August 20, 2011
Under, over, and through.
This has been a particularly restorative summer for me. I’ve had the joy of staying put here in Kelpville, and being entertained by the endless parade of wild creatures you see in these blog pixels, plus many [slightly less wild, in most cases] friends who have joined me week after week exploring this magical little spot on the planet. Music has been made, laugh lines have been deepened, and a few wine bottles have been emptied (ok, more than a few). A general sense of well-being (and where I live, whale-being) due to a high dose of introspection and calm and not taking myself too seriously, has landed me in a damn good mood, renewed for the work year ahead.
With the exception of a three-day jaunt to a small neighboring island lacking plumbing and electricity to visit a dear, exceptionally talented friend, my body remained solidly planted on San Juan Island for two and a half beautiful months until now. After several years of seemingly continual travel, I’m becoming a bit more circumspect in my choices about when to leave this asylum of personal joy.
This past weekend offered a worthy reason to jump the rock. I traveled back to a place that in retrospect, turned out to be what more-than-obliquely inspired my move to San Juan Island 4.5 years ago: a historic artist retreat called The MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I was a fellow there in 2003 (a state of residency, not gender reassignment, although my name is awfully convenient), and my fruitful weeks in a wooded cabin amidst wild turkeys (the birds, not shots of the bourbon in this case) were life-changing. Of course, Wild Turkey has been life-changing for plenty of folks, in both good and less than ideal ways, but I’m more of a Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark kinda gal, and if feeling particularly flush, I prefer to temporarily change my life, or at least my immediate take on it, with a glass of Blanton’s. But I digress.
Anyway, since last year I’ve had the honor of serving on the organization’s board, which convened there this weekend (for the record, the Board is quite separate from the admissions panels). It was giddily wonderful to return to the former scene of my artistic crime against innocent notes (the Colony’s incessant cicadas that summer had a bizarre influence on the flute quartet I penned there. Fortunately for my police record, the statute of limitations has passed). The board meeting was set to coincide with “Medal Day,” an annual tradition during which the normally über-private (darkly mysterious to some, even) grounds are opened to the public, and a distinguished creator is honored. This year playwright Edward Albee was the guest, and the speech he offered was both hilarious and very touching. Who knew that had it not been for a chance encounter on the Colony grounds with Thornton Wilder, Albee might well have remained a poet and never penned a single play?
My composing cabin at MacDowell: bucolic, to say the least. Turkeys were around the other side, making funny sounds at me. Everyone’s a critic.
I remember very well the new perspective that followed me home from Peterborough to Los Angeles that September eight years ago. Taking stock of the noisy, neurotic, 73 MPH environment that encroached upon my speck of slow-motion sanity on the Malibu shore, I became possessed by the idea that since I had been so happy and productive living in a rural, fairly isolated natural area, then perhaps my life should look and feel like that: every single day.
I’m the kind of person who, if I ever actually had “good china” that I really loved, would use it constantly until each piece was chipped beyond hope. I don’t believe in saving things for special occasions. “Life is short, eat dessert first” is a workable description of my less than pithy religious philosophy, and since 1993, I’ve chosen to live in places others covet for their vacations. Malibu. Santa Barbara. The San Juans. I will omit the ten years I spent in my 20’s living in the San Fernando Valley. Trust me, no one vacations there if they have other options. Although, I did admire the endless row of gi-normous palm trees on the boulevard where I lived, leading the way to tacky fast food restaurants and garishly painted gas stations weighing down all four corners of every intersection. But I digress.
Anyway, with the advent of the internet, and a composing career that found itself well supported by that technology, it dawned on me that I could live anywhere in the world that had electricity and DSL (I wouldn’t do well on my pal’s island). After all, I’m not a gigging performer (I prefer to make all the other musicians who play my stuff do the hard work). It matters not where I am, as long as I can hit the send button. In fact, I’m certain that lots of players would prefer I stay put, kept at a safe distance by my seawater moat, and not bother them.
When I was at MacDowell in 2003, they loaned me a bike, and a chipmunk.
Four years after my residency, having finally had enough of the crazed mania that redundantly describes southern California, I moved 1500 miles north to this remote floating paradise. The experience in New Hampshire had turned out to be deeply significant to my future, in a way that I could not have foreseen at the time. The MacDowell Colony offered me a distraction-free glimpse not only into my art, but into my life. I ran with that ball of internal observation, and ended up creating a personal, year-round artist retreat for myself (and the occasional, GPS-challenged sparrow who flies into the house when I keep the door open too wide). I’ve never been happier. What I lack in lunch baskets thoughtfully delivered to my doorstep, and engaging discourse with other creators over after-dinner ping-pong, is made up for in all you see––and hear––on these blog pages. The gift of time at an artist colony is precious. What has resonated long since I gathered up those cicada-inspired note-filled score pads and brought them back home, has been profound.
When I left L.A. for this funny little place that few had ever heard of, I warned my other composer friends that hey, if my career suddenly takes a nose dive, don’t do what I did. Amazingly, the opposite has been the case. So now I tell my friends to trust their gut instincts, and to be aware that sometimes we have more choice and more power over the look and feel of our lives than we may have previously realized.
Eat dessert first. Have some more, a little later. Do the work that compels you, obey your heart, smile a lot, and just maybe, the Universe will give you some unexpected rewards: turkeys, chipmunks, whales, and joy.
June’s rising full moon over the sea, from my island doorstep.