Author Archives: Deborah Oster Pannell

Good Night, Sweet Prince

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So, Prince died. And I’ve been crying on and off since yesterday. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m sad that he’s gone, or that I was too sick to go to Brooklyn last night for Spike Lee’s block party. All these people are dying. Famous people I never met, folks whose work meant a lot to me, inspired and touched me in personal ways that are hard to describe. And then there are the deaths of people in my life – family members, friends, whose silence still rings loud in my ears and in my heart.

Prince Michael Ochs Archives

Photo credit – Michael Ochs Archives

These endings, these reconfigurations, they are inevitable, I suppose, and a normal part of life. But as I grow older, they seem to increase in frequency, and their resonance with my own sense of impermanence, the reality of my own eventual demise, becomes more acute. I feel vulnerable and more alone.

I remember back in the days when scanning through the calendar of events in the Village Voice made me feel small and insignificant. There was always so much going on, so many scenes that I was not a part of, so many shows I would miss, performers I would not experience firsthand. Rather than feel enticed to choose something fun to do, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, the out of reach amount of money required to do all the things that called to me. I often got paralyzed into doing nothing.

These days, I scan my Facebook and Instagram pages. I see all the pithy descriptions of parties and shows and other events, I get the invitations, I scan the guest lists, I see the pictures afterwards. I am connected to all these people, yet not part of the group selfies, not part of the behind the scenes moments, the preparatory meetings, the after-parties. And yet, I am fooled into thinking I am part of all these things. I see the pictures, I read the remarks, I comment and like and share. But I am home, alone.

When I do go out, I have a great time. I meet old friends, new comrades, new besties, crushes, potential collaborators, business partners. I speak my mind, I tell jokes, I flirt and sparkle, I flash my teeth, I share drinks and other things. I am part of my world, wherever I go. I am not afraid.

But the people keep dying. I keep getting older. The world keeps shifting, as loved ones leave us, change the geometry of the landscape, the energy, the dynamic. I knew who I was, and then Maya Angelou died. Michael Jackson died. Amy Winehouse died. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. They died. Why then? Why them? My parents. Gone. My husband. Gone. Friends have lost children. Unthinkable. Bowie, Prince, gone. These losses, they seem arbitrary, random. They are unexpected. It’s hard to imagine a world without them.

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Only my husband, who took over twenty years to slowly slip away from me into the grips of his chronic illness – only he took his time. And that deconstructed widowhood, it took me over slowly, taught me to feel every molecule of loss, taught me to understand the gradual letting go of our partnership, our plans, wishes and dreams, taught me to look to myself for strength when everything pointed in the direction of abandonment.

There are things we may not want to admit to ourselves, such as the fact that we will all be dead someday. When one of our luminaries crosses over, and the world changes, I want to hold onto something that feels more permanent, more robust and hearty than my own fragile sense of myself. I want hugs, kisses, maybe adoration, maybe sex, the grinding of body against body a reminder of my physical existence, my presence here on earth right now.

I’ll bet it would have been great to be crushed up against a sea of strangers in Brooklyn or Minneapolis or Harlem last night. I’ll bet it would have been great to cry out loud into the night with the soundtrack of a genius playing in the background. I’ll bet it would have been great to get high on collective grief and inspiration. Instead, I cried myself to sleep, grateful for the drowsy escape from sore throat, sinus congestion and a deep cough.

I remember now that every great artist knows a profound sadness and uses it to fuel his or her art. I remember, as any good Buddhist will tell you, that suffering breeds compassion. I remember, as my husband used to say, that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And I remember that the grief I feel over anyone’s loss is a tribute to the love we shared, whether in person, or through the magic that was their art, their music, their words.

So I guess things are as they should be…

Sweet September

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september flowersI remember when my son was an infant and I used to carry him on my back through these streets, mapping out my favorite blocks, and that one red-leafed tree that stretched up to the sky in the thin corridor between two tudor style houses. Now I am lucky that my son still lets me walk him to the city bus where he rides to middle school with the rest of his friends amidst the commuters.

I watch as the yellow buses wend their way through the neighborhood, scooping up the littler ones for their days of learning. I admire the wild plantings on my front lawn, tamed by the unlikely presence of a rust colored mulch that was not of my choosing. I live in the back apartment, unfettered by the weight of ownership, a mere tenant, content to gather my monthly nut and hand it over to the landlord. In the winter, he saves my back on a regular basis with his snow blower. The hum of its motor makes me smile.

The other day, I saw a monarch butterfly in front of the high rise apartment building where my friend lives. It was hovering over a shrub with purple flowers that reflected the sunlight with a kind of happy glow. I wonder if it will make its way to the butterfly bush in our front yard. After all, such was the design. But I know better. You can’t force beauty like that to come to you.

I have planted many seeds in my life. Some have blossomed into plants that visit me each year like old friends. But some have simply stopped giving life. They were there, and now they’re not. When I see the fallow places in the garden where they used to rise up to greet me, I feel a hollowness inside.

My son is in middle school now, a big place with lots of rules designed to temper the violent thrusting of adolescence that is nearly impossible to control from the inside. It is a kind of 1970’s free zone, where anything that even smells like free spirit is tamped down quicker than you can say state test. For now, he is exhilarated by the newness of changing classrooms throughout the day. I am grateful that he can be restless and still feel nourished by his environment.

I am hungry for something rich and loamy. When I was younger and my back was stronger, I spent hours bent over the flower beds, my hands digging in the rich, brown soil. I miss the dirt under my fingernails, the smell of green on my face, the slow passing of minutes filled with the sounds of rustling leaves, crackling twigs, chirping birds and then, the hum and buzz and crawl of tiny life forms that gradually appear. In the early days, I opened up giant trenches in the first warm days after winter, where I placed gallon sized plants, fully matured. I created my garden like a construction worker, or a painter, enjoying my masterpiece come to life under my watchful eye.

Later, I dug small holes for starter plants at the end of autumn, and waited patiently throughout the spring and summer for them to poke up their tiny heads and grow into their full size, never quite sure of what would come up. Now, I observe the growth of my son in much the same way as a puppy who catches up with his paws.  I see him as much through my future eyes as my past, tendrils of desire winding around my heart like clematis vines.

Making Music in NY courtesy of Henry Brant

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I’m no longer a serious flutist. In fact, I’m not sure I ever was… Even during my 15 years of formal training, I hardly ever practiced.  I used to drive my teachers crazy. But I did manage to learn to read music, develop an embouchure, and at my peak, I can remember those times when my fingers moved faster than I could think.

So when I learned that there was this flute thing happening for the yearly Make Music New York celebration, where I’d be among a whole group of flutists – as many as 40 – I thought, yeah, this could be for me. And then I heard the piece of music. Henry Brant’s Mass in Gregorian Chant for Multiple Flutes, aka Mass for June 16. It’s slow and dreamy and contains the echoes of medieval corridors and stone ruins. It made me cry to think I could be living inside that sound. I contacted the organizer, flutist Martha Cargo to see if there was still space, and I was in.

Attending my first rehearsal, I had forgotten how much I love the math of music. I had forgotten how cramped my fingers can get as I grip the keys. I had to remind myself to relax. Fortunately the piece was nice and slow, and didn’t require any fancy finger work, as I was way too out of shape for that. My 11-year-old son sat in the front of the rehearsal studio, watching. Part of the time he wore his headphones and played a video game on his iPod. Other times, he listened while reading his book for school.

I had been playing again at home, once in a while improvising to some indie rock or singer songwriter stuff. One day I jammed to Nirvana unplugged, and afterwards my son looked up at me and said, Mom, you’re a rock star. He should have seen me playing King Crimson and Jethro Tull at CBGB’s in the 70’s. Back then I played flute with this neo-Goth group from Long Island called Heretic. We played originals with titles like Vampyre, and covered Brian Eno’s Baby’s On Fire. And yeah, it was a Monday night, but we did perform at CBGB’s…

Our second rehearsal was at The Americas Society, on Park Avenue and 68th Street, where Martha works as the assistant to the music director. It’s a classic, elegant mansion with a big marble foyer and sweeping staircase, once the residence of a wealthy NYC financier, formerly housing the US Mission to the Soviet Union, and registered as a NYC landmark since 1970. We practiced in the Salon Simón Bolivar, surrounded by crystal chandeliers and wall sconces. It’s the kind of room you rent for a cocktail reception for international diplomats.

As our conductor, Sebastian Zubieta took us through the eight movements of the piece once again, I remembered what it was like to play in tune, to carefully differentiate my slurred and articulated notes, to go from pianissimo to forte. There is a joy in the order of accurately translating the language of music from the printed page to live sound. It’s like making magic out of a secret code. Another rediscovered treasure.

The beauty of this particular piece is in its structure. We started out each section in unison. Then, at a certain point, Sebastian would put down his hands, giving each of us permission to go off on our own. We still had to follow the notes, but the timing could be anything we wanted. The result was a kind of gentle, rippling chaos that inevitably landed us back together. Once everyone had finished the last phrase, we paused, and then Sebastian took us all into the next movement.

