Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kali Time

In yoga class on Friday, my teacher talked about the goddess, Kali. Unlike some of her colleagues, she is not a lovely vision of refinement and beauty. Instead, she's kind of grotesque, with a blue face, her tongue sticking out and a necklace of skulls around her neck. "She wears her insides on her outsides," my teacher explained. She's the goddess of death, of dissolution, of decay. She's the goddess of time, too, and when we see deeply, we see how wonderful she is. "The beautiful leaves, when they die and fall off the trees, fertilize the earth for the next season," said my teacher.

I could see that. If there were no death, this planet would be even more hopelessly overpopulated than it is now. Of course we know this in theory, but that doesn't make it any easier when we lose someone we love. And while my greatest struggle these days is my story that there is "not enough time," the truth is that our time limitations are tremendous gifts, because they force us to make choices. It's within the framework of these choices that we see what really matters to us. It's within this construct that we live our lives.

There is no equivalent in Greek mythology to Kali. The closest goddess of this kind might be Hera who, though beautiful, was jealous and vicious. Medusa is very Kali-esque, but she was no goddess, just a punk Gorgon.

In the Tantric tradition, which is the school of yoga in which I am immersed, Kali represents the Ultimate Reality, Byron Katie's What Is, which I continue to believe is nearly as helpful to worship as that loving, steadfast God/Mother of my own understanding. My hope is that over time, these two will merge for me, but I'm not that wise yet. I respect Kali in her guise as What Is. I love my conception of God––Father, Mother, Black Madonna, Holy Spirit–– the way I love my parents, husband, children, sisters, dear ones.

Kali followed me around all day on Friday, and by evening when our I Wanna Be A Woman Like Me creativity retreat started, she had me by the throat and insisted I dedicate the weekend to her. It was good timing; as I posted last week, we are full on within the season of Scorpio, which is Kali time for sure. Scorpio is about going deep; it's about death; it's about psychological probing, turning inwards, meeting our deepest fears about being unlovable, not good enough, not having enough. And, when we bravely go "down there" and meet these fears, sit with them as if they weren't monsters until they cease to be, we rise like the phoenix, or the Scorpion Golden Eagle, and we are given the gift of sight.

So we gathered together, thirteen amazing women, and wrote together, bringing forth our inner Kali and forging the kind of bond you only get when you are brave enough to share deeply. We ate delicious healthy food. We painted and drew and sang in three-part harmony. On Saturday night, in her father's arms en route to bed, Elle announced in a small, shy voice, "I want to be a woman like me."

I figure my work is pretty much done now.

So many highlights. One big one was that this was the first time Katyrna has co-lead with me, and what a joy to work with her! I think we should go into business together. (Oh, yeah...) It was awe inspiring to watch the magic happen with each woman as she brought forth her inner treasures. I felt refreshed and renewed and reminded again about how much I love to draw and paint and color and work with my hands.

On Sunday, we made vision boards. I had intended to do the whole The Secret thing with mine; trying to manifest HUGE THINGS FOR MY CAREER! through pasting images onto a board and searing them into my consciousness. So I took a photo my mother had sent me of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday party last May. Onstage is Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Pete himself. I cut out an image of myself playing the guitar and glued it into the picture so that if you squint it sort of looks like I'm on stage with them all. But then my collage got away from me. I ripped through a bunch of yoga journals and kept being drawn to the face of Angela Farmer, a 71-year-old yoga teacher from the Greek island of Lesbos.

So I pasted her in. Then I cut out and glued on some family photos that had been waiting to be organized, some more yoga poses, some quotations, an image of a lovely painting of a farmhouse. So much for my grand ambitions. Later in the evening after the retreatants had gone home, I sat in meditation and visualized myself on stage with those luminaries from the photo. I was able to do it easily; after all, I actually have been onstage with Joan, Tao and Pete, and it wasn't too much of a stretch to put Bruce and Dave M up there too. So I put myself on stage with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, definitely my two greatest musical heroes who are still alive. Again, not too hard. It would be fun to be onstage with them, but when I think about the end of my life, lying on my deathbed, pouring through my dearest memories, I suspect that even if I were to be onstage with any of the above, those memories wouldn't crack my top 100. What I want for my future today is deep, loving connections with my husband, children, sisters, parents; I want a strong, healthy body that grows more flexible with age, that weathers well. I want an ever deepening connection with all the forms of God, even the scary ones. I want to love. I want the vision of my vision board, which as it turns out, is a pretty clear reflection of what I already have.

Thank you, Kali.


The Nields-Duffy house is a veritable house of virus currently. Elle's teacher is in the hospital across the street with H1N1 (maybe-she's being treated for it but they can't diagnose yet), and three of four of us have succumbed to a stomach virus (Jay has thus far been protected by breast milk antibodies). Our two main babysitters both bowed out at certain (critical) moments last week.

On Halloween, I dragged myself out of the house and trotted down the road into town to a yoga class. It was warm and drizzly, and the room was packed. Someone passed a blond wig around the room, and our teacher Amy finally put it on the statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God who can take a joke. Halloween, she said, is the pagan new year, also known as Samhein, pronounced "Sowen" (sow like cow, emphasis on first syllable.) It's the time of year when we turn to the darkness, we turn within. The root of "intention" is connected to "turn." (Yes, we did some twists in class). The world gets darker and darker for the next six weeks, and this darkness is the best, most auspicious time to plant these seeds of intention.

It's also the season of Scorpio, the sign of death, depth, determination and occasionally despair. Scorpio is known as the scorpion, but the lesser known avatar is the golden eagle, who rises up like a phoenix and sees farther and better than any other creature. So this is the season of seeing deeply, as well.

So it was fitting that the day after Halloween we also lost an hour of daylight in the afternoon, which always prompts me to turn inward in the evening, cozy up a bit earlier to the kitchen table and put on an extra sweatshirt. Tom and Elle planted last fall's garlic buds on Sunday, and we went up to our church for the first time in weeks. I sang a new song, "Back at the Fruit Tree," my ode to Samheim, and Steve preached about the slow recession of fear in his own experience which gave me great hopes for my future years.

I love this season of Scorpio, as brutal as it can be. I used to be afraid of it, but a dear friend many many years ago told me that if I were willing to sit with my worst fears, really stay with them, they would lose their bite and become like sad and lovable dogs. That friend died in a car crash on Halloween eight years ago.

This season––the six weeks between Halloween and Christmas–– holds such opposites in union, and like magnets whose poles are aligned against each other, the opposites slide off each other in jarring ways. On Sunday afternoon, a perfect New England fall day, as I started my run through the park, marveling at the mottled light through the few still clinging leaves, I saw that someone had spray painted racist slurs and "white power" on the road and the signs and the benches. My mind swung like a pendulum: Horrible! Those kids should be locked away! But they're just confused kids. But so were the kids at Columbine! Beware! Stop them! Lock them up! But silencing them like that will only make them martyrs for other confused kids. And so on.

Halloween contains this truly horrifying aspect, as well as the more traditional graveyard kinds of fears; and it contains the parade shuffling down Main Street in Northampton; a collection of giraffes, princesses, pirates, witches, Star Wars and Wizard of Oz characters and portable-sized ladybugs. It contains the trilling of little voices finding their power in "trick or treat!"

And the season has its share of dark days where it's still too soon for the reprieve of the white snow cover to relieve our eyes; where many of us legitimately feel the spiral down into the darkness and fear that we'll never bounce back up. I don't feel this way today. In years past, I've thought I had SAD. This year, I am embracing the darkness. (Also turning on the lights in the house and playing a lot of music.)

Last week I posted about my disappointment in seeing various aspects of aging in my 42-year-old face. As I grieved my twenties and my twenty-eight-year-old skin which is as dead as the Berlin Wall, I told Tom, "This is going to be good. I need to do this now so I can move past it and embrace aging. But right now I need to be sad." And so I was for a few days. Good and sad. Viruses are helpful with this, in that being sick forced me to be still and contemplate. As the life returned to me, I tried on a bunch of old clothes from the 90s and I and my inner 28-year-old both agreed that they were passe anyway. I put on a sweater from J. Jill and my clunky practical shoes and made some phone calls to older friends who can laugh and sigh and nod and remember what it was like to be 42, right at the midpoint where some still call you young and some, according to my husband who is 47, have no qualms about calling out, "Hey, old man!" as we pass on down the street. And what I learned is that if you love what is, life just gets better and better and richer and sweeter. My grandmother's cheeks were the softest skin I ever felt. Her hands with what she called "liver spots" were so gentle. In my yoga class on Halloween, as I sat in meditation, I vowed to love my body incrementally more with each day that passes. And does my body deserve it! It's survived two pregnancies and childbirths, breastfeeding, not to mention the ridiculous shoes I made it wear in the 90s when every night we loaded in and out of rock clubs around the country, a feat akin to moving a small apartment twice a day.

And my intention goes beyond my own body. Liberation for all who struggle with the jowels and the wattles and the gray hairs! The most radically feminist thing I can do is choose to love my body exactly as it is, exactly as it changes day to day. I think Anne Lamott has a piece in which she discusses her jiggly thighs and refers to them as "the aunties." I love that. In this season of the witch, let's claim Halloween as our own celebration of the crone. My former mother-in-law told us, after she turned sixty, that she suddenly became invisible to the culture. Older women, she said, are either vilified, ridiculed or ignored. But real witches, real crones have wisdom, kindness, power and magic. They are full of the mystery of life, which they generously share if asked nicely. If I ever forget that, I have only to think of my friend who died on Halloween, one of the wisest, most generous, magical women I've ever known.

When I was a young teen, the idea that a woman could rock out was hard for me to get my mind around. There was Heart. There was Pat Benatar. There had once been Janis Joplin, but she was long gone. But by the time I was in my twenties, the popular music scene was dominated by women. Same with Country. Same with Jazz. Though the pendulum seems to have swung a bit the other way in the last decade, I have no doubt it will swing again. I have no doubt that we'll see a woman president in my life time. And I choose to believe that older women will be a powerful, wonderful, inspiring force in the world in the next twenty years. I have to. I see the generation of girls coming along, and there is no force on the planet that can hold these young ladies back.

And if I'm wrong about the power shift, the paradigm shift, that's ok too. The shift has occurred in me. I will still love my aging face, the aging faces of my friends, the graying, the sagging. It's such a waste of time and love not to.

So happy Samhein; happy new year. What is the darkness in you that you think can't afford to be met with light? Is it safe in there? Can you go to it and nurture it, like a mother to an inborn babe? Can you plunge down into the darkness, and like the eagle, rise up, see far, and tell the rest of us what you see? Can you go by yourself, knowing that in just a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving, and you can choose to invite in those you most adore to hunker down with and eat the fruits of the harvest, of all your hard work?

That's what I'm planning on.

Smiles Raise Jowls

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with infinite sighing.
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfillment.
-Derek Mahon

I love this time of year. There is nothing more beautiful to my eyes than the light shining into my bedroom in mid-afternoon, filtered through the golden maples leaves to the west; the unflinching blue of the sky, the stateliness of the oaks, still holding on to their leaves when other trees are bare. I love the dying gardens, the shock of the asters and mums still blooming in my neighbor's garden. Are you still here? I ask them as I pass on my morning run. Meanwhile, i am solidly in long johns and wool socks, refusing to leave the house without some ludicrous head covering.

But this year the dying of the light is getting to me, as is the general mood of anxiety about H1N1 and the recent plunging of the Dow. Last Friday, I scrambled to get to a hair appointment which I'd broken once already because I'd double booked myself. As I sat in front of the mirror, I noticed to my horror that my face had fallen.

Is this even an expression people still use? My mother told me, when she was my age and I was fifteen or so, that faces fall, "like this," she said, pulling the skin on either side of her mouth down, creating jowls. "A face lift is when the doctor pulls it all back up and sews it behind your ears. You can see the wrinkles in old people behind their ears where the pulled-up skin would go." She made noises about not ruling out a face lift now that she was "that age." (For the record, she never did it, nor does she dye her hair which is still, in her mid-sixties, mostly dark brown. I have inherited my father's hair.)

So there I was, forced to stare at my reflection for an hour and a half. Usually I like to do this. I have a practice that's all about engaging myself in the mirror and telling myself kind things to make up for the abuse I hurled on my reflection as a nineteen year old. But something in the fallen jowls bummed me out, and that line from "Maggie Mae" went around and around in my head: "The morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age."

I really thought I'd be more evolved than this, so part of my angst was a disappointment in myself for being so vain. I wrote a song about plastic surgery in 1992, so now I can never have it, which is good, because I am terrified of knives. But somehow I thought I'd be immune to certain aspects of the aging process, like, oh, the whole wrinkles thing, the neck wattle, the sagging, the spread. Pretty much all of it, actually. Somehow last Friday, it felt like one of those storms that arrives this time of year and whips the last of the red and orange leaves off the trees in one fell swoop, changing the season from autumn to fall overnight.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that there are some people who are always going to focus on the first noble truth of Buddhism ("Life is suffering") and some others who are going to focus on the third ("There is a way out of suffering.") The greater part of my spiritual work is about deep acceptance. I am like the prisoners of infinite choice in the poem above, and I have been saved over and over by having limits forced upon me and then figuring out why that limit is the best thing that ever happened to me. But I also believe some of that Law of Attraction stuff about manifesting our desires. It certainly seems to happen to me on a pretty regular basis. (But not all the time.) I am after all a life coach, and the bulk of my work is to see ways in which suffering can be alleviated.

We had a show at the Iron Horse on Friday. These shows tend to be restorative. They are opportunities for us to take a good accounting of where we are artistically. We tend to debut new material at the Horse, and Friday was no exception. In fact, I had spent the previous week in a frenzy of songwriting, finishing two songs and writing two more besides. On Friday, before the fated hair appointment, I had missed my yoga class because George Harrison (our chocolate lab) had wandered out of our yard when sleep-deprived Tom had opened the gate instead of closing it. (I didn't mention that last week, and this week too, our children have re-discovered that when they cry for us in the night, we respond. They are liking this a lot, and no one is sleeping much.) So Tom went looking for George while I brought Elle to school and was too late for yoga. Instead, I came back home and wrote an entire new song in about a half-hour.

We arrived at the club, my two kids in tow, our beloved Patty not there because she was recovering in New Jersey from having donated her kidney to her sister's husband's nephew. It felt so strange not to see her there; she's an integral part of our Iron Horse experience, not to mention we were concerned for her recovery. Elle had dressed me in a shirt that fit me in the 90s. On Friday, its silky buttons kept opening at inopportune moments onstage. Our dear friend Jonas was filming the show. My dentist was in the audience, as was my minister and some of my best friends. Elle and Jay ran back and forth in the aisles, and as I sang and tried to keep my shirt closed, I kept track of their comings and goings.

The show was not sold out. I am not sure if this was the first time we had failed to sell out the club, but it certainly was the most noticeable. Capacity is 180, and our ticket sales were 140, so it wasn't terrible, just not the usual manic energy one receives from a full house. I watched the stories swirl around about aging and diminishing numbers and concentrated instead on authenticity and the way my sister's voice sounds when mine joins it; the fun of playing with Dave Chalfant and the magical elements he brings to our music. We debuted two new songs and I felt vital again, the way I only can when we are singing new stuff.

But part of me went to that place of being mad at myself for not working harder to envision a sold-out show, to manifest a Beatles-like career, to be a straight A student in the music world. Part of me is still struggling with acceptance about the numbers. Part of me still takes it personally, even though numbers are down at the Iron Horse, among all of my other musician friends and across the board in the music world, folk, pop, rock, hip hop, even country. Why would it be different for me?

A few things helped right off the bat. I remembered that whenever I feel this way, I'm about to hit my edge and see things differently. Nirvana is samsara, and samsara is nirvana. Sadness and grief always lead to epiphany and a new re-ordering. We grow. Also, I had to go to the dentist to have a filling replaced. By the time I came in, it was Tuesday and I had mostly digested the spiritual lessons of the weekend. I was grateful again: grateful that I have had exactly the life I have. Grateful for library books, for the color of my son's hair, for the warm sunny days we had at the end of the weekend, for my yoga practice. On Monday I had gone to a different class (because my teacher was sick) and learned the term Anava Mala, which roughly translated means, "a limited, veiled view of the soul; a minimizing view." When we are in this mode, we experience a false duality. We see ourselves as separate from God, and our ego blooms. I did my practice and reconnected with my body, wept for being so mean to my jowls and forgave myself for my vanity. So I was in a better place in the dentist's chair than in the hairdresser's.

My dentist and her assistant had photos up of all sorts of scenes in nature, including shots of lions and South American primates as well as their two dogs. I meditated on the photos as they drilled and vacuumed, and I began to worry about their livelihood. Does a dentist make enough money in this economy? My dentist is extremely reasonably priced, and I calculated her hourly rate and the number of employees she has, and became concerned. Then I thought about how much this might be costing me; I'd neglected to ask. Oh, well, I thought. Whatever it costs, I am glad to support these folks. I love them. And I did. I just felt waves of love fill me, even as my tooth was being drilled. Eventually they took the purple mouth dam out of my jaws and I was able to blurt out, "I just love you guys! You do such amazing work!"

"Well," said my dentist. "I wanted to tell you the same thing. We were really moved by your show on Friday. And so we want to offer you--you and your family and Katryna's family--a permanent discount on dental services. Because of the work you guys do for the community."

Gifts come in all sorts of ways. As an audience member, I much prefer a moderately full room to a sold out show. The people who came to our show had a great time; no one other than we cared or noticed that every chair wasn't filled.
And smiles raise jowls. That's the best plastic surgery there is. I'll take my two kids outdoors on a sunny autumn Sunday over the version of me who became a huge pop star any day. Anyway, that version is off somewhere in the afterlife of dead leaves. God bless her.

