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: