Category Archives: Musical notes

Why this mom loves “Let it Go”


The song “Let it Go” has grown on me.

When I first saw “Frozen” in the theatre, I thought “Let it Go”  was a visually impressive number.  I loved the images of Elsa gliding through  the bluish snow and the ice palace rising around her.   But for some reason the song itself didn’t grab me, though I did mentally applaud the singer for her impressive range. (I also thought, “Wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘fractals’ in a song lyric.”)

But since then, I’ve heard it many times.  I’ve had an increasingly hard time getting it out of my head.  Just a few days ago I heard it playing in the pediatrician’s office, and I started singing along, which caused my seven-year-old to say politely, “Mom, could you stop singing?”

Because while he enjoyed the movie, he is sick of the song.  ”The girls ALWAYS sing it at recess,” he complained.  I’m sure he’s right, because from what I hear from my friends who have girls, they love this movie with a passion that goes beyond the popularity of most Disney films

I’m a forty-one-year-old girl, and I can relate.  This song gets me; it really does.  And here’s my theory: Females understand this song in a way that guys don’t.

What’s the song about?  It’s about a girl with a unique power she’s been told not to use.  She’s different and her power can cause problems, so she learns to hide it.  Then her gift accidentally comes out, and it’s scary and upsetting, but then she finally says the Disney equivalent of “Screw it. I’m tired of holding back.  I’m going to let it rip.”

It’s a far cry from the Little Mermaid who, as a college friend of mine  once memorably explained, gives up her voice to have the perfect body so she can get a man. “Let it Go”  is about female empowerment.  You actually hear a Disney princess singing, “That perfect girl is gone,” and it’s a good thing.

I love that.

We women have come a long way, but it’s still so easy to get into a “don’t rock the boat, don’t be a troublemaker”mode.    I’m not saying women should stop  being sensitive and compassionate, because sensitivity and compassion are qualities that I wish more people (men included) possessed.  I’m saying that you can be sensitive and compassionate and cause trouble.  (In fact,  compassion for others is probably the catalyst for most social justice work.)  

A lot of the positive change in this world has come about through women who did cause trouble, who grew tired of being someone else’s  idea of what it means to be perfect.  You see this in the suffragettes, in the women of the Civil Rights movement, in so many places in history.   These women probably each had to have their own “Let it Go” moment where they realized that they could no longer live the careful, fearful life they’d had before.  I’m grateful they had the courage to smash through the expectations that held themselves and others back.

Now that I think about it, maybe boys can relate to this song more than I thought at first.  My kids are so young that they haven’t yet started expressing pressure to be “the perfect male,” but I’m know that pressure does exist, especially as they reach the teenage years.   But as a former girl,  I know why this song is so popular with Matthew’s female peers.  Even at a young age, girls can sense the need to fit into a narrow definition of “perfect,” be it in their behavior or their weight or their dress.  I think there’s something in Elsa’s liberation from that that touches a chord, and powerfully.

Just recently, Matthew and I attended a birthday party for one of his female classmates.  An hour or so in, two costumed and bewigged young women arrived, one dressed as Elsa and the other Anna.  They gathered all the kids together and played the soundtrack and invited them to sing along to “Let it Go.”  (they also supervised a fake snowball fight and painted faces.)  I sang along too, and loved it, and  I noticed several other moms doing the same.

It’s a message we can’t hear enough: When the perfect girl is gone, the real woman can come out.

Music as caffeine: My top picks

End-of-the-quarter is always a rough time for teachers.  You find yourself  grading vast quantities of student work under the pressure of an unyielding deadline, plowing your way through stacks of essays while your spouse kindly shoulders both the childcare and your frequent complaints about how you really should have chosen a career in which you didn’t have to get so much done, such as a career as a member of the United States Congress.

Even if you’re not a teacher, you’ve surely had those days when you rely on sheer dogged drive and determination to get going and make it through your to-do list.  Coffee and prayer are helpful in times such as those.

Music is good, too.   In fact, I’ve found that certain tunes never fail to get me energized, no matter how exhausted I am.  Here, in no particular order, are my Tired Working Mom Survival Songs.  (I warn you: it’s a really eclectic list.)

