I recently performed with my Latin jazz band, Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge at the West Covina library in California in honour of National Hispanic Heritage month, which is celebrated each year, from September 15 to October 15. For me it was a welcome occasion to dig a little deeper into my Spanish repertoire. In this blog post I would like to share my love of some of these often highly romantic and rhythmically enticing songs and some of their backgrounds.
During National Hispanic Heritage month the focus is on the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Especially significant is hereby, the 15th of September because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, which is October 12, falls within this 30-day period.
I always love the process of searching for new songs to explore and interpret. So I spent a fair amount of time searching for new material and came across some beautiful songs to add to my Spanish repertoire – some written by contemporary songwriters, others deemed meanwhile almost classic. Since the venue I performed at was a library, a place of knowledge with most likely, information hungry patrons, I thought it would be nice to also provide some background information to some of the songs and music styles – which would ultimately, also honour the specialness of these Latin compositions for the occasion.
La Puerta by Luis Demetrio
Long before I even imagined that one day, I would develop such a passion for singing jazz songs in foreign languages, I fell in love with “La Puerta”. It is a slow, heart-felt ballad that was written by the Mexican singer and songwriter Luis Demetrio (1931-2007). I haven’t been able to find out when it was exactly written or recorded for the very first time but in 1957 “La Puerta” was placed among the great favorites of the Spanish-speaking public, interpreted by the famous Chilean singer Lucho Gatica. It has since then been made popular by contemporary singers like Luis Miguel and Laura Fygi. For a very long time it was the only Spanish song I had in my repertoire – but that was before I moved to Los Angeles…
I later discovered that Demetrio co-wrote another favourite song of mine, “¿Quién será?”, a bolero-mambo better known to the English speaking world as “Sway”. Like often falsely assumed however, Demetrio didn’t co-write the song with his fellow songwriter Pablo Beltrán Ruiz (1915 – 2008) but sold the rights to him. Beltrán recorded the song for the first time with his orchestra in 1953 as an instrumental cha-cha-chá. Dean Martin’s 1954 tongue-in-cheek recording with the Dick Stabile orchestra in English was then the first version to achieve considerable success in the United States. Norman Gimbel (1927 – 2018) who in the 1960’s became famous through his lyrics for “The Girl From Ipanema”, which is probably the most famous Antônio Carlos Jobim song, wrote the English lyrics for “Sway”. I recorded both “La Puerta” and “Sway” on my 2016 album, inspired by Dean Martin and the Mexican pop-singer Kalimba, I recorded it half in English, switching to the Spanish lyrics in the first chorus.
Hoy by Gian Marco
Another song really wanted to introduce at the library performance – and that I simply love singing live (ideally, with a minimal instrumentation of guitar, bass and percussion) –, is “Hoy” (which means in Spanish “today”). This contemporary ballad, written by the Peruvian singer-songwriter Gian Marco Zignago, known as “Gian Marco”, became popular after Gloria Estefan recorded the song on her Spanish album, “Amor y Suerte”. Estefan is the original Latin crossover international star. First as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and then as a soloist, she has achieved success in both languages, English and Spanish.
Especially for the occasion of Hispanic Heritage Month I thought it would be interesting and relevant to introduce “Hoy” because it addresses the topic of being an immigrant, of your heart belonging somewhere else. Gian Marco wrote the song, after immigrating to the United States. Its lyrics, carried along by a beautifully crafted flowing melody, sounds like a love letter to a person with many beautiful metaphors, but is ultimately a love letter to his home country Peru that he left when he moved to Florida to pursue his music career. “Un camino empinado” (a steep path) for instance, is a reference to the Andes that are the longest continental mountain range in the world, and extend from north to south through seven South American countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The line “tengo el mar del otro lado” means as much as, I have the sea on the other side, which refers to when he lived in Miami, saying in an interview that his ocean is “the Pacific, not the Atlantic”.
In his official video for the song he even integrated some of Peru’s traditional instruments: towards the middle, you can listen to and watch traditional Peruvian music and dancers. His musicians are playing a small guitar called the “Charango”, which is a native Peruvian instrument. A charango is a relatively small string instrument, around 65 cm long, similar to the size of a ukulele. It typically has ten strings in five courses of two strings each, but many other variations exist. Traditionally, they were made of armadillo shell, today superseded by wooden parts. Some designs however, still imitate the patterns of armadillos on the rounded back. Interestingly, and somewhat serendipitous (why it caught my attention maybe), is that as a spiritual animal totem, the armadillo symbolizes that it is time to define your own boundaries and space. It also symbolizes trust, peace, pacifism, balance, complexity, and compassion.
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While sorting through material for my first full-length musical poetry, aka jazzoetry album, I came across three poems I had already recorded. Listening back to them with fresh ears, I suddenly realized that they were thematically too different from the other pieces I was writing. I thereupon decided to release these three pieces separately. These poems – now jazzoems – will be available in January 2019 as a three-track EP in all digital music stores titled A Breath She Took, which is also the name of the first jazzoetry piece.
All three are of autobiographical nature. This is exactly why these three pieces stood out from the other pieces, which are about other women. In these still unreleased poems I have been exploring an array of unusual, often imagined stories about women from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I have focussed on their unique struggles – but not my own. Although, maybe I did in a metaphorical and symbolical way, now thinking of them.
Jazzoetry. The Principle
The principle that unites all of these poems musically is that they follow the same approach of poetry in combination with jazz improvisation [= jazzoetry]. I developed this concept in 2009 when I first released my piece Gold & Frankincense as a single. It was followed by the EP During the Hours, which includes my favourite piece, Songs of the Soul, initially inspired by the saxophonist Zane Musa. You can read about the development of this story here.
Once I have completed a poem, the recording process follows the same method for each one but is of course at the same time, very individual: According to the sentiment and temperament of the piece, I search for a jazz musician with great improvisational talent. Atmospherically, I want her or his instrument and playing to feel and sound most suitable in the interpretation and illustration and communication of that specific poem.
Jazzoetry. The Recording Process
My goal is always to capture complete performances. Unlike the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks, I don’t want any overdubbing or editing to take place. This would spoil the principle of a live improvisation and any spontaneity involved. That’s why I ask each musical soloist –who has never read the poems prior to their studio arrival– to respond to my reading as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot.
Each piece is recorded live in two separate recording booths in dialogue: with my recital of the poem and the individual instrumentalist’s interpretation. For my reading and performance, the atmosphere of being in the moment, just like on stage is often just as inspiring and electric as it is for the musician. Invariably, my concept is usually achieved within two to three takes.
Jazzoetry Recording of A Breath She Took
For the poem A Breath She Took, which is track number one on the EP, I chose the cello for its warm and resonant sound and its associated features: the softly swung curvatures of a female body. Albeit loving the piano, I have a very close relationship with the cello. It was my first instrument as a child. I was extremely proud that our music teacher chose me to be trained for the school orchestra. When we moved to Germany, however, I was completely heartbroken: the cello was a school instrument and I consequently had to give it up.
Ironically, later, my mother bought herself one and started taking lessons, which obviously brought up a lot of feelings. The cello therefore mirrors perfectly not only my longing for that instrument and the close relationship I was developing with it, but my longing for an empathetic, nurturing and loving mother.
I asked the cellist Matthew Cooker to provide his improvisational talents. He is one of Los Angeles most prolific cellists and has played in many orchestras and for diverse live artists (like Barbra Streisand and Luis Miguel). I first met him on a studio session for a few tracks on my fist solo album The World I am Livings In, which consists of very sparsely instrumented songs, surrounding themes of loss. Matthew’s playing has, in equal parts, the right amount of tenderness, fierceness and edginess a cellist. He moreover, possesses a sheer endless inventory of resin, ego, musicality, creativity and elbow grease.
When we were recording A Breath She Took live in the studio, I felt that that he was translating the contents of that piece and complimenting my reading so fittingly that I spontaneously decided to ask him to also improvise over my reading of another piece: Goldfish Bowl. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]
Jazzoetry Recording of Goldfish Bowl
So once again we were recording live, in a dialogue between voice and instrument and Goldfish Bowl, became the second poem on the EP. This piece is about the taxing and highly confusing effects of being psychologically abused. It’s about feeling trapped – even if only in one’s own head. And how a state of feeling crazy, slowly takes hold, destroying self-confidence and self-trust. Goldfish Bowl is about utter helplessness dwindling into hopelessness being that the abuse is already taking a severe toll. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]
Jazzoetry Recording of Ink on Silk
The third and last piece on the EP, Ink on Silk is similar to Goldfish Bowl because it’s about feeling highly frustrated and crazy-made. In Goldfish Bowl there’s a permanent state of lingering, total confusion and powerlessness. Whereby in Ink on Silk it is about trying to solve things but not having any impact, thus getting more and more infuriated and frustrated. This is why a percussive instrument with clanging metal bars seemed so suitable.
