I love a hotel for writing. Something about being dislodged (while lodging) sparks creativity for me.
We had our bathroom remodeled a bunch of years ago and because of poor planning and too-soon demolition we had to rent an apartment for a month while waiting for the bathtub to be in stock. We also stayed in hotels during another month of that summer. And while I was pissed as hell at our contractor I got a LOT done. I played the ukulele more than I ever had and recorded songs for my dad. The writing flowed, too.
Whenever I hear Father John Misty’s Fear Fun I think of that time fondly. We listened to that album in the car pretty constantly. "You can call me Nancy..."
So when I woke up this morning in our room at TownePlace Suites in Pocatello, Idaho, visiting my in-laws, I thought, hey, how’s about a blog? And I had no idea what I would write about but here I am. I worked on my book a little and now this.
It has been an intense year, first of all. Losing my dad and my brother-in-law was a lot. I allowed (and still allow) grief to flow. Sometimes it’s like I need to be gently rocked in a hammock and sometimes I’m doing my grief thing like the end of Dr. Strangelove, as Kong rides the launched missile as if he’s on a bucking bull.
I also have been back at the drawing board with my book (which became three books) and am restructuring in a way that will be way more satisfying to the reader. We are just going to continue to learn in this creative life, right? You think you sort of master something and then another door opens at the back of the room and you’re like, oh shit, I gotta go fight Bowser now.
Erin Telford, whose breath work courses I have taken, had offered a reminder recently that progress is a spiral, so sometimes it feels like we’re going backward. I have been remembering this a lot, especially as relates to writing. But actually it relates to life’s progress, too. Like, oh wait, I'm not actually standing still or going backward. I'm just learning some new stuff.
My dear friend Sara Alvarado was talking about the rollercoaster of life, but that it’s really more like a trampoline, and sometimes you’re jumping on it and other times it’s all you can do to lie on it flat.
From my trampoline/spiral/missile/metaphor to yours, consider this a fist bump. How lucky am I to have so many creative people in my life who will totally get this? Once in a while we're going to feel like we’re moving backward but we really it's an illusion. And it's OK.
So where are you at? Restructuring? Dislodged? Lodged hard somewhere? My cave has technological capabilities and I’d love to hear about it.
This week on Daily Burn (my virtual workout subscription) the crew was talking about presence and how to be more present. Of course tons of people said they need to put down their phones while having dinner with their families, ice skating, juggling. You know.
I’ve been present to my feelings. Oh so present. And I’ve been present to letting go. This whole year has been a lesson in ice skating while juggling — you’ve got to let something go or you’re going to fall or drop everything.
I am gifting my old green Guild acoustic-electric guitar to my niece Julia. She had asked me where I got it after she stayed at my house while I was away and a little Google search showed that you really can’t find this specific guitar anymore. So I told her I’d bring it to her the next time I traveled to New Jersey to visit.
Brent brought the case up from the basement and I opened it and checked the little compartment inside to find a piece of paper printed with some lines from Hedwig and the Angry Inch as well as handwritten words and chords to “Ziggy Stardust” that my ex (and friend) Wil had written. I had forgotten we had tried out for the show together at Harvard and he played my guitar. Neither of us made the show. One of us got called back and I can’t remember which one of us that was.
Sliding the guitar into the soft maroon interior of the case dislodged a wave of grief in me so deep I did the old barf-cry. I described it later as losing my shit, but I didn’t really lose my shit. I found my shit, if anything. And I had been irritable all day, so I knew I was due for a cry.
How I got that guitar was a touch of magic. Wil told me, “I saw this guitar you are going to want.” And the next time we were at Sam Ash together I saw this beautiful, curvaceous emerald guitar with a cutaway and I rushed toward it.
“I have to have this guitar,” I said.
“That’s the one,” he said.
So as I knelt down to put her in the case all of this stuff came flooding in. That guitar represented possibility to me. I wrote so many songs on it. Nancy took Polaroids of me in my mom’s sparkly black gown playing that guitar in her old house. I was getting ready to put a demo tape together and the world felt open. And now I was literally closing the case on that guitar and all it represented, it felt like.
I called my sister Nancy to get her opinion on it and she called me back later after I was already feeling better, eating pizza and watching Die Hard with Brent. She said sometimes it’s the most loving thing to give something you really care about to someone you love. I agreed. So I packed up the guitar in the car and brought it down for Julia. I’m glad she will have it. Especially this year after she lost her father and I lost mine.
It’s funny how our feelings-systems work. After doing Erin Telford’s breathwork course I am far more in touch with mine and am sometimes surprised at how intense my tears can be. But, as my friend Sara said in response to my sharing the depth of my grief with her, “You don’t die from grief.” It might feel like it sometimes, though.
“Let go or be dragged,” they say. They’re right. The old possibilities might have closed but there are always new ones. So I am present for my thirst for possibility and looking toward whatever that might be. I trust life will surprise me with something. And I’ll be present for it.
Are you letting go? Feeling oh-so-present? Let me know how it's going if you feel like it. And if this holiday is a lesson in juggling while ice skating and weeping know that you are not alone.
I had my annual bilateral breast MRI today. I was happy to get out of there. I had my face in a cradle that made half my mouth go numb for the approximately twenty-five minutes it took. Usually they play music through the headphones they put on you to drown out the loud clanging of the machine, but today, even though I requested to listen to the Spotify Kurt Vile station, nothing was coming through the headphones. So I listened to the clanging and the tones and made little songs out of them.
“Doodoo, doodoo, doodoo, doodoo,” one of the series of sounds seemed to say, like a robotic four-year-old, taunting me. I had to refrain from listening to it that way because I was afraid I would start laughing my ass off and then screw up those images.
When I finally was freed from the machine and face cradle and IV (they use contrast dye for these MRIs) the nurse pointed to the exit so far down the hall I had to squint to see the sign. Hospitals here are so big.
“After you get dressed you can go through that door that leads to the lobby.”
In the changing room I pulled off the blue scrubs and booties that look like shower caps for your feet and put on deodorant I brought from home and pulled on my soft grey leggings and blue dress with seahorses on it, worn to keep it light today. As I walked not fast enough to the exit I felt like Persephone leaving the underworld. Like I could be pulled back in at any moment.
Having been medicalized a bit after having early stage breast cancer in 2016 I’ve gotten familiar with the texture and energy of hospitals. Hospitals and our medical culture are so yang, metallic, male. For a long time I felt far too squishy and small to compete with that. And then last week while at therapy I was doing EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy) and it occurred to me I could root into the divine feminine. I had considered trying to make myself feel bigger and more yang than the hospital, but then I realized — no, I need to get in touch with the ground (I think that’s a Duran Duran lyric). I needed to solidify my connection to the divine feminine.
And a cool thing happened. Instead of feeling too small and squishy today, even with the lip-numbing face cradle, I realized the divine feminine is far more ancient than the yang hospitals. We carry the secret of life and we are the reason for the hospitals. The hospitals were invented to do the best we can with this wild and unwieldily and mysterious thing called life. And we’re doing an OK job and oh, am I glad I live today and not a hundred years ago. But the divine feminine is still far more powerful. So I felt into it and it helped me turn what I thought was powerlessness into power.
I looked at today as an opportunity and a lesson. An opportunity to cut the addiction to the monkey-mind. An opportunity to open my heart more. An opportunity to manage my emotions by acknowledging them:
“Hey, you’re scared, huh? Yeah, I know. This can be scary. I hear you,” I told the scared part of me.
“OK. Yeah. It is,” the scared part said back.
And then I felt an exhalation. A letting go.
This month is kind of heavy on the tests and cancer screenings. Since I’m on tamoxifen to help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence I have to keep an eye on my womb. The grand irony being that tamoxifen can cause uterine cancer. Woohoo! It’s like cancer whack-a-mole. Club one down and another one could pop up! Because I was having breakthrough bleeding I needed to have a vaginal ultrasound, which revealed maybe a thicker-than-usual uterine lining. Which can lead to uterine cancer. So! The order of the day is a hysteroscopy D&C at the end of the month. Which I’ve entered into my calendar as “womb refresh.”
