July: looking back, looking ahead

I’m overheated and currently without a working kitchen faucet, so this pretty much sums things up.

This heat. It’s undignified, really. I am sweaty and harried from the moment I emerge from the shower, and the city is never more pungent than in these dog days of summer. The fetid scents of garbage and urine and automobile exhaust hang in the air, suspended in the thick humidity, and throughout the day I find myself muttering things like, “Civilized people don’t live like this,” as I unwittingly step into yet another goddamn subway car without air conditioning.

Some of my testiness is also due to the fact that nearly everything in my home that could need repairing all of a sudden does need repairing, from the kitchen faucet to the fridge to the microwave to the hall light to the shower door. It’s always something. And don’t even talk to me about the Yankees getting swept by Boston last weekend.

But! Sunflowers (how I love their Italian name, girasole) are brightly standing at attention in a vase on my kitchen table. A beloved friend has emerged hale and optimistic from a recent medical crisis and we will meet for a cocktail next week. In a fit of pique, I recently removed all social media from my phone and computer’s bookmarks, and am reveling in the newfound mental peace and quiet afforded by the cessation of what Paul Simon described as “staccato signals of constant information.”

Yes, life has slowed down quite a bit in these first days of August, in part because of the heat, in larger part because I’m no longer mindlessly scrolling through various social media feeds every five minutes, and yes, in part because I have to fill my teakettle in the bathroom sink until our new faucet arrives later this week. I’m digging it. (August’s slower pace, that is. I hate not having a working faucet in the kitchen.)

Looking back, July went by in a flash, starting with a whirlwind jaunt to Miami for a wonderful evening of vocal/piano duets with my buddy Joe Alterman. The venue and hotel were gorgeous; the audience was warm and appreciative; the music was swinging and the vibes were good. It was a great way to kick off the month.

Miami, Minnesota, and quaint-as-can-be Orange City, Iowa: July gig travel.

A few weeks later, Duchess traveled to the midwest for a performance in Iowa. We stopped to see a 60-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota (I mean, why would we not do that?), then continued to Orange City, a small town so charming we felt as though we’d wandered onto a movie set. It’s rare that we are able to have any real down time when we’re on the road, so being able to relax a bit in such a picturesque town was a treat. Even more delightful? My aunt brought my grandmother and a couple of friends to come see our show. My grandmother loves music—she and my grandfather were marvelous swing dancers—and getting to dedicate an Andrews Sisters song to her from the stage was a joy and honor. After the show, we all laughed and talked well into the night.

A few happy moments from Iowa.

Closer to home, July also brought a bacchanal of wine and bivalves at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a new friend, a windy day at Coney Island, my mother-in-law’s birthday celebration, a lakeside weekend in Connecticut, and a few fun gigs.

Looking ahead, a trip to Taos, New Mexico is on the horizon for my birthday, in the company of a dear friend (whose birthday falls the day before mine), my husband, and my parents. On the docket: trips to Abiquiu (where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked) and the Taos pueblo, a visit to the Millicent Rogers museum, some hiking, a day trip to Santa Fe, and mostly just spending time with people I love. I can’t wait.

In July, I…
Blogged about: June. The art of Jean Dufy.

Watched: Won’t You Be My Neighbor (tearjerker). Season 2 of G.L.O.W.; I, Tonya (unmitigated fun in the form of a little 1980s/90s nostalgia). Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale (terrifying and addictive dystopian drama).

Read: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, by Alice B. ToklasPerhaps most famous for its once-shocking recipe for hashish fudge, this cookbook is really a sort of memoir in disguise. I love Toklas’s writing style and her remembrances of life in France in both war- and peacetime. (I wouldn’t recommend actually cooking from this book; the recipes are incredibly involved, for the most part, and they require a staggering quantity of butter.)

Listened to: The Cool School, by Leo Sidran. Leo’s a friend and sometime colleague (in fact, I’m guesting at his show on September 6). I really dig his interpretations of songs by Michael Franks. The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands. Broad-shouldered, swaggering, relentlessly swinging bravado and camaraderie from three of the greatest entertainers ever. Amazing Grace, by Aretha Franklin. I’ve had this recording on CD for years and was delighted when my husband found a vinyl copy recently. This is, hands down, my all time favorite Aretha record.

