It occurred to me while meditating today that this pandemic is kind of like a psychedelic trip for the planet. While my experience with psychedelics is limited to one mushroom trip in college, I saw and felt enough to draw this comparison.
First of all, we’re seeing on a visceral and undeniable level the interconnectedness of all people and the earth. Here we are. So many of us are social-distancing in order to protect ourselves and our fellow humans, those immunocompromised and falling within the most susceptible groups. We see how what we do affects individuals and the whole, from the other side of the world to our own families.
While we’ve been hunkered down, we have also been reaching out to each other more, if you’re like me. I’ve been Marco Polo-ing with several close friends and staying in touch with family via text and telephone. We have technology during this pandemic, which wasn’t the case with most other past pandemics.
Just yesterday I was on a Zoom call for a course I’m taking and one of the women’s enthusiasm about the paradigm shift we’re experiencing was more infectious than the virus. I felt instantly better and vowed to lean into people and myself more and reach out and share.
We have to get grounded in ourselves first and foremost. This, for me, has been an inward journey – which really just continues an inward journey I’ve been on for years. I’ve gone inward, yes, for my own benefit, but also so that I can be more effective in serving and being a balm. (She’s a total balm balm ;-)) This thing is gonna last as long as it's gonna last and we are along for the ride. We're going to keep with it and each other.
I dreamt this morning about being on a rollercoaster with my besties. It was a rollercoaster that went all through the theme park. We were, however, paying more attention to each other than the rollercoaster and what we were discussing, which was music. We were talking about the gentle way Trish Keenan delivered her vocals and the overall message of her band, Broadcast, and how she didn’t hit anyone over the head with it. Their music is an invitation. Trish died of pneumonia from contracting Swine Flu in 2011. This seemed appropriate to the dream and the situation.
In the dream, every once in a while, we would scream, about to ride into a family getting ice cream or a wall, but the car we were in always righted us, even though it was scary. So we’d scream and then we’d go back to talking about music and how healing and amazing art is. We’d link our arms and focus on each other. And we'd scream again when we needed to.
This seems like an important message for me to remember and share. There will be twists and turns, like an acid trip or a rollercoaster and we do not know what’s coming yet and our eyes are open pretty wide, like pinwheels, and we just need to ride it, keep connecting, and take care of ourselves and each other. Nobody is going to turn into a glass of orange juice.
When I took my mushroom trip in college I remember my roommate was really scared. I saw her sitting on the ground and she appeared to be cloaked in the darkness of her own fear. I invited her to sit with me and we talked about her fears precipitated by growing up Catholic. As the Charlatans UK played on my stereo, we rode out the scariest and most emotional parts of the trip together. I felt what she felt, she felt what I felt. I held tight to the feeling that we were good, things were OK, and wanted to share that vision with her, which she took in sip by sip. Eventually we arrived at a place together where we saw the divine feminine and it was pretty beautiful. Now, I’m not suggesting COVID-19 is going to take us to the divine feminine, though I do think we feel the interconnection of Mother Earth. So, yeah, in a way, yes, it is doing just that. And it’s all through our connection with each other. Our systems are broken but we are taking care of each other.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer some years ago my sister sent me a psalm. And being actively not religious I was like, “A G-D PSALM?!?!” She also was like, “Hey, this is a psalm, not trying to push religion on you, just thought this might help you where you’re at.” It did. It was about how we should not look up ahead at the mountain range and worry about how we will traverse it. We should keep walking, know that there might be a way around it or through when we get to it and to trust that instead of going the whole way in worry. It doesn’t make sense to freak out about what is to come potentially and try to figure out how to handle that now emotionally.
OK, of course on a practical level we are being as prepared as we can and, like, checking in on each other, paying attention to numbers, doing the World Health Organization’s Five:
“1 HANDS: Wash them often,
2 ELBOW: Cough into it
3 FACE: Don't touch it
4 FEET: Stay more than 3ft apart
5 FEEL: sick? Stay home”
Also, we get to be scared and we get to be strong. What I have been noticing is how bolstered I have been by friends, family, community, etc. So let yourself off the hook. If you’re scared, lean on someone, if you’re feeling strong, offer your steady energy for people to entrain to. Breathe and laugh with your people. And know sometimes you’ll cycle through feeling sad or scared or strong at any given time. That is OK and the way things are.
My wonderful acupuncturist back east, Sheila Fay, was so helpful when I was doing radiation.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm meeting this huge, yang hospital machinery energy as a warrior queen," I told her, "and sometimes I'm just like the softest, squishiest incarnation of a tired, tender woman," I told her. "How should I meet this energy? How do I go in there for my highest healing? Which way should I be doing it?"
"Both," she said. "However you feel on any given day and that gets to change even within a day. Be the warrior queen and the soft, squishy yin body. Whatever feels right."
OK then. And that is exactly what I did.
I was talking with my friend Emily Taylor (one of my fellow dream-rollercoaster riders) a while back about my mushroom trip and she brought up the fact that how in American culture, we don’t have guides for our psychedelic experiences. That we often have to step up as those guides for each other. It occurs to me we can do that now, too. As our “leaders” are inept we are now more connected than ever, and I see so many of you stepping up as leaders and sharing where you are. It is so valuable.
However you're doing is great. You don’t have to use this time to be super productive. I would invite you to go inward, get quiet, listen for the stillness, and, as Glennon Doyle puts in her new book Untamed (and Kristen Bell sings in Frozen 2, Emily also brought to my attention): Listen inward and do the next right thing.
We’ll ride this together. We’ll do our due diligence. Keep on truckin’.
Thank you for reading. And I'm here if you want to talk or need a hug from afar. How are you? How's your heart?
In light of my blog post yesterday about my/our creations being babies, too, I want to be clearer and more inclusive/expansive and say that my/our creations, in fact, do not need to be remotely compared to babies at all in order to be valued. There are similarities, yes, and if it helps us to look at things that way, great. BUT ALSO, we do not have to look at it that way either. We make what we make and completely separate from the idea and reality of children those things get to exist, be valued, be celebrated. I do not have to put a headband with a flower on it on a record I make in order for it to be valuable. So…continued nuances.
More importantly, though – just get in there and write and make stuff and sing if you can (I do not take lightly the tremendous privilege it is to do any of these things either). I could pick at the intellectual machinations of it all day and I could be instead writing/tickling the plastics at the Rhodes. So, off I go. XO
My OBGYN has a zillion pictures of babies he's delivered all over his office (his practice is called "Idaho Stork," after all, as he is very birth-centric). I think my pic should be on one of those boards, too, since he'll be removing my uterus and I'll be pregnant with my own creativity from here on out.
Our best friends from Boston were here for a week in January and we savored every moment. We recorded songs we’ve been writing together back and forth (in our band, East Witch West). We had friends over and everyone played music and we deepened our sense of community. We often birth cool stuff together. We foster tremendous growth and healing whenever we’re together, too.
On the second day of recording, I had a transvaginal ultrasound in the morning because I have been having breakthrough bleeding and the medication (tamoxifen) I’m on can cause uterine cancer, so I always get very anxious whenever this occurs (and my doctors say I have to get it checked out EVERY. DAMN. TIME).
So I discussed with my (much-adored) Nurse Practitioner and decided to have my uterus removed April 3 (send me love) because I have fibroids that are most likely causing the bleeding. Abby drove us and Emily went to the office with me. And then we had lunch of chicken confit and went to record. It was a big day of big choices about my seat of creativity.
What’s interesting to me about the timing of all of this is that I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about how writing and music are my children. I am not having biological children of my own. And I believe there will be even more room for my energetic children, if you will, without a uterus that gives me a lot of trouble and pain and anxiety. (Smooches, uterus, don't get me wrong.)
When Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic (which I love) came out she was on a show talking about how she doesn’t like when people call their books babies, and threw her own book on the floor, saying you can’t do that with a baby. This sat funny with me because as women our creations are often automatically downgraded in importance, culturally, unless those creations are, in fact, children.
Also, you could throw a baby on the floor, but you shouldn’t. The beautiful book you put so much time and effort and vulnerability and tears into also shouldn’t be thrown on the floor. And, in my opinion, nothing called Big Magic should ever be thrown on the floor. I have reverence for my and your creations even if they did not come out of our wombs of flesh.
I mean, sure, you won't be jailed for throwing your book baby on the floor. But still. Maybe a touch more reverence? (There are some things of which I'm reverent, it's true.)
And here's the thing, too: motherhood is redunks amazing. I am in awe every day of how my friends and family mother and how they give birth and what they go through to adopt. It is truly a huge accomplishment on an earthly and cosmic level for which I have a hard time finding words. But also, I think women's accomplishments that aren't children are so often devalued. And to that I say: NOPE!
So I am looking at my hysterectomy as further stepping into my own power and who I am. I am also privileged to be able to make this choice.
I am grateful that I’ve been able to follow my heart to Boise, even though it hasn’t always been easy, and I haven’t always known what the eff I’m doing. But I’ve wanted to play and write music since I was a child, and I don’t think I’d have written and recorded so many songs of which I’m proud without being here. I can see a chain of events and choices that led me to this moment, including my friends who are family visiting and writing with them and birthing our creations.
It is some of the biggest magic and I would never throw it on the floor.
What is also pretty damn special is that my friend Emily who was here in January is coming back to help me during my surgery and make me broth and hold my hand. It just occurred to me that she is a doula. The part of me that's been repeatedly poked by feminine conditioning and the messages about "what women are for" and, and, and...just took a deep breath and straightened her spine. I get to have a doula for my hysterectomy.
What are you pregnant with? I'm sending you love for that.
Also...ha! This cracked me up:
I had a pretty intense, musically-related spiritual experience yesterday morning. I was looking at my cat, singing The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” to myself. This song is a sacred touchstone for me. If I hear it in public I almost feel like someone has pantsed me and I’m standing there naked-assed, because it always makes me instantly cry, and we all know how vulnerable it can feel to weep in public.
Here's the song if you want to hear it:
So, I’m singing this in my head to my cat. I’m even like, “Hey, I should make an Instagram story of Oliver and put that song on it, but I’m going to stop procrastinating and go do this Qoya movement ritual instead.”
Rochelle Schieck created Qoya as a means to get back in our bodies through moving however we’d like. It’s a combo of yoga, dance, shaking, shadow work. And powerful. Always. It helped me through breast cancer treatment by letting me get into my body more. Every time I do it I cry – which is one of the ways I know its potency.
As I lie down to stretch as instructed, the second song starts to play. And what song do you think that might be? Only moments after I am singing it to my cat, “Do You Realize??” starts. Wayne Coyne sings me everything I need to hear and remember about the world and the music itself lifts me. I projectile cry. And laugh. Because I recently had been asking the Universe to give me a sign I’m on the right path. Here she is, in her technicolor glory.
Now, I get worried I don’t put myself in the world enough, but I hold myself back because of perceived future possible bullshit that doesn’t actually exist. And as I lie there listening to Rochelle tell me to stretch and Wayne Coyne singing to let my people know I realize life goes so fast I also realize this: they both created this beauty, their art; and their contributions have changed the trajectory of my life. They believed in what they were doing more than they were worried about critics when they put their great works in the world.
I mean, it would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic, how much we hold ourselves back from sharing our gifts, ostensibly robbing people of those gifts' healing properties.
Then I went to therapy today and did EMDR around old trauma.
“How about for this last segment you picture yourself at the age which holds that particular pain, as a teenager,” my therapist said, “and see her dancing or twirling or whatever she wants to do and watch her grow. And I’m going to find that song and play it, OK?”
“OK!” I say. “But I’m going to totally ruin my eye makeup.”
“Good!” he said.
And it was very sweet. It was one of the sweeter things a therapist has ever done for me.