Marmoset Thoughts

Please don't throw eggs at me for posting this picture of Cesar Millan, AKA "The Dog Whisperer." I know some of you have strong feelings about his horribleness as a dog trainer (see under "comments" here) and I want to reassure you that I am not endorsing him in any way as such. In fact, I did rent three Netflix discs worth of his TV show and was only able to watch one and a half episodes of the program, each clocking in at 20 minutes. I found the show strange and disturbing and not entertaining, so I sent the discs back (also giving up on training my dog George Harrison, but that's another story. George Harrison is great, by the way. Totally not pooping on the carpet and mostly not eating our food since we started keeping it on top of the refrigerator.)

This particular image comes from Sunday's New York Times. I am posting it because I have a huge marmoset reaction to it every time it enters my field of vision.

The marmoset reaction is a term coined by my mentor, Martha Beck. She uses it to denote the look one has when one does a double-take, as marmosets are famous for doing (when something interests them, they kind of twirl their heads and bug their eyes out). She says we need to pay close attention to these reactions in ourselves because they are pointing us to the truth (or at least to something really cool, something one simply must have like this Irish cable knit sweater which I covet. I've wanted one since I was sixteen and my former best friend Leila Corcoran showed up from boarding school one Columbus Day weekend wearing one, but I digress, and I'm not sorry. In fact, I am going to find a picture of it and post it now.)

Anyway, as I examined my strong positive reaction to this image of Cesar Millan, I realized what impresses me most is his carriage. I was impressed with his carriage in the Dog Whisperer videos too. He stands with such natural authority, so full-chested, leading with his heart the way my Anusara yoga teachers do. Would you mess with him? I wouldn't.

My family spent four blissful days in the mountains of the Adirondacks, a place we spend as much of our free time as possible. I have been coming to a small town in the high peaks since I was a baby (before then, actually, but again: another story) and I find the mountain air, the lack of internet, the birches, the bald peaks refresh me more consistently and predictably than anything else. My whole family loves it there, and part of the fun is the four hour drive during which we listen to my iPod. On Friday's drive, we found a talk by Martin Seligman on TEDTalks, a wonderful and amazing resource that all should discover. Seligman has been studying the art of happiness for over thirty years, and as such, he tell us that there are three kinds of happiness one may pursue in order to live a "happy" life.

The first is to seek and attain a life of pleasure and positive emotions. Pleasure is defined by gaining sensory delights: food, sex, beautiful vacation homes, Irish cable knit sweaters, etc. Positive emotions come from being in satisfying relationships, love, marriage, parenthood, deep long lasting friendships. It's about feeling.

The second is to seek a life that's about flow: finding work that is absorbing and engaging, or finding a hobby that is like that. Golf, bridge, gun running, doesn't matter what, as long as you lose track of time when you do it. It's about not feeling.

The third way to a happy life is through meaning. Seligman writes, "A meaningful life consists of again knowing what your highest strengths and talents are and using them in the service of something that you believe is bigger than you are." It's about feeling it all--happiness, sadness, rage and fear--and learning to surf on a wave of equanimity.

As I posted earlier this month, I am reading Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, which is all about how deep practice creates skills in the practitioner. Deep practice is when you engage your focus, take action toward a goal (say, playing a scale or throwing a football pass), make mistakes, correct them, and get it right s-l-o-w-l-y. It's that feeling you have when you really want to achieve something and you're not quite getting it. As awful as that might feel (to me it feels so awful I often quit before the miracle happens), this is what creates myelin, and myelin is what creates talent. I've been trying to apply this to everything I do: parenting, guitar playing, singing, being a wife, friend, coach, writer, housekeeper, lightbulb-changer, etc. There's something in Cesar Millan's stance that speaks to this yearning to improve, especially in the realm of present moment living. He is so there. His very presence connotes presence. His story is inspiring too: he only just became legal here after immigrating in the early 90s. With very poor English, he had aspirations to be on television. His employer, Jada Pinkett, who later became his student, told him he was not yet ready for prime time but encouraged him to pursue his dream.

He's hugely rich now, and I am sure he is able to fulfill all his earthly desires. But what Seligman's work concludes over and over again is that a life of pleasure does not lead to long term happiness. As we all know, there are diminishing returns to pleasure: one bite of chocolate cake is heavenly, the next OK, but by the end of the slice, we're not really tasting it anymore. Eat a whole cake and you feel sick and disgusted. It's the same with anything, even vacation homes and cable knit sweaters (in fact, I'm sick of them already, having spent ten minutes googling them online.)

He's also engaged in his work. The article in the Times talked about how passionate he is about his dogs, how he and his wife Ilusion have built an empire around his work. But does he live for something greater than himself?

I don't know. But I like the way he holds his body. And all this gives me the courage that one can indeed unite practice and play, a question I was struggling with a few weeks ago. In fact, it is in finding one's calling in life--one's mission, one's purpose--and pursuing that that all three forms of happiness come together. For if one does what one does best--in Cesar's case, train people to better live with and love their dogs--one makes the world a better place. And often this leads to wealth, friendships, relationships, and excellent food. Or Irish Fisherman pullovers. But these pleasures that create positive emotions are, as Seligman says, the cherry on top of the sundae. The sundae is the meaning and the flow.

So how does one find one's calling? Sometimes it's obvious, as it was for Cesar. He was known as El Perrero ("the dog man") from the age of seven. For others of us, it's a process rather like the game of Hot/Cold. In order to play this game properly, of course, we need to know what we are actually feeling, which for some of us is no small trick. Do we like the mountains or the ocean? Or both? Do we prefer working with people on a team or working solo? A little of each? Hotter. Colder. Ice cold. Warmer, warmer, warmer. On fire!!

We also know because if we find something we love, we lose track of time. We would pay someone to let us do it. This is the way I felt today when I got to host my first Writing It Up in the Garden teleclass. As I listened to the nine other amazing writers on the line encouraging each other's writing, finding the bits that could improve, I felt as deeply satisfied as I can remember feeling. And even before I was on the call, as I read over and listened to the work of the writers and songwriters, I lost track of time. This is also how I feel when I myself am writing, be it songs or prose. It's how I feel when I am cooking a big meal for a dinner party. The marmoset in me sits up and notices, and it's as simple as, "All right! Let's do more of that, please!"

And I may be naive, but I believe that writing for writing's sake gives meaning to a person's life. I have found for myself and for others that while one is writing, something changes in an alchemical way. I need to write the way I need to exercise, the way I need to eat carrots, the way I need to connect with my husband or other beloveds. I need to write the way I need to pray and feel the presence of something greater than myself. Writing gives meaning to my life, and because I have seen it transform the lives of my friends and clients, I know I'm not alone in believing that.

Plus, I finally found the perfect Irish sweater:

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lions and Tigers and...

"Oh I was always afraid. but I never let it stop me. Never."-Georgia O'Keefe

A few weeks ago, back when it was still warm in the mornings, I started out on my daily run. I was fiddling with my iPhone trying to find a satisfactory podcast to listen to, changing my mind, changing the volume, looking for the place where I'd left off. By the time I'd settled on a story and was ready to pay attention to my run, I was well into the park across the street from my house. I lifted my head to take in my favorite part of the route--the crest of the first hill, after which it's downhill for awhile--and I found myself staring into the eyes of a black bear.

In all truthfulness, the bear was a good twenty yards away in a copse adjacent to the path, but he definitely met my gaze. The one thing I know about black bears is that when you encounter one, you should not run lest they think you are a meal worth pursuing. So I slowly turned and attempted a saunter out of the park. I almost bumped into a red Saab. The driver rolled down his window and said, "That bear just followed you into the park! I was watching him, and I thought I'd better follow you in too. He walked right past you into those trees over there. Do you want a ride out?"

"No thanks," I said, as the one thing I know about strange men in cars is that you should not get in with them. "I'll just leave now." And I did. I ran for twenty minutes on the streets of Northampton, circling my park and keeping an eye out for more bears. Because it hadn't occurred to me before, but of COURSE there were bears in the woods! Northampton is replete with bears, and we had one on our porch last fall (which I wrote about here.) Why wouldn't they choose to frequent the park? If I were a bear that's where I would go!

The next day, I ran into the park, right past where I'd seen the bear. I can't say I wasn't afraid, but I knew that if I let my fear win, I'd lose something crucial, not the least of which would be my beloved route.

I'm not always brave like that. Fear is a funny emotion, and someone who is brave enough to join the army might not be brave enough to speak in public. Someone who is brave enough to confront her boss on a tough issue might not be brave enough to get through an evening without eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's. As I wrote last week, I'm just beginning to discover that part of my inclination to start (and often finish) hundreds of projects, take on several careers simultaneously (musician, writer, life coach––hey, maybe I'll be a yoga teacher! Maybe I'll go to Div school and become a minister! etc, etc) is a way of not facing the truth about where I am at with some of these projects. If we had sold a million CDs, I would not be career-hopping. By constantly jumping from one project to another, tossing my little fledglings out of the nest and then immediately hatching new ones, I am shying away from my own disappointment.

I'm afraid of disappointment.

