I hear that life is short. But compared to what? Everything that comes before and after? Some truisms aren’t true at all. Life isn’t short, not by any measurable standard. That’s just how it feels when you figure out you’re going to die, and you’re going to die without doing a lot of things you thought you might like to do, and if there’s something juicy on your list you’d best jump on it nowish.
Last week I was talking with Liz Frame, a singer-songwriter who stopped singing and songwriting. She spent a bunch of years devoting herself to family. She taught grade school. She was happy and then she wasn’t. The marriage ended. Her mother died. Frame had the epiphany.
“I realized life is way too short to not be doing what it is you love to do,” she said. So in 2007 Frame started going to open mikes. She formed a band. Made an EP. Started playing the club circuit. Made an album. Started playing better rooms. Here‘s a calendar. Frame is 51 now, at once exuberant and clear-eyed.
“I really believe in the record,” she says, “but it can be discouraging. I sent some stuff to somebody at ASCAP in Nashville and he basically said they just don’t hear anything here. And I’m thinking, ‘You don’t?’ So what’s the truth? For anybody pursuing an art endeavor, the truth is your truth. And whoever likes it, it becomes their truth. And that’s what allows artists to keep moving forward, even if it’s on a very small scale. If you’re OK with that then things have a tendency to fall into place on their own. The right people come into your life. Things happen and you’re ready for those things. You pay attention, and before you know it you wake up and you are exactly where you hoped you’d be.”
Jonatha Brooke is a singer, a songwriter, and a caretaker. For the past couple of years her music career has taken a backseat to caring for her mother, a poet who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Brooke has been writing about it with signature candor in the journal on her website. We spoke on the phone recently during a lull in the action.
Q: I know things are kind of crazy right now. Is this still a good time to talk?
A: This is actually good timing, because we just finished up this morning’s poop drama with mom.
Q: Poop drama? That’s a good place to start.
A: I am a poop expert. I could write a thesis on poop management for the elderly.
Q: Give me a snapshot of the situation. Where is your mom living?
A: Mom lives on three and I live on seven. A year ago August I moved her from her supposedly independent living facility in Boston to an apartment that happened to be open in my building, She was at this very lovely Christian Science manor called The Benevolent Association, but she was not independent or really living. I mean, it was a mess, and she was falling, and everyone was in denial about the reality of her physical needs. So I kind of rode in and told everyone to fuck off and said, “I’m taking it from here.”
I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who’s in the music business. He’s a passionate guy, around my age, with an impressive resume. I like talking to him. We debated the fine points of the Black Keys’ rise, the difference between real and cultivated authenticity, and whether people know or care about it. Then the conversation turned to taste and I asked my friend about his criteria for working with a band. Must he love the music? Does he have to believe they’ll be big? What matters? One thing that matters, my friend told me, a little bit quietly, after he told me about some other things that matter, is cool. He wants his music choices to make him look cool. “More than I should,” he said.
The next day I had a phone conversation with another friend, who was describing a business venture that required him to either face off with or extend a hand to a competitor. My friend wanted to make nice. He told me that he’s no longer attracted to exclusivity and the sort of mystique it confers. ”As I’ve gotten older I care less about cool than I once did,” he said. “I’ve defined it for myself as not wasting a lot of time lying. It’s become tedious.”
The day after that (it was one of those weeks) I had a long talk with my dad. We spoke for maybe the 300th time about the importance of relying on your own internal guidance system instead of external cues for direction and meaning, and about how hard that is to do — even if you know it’s the way you want to live, even if you’re the mindful type, even if it will without a doubt make you happier. My dad thinks it’s because from the get-go we’re taught to seek approval from other people. We’re ingrained with the belief that we’re only as good or smart or valuable as our parents and teachers and friends think we are, and it’s tough to unlearn those early lessons. My dad is a wise man, a font of short-form allegories, and he trotted out one of my favorites. It goes like this: imagine yourself standing on a stage, preparing to give a performance. You gaze out at the audience and discover that the theater is empty. No one is watching. But the show goes on.
I swear, these conversations never get old. Much as I’d like to evict the imaginary chorus heralding the imaginary spectators whose imaginary cheers and jeers inspire too many performances, they’re determined squatters. So it’s war. It’s me versus a hallucination. Me versus a misguided notion of value and power. Some days I win. On those days I know that the cool kids are muddled like me, not at all as sure as they seem to be about what’s good and what’s smart and what matters. Some days, consumed with self-doubt and comparitis, I lose. I wonder why I even bother. So it’s one step forward and one step back. Actually it’s more like this: