Mothership Partita

Eva Salina Primack

I meant to write today, but instead ended up cleaning my house for hours. I find it impossible to separate any element of my creative life—thinking, performing, imagining—from the consumption of motherhood, all of it enmeshed with the ceaseless demands of the domestic. Cleaning, cooking, cleaning again—only by embracing the ritual, submitting to the urgency and constant necessity, can I find peace in knowing that the house must be in order if my brain is to find the space to think beyond the immediacy or find the words to articulate the beauty of my consumption. 

It’s a hard thing to come to terms with, that sometimes spending the entire day cleaning your house truly is the best use of your time. The first fifteen years or so of my adult life would surely have me think otherwise. I should be living and breathing my ambition, working tirelessly towards its manifestation. But here I am, putting a pot of beans on the stove as I run out the door to pick up my toddler from preschool, feeling relieved to have crossed off two-thirds of my to-do list, of course not the career-related parts (there is really no career to tend to at the moment), but a few of the self-care items that I had hoped not to neglect one day longer are at least done.

Right now, I only know how to write about my daily life—and barely even that. I write mostly with one hand, often the hand at the end of the arm that my daughter rests her head on while she sleeps. Even as I attempt to work, my body is doing double duty, one arm trying to comfort and create at the same time. This, it turns out, is a big tell about my whole existence since becoming a mother. I’m never just doing one thing, and certainly never doing anything without also thinking about other things needing to be done or what I am neglecting by attending to one particular thing. 

I often wish I could observe myself as I fall asleep. In two short (and long) years, I have witnessed my daughter fall asleep hundreds of times, that precise moment when she goes inside herself, still often lying on at least part of my body, almost always still nursing. I leave her nursing until she un-attaches on her own, or I gingerly extricate myself from her grasp when I feel confident she is sleeping deeply. A few months ago, she took to climbing up on my chest and falling asleep there, the full 25 pounds of her sinking in, letting go, head on my heart. As she lies there, I wonder: How loud did my heart sound to her all those months it pumped blood to her, too? How did my voice sound to her? Were those choir rehearsals I led repetitive and boring? Did they lull her to sleep, or does she perhaps know all those melodies? She’s an expert at rest and finding her comfort, but I am so constantly fighting tiredness that when it’s time to sleep, it’s also work—a concerted effort to downshift. And the hardest thing is for my brain to give my body permission to unwind and for my body to believe my brain and listen and shut down.

The woodpecker has started in on the frame of the door leading to my kitchen. It’s sixteen degrees out and the sun is shining. Time to put out the bird seed. The woodpecker and the cardinal provide most of the local color through the winter; the suet feeder is right outside the window by our dining room table. Last winter I jokingly called it Rosie’s television, but I realize now that having birdsong near me throughout the day keeps me anchored to the hopefulness that comes with Spring.

These past days, I am thinking about what it means to winterize. Not just how to winterize my house and my garden (though after living in the city with no garden for the last thirteen years, it is certainly a steep learning curve), but also how to create a comforting, nourishing, and stable infrastructure for myself and my family during the months ahead, months filled with much greater uncertainties than how much snow will fall or whether the roof will start leaking. I’m thinking about having enough meat in the freezer, enough books to read, enough small projects to keep me inspired and fed. At the beginning of last year, we moved our entire lives to a small town two hours north of New York City and got Covid two weeks later—then it snowed for six weeks. My partner commutes to the city, and we only had one snow car, so there were many days when I did not step outside the house. I’m from coastal California; I understand very little about winter. I mostly know that when you’re walking in Brooklyn, you really should be careful not to step into a curb cut after a big snow unless you want your foot full of freezing slush. It took me a while to internalize that snow is not only cold, it is also wet.

Suggested Listening

• Eva Salina Primack: LEMA LEMA: Eva Salina sings Šaban Bajramovic´ (Vogiton Records, 2016)

Eva Salina Primack: SUDBINA: A Portrait of Vida Pavlovic´ (Vogiton Records, 2018)

Mothership Partita

Christmas. Tonight, as I drove with my daughter in the back seat to a motel in another state, I was trying to get her psyched up about our change of plans. (Rosie and I had both gotten sick within hours of completing the big schlep to my terminally ill mother-in-law’s and therefore had to remove ourselves from the gathering so as not to risk potentially exposing anyone to anything.) We were about three hours from home, but I thought it prudent to stay closer to my partner in case I started to feel worse and needed hands-on help with our kid. As much as I tried to build the excitement of staying in a hotel, Rosie was not having any of it. She could surely feel my discomfort, the sudden redirect of plans—something was not right; we were not where we were supposed to be. She started crying a mantra: I want to go home, I want home, home, mama, home. It was the first time I was certain of her ability to differentiate home and not home, the gravity of hearing your child ask for home and knowing you both know what and where that home is. Leaving the city—our own migration precipitated by our daughter’s birth in 2019, then catalyzed by the pandemic that followed soon after—the transition of displacement, even when voluntary, is a slow, shifting, ongoing thing. It’s hard to feel settled in an unsettled world with work and commitments and relatives and aging parents all pulling us back to the city and other states and coasts. But for my child to ask for home, and for that home to be our dilapidated but endearing and gorgeous farm (“full of potential!”), it settled me. Even in the midst of ongoing anxiety, lots of travel, plans changing as quickly as they are made, my kid knows where her home is. In our family we often try to make light of how complicated our lives have become in order for our kid’s life to be simple and carefree. When Rosie cried for home in the backseat, I knew we were succeeding. 

Getting to the motel after dark and another scenario you try not to imagine when you think about how motherhood will be: alone with a kid in a seaside town in the off-season, in a motel where nobody wants to be, vulnerable, run down, surrounded by other misfit strangers in some place that feels like no place at all on a day that has arbitrarily been named “family” and “celebration.” I sidled past the man chain-smoking in the parking lot who watched me unload the car. Carrying my kid and too many tote bags I said, “Daddy will be here when he is done working” just loud enough, my lie casting some hopeful protective spell around us, but also commenting to myself: Why isn’t daddy here?

How am I supposed to work? Thinking about working makes me anxious. Work that involves thinking is a different animal entirely. I loved gigs because, in doing them, I left behind my domestic environment and brought some augmented, elevated, curated version of myself to a place so that I could then present it to others. Often times, the hardest part was just figuring out what to wear. (I have never much liked the pageantry that accompanies being a woman who sings.) I loved that I could leave my home in whatever state it was in and know that it would be exactly that way when I returned, the dishes waiting for me in the sink. Now I find myself needing to do the kind of work daily that involves real thinking. I welcome it, but it creates new challenges: thinking beyond the baseline of tiredness and preoccupation, balancing daily chores with big picture worries. And I find myself falling into that trope—I have to clean my house before I can think. Before I was a mother, I looked at very tidy houses and thought, Well, I guess people have to control the things that they can control.” But it wasn’t until recently that I began to embody what it was to live in that feeling. For me to sit and think now—to write, to work on something intangible—is to abandon my daily responsibilities. I am never caught up. On sleep, on laundry, and cleaning. I wake up at 3:30 in the morning, planning my garden in my head. Where am I supposed to put the tomatoes this year? I’m planning the food we will eat for the next week. I’m planning my daughter’s education. So, how do we make time when there is no time?

Ostensibly, I’m here to write about music and diaspora, particularly the songs of other women who have endured far beyond anything I can imagine. The pandemic has created a spiral in my way of being, constantly turning inward. I plan gigs and imagine forays back into the world of music without my child, away from my home; then I watch as they get cancelled, postponement upon postponement. I want to cancel my gigs before someone else cancels them for me. I want to walk into the grief of another change of plans knowing I didn’t give it a chance to surprise me. I’d rather wait than rush. I’d rather maintain some semblance of control and autonomy. I’d rather spend my days with my hands in the dirt, knowing food will grow to feed me and the people I love in an elemental and practical way. You can’t cancel a cucumber or a squash plant that grows with such unrestrained vigor and determination. 

I do want to write about things outside of me. I want to write in a way that continues the work that I’ve always done: taking other people’s stories and making them my own, coaxing them along from other worlds, villages, and centuries to help them resonate now with the relevance that they deserve, to move them along in the current of time. So, I will tidy the house again and hope that doing so will allow me to see and write beyond myself. Today, for example, I sat in a cafe among bravely unmasked strangers, all of our lives one unfolding calculated risk. Someone else’s soundtrack. A conversation next to me in a Central European language that I didn’t understand, somehow the perfect chaotic accompaniment to my own cloudy thoughts. Early this morning, my daughter clung to me and wept, growing more and more distressed every time I told her I was going to leave her at school so I could work. Work on myself. Work on her future. She had come home two days ago singing in the back seat: “Over the mountains and seas, that’s where my hearts is longs to be’s,” which was clearly not the intended lyric, but it sounded with a purity that was only made more charming and tender by the tiny voice that sang it. I looked it up: “I See The Moon,” recorded by The Mariners in 1953. Last night we danced in the kitchen—“I See The Moon” on repeat—holding hands and skipping and laughing to this new old song that I never knew. Over the mountains, over the sea, Back where my heart is longing to be. Please let the light that shines on me, Shine on the one I love. She was laughing and free and joyous, and for a moment, I was too. This is what songs can do for us. This is why we keep needing songs. 

Mothership Partita

Earlier that day, I had taught a singing class online for 20 remarkable people gathered together from four different countries and seven different states. I spent the first 30 minutes with everyone introducing themselves before all were muted for the remainder. Later, I felt guilty for asking these paying participants to listen to each other talk for so much of the class. But then I tried to shift that guilt to appreciation for the choice I had made: Who are we without our stories? How can we create connections at a time when we feel so isolated and anxious? How can we chip away at the distance we feel and look more intently at each other, even in a small box on a crowded screen? And then we sang—a song from at least the early 1800s, a Bulgarian traditional melody in which the forest tells a band of brigands traveling through that, yes, the forest can provide them the shade and cool water they need, as long as the men respect the forest in return. (literally: It is not respectful that you break my branches.) Old song, different time, but here’s the relevance: We must honor that which shelters and protects us. I hope everyone felt it. In singing, I bumped right up against some rusty nails in myself; it had been a few months since I taught songs to anyone. The voice is a muscle, and all my muscles are tired and in need of rest, repair, care. I’m so grateful to be surrounded by nature at this time; isolation is what breaks us, and the beauty outside my door does comfort me. Over the mountains, over the sea, that’s where my heart is longing to be. I fear that no place can give us what we need right now. So, I try to give my daughter what she needs because I can do that.

Finally, the snow came in earnest this morning, quieting the outside world and carving out the space for me to sit in that quiet and think. This past year of living in the country has taught me about snow, and I was eager this winter for the snow to come, to slow me down and keep me in my house. Living with the seasons in this intimate way has already changed me. Snow isn’t something to fight against. Rather, it urges us inside to nurture the home and the hearth and the heart. Warm foods, picnics on a blanket in front of the glowing fire, reflection and digesting of all that has happened. In a few days we will mark one year of living on the land. I am so appreciative of this time to learn how to live with the seasons and to better understand the gifts they bring, and what I can tend to when the garden is resting for the winter. 

In the fall, my daughter started to fixate on the accordion; namely, watching clips on YouTube of my past performances. While visiting my family in California, I ordered her a small piano accordion of her own—a toy, but a playable one. She is in love. I joke that I’m either the best or worst mom, and we won’t know which for about 25 years. Shortly after our return, I received my own accordion, which had been rendered unplayable early in my pregnancy and only recently sent to the repair shop. I’ve never been an ambitious accordion player. For me, playing accordion was both an act of rebellion and an assertion of autonomy. Though it was never a particularly confident or consistent assertion, few things have felt more rewarding than sitting by the fire playing accordion duets and singing with my daughter—her shouting requests, stopping every so often to observe what my hands were doing, making small adjustments to her own, spaces between her tiny fingers on the keyboard, chords forming. Her favorite songs include the Beach Boys’ “In my Room” (which she plays on her own, as those chords are above my paygrade), The Soul Stirrers’ rendition of “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “London Bridge is Falling Down,” Esma Redžepova’s “Mehandžija,” and the Albanian traditional song “Xhyxhyle.” She claps for herself after every song, and when she needs a break from the accordion, she will run over to this funny old Wurlitzer electric organ we have and play there for a while. I took the legs off of it so it could rest on the floor for her, and she crosses her legs and sits at it like some strange plastic avant-harmonium from the 60s. When she tires of that, she’ll gallop—a new skill spontaneously acquired one evening—over to the living room to play the upright for a while. My partner and I have very different musical educations: I learned almost entirely by ear and read just enough music to get by; he was subbing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra before he’d turned 20. But neither of us play piano well, and I think it’s an important part of why we get along. Rosie, however, is instantly musical with the piano—nuance, dynamics, finding octaves, resolving all her pieces—and my instinct says to just stay out of her way and give her a few years like this, all intuition and impulse, before any intervention with pedagogy. We will see if we can agree on it as parents. It’s reflexive to want to guide your child, if you sense them heading in a direction, toward scales or intervals or the early, easy songs many of us learned. I, on the other hand, am fascinated to see what she does without interference and with an instrument constantly at her disposal, making her own rules or no rules. When I think back on my early childhood musical development, the enduring question is how piano might have changed my trajectory. Singing is so internal, kinetic, sympathetic to our emotional states and physical health, and it necessitates constant emotional mediation and psychological work to find a grounded, balanced fluency, as the instrument is one’s very body, sounding. Piano has so much math to it—linear and relational—and when I listen to someone play Bach fugues, I immediately consider them to be a person of superior intellect. Would that I could also have worked to develop my brain in that manner. Maybe I need to start playing piano. I’ll add it to my list.