Here’s another thing I embedded into my psyche during EMDR at therapy this week: “I’m not waiting, I’m living.” Because the waiting, as Tom Petty sings, is the hardest part.
So whenever I get those swirling thoughts, those pesky butterflies in my stomach (I’m not going to lie — I’ve got some now), I remind myself: I’m not waiting, I’m living. I’m thriving. And then I’ll go on to do whatever the hell I feel like. Which is usually writing and music, with some retail therapy thrown in, yoga, deep breathing.
I’m taking this breath-work course that started this month with Erin Telford. Sacred Terrain: A Six-Week Journey Into the Landscape of Your Emotional Body. And journey I have. One of the most important pieces of this work is not to shove down our feelings. Many of us were raised to put value on certain feelings and devalue others, as well as shove down certain feelings altogether. Erin suggests we develop a relationship with all of our emotions. And so as I feel anxious or whatever I look at it and acknowledge it. This has been very helpful and the breath-work has brought up a lot of feelings. I’ve approached each one with self love and curiosity.
Self love and curiosity are basically the cornerstones of my life and have been at least since I was diagnosed and treated in 2016. My PTSD is starting to lessen and I am grateful that I’ve moved from a state of emotional triage while having these tests and procedures and more to a place of being able to use it to play with treating myself better and deciding where I want my attention to be. It’s hard to explain, but I need to try.
I think of my mom telling my sister “Have you ever had a feeling you didn’t express?” As if it were a bad thing. Conversely, my mom had so many feelings she didn’t express. She bottled a lot up. My legacy is different. Clearly. And it’s a choice to make it different. I will not be the squishy body skewered upon the sharp metal yang skewer of the hospital. I will not be a leaf on the wind of our medical culture. I will be, well, I’ll be whatever I feel like being in any moment. But also ancient and soft and nourished and powerful. That’s more than a big old metallic machine that says “doodoo” over and over can say, right?
Recently I read transcripts for a three-part podcast with coach Brooke Castillo about using brain science to stop over-drinking. I was finding that if I wasn’t careful I would always want at least one additional glass of wine. And then a link to Brooke’s podcast, "Stop Over-Drinking," popped up on my Facebook feed and I was like, “Let’s check this out.” It blew my mind. And her techniques can be used for overeating, trying to cut stuff out you don’t want to do, like shopping too much, etc.
Brooke's podcast in three parts:
I highly recommend listening to or reading all three podcast transcripts because Brooke breaks down why we choose to over-drink, why it’s so hard to stop doing that, and then a pretty easy way to re-teach your brain not to do that. In a nutshell the idea is that our animal brain is the older and more efficient part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is a newer evolutionary trait. The animal brain (the amygdala) is the part responsible for the dopamine hit and choosing stuff based on that, like we would back in the day, for example, when we’d eat a berry or something and we’d know by the dopamine hit that it would help us survive (or how not having the berry would mean we might die). But then when you have something like alcohol it floods the system with dopamine and teaches the brain pretty quickly to go “MORE” (and that less means we feel like we might die if we don' have it). And since that part of the brain is the most efficient and knee-jerk, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t stand a chance when you’re in the situation and trying to choose not to drink more.
Brooke explains how it’s like Pavlov’s dogs. They started to drool when they’d hear the clogs of the scientists walking down the hall. They didn’t even have to hear the bell. But the scientists could also easily train them to stop drooling simply by teaching them through not giving them the food every time. Brooke goes on to show that with some planning we can do the same for ourselves. To take the decisions out of the hands of the animal brain we decide in advance: I’m going to have X number of drinks twenty-four hours from now. You get to decide how many and what. And then you stick to it. And eventually this way of doing things gets embedded (or whatever) in the animal brain and then THAT becomes the way that is knee-jerk and efficient — choosing in advance how much you’ll have.
