Art in the Time of Quarantine

Time. Time is one of the threads that everyone seems to touch on these days in their tweets and posts. We have long been guided by schedules of work and school and other constructs, and then this virus hit and everything changed, slowed down, stopped, went out of sync. 

Each of us is going through this surreal shared moment in time, viewing the world through our own lenses, with our unique combinations of challenges and privileges, maybe sharing that view with the people we are living with or talking to. My experience is enmeshed with that of the kids. Most of the day we’re all doing our “work,” but then we have a lot of dinner-table conversations, and I cherish those, a chance to check in with one another after the day of work and school work—a time to ask about “How Things Are Going.” 

Some days the answer is: not great, frustrated, scared, lonely, restless, angry. Some days the answer is better, ok, not bad, better. So much depends on who we have (or have not)  interacted with, and how we have related with them during that day. So much depends on what we’ve heard of the news. So much depends on how the kids are doing.

When trauma typically happens at schools (and the current generation of elementary and high school students have had too much experience with this), we call in counselors. We have talking circles and support groups. We make allowances for ordinary responsibilities to allow some room for processing and healing. We try to help the kids because most of them don’t have the tools they need. Right now, those systems are not really in place to help them—even with teachers and parents trying the best they can. 

The kids have been doing the best they can, and I’m of the philosophy that we need to temper our expectations right now. If many of us, the adults, are not ok, how can we expect the kids to be? 

So they do their homework and they miss their friends; they try to connect online and on the phone, watch movies and read, and have their own creative ways of dealing with it all. 

My son, Liam, is a musician and composer, and he decided when the shelter-in-place started that he would write a new song approximately every other day. 

I’m reminded of a quote from Neil Gaiman’s keynote address for the May 17, 2012 commencement ceremony at The University of the Arts. He said: 

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

“Make good art.”

This is something I often quote to my kids. Creativity is a tool we have when we need it, when we can use it. It’s not always possible. Sometimes we have to wait for life to give us a window. Sometimes we have to make that window. Sometimes we make good art.

Liam has made some good art. His EP was released today and is available on Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, iTunes, and Amazon music. I’m really proud of him. His piano compositions are like soundtracks to our life right nowthey are complex and sad with surprising moments of joy. I’ve been working while listening to them in the background, and I’m excited to share them with you right now. 

His professional name is Hyrix, and the EP is titled Insomnia. I think you’ll be moved by its beauty.  

You can listen to the EP on Spotify:

Or on Soundcloud:

Everyone is wondering when things will go back to “normal.” Will they ever?

I don’t think we can know what normal is going to look like. I do believe that this time will irrevocably transform our children and what they do to shape their future in ways that we cannot even imagine. I feel like Liam’s music and the other things people are doing right now to express themselves, to connect creatively with one another, to be as present for one another as possible—these will be the touchstones we have to remind us of this time and why we reshaped the future accordingly, hopefully for the the better. 

Read the Comments

Wyrd Words Moonrise 2015 (photo by Stephen H. Segal)

In my last blog entry, I wrote about the song that my kids and I worked on together for the Amanda Palmer Blackout songwriting challenge–our first collaboration, my first songwriting lyric attempt, my 12 year-old-daughter’s first time singing in a public space, my son’s first time working with lyrics for one of his compositions. That’s a lot of firsts.

I’m not a singer, and my daughter enjoys it, so I asked her to be a part of this because it’s summer and I wanted to try making something together; but the truth is, I would have sung the lyrics myself (however poorly) if she hadn’t wanted to be a part of this.

Full disclosure: I’m terrified of singing in public. I have not sung in front of strangers since I was a child and my family teased me about performing “Dites-Moi” too dramatically in the choir at St. Pascal’s grammar school. I think I was 9.

I only started singing in small, private settings in the last few years, ever since the kids were born and I wanted them to feel comfortable singing. I tried to model for them that not having a “good voice” shouldn’t stop their love of making noises and expressing themselves. But have I ever done Karaoke? Nope.

Still, for this, I would have sung.  So what had changed? It’s not the fact that it’s recorded, because the idea of something living online is even scarier than a live performance.

This thought was fresh in my mind after we posted our song entry, when Lana and I started to go through the hundreds of comments to see how other people had responded to Amanda’s challenge. I continued to peruse them last night, and something struck me.

Again and again I read versions of the following in the Patreon comments:

“I’m really nervous…” “I’ve never done anything like this before…” “I only sing in my shower…” “I can’t play an instrument…” “English is not my first language…” “I’m learning how to speak English…” “I’ve always wanted to write a song…” “I was so inspired to try…”

Hundreds of people responded with song lyrics that they wrote, many of them sung into telephones and computers with little or no musical/recording experience. In a week. They made art and shared it with strangers.

There is wisdom in the modern proverb, “Do not read the comments.” Too often, strangers are not kind to those who reveal their vulnerability in a public way. It can be scary even for those those of us who look to have an audience for our voices and ideas. Here were people taking up the challenge to be creative and post it publicly. Even if they couldn’t play an instrument or were afraid to sing or if knew that they would be disqualified because they didn’t fully follow the instructions, still they posted their words and sang their songs.

Why?

Surely many wanted the opportunity to share something with the artist who has given them so much joy and comfort and inspiration. Amanda’s relationship with her fans is special. She works hard at it, and as a writer mama, I respect the way she’s trying to make time for the many relationships in her life now that she’s raising her young son Ash, including the relationship with her fans and collaborators.

It’s a contest, and so some were inspired by the prize and potential recognition, and yet in other contexts, competitions can get ugly. To date, this one has not.

I believe there’s more to it than fandom. Amanda has cultivated her community with a desire to connect, to share unapologetically her life and her self online and in person. Her community of supporters is built on her foundation of vulnerability and acceptance. She does it in a way that is bold and and performative, and it’s not for everyone, but it’s a message that reaches a lot of people looking for a safe place to be themselves, to be seen, to be heard.

The wonderful Brené Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly,  “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

It’s interesting, because when a friend heard our song, she told me that she was struck by how vulnerable Lana sounded. She’s right. Hearing our finished song, I felt both protective and proud, and I think it’s because of that creative vulnerability. I asked Stephen his thoughts, and his response was that this community was likely to be mutually supportive–that Amanda Palmer fans weren’t going to tear each other down over a prize.

We’ve all heard stories of how kids get cyber-bullied. I’ve been protective of the kids growing up because of the way that the internet *can* bring out the worst in people. But Stephen was right, this really is different.

Looking at the songwriting entries from all over the world, I was heartened to read people saying supportive things to strangers, offering to help one another. I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of poison out there now, and it was good to see a few more examples that we can do better. I know there are other such communities and online sanctuaries, and I’m grateful to be a part of a few of them; but it’s also easy to get weighed down every day by the many places where we need to work harder to make things better. This was a small moment of hope, and I just wanted to share.

Thank You for Listening

Last week, I heard about the blackout in New York City, 42 years after the Blackout of 1977, which lasted 36 hours. I noted that it was interesting, and went back to typical weekend preparation for the week to come.

The next day, over lunch, I was catching up with social media, and I read about a challenge issued by singer Amanda Palmer to write a song inspired by the blackout… due in a week. (That’s tonight, Sunday, July 21, 2019.) I thought, “It might be fun to collaborate with Liam on that.” Liam, my son, is 14 and has been composing on piano and GarageBand for the past few years, and taking classes with the incredible folks at Access Contemporary Music in Chicago.

But there was the day job to focus on, and life and writing and summertime kid-shlepping, so I tried it put it out of my head again.

Except I couldn’t. The song kept writing itself in my brain, much like poems and stories do. The more I try to not write them, the louder they respond in my head. So… I opened a window and kept jotting down notes.

That night, after putting the kids to bed, I turned sheepishly to Stephen and told him I had written a song, except it had to be under 5 minutes, and it was 10 minutes long (and I had already cut 1/3 of it.)

He laughed and read it over with some suggestions—he’s a wonderful editor—and the next morning before work, I handed the lyrics to Liam and asked if he’d be interested in writing the music. After I explained the challenge and the deadline (thank goodness it’s summer vacation), he enthusiastically agreed; and we asked my youngest, Lana, who’s 12, if she’d like to sing.  She also agreed, and away Liam went—and 24 hours later, we handed Lana the lyrics and music for a four-and-a-half minute song, currently titled “In the Dark.”

If we had another week, my oldest daughter, Maya, would have created animation to accompany the song, but the deadline is tonight, so we’ve posted it with the lyrics to YouTube.

One of the things that I appreciate about Amanda and Neil Gaiman, and their extended circle of creative adventurers, is their eagerness to collaborate and encourage collaboration. It was a collaboration that brought them together, and our mutual friend Kyle Cassidy had a part to play in that—and several other collaborations orchestrated on the internet over the years. I watched with great interest Neil and Amanda’s 8in8 experiment with Ben Folds and OK Go’s Damian Kulash back in 2011, when they committed to work together to try and create and record 8 songs in 8 hours. One of the songs that came out of that, “The Problem With Saints,” is a family favorite.

Liam, Lana, Maya

So this Blackout songwriting challenge provided me with the first actual opportunity to collaborate with my kids, and I’m really proud of them for working together (no small feat for this preteen and teen). It’s our first attempt at doing something like this, Lana’s first try at singing in public (she’s shy), with the added challenge of trying to sing an “Amanda Palmer” song, in a lower vocal register than she would usually sing.

Honestly, I’m not sure I would have been able to do that at their age. While Liam has been composing songs for a few years, they have been instrumental only and usually classical or EDM (electronic dance music). I handed them the lyrics, and they did the rest.

Thank you, Amanda, for being the art catalyst. I love it when art makes ripples like this. In today’s day and age, making good art is as important as ever, and I’m happy to be a part of it, and to show my kids that, working together, we can do amazing things.

I look forward to listening to the other entries now that we’ve submitted ours. If you’d like to review the hundred responses, you can find them on Amanda’s Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/posts/sunday-contest-28370965

I’ve been smiling all evening because of the absolute joy of this. There are some great entries for the contest, a few submitted by friends of mine; and for me and the kids, it was really never about the destination, but all about the journey. We got to make something together. That is a gift.

It will be fun to see what evolves out of this.

Thank you for listening to this proud Mama.

xxo