I had heard the vibraphonist, Nick Mancini, a couple of times live and was always impressed by his eagerness and fearlessness to improvise both rhythmically and melodically on his instrument. Some soloists carefully plan their improvisations. But Nick lets his instrument lead him, moreover, seduce him into stepping out onto stormy expeditions. During the recording of Ink on Silk, he was also able to create some quite unusual sounds by almost bending the aluminium sound bars with his felt mallets and giving the piece its perfect colourings. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]
Future Jazzoetry Projects
My next jazzoetry project will be to complete writing, and then to record and produce a full-length Jazzoetry album. It will comprise around 15 poems featuring a similar number of outstanding jazz soloists. The poems I am writing for this album explore an array of typical female topics. They are based on women from very diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
Being a woman myself, I have always been interested in my own and equally intrigued by other women’s paths. Being that per society and biology, we still face completely different challenges than men. There are so many stories and dreams of other women that ultimately seem to interweave with one another’s. Many stem from the sad truth that culturally, socially and politically (thus, economically) we are still confined and suppressed by expectations.
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Finding new songs for my foreign-language repertoire always involves a lot of musical archaeology. It’s definitely very enjoyable. It’s like stepping into a dark, mysterious castle with only a spotlight at hand, never knowing what you’ll find. That was how I came across O Barquinho (Little Boat) from 1961. It’s a very playful and cute Bossa nova song about a boat sailing along on a calm summer day as the evening falls.
I had only recently discovered the American vocalist Karrin Allyson through a search for interpretations of the French chanson Sous le Ciel de Paris, which I was adding to my French repertoire. Her version of this 1951 classic from the French film bears the same title. It’s from one of her early albums, From Rio to Paris. I love her very grounded voice and her elegant intonation – despite finding her interpretation a little dry or even humourless. She frequently spikes her songs with very delightful and short, not endless, self-indulged scatting sequences.
So, while enjoying a cooking session in my kitchen, I flipped through the other songs in French and Portuguese. I immediately took to her very cute and enticing version of O Barquinho, sung in both beautifully phrased Portuguese and English. Later, I understood why The New York Times, had called her a “no-frills singer with a feline touch and impeccable intonation, […] is an interpreter who cuts to the chase, but with minimal psychodrama.”
Brazilian Jazz Rhythms ~ The Bossa Nova
I have now been performing O Barquinho after learning the Portuguese lyrics for a couple of weeks now. In its lightheartedness and cheerfulness, it very much reminds me of tunes like Summer Samba (also known as So Nice and in Portuguese Samba de Verão). So Nice is a song I also enjoy singing because of its cheerful bounciness. It was written in 1964 by the Brazilian composer Marcos Valle, with English lyrics by the American lyricist Norman Gimbel and original Portuguese lyrics by the composer’s brother, Paulo Sérgio Valle.
O Barquinho was written three years earlier and also has very buoyant lyrics. Its rhythmical temperament makes it a very typical bossa nova song. When playing these kinds of songs live, it is crucial for the right tempo to be counted off. If it’s too slow it will lose it’s lightheartedness and cheeriness. When only a bit too fast, it’s like singing the title melody to a breath taking car-chase. Another element of course, is the groove itself. While So Nice is a Samba and O Barquinho is a Bossa nova, Brazilian jazz tunes like these have in general their very own rhythmic feeling – like the Bossa nova composer Carlos Lyra, described in reference to one of his own songs, Influência do Jazz. He said that overall, the rhythm has a “swaying” feel rather than the “swinging” feel of jazz. The samba rhythm moves “side to side” while jazz moves “front to back”.
O Barquinho (The Little Boat) 1961 ~ The Topic of the Sea
The topic for the song was obviously already present but the Portuguese children’s song, that carries the same title, O Barquinho may have also influenced him. You can read the Portuguese lyrics and an English translation here.
O Barquinho was first recorded in 1961 by the guitarist João Gilberto. A year later, in 1962, it was recorded by the American guitarist Charlie Bryd – and many times since then. That year, the American entertainment magazine Billboard – also known for its music charts, including the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 – listed Charlie Byrd’s recording of O Barquinho in the column of singles with “strong sales potential”. Indeed, it was to become one of Menescal’s most famous songs.
And here’s João Gilberto’s version from 1961:
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Listen to O Barquinho and other beautiful Samba and Bossa Nova Songs here:
Further Info & Reading on Brazilian Jazz:
~ For some more insight into this music genre check out the book “Brazilian Jive: From Samba to Bossa and Rap” by David Treece, professor of Brazilian studies, author, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society.
~ Watch the documentary film “Coisa Mais Linda: Histórias e Casos da Bossa Nova“ (This is Bossa Nova: The History and Stories) released in 2005: Menescal and fellow trailblazing composer Carlos Lyra tells the stories of the people, places, and performances that put Brazilian music on the international music scene in the early 1960s, culminating in a 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall in New York.
~ See also this playfully illustrated and informative website called Mama Lisa’s World that collects international children’s songs from around the world.
I love playing concerts with the full band at one of my favourite music venues in Los Angeles – the famous singer-songwriter club Genghis Cohen. It is primarily a Chinese restaurant but it has a lovely, separate music room with a stage, lighting, and a backline. I usually perform there every two months and often try out new songs, in February, I presented my new single, Ma Solitude. Naturally, I always play songs from my latest album, Ipanema Lounge (2016) and include a few from The World I Am Livings In (2013).
Genghis Cohen is a Hollywood staple and has now been around for 35 years. That’s a long time for the fast-moving and ever-evolving restaurant scene but also for a music club. I always look forward to being there. The atmosphere is very artist friendly and some of my favourite sound people work there. Over the years, I have played there with different musicians and in various constellations. And sometimes, mostly by chance, I have even met stars like Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder and most recently Annie Lennox, who was there to see her daughter, Lola Lennox perform.
The “Original” Genghis Cohen
The original owner, Allan Rinde (1942–2012, opened Genghis Cohen in 1983. But it was his friend Artie Wayne who thought of the humorous name “Genghis Cohen,” coupling the first name of the Mongolian warrior-ruler and a common Jewish surname. Allen was Jewish, hence the “Cohen”. He had been a staple in the music industry for decades. I luckily got to meet him on many a night, when he occasionally dropped in, even after he sold the restaurant 15 years later.
Allan was a former publicist, a journalist, the West Coast Editor of Cashbox. He sadly passed away suddenly on December 16, 2012. Allan was head of West Coast A&R at Columbia, where he was behind Billy Joel’s first hit, “Piano Man,” and he was the man who helped break the Jesus Christ Superstar album.
A close friend and colleague, the songwriter and producer Artie Wayne, who had over 250 covers recorded by such artists as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Tony Orlando wrote a wonderful blog post you can read here, covering years of insider stories in and around Genghis Cohen, their years in the music industry and of course many celebrity encounters.
In 1998 Allan sold the restaurant to Raymond Kiu, who had been a waiter at the restaurant for 14 years. After his death, his son Denis Kiu took over, who, however, also died prematurely, at the age of only 43 of a heart attack. A lot has changed in the last few years but that said, atmospherically, not that much.
That is why this article from 1998 in the L.A. Times still, in a way, rings true and names some of the reasons why I still love playing there: “The Cantina [the music room] is configured like a church, with benches functioning as pews, and a stage functioning as the altar. The room is warm and inviting and manages to make both the performers and guests feel at ease. In fact, they are. Too many clubs are set up to incite little interaction between audience and performer, but the family-like comfort of the Cantina inspires a bit of camaraderie.”
The music room is only one part of the complex that consists of the restaurant, the bar area and the closed off music room. The restaurant section sports red leather booths, dim lighting, red accent walls. There’s a bit of Old Hollywood charm, along with self-conscious kitsch — that has however, slightly diminished since the most recent restauranteurs took over in 2015.
I am writing this blog post shortly after the release of my new single, the French chanson Ma Solitude. I have known and loved this song since I was in junior art college, where I also studied French (read more about those influences in my post on French Chansons). Ma Solitude was written in the 1960’s by the singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki (1934-2013), who became famed in France for his repertoire of simple romantic ballads, one of them being Édith Piaf’s hit song “Milord”.
Although it’s been in my repertoire for quite a while now, I only recently decided to make a recording. My motivation was on the one hand, that my connection with this beautiful tune had deepened naturally after having performed it so many times. On the other hand, it was almost as if I had to learn what the song really meant before recording it. Ma Solitude came to mark the end of a very painful journey both emotionally and geographically. It stands for a time during which I felt utterly alone but somehow transitioned into a state of solitude, which in contrast to loneliness, offers a special value to those who learn to cherish their own inner worlds. This is after all, exactly what the song describes. It has therefore been emotionally very cathartic to sing.
Ma Solitude is such a beautifully crafted melancholic song but it is not sad. While you listen to my new recording you can read the French lyrics and an English translation by clicking here.
Available for streaming and downloading:
2016 – A Year of Many Losses
The years 2016/17 were for me personally completely traumatic. After months of stressful arguments, debates, break-ups, and reconciliations, my husband moved out in May. It was so hard to adjust to being on my own again and the challenge of trying to survive as an artist in one of the world’s most expensive cities seemed almost impossible. I somehow managed. But then, in the autumn, I was given notice on the house we had been living in for over eight years – a house that had been our home and that, in midst of all of the change, at least was a familiar staple. Unsettling for me, as was for many, was then the shocking outcome of the US election in November. It became apparent that more people in America – more than most had ever imagined –, had voted for a misogynistic, narcissistic, reality-TV creator, simply an autocrat: for Donald Trump.
It verified for me a complete decline of society, which ironically felt like the epitome of my life.