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June: looking back, looking ahead

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Currently.

I am just beginning to emerge from the throes of a summer cold. The crystal clear blue skies and warm (okay, hot) weather in recent days added insult to injury as I huddled on my couch with the air conditioning off and clad in comfy sweats.

In my fantasy, summer is an unbroken stretch of lazy afternoons picnicking in the park, impromptu cocktail hours with friends, weekend barbecues, and trips to the ballpark. In my reality, summer is a smattering of all of those things interspersed with the same mundane errands and obligations that need tending to all year round. And this damned cold.

June marked the official kickoff of summer, and though there were a lot of very fun musical happenings (Amy Cervini’s CD release show and a tour with Duchess, to name a couple), some of the month’s loveliest moments happened off the bandstand.

My friend V., a public school music teacher, invited me to his students’ concert in the first week of June, and I was deeply moved by the students’ sweetness, openness, and sheer musicality. Kids who had been playing the piano for less than a year performed polished renditions of Chopin etudes as well as their own original compositions; their shyness gave way to personal expression as they sang musical theater pieces and spirituals and pop music covers. I held back tears as I remembered my own music teachers who, as Fred Rogers said, “loved [me] into being,” and my heart swelled with gratitude that people like V. are in the world. Hug a teacher, friends.

One Monday afternoon I met friends at Bosie Tea Parlor, a new-to-me place in the West Village. Afterward, abuzz from the lively conversation (okay, and the tea), I meandered through one of my favorite parts of New York City with no agenda, no deadline, and no destination—the nicest kind of walk. Later in the month, in the company of friends—one an extraordinary singer, the other a mensch and music writer—the most stunning rainbow I’ve ever seen appeared over Manhattan after a summer squall. We looked, we marveled, and we kept snacking and talking for hours.

I’ve had a fairly busy stretch of travel and gigs in recent weeks (I suspect this cold took hold on last week’s flight to a wonderful gig in Miami) and am feeling ready to settle into a more relaxed pace for the rest of the summer. There are performances sprinkled here and there, and I’ve got a trip to New Mexico on the horizon in August (a birthday vacation, huzzah), but looking ahead, I want to  s l o w  d o w n. Less social media, more writing. Less screen time, more reading. Less email, more one-on-one interactions with loved ones. Less “have-to” practicing, more “want-to” practicing. Less is more, right?

In June, I…
Blogged about: April and May. The closing of Caffe Vivaldi. Singer-friend Megan Hook.

Watched: Lots of baseball. Upstairs, Downstairs (only to be crushed to learn the show was canceled after only two seasons). Home Fires (again, only two seasons! That’ll teach me to emotionally invest in WWII-era British dramas on Amazon Prime).

Read: This op-ed. And this one. I found both pieces cathartic and upsetting. I’ll be reading less news this month, for sure.

Listened to: Les McCann, Pretty Lady. Les is (rightfully!) lauded for his grooving, soulful, churchy playing, but he also has such a beautiful way with a ballad, as evidenced on this record. Amy Cervini, No One Ever Tells You. Bluesy and eclectic. I’m proud of my singing sister!

Spotlight On…Megan Hook

It’s a bit disconcerting, really, to find myself saying things like, “I’ve known so-and-so for almost twenty years,” and still be talking about my adulthood. But here goes: I’ve known Megan Hook for almost twenty years. We met in the fall of 2000 at Seattle’s Café Campagne, where we were both working as servers. We became friends, sharing chocolate chip cookies from the bakery across the street in the Pike Place Market and talking about our respective paths as classically-trained singers with musically omnivorous appetites.

Megan eventually moved to Los Angeles and I moved to New York City, but we’ve kept in touch over the years. Megan works regularly as a songwriter and performing musician, singing operatic roles, debuting new music, and leading her band, The Bright Forever. She is also a sought-after educator: in addition to her private voice studio, Megan teaches mindfulness to K-12 students as well as to incarcerated populations.

Last summer, Megan and I met for a drink in Fort Greene, Brooklyn when she was visiting New York. We reminisced a little bit about those misty Seattle days and dug right into the deep stuff, marveling at life’s surprises, heartbreaks, and astonishing speed. That’s the thing about a friend like Megan; we always pick up right where we left off. I’m so thankful to her for sharing her wit and wisdom here on Ad Alta Voce. Thank you, Megan!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Eek! There are so many influences: songwriters, singers, bands, lyricists. As far as songwriters go, I adore Bruce Springsteen, [Bob] Dylan, Abbey Lincoln, the great American Songbook guys, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead (for their wash of guitars and magic), Gillian Welch (for the stories she tells). For singers, I love the great ladies of jazz: Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves…I like a singer whose voice you recognize in an instant. I also love a great rock and roll voice, like Van Morrison. And don’t tell anyone, but Liam Gallagher’s voice shoots up my spine every time I hear it; he’s just so brash, unapologetic, and rock-and-roll. Bono, Mark Kozelek, Robert Plant, Feist, Goldfrapp, and, of course, The Beatles are still unparalleled in my mind. Even after all these years, and on every front: songwriters, vision, singing.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
I always warm-up before diving into songs. [I’ve] been singing the same warm-up forever, and yet new ones do sneak in. It’s good to keep it fresh. It amazes me that I never get bored singing the same warm-ups. I just think singing is so bottomless, in the sense of what there is to explore: timbre, resonance, placement, vibrato, no vibrato, whisper, shout, beauty, and non-beauty, if that’s the way to say it.

After singing opera for so long, I found it very freeing to not always focus on beauty. I’m inspired by singers like Nina Simone or Janis Joplin, who used the voice to express much more than just beauty. I find it very freeing and very real to explore the range of sounds my voice can make beyond a technical idea of what it should be. I do sing with the guitar and piano a lot when working on/writing songs and accompanying myself, but it is also good to work with recorded tracks when making a record, to isolate the singing. I am working on a new EP right now and I am currently doing a lot of practicing/rehearsing with the track I’ve already laid down. I also sing a cappella a lot when prepping material; I don’t really know a song completely until I can sing it a cappella.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
I would have told myself to have more fun! Oh dear god, I took everything so seriously. I never realized how much of a marathon it is, not a sprint. And the world you live in—inside your head—creating stress, expectations, deadlines, metrics, can wear you down, or at least it wore me down until I found a better way to do it.

Right now I feel pretty focused on just making the music I want to hear and telling the stories I want to tell, and letting the chips fall where they may. I’ve become less and less “outwardly” success-oriented and more and more “inwardly” success-oriented. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it feels more meaningful to me. [Ed. note: I’m right there with you, my friend, and it is SO. FREEING.]

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
That’s a great question. I feel like I am always tweaking my system regarding all of this. It’s a work in progress. I’ve used the “Getting Things Done” method for years and it is a good one (book and method by David Allen). Right now I am focusing on doing (at least) one thing a day to move the record(s) forward. My mixing engineer, Jeff Jackson, has a tagline on his emails: “Music First.” For some reason, that really spoke to me the first time I saw it. Sadly, I realized how music definitely isn’t first for me many days when I am busy with so many other things. I am working on changing that.

I do find it intense to be promoting the new EP, recording the next one, working on writing new songs, teaching a ton to pay the bills, and also going into the studio to actually record. It’s like all of these things take a different skill set, and I’m constantly working on it all, simultaneously. Lately I’ve been making some music videos, too, because in the singer/songwriter/band world I’m in, that’s one way to get the music out. But talk about taking on a whole other art form: film, in order to promote the music. It’s a lot.

Finding good people to collaborate with helps a lot. At the same time, at the end of the day, I know I need to have the vision and momentum that is driving everything. That can feel exhilarating on good days and completely overwhelming on bad days.

Fun fact:
Hmmm, a guess a funny quirk is that I love children’s books. I have a beautiful collection and I am always on the lookout for a new gem. “The Want Monster” is a beautiful book by Chelo Manchego, whom I recently and unexpectedly met. Los Angeles is cool that way. I also love “We’re All Wonders” by R.J. Palacio. I also have a longtime meditation and mindfulness practice (over 20 years) that keeps me (mostly) sane.