When we first started out, we encountered a cadre of older folksingers, mostly men in their fifties, who were in charge of or participants in the open mic nights we frequented. Some of them were really kind to us, encouraging and friendly. Some others regraded us as young upstarts and talked about us behind our backs, dismissing us as pop (which we took as a compliment) and fleeting (which we refused to be). There was a lot of bitterness in the way they talked about their "almost made it" moments and in the way they proclaimed their has-been status. The bitterness frightened me, and we vowed never to succumb to it ("I drink the drug of hope/With my breakfast/To ward off bitterness.") One way of combating the potential bitterness is to never acknowledge disappointments, to always spin them in a positive way. We have become masters of the silver lining, queens of making lemonade out of lemons.

But there was a lot of disappointment, too.

This past weekend, we drove out to Walton, NY to perform at the majestic Walton Theatre, an old vaudevillian venue. It was a great drive; a beautiful autumn day, the views full of crimsons and golds, greens and blue blue sky. Katryna and I brainstormed about our creativity retreat (the theme will be "I Want to Be a Woman Like Me," which is a line from our song "Georgia O" and Katryna will take a portrait of each participant. We will write, paint, draw, make paper mache bowls with favorite quotations, do vision boards, and of course, sing....) We got to see our aunt Elizabeth, a potter from nearby Gilbertsville, staying up way past our bedtime to reminisce and laugh with her.

But five minutes before the show, I peeked through the velvet curtains. There were a scattering of people in the old theatre, none of them familiar (besides our aunt). Sometimes when this happens, I just ignore it, move forward, do the show. That night, I felt like crying.

"There's a lot going on tonight!" the promotor reassured me. "Homecoming, fall weekend, blah blah blah." I still felt like crying. Katryna gave me a great pep talk which I only heard afterwards: "It's amazing that 100 people paid so much to see us! We need to play to the people who are here, not the people who aren't." Still, I felt deeply disappointed. But then I remembered that I was trying to feel these things in general, and that feeling was good, even bad feelings. So I turned to Katryna and said, "We are brave! Lots of folksingers would have given up long ago in the face of dwindling numbers, but look at us! We're still doing this!"

Brave or stupid, one might say. But I didn't say that. I still felt like crying for the first two songs and couldn't say a word to the audience. Then I got into my body (best trick ever) and did the breathing thing. The third song was "This Town Is Wrong," which is about two girls who leave the town that doesn't understand them to pursue their dreams of being musicians. I almost laughed. I didn't laugh, but I didn't want to cry anymore, and from that moment, I fell back into my groove.

Earlier Saturday, I had taken Elle to her first Suzuki "concert." I will have to write another post on Suzuki at some point. The whole experience was fabulous. But what I want to say here is that the kids, all between the ages of 3-5, played many many different versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and not much else. Earlier today, Jay was playing with an electronic toy that had the tunes to "Old Macdonald," "London Bridge" and "Twinkle Twinkle," and without really focusing on it, I kept noticing how superior a tune "Twinkle" was to the other two. I had the thought: "Wow, Mozart wrote his greatest hit at the age of 4. He died penniless in a pauper's grave. It was basically all downhill from age 4." Now of course, I don't believe that. But in a certain frame, one could see his life that way, instead of recognizing that in between "Twinkle Twinkle" and the pauper's grave he wrote some of the best music the world has ever heard, and incidentally forever changed Western music. (Which reminds me of a distinction my fellow MB life coach Pam Slim made to me the other day: if you have a problem with the word "fame," try "reach" or "impact" instead.) We put our stuff out there, and the world judges it and renders a verdict. It's up to us to either believe it or ignore the judgements and just keep creating for the joy of creating.

Elizabeth is a great example of the artist who creates out of the sheer joy of it all. She lives in a kind of potter's paradise which she and her late husband Roy built together in bucolic western NY, and she weaves all sorts of strands through her work: family, food, sensuality, elephants, spirituality, nature, architecture, mythology. She approaches individuals and art with so much spaciousness, compassion, good humor and optimism that to spend time with her is to be similarly infected. She lives with great relish, and her art reflects that. She is going to be 70 at the end of next year. Her work is better, richer, more colorful, deeper, more fun, more serious, more wonderful than it's ever been––and I have always been a fan of her work. She is not living in fear that someday she will be a has-been. She always has a new set of pots to discover on the wheel.

And I bet she's not afraid of bears, either.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Practice and Play

In my yoga class last Friday, the substitute teacher whom I love and haven't seen for awhile asked me how I was doing.

"Could you talk about resistance?" I said.

I have a tiny daily yoga practice in which I do one sun salutation, cobra, some movements that might qualify as push-ups if you excuse the fact that I'm not bringing my body anywhere near the ground, and lately something called dolphin or Pincha Mayurasana prep. I leave ten minutes to practice, and many mornings don't even come close, as Elle thinks it's hilarious to turn my downward dog into a slide. The whole thing turns into a pose called Horse, and Elle rides on me as I gallop her to the kitchen for breakfast. It's fun, but it doesn't do a lot for advancing my strength and flexibility to say nothing of my spiritual growth.

Also, the less I do yoga, the less I want to do yoga, which is true for everything I do. The less I play guitar, the less I want to play guitar. The less I meditate, the less I want to. This is true for relationships, too. I have always been less "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and more "out of sight, out of mind." So then when the alarm goes off at 6am, I don't leap from my slumbers to embrace the mat. Instead I think of all the reasons it would be better for me and the world if I slept for another ten minutes.

So I was hoping for some big epiphany from my yoga teacher last Friday, some wise piece of secret code that would change my attitude forever! Instead, she said, "People say that because I'm a yoga teacher, I must just love getting on the mat every day. That it isn't hard for me. That every time I practice I am full of light and joy. Not true. I'm as cranky as the next Joe. But I do show up. I just do it."

Ugh. That Nike appropriated wisdom again. But it's certainly the wisdom that's proved true for me in my 42 years on the planet. As Woody Allen says, 80% of life is about showing up.

The teacher went on to talk about change, and how most resistance is about not wanting to change. Oh, that one. Yes, I know a bit about that.

I am fascinated by the relationship between practice and resistance. I just wrote a chapter about it for our book on the musical family. I am thinking about it a lot these days because of my yoga journey, because I am trying to write daily and because I am thinking about enrolling Elle in Suzuki violin lessons. Last Saturday at the Pete Seeger Tribute, one of the other artists played "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," and my parents whom I was sitting next to clasped hands and started whispering to each other furiously. It turns out on their second date back in 1961 they had realized during a Pete Seeger concert while he sang that very song that they were in love. (I digress, but isn't that cute?)

Anyway, we introduced ourselves to the singer (Emily Greene), and it turns out she teaches three-year-olds how to play the violin. Just an hour earlier, as we trotted down the streets of Northampton to pick up our dinner, we passed a fiddle player busking on the street, and Elle shouted, "Mama! I want to play the violin!" Five minutes later we passed a saxophonist, and she said the same thing, so we maybe should wait for her to choose between the French horn, the flute and these other contenders before we sign her up for lessons. But at any rate, the idea of my children taking music lessons and the accompanying questions about practice are no longer in the category of "someday, a long time from now."

I am reading a fun book called The Talent Code that addresses the issue of practice head on. The author writes about myelin, this fatty substance that coats the brain's neurons to make the firing of the synapses faster. I am not far along enough in the book to say much more than this: when we practice with deep concentration, with a "rage to master" that manifests in the practitioner channeling the Clint Eastwood Squint, we coat our neurons with myelin and progress at a much faster rate than mere mortals. We create talent in ourselves. This process is hard and frustrating and not a lot of fun, and in order to maintain our intention to get better at whatever it is we are trying to master, be it the riff to "Smoke on the Water" or Pincha Mayurasana, we have to keep stoking the fire of that "rage to master." (I love that phrase! Can you tell?) Also, the building of myelin, which is something like the insulation one wraps a wire in, creates a kind of stress response, which is why so many give up the pursuit before they start to get good at their desired path.

Interesting theory. I plan to finish the book and write something more intelligent and thorough at a later date, but for now I'll just say this. What I notice is that my one-year-old son bangs on the piano every third time he circles around the play room. My daughter pulls two unmatching sticks out of the designated music box and drums on one of the many small drums we own. I know this because I catch her at it and I find the sticks in random places around the house. When I tidy up at the end of the day, I almost always find myself putting those unmatching sticks away. Of course I don’t tell her to practice her drumming any more than I tell her to practice her imaginative play with her dollhouse or to practice her puzzle skills. To her, it’s all play.

So here's where I am today: my life is so sweet right now. It's a delicious balance of family, personal health and harmony, professional satisfaction. But. I want this book Katryna and I are writing to be a beloved best-seller. I want the DVD we are making to be so wonderful that kids and parents alike choose it for car trips and make it the default, the go-to entertainment. Most of all, I want to enjoy these works of ours. I always enjoy making our CDs and writing our books. I am a process kind of gal. Taking a cue from my heroes John Lennon and Bob Dylan, I haven't always cared as much about the products once they become products. I move on to the next one. But doing so can be a kind of cop-out. In always looking to the next project, I can shortchange the current one. I don't want to do that this time. Jumping ahead to the next project while the current one is in its finishing stages is just another kind of resistance. It's a way of not dealing with the inherent grief that comes along with any artistic endeavor. Because no matter how hard we labor on our craft, the vision is going to be a little different from our initial vision, just as no child turns out exactly the way the parent thinks she will when she's a baby (thank God!) Often works of art (as well as kids) turn out much better than we imagined, and usually we can see this. But sometimes there's some disappointment. Rather than sit with it and feel it, some of us want to leap-frog into the future.