Mothership Partita
Mothership Partita

I think about how we translate our lived experience into musical expression, about the simultaneous integration and abstraction the process requires. I admit to finding refuge singing in languages I speak only partially or not at all; that abstraction is intrinsic without my needing to work to create it. When I began singing Balkan songs as a child, I understood none of the lyrics precisely and had minimal interest in learning their meanings. I was only interested in falling in love over and over again with melody, and I’m still mostly that way, honestly. With language utterly abstracted and unintelligible to my younger self, I melded the sounds of the words to the melody, fusing them, making them not words but musical syllables. And I loved the vowels, so specific and consistent, that were found in non-English lyrics. With this approach, I could sing about whatever I wanted, more like an instrumentalist might: hidden, protected from the vulnerability of connecting words and emotions so overtly. There are other ways to protect oneself while singing. Many of my teachers, folk singers—who had come up under various communist regimes’ somewhat codified approach to folklore—sang songs less as interpretations, and more as faithful renditions of widely-accepted and often canonized versions of folk songs. Already this was a departure from the folk way of singing, but it was safe and dependable and presentable. Often, it demanded a staid, feminine, and contained presentation by the female singers. I never would be able to shrink and adapt myself to that model and, fortunately, tried to only briefly in early adolescence. My hair, my body, my voice was too unruly and noncompliant for the perfect restraint that was expected. It wasn’t until meeting with an extraordinary woman, Tzvetanka—who was my primary teacher from age 17 to 25—that I was given permission to be myself within a tradition, Bulgarian songs in particular. A consummate musician and most generous teacher, it was under her tutelage that I was able to rediscover my love for Bulgarian traditional songs and then learn to make them my own, something no teacher had ever asked of me before. That blessing from her tasked me with taking ownership of my expression within the tradition. It was a homecoming, and it answered so many previously unresolvable questions I had been carrying in me.

But now I turn to the songs I sing. They are, by the very act of my singing them, songs in diaspora, having left their countries, traditions, singers of origin, and made their way to my body where they sound and resound in their adoptive homeland. These songs have traveled far away from their singers on 8-tracks; unwieldy, temperamental resin 78s or the beloved vinyl that followed; and, later, cassettes. (Really, some of my best music is still on homemade cassettes that I was given as a child.) In my adolescence, the songs and I found each other through painstakingly slow and inefficient, but surprising, means: Napster, in particular. I’d type in any Albanian or Romani word I knew, select all results, leave my computer on and downloading all night long, and then hope to find one or two good songs out of every 100 files. That was an odd migration. With the advent of YouTube, my whole world exploded as everyone’s cassette collection started to appear as mp4s—incredible, personal archives of Roma songs recorded in the 70s through the late 90s. Here was a rabbit hole without end. And then, a few years later, all the great, centralized recording companies from former Yugoslavia—collections created in a complicated but musically more inclusive era—began to digitize their catalogs, so not only would I have access to many more songs and artists, but I could also start to understand who did the arranging and who took that amazing clarinet solo and who was that extraordinary violinist. The songs weren’t just some treasure found while searching at a flea market or the internet, sifting meticulously through terrible pop music for the one vintage gem, but now started to have context and connection. 

That context and connection slowly blended, over years, with my own to move into something beyond rendition. While learning a handful of her songs for a recording project a few years back, I learned about Vida Pavlovic´’s life. At the time my own life was a bit at loose ends in ways that slightly resembled hers (though hers was arguably much more tragic: Vida was a beloved Serbian Roma singer with a life full of sadness, and she died of alcoholism before her 70th birthday.) When it came time to record those songs, my body stopped me; my voice would not cooperate. I became ill. We were too close. It was too tangible, too sad, and I was so scared that, in singing them, our lives would start to match each other’s in the overwhelming melancholy. This, I felt, was the other end of the spectrum from what I’d felt as a young teen. Then, I’d been fighting against how unnatural the disconnected song execution approach felt. Now, my life was being consumed by the songs and the story of the singer and beginning to emulate them. I had to stop myself in my own tracks and work on my life for a few months. Only then could I revisit the repertoire.

So, we want to be able to relate to the old songs we sing. And sometimes this is hard. Our lives are so distant from the time and place and way of life of those who sang them first—sometimes thankfully so, when the subjects are too heavy to bear. I find, though, that the more I live, the more I have to assimilate into my engagement with any given song. And knowing this makes me ever more thankful to be working in traditional music, where one does not age out but rather grows in: into oneself, into the melody, into the words, into what lies beneath in the secret story that is told through the song. With this, I try to console myself in these periods of upheaval—of cancellations and disruptions and the total consumption of mother­hood—by telling myself: The songs will be waiting on the other side, and I will have more to bring to them when we get there.