Instead of resisting the urge or pretending it’s not there you just observe it, she explains. Like, “Oh, I have the desire to have another drink. How interesting you are, brain! How interesting.” You simply let the urge be there and you move through and on. And it gets easier because you are training this newer evolved part of the brain to make the choice and then the animal brain to efficiently process it. It’s hard to explain — hence my suggestion to read/listen. She also has a LOT of helpful hints, like how not to underestimate the number of drinks you want. Like, be realistic when you’re starting out, and this will make it easier to train. The point at the beginning isn’t so much to drink that much less, but to train the brain to choose how much you’re drinking so that soon you will drink less. It has been working for me.
So I’m totally in love with this way of being. And it has made me realize that there is so much mind-blowing stuff we can do by training the prefrontal cortex. I, personally, believe this might be the key to our shift in consciousness. Or “shift to consciousness,” as my friend Casey Erin Wood pointed out when I told her about how I think we can use brain science to usher in the shift all the new age people have been talking about. It perhaps isn’t just a big rainbow that’s coming and happening TO us, but something we choose to do. What if the shift to consciousness is because we are making conscious choices about what we want and how we want to think? Sounds powerful and sovereign to me.
Take institutionalized racism, for example. Whole lotta white people have been taught their whole lives and through hegemonic means that black people are to be feared. That they’re less than. They cannot even see why the Black Lives Matter movement is needed and why that is so sad. BECAUSE in part the animal brain has this shorthand embedded based on bullshit we were taught ages ago and that is continuing to be reinforced by a hegemonic white supremacist society. So! If we talk about and look at what we have been taught, what has become knee-jerk, what has embedded in there by no choice of our own, we can start to dismantle it. There’s the choice. We can use the prefrontal cortex to choose to be with people, to choose to hear people of color, to choose to make the decisions about races other than ours rather than allow the animal brain to continue to make us react. We have a choice.
We can use it for social media addiction. Like, instead of continuing to become automatons connected to our phones we can say, I’m taking Facebook off my phone and I will allow myself to look at it in the evening when I’m already done with my creative work and I’m already tired and have less energy to invest in it (or delete it altogether). And then we are automatically using the prefrontal cortex to make the choice instead of allowing the animal brain to get the adrenaline hit from the notification and have that all-too-efficient system rule our lives.
We can use this method for self-worth as well. Karen Noe, medium and Hay House author, was telling me during a recent session about Dr. Wayne Dyer’s daughter who had warts. She started saying, "I love you, thank you for what you’ve taught me, but you can leave now.” Karen was telling me this so that I could use it for my own swirling thoughts. I have been and it has been brilliant. Also, I feel like this is using the prefrontal cortex to cut the knee-jerk swirling thoughts off at the pass. What also works is this — deciding we’re going to look into the face of the efficient animal brain thoughts we have always believed because someone embedded them, or because of the patriarchy, or because society’s efficient systems thrive by our being held down — and what better way for us to be held down than by our own animal brains believing we are unworthy? Talk about an efficient system.
So these are some ideas I’ve been working with and interested in seeing where they go. I am very excited to trample the patriarchy starting literally from the inside out — with my brain! How cool is that?!
Tell me your thoughts on brain science! Have you been using any techniques to help you trample the white patriarchy from the inside out? I would love to hear about it.
So much has healed around my father and my relationship since he had Alzheimer’s and since he passed in March. But for a long time, our relationship was tough as turkey jerky. He was certainly always a champion of my music and writing, but it often felt like nothing was good enough. Because he tried to control the world with his mind (and keep us, his kids, from getting hurt), I was always concerned he lived a tortured life. And that for all of his prosperity he always seemed so focused on everything that was wrong. I was seeing his life as half full (still, half full of Johnnie Walker Double Black, but half, nonetheless).
But then I had a magical reading and session with healer Liz Donahue last week. My last question was what she could tell me about my father’s life and if there was anything I should know for closure. We barely had any time left in the session, and normally I would not have imposed on her to take extra time, but I've been learning how to ask more lately.