1.  Any fast-paced Irish folk song, such as “Hills of Connemara.”  Gaelic Storm does a great rendition of this.

The only downside is that if you listen to it repeatedly in the car, your child will eventually ask, “Mom?  What is this song about?”   Then you have to decide whether you really want to say, “Well, it’s a sympathetic ballad about brewing illegal alcohol and then running like mad to avoid the tax men.”

2.  I’m a child of the ’80s, the era known for having terrible hair and good rock.  And “Take On Me” by A-ha,  or “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure, or “A Little Respect” by Erasure always get me smiling and singing along and wanting to dance like I’m at  my high school prom again.

3.  “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay.  I don’t know what it is about this tune, but it gets me energized every time.

4.  Aretha Franklin and “A Little Respect.”  (Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me …)

5.   For a little calypso flair, there’s “Jump in the Line” by the incomparable Harry Belafonte.  (I told you the list was eclectic.)

6.  Glenn Miller and “In The Mood” makes me smile and want to dance, except that I’m a child of the 80s, and I can’t dance swing.  (My parents can, and it’s always fun to see them cut the rug to this song at weddings.)

7.  Speaking of weddings, Barry White’s “My First, My Last, My Everything” is the song that was playing as Scott and I danced our way into the reception hall.   Maybe it’s the happy memories of this song that inspire me at least as much as the song itself.

8.  Any fast song by ABBA.  “Waterloo” fits the bill perfectly.  (And if the 80s were the era of bad hair, the 70s were clearly the era of bad fashion, as evinced by this video which I just had to share, it is so stunning in its kitschy awesomeness.)

Those are my energy songs.  I’d love to hear yours!  Share away.

A writer’s retreat right where you are

Online Writing Retreat

If you are a writer, or if you’ve ever found yourself thinking “Gee, I really should do some writing someday,” here’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss.
Starting Monday, September 30th, author and editor Vinita Hampton Wright is doing a free online writing retreat on her blog Days of Deepening Friendship.  Every day she’ll have writing prompts, thought-provoking readings, and short prayers to get you going.    (She’s already got some “pre-retreat” posts that are worth a look, including a collection of helpful quotations about spiritual writing.)

I  was lucky enough to have Vinita  edit my latest book, and I’ve read several of her own books, and I regard her as a real spiritual writing rockstar.   (She’s every bit as wise and wonderful  in real life, too, as I discovered at last year’s LA Congress.)   I can’t think of a better person to create an online space where people can explore their gifts.

See you on retreat!

Gratitude in the greenhouse window

My kitchen may not have granite countertops, but it does have a nice greenhouse window.   It looks out on the palm tree (the tree of squirrel fame) and over the years, I’ve filled it with various tchotchkes.



This is all well and good until you look in the corners and notice the cobwebs lurking behind the pitchers and bowls and you realize that cleaning the window is not going to be a quick process with all that bric-a-brac in the way.  This is why the cobwebs tend to stay put until something like summer vacation arrives and I have  time to do things like, say, clean house.

A week or so ago, on a quiet Sunday evening when the boys were playing with Scott, I decided to tackle the cobwebs.  And I thought: Maybe if I do this mindfully, really reflecting on each little knicknack and what it means, the whole experience might end up feeling something like a prayer.

So that’s what I did … starting with the Mary statue.


I’m a bit of a Mary fan (she’s the mother of Jesus; what’s not to love?), and this particular statue has been in my window for about a year.  She reminds me to be calm, and to breathe, and I often tuck a handwritten list of prayer intentions under her base, just so I remember to pray for them.  Even better, she came from a secondhand shop where my grandmother used to volunteer years ago; with her in my window, Grandma’s spirit feels closer.


This is the Gurgling Cod I got from my friend Trish at my wedding shower back in 2002.  Trish’s wedding was about six weeks before mine; at her California  shower, her family back in Boston sent her a Gurgling Cod pitcher (apparently it’s a pretty famous thing back there).  She demonstrated how it does really gurgle when you pour water out of it, and I was so enthralled with it that Trish surprised me with one at my shower a few weeks later.  So this pitcher reminds me of Trish, and what a great friend she is, and how I tend to forget to schedule time with friends into my insanely busy life, and how much I miss that.


