Nuggets From Carrie Newcomer's Call
Posted by Pavi Mehta on Mar 21, 2020
Carrie Newcomer is a singer, songwriter, recording artist, author and educator. The Boston Globe described her as a “prairie mystic” and Rolling Stone wrote that she is one who “asks all the right questions.” Krista Tippett notes that Carrie is “best known for her story-songs that get at the raw and redemptive edges of human reality.” Newcomer is a committed Quaker who connects her songwriting with her faith and sense of social justice. She has produced 18 solo CDs, eight collaborative CDs, three DVD’s, and two LP’s. She has had an ongoing, long-term collaboration with Parker J. Palmer, with whom she has co-written several songs and performed a spoken word/music in live performance. Many of the themes in her work come from friendships with activists, authors and religious figures. In 2010, she was selected one of the 50 most significant singer-songwriters of folk music for the last 50 years.
An assortment of shimmering nuggets from the call (and links and lyrics to the exquisite songs Carrie shared) below:
Music is the thing that I could not not do -- and the love that pulls my soul forward.
As a traveling folk singer- you channel the energy of people and places you encounter. In this current context what is coming up for you?
All my shows and retreats and workshops have been canceled for the next 3 months. It's been disorienting. For many of us our routines have been disrupted. I've had a rhythm to my life of travel and home and it's a little disorienting to have that rhythm disturbed in such a big way. But I am grateful to be home and my heart is just open to so many people who don't have a safe space right now. I am grateful to be with family. In the Midwest it's just about Spring -- you're just starting to see things green up a little bit. It's hopeful that the Spring is almost here.
What is nourishing you now?
It's interesting -- I love people. But I'm a person who gets a lot of energy from solitude. If you're a writer you have to be comfortable being in solitude for long periods of time. So continuing my spiritual practices, making sure I'm out in the woods each day, staying in creative community connection right now. My wholeness and wellness right now is very multilayered -- there's sleeping well, eating well, there's the spiritual practice, there's your community. There's all these different levels -- [including] living space, creativity -- so I'm trying to be aware and looking to all the things that ground me and that help me stay with my still heart, my quiet heart.
My daughter Amelia had this brilliant idea (I'm not biased at all :)) she got a piece of paper and put those five things at the top and made some notes -- these are the things I should be considering. With kindness and self-compassion. You don't have to do it all every day.
Community is an important part of your spiritual practice. How are you finding it now?
I'm looking at creative community now -- by phone, some interesting zoom experiences. Have heard of people getting together online to sing. I got together with a group and we danced together (virtually). So people are looking at community and connection really creatively right now. Have been walking in the woods with some friends -- 6 ft apart. I think keeping in touch will be important. But we're stopping --which is interesting because we live lives of perpetual motion and a lot of things come up in this moment of stopping. We look at it as a time for reflection and exploring what comes up when we stop -- which can be wonderful and also hard.
What's coming up for you [in this time of 'stopping']?
Try to not do too many things at once. I'm a good Midwestern woman and a hard worker and believe in daily service as a part of my life, so there’s part of me that just wants to do and do and do. And part of the challenge for me right now is to breathe, to do my daily meditation, to look at all the things I can’t control. There are so many things we can’t control and so much suffering out there that I can’t change right now, but there are things I can do within my own sphere of influence and in my own life. So, I’m looking at that and how do I do that in life-giving ways and passionate ways. I have a lot of love for the world and the people around me. So, how do I do that with passion and hope and love and at the same time, we’re in this for a long time. This will be a long haul. So pacing myself, making sure that I am looking at balance. It's been interesting because as much as I love travel and people, I get my energy in solitude, so I have always had to balance this opening out into the world and movement, with coming home and making sure I turn off the phone and have time for silence and recharge. So I am tying to pull that experience into what I am doing now.
Where are you with your creativity? How are you feeling these days? What does your creative process look like?
I'll tell you a story -- as a little girl my favorite game was "Making Something". "Carrie what are you doing?" And I'd say, "I'm making something." I was making songs, making books, cutting paper, dancing, hammering things together with nails -- and all these years later I'm so happy, I'm delighted to be making something. I bring creativity into my life in a lot of ways, and I think as an artist that works -- but it works for everyone -- creatively being a parent, or a grandparent [for instance]. My process works with language first -- I'm doing a lot of writing -- it's poetry, essays, journaling, flash fiction, and then my songs grow out of those writings. So I'm always writing and when it's time for the song, I have some language and thoughts to pull from, so the song and the words inform one another as the song grows. I am feeling very creative right now. For most artists there are times when the creative flow is overwhelming and then there's those fallow times where you need to do that watching and considering -- and one of the jobs of the poet is to sit and look out the window sometimes. The inner and outer work feeds the product. I have many spiritual practices but I would call songwriting my most consistent. It always asks me to be more present, to be more willing to open my heart to the human condition, and to faithfully write about what I'm learning now. I don't usually write what I know -- but when I have a good question.
