Green, Gone

It’s February and Northern California has turned green again, as green as the Emerald Isle. Only four months ago in October, the hills and ditches were a crisped brown in the fifth year of severe drought. Small animals like birds and squirrels seemed to move quietly, conserving their energy. I imagined them in the hot summer, tense with thirst and stoic with resignation, staying close to water sources until they went dry.

But now the bare hills are green, green. Ditches and flat valleys brim with water, buoying trash and breeding bugs. House cats stalk the tall grass at the verge of new ponds, between the hotels and fenced neighborhoods, poaching frogs and mice. Crows and robins are plentiful. Frequent rains have turned the surface cracks in all the paved roads dark with moisture, and many trees are bright with new leaves.

On the bus near Novato, CA.jpgIt is 8am, Thursday before Super Bowl 50, and I’m on the airport express bus from Sonoma County to San Francisco, at the start of a travel day heading home.This route has become familiar to me from visits over the past two years. Off the 101 between Petaluma and Novato, cattle meander bright pastures, relaxed in a world of plenty. The sun rises through blurred cirrus clouds, and white birds crowd a distant, shallow lake. The morning traffic becomes dense near San Rafael, where we make a stop before crossing the Golden Gate and threading our way through the city to the airport in South SF.

I think of all the repetitive roads and airports that have led to family over the years, strung behind me like beads on a string. The 250 miles of highway and 2-lane roads between Ithaca and Fairfield County, the college town that became my home and the place I grew up. Later, Ithaca to several towns in Florida: Vero Beach, Orlando, St. Pete. More recently, the complex itinerary of flights and taxis booked to get to Boquete, Panama, where my mother, sister and brother-in-law lived for 2 years: SYR to MIA, then, not one but two airports in Panama City (arrive at Tocumen International and get a connecting flight from Albrook International), finally arriving at Enrique Malek International in the city of David on Panama’s Pacific coast, not far from the Costa Rican border.

Closer to home, I think often of the the two-lane roller-coaster roads in the Catskills between Ithaca and Big Indian, NY, where for the past four summers I have have spent a week with a tribe of musicians. And I think of all the domestic air travel done over the years requiring transit through US hubs, mainly Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, Charlotte, Detroit. And ATL, the grandmother of them all — Atlanta, my mother’s birthplace, where some of our family still live. I wonder how many more times will I travel this particular route between Ithaca and Santa Rosa, the scene of my mother’s decline.

Dorothy is a resident the senior facility that my mother lives in. She is white-haired, thin, and sharp-eyed. She was a Rockette during the second world war, hired in 1942 at just 17 years old, below the minimum age requirement, but, as she says, “It was war.” She has a smile that is both devilish and sad, and, in case I mistake her for an old woman, she is quick to offer me a profile of who she really is, inside — young, adventurous and risk-taking, at one time a mother and matriarch of a country house full of dogs and children. Now she’s a widow like all of the women on the assisted living wing, carefully walking the well-lit halls of invisibility. My mother walks here, too, but she is quiet, reserved, inward-looking, and seldom offers any insights into her feelings or thoughts. Perhaps this is her advancing memory loss, or perhaps it is her true nature.

Traffic is heavy on the 101, and the ride to SFO will take two-and-a-half hours this morning. But I’m not anxious about missing my flight. I will have time to get something to eat before boarding the long flight to DTO on a 737. After a one hour in layover Detroit, I’ll take the one-hour-plus flight to ITH on a Canadair jet, arriving about 10pm. Home.

I’m obsessed with my travel details: times, distances, signage, countdowns, gate numbers, terminal letters. Every fifteen minutes I check the contents of my large, heavy purse: iPhone, iPad Mini, wallet, passport, lip balm, liquids in a quart size ziplock, handkerchief, hand lotion. I read every highway sign overhead on the 101, hearing the words inside my head: Lucky Drive, right lane closed, Tiburon Blvd. The big names of myth and magic: Blithedale, Tamalpais, Alcatraz. But there is so much monotony, too. Miles of big box stores, car dealerships, generic houses crowded into every available bit of real estate. Cars, cars, cars. Whatever is beautiful and fine must be shared by so many. There are no private experiences, everything is reduced to a common denominator, from affluence to working class to poverty.

My travel OCD is more pronounced as I age. I repeat these numbers and names to myself, over and over. Delta. Gate 41. One dollar tip for the bus driver in my right pocket. Passport. Boarding Pass. The unbelievably blue ocean and bay under the Golden Gate distract me briefly. The unimaginable breadth and depth of the Pacific Ocean bordering this coast threatens to unmoor my travel thoughts. It almost knocks them from the top spot. Almost.