“Your father had to hold a sharply angled personality line in order to achieve his life’s purpose, which was to change the paradigm of education on the planet. He had to take one for the team, in a way.”
Because I had always assumed he had achieved what he did in spite of his personality. Hearing that made so much click, like a really huge second hand coming to life after being stuck in the same position for years.
Liz also explained that my family’s purpose is about education and changing the ways in which education happens in our culture and how people are educated. I had always thought of my life as separate from “the school,” as we’ve always referred to the College of Westchester, which my sisters run today, but hearing this made sense, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I teach as well and how that’s a way I honor my dad, whose biggest passion was teaching. God knows I've been a student for most of my life, but hey, best case scenario, who isn't?
My father bought the Westchester Business Institute in the ’60s when it had only nineteen students. He built it into a two-year school which put the student first and was geared toward people having flexible schedules (many students work full time and have families) and reasonable financial aid options. Eventually it was accredited and now offers Bachelor degrees as well. I worked there as a teen, too, helping my sister Nancy in career services and loved it. When my sisters cleaned out my dad's house recently Nancy took all of his ties to the school to give to students for job interviews and work. That makes me feel really good to know the students have a piece of my dad with them.
When I told my sister what Liz had said about my dad changing the paradigm of education she told me she wasn't surprised and has been thinking about that and how suddenly now she hears the bigwigs at Harvard and whatnot talking about putting the student at the center of their education, and how our dad had talked about that our whole lives.
Liz also said my dad was very pleased with himself and his family, “well done,” he accomplished more than he had set out to do in this life, that my Uncle Mac helped him cross over and my mom was there to meet him. There is still integration and healing to do, but there are lots of roses, a beautiful tribute, and a lot of peace.
And now I feel more integration with my own purpose as well as how my dad and my relationship fits together in the grand scheme of things. I feel really lucky for so many reasons. But most of all that I was able to spend so much time with my dad before he passed and that our relationship improved so much. And I can appreciate on such a deep level now how much I learned (and continue to learn) from him. I was always afraid of being tough because at times he was too tough, but now I borrow some of that toughness and decisiveness when I need it. It's in my blood.
Recently I was playing music with my husband and our friend Steve (the three of us are in a band together and it’s a big part of why we moved to Boise). I was so thrilled with the resonant melody flowing from my hands onto the 1973 Rhodes electric piano. My heart swelled with pride for a moment and I realized it was my father’s pride I was feeling. We had a huge connection with music and now it’s as if I can just play and know what he would feel about it. It boosts my confidence and makes me feel tender as a day old puppy (which, granted, isn’t hard to do because I am generally tender as a week-old puppy).
And because I could not possibly write a piece for Ernie without mentioning Bing, here’s one for my dad. We used to sing this together sometimes. Well, really, he would sing "Put it there, pal," to me often (while putting his hand out for me to slap). I hope he knows I’m singing it in my heart to him all the days. I feel he does.
So grateful for everyone who reached out to support my family and me during this tough time. We are so appreciative. My dad would have been pleased with the celebration of his life as well as the outpouring of love.
Emily Taylor and Abigail Taylor made a sad time so much better by coming down from Boston and staying with Brent and me. You guys carted our tender bottoms around and made us laugh and cried along with us, too. I cannot express how lucky I feel to have friends like you. You are the ice to my Chardonnay, the Elkin spice to my wings, the everything to my bagel. (And so much more than food things.) I love you. BeYOND. 🎶🎶 Good time friends, bad time friends, all time FRIENDS! 🎶🎶
And so many old and beautiful friends and fam! Kendra Warmolts, Wil D'Amato, Lindsay Barth Ocasio, Stefane Golub, Jen Gaily, Tristen Muller Comey and Tippy Muller, Karen Skoglund, Kelli Miltner-Vogler, Suzanne Nappi, Susan Thornton Anderson, Patricia Zampieri, Michael Zampieri, Jeannie Zampieri Schlesinger, Ray Linehan, Christopher Joseph (this goes for Therese, too!), Melina Fotiu, Michelle Spages, you are my absolute heart.