Writing has asked me to pay attention to the small moments. I write a lot about the holiness and the sacredness of the small moments and the small acts of kindness--that’s something that shimmers below the surface of things all the time. If we’re paying attention there’s something that happens when I’m writing. There’s a focus, there’s a sense of connection to something. It’s not larger or wider than myself. And when I’m creating art, it’s like I’m not alone. Whatever it is that shimmers beneath the surface of things is right there. My most consistent practice that has asked me to go farther and deeper has been my songwriting.
A story about a particular moment or noticing that may have inspired some songwriting?
I have a song -- today is the first day of Spring -- I have a song called The Beautiful Not Yet and I was walking around about this time and was up on a ridge top and I noticed the light was coming in in a way that is only in this time when the trees are leafless, the light comes in cold and clean and totally unencumbered. And you could feel the world was almost trembling with the beautiful not yet. I work with Parker Palmer a lot, and he says, "Hope is holding in a creative tension all that is with all that could and should be, and each day taking some steps to narrow the distance between the two." So I got back from that walk and was thinking about this beautiful not yet and what we do in that moment. And I wrote this song; it's co-written with this wonderful woman Chloe Grace in her 20s...
Spring is humming
Bits of something
A melody the simple part
A song that I once knew by heart
Juniper, wild indigo
Foxglove, lupine, Queen Ann’s lace
Will be coming any day
The almost but
Muddy boots, last year’s leaves
Every spring that came before
All they were and something more
The almost but
Do you see, do you see, do you see it
Take a breath
Oh, the restlessness
The beautiful not yet
There’s a stirring
At the edge of in between
I feel it nearly trembling
The almost but
Did something in your childhood seed your quest?
I've always been a seeker. I came into this world fascinated with mystery, fascinated with people and early on I remember I had a youth pastor and he was very influential -- very connected to social justice issues, reading Gandhi, reading MLK, looking at social justice and service as part of a whole and vibrant spiritual practice and this made sense to me. You know when you encounter something and it feels right in your heart and you go "Yes!"? So there was that early experience -- later on I went to a Mennonite college and right above the gate was a sign that said, "Knowledge for Service" -- let's be clear what we're talking about :) Everyone who went there spent one semester in service and often in other countries. It was a really important experience for me, to be outside of the US, to experience another culture and fall in love with people who are from wonderfully different cultures. Also seeing suffering and saying, "It needs to be part of my spiritual practice to be aware of that and doing my own small part."
The pandemic we are facing right now, it's a window. A lot of us are feeling vulnerable and some people are in a category of high risk who have never been in a category of high risk. I was talking about this with Parker Palmer. He had some wonderful thoughts about it. And, you know, this idea that it's a window for those of us, feeling so vulnerable, that there are people who are vulnerable every day of their lives because of who they are because of the color of their skin, their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, their gender if you're a woman. I mean, there's people who live every day in a category of vulnerability. And, you know, this is a moment for us to take that in, to open our hearts to that. We have a little window that we didn't have before and we can see things differently and maybe even do things differently because of that window.
My mother was raised Catholic, a first generation American from an Italian family and my father was raised Methodist and became Mennonite-Amish. Early on I was reading and really interested in encountering different spiritual traditions, ideas and thoughts. When I was at that college and on service [in Costa Rica] I took a holiday one week and went to a rainforest community where a Quaker group had created a community and that's where I went to my first silent Quaker meeting. And my heart went "Ah!" It felt right. It made sense. So when I got back to the States, and off and on since then, I've really continued to engage with Quaker community. I've never joined one. I think Quakers attract non-joiners. But there's also a wonderful Buddhist community here, and it's been wonderful to experience and be part of that at times. And I've done tours and trips to India and experienced the amazing spiritual life there. But there's something about the silence that always calls me back. I make my life in sound but I go to these silent spiritual meetings. And I have to say that some of my best language has emerged out of the silence. When I stop and I listen. I think sometimes we talk a lot out into the spirit. But how important it is just to listen. To listen to our inner teacher, to listen to our inner spirit, to listen to where that spirit connects to others and to something greater. Something in the silence calls me back. And that's true to this day.
What goes on for you in the silence?
I do have a daily practice. I do different kinds of meditation. Sometimes it is contemplative. Sometimes I'm doing the Tonglen. I've done work with Internal Family Systems -- which is a psychological union practice, and sometimes I just sit and breathe and just follow the breath. It's not that I do one kind of practice all the time, but it comes back to the song in one way or another. I know when I have missed my daily practice. Each day can make a big difference. If I'm having a stressful day I just stop and breathe for awhile. A lot of my songs have nature imagery. Sometimes there is an idea that comes up -- never like a full blown creation, but more a feeling that comes up, a noticing. It's hard to describe that but thought and language and ideas will come out of that attention.
Why did music become your craft?