The clock on the left was a present from my mom years ago.  I adore it; it has that cute retro look and it is a perfect fit in my 194os kitchen.  The little angel on the right was a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law last year, and it is a reminder of our visit to beautiful  snowy upstate New York.  Both of these remind me of how fortunate I am, both in my mother and in my mother-in-law.  Both are gracious, sweet,  generous women; both are the kind of women I hope to be like someday.


This little whisk was a gift (Easter?) from my mom ages ago.  I love the expression; goodness knows there are plenty of times when I’m in the kitchen thinking,  How the heck did I go to the store and manage to forget Ziploc bags?  when I look much like this.  Happily, I don’t have a wire whisk protruding from my skull, which makes a difference.  But this little guy always makes me smile.


Ah, roses.   Few things in life instantly jack up my spirits like having roses in the house.   (The vase, by the way, belonged to my grandparents — it’s from the forties? Fifties?).


In the summer of 2006, hugely pregnant with Matthew, my dear friend Mary snapped some pregnancy photos of me.   We stood on a hot grassy hillside at a Buddhist meditation center in Marin, me wearing far less than I usually do and with my huge pregnant stomach out on display.   It was ever-so-slightly awkward, especially as we were technically trespassing, but in the pursuit of art Mary was fearless.  And luckily, if you are shooting Mama-Earth style photos on a hillside, you aren’t going to catch much flak from the Buddhist meditation crowd.  Afterwards I put on a few more clothes and we went out for lunch in downtown San Anselmo, where I found this adorable bowl in a gift shop.  It reminds me of that fun and crazy day, and of Mary, who brought so much to my life.


And here we have Lukey’s bean plant.  Is there anything sweeter than a four-year-old planting a bean at preschool?  I do believe my younger son has a green thumb.


Here’ s a cute vintage plate of my home state.  As I dusted it, I thought about how much I love and have been shaped by northern California.  If I hadn’t been born and raised here, would I have some of my defining characteristics, like a mad love for Peet’s Coffee and a predilection for foggy windswept beaches?   It’s hard to say.   Regardless, it was a moment to think fondly of my home and to appreciate its beauty and diversity.

So did the task of cleaning the window feel like a prayer?  It actually did.  And though there is something to be said for a minimalist lifestyle and for downsizing, I realized just how much each one of these little knicknacks reminds me of the blessings in my life and encourages me to find  God in all things.

I couldn’t find a blessing in the cobwebs, though.   Maybe that comes with practice.

They comfort me


On Monday afternoon I was sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table, reading all the news I could find about the Boston marathon bombings.  I was shocked, horrified, trying to figure out what had happened.  Every new detail coming in was devastating beyond measure.

Then Matthew, who lately has been really into his Tomie dePaola picture book of Bible stories, came over and sat down in the chair next to me.  I angled the computer screen so he couldn’t see.

The picture book was open to Psalm 23, which had a colorful illustration of a  lamb and a shepherd.  “Mom, there are songs in here!” he said.  And he proceeded to read the psalm aloud to me.

At first I was distracted, my mind still on the horrifying news from Boston.  But as he read, haltingly but earnestly, I had that moment of awareness sinking into my bones.  Stop looking at the screen.  Pay attention to your boy.  This is what you need to hear.  I listened to him read.   I helped him decipher the words “presence” and “anoint.”  And I wanted to cry, for a moment, at the holiness of it all.

About seven years ago that I realized something about Psalm 23.  This realization came to me in my living room, on a Tuesday night, as I worried about my upcoming thirteen-week-ultrasound.  I could not find much peace in my mind that night; it  was my third pregnancy, and the only one that had progressed that far.  (The first one was an ectopic, a horrible experience; the second was a miscarriage, which was not caught until we went in for an ultrasound.)  All I wanted was to lie on that table in the doctor’s office and look at that grainy screen and see life, not death.  All I had known so far, though, was death.

So I sat in the armchair and listened to this musical setting of Psalm 23 and breathed deeply.  I prayed.  I tried hard to find faith.  And something leaped out at me, something in those words I have heard so many many times.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

It struck me that this psalm doesn’t say “your rod and your staff protect me.”  They say “they comfort me.”  Is this a mistake?  I wondered.  Maybe something got changed in translation.