I was “hanging in” as they say, until completely out of the blue, on December 16, my beloved dog Ginji died. I surrendered to a paralyzed state of utter grief and shock. Ginji was a beautiful, mischievous Whippet-Basenji mix who I had named after one of my favourite jazz tunes Dindi. I have since then been unable to sing that song live. My other dog, a small rescue called Leonora, was similarly shocked and visibly grief-stricken. For weeks she would run out of the door into the garden and then stop, look behind her and – wait, wait for Ginji to join her.
Meanwhile, I still had to face the task of packing up a decade’s worth of married life, of hopes and dreams – many, that never came to be. I had no clue where I would move to or what I would do. My small family had diminished within a few months from four to three, and then suddenly to two members. And although “It Never Rains in Southern California”, those were the months with the most rainfall in years. So last year I spent Christmas in utter loneliness, grieving. It was the first year of not creating a warm and festive family Christmas – for us, his sons, their partners, and random orphan friends.
Months of Restless and Relentless Moving…
I was so distraught by January from all of the losses, that I felt more than paralyzed by all of the decisions I had to make. Would I even stay in Los Angeles? Would it be better to move back to Europe? Maybe I needed to get away from the political climate, away from all the heartbreak? Do a “geographical” as they say. I felt too heartbroken to think clearly. In addition, the housing market in Los Angeles was, and still is, in a total crisis. So to find an affordable, clean and dog-friendly apartment anywhere, was more than daunting.
The packing of endless boxes, the wrapping of furniture in old blankets and discarded sheets felt sheer overwhelming. What would I keep, what would I even need in the future? Where and what was my future? I managed to cram everything into a mobile storage container that was picked up by a huge truck and hauled off to Compton. What followed was quite an odyssey. I spent five fairly unhappy and cold but also eye-opening weeks in Berlin but then returned to L.A. in April. I was determined to find an apartment and refocus on my music and writing. While apartment hunting, however, I had to couch-surf here and there, constantly looking for new places to stay for as little money as possible. It was distressing for both my little dog and I.
But a few weeks later, in May, I finally found a new home! So I thought. My luck didn’t last. After two days I started to get throbbing headaches and flu-like symptoms. But I had no fever. It dawned on me that I was having a severe allergic reaction. That something was wrong with the apartment. It had smelled musty when I moved in but I thought it was just lack of being aired out properly. After talking to the neighbours and doing some research it became apparent that it was toxic! There had been water damage, which had never been properly tended to, and behind the walls the building was full of hidden mold!
Not Being Able To Function on Many Levels
Feeling absolutely awful, desperate, heartbroken, and sick, I knew that if I didn’t move out again, I would never be able to function again, let alone sing. So in June, I was forced to pack everything up again and put it into storage. After that second move, I basically collapsed and fell incredibly ill for six weeks. I had such a painful and hacking cough, that I had to use an asthma inhaler. An x-ray of my lungs showed that at least it wasn’t anything like the valley fever, fungal pneumonia that can lead to hospitalizations. But I was unable to earn much money, so yet again, I bunked with friends. Some of these “friends” I had never met before. I learned very quickly who stepped up and who couldn’t be bothered. On August 6, still searching and in full-on crisis mode, I was taking a break, sitting on a park bench, poking around in some greasy, store-bought salad in a plastic container, and wrote in my journal,
“I watch the homeless thinking, I feel you – I’m one favour away…”
During that time I definitely gained empathy for people whose lives, sometimes through a simple turn of fate, unravel. The sight of hundreds of homeless encampments thereafter has become more and more unbearable.
One Year Later – Full Circle
Then finally, in September, I was able to move into a proper home in L.A. again. It felt as if years had gone by – around the world in 90 days – and emotionally they had. Despite still feeling all of the losses in my bones, this Christmas, I am spending my alone time reflecting in solitude but not in loneliness. And this is exactly what the lyrics of Ma Solitude illustrate so perfectly and why I wanted to record the song before the year was over, so to also mark a full circle. The chorus alone is a beautiful and clever oxymoron:
“Non, je ne suis jamais seule / avec ma solitude”
which means, in a very existentialistic way, “No, I am never alone / with my solitude”.
Being in solitude implies being on your own but Moustaki cleverly personifies this “quality time” in one of the verses as if it were time spent with a lover. And the third verse always brings a smile to my face:
“Quand elle est au creux de mon lit
Elle prend toute la place
Et nous passons de longues nuits
Tous les deux face à face”
The intimate scene of two people sleeping in a bed together makes me think of my little rescue dog Leonora. She felt the loss of Ginji, who was like a mother to her, as much as I did. Leonora now seeks solace by hopping onto my bed at night and curling up into a little furball – in that dip in the middle of bed, that “creux de mon lit” and indeed, “elle prend toute la place”!
To reflect this kind of intimacy of the song is why I ultimately decided to record the song with a very intimate ensemble, consisting of voice, guitar, and double bass. Another meaningful factor was the release date I chose, the 16th of December, marking the anniversary of Ginji’s sudden death.
Ma Solitude versus Loneliness
After sharing these very personal experiences and my motivation to record Ma Solitude I would like to bring the following to anyone reading this:
Obviously, solitude can only be productive if we don’t feel excluded, hurt or punished. But in tranquil times it offers an intimate connection, a realm of solace, like with a lover. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared on a similar note: “My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate he who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.” The French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre even wrote, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
Ma Solitude has always so poignantly illustrated the beauty one can find in alone time. It’s a deep connection with oneself. But this connection can obviously also get severed in times of deep grief and trauma when our brains are stuck in a state of terror and operate in pure survival mode. Sadly, not everyone is capable of this inner connection or willing to let go of this sometimes almost meditative state. I was quite shocked to recently read about a study at the University of Virginia in which several participants – a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men – chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.
On the other hand, it seems as if in our hyper-connected, social-media-driven and extremely competitive society, alone time or solitude is more devalued than it has been in a long time. The author Ray Williams writes in an essay published in Psychology Now, “all current meanings of ‘alone’ imply a lack of something. Invariably, a desire for solitude is viewed by others as a sign that there is something wrong. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk-taking, like jumping off cliffs. And when we see photos of people sitting alone by a lake on a mountain top, many of us might wonder if that person is lonely or even depressed.”
For me, solitude is about consciousness. It’s about asking the – sometimes uncomfortable – questions, how deeply am I feeling myself when I’m feeling lonely? Am I feeling disconnected and if so, where is it stemming from? Are we comparing other people’s outsides with our complicated insides? Especially social media can have that effect. On Facebook, we only see glossy versions of our “friends’”. We see their feats but seldom their failures illustrated by carefully curated glamour selfies. During this outer and inner journey I was forced to embark upon, my inner world has shifted from grief and loneliness to solitude. In the process, I discovered who my real friends were – one of them being myself.
Click here to read the French lyrics and an English translation.
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Also, keep an eye out for my next blog post on inspiring art depicting the topics loneliness and/or solitude.
May you also find some inspiration in the following books:
 Brent Crane, “The Virtues of Isolation”, in The Atlantic, posted March 30, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/the-virtues-of-isolation/521100/
 ibid. [see also Matthew Hutson, „People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”, in The Atlantic, posted July 3, 2014 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/.
 Ray Williams, “Why Solitude Is Good and Loneliness Is Bad. Loneliness is becoming an epidemic but the value of solitude is unappreciated”, in: Psychology Today, posted Oct 31, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201710/why-solitude-is-good-and-loneliness-is-bad.
It’s Tuesday, so-called “Taco Tuesday” to be precise. Beaming at everyone with a Californian sunshine smile, a young “dude” with a white cap and the gestures of a 1920’s hotel bellboy is handing out samples. I’m in a hurry and shake my head to decline. “It’s vegan!” he says quickly, as if that would be the ultimate selling point, passing me a small paper cup with a barely bite sized nibble. I thank him. It looks a bit like shriveled up cat food so I tip the contents into my mouth and chew… it tastes ok – for cat food.
Throughout the store the cool air is permeated with the sickly smell of freshly pressed wheat grass, mingled with the heavy aromas of roasted, fair trade coffee beans and hot, free range lemon chickens. Take-out dinners galore are flying off the shelves: golden slices of freshly baked truffle pizza, extravagantly shaped bottles of pomegranate juice, barley-spinach salad, curry tofu, eggplant hummus and rainbow sushi – you name it. The choices are overwhelming and the prices astronomical.
I am at Whole Foods, one of Los Angeles’ most popular health food supermarkets. Only half jokingly, people also call it Whole Paycheck. Founded in 1980 in Austin Texas, and beginning its expansion only four years later – to California in 1989 and to the UK in 2007. This one is located just behind the popular Farmer’s Market and The Grove on Third Street. The location has always struck me as odd. It’s wedged between the drugstore CVS, a row of cheap boutiques with discount clothes from China, bargain wig shops and Kmart.
All of these stores share the same huge parking lot: an asphalt arena sporting two anorexic palm trees that heats up unbearably from the permanent glare of the sun. This definitely isn’t quite the setting you would normally think of when purchasing organic Deep Breathe Tea, fair trade organic quinoa and Yoga mats made from recycled plastic water bottles. Because this is also where regularly verbal fights, vicious glares, dirty hand signs and other mostly empty threats over parking spaces are exchanged. Especially when temperatures around noon start rising and the pressure of shopping for certain holidays, mostly equated with food, are approaching. Parking around Thanksgiving? Forget. It. A while ago a rapper even recoded a video titled “Whole Foods Parking Lot”.