Megan is currently documenting 100 days of her creative life over on her Instagram page. And you can listen to her band, The Bright Forever, here

April and May: looking back, looking ahead

April and May, despite their flying past with blinding speed, were lovely. I sang a number of diverse gigs with dear friends, which is always good medicine for the soul. The performances ranged from being the “canary” in a Benny Goodman tribute to channeling my inner Patsy Cline for some western swing at Mezzrow to harmonizing background vocals with Duchess to singing socialist anthems in three different languages in commemoration of the Spanish Civil War…and that’s not even the complete list!

When not singing for my supper in recent weeks, I was delighted to partake in some quintessentially New York City cultural experiences:

  • at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the scent of lilacs hung heavy in the air and a rainbow array of tulips stood at attention;
  • Passover Seder included our traditional boisterous rendering of Dayenu;
  • we feasted on a rustic seafood stew in a Brooklyn brownstone for a dear friend’s 75th birthday;
  • at Yankee Stadium we leapt from our seats, elated, when Gary Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer;
  • an entire evening’s program was dedicated to the key of C minor at the Chamber Music Society; and
  • beloved friends hosted an evening of intimate theatre in their home, where their friend (an accomplished stage and film actor) presented excerpts of a thought-provoking one-man show about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Kicking off summer: lakeside in CT; a busy bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens; Yankee Stadium; my annual nose-in-the-lilacs photo.

As if all of the above weren’t enough, my husband and I celebrated our seven-year wedding anniversary with a trip to Savannah. We had a few touristy to-do’s on our list (eat at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; take a tour of the Owens-Thomas mansion), but our days were largely free-form. We mostly ambled down shady tree-lined streets, taking in the architecture and thinking about Johnny Mercer. Lest I give the impression that things were too idyllic, I should disclose that I also caught a bitch of a chest cold. However, I found the bourbon cocktails to be extremely medicinal.

Scenes from Savannah: sniffly and sipping bourbon for its medicinal value; a plate of home cooking at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; the Mercer-Williams house; a rendezvous with the Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia himself, Mr. Johnny Mercer.

Looking ahead, I’m feeling quite territorial about my time. Things are bound to get busy this summer, what with tour dates and assorted professional obligations, but I’m determined to set plenty of time aside for reading, seeing friends, picnicking, listening to music, watching baseball, daydreaming in the park…all the things that make summer, well, summer. Spending Memorial Day weekend lakeside in Connecticut felt like a good start.

The pas de deux between productivity and recreation can sometimes more closely resemble the French Danse Apache, but I firmly believe we sacrifice leisure for busy-ness at our peril. The very word “recreation” holds the key: when we take time to smell the roses, i.e. recreate, we re-create ourselves and emerge renewed, ready to meet our obligations with joy and optimism.

In April and May, I…
Blogged about: March. Close-harmony girl groups (for Duchess).

Watched: Baseball, natch. Via Dolorosa, live and in-person, acted by the wonderful Jonathan Tindle. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in preparation for Savannah.

Read: Her First American, by Lore Segal. Vivid, sad, and beautifully written. I loved this novel about a young Jewish woman in love with a Black intellectual in post-WWII New York City. Caroline: Little House, Revisited, by Sarah Miller. I re-read the Little House series a handful of years ago for the first time since my childhood, and the books were…different than I remembered. For one thing, I was stunned by the rampant racism against Native Americans that runs throughout the series. For another, whereas the character of Ma (Caroline) once struck me as a bit of a wet blanket, as an adult woman myself I realized how selfish (and occasionally reckless) Pa was. Reading Miller’s thoughtful re-imagining of the Ingalls’ story as told from Caroline’s perspective was satisfying. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Brilliant, stunning prose…and also one of the most depressing books I’ve read in ages. The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer. Definitely a light read, but we all need a little fantasy and escapism from time to time. How to Eat a Peach, by Diana Henry. Part memoir, part cookbook, completely delicious. Diana Henry has long been one of my favorite food writers, and I think this may be her finest book yet.

Listened to: Connie Converse. The only thing more mysterious, heartbreaking, and unique than Converse’s story is her music. Janelle Monaé. I am always sooooo late to the party when it comes to contemporary music, but consider me obsessed. Kat Edmonson. Duchess sings backup vocals for Kat from time to time, and her new album, “Old Fashioned Gal,” accomplishes the nigh-impossible feat of being both a throwback and utterly of its own time. Les McCann. Les McCann. Les McCann.

March: looking back, looking ahead

Photo proofs of Tennessee Williams at the Morgan Library exhibit.