Speaking of Bob Dylan, I read an interview years ago in which he was asked what his favorite song was. He paused for a long time and said, "written or recorded?" From his perspective, those were two different animals altogether.

There are two kinds of art: art that takes place in time (dance, live music, theatre) and art that takes place in space (painting, sculpture, photography.) Books and CDs are an amalgam. There is the "time" effect of reading or listening, and there is the "space" effect of the artifact itself. I consider myself a good "time" artist. I love to perform and it's easy for me. I like the spontaneity of a performance. I am not quite as confident as a "space" artist, though I would like to be. I want the book we are writing now to be a beloved experience as it is read and played with today, and a beloved artifact, a treasure that a kid born in 2007 might love when he is five and that he packs away and finds again when he is thirty in 2037 to bring out and share with his small daughter.

Can practice still be play? Can we write this book and have a blast doing so, even when we get to the frustrating parts when the myelin is wrapping itself mercilessly around our neurons? I don't know, but I am going to find out. I am going to hold myself accountable to you, my audience and readership by saying this: I am going to practice and I am going to play. I am going to show up for the page, for the editing, for the mixing. I am going to give it my all. I'm going to make music and video and sentences that I love, that I want to hear again, see again, read again. And then I will let it go and move on to the next project, but I will have gained a new book, a new CD and a new DVD for my collection.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thank you, Mary

It's hard to overestimate how important Mary Travers was to our family. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father listened to an LP by Peter, Paul and Mary entitled simply Album. On it was a short song by the unknown songwriter John Denver called "For Baby For Bobby."

I'll walk in the rain by your side,
I'll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand,
I'll do anything to help you understand
I'll love you more than anybody can.

And the wind will whisper your name to me
little birds will sing along in time,
leaves will bow down when you walk by
and morning bells will chime.

I'll be there when you're feelin down
to kiss away the tears that you cry,
I'll share whith you all the happiness I've found
a reflection of the love in your eyes.

When Katryna and I were two, three, four-ish, our favorite LP was Peter, Paul and Mommy. I stared and stared at the picture of the three little kids on the front and the weird black and white overhead shot on the back that shows the band recording with an audience of children, wires connecting the various mics. I especially loved Mary's version of "I'm Being Swallowed By a Boa Constrictor."

At seventeen, I attended my first PP&M concert, again with our whole family. We sat on the lawn at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, a gorgeous outdoor shed. They were full of vim and vigor, having recently reunited. They sang a new song by Tom Paxton: "I Am Changing My Name To Chrysler." Paul sang a new original called "Right Field." They encored with "Blowing in the Wind," and Mary said, over the last big chords, "And the answer is STILL peace, love...and the Democratic Party!" OK, maybe not exactly that, but something to that effect. After all, it was the summer of 1984 and we Democrats were desperate.

I went home and pillaged my father's LP collection (this was before CDs, you young 'uns!) and discovered "For Baby For Bobby." Upon hearing it, I promptly burst into tears. When I mentioned this to my parents, they looked at each other in amazement and said, "That's exactly what you did when you were three, and again when you were six. We happened to play you that song, and you burst into tears each time. You must remember it from being in your Mummy's tummy." (Incidentally, "For Baby For Bobby" showed up on shuffle on my iPod at the exact moment Jay was born.)

I spent many an hour with my ear pressed up against my stereo speakers learning all the parts to the PP&M arrangements to teach to the high school folk singing group I led ("Humditties," which I did not name) and later my college folk singing group, "Tangled Up in Blue" (which I did). Both were essentially PP&M cover bands. I loved those harmonies. I loved also the way Mary's big alto, so mercifully in my own range, soared over the voices of the two men.

There's a great song from one of their earliest records, "See What Tomorrow Brings" where Mary comes in on the third verse:
Never been contented no matter where I roam
It ain't no fun to see the settin' sun when you're far away from home.

As with "For Baby, For Bobby," just hearing her voice, the tone of it, the inflection of it, made me feel the opposite of "far away from home." Rather, I felt like home had just arrived to surround me in the person of Mary's warm familiar voice, my father's stack of LPs (some of which I still have. I need to return them as my stereo is mouldering in the basement.)

Speaking of my dad, when I called to talk to him on Friday, he told me how PP&M had come to do a concert at his college in the early 60s. "This is a song by a great new young songwriter named Bob Dylan," Peter said. And they sang "Blowing in the Wind." It was the first time my father had ever heard of Dylan. The list of songwriters PP&M made famous by championing them and covering their songs is legion. Besides Dylan and John Denver, my first exposure to Pete Seeger, Shel Silverstein, Tom Paxton, Laura Nyro,even Rod Stewart was through PP&M.

I read in recent obits that when she started singing with Yarrow and Stookey, she never spoke from stage. Their manager, Al Grossman (who also managed Dylan) wanted her silent so as to create mystery. Watching her in the YouTube clip, above, I can't help but wonder what she was thinking. Was she intimidated by Mama Cass and Joni Mitchell, or was she confident? Did she love the song she was singing? What did she think of that cheesy Musak-y accompaniment?

In Judith Thurman's recent article in the New Yorker, my favorite author from childhood, Laura Ingalls Wilder, comes across as frumpish, reactionary and a little soft-headed: nothing like the defiant, lovable heroine of the Little House books that I read and re-read obsessively at age eight and nine. I read this article the day after Mary died, and it got me to thinking about the projection of personality which show business (as well as some forms of literature) requires us to do. There is not a lot of room for complexity out there. The media (and perhaps the human brain that created the media) likes simplicity. John was the smart, angry Beatle; George the spiritual one. Laura Ingalls was spunky. Mary Travers was sincere, righteous, sexual without being a threat. Also tall, leggy and slender. When any of our heroes and heroines stray from the box we put them in, the media (and our brains) has a reaction. Look at how much weight she gained! Look at how stupid he's being! Look at how phoney that projection was! She's not innocent and spunky! She's mercenary, and she can't even write a proper grammatical sentence! And the truth is, we are all so much more than any three word combination of adjectives. We all have a smart, a spiritual, an uneducated, a spunky, an innocent, a corrupted side of ourselves. Maybe we feel threatened by these revelations around our celebrities because it makes us come face to face with our own complexities and inconsistencies. It feels so reassuring to see Barack Obama behaving like a responsible gentleman, because that's our image of him. When we see images of him riding a bike on Martha's Vineyard without a helmet, we are shocked, disturbed even. What's he doing being risky? He's not a thrill seeker! He's breaking character (also endangering the fragile head of our Head of State, but that's another issue.)

The Mary we all saw in the sixties was much more complicated and interesting than the blond, leggy, silent-except-when-belting-her heart-out Greenwich Village waif we mostly got to see. She was a mother, for one thing. By the time Katryna and I got to watch her perform in person in the mid-80s, she was silent no longer. Au contraire: she was full of opinions. She was also significantly overweight, a fact she joked about from the stage. She was breaking all the rules, tossing out all the adjectives assigned to her. And through that singular revolution, she liberated two future folk singers.

Our friend Jordi Herold told us last week that when he was a teenager, his friend was dying of ALS, a ward of the state in a row of institutional beds. Somehow Mary had heard that this young person was a fan, and she came to the bedside and sang to her.

In 2007, Katryna and I would share a stage with Noel Paul Stookey at the World Folk Music Association fundraiser outside of Washington DC. He came backstage to tell us how much he'd loved our set, and I was (almost) tongue-tied. How could I tell him how much he had meant to us over the years, how much his kind attention in that moment meant to us? It was like Katryna's recent story to William, about how the Beatles came back in a space machine to do a concert on the rooftop for William and William alone. That's how magical it felt to have "Paul" come into our dressing room and praise us.

He said, that night, that Mary had been very sick, but that it looked like she was going to make it.

It's so strange, and it feels so wrong that I will never get to take my kids to see Peter Paul & Mary do an outdoor summertime show; that they will only know "Puff The Magic Dragon" from CDs. But then again, it feels wrong that they don't know my grandparents, or Tom's father, or see the World Trade Center towers when coming east over I-80. It must have felt strange to my parents that I would never watch the New York Giants play baseball, or know their grandparents or my mother's father. But they internalized these things and these people, and they told me the stories. They sang me the songs. That's all we can do. We can sing "Going to the Zoo" and "Car Car" and pass along what we were given, and sing that top line with our best Mary Travers belt. Moreover, Katryna and I can try to live our beliefs and our values as bravely as Mary did, and sing along with her:

And when I die
And when I'm dead, dead and gone
There'll be one child born
And a world to carry on
There'll be one child born to carry on.
-Laura Nyro

Thanks to Sharon Goldberg for alerting me to the YouTube clip. And for selling our merch in New York!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mind Maps

When you want to write a song (or do anything creative, like start a business, organize your office, figure out what to do with five unmatching skeins of yarn), here's a great idea: Make a Mind Map.