Although I’m not familiar with Brant’s work as a whole, I enjoyed the way this piece played with rhythm and form. Moving effortlessly from 4/2 to 6/4 and 3/4, we had to shift back and forth from counting by half notes to the occasional measure of counting by quarter notes. As players, the form demanded our constant attention. We transitioned from movements with F sharp to those with an F natural. ­There were three sections where piccolos were added, so those players had to also contend with the swapping out of their instruments.

I think my favorite aspect of playing this piece was the way it went from unison to free rhythm and back again. The restless spirit in me felt liberated to be able to take my time for a spell during each and every movement. But there was also the satisfaction of having only the conductor’s baton to guide our kinesthetic awareness of one another, as we shared a commitment to color inside the lines together, if for only a few brief moments.

I learned something interesting about Henry Brant during the time between our two performances on Saturday evening. A Brooklyn couple, Pat and Kathy, had come by to see the first show, which had been publicized as taking place inside the Dalehead Arch near 64th St. and Park Drive. They didn’t know that we had moved to the open field just north of there, and had missed the 5:00 show. As they were deciding whether or not they had time to stay until 6:00, we chatted.

I learned that Pat had worked at Carl Fisher, the same music company that published much of Brant’s work. He knew Brant’s music well, and had transposed some of it. Pat described Brant as a “sly elf of a man.” He told me how Brant had developed severe eye problems toward the end of his life, undergoing cataract surgery. He said that Brant, already in his 80’s, used to wear a jogging suit and visor wherever he went, including when he performed. It didn’t matter the venue – that had become his uniform.

I wish I had known Henry Brant. He played with space and time and was fond of creating works for masses of the same instrument. In addition to flutes, he wrote pieces for multiple trumpets, trombones and guitars. A multi-instrumentalist, he often included solo parts for himself to play. Pat told me about work Brant had presented on barges in Amsterdam that I later learned was part of a 1984 event entailing a three hour procession that made its way through the city’s canals. I also learned that Brant was a member of Aaron Copeland’s celebrated Young Composer’s Group of the 1930’s. Brant eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2002 before dying in 2008 at the age of 94.

Our piece was performed with all of us in a big circle. At our dress rehearsal in Harlem’s Riverbank State Park, we experimented with the size of the circle, knowing that according to Brant’s intention, the audience would be seated in the center, with us surrounding them in our sound.

Performance day, summer solstice, June 21, 2014, was just five days after the 30th anniversary of the first performance of Mass for June 16th. This time, Brant’s composition brought together nearly 40 flutists ranging from professional players and teachers to relative amateurs like myself. Some knew each other from being part of the regular circle of New York City flutists. Others, newcomers, would forge connections to the flute community, exchange numbers, make plans to give or take lessons from one another.

Next to me stood a flute teacher named Nadia. We decided to take our shoes off and play with our bare feet in the grass. By 6PM, the sun was already going down over the buildings on Central Park West, the breeze was no longer threatening to blow away errant pages of music or knock over our stands. Audience members were lying down with eyes closed, preparing to let the experience wash over them. A photographer came by and asked if he could snap a picture of the sheet music clipped to a music stand with clothes pins. He said, “It’s such a cool little New York scene.”

Thanks For the Reminder, Ira Glass

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Video by David Shiyang Liu, Words by Ira Glass

OK, I’ve been waiting for this moment. You know, that moment where you open your brain and the words pour out onto the page. Fully formed ideas and sentences, complete thoughts. You see, I’ve had a little writer’s block.

I just heard this little piece of recorded wisdom by Ira Glass. I don’t know if, when he was speaking these words, he was thinking, “Oh shit, this is brilliant. I gotta share it so I can inspire people and change the world.” But really, it is. And he actually might.

I, like most of you other writers out there, love that moment when I write something wonderful, and it feels like I’m really a writer, you know? Like I know what I’m doing, and I am so witty and funny and poignant, and all that. I love how it feels to pour my emotions into my prose. It’s like a massage, or a balm, a good drink, a long hit of weed, great sex. It. Just. Feels. Good.

But you know what? That good feeling you get from writing? It doesn’t always translate. I’ve gotten high and been inspired by my chemically induced visions to compose poetry, and when I’m writing it, I feel like I’m touching the stars. OK, I’m high, so that kinda figures. But the next day, I read it, and it’s crap. Utter rubbish. It’s like an attempt to capture the brilliance of a sunset on a cheap, disposable camera – the kind you used to be able to buy at a drugstore at the cash register for five bucks, and sometimes they’d put a whole bunch of them out at the tables at a wedding, and you could get the pictures developed in the mail. And when you got the pictures back, your thumb covered half the shots, and the ones that did come out are in this weird shade of orange, out of focus, and the crap on the front lawn is taking up most of the frame. That. The crappy writing the day after a good high is written in some cryptic code that is only readable by other high people. It’s worthless.

Then there’s the other kind of writing that feels so good to get out of your body. It’s like a good purge. It’s the kind of writing that’s tantamount to sticking your finger down your throat and vomiting up the contents of your stomach. The acid, the bile, the half digested chunks. It’s pretty disgusting, really. Who wants to read that nonsense. Go to therapy. It belongs in your journals, your morning pages, your private notebooks. Aaah, blogosphere, you went and gave us permission to publicize all of this private processing. That was one boundary that would have been better left undisturbed. We’ve all done it. The Facebook rants. The confessional blog posts. The public sharing of private feelings, the exposure of raw nerves. Yes, we’re all in it together, we are the world, boo hoo, I’m sad too. It’s not good writing.

Then there are the online articles that start to pick up page views, and likes, and shares. Oh, the stat whore in all of us comes to life. They like me, they really like me. I’m popular, I’m getting more hits, I’m driving traffic, I’m a thought leader, I’m getting more followers, they’re pinning me. This roller coaster is exhausting, it’s illusory, it has no meaning. There are no standards, just the winds of popularity blowing in your direction. Keep it up for a while, make it consistent, and then perhaps you’ve got something. A brand, a platform, a voice, a career, an ad magnet, a source of income. Maybe. Good writing? Who the hell knows…

They say in order to build your brand online (dig the etymology there, as though our identity is valued by its ability to be properly sold), that you need to maintain a steady presence, a regular, consistent output of material. I confess, I haven’t been very good at that type of regularity. For a while there, I was cranking out regular pieces of experimental fiction and with a couple of deadline type assignments, a consistent level of output on several blogs. But things change, and now it’s all on me to make sure you don’t forget me. Now I need an internal clock, like an animal responding to the cycles of the seasons and the rotation of the planets around the sun, and sometimes, well, the cycles don’t coincide with the working week and the optimal posting times, and all that jazz.

But mostly, there’s my realization that more important than regular output and steady presence and recognizable brand is the need to write well. If you google me, you will find a boatload of stuff I’ve written. Some of it is good. A lot of it is uneven. Much of it is crap. I am still in process as an artist, as a writer, as a human being. My shortcomings, thanks to the lure of the internet and the need for public reassurance, have become part of public record. I hope they make you feel better. Feel free to trash my early efforts, or even the recent ones, if they serve to prop up your own sense of relative artistic capability.

But really, I hope that my willingness to fail in plain view will be a reminder, mostly to myself, that this writing thing is a craft. It’s a learned skill. Sure, we bring to it a certain amount of inspiration, a bit of  spirit and courage, and a bunch of bravado, but all of that is but a small portion of the process. Mostly, it’s hard work and doing it again, and again, and again. And again.

It’s being willing to tear apart the passages we thought were genius and throw away the pieces that don’t work – maybe even the whole thing. It’s being willing to learn craft from others who are really good at it. It’s being willing to acknowledge that I will never stop learning, and I have to keep practicing, every day. Even when I feel hopeless, that everything that comes out of me sucks and I would rather scratch out my eyes than read another cliché ridden, hyperbolic, melodramatic, narcissistic passage of my so-called memoir.  When I think everything I know is wrong, and I will never know what it feels like to be recognized for what I know is the pretty damn good writer lurking inside me, just out of view of the webcam.

Thanks, Ira, for reminding me that it’s OK to suck, because it won’t stay like this forever.

ONE DAY ONLY – Download Some Wisdom

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Dear readers, I’m excited to share the news that tomorrow, 12/12/13, for one day only, the e-book One With All of Thee: Growing Your Sacred Connection, will be available as a FREE download on Amazon. I wrote the introduction for this very special collection of writings by Celine Koropchak. The book was edited by Lillian Ann Slugocki and myself. The cover art was designed by Jennifer Dopazo.

I’m very proud of this book, and I hope you’ll check it out. Let me know what you think!

Deborah

Selfie

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Here’s the picture. There’s a woman. She is reinventing herself as we speak. She is figuring out who she is and what she wants. She has realized that doing what other people want her to do, or trying to please them, is not really going to get her where she needs to go. There is a little glint in her eye, as she has decided to dare to make her own way. She’s narrowing her focus, streamlining her daily activities. She is taking control of her destiny.