We come into this world with affinities and things that our hearts and spirits lean into that we love and no one ever told us to love them. I didn't grow up in a musical family. I grew up in a factory town in Indiana, but in that town were a lot of factories that made instruments. That was one of the main industries there, and because of that the public school system had a really wonderful and well supported music program. I played flute as a little girl and played in the band and at the same time I loved books and language and I was always writing my own little books. As I got into my teens -- you can't really play flute and sing at the same time -- I picked up a guitar and thought, "This is it!" I learned my first three chords and started writing my songs. I had fallen in love with the singing poets, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen -- I studied them. I studied how they put the language together with music. An English teacher I had in high school found out I liked to write songs -- he was a musician too, and he gave me an opportunity -- instead of taking a test or writing an essay he said, "You can write a song, but in the song (language-wise) you need to prove to me that you know what the material is, and that the music also reflects that -- and the catch is you have to sing it for the class." I was very shy. But I accepted the challenge and wrote a whole collection of songs over the year and sang it to the class. It was amazing to have this teacher who said "I see you. And I want to give you a place to express what shines in you." It changed my life -- Dan Young is his name -- I've been in touch with him over the years. We don't usually tell people when we see something that shines in them. So I tell them -- because it's good to hear it out loud.
Power of small acts of kindness: There's so much I can't change right now in this crisis, but small things, daily things which I think will give one another hope and give one another a sense of what it is that we hope to see on the other side, too. When we will be on the other side of this, nothing is going to be the same. It will be a new world. And my hope is that this is going to be an opening. There will be suffering and there is suffering already. But there will also be a moment of opening, a moment of invitation when we say to ourselves, “what can we do differently? What must be done differently now? And what did I learn in this time”? When we really find out, we are connected globally. We are connected in terrifying, beautifully and in powerful ways and what will we do with that? And I think there's a chance here for a great opening. I don't think it's going to come top down. I just don't think so. I think it's going to come from the groundswell of all of us, what we're putting into the system of what we're learning right now. There's going to be an invitation that we can accept or not, and that my great hope is we will learn and we will take that invitation.
Role of Listening to Stories in Your Creative Process: There's a Quaker practice. It's a listening practice called “clearness process”. It's a certain kind of listening. You're not listening to create a solution. It's not brainstorming. A lot of times we listen thinking of what we need to say next, or trying to fix a problem or nurture in some way. But it's a kind of listening where you just stay open and hear the person into their own speech. It's a really good practice. I'd use this a lot in my adult life. Working with Parker Palmer is very foundational, some of the really amazing work he's done with circles of trust and the Center for Courage and Renewal. So it changes how I listen.
Reflection from Shelly [a listener]: "I often wake up to a song in my mind, as if my soul (or my inner Mystic DJ) is offering a Zen koan for the day. This morning was Carrie's song, The Plumb Line. 'I didn't plan to live in these troubled times, but here I am, here I am, holding on to the plumb line.' So I ask myself what values are the rope of my inner plumb line, always or especially today? Thank you Carrie!"
Excerpt from the lyrics:
I don't know why some fall so hard
Why some questions go unspoken
Why some hearts shatter into shards
And others break open, open
I can drive and you can read the map
On the long quiet road called there and back
In every mended thing there was once a crack
It’s a world of rain and a world of stone
I'll rest in all that I still don't know
What I embrace and I’ll let go
I didn't know that
I could be this blind
I didn't plan to live in these trouble times
But here I am, here I am,
Holding on to the plumb line.
Carrie: I like the idea of the mystic DJ. I'm going to walk around with that one for a while and like, what is my own inner mystic DJ Like playing through my head today? But yes, thank you. The idea of the plumb line in that song, a plumb bob is when you're in construction and a plumb line has a bob at the bottom that has a weight to it and then a line and you'd kind of dangle it. And by doing that, you can see where the true center is. So that when you're building, you can see where that true center is. So, you know, that was the metaphor I was using for where my true center is in this. Yes. I did not expect to live in these troubled times. We are living in times that are asking us to be better people than we ever thought we would need to be. So you know, where is that thing that grounds me, that centers me. That's a good question to ask myself each day and it's in that song.
Songs are interesting. Once I've created a song and the song goes out into the world, it's like we send our songs into the world and we really don't know where they're going to land. We just, all we can do is hope they land well and with our best intentions with them. And I'm always so grateful when someone lets me know that a song has landed safely and well in their heart. You know, people are quite generous with me and I'm always so grateful for that. I said I don't know where they land. And when someone lets me know, it was part of their mystic DJ today. I don't always need to know that, you know, like you just have this trust that they're going where they need to go because at that point, in a lot of ways, they don't have anything to do with me anymore. It's the song and the song has a life of its own.
Reflection from Kirsten [a listener]: "Hi Carrie, first off, I want to tell how important your music has been to me. Often times I sit in the parking lot of the school where I teach and listen to Holy As A Day Is Spent before I go into the building and begin my work day"
Excerpt from the lyrics:
Holy is the familiar room
And quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I'm letting go of all my fear
Like autumn leaves made of earth and air
For the summer came and the summer went
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
And the empty page, and the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
And with grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings 'providence'
As holy as a day is spent
How can we serve your vision and work in the world?
Music is the thing that I could not not do -- and the love that pulls my soul forward. Where is your heart leading, where is kindness leading? It will take all of us, and all of us in our different unique ways, for the change of consciousness.