A Mind Map, as I use it, is simple. It looks like a child's drawing of a sun. Big circle with you in the middle, lines to represent your rays. In the middle of the sun, write down the central theme of your desired creation (eg "tote bag," "toy store," "clean floor" or "song using that great line that's been kicking around in my head for ten months.") Then make your rays, and at the end of each ray, write down anything and everything you might throw into your project, any ideas at all. So for instance, if you are starting a business, your mind map might look like this:

Click on the image to enlarge and read my chicken scratch.

As you can see, there are a number of different ideas here ranging from the very small and practical to the decidedly woo woo. Once you've got a bunch of ideas down, you can begin to winnow and weed. You can see which ones might be do-able right away, and which ones need more research. For instance, in my example, the first name for your potential toy store that comes to you might be "The Island of Misfit Toys." You are thrilled! Until you tell your best friend and she said, "That is the worst name for a toy store I ever heard." Then you Google it and find out there actually IS a store called The Island Of Misfit Toys in the next town over, so you stick your tongue out at your best friend, but your confidence has secretly been zapped, and you decide the next right move would be to sign up for a teleclass in branding offered by some fabulous life coach.

By the way, here is what I did with my skeins of yarn. I made a gigantic bag, big enough to use as a sleeping bag for Elle.

Then I threw it in the wash and felted it.

Tom was just saying, as he was crushing some garlic that he grew, "I know this garlic isn't really any better than the garlic we could get in the store, but I just love my food so much more when it has my garlic in it."

I told him I knew just what he meant. Up until Jay was born, I made my own yogurt. Honestly, it was pretty ordinary, slightly watery yogurt, but I loved it anyway. Same with this bag. It's a little lumpy and I wouldn't give it away as a gift, but I will carry my iPhone and journal and water bottle in it with great pride. Nothing like homemade. Same with your mind maps. When you put down all your great ideas for your fabulous future life, shining like the sun right back at you, you will love every step of your journey. Because it's yours.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Yoga and the Voice

I haven't written about my yoga teacher training because I'm afraid if I do, I will blather on ad infinitum. It's such an amazing process. I have to be honest: most of the time I have NO IDEA why I am doing this. I don't see a future for me as a yoga teacher, per se. The idea of standing up in yoga clothes in front of a roomful of similarly clad people makes me sleepy, which is a sure indication that my essential self is not on board with the program. No, what I am clear on is that I want a committed yoga practice, and this is a surefire, albeit sneaky way to get me to practice every day, or at least regularly. Also, I know one of my core missions in life (Midwife Of Joy; thanks Bill M for giving me my job description) is to live fully and joyfully in my body and to teach others how to do that too.

About vocation/avocation: I believe that once we are in the habit of telling ourselves the truth all the time, in every circumstance, Life takes us by the hand and guides us gently but firmly on the path we're meant to go down, and that this path will always take us to our best possibly destiny. This path ends up being both one of service and also one of great joy, and we begin to see that we can't have one without the other.

Above is the statue of the Dancing Shiva, one of Hinduism's wicked cool gods. I have a gigantic scholarly tome on the subject of Hindu Deities, but yesterday when Elle and I were at Forbes Library, I found a treasure trove of 8th grade level books on Hindu mythology and snatched them instead. Much more my speed these days.

Shiva is one of the Big Three of the Hindu gods, the other two being Brahman and Vishnu. Shiva is known as The Destroyer, and he dances his way nonchalantly through and around the universe. The Five Divine Acts of Shiva are Creation, Sustenance, Dissolution, Concealment and Revelation. My homework last week was to write about how each one currently relates to my life. I want to say a few words about Concealment, because of all the Acts, this one gave me the most food for thought. Especially, as I said, because I still don't really "know" why I am so drawn to taking this Yoga teacher training in the first place. All the reasons are in a state of concealment.

I was on the phone a few weeks ago with my friend Michele the formerly Republican life coach (she voted for Obama so I can no longer count her as one of my five Republican friends.) She mentioned that she had the idea to hire me at some point to do a workshop with some other coaches on singing and voice.

I got what Katryna and Dave call the Citrus Effect: shivers going up the back of my neck to my crown chakra. Or what I call the Hansel & Gretl effect: another pebble on the path begins to twinkle and shine up at me. I can't count the times I have been asked to teach people how to sing. "I can't," I always say. "I'm not trained." This isn't true; I have studied voice with amazing teachers who have phDs from Peabody and MAs from Yale, and I've been what anyone would call a formal student of voice for a good twenty-seven years. Oh, also I am a professional singer. And I am writing a book about singing with one's children.

Here's what I know about the voice and singing.
1. The voice is the nexus of body, mind and spirit. All three are engaged when one sings or speaks well. In order to sing, one must do a kind of yoga: engage the breath, the throat, the tongue and the mouth in a certain way (or ways) to achieve sounds. One uses the mind to formulate the content, especially the wordy parts, and one relies completely on the spirit for the breath. In the Tantric philosophy on which Anusara yoga is based, we all breathe in the collective breath of the goddess Shatki (one of the many names for Shiva's partner) and it is she who breathes for us in a kind of cosmic dance.

2. When I am under a lot of stress, I lose my voice. When I take the time to connect with my breath, relax my body, let God/the goddess/the Collective Breath "sing" me instead of my trying to sing, the results are a lot better.

3. My "voice" is not just those rubbery membranes in my throat. The instrument that is my voice is really my whole body.

4. Yoga is a way we solve problems. The way we deal with discomfort on the mat is the way we deal with any kind of discomfort in our lives. So as with meditation, we "practice" with our bodies. The same can be said of singing. We can sing in a kind of absent, careless way, or we can sing with intention, with our full presence and make something holy.

5. Singing with others compounds the issue: it can bring great joy, and it can also be a place where we work out our problems and "practice" with each other to achieve literal and figurative harmony.

Brian Eno says it better. In a recent "This I Believe" episode of NPR, he says,
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor. A recent long-term study conducted in Scandinavia sought to discover which activities related to a healthy and happy later life. Three stood out: camping, dancing and singing.

Well, there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don't for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call "civilizational benefits." When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

The curtain of concealment is still drawn for me, but I feel like I am beginning to peak around it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sticker Charts

Sticker charts work. I know, because they’ve been working on me since I was eight and had to stop sucking my thumb. My mother told me that if I filled up a sticker chart for forty days (it was Lent) I could get whatever toy I wanted. I filled my chart, delighted with every inch of real estate slowly disappearing under a puffy Hello Kitty, and on Day 40, my mother took me to Toys R Us and I picked out a platinum-haired Ballerina Barbie. She had a small gold crown at the top of her head which I promptly removed.

I used this same method last April to get Elle to potty train, though truth be told, I had tried sticker charts earlier to no avail. She was suddenly ready, just shy of three, and the sticker chart did the trick. In her case, it was 14 days and the promise of any toy in our favorite store, A Child’s Garden (which Elle uncannily calls "Kindergarten.") I was thinking I’d be out $200 for a Plan Doll House, but what she really wanted was a $7 pink kick ball with yellow flowers on it.

I have a sticker chart now for myself. Every day that I do my writing for our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen, I get to put a sticker on my chart, which is one of those 2009 Sierra Club calendars they sent us last year to guilt us into contributing (it worked, though we have about 5 such calendars from 5 organizations.) Elle and Jay and I went to Staples to find stickers. I let her choose, and instead of puppies and kittens which I’d been hoping for, she selected a series of positive affirmations to the tune of, “Excellent!” “Way To Go!” and the like. Thumbprint-sized stickers in primary colors with swirls and stars. So perfect. When I fill thirty slots, I get a new pair of glasses.

Here is why I need a new pair of glasses:

We are home from a blissful weekend in the Adirondacks. We climbed mountains and hung out with my parents and were amazed by all the free time we had when there is no On Line or cell phone access (I've forgotten how to use a land line.) On the way down Big Crow, Tom and I decided to renovate our barn ourselves. It may take years (since we don't know what we're doing) but it will be fun, and what a great activity for the kids! Maybe by the time we are actually doing the renovating, as opposed to the planning and drawing pictures (architectural equivalents of stick figures) Elle and Jay can be apprentices. Or slaves. We want to turn it into a studio space where I can hold yoga/writing retreats and workshops with an upstairs where he and I can see individual clients. Somehow there will also be a kitchen, bathroom, woodshop and chicken coop.

Earlier today Jay learned how to say "cock-a-doodle-doo!" and to growl like a dog, or a rabbit (it seems he makes the same guttural "REDRUM!" sound whenever he encounters any creature walking on four legs). I was putting Elle down after Jay was asleep in his crib. She insisted on being covered with every last one of her stuffed animals. When she was finally comfy, curled up on her stomach with the lights out and I was kissing her goodnight, she said, "Mama, my bed smells bad."