She’s making some difficult choices, and people may feel hurt. She never wants to hurt anyone. But you know what? You can’t please everyone. Sometimes, people won’t be happy with your decisions, and you can’t necessarily prevent that from happening. You can be as tender and sensitive and caring in your communications as possible but a) that may not make a difference if you aren’t giving others what they want – they may be pissed, disappointed, or hurt just the same, b) you may think you are communicating one thing, but you may be sending other messages alongside the ones you intend without even realizing it (yikes) and c) sometimes life is just hard.

I’ve seen people reveal some really personal things on Facebook and other places online – stuff about disintegrating marriages and other relationships, devastating news about illness and death, and sometimes, just a harrowing look at their own messy emotional journey as they publicly fall apart or otherwise splatter. It’s a reality of our time that we now have successfully dissolved the boundaries between personal and public.

I’ve traversed these boundaries numerous times over the last few years, trying to find my comfort and safety zone in the wacky world of extended family fellowship, public creative platforms, marketplace of social commentary and the readily available space to practice being funny, daring, snarky, incendiary, boastful, benevolent, informative, kind, or just plain mischievous. I am sure we’ve all been guilty, at one time or another, of the dreaded overshare, of being the one who posted something that made someone else think eeew. It happens. We are a messy bunch, and the rules out here are fairly amorphous.

So, the trial and error of comporting ourselves with dignity or being entertaining brings up a whole lot of stuff. I can’t say that my life is necessarily better or worse now that I have an active social media footprint. Yeah, I’ve engaged with a lot of people all over the world, and for that I am so grateful. It makes me excited to see where things will go with some of these relationships. I’ve also learned how to use a lot of these tools to their best advantage, and yeah, shameless plug, I know how to work them on behalf of clients who pay me for my services.

And, there are those moments when I feel utterly exposed and vulnerable. I wonder about the public image I’m creating for myself and whether people think I’m naïve, gullible, annoying, inappropriate, talentless or completely self-involved… until I remember, with great relief, that you’re all pretty busy worrying about yourselves, and not really giving me that much thought, thank goodness!

That woman in the picture – she is keeping more to herself than you can imagine. Because sometimes it’s more important to save some things for your private world.

Random After Thanksgiving Thoughts

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In no particular order whatsoever.

Stewed prunes. Just because.

No Black Friday shopping. Ever.

I feel an urge to send letters to friends, but not to report every single thing that happened this past year. I’m pretty sure they don’t care. I don’t even care. I’m talking about handwritten notes that just connect us in a way that email or Facebook cannot. Share some feelings, a few stories, some good thoughts about one another – that sort of thing… and if I can’t muster the paper and pen and stamp thing, then at least a private FB message, or a personal email. It doesn’t have to be a public display. I will probably make a bunch of phone calls, too…

I can’t wait until after December 20th, so I can know that the shortest day of the year is behind us. That thought will help get me through January and February.

Around this time of year, the sadness seems sadder, the desperation seems more desperate, and the pressure to feel happy feels abnormally explosive. I really want to just cook a few nice meals and write some stories. Is that so much to ask?

I ate way too much on Thursday. Friday morning I didn’t feel well. End of story.

I saw many people jogging around my neighborhood this morning. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

When we think about tragedies around the world (or in our own backyards – there was a deadly train crash in my neighborhood this weekend…), somehow they seem more tragic at this time of year. Or at least, that’s the perception. Many of our senses are heightened right now, because there is this sort of pressure to be grateful and observant and mindful of how we want our lives to be better (those new year’s resolutions will be upon us before you know it). How would it be if we just pretended that each day was as important as the rest? How about we be as mindful of the suffering of others throughout the year as we are now? Of course, we have to focus on the good things in life, but we can also do our part to share our love and bounty with others whenever we can.

Have a look around. Someone, maybe more than a few people in your life are really having a hard time right now. Take a few moments to check in on friends. It will make you feel better, too…

I just heard a flock of geese flying overhead. It reminds me about all the animals in the world, continuing on in formation, despite the interference by humans in their lives. It’s amazing that we all get to share this planet. I’d like to be more mindful of that…

I’m pretty sure Santa is on a budget this year. Time to start extolling the virtues of homemade gifts.

I can’t help it. I LIKE having Chinese food on Christmas Eve.

Happiness is present in the smallest moments that sometimes get strung together like jeweled necklaces. I love how shiny happiness is. It’s always with me.