Instead of talking about death, let's sing about it

I spent the day putting together an application to be a speaker at End Well — “a dynamic gathering of individuals committed to generating human-centered, interdisciplinary innovation for the end of life experience.”

I wanted to share what I wrote in my application because it may spark something in you — a story you want to share with me or perhaps you have a place for me to come speak and sing these songs.

What would you talk about on stage? 250 words or less.

My mom got ovarian cancer. I abruptly left a successful career as a performing singer-songwriter and moved home to be her primary caregiver. Throughout all the acts related to her “living dyingly” (to use Christopher Hitchens’s potent phrase) -- the rounds of chemo, the periods of radiation, and, eventually, the months of  hospice care -- I wrote songs. It was nearly impossible to find time to craft lyrics and melodies amidst the overwhelming demands of her disease. It often felt utterly absurd to put the enormity of our grief into musical form. But try I did. In little bursts of lyrics and melody.

That act -- of being creative in the face of the ravages of her disease and her impending death -- ended up being my most important act of care.

I’d watch the impossible weight of her sadness and despair lift -- just a little -- as I sung her my song “Letting Go,” “Come a little closer now / Take my hand / It’s not loss / Let’s try to understand / It’s so hard / You should know / It’s not loss / Let’s call it letting go.”

That I would use precious minutes of free time to write a song about her made my mom feel loved, worthy, and cared for on a primal level. My songs gave expression to emotions neither of us knew how to talk about, emotions best expressed through the ancient act of singing. She experienced release and relief through that rhythm and resonance.


How is this speaking topic new, innovative?  Be as specific as possible.

Writing and performing pop/jazz songs about death, dying, and the landscape of loss while living that experience (as the primary caregiver) is something I’ve not seen and heard many other musicians do. There are, of course, some brave souls who’ve walked the path. Paste Magazine, that arbiter of culture, has done a round-up of the most well-known examples: “10 Historic Albums About the Loss of A Loved One.” Still, it’s an endeavor that’s heart-wrenching and begs a lot of questions.

Now that I am recording and performing the music I wrote for my mom, audiences ask me how I did it. They want to know two things -- how I did it literally (how I found the time and the energy when the caregiving was so all-encompassing) and how I did it figuratively (how I found the words to express the inexpressible blank space of death).

To be creative in the midst of the complexity of caregiving was no easy feat. I wrote melodies while my mom and I were sitting in the chemo suite. I wrote lyrics on the days when she couldn’t get out of bed, dead-tired from the side effects of treatment: “She’s been lying in her bed all day, sleeping off the meds / Think I’ll open up the window to what hasn’t yet been said.” I’d retreat to my bedroom and scribble away, pausing to check on her every hour or so. I’m a musician. I knew that somehow, in some way I had to try to process the unfathomable through my chosen medium.

After I finished the first song about our experience, called “Death Come Slow,” and after I played it for her, I knew I had to keep writing and singing. She burst into tears and hugged all the air out of me. I felt like I had finally found a way to speak to the shadow figure of Death that was haunting us: “Your crooked shadow there at the door. My two hands can’t help her no more / Split my fingers, skinned both my knees, crawling after her disease. / Death come slow / Death come shy / Death don’t you look her / in the eye.” That song gave us both the courage to face another day.

What would your audience get out of hearing these songs and my story? They’d viscerally experience a different way of processing death and dying. Music is a different medium than conversation, than dialogue, than spoken word. It’s elemental. It breaks us open; it breaks through in ways the intellect alone cannot.

Lastly, I want to tell you that I made a conscious decision to write songs not only about the dark and sorrowful parts of my mom’s dying, but also about the light and joyful aspects of our time together. She and I were hyper-aware of the opportunities her diagnosis presented. We talked honestly not only about how she wanted to die, but also about how she wanted to live. Every conversation about death turned into one about life. There is a dimensionality to these songs. The lyrics and melodies transform unutterable grief into something shareable, even sing-along-able. The music is candid and compassionate, heart-wrenching and, miraculously, life-affirming.