I leaned down and sniffed her pillow. Fine. More stalling tactics. "No, it doesn't, sweetie."

"Yes, it does. Smell here," she said without a trace of whine.

I sniffed again, this time picking up a strong odor of ammonia. Also, the bed was wet in one corner near her head. "Yuck!" I said. "Oh, sweetie, I am so sorry. George Harrison must have come up here and peed while we were away. It was probably his way of saying he missed you." (No, I haven't yet read or watched Cesar Milan or Victoria Stafford. It's on my To Do list though.)

I swapped her crib mattress for the one she uses as a trundle bed and took the offending sheet to the laundry where Tom was running a load. "George somehow got up to her bed and peed on it," I said handing him the wet sheet.

"Ohhhhhh," said Tom. "No, it wasn't George. It was Jay. I was letting him scramble around naked and he must have marked his territory."

What a relief. Somehow baby pee seems way more innocuous than dog pee on my sweet daughter's bed. And I can live with my baby peeing in places where we don't really want him to for a few more years. No sticker chart required.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

God Dog

Many of you have asked about our garden. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I have taken a picture of our two, count them 2, eggplants. We harvested them because Tom says eggplants need heat, and it looks like the heat part of the summer is gone with August. So tonight we are going to make ratatouille with our two little fruits. It will be a small portion.

Just to show you the scale, here is Elle holding the larger of the two eggplants.

About vocation/avocation: I believe that once we are in the habit of telling ourselves the truth all the time, in every circumstance, Life takes us by the hand and guides us gently but firmly on the path we're meant to go down, and that this path will always take us to our best possibly destiny. This path ends up being both one of service and also one of great joy, and we begin to see that we can't have one without the other.

But it's hard to always tell yourself the truth. Oy, that's the rub. Harder still is to consistently come from love and not fear. Last week, I was in despair because my writing groups weren't filling up the way they were supposed to. How do I know how they were supposed to fill up? Well, I thought I knew because in the past they always did; in the past, I have had wait lists. So what's changed? Maybe, just maybe the fact that I added a third group where there had previously been two. Or maybe the economy. Or maybe everyone is content writing by themselves, or maybe everyone has found a writing buddy. All of these would be good explanations for the part of me that lives in the fear that I am one meal away from food stamps. (I call this part of me Liz Newton. Martha Beck says this part of us, programmed for flight or fight is just the amygdala, a part of the brain we share with lizards. Get it? Liz Newton?)

So anyway, I was being a good little self-coach, gently asking myself why I had these fears and what were the thoughts feeding them, and I kept breaking it down to a core belief which was, "If they knew me, they wouldn't love me because I am basically unlovable. The writers have known me, and naturally, they have found me out." This is an old threadworn thought, one I had thought I was done with years ago, but apparently I wasn't, or at least Liz Newton wasn't. So I sat at my meditation alter (AKA the pillow at the head of my bed) and tried to meditate. Instead I prayed: "God, what the F??? Help! How do I love myself? I am sick and tired of not loving myself! I have been trying to love myself for years and years and obviously I STILL DON'T!!! Help me out here."

What came back, quick as a flash was a genial voice saying, "Why don't you try loving me?"

What a needy God. But whatever. I scrunched up my face and said, "Okay. I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!" And immediately, I felt a WHOOSH. The big black hole, previously empty except for a few empty beer cans rattling around inside, was filled with that love, the love we all want and think we lost when we left infancy. More than that, I felt as though my heart had turned into a three dimensional puzzle piece and was suddenly plugged into its rightful spot in something much bigger than me. I felt whole.

This all makes sense, now that I feel it. I have known cognitively for ages that in order to feel abundant, I need to give; in order to feel helped, I need to reach out a hand, and in order to feel loved I need to love. When I exercise that muscle (and it is a muscle) I get strength. Come to think of it, in yoga, when I exercise my back muscles by doing cobra, my back pain goes away, much more quickly and permanently than it does when I get a massage. Strengthening= strength. Or to use another physical analogy, I found that the knee pain that kept me from running completely disappeared once I started running (and stretching the leg muscles) on a daily basis.

But back to my meditation cushion AKA my pillow: I was so shocked by the force and suddenness of the revelation and the change in my attitude that my eyes flew open and I shouted, "Tom! Tom! I've discovered the secret of the universe!!!!!" I tried to explain to him what had happened; like many who have had a "religious" experience, I was an instant evangelist. He smiled at me and gave me the equivalent of a pat on the head. That was okay, too, though. After the ecstasy the laundry and all that.

What I got from that moment was something I remembered from reading the wonderful Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, one of my all-time favorite spiritual writers. He writes in his essential book Life of the Beloved: "Coming home and staying there where God dwells, listening to the voice of truth and love, that was, indeed the journey I most feared because I know that God was a jealous lover who wanted every part of me all the time. When would I be ready to accept that kind of love?" And: "I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, 'You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother's womb. I've written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don't be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are.'" See here for complete text.)

God can be like a jealous lover, which comes as a shock to me. I try not to, but I can't help imagining God as The Big Celebrity in the Sky; sure He loves everyone, but if He loves everyone, then why is it such a big deal if He loves me? He loves me, but He loves six billion other people plus plants and animals and insects and all the space creatures from other galaxies. Big Fat Deal.

But in my moment of revelation, I got that God just might be more like a little dog who follows you around trying to get your attention all the time. Play with me! Love me! Pay attention to me! And no one but me (you) will do.

We each have our own little God dog. Mine happens to eat raw catfish and occasionally other gross things.

My writing groups still aren't full, but I imagine that's because God wants me to have light groups so I can better serve those writers who are coming. And maybe because I need more time to write my half of the book Katryna and I are working on for Shambala (interesting that our book publisher is most famous for publishing books on Buddhism and yoga, huh? Coincidence?)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

George Harrison Update

The good news is: George used to eat his poop.

The bad news is: today there was a pile of it on my favorite oriental carpet, the one my grandmother gave me as a wedding gift.

The good news is: camels probably gave birth on that carpet and it seems to be none the worse for the wear.

The bad news is: maybe George has been pooping on the carpet for months now and I only know about it today because the spice Tom's been putting in his food makes him not like the taste of his poop anymore.

This is not the first time George has proved less than the perfectly behaved $20,000-worth-of-training-therapy dog we inherited last March. He eats anything and everything not locked in or on top of the refrigerator. Last week, while shopping at our co-op with my two kids, I realized that I had left the frozen catfish to thaw on the counter and that Tom's colleague was dropping George off as I shopped. I thought, "Should I just go ahead and buy more catfish now? Nah. He won't eat it. It's frozen." I came home to a litter of white fish-wrapping paper on the kitchen floor.

Elle went exploring and came running back. "Mama, see what George did on the music room!" she shouted.

There, on that same oriental, was the catfish. Not even eaten, just kind of massaged by George's gums and left in the 90 degree heat. I was so mad, not because he'd deprived us of our dinner but because HE HADN'T EVEN LIKED IT!! Ingrate.

So I'm trying to find the lesson in George's annoying behavior. I firmly believe that bad things can lead to good things. To wit: last spring I had such nagging awful back pain that I posted about it here. A wonderful reader suggested I watch Esther Gokhale, so I did. Then I bought her book and began using my hunched shoulders as a bell of mindfulness to get into my body and improve my alignment. This lead me to finally pursue a lifelong dream of taking yoga teacher training. This had lead to massive joy, newly discovered physical strength, a dear new friend in my teacher, spiritual insights, befriending my body in a new and deeper way, and not least, no more pain in my shoulders.

Not bad. All from chronic pain.

So I don't know what will come of the George situation. Something good, I am sure. I just ordered the Dog Whisperer series on Netflix. And no more than an hour after I woke up, he'd redeemed himself. Elle and Jay and I were cuddling at the bottom of the stairs, along with Elle's favorite blanket, pillowface and about a thousand of her stuffed animals. After ten minutes of heavenly cuddling, I looked at my watch and said, "Sweetie, I have to go for my run now."

"Noooo!!!!" she cried.

So we snuggled some more. Then she popped her head up and said, "Oh, I'm going to go cuddle with George Harrison now. You can go, Mama." And she and Jay both crawled over to the dog, who was lying on his side, and proceeded to climb him like a mountain, rolling all over him, Elle covering him with her blanket. George Harrison lolled his head back and exposed his big silly belly to my children's hands. He'd definitely earned his keep for the day.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Church of 80% Sincerity

Note: During this period of time while I write our forthcoming book All Together Singing in the Kitchen: How to Create Family Harmony, while I intend to update this blog with current posts, I also will from time to time post old pieces. This one is from the 2007 Life Composition Creative Day Planner series.

Via David Roche and Anne Lamott:
David Roche is a monologist whose face was badly disfigured in a childhood radiation treatment. He has created a wonderful program in which he shares his unique and inspiring take on the world. Read more about him at www.davidroche.com or read the chapter about him in Anne Lamott’s wonderful Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

"We in the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles," says David. "But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you've got to put your foot in it.

"Look, 80 percent sincerity is about as good as it's going to get. So is 80 percent compassion. Eighty percent celibacy. So 20 percent of the time, you just get to be yourself.

