Friday, October 27, 2017

The Girl I Once Knew

This week, I stepped into my house in Nashville for the first time in over a year. It was like stepping into an art installation made by someone I used to know – me, two or three years ago.
I came here to check on the house, to get a few sewing supplies and clothes to take back to England, and to do a little business in Nashville. But, instead, I am staring into a mirror at a person I might not have seen in a while. This person began collecting little treasures from the time she was a girl for “one day” when she would set up house. She has a set of pink tin children’s kitchen furniture, an array of china tea cups on her mantel, vintage cameras lined up like soldiers ready to shoot, and vintage soda pop bottles pulled out of old houses and flea markets keeping watch over the kitchen. She has a Hoosier cabinet, an Arts and Crafts desk, a pink ceramic water pitcher for her hairbrushes, and a pink melamine sugar bowl for her dental floss. She has a tiny green TV from Hershey Park and, when she looks in the peephole on the back and pushes the button on the bottom of it, she is transported to when she was ten years old, holding the hand of her grandmother and smelling chocolate.
I like this girl. I think we could be best friends. 
This house was built in 1912 and has had only three owners, including me. The single sisters whose father built the house lived here until they died and hardly changed a thing as far as a can tell. The wood work has never been painted. The mantlepieces are in tact. The floors have never been stripped and “re-done.” The kitchen looks to have had an update in 1960. The almond appliances date from circa 1985. No dishwasher, just an electric range and boxy fridge. This house is the perfect setting for my teal plastic sugar and flour bins, for my tasseled lamp shades, for my super 8 film projectors. The house and my things are merry together.
I walked into this house with an aim to figure out which things I was going to take over to England at some point. But, honestly, the idea of dismantling this walk-in sculpture fills me with dread. My traveling companion once told me about an artist who took over an empty store front in London and made an art of dismantling and destroying all of his possessions. This is the image that buzzes through my mind as I look at my Elvis-whisky-decanter-music-box. I feel faintly sick.
My traveling companion says I should open my house to the public and charge admission. This idea, I like. Because, actually, not many people have been to the house or seen the installation. I remember when some friends visited from England a few years ago. They said they felt they’d walked into a home magazine, but a very quirky one that didn’t exist, and they started taking pictures.
Maybe, I’ll enter the Christmas home tour in 2018. Maybe, I will turn my house into a very quirky Air B&B or furnished rental. Maybe, I will wait and think about it all another time. I have learned in this last year of tumult, that the picture becomes clearer in time, and the path forward sometimes opens like a ten cent child’s fan with a picture of the thing that means the most in the world to you.
The house is rented until sometime next year. The ceramic elephants and bakelite napkin rings will stand sentinel until I return. And the girl I once knew? She’s still around, and, I must admit, she has a little collection of thirty pence, tiny ceramic ladies on my mantlepiece in London. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Age of the News Buffet

Remembering America: Reports on Returning home after nine months in Britain.
Laurel, Maryland:For a woman whose grandad and parents owned small-town newspapers, I am strangely phobic about the news. My phobia probably started when I was a kid and couldn’t even read the news, but still I couldn’t bear the feeling of inked newsprint on my fingers. 
My parents have said that I was easily distressed when my hands got dirty and newsprint felt dirty. The smell of newspaper gave me a headache – that black inky oily smell.
In college, when I worked for my grandfather’s newspaper in the summer, I remember going into the room with the big press on “paper day” and joining the other employees in “stuffing the paper,” one section into another. We wore clean surgical gloves and soon they were black with the ink that I had watched the pressman smear into the feeder tray below the giant metal rollers. News is dirty.
I don’t like arguing or arguments, and I like overhearing arguments even less, so listening to people talk over each other on the radio or watching them raise their eyebrows and curl their lips on TV is excruciating for me.
And, let’s face it, the news is generally troubling, and though many people can shake it off or listen dispassionately as the sky seems to fall around our heads, I carry all of the muddy grimness of the news with me like a pocketful of stones all day long.
So, I straddle the line between making myself aware of the major happenings, but reluctant to the let the volume of news drag me, seduce me, into depression in a show of being informed.
Though some of my friends find it appalling, when I am in the UK, I tend to catch up on the top stories and weather in a matter of minutes by watching a bit of BBC Breakfast (think The Today Show, but less showy). And I supplement my BBC Breakfast plate with a few tune-ins to Radio 4 and the six o’clock news here and there throughout the week. Add to this the occasional newspaper found on the tube, and I don’t live in a vaccuum. 
BUT, here at the hotel in Maryland, they’ve had CNN in the breakfast area every morning. This has been a shock, a baptism by Wolf-Blitzer-Anderson-Cooper-fire. Las Vegas, Melania and Ivana, forest fires, Trump and Corker, Nuclear War, Harvey Weinstein, the Light Phone, FEMA in Puerto Rico, Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and the run-up to the World Series. 
The thing about 24 hour news is that everything, but nature of being smushed together, is made equal, so Melania and Ivana’s spat over which of them is the actual first lady (does anyone remember this story from four days ago?) gets the same weight as new evidence about the Las Vegas shooter. 
In newspapers, you have the front page, which tends to push one story to the top. But who chooses what is tops? The Editor. And who is the editor?
Harvey Weinstein was an editor of sorts, it turns out – choosing the women who would succeed in the lucrative global film business based on whether they would watch him shower or . . . But on the other hand, NY Times Editor, Dean Baquet, chose to run the breaking story that outed Weinstein for his despicable behavior. Bad behavior, good behavior. Bad editor, Good editor. How do we know we can trust the editor? And how long do we wait to find out that someone we thought was trustworthy, worthy of presenting stories, worthy of speaking from some moral high ground, is unworthy? Then what do we do with our Bill Cosby records?
In that case does 24 hour news come closer to the truth? If we put all of the stories next to each other in an unbroken line, do we become the editors based on our own biases, for better or worse? What is better? Curated news and putting our trust in editors? Or having the events laid out in front of us – a salacious buffet of events?
This news buffet is probably best exemplified by the State by State section of the USA Today where the paper presents a short news item by each state all on one page. So a man who claimed aliens filled him with drink stands alongside a major drug bust or an elderly person found sitting in a ravine. What’s more important? You decide.
And what is the importance of deciding on what is more important? Isn’t this, in some way, the great question of life? What is most important.
Now that I am leaving the hotel and looking at several weeks of homestays, I will see less of CNN.
So, as a farewell, I can only say that I proclaim this the age of the news buffet. And in that spirit, I give you my American pictorial week in review, in no order of importance.

The Light Phone and Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne can get you into trouble. When I got to the airport in Baltimore, I thought I could simply switch the sim card in my iPhone from the British one to the American one just like Jason Bourne does in Berlin. This proved about as easy as switching my citizenship from the USA to the UK, which is to say difficult. 
That would have been alright, except I had turned down the GPS (SATNAV) option at the rental car desk, assuming that I, Jennifer Bourne, could use the maps app on my iPhone to get from the airport to the hotel.
So, there I was fluttering out onto the roads of Maryland in my lovely Nissan Versa Note with no map and no way to call any friend in the area who might direct me to my Laurel hotel. Ok, don’t panic.
I used my vague geographical knowledge of the greater Baltimore area to head south on I-95 and started looking for an exit where I could go to a gas station and buy a map. WARNING: Most gas stations don’t sell maps anymore. But I also had a scant memory from when I booked my hotel that the same chain I chose, had a sister hotel in Arundel Mills where I found the gas station. And that sister hotel was across the street from the mapless gas station. Yes!
I stopped in at the hotel front desk where the smiley night manageress printed directions for me to the Laurel hotel and I finally made it to my downy duvet in Laurel after being greeted by smiley Bruce at the front desk.
No phone, no problem But, yes, a bit of gumption required.
And this brings me to the big tech news just out today – the launch of the “light phone” – a credit card sized phone which takes forwarded calls from your real cell phone and also stores nine numbers for outgoing calls.
According to the inventors, the “light phone” allows us to untether ourselves from addictive enslaving screens that seduce us with promises of productivity and woo us away from “real” connections and experiences. The phone, in colors “white” and “night,” starts arriving on doorsteps at the end of October packaged in a hardback book full of nature photographs.
If you are getting one of these phones, please don’t think I’m against it. After watching the nifty video of their fabricators in Yantai, China, I feel their pull. But let’s just stop for a second and think about this.
In order to “go light,” we are encouraged to spend $150 and $5 a month maintenance to add another plastic device and its little charging cable to our lives in order to free ourselves from heavy cyber-enslavement, from always being available, from being owned by our screens?
Remember gumption? Free will?
Can’t we just decide to turn off our phones? Leave them behind sometimes? Just not look at them?
Do we have the willpower to use our phones to take a photograph without checking our 17 Facebook and Instagram notifications?
The “light phone” inventors are counting on, even more to the point, banking on the assumption that we don’t. We can’t.
They assumed that we don’t have that gumption. So, we need training wheels to let go of our Google alerts. If we are going to stare at trees or take a walk with our girlfriend in the park, we don’t need apps, but, wait for it, we do need “peace of mind.” So, we’ll still carry a phone in case a grizzly bear jumps out from the trees or someone flashes us on our walk in the park.
When Grandaddy Hankins took my Dad and Uncle Tom across America in a big station wagon in the 1960s, he did it without a “peace of mind” phone. He had quarters for the payphone, I suppose, and they had a big ole map which my Dad traced with his finger through grizzly-bear territory. They had a spare tire and a jack, too. They had the kindness of strangers at the gas station, like the two Latino men at the gas station who tried to give me directions to Laurel.
The Brooklyn “light phone” inventors are banking on the assumption that the soul-sucking smart phones and tablets have left us so little gumption that we will buy their device, so that we don’t have to go cold turkey and drive across America with a big ole map. They are banking on the idea that we don’t have anything left in us of our ancestors who stepped onto a boat with very little chance of seeing their homeland again. They hope that we won’t just turn our rental car onto the interstate and find our own way in the dark.

Fruit Loops

The Reports are back!
Remembering America: Reports on Returning home after nine months in Britain. 
Laurel, Maryland: The man wearing a cell phone and Tabasco sauce holster at breakfast. How all of the warmers, cabinets, and tools were toylike, down to the automatic pancake maker which rolled out two little pancakes like the playdough ones we had as kids. The friendliness of everyone from the rental car gal to the man from Ghana wearing red shoes in the elevator. Remembering words like "elevator" and "cell phone" instead of "lift" and "mobile."
Seeing the Fruit Loops in the carousel of cereals and remembering how much Dad loved them at the end of his life. He knew how much I loved them, too, when I was a kid. Remembering when I visited him in the hospital during the last weeks, after returning home from England, and him opening his bedside table drawer to reveal two rows of single-serve Fruit Loop containers and saying, "Look Kid, I saved you some."
When I held the door of the refrigerator open for the man after getting my milk, he said, "You're good. I'll get mine in a minute." And thinking how an unassuming slangy expression like "you're good" has a deep generosity about it, especially when said with a southern accent by a plain-spoken person. You're good. Everything is alright between us strangers. Peace be with you and only Tabasco in our holsters.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Back in the USA Tour!

First. Let me say how sad I am about the violence in Las Vegas. I had the honor of playing for the United Mine Workers of America at their convention in Las Vegas several years ago and, last year, I spent two days before Christmas in Las Vegas where I took respite between two weeks of rough camping in the Mojave desert. I associate Las Vegas with two of the signature moments of my adult life and I encountered so much joy and good will on both occasions that I would welcome any chance to return to that glittering city in the sands. Let us never lose hope that people will choose peace over violence in times to come. 

I’m on my way to the USA this week. Huge thanks to all of my friends and hosts in the UK for making this a great year of touring for me, so far. This is my first year of touring solo and I’ve had a blast thanks to your enthusiasm and encouragement. Thank you from way deep down in my heart.

My first American concerts are coming up quickly – Soup and Song House Concert in Marriottsville on Saturday (7 Oct) and the RothOverby House Concert in Falls Church on Sunday (8 Oct). 
Then my travels will take me to Kennett Square near Philadelphia for a house concert hosted by Susan & Rob (Sat, 14 Oct). See contact info at the bottom of this letter if you’d like to come!

And, after that, I will make a rare concert appearance in my own hometown! Thanks very much to the folks at the Appalachian Arts Center and Southwest Virginia Community College for inviting me!

In November, I will be playing several library concerts in Florida, especially around the greater Tampa area, and also in Lakeland. There may be a house concert in Gainesville . . . stay tuned for a newsletter in early November for more. I will also be returning to Huntsville, Alabama, to play for the folks at NAMI who do vital work to support families with mental illness.

Many folks from the Naples area have written to ask why I’m not playing at the libraries there and I will have to find a new venue in Naples! The libraries have undergone a significant re-structuring after event co-ordinator Patti DeGroot retired a few years ago. So, if you’d like to host a house concert in Naples or Marco Island OR if your church or community center can offer a space at a low or no cost, then I would be very glad to give a ticketed concert in Naples. There may be just enough time to plan something for November. So, write to me with your suggestion or idea!

Because many of the October concerts are house concerts, I am going to give you some contact information for those at the bottom of this letter. Seating is limited at the concerts in Falls Church and Kennett Square, so please do email them ahead of the day to see if there is room!

My NEW CD, The Oxygen Girl, is for sale at bandcamp where I get more of the proceeds of the sale OR CDbaby where you can buy all kinds of independent music! You can buy a physical copy of the CD or a digital copy or both!

The Oxygen Girl got a terrific review in Folkworks! Art Podell says:

From the first note she sings on her new CD, The Oxygen Girl, Jeni Hankins can’t be mistaken for anyone else. She’s your best pal sharing a song and a cup at the kitchen table. Friendly, warm, Virginia daughter, real.

The Oxygen Girl is a patchwork of events and places seen through the eyes of a young woman seeking resolution and healing. Each song is a time-stamp of a moment in her life. The songs hop-scotch back and forth across the Atlantic like a travelogue whose pages have been disassembled and reassembled, and end in a tribute to the young father Jeni lost in 2016 and whose memory haunts every song on her journey. Sharing a chapter in a life is not an easy thing to accomplish. It’s accomplished in The Oxygen Girl.

The presence and excellence of the inspired playing, engineering, guidance and spirit of multi-instrumentalist and producer Craig Eastman cannot be overlooked if one is to understand the simplicity of the message and how rigorously it is protected. The musical bonds that connect Craig and Jeni and their singleness of vision is obvious throughout. 

A fleshy and personal slice of a woman’s year-long vagabond journey.”

Wow! I am tickled with that! To read the full review, go here!

Ok, time to pack my suitcase! See you soon!

Smiles and peace,


For more info or directions to the following concerts, here you go:

Saturday, Oct 7, 7 pm, Soup & Song House Concert, Marriottsville, MD:
Sunday, Oct 8, 2pm, RothOverby House Concert, Falls Church, VA:
Saturday, Oct 14, 7pm, Susan & Rob House Concert, Kennett Square, PA:

And you can always find concert details on my website tour page.