Generally, in Los Angeles parking is not only a problem but a phenomenon – unlike in any other city I have ever visited. Whatever you attend in Los Angeles, the first question will be: “What’s parking like?” or “Where did you park?”. When posting events to mailing list subscribers or sending out invitations to private parties, some people will even boast about “great parking” or even “free parking!!!!!!!!!!!!” In which case I should add a row of exclamation marks too, because at Whole Foods parking is FREEEEE!!!!! (and your mattress is too but that’s a whole other story….).
For Los Angeles this is indeed very unusual because most of the time it can be quite aggravating and expensive to find a parking spot which was why driving services like Lyft and Uber have become so successful. Usually, if you didn’t want to risk a parking ticket, or drive in circles for hours, you would have to surrender to paying between $5 and $10 for valet parking. That was something I had never heard of before visiting Los Angeles for the very first time in June 2005 and something that seemed so endlessly posh and extravagant at the time for someone like me, so used to taking public transportation or going by bike. That is however, in Los Angeles, something only people do who clearly couldn’t afford a car.
But that’s exactly one of Los Angeles’ main attributes, a deep divide between social groups which is strangely epitomized in that very cluster of stores: Whole Foods’ lunching and munching impulse-shoppers and fussy label-readers couldn’t be more opposed to the coupon-clipping, bargain hunting low-income families that frequent American superstores like K-Mart. These poor, frequently obese consumers you will find eating a GMO-laden corn dog (or two, or three) before they head back to their beaten up Chevy with their jumbo, jam-packed shopping cart, drinking out of oversized plastic beakers sporting words like “BIG GULP”.
The average crowd at Whole Foods has most likely got a BMI of 23 and is ethnically an unbalanced mix of generally youngish, Silver Lake’ish, white Caucasians. Then there are of course the celebrities I never recognize and brigades of mostly South American housekeepers and nannies filling up shopping carts. There are always a few street people roaming the aisles, seeking for samples, clueless tourists wandering around mostly looking to quench their thirst and soothe their sunburn and security guards languidly eyeing everyone but mostly their iPhones.
It’s lunchtime and like so often, it is absolutely packed. I have been darting through the isles like a slalom skier at the Winter Olympics but have successfully been able to avoid confrontation with other shoppers. Now finally, feeling relieved but highly agitated, I have reached the check-out queue, shopping basket in hand, well-knowing that my three and a half items will cost at least thirty dollars.
To add to this slightly frantic atmosphere, disco music is blaring out of the loud speakers, interrupted every now and then by someone mumbling incomprehensible slogans. I only catch fragments, “grass fed…organic…Taco Tuesday” Then the sound of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls picks up again. I suddenly realize that, behind two turntables, set up between the vitamins and cereals isles, there is a DJ juggling vinyl records. Dressed in the obligatory hipsters’ uniform; a large woolly hat, black framed glasses and a full sleeve tattoo, he knowingly nods his head to the beat. I wonder how long it takes him to comb his beard in the mornings and whether he has strange hobbies like competitive wood chopping.
Suddenly, to my horror, I realize that I have of course chosen the wrong queue. Other shoppers have already begun flocking towards the alternative ones and a bored looking Asian guy is now standing behind me with a very reluctant look on his face. It’s too late now to change queues. And it’s Murphy’s law somehow, that whichever one you switch to, your original lane will suddenly speed up and you’ll take even longer to check out. But now I’m stuck behind a short blonde, clad in expensive looking yoga wear, frantically trying to discuss lunch choices with her two-year old.
With an annoyingly high-pitched Valley girl voice she lists organic macaroni and lactose free cheese, versus gluten free spaghetti with vegan meat sauce. She isn’t paying any real attention to her frustrated child who is simply overwhelmed by the complexity of these choices. Tears are already welling in his big eyes and it’s obvious that he is dangerously close to throwing a tantrum. Annoyingly, she’s not taking any notice of the cashier either, who is looking to check out her items that she is still waving in front of her child. But the bored looking dude at the check-out is either just far too patient or has taken too much Xanax to care. Then the blonde woman’s mobile phone makes a “ding!” sound and her focus is immediately drawn to a text message she hastily starts responding to. I indulge in one last eye-roll and turn away.
Standing there in one of Los Angeles’ most iconic take-out food temples, I realize once again, how this overindulgent and lavish lifestyle, that at the same time, is so disconnected and distracted sometimes, really depresses me. Every neuroticism is pandered to, guaranteeing the fulfillment of every food fad or first-world hysteria, whether gluten free, vegan or organic. I watch the blonde mother virtually stress her young child by trying to project her own neuroticisms and neediness onto a child that simply needs food, a simple lunch, as nourishment. But it’s not about him, not really. It’s about her. Which is exactly what sometimes so bothers me, being so frequently witness to people’s narcissism.