“God, it's such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe -- that if you look good, you'll be happy, and have it all together, and then you'll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won't have to die, and the rot can't get in.”

Anne Lamott writes: “In the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, you definitely don't have to look good, but you are supposed to meditate. Following David's instructions, you sit quietly with your eyes closed and follow your breath in and out of your body, gently watching your mind. Your mantra should go like this: ‘Why am I doing this? This is such a waste! I have so much to do! My butt itches ...’ And if you stick to it, he promised, from time to time calmness and peace of mind will intrude. After some practice with this basic meditation, you will be able to graduate to panic meditations, and then sex fantasy meditations. And meditations on what you will do when you win the Lotto.”

So for this week, I invite you to meditate like this. Also, to journal about some areas in your life where we might be liberated if we could just accept 80%.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Arnold Westwood

Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
-- RW Emerson Series I. Self-Reliance

Arnold died on Sunday night. He was wrapped in the healing quilt Annie Kner made for the church, a gorgeous tapestry of reds, blues, greens, in a black window-pane design.

He asked to be taken off his ventilator/life support so he could talk to his four children who were around his bedside. He asked for a flashlight and was holding it, lit, when he died.

He was 88. I know he lived such a good, rich, full life, and still I am greedy for more. I can only imagine how his family feels. I am so grateful we knew him. I am so grateful we let each other know how much we loved each other while he was still alive.

Arnold invited himself to our wedding. We'd only known him a few months and we were not yet the good friends we became. It was so like Arnold to invite himself. He came up to us the Sunday before we got married and said, "I'm coming to your wedding. The rule is, if the wedding's in our church, you can't turn away a member. Did you know that?" Then he chuckled slowly and shuffled off in his Arnold way.

Whenever Tom or I preached on a lay Sunday, he would embrace us afterward and tell us we should be Unitarian Universalist ministers, which is what he was up until he retired, some twenty odd years ago. I believe he encouraged every lay minister in this way, and it was so affirming; kind of the highest compliment you could get from an ex-minister after you put yourself out there like that.

He came to our post-election party last November and moved everyone to tears with a story about how he had voted for the first time for FDR. He had been a very early Barack Obama supporter, with a big O poster in his front window at his house way off in the hill towns. In January '08 we went to his house for a church potluck and he told me, with that same chuckle, "I love the man. I give him money whenever I can."

Yesterday, when I got the news via a voice mail message, I felt all my own energy drain out of my body. It was midday, and I was home alone with Jay. I had a huge list of things to do, and I abandoned it to sit on the couch and just hold Jay, stare out the window, cry, sit, remember, feel sad, laugh when Jay laughed. Arnold had been the youngest in his family, and he told me on several occasions that he was well-loved as a baby, and that his mother's unconditional love carried him through his whole life. So that's something I can do: love my own son as hugely as Arnold was loved.

I wish we were Jewish. I think sitting shiva is one of the greatest ideas of all time. All I want to do is get together with other people who loved Arnold and cry with them and sit still and be quiet. And when someone has a story to share about Arnold, she shares it.

After a few hours, I connected with Tom and we cried together on the phone. Then I called my dad who knew Arnold just from occasional visits to the church. Toward the end of the conversation, someone beeped in, and I told my father I needed to take it, thinking it might be news of a memorial service. Instead, it was someone calling about the president's health care initiative wanting a contribution. Ordinarily I would have declined since I don't really know anything about the initiative other than that the Republicans are making up a bunch of scary death stories. Honestly, I have been one of those Obama supporters who, though well-meaning and intending to serve my country, has kind of put her head in the sand post-election. I'm not proud of this, but it's the truth. So without letting the guy get through his schpiel, I said, "How much do you want?"
"Well, a hundred would be great."
"I can do fifty."
"Oh, thank you!" he exclaimed. He asked for some information, including my profession.
"Musician," I said.
"Huh," he said. "You're the third musician to contribute today. And believe me, that's saying a lot. People are not exactly forthcoming these days."
"Yeah, I can imagine," I said. "We musicians are self-employed types, and we really get that there needs to be change." Then I said, "Can you put this contribution in the name of Arnold Westwood? And make it a hundred after all." Because he loved the man.

I posted about Arnold here a few months ago after he preached. He was delighted to have his words on the internet at that time, so I am taking the liberty to post more of that sermon. Here it is:

...Now, generally, when one receives a great gift, you want to give something back in return. Perhaps you are expecting me to share some wisdom. I find it hard to fit into the mold of the wise old man. After all, there is nothing so special these days about being 88 – the number of keys there are on a piano – still at 88 most of the people my age are already dead. The rest of us are struggling to keep up with the pace of you who are so much younger than we.

Moreover, I don’t feel so very wise. Actually, a lot of the time now I feel like a kid – sometimes like a teen-ager. Nonetheless, please let me share a few thoughts.

I was talking with a group of friends the other day about aging, telling them that I had lost my fear of death. My dad certainly had prepared me. One day when I was quite little, when bandaging my finger, with the usual twinkle in his eye, he declared, “You know, you’re going to die after this.” We laughed. He made it easy.

Since then I have had, of course, many encounters with death – at a roadside after an accident – at a hospital beside – quite a few precious times in the last days at a parishioner’s bedside preparing for the funeral, picking out music, readings and hymns and what needs to be said – finally, of course, being with Carolyn as she slipped out of consciousness in the midst of a conversation – never to return.

It is mostly we, the living who endure so much of the pain and the loss.

Aging is an altogether different matter. Since the beginning of April I’ve been trying three days a week to work in the fitness room at the Dalton Recreation Center. In addition, I’m getting weekly coaching from a Pilates teacher. Neglect exercise at your peril! Believe me, even after a few weeks of not moving enough, at 88 you start to waste away. And drop off for a year or more and you really have your work cut out for you!

What else can I share with you?

You’d better understand your own temperament.

I need people. I’m not a very good alone. Solitude doesn’t work for me. When I was active in the ministry my life was full of people. Afterwards, in those 17 years that Carolyn and I had the Bed & Breakfast business – those years between my retiring in ’84 and just before her death -- we had all the people we wanted around us.

When you’re elderly and widowed, or younger and divorced, the world does not come to you. If you want company it’s up to you to find your own friends. Emerson tells you how to go about it in his incredible essay – his thesis – “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” – The essay tells us very well how to go about it.

The hard part is loving...

I pose as no expert on how to be a good lover, though I sense I am a loving person and am sometimes perceived as such.

Emerson’s rule, I believe, also applies. The only way to become loving is by being loved.

I was certainly loved as a child. My mother’s only child, I was born when she was 43 years old. And she loved me totally, unconditionally, almost, if possible, too much. My dad loved me, too. My older brother and two sisters loved me. [Brief explanation: Dad’s first wife tragically drowned. My mom was her first cousin and available as dad’s second wife.] So, little Arnold grew up in a home surrounded by the attention and affection of 5 loving older ones, cuddled yet, unfortunately, over-protected.

First Grade was a different matter. Entering the world of neighborhood kids, wearing glasses, not knowing how to throw a ball or hit one with a bat – always the last one picked when choosing up sides – a good student yet devoid of the social skills ordinary kids gained through peer experience – so elementary school bordered on devastation.

Then, for 6th and 7th grades, dad & mom went on the road and had to place me in a boarding school. There I experienced the whole bit of an abusive housemother and sexual molestation.

Redemption slowly began in California where I rejoined my parents. High School was OK; college was great; graduate school was terrific; meeting Carolyn was bliss.

Now, don’t get the idea that all my adulthood was easy. Whose is? I have no need to recite its ups and downs. You’ve had or are having your own. During the last year of my therapy was not so much about losing Carolyn as about my childhood and my father. Simply put, I now feel myself still bathed by my mother’s love.

But, believe me, I have still more to do.

The really, really hard part for me is to truly begin to love myself. I’m discovering for me it all has to begin there. It’s sort of like being retooled. The amount of being loved by family and friends doesn’t do as much as what you have to keep on loving yourself – and it runs all the way from accepting all the complications and embarrassments that come with an overactive bladder to my no longer needing to call attention to my petty virtues and several accomplishments. I know I’ve done a lot. I just don’t need to tell other all the time. My chorus to myself is: “Westwood, leave it alone, you’re OK.”

So, at 88, I still wrestling with my ego needs and expect I will be until I die. And as death approaches I hope they will pretty much disappear. That will be heaven.

In conclusion, I suspect unconditional love must be akin to what so many others experience as the love of God. Love to draw upon when it’s the only love there is.

So now, I use my days and what energy I have doing what I am able. May I give back something of what has been so abundantly given to me – by this incredible church, by my loving family, by the five congregations I’ve been chosen to serve, and above all, by my multitude friends.

And when I’m stupid enough to get discouraged or feel neglected and sorry for myself, I always have the starry nights we are blessed with here up in these quiet hills and I look up at the heavens and all their shining brilliance and know a joy that passeth all understanding.

Friends, All these eruptions are supposed to strike a familiar chord with you. If they do, God bless you. In any case, God bless us all.