around and through a tangle of tree roots that dipped down into the water, and then go along on his way.

It was a clear, sunny morning, the first one we’ve had after a few days of rain. I listened to the stream and took long breaths of fresh air. It smelled green. Those few minutes were a much-needed escape.

I’d already planned to link today’s post with Earth Day, observed this past Saturday, and to mention a little promo effort I started in honor of Earth Day week (more on that below). This has become more urgent to me after the reminder of this morning, and especially in light of what’s going on with our government and America’s wild places.

Many of us have been watching, this week, as our current presidential administration talks about a “review” of some of the national monuments – our wild lands – which were set aside and preserved from development by earlier administrations. We know what this might mean: the sale of those lands and the use (and abuse) of the natural resources they contain. A lot of us feel strongly about this issue: it’s one of many issues we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around, and figure out how to respond to, over the past few months.

That’s why, in this post and during this Earth Week, I’d like to make a particular plea for our wild places. In this blog, I’ve talked other times about feeling that it’s important to try to use whatever gifts I have to make a difference in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to focus on at any given moment; so much is always happening, and so many problems and concerns call for our attention. We each have our priorities. For me, the arts are a big one, and social justice is another. Without question, though, the way we treat our world is one of the great factors that decides who we are as a people. And at the same time that we have to consider what kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit, we should also think about what we might want for ourselves: those open places, that green space, the sound of water and the calls of birds. Room to breathe.

That’s why, this particular week, I’d like to use my writing to send some help to our wilderness areas. To do that, I’m making one of my favorite short stories, a piece called “Ivory-Bill Sighting,” available free to anyone who makes a donation to an environmental group. I’ve included a list of links below to some of my favorite groups, but you can also choose any other I might have missed. “Ivory-Bill Sighting” itself is also a shout-out to woods, and trails, and the unexpected beauty we can find even in places we think we know well. Here’s a short teaser:

IBS graf FB

Also in honor of Earth Day, and what I saw on my stream-watch this morning, I’d like to re-post the piano video from my last entry. If you didn’t get a chance to listen to Robert Schumann’s “Papillons” (“Butterflies”), you can check it out this week.

Please take a look at the links below and consider supporting your environmental group of choice. I’ve also included an article with more information on the review of our national monuments. If you decide to make a donation, and would like to claim your free PDF of “Ivory-Bill Sighting,” please send me an email at kris@krisfaatz.com, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

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


LA Times article on the national monuments subject to review


Sierra Club

Defenders of Wildlife


The Nature Conservancy


Friends of the Earth


Zen for Ten 20: Flying Slips of Paper

This week’s post is all about the music. The recording is longish, so I’ll keep the words short. 🙂 I’d like to share one of my favorite “storytelling and sound” pieces, Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2.

Schumann belongs to the Romantic era in music history (about 1825 to 1900). He’s one of the composers in the generation after Beethoven, the generation that had to decide what to do with all the new ideas Beethoven explored. Schumann himself had a rough life. He was a pianist, but lost the ability to perform after some of the exercises he used to strengthen his hands backfired and damaged his muscles. He struggled with depression for most of his life; his mental health deteriorated more as he got older.

Papillons is an early work for Schumann. It belongs to a time when it was easier for him to tap into energy and enthusiasm, and we can tell from the notes he left about this particular piece that he loved writing it. The title translates literally from the French as “butterflies,” but Schumann himself translated it as “flying slips of paper.” When he was working on the piece, he said later, the ideas came so fast he could barely keep up. Pieces of paper flew around his workroom as he scribbled ideas, tossed pages aside when they were full, snatched fresh paper, and scribbled some more. I know a lot of writers would love to have that kind of process!

The inspiration for Papillons came from a story Schumann had read that featured a costume ball. The piece itself is a series of twelve very short pieces, mostly waltzes. Schumann wanted to put the pianist, and in turn, the listener, in the ballroom he imagined. We’re meant to admire the spectacle, the lights and costumes, the dancers whirling around the room, the excitement and laughter. Schumann is giving us a musical kaleidoscope.

Papillons is a great example of program music: music written to tell a specific story. Another, earlier, example is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven gives us a series of scenes including a brook in the countryside, a thunderstorm, and a country dance. A later, super-iconic example is Modest Mussorgsky’s amazing “Pictures from an Exhibition,” a tour de force and rite of passage for a lot of pianists. In “Pictures,” each movement is a musical “translation” of a specific painting or drawing. Program music was a relatively new idea in Beethoven’s time, but became very popular during the Romantic era.

I decided to record Papillons and share it on the blog on the spur of the moment. Making recordings is still pretty challenging for me, on the nervousness front, and with a long piece like this, it’s an extra challenge. This recording isn’t always as clean as it might be, but I love this music and hope you’ll like listening to it.

As you listen, I’d invite you to close your eyes and imagine the ballroom scene. Schumann tells us a little about the characters he had in mind, particularly a pair of star-crossed lovers, but the music might suggest different characters to you. At the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a short theme: a scale of ascending notes. The same lilting, ascending scale comes back in the last movement. Also in the last movement, you’ll hear a single high repeated note, cutting through the rest of the musical texture. That’s the clock striking, telling us that the party is over. The final measures of the piece feature a chord where the pianist lets go of one note at a time, so that the sound fades away. After all the drama, we end with a charming, funny whisper.

Thanks as always for visiting the blog. See you next time!

Featured music: Papillons, Op. 2, by Robert Schumann



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!

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:


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.


Zen for Ten 16.5: bonus track

“Hello darkness, my old friend…” – Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sounds of Silence”

Today I had one of those mornings where I didn’t want my husband to leave for work, because I didn’t want to be alone with myself and my old frenemy, depression. I suppose it has to be a friend because it comes around so regularly and hangs out so often, raids my mental fridge and parks itself on my mental couch, and it and I know each other extremely well. I’d be glad, though, to slam the door in its face, change the locks, and never see it again.

One of the many frustrating things about depression is that it can be so hard to figure out why it decides to stop by. What set you off this time? I was doing so well. This past weekend was busy and productive. Yesterday I got up early, in a better mood than I’ve greeted any Monday with in recent memory, and spent the day checking things off my “to-do” list. And then this morning happened. For no good reason I could find, I just wanted to slump at the table, in my bathrobe, and stare out the window at the birdfeeder while the world went on without me.

Instead I got on Facebook, which is a terrific thing to do instead of doing anything. One of my friends, a fellow pianist, had re-posted a great blogpost he wrote a few years ago about the kinds of problems professional accompanists run into. Nervous soloists who wear too much makeup, crazy divas, students who show up for their grad school auditions in ballgowns and clouds of glitter. It made me laugh. It also got me thinking about my own recital coming up this Friday and how crappy the program felt when I practiced it yesterday. You chose stuff that’s too hard, Depression told me. You don’t have enough time to get it ready. It’s gonna suck.

I can’t always answer my frenemy back with a good loud “To hell with you.” A lot of the time it wins, at least for a while. This morning, though, thinking about my friend’s post, I thought also about not just how I had to sit down at my own piano for a while, but how I might be able to make someone else smile.

Maybe I’ve mentioned this in other blogposts, but making recordings of my own playing gets me super-nervous. This whole Zen for Ten blog project has pushed my boundaries in a big way. When I practiced yesterday, none of the pieces I’m going to play on Friday was ready to be recorded. Today I decided to push a little farther. Get a little beauty out in the world and maybe make someone smile.

That’s where today’s “bonus track” post came from. Both videos below feature music from this Friday’s program. In making them, I had to haul Depression off the couch and shove her out the front door. She’ll be back, because she always is, but it was a good thing for my brain to get rid of her for a while. Now I’d like to offer this music, which isn’t perfect but is definitely better than it would have been, and hopefully brighten up someone else’s day.

The first video features two short pieces by J.S. Bach, from the same collection as the ones in this past Thursday’s post.

The second video includes all four selections by Johannes Brahms that I’ll be playing on Friday.

Brahms is one of my favorite composers, not least because he was a fellow introvert. I love how his music is so often deeply personal and introspective. For this program, though, I chose a couple of pieces (the first and last in this video) that explore his more virtuosic side. They’re flashy and showy, and while I’ve been working on them, I’ve complained at Brahms plenty of times. Why did you write all those notes? You don’t need all those notes. Why are you showing off? And also, Yeah, okay, we all know you had hands the size of dinner plates. Most normal people don’t. (That’s actually true; Brahms had big hands. You can tell, because of how many notes he asks you to play at once, and how far apart they are on the keyboard.) When you play flashy Romantic-era music, very often it helps to remember that it’s not just about individual notes, but about the musical gesture: getting the drama and passion across. My thought process, though, was something like You want a gesture? I’ll give you a gesture [insert flipped bird here].