I could never live here. It’s too dense. The green is too thin, too transient. There are too many people, too many cars, too many houses. I feel that my mind could not survive the constant onslaught of stimulation. There are too many numbers, names, and times to track and memorize. Street names, addresses, amounts, garbage pick up days, new routes to necessary places, intersections, mental maps, instructions. People’s names: doctors, neighbors, instructors, caregivers. Too many homeless, panhandlers, crazies, drug addicts. Perhaps I would adapt, if I chose to or was forced to. Necessity is the mother of adaptability. But for now, I’m gone. Just a visitor anxious to leave, conveyed passively with the conviction of deliverance. I visit California as the green only visits. We make our long arrivals, recessions and departures. And then we fly away, again.

 

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A Private Loss

Every morning this week there was a reason to weep. Of course, every week, every day, somewhere, there are a million reasons to weep. But this week we saw the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and a tragic, personal loss in my circle of friends.

I cried a lot for Bowie, for his boldness and thoughtfulness, recklessness and wisdom — such a rare combination. And for his music: more than a dozen of his songs are in the soundtrack of my life. I pored over videos of his performances and interviews, read articles, looked at photos from his remarkable career. I even dreamed about him. I shared eulogies, sad emojis, and videos on Facebook. Heroes and Let’s Dance shuffled on my inner radio, the one I can’t turn off.

Two days after Bowie there was news of actor Alan Rickman’s death. Another artist gone. Everyone was saying that both were “taken from us.” But as I became aware that a friend’s daughter had died on the same day as Rickman, all public mourning was eclipsed by a private tragedy.

Charlotte was the fifteen year-old daughter of my friend Barney Miller, a musician and film editor in NYC. Reading Barney’s initial Facebook posts, I didn’t immediately understand that her death was by suicide. It sent me, and all of Barney’s cyber friends, into despair.

There is a photo portrait of Charlotte that her mother, Caitlin, took last summer. She is dressed in a navy blue English riding show coat, a white show shirt, and a Charles Owen helmet. She is holding a red ribbon in her black-gloved right hand, in front of what I imagine is a happy smile. Maybe she is squeezing her smile behind her lips. Her dark eyes snap directly at the camera. I love this photo, I relate to it. I was that girl once. I’ve known many girls like that since, girls who bloom in the company of horses and become strong and sensitive like them.

Charlotte Miller

When Barney first posted the photo I commented, “Well she certainly has the equine ‘virus’. Good to see her wearing the Charles Owen. PS she may never recover!” I was confident in my long-held opinion that horses can teach us to cope, help us grow up, even save us. But now I want to take back my comment. Instead of never recovering from a love for horses, a love so much like a virus that stays in the blood for life, Charlotte will not recover at all. She will never bloom in that way, or maybe she never found enough solace in a horse’s warm breath, tempered strength and generosity, in anything, to spare herself. I see no hint in the photo of the distress that drove her but it seems no one could save her.

Public and private loss. I know that private loss happens all the time, everywhere. All the time. Every day there is a reason to weep. Death reaches in, overwhelms. No one escapes, no one is immune. My own losses compound as I age and I have to find a way to balance them with beauty, memory, and hope. It’s hard.

Years ago I had a personal loss in the midst of a public tragedy. On April 18, 1995, my father died one day after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He succumbed ten days after being hospitalized for a head injury due to a fall. His health had been compromised from radiation and chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer metastasized to the brain. Like Bowie and Rickman, he was just sixty-nine years old. Meanwhile, the airwaves were flooded with video, photos, and interviews expressing outrage, grief, and analysis. One hundred sixty-eight died in the explosion in Oklahoma City, including nineteen children, and more than more than six hundred eighty were injured. This pre-9/11 tragedy, a homegrown terrorist attack, was inescapable and distracting, forcing my grieving family into a silent, altered universe of private grief set apart from the rest of our culture. I looked for connection and meaning everywhere, anywhere.

I found it in the hot summer of 2000 when I visited the memorial at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while I was playing gigs nearby. In some ways this was the most important event of that tour. As always, while I sang and played my songs, I felt the familiar longing for connection, and its partner, skepticism about ever finding it. But it wasn’t until I visited the memorial site that I made the connection. I spoke with one of the uniformed docents, who stood respectfully nearby as visitors walked the grounds. She was dark haired and trim, in her 20s, hands loosely clasped behind her back in a show of deference. I told her my story. We walked together a bit and stopped to look at the empty chairs. I wrote Sunny Day in Terre Haute after that experience.

Charlotte’s death only touches me on an angle, but it is so harsh, so loud, much louder than Bowie’s and Rickman’s, louder than whatever personal drama I was playing in the days before it. It stirs up the deaths of my husband Eric, my father, my cousin Billy (suicide), my beloved horse, Shady. I look at Charlotte in her show clothes, proudly holding her red ribbon. I grieve for Barney, Caitlin, and Charlotte’s sister, for Charlotte’s friends. I grieve for families who have lost teenaged children to suicide, children who were truly and unspeakably taken from them. I will admit that I grieve for myself. And for Charlotte, because inside me, what hurts the most is that nothing could save her. Not even horses.


Charlotte’s family have created a Suicide Prevention charity in her name.

Photo © Caitlin Felton

 

“Walk A Mile” music video

On a recent visit, my talented friend and music colleague Shauna Guidici urged me to create a video for my song, “Walk  A Mile.” I recently bought a Flip HD recorder and so I went out and about shooting B-roll. Then I gathered stills from the web and put it all together in iMovie.

It’s one of my favorite songs. The acoustic guitar is tuned to CADGBE and a capo is set at the 5th fret excluding the low string (C). That string acts as a drone for the tonic. It’s a mystery how this came to me. I was inspired by a little tune I heard in a TV commercial and wanted to recreate it. The only way I could come close was to capo in this fashion.

Enjoy!

Walk A Mile

Yard Sailing

“Yard Sailing” is a song for autumn, written in 2001 in DADGAD. I recorded it in my living room on James Twomey’s DAT recorder with the fire crackling in the background.

Yard Sailing
© Patti Witten

School bus whistles down the road
Mommy waves goodbye
8 AM tomorrow
“Yard Sale,” reads the sign

Broken lamps and tired shoes
empty photo frames
magazines and diet books
hockey sticks, board games

(chorus)
Yard sailing
please, no early birds
final sale, no regrets
no refunds, no returns

Knotted afghans, old LPs
bottles of perfume
paperbacks with broken spines
curtain rods, old tools

(chorus)

(bridge)
Driving down the bargains
counting on the change
all the leaves are spinning gold
in every yard the same

Treasures lined up with the trash
beer steins with the grails
easy to set free the past
just set it out for sale

(chorus)

Download the song

Alternate Tunings

Early this morning I thought I would play through “Another Minute More,” a song I wrote in 2001, and last played perhaps in 2003. I remembered nothing about the tuning or the chord shapes. So I re-learned it. Luckily, I kept a record of the tuning with the lyrics:

A E C# F# B C#

But I could not remember the chord shapes, only the sounds. So, starting with the “open” chord, a sort major 9th chord, I experimented going up the guitar’s neck in a standard scale. I started finding the chord shapes for the 3rd, the 5th, the minor 7th.  Then I had the chords for the verses.

The tricky one was the opening chord of the bridge. I put on Sycamore Tryst and listened hard, finally puzzling out the shapes. It was part ear, part muscle memory.

My memory is so awful, and getting worse. Scary thoght for a musician and songwriter. Perhaps I will forget this thought, at least for awhile.

Thank goodness for permanent records. And, yes, I intend that pun.

John Martyn has died

My college friend Eric Amrine introduced me to singer-songwriter John Martyn in 1976, when we were just 20 years old. We were both guitarists and drawn to mind-altering experiences. Martyn’s Scots-folk-soul was instantly addictive: full of yearning, hypnotoc, melancholy, angry-yet-sweet.

Just the other day my doctor, who is British and the same age as Eric and me, mentioned Martyn and Nick Drake to me in the same sentence. We were standing in the barn as the horses came in for the night, and our breath fell from our mouths like clouds. In winter, when the air is so cold that we are reminded of the thin line between liquid and solid, this is the music we listen to: John Martyn, Nick Drake. Solid Air is the record I still own. Martyn dedicated the title track of his best-known album to the brilliant and insomniac Drake, who died of an overdose at age 24.

Eric and I went to college a mere 200 miles from Woodstock, NY, where Martyn and other lights of the music world also lived in the late 1960s. Martyn once said, “Jimi Hendrix owned a house literally over the road. He used to fly up every Thursday in a purple helicopter. He was very quiet and used to tell me how much he loved the animals.” I was surprised to learn John Martyn was only 60.

John-Martyn-770-2-600x337

My capacity for denial is selective and applies to the passage of time. Eric is forever 20, for instance, and Martyn’s music is frozen with our youthful faces in that time. Yet death looms. It always has and always will, of course, but as my own age trespasses on the  territory of the daily obituary, death is so close you can touch it. Every morning of this cold spell I worry about the deer and the feral cat that I have seen once, whose tracks I see in stringing through the snow. How do they survive? How do the birds keep warm in their tiny of feather coats? How do they hold on in the wind?

I don’t know. I hear Martyn singing, I don’t want to know about evil. I only want to know about love.