Or could it be that this psalm, which I’d always thought was just about protection, was also about being comforted?

I would like to think that belief in God is a magic talisman that keeps us safe from harm.  I’d like to believe it, but obviously, it doesn’t work that way.  One only needs to look at the lives lost in Boston  or the awful massacre at Newtown to realize that.   I find myself haunted by these tragedies.  The thought of Newtown can still bring me to tears. The face of the sweet eight-year-old boy who died Monday in Boston does, too.

After Newtown, I remember praying almost incessantly for the families of the victims.  I just kept thinking, Please, God help them to find some comfort somewhere, anywhere.  That felt like a long shot.  I don’t know how any parent finds comfort after the loss of a child, at all.  It felt like asking for the moon.  But perhaps those prayers did help, in some way.  Perhaps the collective outpouring of support and love and grief and teddy bears and flowers and candles and prayers and advocacy for change does offer some sliver of comfort in a time like this.  And maybe, in these moments when people around us have lost something precious, we are like the shepherd with the rod and the staff. “Christ has no hands on earth but yours,” is a saying we hear often in church.  During a time like this, we’re all called to be the one who comforts …whatever that comfort looks like.

You’ve probably already guessed this, but that very scary ultrasound seven years ago showed a beautifully healthy baby.  He’s now a kindergartener, and he can sit at the table next to me and read to me about how the Lord is his shepherd.   Every day I am so deeply grateful for him, and for his little brother.

But those first two pregnancy losses taught me so much.   I learned that there is so much power in the love and prayer and hugs of those who care.  So many people comforted me during those first two losses.  I remember it all, and I am still grateful.  And though it was painful to lose a child at ten weeks’ gestation, it must be an exponentially  worse pain when you lose a child who is six, or eight, or twenty-nine.

So I pray for solace for these families.  I pray that they will find any little speck of it that they can.  May they find some peace in the fact that countless moms and dads and aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers are holding them in their hearts, willing them comfort.

“Les Miz”, as an adult

Parenthood is one of the greatest blessings of my life, but it certainly does cramp my  moviegoing style.   The sad reality is that I average one visit to the movie theatre every 1.5 years (no joke).   But this past weekend, I broke my moviegoing fast with “Les Misérables.”  And if you only see one movie a year, that’s the one to see. It was, in a word, breathtaking.

I blogged earlier about how excited I was to see this film, largely due to the fact that I feel under the “Les Miz” spell in high school.  I practically wore out those cassette tapes (yes, I’m a dinosaur) with repeated use; I even got to see the stage production a few times.  But I haven’t seen the play, or even listened to the music, in about a decade.  So in a way, the prospect of seeing the movie raised some fascinating questions: Would the same things that captivated the sixteen-year-old me also captivate the thirty-nine-year-old me?   Which aspects of “Les Miz” would speak to me now?  And how would the intimate medium of film make it feel different from the largeness of a stage production?

Here is what I discovered.

1).  Fantine’s story is way, way more gut-wrenching on film than on stage.   “I Dreamed a Dream” is a haunting song that is more well-served by closeups and the occasional gulping whisper than when a singer has to belt it out to the back rows of a theatre.   And Anne Hathaway was phenomenally good at showing the degradation of her character — the gradual and complete loss of her dignity made me feel literally sick to my stomach, which is a feeling I don’t remember having during the stage production.

2)  The student uprising looks a lot different when you are almost forty than when you are sixteen.  I kept being struck by how young these guys looked.  There was something so poignant about their idealism.  I realized that I was looking at these young men with an almost maternal eye, simultaneously admiring them for their fervent devotion to a cause and yet  wanting to pull them off of the barricade and into safety.  (There was nothing maternal about my attitude when I was in high school, a time when I had a massive crush on the guy who played Marius in the San Francisco company.)

3) Over a post-film dinner out, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about the religious elements of the movie.   As with the play, I was so moved by the bishop at the start of the film, a man whose stunning act of forgiveness is the catalyst for Valjean to turn his life around.   It shows how much one gesture of generous kindness can literally change the trajectory of a person’s life, and can affect countless other lives in the process.  (And I love how the movie brings him back at the end … a perfect detail.)