Waiting there in that queue I feel as if I’m drowning in this extremely high concentration of the Me! society that pollutes the air in most of L.A. Not only at Whole Foods but in so many other places, in relationship to food, you hear these high pitched voices nauseatingly screeching, “OMG. I so need to eat!” which means, “Go run! Now! P.A./assistant/other slave-like person and fetch me a highly complicated list of goods and ingredients to show how well I care for myself and how much I love and embrace my needy little inner child, like my therapist and yoga teacher told me to: “Panini – only roasted for two minutes, one side only, no cheese, extra onions, coleslaw on the side (extra plate and extra pickles), triple mocha latte (soy milk)…” You would think if someone can be bothered to give out all of these meticulous instructions, they could as well make it themselves…
But this is why Whole Foods, with its seeming endless variety of products, is the ultimate supplier and why its popularity reaches its peak at meals times. It crawls with customers who, like spoilt little children, are on a constant search to claim their uniqueness and exclusivity even in their selection of prepared lunches, carrying with them an air of entitlement – to special favours, to special treatment. I watch this disconnect, that keeps the aspiring narcissist neatly tucked into their cushion of grandiosity, with much discomfort. It sadly also seems so be representative of a culture that feeds and grooms the me-generation with the terror of now! The strain and the demand of instant supply and therefore instant gratification. It is deeply connected to the terror of busy. I’m so busy, have no time to prepare food I am therefore important. I therefore am. So even food consumption, like most of the city itself, has become a huge, self-inflating and promoting production. What happened to the good old cheese sandwich, a boiled egg and an apple?
Like almost every morning, I took the dogs to the park for a good, over an hour walk. While they were enthusiastically hunting and chasing squirrels, I discovered this beautiful clean and completely intact pine cone. I thought of a brief chat I had had with a very friendly Korean woman, a few weeks ago, who, in her broken English, had shown me how she uses simple objects from nature, like pine cones, or the rough bark of a tree to massage parts of the body. The principle being that of traditional acupressure.
So I picked the cone up and carried it with me, alternatively clenching it in each hand for a few minutes, the opened, flexible scales giving way in the process, massaging the palm of my hand and strengthening my fingers. I am very much a practical, hands-on person who loves writing and playing the piano. So I like to keep my hands and fingers strong and nimble. I also believe, that being in touch, so actually touching something from nature is per se healing. My favourite yoga teacher mentioned the other day that walking barefoot, also known as “earthing”, is actually a scientifically-researched practice with a number of remarkable health advantages that stem from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. The planet has its own natural charge, and we seem to benefit greatly when we’re in direct contact with it.
Walking my rounds with the dogs, pine cone in hand, I passed one of the homeless people who occupies the same park bench every morning at around 8am. My best guess is that he is schizophrenic because sometimes you can hear him angrily shouting obscenities from the other side of the park. But then, when he has his “lucid” moments, he is a very chatty, well educated and friendly gentleman who always has his belongings stacked very neatly and tidily next to him and a handkerchief on his lap when eating his breakfast.
In passing, I greeted him and he immediately asked, “What’s that? A pine cone?” I said, “Yes, I’m massaging my hands with it and later, I’ll take it home…” He interrupted and said, yes, you can decorate the table with them at Thanksgiving.” We immediately struck up a conversation about all of the things you can do with pinecones, smell them, eat the pine seeds, burn them (the sap ignites fires very well) and I mentioned how beautiful they are in their perfect symmetry, and he added, “like everything God creates”. I replied that sadly, many people don’t see these beautiful things that surround them anymore. No, he said:
“They don’t stop to smell the roses, they’re too busy cutting them”.
I thought his point was well taken. I think that today, most people are fixated on “owning” things, as in having a collection to show off to others that is as vast as possible. This collection of images serves to then quasi adorn a virtual online persona for others to admire. Objects are taken into possession via photographs on Facebook and Instagram but only hastily and superfluously consumed and accessorized but not emotionally absorbed. Historically, a photo acted as a substitute, a token, a memento. Now it seems to have replaced the actual experience. When the image is then shared there’s no authentic contact with the actual object, the full experience is kept out of range, not only visually but also tactually. It’s a way of distancing oneself from an authentic experience in quite a detached and guarded but also very possessive way.
Feeling a sense of connection to nature or life itself
Even science backs this up: a study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences suggests that appreciating both the meaningful things and people in our lives may play an even larger role in our overall happiness than previously thought. Rutgers University psychology professor Nancy Fagley’s survey zeroed in on eight aspects of “appreciation“, including awe – or feeling a sense of connection to nature or life itself – and living in the present moment.
And you, have you stopped to smell the roses today? Or are you too busy cutting them?