Remembering Suzanne: An elegy in correspondence

The last email exchange I had with Suzanne Davenport—leader of NYC’s Violin Femmes, instructor at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, and committed tapir conservation enthusiast—was in May of this year. In it, she wrote of a recent tapir benefit concert of hers that I had apologized for missing:

Don’t worry about the missed event. It was absolutely amazing though, I will say, great music, 3 original tapir songs, although not performed by tapirs but fellow artists, we had a surprise guest from Japan who played monk-punk in his traditional Japanese monk outfit and his basket over his head, we had super cute hand knitted tapirs and hand printed tapir shirts – we left few stones unturned and whipped everyone into a tapir frenzy. It went so far that there were knitted Tapir Kidnappings and ransom notes! (Happy ending). All in all totally awesome.

Needless to say, I was pretty crazy about this woman.

Woman standing with tapir animal

Suzanne with a tapir, her favorite

On January 2 of this year, we commiserated about the results of the presidential election. She wrote:

No words. Only 😱😱😱. Even more so I hope to see you in 2017 – we have to stick together!!!

In 2016, when I lamented missing another of her gigs, she replied warmly:

It is so easy to grow apart in the big city, and the Femmes have taken a little bit a different path the last year, but tonight we just rocked it and I think we are back on the prawl (isn’t that a word? The thing big cats do, what’s that called). I am getting better with social media, but still a far cry from what’s possible – it does help to at least FEEL in touch.

In 2015, when I told her I’d moved in with Arthur, she replied hilariously:

April, congratulations to the moving in with the beloved! For me of course it means I can’t send you any cards as I don’t know your address. But honestly, I don’t write that often – you certainly get more out of moving.

I first met Suzanne five years ago through our mutual friend Anya, who also played in the Violin Femmes. In 2014, I wrote about them for Brokelyn. Suzanne had been a professional performing musician in her native Germany, making a good living. When she moved to NYC in 2002, she founded the Violin Femmes to give adult musicians (mostly women over 40) a venue for performing publicly (usually in the subway and on street corners), no matter their level. Why did this pro devote so much time and energy to a music gig that was poised to pay just above diddly squat?

I just really love to give these guys this opportunity to play music with each other. It’s a very democratic band, it’s not “my band;” everybody has the same say in what we do. But on a very small level, I feel that starting and maintaining it has been my contribution to adult music education. It gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. It’s my favorite thing I do musically.

Women playing the violin dressed like Santa

The Violin Femmes rock the NYC subway one fine holiday (Suzanne on the far left)

Suzanne approved of the Brokelyn story, writing to me:

April, that is amazing! You will make us famous.

After that, Suzanne and I got to sending each other the occasional picture postcard or small package containing items such as (according to my journal) an “acorn holly cluster” and sheet music for the Violent Femmes song “Blister in the Sun.” In response to one of her gift boxes, it appears I replied, in part: “Awesome dream your friend had about the golden glasses, though I’m with you that the gift of fun could be just as valuable.” The fact that I can’t remember exactly what delighting volley of Suzanne’s I was replying to is evidence of just how rich the fruits of her friendship were.

Last month, on November 10, Suzanne died suddenly and completely unexpectedly of a heart attack.

While I know she was too cool to have been serious about wanting to get famous, Suzanne did achieve celebrity status in the minds and hearts of her students, collaborators, friends, family members, and everyone she impressed on the streets of New York City with her instant generosity, super-friendly take-no-shit vibe, and of course her musical skill—which were all evident even (or maybe especially) when she was wearing a burlap sack and a Santa hat.

Suzanne’s husband Scott (who, if I remember right, she met at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen over a pack of Pall Malls some years ago), set up this wonderful memorial page for her. When I tied the knot last year, she wrote to me:

I thought I’d never get married and it’s one of the best things I have done. 💝

Of course, all of this is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. I wasn’t even a close friend of Suzanne’s, and still she maintained a thoughtful and enchanting correspondence with me for years. I never felt she had forgotten about me, or wouldn’t be happy to see me at her next show or for a sit-down pint-and-chat. Especially in the ‘big city,’ cultivating such an easy familiarity over time and distance is rare. But Suzanne was rare.

My heart goes out to Scott and everyone else who knew and loved Suzanne. I think she would be glad to know that she’s given us all so many good experiences and lessons. In a frenetic and selfish world, she modeled how to stick together—namely, by showing up, in every way, every time. Now, she reminds us to regard our lives and relationships as the miraculous and chancy gifts they are. Thank you, Suzanne. Your genius will live on.

Inking my summer vacation

Arthur and I are bound for Europe tomorrow, to enjoy two and a half weeks of burning hot Mediterranean sun; explaining our vegetarianism in broken Italian, Polish, Czech, and Hungarian; and attending the weddings of two lovely and sophisticated women we do not know well.

I’ve been nose to the grindstone for the past few weeks preparing to basically shut down my freelance biz for the better part of August. Woo! I also tasked myself with the related duty of finishing my last journal and buying a new one to start on the trip. Last Friday, I done did it!

Goodbye, old friend; hello, new... friend

Goodbye, old friend; hello, new… friend

I always feel way too smugly satisfied when I retire a finished journal (do you know how much genius is in there??), but then I’m always proportionately humbled when I realize how daunted I feel when faced with all those brand-new, blank pages.

I guess parts of Europe are at least marginally inspiring. So here’s to jump-starting the new spiral guy with quotes overheard at smoky outdoor cafes, stories about making out in the shadows of really old churches, and old-school overnight train tickets pressed between the pages.

Essence of Self: not just a spa in New Jersey

I chanced to peep a sign reading Essence of Self across the street from the Ringwood, New Jersey Park-n-Ride this past weekend, on my way to my first solo writing retreat. My first thought was “Awesome name!” My second was, “Hey, maybe it’s also significant…”

I decided to go on a weekend writing retreat by myself because: a) I’ve heard from many other writers that they’re super beneficial, b) I wanted to earmark some time to work specifically on the personal writing endeavors I’d lately been neglecting (namely my journal and a story about a guy I met who hands out these funny business cards), and c) I’m smitten with the idea of one day embarking on a longer-term silent meditation retreat, but know I don’t have the cojones yet. Baby steps!

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What I found following my sunny 36-ish hours at the pretty amazing Castle at Skylands Manor (yes! I stayed in a Castle!! somehow, it wasn’t expensive) was:

  • A renewed appreciation for the sound of water bubbling up from a fountain
  • A renewed appreciation for my busy, wonderful life in the city
  • A reminder that bug spray season is here
  • At least 10 new big-ass journal pages had been filled with tightly-spaced handwriting
  • The realization that even if the only book I ever publish is a self-bound volume that describes years of my travels and social life in unnecessary detail, I’ll still be very happy (because that’s apparently the kind of thing I love to read)

All in all, time well spent. Now, back to the incessant ice cream truck jingles and sooty windowsills of my home in Williamsburg!

Fellow scribes (or anyone): Have you gone on a solo creative-type retreat somewhere? What was it like?