4)  Speaking of religion, one thing that really struck me in the film was the character of Javert, and the perils of his spiritual rigidity.  In essence, the story presents two views of God: Valjean’s (and the bishop’s), who is a God of second chances and mercy and compassion; and Javert’s, who is a God of black-and-white rules and swift punishment.   In the film, right before the song “Stars,” Javert is standing before a crucifix — an echo of Valjean, elsewhere in the movie — and that visual parallel made me think about how two men can have two very different views of the same God.  And  what leapt out at me in the film is that Javert’s view of God poses a danger, both to others (witness his relentless persecution of Valjean and his utter lack of compassion for Fantine) and, most of all,  to himself.  I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers here to say that when an act of stunning mercy is show to Javert himself, he simply can’t handle it.   His mind, which is so rigid in its view of right and wrong, literally cannot stretch to encompass a God of mercy and second chances.  With his vision of God and the world pulled out from underneath him, he kills himself.    This really leapt out at me: that Javert represents the danger of a mind that adheres to legalism and makes God as small as we humans are, rather than being open to something greater.  And it’s Javert himself who is the most harmed by that rigidity … which is thought-provoking.

As the days pass, I’m sure I’ll keep thinking more and more about this movie; it really is that rich a film.    But I guess if I had to shrink all my feelings about it  into one pithy statement, it would be this:  “Les Misérables” is a film that makes you want to become a better person.  It really does.   I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me feel that way.  And somehow, with all the tragedy in the world these days, a movie that celebrates compassion and the nobility of the human spirit is just what we need.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?









We’re in an all-Christmas-music-all-the-time mode around here (minus the occasional playing of the Philadelphia Chickens CD).  The boys love holiday music, and they come by that honestly.   Every year, the day after Thanksgiving finds me busting out my Christmas CDs and getting into a holly jolly mood.  (I know, I know; technically, it’s the Advent season, not the Christmas season, but a month of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” gets rather tedious.)   It’s a short season, and I make the most of it.

Over the years, I’ve developed a few personal favorites in the carol department.

1) Andy Williams singing Mary’s Little Boy Child.  I know that Harry Belafonte sang it first — and his rendition is amazing — but the Andy Williams version makes me remember Christmases as a kid, and the record my parents had showing Andy smiling genially against a green background.  (I have more to say about Andy Williams, who passed away a few months ago, but that will have to wait for a  longer post).

2) I Saw Three Ships, sung by just about anyone.  It always lifts my spirits and makes me want to drink a cup of wassail while standing under a Victorian lamppost somewhere.

3)  We Need a Little Christmas, from the musical Mame.  It’s the perfect song to start humming in the days after Thanksgiving, and it’s nearly impossible not to sing along once you’ve heard it a few times.

4)  I adore Hayley Westenra’s version of “The Little Road to Bethlehem.”   It’s so sweet and so melodic.

5) The Angels’ Carol by John Rutter.  It’s exquisitely beautiful, both the tune and the lyrics.  This song and a crackling fire and a cup of tea: the perfect recipe for feeling glowy and warm, inside and out.

What’s your favorite Christmas carol?  Can you pick just one?

Thankful for the ordinary times

I like Thanksgiving.  It’s a non-flashy, non-commericialized holiday that is all about good food, good people, and gratitude.  And football, of course, if you go for that kind of thing.  (As the mother of two boys, I find that I am going for it more than ever before.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry for this holiday.  Like many moms, too often I view the average day as something to be gotten through as quickly and painlessly as possible rather than as a treasure chest of small blessings.  I need to be reminded that this is my life: this, right here, right now.  It may be loud and messy and at times overwhelming, but there is a sweetness about these years as a mom of young children … and in the course of an average day, there are so many things for which to be grateful, if I have the eyes to see them.

In the spirit of that, I offer you this beautiful video by Catholic singer/songwriter Marie Bellet.  I’m sure there isn’t a mom alive who can’t relate to it.  Every time I watch it, I end up crying (in a good way).  May we all be thankful for the blessings of ordinary time, not just this Thursday, but every day.

