Category Archives: Personal commentary

Commentary and observations on daily life.

On Community

“Well, what if you just don’t want to be a part of a community?” asked my student, an 18-year-old in an intentional orange denim jacket, slouched in the corner of my crowded Freshman Comp class. It was remarkable that she spoke up at all, as I hadn’t heard a peep out of her all semester except in my office, where her general upset and anger flowed more freely. “Who wouldn’t want that?” snickered one of the front-row students. “That doesn’t make any sense.” And so began an animated conversation about communities of choice and communities of undesired circumstance.

As the list of possibilities for each of these grew, a wind began to build outside after two days of an odd calm. The sudden wind has always brought extraordinary change to my life. I finished recording my second album in the wind. My daughter refused to be born on a windy day and would only emerge after the gusting had passed (and even then, only with the help of a knife). Her brother, on the other hand, used the wind to announce his intended arrival. My decision to return to school blew in through an open window and my father…well, my father honored my request, whispered in his ruddy ear as it pressed into a hospice pillow, to wait till after the birthday weekend I shared with a sister to leave us. He summoned a tornado and left when it came for him.

This time I was carried off in memory above the university and away to an empty stretch of Nashville sidewalk, a broken slab outside of Vanderbilt Hospital. In those days, I told my newly-attentive students, my son had just finished several years of occupational therapy and I had gone to the pediatric rehab department to get a copy of the records for his school. It felt wonderful to know he had finished the mild therapy and could now move on, perhaps joining in sports or art classes with his peers. I was nearly skipping to the parking lot when a gust of wind tried to snatch the envelope from my hands, and as I grabbed it back, I turned and found myself face to face with Butch Baldassari, a friend from my Nashville community of musicians, a guy with a well-known warmth, a man known here for his authenticity. A good guy.

Hospital grounds are not necessarily the place where you’d want to run into a fellow musician or anyone from your circle of friends, but I was on a happy errand and so thought nothing of it for a moment. Butch was standing under a large awning near another hospital doorway, leaning against a pole, waiting.

“Hey there, Butch!” I said.

“Hi, Nina….” he responded, a strange wistfulness at the edge of his mouth. “Are you…?” he began and gestured up towards the hospital sign.

I looked up then, and saw that the awning was for the cancer center.

The air in that quick, terrible moment filled me with unconscious confusion. Instinctively I drew it into my body, then realized I did not want to breathe it in; did not want it to circulate. It was cancer air.

Yet it was just air, and I needed air to live; more urgently, as the realization had knocked me breathless, I needed it in order to respond, which I did after the tense pause. I shook my head, and said, “I came out of that other door…pediatric rehab. Just…getting records…for my son….He’s fine, “ I said, awkwardly. I didn’t know how or what to ask, but I blurted, “I’m..not….Are…?” and before I could say “you?”, Butch was already nodding. “A brain tumor,” he said.

I knew Butch didn’t wish for me to be a colleague on what turned out to be a terrible journey for him. Butch didn’t wish a brain tumor or any cancer on me, yet in the first second, when he saw me, when he greeted me and asked, “Are you..?” what he no doubt needed was community. He had been thrown involuntarily into a community of people coming and going through those doors over indefinite periods of time; a community of sufferers, of family members and grievers; of those who would eventually succumb, and those who would survive and move on to another, better (if still painful) community of survivors. And the loved ones and attendants of survivors. But Butch was in a community of unfortunate circumstance, and surely did not want me, specifically, to join that community; but just as surely, Butch and all who suffer terminal or chronic illnesses need community and support; as do displaced persons; widows; divorcees; abused and recovering teens and adults; and all manner of people thrust into communities of misfortune.

But I did not want to join him there. Though I had my own small communities of unfortunate circumstance of which I was a member, I couldn’t join Butch, and didn’t want to. And it was that knowledge – that my friend needed community in his newfound circumstances, people who could really understand, and for one split second had reached out to me in anticipated camaraderie; and that I wanted to run like hell from such an invitation – that filled the moment.

Butch and I hugged each other tightly, and I promised him support and any help I could offer, which did not turn out to be much. I held tight to my envelope and went off to enter a community of choice: the community of parents of soon-to-be schoolchildren. Of children healthy and rehabbed enough to be schoolchildren.

***   *****   ***

“But…whatever happened to your friend?” asked the unison voices of my freshmen.