March is an in-between month, not quite winter and certainly not quite spring, either. Last month, restlessness and impatience nipped at my heels as I dreamed of lilacs and blue skies, only to be met with nor’easter after nor’easter. Snowfall notwithstanding, March brought lots of fun experiences: seeing the Tennessee Williams exhibit at the Morgan Library; listening to Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings sing at an intimate Upper West Side soirée; and performing with Duchess at Dizzy’s (in the middle of a snowstorm, I might add). March also ushered in occasions to celebrate: my mother’s birthday, the first day of spring, Major League Baseball’s opening day (!), and my fifteen-year anniversary as a New Yorker on March 31.

Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan singing on the UWS. I am so grateful for their joyful and generous spirits!

I suppose at some point I may stop marking my move to New York City as a personal holiday, but the truth is, the anniversary of my arrival in New York feels as significant to me as my actual birthday (August 22, if you’re keeping track). One of the things I have always loved about New York City is its potential and permission for reinvention. A person can live many different lifetimes in this endlessly dynamic city, and the promise of spring reminds me anew that, as Dorothy Parker wrote, “New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

This year, my New York-iversary coincided with Easter and Passover, leading to a very festive weekend and no small amount of rumination on the twin themes of spring and rebirth. On Good Friday, my friend R. and I headed deep into Brooklyn to attend an invite-only dress rehearsal of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend and Sara Bareilles. We were there thanks to the largesse of a buddy of mine, who was playing lead trumpet in the show (thanks, S.!) and we were blown away by the energy and talent of the musicians and actors.

The following night, my husband, in-laws, and I had dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a longtime standard-bearer of the New York City restaurant scene. In all my years in New York—and the restaurant business, for that matter—I had never eaten at Gramercy Tavern, and the experience more than lived up to its reputation.  We were delighted by the profusion of tulips and forsythia at the restaurant’s entrance and the warm, golden light that suffused the room. The service was knowledgeable and unpretentious; the food was elegant, imaginative, and (most importantly) delicious. The entire evening was unforgettable.

Three cheers for the world’s greatest city!

Easter Sunday itself was spent with my husband and mother-in-law, walking through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Precious little was in bloom, but we were all heartened by seeing brave little buds on the trees and lilac bushes.

Looking ahead—well, at the moment, the truth is that I’m not looking too far ahead. Spring will arrive when she’s good and ready. In the meantime, there are daffodils from Trader Joe’s, early dinners in cozy locales with friends, piping hot cups of tea in the morning, and other small, quiet joys that make me happy to be right here, right now.

In March, I…
Blogged about: February. The joys of carbohydrates. Singer-friend Champian Fulton.

Watched: Woman of the Year. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are irresistible. Words and Music. Wildly inaccurate, but delightful to hear so many Rodgers and Hart tunes. Sneaky Pete. Giovanni Ribisi is ridiculously good in this fun show. Jesus Christ Superstar, live and in person!

Read: Playing with the Grown-ups, by Sophie Dahl. I love Sophie Dahl’s writing. This, her first novel, is a coming-of-age story, told with poeticism and compassion, about a young woman with a decidedly unconventional upbringing. At the Kitchen Table, Dahl’s new website with seasonal recipes and thoughtful musings, described by Sophie as “kind of virtual Sunday lunch table, with excellent guests.” Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. An enormously engaging portrait of the life of a starlet in Hollywood’s golden age. The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. God, I loved this book! On the surface, Mitford’s tale of the romantic mishaps and comic foibles of a beautiful British noblewoman could be construed as frivolous, but her prose is laced throughout with laugh-out-loud zingers and sharply intelligent social commentary.

Listened to: The Red Garland Trio, A Garland of Red. Elegant and swinging. The Boswell Sisters.

Spotlight On…Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton is a pianist, vocalist, and consummate professional. Raised in Oklahoma, Champian was immersed in jazz literally from birth: she was mentored by her father, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, as well as the legendary Clark Terry and had her first paid gig at age ten, performing for Terry’s 75th birthday celebration.

Champian arrived on the New York City jazz scene over ten years ago with serious chops and a calm self assurance that belied her youth. Since then, she’s recorded nine (nine!) albums as a leader and she performs and teaches throughout the world.