“Les Miz” looks mahvelous

So last week I was talking to my mom on the phone while watching “Dancing with the Stars,”  because we women are great at multitasking like that, when my ears caught the sound of something familiar and my gaze was caught by something that was clearly not the samba.   And I turned up the volume and lo and behold,  it was the trailer for the movie version of Les Misérables, due out at Christmas time.   And my ability to multitask promptly went bye-bye as I tried, in my crazy-excited-incoherent way, to tell my mom what I was seeing as I was seeing it, which surely came out as a garbled string of words along the lines of  wait, wow, Les Miz, cool, Anne Hathaway, I had no idea they were making a movie of this, oh my gosh, they’re making a movie of this, wow, wow, wow.

Watch it and see for yourself.

Are you as excited about this movie as I am?    I’ve seen the play several times over the years, starting when I was in high school and had the most outrageous crush on the guy playing Marius in the San Francisco production, and of course I  once had the soundtrack memorized and could play the songs on the piano and all that.   And I was such a fan that I even read the zillon-page book, with  a somewhat mixed reaction — yes, Victor Hugo could pen a great story, but wow, Victor Hugo was Mr. Tangent Man.  He’d be writing a chase scene in which Valjean and Cosette are being pursued by Javert, and then he’d make them climb over the wall of a convent to hide, and then he’d promptly spend one hundred pages telling you everything you never wanted to know about the order of nuns who lived there, and what the Mother Superior was like, and what their daily nun-routine was like, and as the reader, I’m thinking, “Umm … chase scene?  Where did you goooo?”   It got very annoying.  Either Victor had no editor, or his editor had no backbone.

But my own little tangent is over.  Back to the musical: it looks amazing.  The trailer made me want to cry (in a good way).  And when I checked out the movie website, I found that what makes this different from other movie musicals is that the actors aren’t lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack . They are actually preforming the songs live on set, which is something that has never been attempted on this scale before.  This means it is likely to feel far more authentic, and less stagy, than such movie musicals usually are.

And watching the trailer made me realize how much I am longing to see this story, and these songs, in close-up.  As a stage production, Les Miz is  powerful, but it’s BIG: big set, big barricades, big voices, big gestures, big facial expressions.   It’ll be a totally new experience seeing these characters in close-up, with the subtlety and intimacy that the movies can provide.  I get chills just thinking about it.

Also, I’m realizing that the last time I saw the play was about fifteen years ago, at least.  It was before having kids, before getting married — before many things, actually.  Will my experience of Les Miz be different now that I’ve lived more, now that I have been deeply in love and had children and known loss and renewed my own faith?  I’m guessing yes.   I’m guessing that certain aspects of the story will pierce my soul in ways that they did not when I was twenty-four.   And I’m mighty curious to see which ones.

So what about you — are you going to see the movie this Christmas season?   What did you think of the trailer?  Were you surprised that Anne Hathaway can actually sing?  Do tell.

A song for April

I don’t know about you, but I was pretty excited to welcome April.   We’ve had a weird few months here in the Bay Area: January and February were far drier and warmer than usual, and then March  was rainy rainy rainy and gray gray gray.  It was like we had spring before we had winter, which was kind of disorienting.  The trees were blossoming, my sandals were coming out of hiding, I was thinking of splurging on a pedicure, and then bam!  – along came the cold.  I hate to contradict T. S. Eliot, but April is not the cruelest month.  That honor goes to March, at least in these parts.

But tonight, as I took a brief walk after dinner, I saw signs that changes are afoot.  I saw pink jasmine starting to blossom.  I saw curtains of purple wisteria.  I even saw a lilac bush in full, gorgeous bloom, right in front of someone’s living room window, and I crossed the street for a closer look.  It was hard to restrain myself from walking boldly onto their lawn and burying my face in the blooms, but I somehow managed to behave myself (the people in that house don’t know me, and thus are not aware that when it comes to lilacs, I simply can’t be held responsible for my actions).  Though the evening air was cold, I saw enough blooming beauty to make me feel that maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to wait long for spring.

And in honor of the month, and the change of seasons, I offer here this beautiful  little song.  I’ve loved it ever since I was in high school, when I used to listen to it on my dad’s record album.   I can’t think of a lovelier tune  to welcome the spring.

April Come She Will by Simon & Garfunkel