A common form of contemporary violence

How jam-packed are your days?

Where is the space and stillness in your life? Where is the quiet? Where is there room to linger? To think? To be?

Is there any?

I recently read this quotation from Thomas Merton…

The rush and pressure of modern life ... is perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence.

I’m doing a daily retreat with my fellow Zen freaks and so I’ve recommitted to my long lost afternoon meditation session.

What a difference it’s making to sit still for 10 to 30 minutes every afternoon. And by afternoon, I mean anything from 2pm to 4pm to 8pm (yes… sometimes the day gets going and my “afternoon” happens at 8pm… which is the whole f*cking point of that quote up above!)

“To surrender to too many demands, to commit myself to too many projects”… that about sums who I’ve been and who I often am.

It does feel like violence to my being.

And when I interact with other people that are overcommitted and full of too many concerns, I see my reflection.

It’s right there in front me. I am them. They are me. No wonder I feel so weird around them, feel their lack of presence, and, basically, want to get away right away.

I am quite sure that is how people feel around me.

Right. Time to stop the violence towards myself and the world.

What the fuck do I do now ... or someone I love's got cancer, how do I help? Start here.

So life’s caught up to you.

Someone you know and love has cancer or some other dread disease and you want to help (or have found yourself wanting to help) care for them.

And you don’t know what the fuck to do.

It’s all so overwhelming and hard and strange and tiring and confusing. You’re struggling to keep your head above water there are so many things to do and think about. So many dire decisions.

I get emails like this all the time now from friends and readers who are going through this. They’ve been thrust into caregiving by an illness of a loved one. They want to show up and do the right thing. They ask me for advice.

Start here:

  • 3 ring binder the shit out of all the paperwork

Get a 3 ring binder where you (and the person you are caring for, if they are able) can keep all the info the doctors and nurses and anyone else give you in one place. Or maybe a big file folder is more your style. Pick a system and use it.

You will be inundated with sheet after sheet of test results, forms, scripts, etc. You might want to be able to put your finger on her last blood tests, say. If you don’t keep it all in one place, that will be hard to do. And you will burn energy you don’t have looking for something simple like that. You can be a better advocate for your loved one if you have all the information handy.

  • The “Running Notes” notepad

It’s also a good idea to have one notepad or notebook (of these can be sheets of loose leaf paper you keep in the 3 ring binder) where you keep a running log of everything related to her health. You’ll want to write down things like: questions to ask the doctor the next time you visit, her vitals when she goes for tests (weight, blood pressure, date and time of recent BMs — yes you might you have to keep track of this), questions you think of to ask the doctor at the next appointment (undoubtedly you will have questions you did not ask, forgot to ask, that came up in between appointments), etc.

You will find it handy to keep track of how she’s feeling, what she’s eating and when, what her sleep was like. These details become more or less important throughout the illness. But having someway to follow along will help with certain decisions.

The reason to have these running notes is threefold.

One, it keeps track of where you are in the illness. It’s a logbook for you and her caregivers. You can use it to take notes at appointments and to look back to reference what the doctor said, how she was feeling, etc. Memory is tricky. Don’t rely on it. Especially when you are overwhelmed and tired beyond belief from the caregiving. Stress and worry does a number on memory.

Two, you won’t always be the one caring for your mom/dad/partner. If you aren't the one taking your mom to a certain appointment or if someone comes to spell you from your duties for a bit, they can see what's been happening with her care and you can ask them to take notes of things they do with her, what they observe. That way, when you get back to caring for her, you will know what has been going on.

Finally, it gives you a sense of control when you feel you have none. You and your loved one have just been walloped by life. Being able to write down lists and numbers and have something to do with your hands counts for a lot. It will help you deal with the stress and the worry and the anxiety.