All complaining aside, I do love Brahms. If he wants to show off, he has a reason. My job is to figure out what that reason is, and bring it across so that the music comes to life the way he wanted. It’s not perfect (especially not in this clip 🙂 ) but it’s fun to try.

As always, thank you for visiting. I hope this music makes your day a little better. 🙂

Zen for Ten 16: Meditation with Bach

It’s hard to stay away from political commentary these days. After a while I start to feel like a four-note wonder: fear, anger, depression, anxiety, scrub, rinse, repeat.

Like so many of us, I’m thinking a lot about where my place is in “all of this.” Activism doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m glad to be pushed to get involved. For those of us – like me – who generally dozed off between election cycles, maybe this time around is a much-needed and permanent wake-up call.

It’s also true, though, that we all need time and space to breathe and recharge our energy. Finding that balance between activity and rest, that place in which our anger stimulates us without burning us out, can be difficult.

The late, great Carrie Fisher famously told us to “Take your broken heart and make it into art.” Lately I’ve been working on a new short story, maybe the most difficult I’ve done yet. It deals with illegal immigration and what happens to one particular family in the wake of a police crackdown. When I started working on it, only a couple of weeks ago, I thought it might be dystopian and unrealistic. Since then, in the news stories that have become more frequent and more disturbing, I’ve seen that what I’m writing is all too real.

I want to write this story, and many others. My pen (or keyboard) is one of my few weapons. Nothing I write will be perfect, and a lot of it might be pretty lousy, but I’ll use my voice as well as I can.

Also, though, I like to see part of my role as an artist as helping others to recharge. To do that, today I’d like to share some of my own favorite meditation music.

When I’m stuck in a writing project, I often find that practicing, especially playing music by certain composers, can help me find solutions to problems. J.S. Bach is one of those composers. His writing keeps both my brain and my hands busy. While I’m concentrating on the notes on the page, and the precise motions of my hands on the keys, stories can simmer away in the back of my mind and come together.

Today’s video features two of the pieces Bach called Two-part Inventions. These pieces are fun and challenging because the hands are totally independent of each other. In a lot of piano writing, you play a melody with your right hand and an accompaniment with your left, so that one hand is dominant and the other can pretty much coast. Bach’s Inventions are different. You can play either hand by itself and have a complete melody, and then you can put the two together in an intricate dialogue. The back-and-forth between them is fun to play and to hear.

Today’s two Inventions are both relaxed, not too busy or technical. As you listen to them, I hope you’ll find the mental refreshment you need, and maybe a solution or two, if you’re looking for some.

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


Zen for Ten 15: Mental Health Break

Like so many of us, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks completely absorbed in politics. Every day, when I check my Facebook feed, I get caught up in the headlines and the passionate responses to them. It’s easy to spend hours staring at the computer, seesawing between worry, fear, hope, and anger.

Again like so many of us, I’m new to activism. For a long time, I didn’t like to share my political opinions on Facebook or anywhere else. I’m still not sure what my role is in this chaotically changing world, but am hoping that in the long run, crucial and long-needed changes to our political system will happen.

One thing I do know, though, is that music is healthy. It’s also something I can do. So this week’s post goes back to the idea I started with for this blog: sharing beauty.

For a few minutes, I’d invite you to take a mental break and listen to today’s featured pieces, three short preludes by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Chopin was one of the great composers of the Romantic era (ca. 1825-1900). By his time, the piano as we know it today had pretty much evolved into its final form. It offered composers a huge tonal palette, with the biggest variety of high and low notes on any single instrument, plus the capacity to play very softly, very loudly, and everything in between. It was an instrument of terrific power and potential, and Romantic-era composers loved to explore the creative possibilities it provided.

Chopin is often known for his big, flashy piano pieces, that showcase the soloist and show off his or her technical chops. The three preludes in this video, though, are written in a different style, emphasizing intimacy and lyricism. If, like me, you need to take a deep breath and immerse yourself for a little while in something peaceful and soul-refreshing, these preludes are perfect listening.

Today’s feature: Preludes in G Major, B Major, and F Major, by Frederic Chopin

I hope this dose of music will help, as you face these times and answer them by doing the work you do best. Sending positive energy and light your way.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. See you next time.


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.