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The Music


I haven’t been going to synagogue as much this year. I try, but my internship hours keep me from events during the week, and I am so freaking exhausted by the end of the week that even if I can make it to Friday night services, I don’t have the energy to kibitz afterwards. As a result, I feel more like an outsider again. I’m not making connections the way I used to, and I’m missing out on a lot of things.

I don’t know what to do about this, except to hope that it will reverse next year, and I won’t have lost too much. Except that next year I’ll actually have to look for a job, and that’s terrifying and all-encompassing in itself.



At least I can still get to services often enough to hear the music. Even on a random Friday night we now have congregant/musicians sitting in, and singing with the congregation does something to fix me. I can’t say I understand the process. Maybe it’s just that singing encourages me to breathe more deeply and settle down, but I think it’s more than that. Singing with other people, with the express purpose of feeling connected to community, and to history, and to myself, really seems to work for me.

The other night we had a full musical service, with guest musicians, including a new (to us) Israeli saxophonist/flautist. It was magical. The musicians are always good, but this was above and beyond in some way I can’t explain.

Music has always intrigued and confused me. Learning to play piano was frustrating and detail oriented, like learning calculus, or trying to press my feet into first position in ballet: there was nothing inspiring about it. The same went for guitar and voice lessons. And often the music I listen to on the radio has a similar pieced together feeling, like paint by numbers. It’s pleasant, but, eh. But then there are moments when a certain voice, or a certain instrument, captures some transcendent melodic moment, and I feel so much, and so transformed, and I have no idea how it happened.


“Cricket is very relaxed, or sleeping, it’s hard to tell.”

Music also seems to bring out my contradictions, the deep darkness and the bright joys, with all of the knotted places in between. There is music that makes me angry and frustrated, or violently bored, and there is music that barely reaches me, and then there is this other level of joy. I don’t know where it exists in space, but it seems to take me somewhere else, where the rules of gravity and time and connection are completely different than they are here, in the everyday world.

It’s a relief that the music comes to me at synagogue, and I don’t have to go out to a new place to find it. The fact is, I know I like live music. I was entranced by a classical guitar player way back in college, but I only went to the tiny concert because it was required for school credit, and have never had the motivation to look for such a thing again. The fact that the music comes to me, in a place where I already feel (mostly) comfortable, is a blessing.

Now if only Cricket could come to services too. She’d love to join in with the band and add her own special sound. She’s also a pro at interpretive dance, and we don’t have much dancing at my synagogue, yet.


The dancing doggy!



After a day of inauguration coverage, it was a relief to go to Friday night services at my synagogue, and sing about love and peace and peoplehood, embracing minor keys and unresolved endings with my whole heart. Others raise their voices in protest, at marches, in violence, in artistry, in soaring speech. I sing.

“Spread a canopy of peace, a canopy of love, for everyone!”


Sing it, Butterfly!

The whole past year has been stressful, but in the background there was always the hope that things would get ironed out and government would recede in the national attention to third or fourth most covered topic, at least behind the Kardashians. Instead, we have the constant barrage of tweets that is Trumpiness, or should that be Trumpitude, or Trumptasia? Maybe you need to be on LSD to appreciate this particular era in United States politics.

The fact that newscasters find themselves speculating on where Trump is sitting when he does his middle of the night tweets, is alarming. They seem to have come to the conclusion that he has colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome, given the number of missives sent into the ether.

It feels like we’re living inside of a movie spoof, like the Airplane movies, or something by the Wayans brothers, and everyone’s keeping a straight face while they read their craziest lines of dialogue. A lot of people seem to be energized by all of this, ready to fight and make a stand, in whichever direction. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with writing friends who are adamant and active in their beliefs. My synagogue is humming with discussions and plans and sign up lists. But I feel lost in the chaos.

I feel like I need a whole new vocabulary to help me understand the ways the world is changing every day, words like, Trumpism, and Trumpification, are a place to start. When Trumpcare is created to replace Obamacare, maybe doctors will come up with a new drug, let’s call it Trumpium, a combination of Valium and Opium, to help us all manage the next few years. Trumptastic! Well, at least until impeachment, when I guess we’ll have to think of some new words to make out of “Pence.”