“Oh, Butch didn’t survive. He passed on after many struggles. He left behind a wife and son. And I know it was hard, but Butch had been well-loved, and a lot of people pitched in both while he was sick and afterwards, to give support to the family.”

My students were quiet for what may have been several minutes, listening to the intensity of the wind. “Well,’ offered the girl in the orange denim jacket, finally, “that’s what I’d call a community of choice. That’s what I need.” She sat still, then hunched back down. I didn’t know what she was talking about, or what story lay behind her words. The day’s windstorm had brought something to our classroom and my student had taken it, somehow, as an opening. She hung back and remained behind as the rest of the class filed out a little more quietly than usual. Then, suddenly, she bolted.

I’ve just arrived to my after-class office hours, and she is here, waiting for me.


First Thoughts of January, 2016

The hardest thing in life is desire for the truth; the need for truth. What is false, or what is pretense, doesn’t serve you and has an unknown, finite life expectancy. When it comes to the quality of endurance, you can only count on the truth.

The reason this is hard is that along with the desire for truth often comes the desire for beauty. That is, you desire the truth, but also that the truth be beautiful.

Yet you have no control over this. In reality, truth is often uglier, dirtier or more painful than you hope or wish it to be. Your wish that it possess beauty can never have any effect on the nature of truth.; and you possess, in equal measure, desire for disparate things.

If truth and beauty were analogous, without a strong tendency towards disparity, then truth would be easy.

You know that you cannot walk on the thin ice of what is fake and dishonest, but to walk on the muddy shore is unappealing. It takes a certain strength to commit to the potential of that mud and mess. Yet however unappealing, its foundation is solid. And it’s not always muddy, either. It has its season. Walk away from the thin ice of the lie. You can never feel truly secure there, because even while you enjoy the beautiful skating feeling, the pleasure of that moment, that extended moment, you know what is beneath. You know it can crack and fall away at any moment, and all you thought you had, or knew, will be gone.

Apply this to your relationships. Let go of those built on lies and complicity and dirty secrets. Connect where there is truth, vision, authenticity. Stand where you don’t have to pretend. It’s not easy…but it is solid, enduring and, even in its most challenging, painful moments, it is where hope thrives. You may not see it, but its door is always open to the potential for something beautiful.

Banana Trees

The end of May returns to my mind a poem about a strangely magical summer place I once visited. And, well, about magic, I consider what it might be, what it means to some, and then to others. Is it a fiction in someone’s mind? Is it in the forces of nature we’ll never understand, and never need to understand? When a place, or a taste, or a feeling is magical, it is transformative. Is that what magic really is? But then, science, too, is transformative, as is art. Maybe it is all a kind of magic. Maybe, in the end, I don’t care what it is. Or isn’t. As long as it is not for harm, but rather, for wonder.


Banana Trees

when you cross the road

and climb a tree

to catch a signal

to retrieve a text

from a lady on a committee

who has a question

which needs an answer

before the committee reconvenes next Wednesday

you can see the new, docile bees

learning their way in and out

of the small white hive

with the sugar water feeder on the side


though the tree is high

and the hive is small

and the bees even smaller

and one could question with good reason

how much of that world of bees

you can really perceive from such a vantage point

it is also true

that you have seen that little, growing universe

through the lens of your camera

and once there

(and later, in your eye itself)

your forever telescope can see

whatever it needs

or wants

or hopes


or maybe

while you wait for the signal

what you see

from the bark-covered branch

across the road

from the house you share

with the okra seed pods

grown in the field on the opposite side

of the signal tree

is the tiniest pear

beginning to expand and ripen


or the mist on the field

just before the round earth house

which some might say

through the side of their teeth

was a failure to gather


and others,

through the straight, round opening of their mouths,

a magical interpretation

of a river snail

or a gathering of earth

and the pulse of your bare hands


though so long left alone there

at the edge of woods beyond the unmowed grasses


maybe what you see

once the text message has been retrieved

from the urgent world away from you

and absorbed and acknowledged

is the groundhog in the garden

or the muddy puppy

bearing yet another turtle

to leave for you

on the porch

just beyond the banana trees

that could tip off

the rest of the people in the world

that here there is a kind of magic

which makes bananas seem to grow

thousands of miles away

from the tropics,

thousands of miles away

from their native soil

a kind of magic

soaked permanently

into your very earth,

the same earth which holds

everything buried

by the new puppy

everything buried

long before you came.