So here I am, offering my vulnerable and real gifts to you, my heart, my words, my love of song. And hopefully, you will find something of value in it that catalyzes your heart to create and trust, too, or get over the fear long enough to know what you have to offer is not only worth offering but that it is pertinent you do. We can heal each other incrementally, with song, with modalities, with words, with a phone call. And wowza, as we know, humanity has some healing that needs to be done.
I know this message isn’t just for me. Let me know what you’re burning to create and release. Or just go work on that thing and let it be free to do its own healing work.
I want to be writing and witnessing my tenderness and the tenderness of all while this full moon/eclipse is happening.
I witness with radical self-compassion the sticky places in myself that still cry out to be mothered. And then I mother them with that self-compassion. The new way is choosing new thoughts – yesterday my sister was talking me off the medical PTSD ledge and she was telling me about a workshop she took where the teacher said, “You can’t choose your first thought, but you can choose your next thought.”
I have been working on that: choosing thoughts instead of being a victim led by my animal brain. Like instead of “I don’t want to die! Oh no oh no oh no!” I choose “I can handle whatever comes my way, I always do.” That precipitates a far different feeling in the think-feel-act cycle (which I’m studying).
I witness our world. Our sweet earth. And I throw my heart-salve on it, even though it feels hopeless sometimes. But I see that the more I get centered in myself with radical self-compassion the more I can send love instead of despair.
This isn’t about “love and light,” though. This isn’t sending some arbitrary BS from inside a pair of blinders. This is a continuation of work that we must do – to see where those less privileged than we are need help and providing it. Tied up in that work is the unraveling of our own unconscious biases and turning them inside out. But more importantly, the helping, the listening, the amplification of others’ voices and the compassion.
And I’ve noticed if we don’t actually have compassion for ourselves how can we then be compassionate toward others? But then also compassion for ourselves must not be used as excuse not to help others – if this is done it is fragility disguised as compassion.
We continue to dismantle the old, which unfortunately isn’t old enough to be extinct yet. While precious creatures do go extinct. There is a sharp unfairness to that. But intellectualizing it adds to the injustice because that is from a place of privilege.
So I will keep at it. I will keep centered in the heart. I will keep anchored in my home vibration so that I can help where I can help. I work at it.
And at this moment, while the full moon lunar eclipse happens in Cancer – which is The Mother – I will mother myself and send my motherly energy out to the planet. I have my own weird reproductive funniness happening right now, so it’s perfectly apt. (Wanting to not have children, still needing to keep my parts for their benefits, but getting scared whenever my period is weird because of my medication, and then changing my thoughts around that.) So I mother myself from this place of not wanting to be a biological mother but being able to hold a lot of maternal energy.
I anchor into myself and my heart and remind myself of my dreams. I want justice for those who don’t get it. I want a dismantling of white supremacy and all the structures and systems it has created – which are many and far-reaching.
I also want to create – I was going to say selfishly, but then I mothered myself and corrected myself. I have wanted to be a musician and writer since I was a child. I have had the great fortune of getting to be both of those things. I am sure my benefitting from white supremacy and white privilege has contributed to that. But I also know that art is healing, music is medicine, writing saves lives. And so I will not go silent and stop the things I’ve been so privileged to be able to do. I will share.
My heart is coherent with my brain. What I seek is seeking me, to quote Rumi. And I am fine. I am safe I am loved. I am safe I am loved. I choose love, I choose creating, I choose anchoring into myself, I choose my home vibration, I choose trust, knowing that sometimes I will be shaken and maybe even feel derailed, but I will keep with my heart. And let hard things be part of it. But also remain in the quantum field of possibility of perfect health and being a voice that soothes and protects and lifts up and reaches down the ladder of privilege, too. Not in a savior-y way, in a responsible “I am doing my work in the world and this is part of the work” kind of way. Amplifying voices.
Practicing being in my home vibration will be an invitation to my people who are already seeking me and finding me. And I know that sometimes there are barbs and stings due to other people’s thoughts about whatever. And that has nothing to do with me, even though it will feel like it does sometimes. And it will take a bit to recover sometimes. But that is OK. We can do hard things. I’ve been through other shit, I can take that, too.