I still feel like hiding under the couch, with Cricket, or overeating with Butterfly (though I draw the line at eating kibble, for now).


Can you make room for me under the bed, Cricket?


Any pizza left, Butterfly?

I don’t feel empowered, or energized, or clear headed, except when I get a chance to sing:

“We are loved, loved, loved, by unending love, an unending love!”

For a few moments, while we were singing together on Friday night, I felt like everything might be okay.


You’re right, Cricket. Peanut butter helps too.


Dylan’s Cafe

Dylan’s Cafe


It was too cold to go to Washington, D.C. this year to visit my great aunt. We’ve gone the past two winters, in January, but this year the visit was scheduled for late in February, when Washington, D.C. was basically shut down from the snow. So we stayed home, and huddled indoors with the dogs because each time we went outside I felt like someone was carving my ears off with a spoon.

Butterfly made a snow heart with her feet.

Butterfly made a snow heart with her feet.

I missed getting to see my great aunt, and her daughter, and her granddog Zoe, but Butterfly, at least, was grateful to miss the long car ride, and Cricket sniffed every inch of the snow to make up for not getting to sniff Zoe. And in my mind, I did end up travelling to D.C., remembering my first visit to the city, way back before my great aunt moved there to dote on her grandson and granddog.

Sweet Zoe

Sweet Zoe.

All three girls on a previous visit.

All three girls on a previous visit.

I was barely seventeen and my cousin Sarah wanted to go to D.C. the day before Thanksgiving, to take pictures of the white house at night. I had just dropped out of college two weeks earlier, and Sarah thought I needed an escape.

We stopped at a candy store before the trip, and loaded up on gummy worms and jelly beans to balance out the bag of potato chips and the diet soda, and then we drove down to D.C., singing along to Bonnie Raitt and the Black Crows. I don’t know what my cousin and I talked about for five hours in the car, but we had a great time. She is ten years older than me, and was therefore a font of worldly wisdom. She was one of the only people who took my dropping out of college in stride. She never blamed me, or made light of it. She just cared about me and wanted me to feel better.

As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we dropped off our bags and went out to the movies. We saw Bette Midler in For the Boys on a huge curved screen with a red velvet curtain in front of it. It was the kind of theatre that felt magical, instead of like a box with seats in it.

Me and Bette Midler

Me and Bette Midler. Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

It was dark out when the movie ended but we were too keyed up to go back to the hotel. We joined the crowds walking around Georgetown, window shopping and people watching. When I saw a sign that said “Dylan’s Café” I stopped. For background, you need to know that Beverly Hills, 90210 had just come on TV the summer before, and I was in love with it in a way I cannot explain, or even understand, today. And the cool guy character on the show was named, of course, Dylan.

My cousin said we had to go in. The café was up a set of stairs and when we found out there was live music – two guys with guitars – we had to stay. And, according to my cousin, I had to have a drink. I don’t even remember what kind of music they played; whatever it was originally, it was played on two acoustic guitars so it didn’t end up sounding like heavy metal.

The guitar guys

The guitar guys. Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

There weren’t many people at the tables, so Sarah went over to chat with the lead singer and his sister between sets, and requested a James Taylor song for me. The guitar guys sang Fire and Rain, which, with lines like, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,” felt like it had been chosen just for me.

Important lessons learned at Dylan’s cafe: wine coolers make for the worst headaches; and a cute guy with a guitar trumps even the worst headache.

That trip brought me back to life. For one long day and night in D.C., I didn’t have to argue with anyone; I didn’t have to be lonely, or work at things that seemed meaningless; and I didn’t have to give in to authority figures who had none of my best interests at heart. I thought, maybe, life could be fun and interesting, and filled with music and cute boys. Maybe I could transfer to Georgetown and study Political science. Maybe I could learn to play guitar and sing in a band. Anything seemed possible.

The White house, in the morning. Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

The White house, in the morning.
Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

Democracy. Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

We almost missed Thanksgiving dinner, because we wanted to do some sight-seeing on Thursday morning. Sarah hadn’t gone to sleep at all, because of the late night taking-pictures-of-the-white-house thing, so we turned the music up and kept the windows open to keep her awake as she drove across chilly New Jersey in the dark. We made it home before all of the food was gone, and Dina, my black lab mix, gave me a greeting as if I’d been gone for years instead of just a day.

Dina. Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

Photo by Sarah Feinsmith

I might have forgotten my night in D.C. once I got home and back into the reality of my life, but Sarah made a photo album of the trip for me, to remind me that I could be happy, and that wonderful things could happen at any moment. And I realized that, even if I was not going to have the smooth path forward in life that I’d expected, the bumpy road might hold a few good surprises along the way.

Looking For My Song


I used to write songs. This was a long time ago. I bought a Casio keyboard with my leaf-raking money when I was eleven or twelve, and tried to remember my years of piano lessons to pick out a melody. But I never felt like I could catch the song I was looking for.

I feel like being a musician, for me, is as impossible as being a dog. I don’t have the right internal organs to get there, no matter how much I might want to. I don’t have the right brain, the right ears, and the right fingers. I’m just not that person and I feel the loss acutely. Cricket and Butterfly have their own unique songs. They have particular patterns and rhythms and pitches that really get their message across, but I feel muted. I can write and speak my story, but I can’t sing it, and that leaves something essential unexpressed.

Cricket likes the sound of her own voice and uses it very specifically to express different emotions and needs. She rasps and squeaks, and cries and screams, she barks from her gut and shrills through her nose. She is a diva. She sings variations of the same song, using the same instrument, all day long.

Cricket, mid-Aria.

Cricket, mid-Aria.

Butterfly listens very closely when we’re outside. She collects sounds: like an airplane flying overhead, leaves rustling, a garbage truck rolling down the hill, geese chattering to each other, birds whooshing through the trees. I wonder if she’s looking for her song too, and sampling all of these sounds to see what resonates for her.

Butterfly, listening.

Butterfly, listening.

In college, in one of my early attempts at jumping around the curriculum, I took a class in music composition. I’d taken voice lessons and piano and felt like there was a whole segment of the musical world that I was missing, huge parts of the language that I could not understand. I did well in the class, because it was basically math with musical notes, but I felt like I was being starved for the real stuff, the “aha” stuff, because I couldn’t connect the math to the music. Maybe if I’d tried to stick it out and become a music major I’d have eventually found what I was missing, but most schools require proficiency in a musical instrument and a willingness to perform and I didn’t have either one.

I have a cousin who plays the cello professionally. She plays a regular cello and a baroque cello (don’t ask me what makes them different). She has spent her whole life becoming the cello and limiting the space between her body and the music until the music really does come through her and the cello at once. She inspired me, and I spent a year and a half trying to teach myself how to play the guitar, but I couldn’t make my fingers tolerate the work. My knuckles kept clicking and jamming, because, as one doctor told me forever ago, my ligaments are too loose to hold my bones together. And you would not believe how painful it is to press your soft fingertips against heavy guitar strings.

The most electric experience I’ve ever had with music is when ice skaters have been able to skate as if the music is coming through their bodies, Michelle Kwan could do this, and Kurt Browning and Torvill and Dean. I remember watching Julie Kent at American Ballet Theater, just watching her arms as if the music was living in her body and she was setting it free.

Julie Kent

Julie Kent

Michelle Kwan

Michelle Kwan

Music just seems so forlorn and naked without visual accompaniment. I feel lost, like I’m swimming in too-deep water, when I listen to music sometimes, as if the ground has fallen out from under me. I feel like I will be trapped in an emotional state I can’t identify, can’t tolerate, and can’t get out of. How is the music doing this?

Music is one of the most powerful things I know, and I feel this great need to create it, and control it, and I can’t do either one. I can just sample it, like Butterfly, and pick a sound from here and there to add to my collection. I think this might be enough, for now.

The girls are thinking about it.

The girls are thinking about it.

Musical Dogs

            On our summer car trip upstate, both dogs were uneasy and grumpy and tense. Cricket was perched behind my neck and squiggling around; Butterfly was car sick in the backseat and panting. I had brought CDs with me (no, I don’t have an iPod) because I knew we’d be moving from one radio signal to another, and we needed a steady stream of music to get us through the six hour drive.

"Did you know that it's raining?"

“Did you know that it’s raining?”