Stir Crazy

Mini-bits from Winter at Home

Today my dog Finnegan and I struck a deal. He did not want to waltz to Elliott Smith‘s Waltz #2 with me and I did not want to play yet another round of tug-o-war with him. We compromised. He waltzed to half of Waltz #2 and I played tug-o-war with him for the other half. Now we’re going out in the rain, a thing about which we are both half-ambivalent and half-enthused.

New Year. Newness. Everywhere.

A New Year’s visit with Suprima from Nepal reminded me that  New Year’s celebrations on our planet mark the start of the year in different seasons for some cultural groups. It is not always, in every corner of the world, the January 1st of the Gregorian calendar that we follow in the U.S. As Suprima said, it is not even 2015 in some nations, but a year number far from that.

When does a new year actually begin?

When I was a child, I imagined the year like the chain of a bicycle, All of the months from September (which was, for me, the beginning of the year) to May were on the upper length of the chain, with late May through August taking up an equal length on the bottom. Thus the summers, though shorter in months, were just as long as the rest of the year, or, as it seems, the “school year”. I imagined the year spinning around as I pedaled through, like that bicycle chain when a cyclist is riding along. I wonder if my younger self needed to see the summer as longer-lasting than it really is. The summer was a time of relative freedom, relief from structure. I am always in need of a change, either from too much or too little structure. It is a difficult thing to balance.

Our U.S. New Year celebration is over now, for 2015, but around the planet, some New Year’s celebrations and the start of the  calendar years of calendars conceptualized quite unlike ours here are coming up in the months just ahead. While it wouldn’t be right to appropriate the calendar of some other culture, just because we think it’s interesting or cool or different – things we seem to value or claim to value in American culture – it is a good thing to celebrate newness in ourselves; to celebrate the ability to open  up to the lives ahead of us. My song “You Won’t See A Thing”, on the album “WildLife”, suggested this feeling, these hopes. I keep my feet planted right here, right now, and all the while I look forward. To what I haven’t yet started:

“I lean against a damp tree,

and I can’t remember Me,

but there’s always someone new inside

…that I just might find.”


Dear readers,
Here’s a holiday offering. A story of magic, of identity, of family, of tradition. It’s a bit long, as it involves a journey of sorts. To a town of fools. After awhile, you’ll be laughing with me. Grab a cup of tea or coffee. Come, read…

On The Way From Chelm

Before she left us, Grandma gave me an old, red book of tales, told me all the old stories, and, without my conscious consent, made me – Bella, the youngest granddaughter – their guardian.

When she was alive, she was more of a keeper than a teller of tales. A quiet grandmother, full of humor. I was only ten when she died, aware neither that she had held the name of keeper nor that she had passed it on to me. I was already known as a storyteller by then, and the stories I was most often asked to tell were the stories of Chelm, the Jewish old-country town known as the town of fools.

I had learned my ten year’s worth of stories. I had eaten my ten year’s worth of poppyseed and sponge cake, of farmer’s cheese blintzes, of kasha, of dill pickles, of cholent and kugel. I had absorbed my ten year’s worth of Yiddish sprinkled into English, the only full language I spoke. I had sung my ten year’s worth of songs, and their rhythm broke free of the music, embedding itself in the stories that were now mine, stories which flew from me with laughter whenever we gathered as a family to celebrate, whenever I had an audience. I had no idea that an entire, vanishing culture and language had been planted in me, a grain of being which, if protected somehow deep inside me – an Ashkenazic child – could inch forward, unseen, to an unnamed future.

I didn’t understand that every day in my house, interacting with parents, one of whom had been raised by that grandmother, would nourish the grain with small drops of Continue reading Holiday

What is Stopping You?



arrived in the mail. A book so beautiful that I cried. Which made my children laugh a little. But there are books for them to love at first sight, too. They know. What is the difference between a watering in my eyes and my son’s sudden jolt forward towards a book on the counter, between my bubbling eyes and my daughter’s adrenaline surge when the pile of secondhand books, bought with a college-job paycheck, is placed in a bag by the cashier?

It is the third week and so far all I can manage is to cry over the beauty or suspected wondrousness of the books; to sleep with three or four of them under my pillow. I am so tired.

Still, there is something to be gained just from their proximity, from the knowledge that in a purse slung over my shoulder, wedged between a used paper towel, a wallet and a little bottle of Chinese medicinal herbs, there is a book that I will surely love; a book that will elicit from me the response that everything I know is connected to everything else out there outside my house, my street, my borrowed city.

I’ve taken, lately – these last weeks – to carrying the books around when I cannot read them.

“cannot read them” doesn’t mean that I begin to read and am soon interrupted by a call from of a far-away friend, a classroom full of students waiting for me, a pan of gyoza and rice and special sauce steaming on the stove with crooked burners. Rather, I cannot read, ever, at any hour during this time, in this part of a year in my life. My brain cannot read. It shuts down. It sleeps.

No, I cannot read at present, but the profound affection or attraction that I feel for these books – there are six, and five that already have me – is nevertheless undiminished.

So I carry them, as if with the intention to read today. I move them from table to car trunk to classroom to grocery store. I tell my son to bring along my book – he knows which one, it is already familiar to him – so that I can read during his rehearsals, his classes, his practice, his playtime. I carry it and splatter it with hopefulness. I cast a messy, unlikely charm:

Today I will read. Today I will read.

The rush of hopefulness lifts me, I can feel that I’m going to read, I plan to read it. The Book of Jon. I reread the first four pages as if I had not already done so six or seven times. My eyes begin to close. I can’t stop that from happening, then can’t open them. My head slips a little to the left, then drops to my left shoulder.

I cannot read, so I carry the book, all the books, the beautiful books, wherever I go.



Summer Ryde

I spent the summer in something like a bewildered pondering. In between classes to teach and classes to take, boxes full of our possessions spread out vertically across  America, from Midwest to Southeast, I wasn’t sure  what to do with myself, with my time. Wasn’t sure how to wait out the summer, or if waiting it out was even an option.  Or an acceptable use of my time.

The mail came. A package. I opened it up and extracted a large, fuzzy pink mustache pillow with ties on the back to attach it to the front grille of my car. Or maybe it was a pair of fuzzy peach pig ears to fasten over the side-view mirrors, the identifying symbol of a car-sharing app. A smaller bag from the box contained a tiny device to attach my phone to the air vent on the dashboard. I decided to do as directed, so I detail-cleaned my car, attached the mustache (or was it the pig ears?), turned on the phone app and began to drive friendly total strangers from one end of the sticky, melting city to the other. At all hours of the day and night.

We talked. We listened to the radio, to my CD mixes. They told me their names, rated my driving and the relative cleanliness of my car. They stepped into my storybooth on wheels, and when they had finished talking, having been transported from bars to restaurants, hotels to airports and apartments to juice bars, they stepped back out. They left behind candy wrappers, bracelets, paper coffee cups and stories. I returned the bracelets and threw away the garbage, but the stories, well…some of those I am sharing with you:

Ryding Around

Father’s Day

Sunday morning, 8 a.m., just south of downtown, I drove into an apartment complex and put on the flashers at the designated spot. My passenger appeared and leaned over, opening the passenger-side door, as Ryders are encouraged to do.  “Oh, maan,” he groaned and lifted one flip-flop into the front next to me, the rest of him tumbling in after. He was wearing shorts and a baggy Madras shirt, a handsome thirtyish face coated with dark stubble. He winked a swollen eye and said, “I can’t believe what I just did,” As I drove him to a near-empty parking lot in the Gulch to retrieve his car from the night before, my passenger talked to me like I was his trusted auntie, confessing that he did not even know exactly where he’d spent the night with the woman he’d gone home with or exactly where I’d gone to pick him up on my first Ryde of the morning. Repentant, that’s what he was. Never doing that again, Ryding home with a stranger and having to face her the next morning. And Father’s Day, too.  And a Sunday.

I sent him off with a breath mint and reassuring words and answered my next summons just barely within the allotted fifteen seconds before it bounced to some other lucky Ryde driver. This next Ryde was a man leaving one of the newer Gulch high-rise condos, also headed to his car left the previous night by the Woodlands Indian vegetarian restaurant alongside I-440. “Glad to see everyone Ryding instead of driving home dangerously!” I joked, and this man, round and rumpled and smiling, said, “Well, I’ve gotta get home fast and shower and shave. Gotta do Father’s Day stuff today. Kid wants to do brunch and church, that’s what he requested, so I’ve gotta pick him up from his mom’s in an hour.” The requested very precise and out of sync with his language.  I offered him a mint or a coffee-shot candy and he took the mint.