I'm sure I'm forgetting some people and also there were so many who have reached out to me during this past week and that made me feel a lot better. Thank you. (Sara Alvarado, Casey Erin Wood, Nic Mehta Strack, how lucky I am to be in your bright and wonderful orbit. Just LOVE you. Thank you for seeing me through the past week, month, days.)
And of course Karen Smith (and Dale!), Mary Beth Del Balzo, Nancy Trim, Jim Del Balzo, Brian Trim (and Al, of course!), our brother Joe, Jess Cording, Julia Tsakalis, Marie Portalatin, Catie Smith (and Stephie!), Theo Tsakalis, so grateful to be family with you. Love you.
I'm writing this from the plane. Finally took off from Newark after an ordeal of a day yesterday, getting stuck there -- turns out the loud airport is not a great place when you're in the throes of grief. Speakers blaring Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" do not do a grieving body good. Nor do delays delays delays. But I'm turning that mood-frown upside-down with all of this gratitude. 💕💕💕💕
My dad managed to get this out to me: “You are perfect.” And then went on to talk about the loads of bright light he sees. And I asked him about the holy grail and he remembered that too. 😭
I have a lot more to write about this, such as the fact that I felt like the divine was talking directly through him to me, and not just to/for me but for all.
In NJ visiting my dad for probably the last time. There is no real way of knowing, though the hospice nurse thinks this is his last decline, and the fact that there is a hospice nurse is enough of an indication. So, spending loving time with my dad and family.
The first time I visited yesterday he was a little alert, so we held hands and he made prolonged eye contact with me, even though his dementia has progressed to the point that his speech is rare and hard to understand,though he knew it was me and he was glad I was there. I was hoping for that. Got to tell him I loved him a few more times.
“I found the holy grail,” he said, in his reverie, then reached out and said, “Father,” several times, so...there are “hallucinations,” but I watched my mother go through this similarly too. And I have my feelings/ideas about it. ✨
I took a picture of his tender socked feet in the hospital bed in the bedroom where I spent my teen years, but decided against posting it, since it’s such an intimate moment. But the sun was streaming in, Bing was singing and I felt my mom around. My sisters and I were all there and he continues to be well taken care of.
I started writing what will go in the paper, etc., Friday, thanks to a bunch of info my sisters amassed as well as from my heart and what I’ve learned from him. I wasn’t expecting to do it and it was hard but not as hard as I thought and it helped me, really. And it allowed me to contribute in a way I can. We like the part about how his peers named him “sports king,” having a .300 batting average (and playing basketball, baseball and football in college), as well as being inducted into his college’s Hall of Fame. Those are genes I did not inherit. But I admire them. We do share an intense belief in education, music, language and charity. And really a whole slew of other things on which I’ll reflect more later.
I could write a lot more (and will), but I’m going to get some breakfast and then go back over to see him one more time before I head back to Cambridge and then back to Boise. Thanks for reading and shooting some love beams our way during this New Moon and time of transition. ❤️
I was super nervous about doing this at first. I tossed and turned this morning. But then I got on there and it was super fun. I had several awesome questions from several awesome people and we were off to the races.
And the thing I never would have known (Hey, Marie Forleo, you're right: "Clarity comes from engagement, not thought") is that I got a lot of clarity on my own creativity and projects and perspective and shits by considering and answering these questions!
It was also super fun because right before I went on I pulled the "Counselor" card from my Doreen Virtual Archangels Oracle deck. Woohoo!
So my plan is to do this weekly and if anyone has questions they'd like me to answer let me know and I'll tag you on FB in the replay.
Yay! Happy to flex the courage muscle this way.
❤️ You Don't Have to Know Everything Before You Know Everything/You Don't Need to Ever Know Everything ❤️
Hey! Just popping on with video to talk about the creative process, my new (sweet little baby) book I've been working on and how the overarching theme arose from something I learned from having DCIS in 2016. And not having to know everything before we know everything. (Like what I was going to say on this video, for example.) And to see where you're at, too.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.