Cricket and the deep dark sadness of it all.

Cricket and the deep dark sadness of it all.

            I tried Yo Yo Ma playing Bach first. Cricket used to do very well with classical music when I was walking on the treadmill. She’d start out antsy and annoyed with me for not playing with her, and within a few minutes she’d be asleep on my bed.

            But in the car, Bach didn’t work.

From everything I’d read, I assumed that the dogs would do best with instrumental music, so I stuck to my guns and tried more Yo Yo Ma. This time it was his Appalachian Waltz CD, including “Butterfly’s day out,” but still no luck.

            I tried Nina Simone next. She has a low, cello-like voice, that I find comforting; but something about her tone, maybe the melancholy sourness in her songs, left the dogs grumpy. And they didn’t like Peggy Lee either, or Gavin DeGraw, but they fell in love with Martina McBride.

Martina Mcbride

            I’m not a country music aficionado, but I’ve liked Martina McBride since I first heard her sing Independence Day, a paean to abused women and their children. It is a heartbreaking, tragic, empowerment song, and Martina McBride makes the pain bearable. I always thought I was being affected by the words of the song, but now I think that the reassurance comes through in her voice itself, so much so that my dogs recognized it and responded to it.

The dogs listened to the Martina McBride CD and relaxed, for as long as the music lasted. I had to play the CD three times during the drive, returning to Martina each time the girls started to pant or bark or wiggle with anxiety.

            Maybe, instead of Prozac, I should buy Cricket an iPod, and special headphones, so she can listen to Martina McBride when she gets anxious. She could wear the headphones at the groomer’s, and on walks, and when anyone, anywhere, makes a noise.

I also discovered, by accident, that when the girls were antsy and climbing all over me at home, my humming could calm them down. Cricket, especially, likes to rest on my stomach while I am humming, so she can feel the vibrations of the sound.

Cricket is digging for more music.

Cricket is digging for more music.

"Sing it, Mommy!"

“Sing it, Mommy!”

As a kid, my brother used to whisper sweet nothings to our dog, saying nasty things in a sweet voice, and he thought the dog was so stupid for not understanding what he’d really said. But maybe she just knew better than he did, knew he was posturing with his words, covering the genuine bond he felt with her so he wouldn’t have to look silly.

Dogs know that words can be lies, or complications, and are unnecessary for real communication.

Martina McBride’s voice seems to bypass the wordy part of the brain and go straight to the emotions. I think, just like my dogs, I would be able to appreciate Martina McBride no matter what language she chose to sing in.

Cricket’s Vocalizations



            When Cricket sings, she sounds like she’s arguing her case before the court as she gurgles and growls and rolls her R’s and squeaks and skips along the notes. I believe all of these intonations mean something to her. It’s like an aria, with slow pleading sections, and heart wrenching sections at the top of her voice, and trills just to show off.

            When I was a teenager, I thought I might become a singer, so I took voice lessons. But singing actual songs left me frustrated; I couldn’t feel the songs the way I wanted to. I wanted to be expressing the deep clanging in my body and instead I felt like I was a hollow imitation of someone else.

            Vocal exercises, on the other hand, reached me. There were no words, just sounds: mee, may, mah, moh, moo, on different notes, changing the shape of my mouth to round, straight, tensed, loose. Without words, the sounds seemed to be able to express something deep inside of me.

            Dina, my previous dog, used to sing. It was as if she had a button in her brain and if you sang high enough for long enough, she had to sing with you. She’d lift her nose in the air as if the note was over her head and she could only reach it if she could see it. She didn’t growl and roll her R’s like Cricket, she didn’t change pitch or jazz it up; she just aimed at that high note, and howled.

            The circumstances have to be just right for Cricket to start her monologue. Something deeper than food and poop issues, something about being left behind or ignored.

            “Why must you sit at the computer instead of giving me scratchies and a lap to sleep on?” she’ll cry. “Why must you ignore me when I clearly want you to throw this toy for me, so I can catch it and taunt you with it?”

            I listen to Cricket growling and crying and rolling her R’s and I feel like “ain’t that the truth.” It’s not that I always know what she means or what story she’s trying to tell, but whatever she’s feeling, I can feel it vibrating in my bones.