But that is not my main objective. Being me, creating, helping, healing with the tools I was given and continue to develop. I trust that the work I’m doing on my memoir will be enough.
I will decide I am enough without ANY of that. Without any work to be done or music or writing. And I can be motivated still to manifest those gifts on the physical plane without feeling I need them to be worthy. I am already worthy. This is a practice and I will keep practicing.
I will keep taking impeccable care of my body – OK, I have a voice that’s like, you eat too much meat and not enough vegetables. OK, funny voice – you’re not The Voice. You’re one of the dicky voices. Guess what, yeah, I hear you, sweetie mean girl. You deserve love, too. You do. So I’m sending you love, too. We can be a big old field of self-compassion poppies right now. Good work, all. I love you and thank you.
We are practicing intergenerational healing. That is what is happening. Our thoughts do not define us, but they can become a personality, but I am changing my thoughts for healing. Everything I am doing is in benefit of seven generations before and seven following, whether or not I have biological children. I am healing for myself, those around me, those before me, those after me, the earth. I do this because my heart and gut say to do it. And that it’s the right thing.
I am open to recalibration where necessary. But I am solid.
I choose: Courage, Mastery, Trust, Self-Compassion, Embodied, Rhapsody, Home Vibration. Not just for 2020 but beyond.
“Earlier on, I feel like I was trying to polish some of the humanity out.” -Sam Beam, Iron & Wine
I put that quote on last year’s vision board as a reminder not to do that. I used to do that with music a fair amount. I didn’t mean to, I just catered to perfectionism without even realizing I was doing it. I would over-polish and create a sound that seemed like it was produced in a vacuum. (Of course a lot of people actually likethis kind of sound – hello, autotune – but I do not, so I do not want to over-polish. We have enough robots vying to be Capitalism’s “Best” Whatever.)
The past few years I’ve let myself be a lot more vulnerable with music. I polished, but I kept my humanity front and center. And on a meta level, my ego had a hard time with things moving slower than I would have liked. But I kept at it and fell more deeply in love with making music again.
I also started a new draft of my book a little over a year ago. I began studying Marion Roach Smith’s approach to memoir writing (she has a book called The Memoir Project, is a book coach, and teaches several excellent classes). I got wise about my book being about one thing, what my central argument was (the universal meaning), the transformation for which the reader was reading, and just generally streamlined the whole thing. I worked and worked and worked, showing up, typing away, creating puzzle pieces that I hoped were fitting.
Then I did a few more drafts. I let in an excellent editor. And realized with her feedback that I had polished a lot of the humanity out. My draft, with some distance, reminded me of that painting of Jesus that lady tried to so lovingly restore and instead created a soft, out-of-focus mess. Not that my previous draft was a masterpiece. But I loved it so hard I smoothed out some things that still needed to be sharp.
I tried so hard to streamline and make everything be on-theme (including new pieces to show me finding my voice) that I eliminated a lot of what was giving the whole thing breath in the first place. And, as my editor pointed out, if my book was about my family, I ought not neglect to mention my sisters for almost three-hundred pages. Though I think my sisters might be more comfortable with their absence on my pages – but that’s a subject for another time.
It is a tremendous privilege to get to be a writer.
“Take pride in making it better and better. Let it take ALL the time. It’s artistry,” said Linda Sivertsen (mentor, Book Mama, host of The Beautiful Writers Podcast) on one of my writing group’s coaching calls.
But before I heard that I went a little into victim. I was like, “Oh man, I’ve been working on this for four plus years, when will I ever be done?” The answer is: I don’t know. And that is OK. But I’m willing to keep improving it (not, like, perfection-improvement, but real improvement).
Making beautiful things is a balancing act. Because on one hand we’re not even supposed to judge the work (I have a hard time with this one and for now am not totally detached from “how” my work is. I love thinking about it too much to be a true creative Buddhist about it. Yet). And on the other hand, it’s work, and if we want, we must do our due diligence to make it the best it can be. So this can be a bit of a finger trap.