I’ll keep writing about this topic as people keep asking me questions and reaching out. You can send me an email if you have questions. Until then, I am thinking of you and your loved one. Caregiving is everything — sweet, terrible, hard, amazing, will kick your ass, will make you weep for joy and wonder, will humble the shit out of you, will make you realize how strong you are. I wish you presence during it. Be with them. Show up. When in doubt listen and be present. That’s all anyone needs ever. Close your mouth and be there in person. And if you are moved to ask about their spirits or how they are doing ask “where does it hurt?” and “what’s the hardest part about this for you?” And listen to the answer. And if possible, find someone to ask you (the caregiver) these questions.

You are enough and I love you.

Life takes time and effort

Productivity porn.

It’s on the rise.

These days it’s not enough to just do something for the sake of doing it, for the sake of exploration, for the sake of fun, for the sake of being a good person, for the sake of your soul and what feels good to you and makes you satisfied on the inside.

No, everything we do these days, it’s all got to have a point. Got to lead to a dollar bill, a side hustle, a business or a something that the outside world (and your inside self-hating voice) deems “the point.” What ever you do, it’s got to make money or make you famous. That’s what the voices say.

Life takes time and effort. And most things worth doing don’t have a “point.”

The time and effort IS the reward.

I spent about 4.5 years (1643 days +/-) with my mom. Seeing her from cancer diagnosis to death (and beyond).

Yesterday, I spent 24 hours with my dad. Hanging out, taking him to doctor appointments, caring for him, talking to him, helping him — with all the humor and love and calmness inside me — through some very basic health issues (having to do with toileting).

What’s the point of all of that?

No one ever saw all the things I did with and for my mom. No one sees all these moments I spend with my dad now, being present, being with him (not just “checking in,” or waltzing through, or asking someone else about how he is doing).

You can’t phone-in the time and effort life takes. You can’t delegate it to someone else. I observe, though, that lots of people fool themselves into believing they can. It always leaves me wondering how their souls feel.

There is no point to all of those hours and days I spent with my mom and now spend with my dad. No point other than love and being witness to life and aging and death and change and my own minute-by-minute practice of becoming a conscious, compassionate, unconditionally loving human.

Saying No Never Gets Old

It never gets old because I am so bad at it.

Recently, I read this blog post by Rohan that reminded me that one of the reasons I am not present in my life, or TO and IN my life, is that I have such a hard time saying no.

I say yes when I don’t want to (or even when I want to say yes, but know — deep down — that saying no is better for me).

You will do for the love of others what you would not be willing to do for yourself
— Cheri Huber

This takes me out of the present moment. If not immediately, then it definitely pulls me out of the present moment when the yes I agreed to comes “due,” so to speak.

I am — humans are — notoriously bad at imagining what our future self wants and needs. We think everything will be exactly as it is in this moment.

But I am overwhelmed in this moment, too.

There’s the rub.

Will I ever learn?

I am starting to.

Now I keep a list of the things I’ve said no to. So I can remind myself — prove to myself — that I can, in fact, do it and am getting better at it.

NYC gig -- February 25, 2019 -- 7pm @ Rockwood Music Hall

Back at my fav spot …

Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3
>> entrance to Stage 3 is on 185 Orchard Street <<

Monday, February 25, 2019
Doors @ 6:30pm
Downbeat @ 7pm
Show is over @ 8pm … it’s a school night, right?

Get your TIX HERE. $15 bucks.

Intimate listening room vibes!

And, as always, an attempt to answer some fundamental questions of metaphysics through song.




Reading in swarms

I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.

The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.

I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”

I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.

Is it “curiosity”?

Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.

Is it mania?

Maybe. But a benign mania.

I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.


I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.

I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.

For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.

Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.

Perhaps. That’s more like it.

A swarm of books about the Arctic


In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)

That’s more like it: hunger.

What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.

While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)

A fraction of the swarm of books I’ve read about death

And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.

Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.

I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.

New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).

Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.

I think I understand.