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Champian. In addition to being an incredibly swinging musician and tireless ambassador of jazz, she’s friendly and funny, a great dresser, and an avid reader. I so appreciate her taking some time out of her always-busy schedule to share some wisdom and insights here. Thank you, Champian!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
It’s hard to pick just one! At different times it’s different people depending on whether I feel more like a pianist or more like a vocalist. Right now, I am really digging Erroll Garner because he is so endlessly creative. As for vocals, I have been listening to more Ella Fitzgerald than ever before in my life. Especially the record Ella & Oscar, which is later Ella. I think she just sounds so completely at ease and loose—there’s a little arpeggio she does in the first 4 bars of “More Than You Know” that just sends me.

Champian performing with Clark Terry.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
Yes, quite quickly. Ha ha. When I was younger I went through a period of practicing A LOT. Basically all day. But then, as [I] get older and have more to do in life, as well as more performances, I just practice less. Practicing now revolves around maintenance on the piano and the voice, and working on new material. That being said, I think about music and listen every day. It’s infinitely easier to practice singing than piano, simply because I can practice singing anytime anywhere: on the subway, washing dishes, cleaning the house. And yes, I sing on the subway, but only quietly!

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
Just keep at it. Perseverance is the best skill to acquire early on. Stay busy and stay on top of your game.

Photo credit: Antonio Narvaez

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
I’m pretty organized; I keep lots of lists and spreadsheets and my calendar is color-coordinated. I love social media, so tending [to] that on a daily basis is usually pretty easy. I don’t tend to get overwhelmed by the tedious office work and emails, so I just do them when I can and try to keep my email inbox to under 10 emails and file everything else away. My #1 tip is pick up the phone. A ten-minute phone call can accomplish more than ten emails.

Fun fact:
As I mentioned above, I tend to sing to myself on the subway because I actually just love singing and do it when I’m doing almost every other activity. I think I’m pretty quiet, but sometimes, people who are sitting next to me will get up and move! So there you go, it’s a tip to get a little more room on public transportation.

Champian will be performing this week at Talde in Jersey City (3/28) and Shanghai Jazz (3/30) in Madison, NJ. Not in the New York/New Jersey area? Check Champian’s calendar page to see where she’ll be next!

‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Every January in recent years, I’ve chosen one word to act as lodestar and touchstone for the new year ahead. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that one word chooses me every January, since I don’t do any research or spiritual deep diving to arrive at my verbal talisman. I’ll just be walking down the street or taking a shower or washing dishes and, as though an imaginary magic 8 ball had just been turned over, a single word will float to the top of my mind. (Well, with one exception: in 2014, the phrase “Done is better than good” announced itself as the year’s motto. Otherwise, all of my words-of-the-year have been single words—nouns, to be specific: fruition, faith, action, communication, acceptance.) This year, for the first time, the word is an imperative verb: simplify.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got a big birthday coming up in 2018, or maybe it’s because I learned that a couple of my high school classmates passed away last year, or maybe it’s because a dear older friend began a note with the words, “When you get to be—in a flash—as old as I am…”, but I’ve never been more urgently aware of the passing of time. The meter’s running, and while some tedium and drudgery are inevitable (the trash does need to be taken out, after all, and the laundry done), I want to spend as many hours as possible in the company of people I love and doing things that are nourishing, whether abstract (writing, singing, meditation) or tangible (cooking, eating, and sharing good food). Heeding the call to distill my priorities and attention down to the really important stuff feels necessary and deeply right.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, and I didn’t make any this year, other than a sweeping intention to be as present and kind as possible. Nevertheless, in these quiet first days of January, I’ve been getting up earlier in the mornings for some uninterrupted writing time. I’ve been running regularly, eating healthily, and even finding a few minutes most days for meditation. And, after a protracted period of not vocalizing, I’m back to regular warmups and building a practice routine that feels purposeful.

I can find a million reasons on any given day to not make time for music or writing or exercise: there are emails to answer, groceries to buy, two new Dave Chappelle specials on Netflix, it’s too cold outside, inspiration is elusive…but no matter how wily or persuasive Resistance may be, the simple fact is that my days are much happier and more expansive when I prioritize the important before the urgent. Singers sing. Writers write. Runners run. Simple.

Happy new year!