I also realized I needed to write that smudgy-poorly-restored-Jesus draft to lead me to the nextdraft, which I’m working on now. Since I am a human person, I can breathe humanity back in. And to be fair to myself, I did not polish allof the humanity out. My first scene is bonkers aces, I think. It doesn’t even tweak my Imposter Complex to say that.
So! I will keep working at it. Four years after starting this book I’m glad to say I was ignorant of how steep my own learning curve would be writing memoir because now I’m a bit better at this longform. (I’m far more used to writing in short-form bites, having written a 500-word column for twelve plus years.) Most importantly (not that this is the hierarchy-of-importance Olympics) I love doing it. I love my writing cave.
Have you polished the humanity out anywhere in your life for the old siren song of perfection, streamlining, staying on-theme? Accidentally making soft-focus Jesuses with the impossible heft of your passion for something? Where has it led you? I don’t think there’s any chance of resurrecting that Jesus painting, perhaps ironically, but our work gets to live to see another day.
One thing I’m enjoying most about our entering the roaring (can they be soaring?) twenties is that everyone is writing pieces of memoir and sharing them on FB and the like. I guess that happens most days on social media, but people are putting thought into where they were twenty years ago, what this decade has meant to them, what they want for the future. That's s strong communal tea.
New Year’s Eve 1999 I was performing at a big, sloppy yuppie party at the Prudential Center in Boston with the swing band I sang with at the time. My mother had just died of ovarian cancer, so I wasn’t so worried about Y2K – my world as I knew it had already stood still.
Grief was quicksand with sharp objects embedded. My father was one of those sharp objects, his grief so acute and painful he turned it on himself and me.
“Quit your yapping,” he said as I cried in the car on our way back from Florida. I had a cold, he was smoking a cigar with the window barely cracked, my stomach turned with all of it, already sore from so much crying.
I let myself grieve. Friendships slipped away because I was a slippery glob of “she won’t get over it.” It didn’t help that my long-term boyfriend at the time and I broke up only a few months earlier.
While I tried to unbreak my own heart, I tore through several others’ hearts. Squishing together doesn’t mean you’re going to stick. I ate Lean Cuisine meals in my Cambridge apartment and in my better moments wrote music and finished writing my thesis on Joan Didion.
My ex met a cook from Idaho at Charlie’s Kitchen on Christmas Eve 2000 and when I met him and tried to look into his eyes (thoroughly covered with floppy hair) and saw his face erupt into his Brent smile I just wanted to live there. And so we made that happen. And continued to make that happen. And we’re still making it happen.
I learned how to grieve in part by just letting myself grieve without judgment. The floor + me + tears were well-acquainted. One of the perks of that which at first seemed like a lonely predicament: people who were fed up with my shit and grief at least were no longer around judging and reminding me I was doing it wrong. Grateful for endings that should be endings.
Therapy has been so valuable over the past twenty years. EMDR has helped me excavate and create new neural pathways around shit I thought I would never get over. Age doesn’t hurt either, if you stay curious. Yoga, too. I discovered one of my favorite yoga teachers (and friends) teaching in my neighborhood when I needed it/her most.
I did all kinds of self-enrichment stuff and self-care. Some worked, some was silly, all of it led me forward and kept me curious about myself. Rebirthing, past life regression, learning reiki. I started a blog. Thanks to that I ended up with a weekly column with the Newport Mercury in Rhode Island and covered the Newport International Film Festival and the Jazz and Folk Festivals, and did that for twelve plus years. Then I got my MFA in Screenwriting. But I didn’t want to live in L.A. or really be a screenwriter. Still I kept writing.
I wrote, I floundered, I joined other people’s bands so I didn’t have to work on my own music, I had a hard time listening to a lot of music, because it punched me in the stomach, reminding me I wasn’t making any of my own. Whenever Brent put on Blonde Redhead I would fall apart. I watched too much Real Housewives and finally yelled at the screen:
“What the fuck am I doing?” and turned it off and got off the couch. I had to do a lot of getting off the couch, or various seats, like barstools. I decided I needed to get really quiet. I listened inward. But not before listening outward a lot because, again, it seemed easier than following my own star. Until the inner lake of creativity started to grow because I was finally listening to it now and I would never ever change that again for anything in the world.