This turned out to be the theme of the morning. Six nonresident fathers in a row, from one side of town to another, needed morning-after Rydes to their cars so they could make it back home to shower, shave and go to brunch with their children. Three fathers were alone, three with women with whom they shared the familiarity of a current romance. I thought of my own children asleep, wondering if they would see my note and call their out-of-state father when they woke up.

I didn’t think long because the beeping green button was offering me now only seven more seconds to claim my chance at the next Ryde. The GPS sent me in circles around Lifeway Christian and my passenger wasn’t picking up the phone. Then a text came in. “Holiday Inn on Broadway and 10th.”  I pulled  in and a couple came over. “Sorry I couldn’t answer, “ the man said amicably in the voice of one who has never heard spoken language. “I’m completely deaf! Can’t hear a thing! Can you take us to Pancake Pantry?” We arrived at their destination to the usual round-the-block line. I ended the Ryde, the man asking a question I couldn’t understand but thought I knew. “Can you lip-read?” I asked, and he nodded. “It’s always like this, the line for The Pantry, but it moves fast.” He smiled, touched my shoulder and hopped out with his partner, who squeezed my hand while the green button flashed only six more seconds to grab the next request.



Coming home to Nashville often feels like I’ve come to a new destination city. One of the many things about our growing homeplace that I wouldn’t have known had I not begun driving for Ryde, the side mirrors of my oldish Camry adorned with the identifying fluffy peach pig ears, is that it’s become a bachelor and bachelorette party hotspot.

This week, in the middle of a brief burst of rain, my passenger acceptance ticker flashed Ryde green. I caught it in the first two seconds and was summoned to a high-rise condo in the Gulch. A stream of gals in pink matching t-shirts came through the front doors into the valet area, the soon-to be-married bachelorette sporting a plastic tiara. The giant sign she wore listed many instructions for this final night of single-gal status, including the following:

  1. Dance with an aging cowboy on a tabletop at a downtown club
  2. Sing karaoke, change the words to something that maks your mama blush; and
  3. Find a husband for one of the single girls; kiss him first to see if he’s any good.

I gave four members of this peppy group, gathered from all around the nation, a Ryde to Rippy’s where the bride would presumably commence these prenuptial tasks.

There were three bachelorette groups and one bachelor party group that night.  One of these was a swarm of gals in various black embroidered tops and giant sombreros. Four hopped into the pig-eared Camry and included me in their ebullient talkfest as we headed onto Hillsboro from Golf Club Lane and down to the Village. Two other Ryde cars caravanned behind me, the entire party jumping out laughing in front of Cabana and tumbling in the front door, oversized sombreros banging into each other and impeding their entry.

It wasn’t until the arrival of the bachelor party guys, who got into the Camry and asked to be taken to their own little shindig on Demonbreun, that I became aware that the Cabana sombrero ladies had left behind an essential party favor in a sparkly pink box with a vintage design, about the length of a, well, pencil. This was not a night for discretion, and the bachelor party men blurted, “Hey, look, someone left some of those penis sipping straws! You must’ve had a bachelorette party in here before us!”

I bid the bachelors adieu and felt a pang of sadness for the sombrero ladies, all dressed up in their sombreros with no straws to sip. So I did the only right thing. I turned off driver mode on my app and went all the way back up Broadway to the Village, turned left onto Belcourt and pulled up to the Cabana valet, my kindred spirit of evening work shifts. “I drive for Ryde,” I explained, as if the fluffy peach pig ears were not already a dead giveaway. “Some passenger ladies left a, uh, “special” party favor in my car and I need to run in and return it.” “Oh,” he said, ignoring my attempt at discretion, “You mean they left some penis straws? Go right on in, I’ll watch your car.” So I went in carrying the telltale pink box, trying to appear as unembarrassed as the valet and found the gals. As I pulled aside the net partition, one of my Ryders recognized me and jumped up in excited gratitude, her giant sombrero knocking into the one next to her. Suddenly, the group of partiers was upon me, erupting into cheers and thanking and hugging me in drunk-tight embraces until I managed to escape, the evening’s penis-straw deliveryheroine riding off in a silver Camry to rescue more of our fine city’s passengers in distress.