I started/hosted/ran a karaoke night for a bunch of years at Charlie's Kitchen, where Brent and I had met. Brent and I worked it together with my ex with whom I had remained friends. I liked giving people a space to belt their guts out and if anyone made fun of them you better believe I was on them (I definitely yelled "noodle dick" in one guy's face at least once).
One night after karaoke a large kitten with a tremendous tail showed up at our back door. I think Oliver Julius AKA The Doo could tell we would treat him like the king he is. To be sure and fair, we put up flyers, put him outside, etc., but he stayed. When we took him to the vet to get neutered and microchipped the receptionist said he used to be one of her kittens, but that he would roam.
“And now he’s theirs,” the vet said. Fourteen years later he's still the king.
Brent and I got engaged. My father was not supportive. Then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I started recording music for him, wondering how long he’d be able to operate the CD player. Something broke open in me because I chose to make something for someone I loved, even if our relationship had been fraught, especially as we grieved my mother.
Brent and I got married at the Museum of Science in Boston and we walked back down the aisle together to the end of “The End” of Abbey Road. Friends and family surrounded us, including my dad who rallied after all. My smile was irremovable, I danced wildly and drank Prosecco until I collapsed into the car on the way back to the Liberty Hotel, all the adrenaline draining from my body.
We made amazing friends and deepened old friendships. Some fell by the wayside. Some imploded or were crushed. Sometimes you never squish, let alone stick. Somewhere around then I started the hard work of erecting and enforcing boundaries. It got exponentially easier the more I practiced. Still listening to that lake of my own quiet, my own creativity, I needed to say “no” a lot.
Brent and I visited Boise a bunch of times and played music with Steve, our old friend whom Brent grew up with. We were in Idaho like every six months or so visiting my wonderful in-laws (I got lucky there), so we’d stop into Boise, too. We started a band.
I went on a magical writing retreat in Carmel-by-the-Sea and started writing my first book. I met the most amazing friends who remain my squishies to this day. I worked in earnest and a lot and kept at it. And kept keeping at it. One book became three books, I'm still working on yet another draft. It's been a lot of drafts. I learned it takes a lot of drafts. And what a privilege it is to get to take pride in making it better and better. I found myself in a group of writers my mentor created for which I am now an admin. I am amazed constantly at the synchronicity between writers working on telling our stories and using our voices.
I was diagnosed with stage zero DCIS breast cancer in early 2016. Which kind of turned my world on its butthole, as these things are wont to do. It also taught me a shit load about life, caused me to give zero fucks about basically anything that didn’t matter, and helped me get really clear about what I call my “energetic trajectory,” which is just what it sounds like, and what was a part of it and what was not. Growing up with a mad dad and a mom who constantly checked his emotional temperature before expressing her own can create an inner environment where you ooze energetic ectoplasm from every pore, checking everybody first before yourself. So I worked on that. I had a lumpectomy and radiation and learned everything I could, but I did not spend all of my time obsessing about cancer on the Internet. My doctors were excellent. And sometimes hilarious.
“Just…flash us,” my radiation oncologist would say when it was time for her and the nurse to check how my breast was doing. It really helped to have some levity. And my boob was doing great.
My sisters came to town and helped me so much, shining their love on me the way only they could do. I’m so grateful to have them. I didn’t tell my dad about my diagnosis, not wanting to add more stress to his dementia and worried that he would have a nebulous understanding something was wrong with one of his kids but not be able to pinpoint exactly what it was.
My dad had softened with dementia. He started to appreciate all of us and we finally got to see the tender heart inside the tough exterior. He never forgot who we were, though I was worried he would. He even finally told Brent he loved him and apologized for not understanding what a wonderful person he was earlier. My siblings were careful stewards of his life.
Cancer made Brent and I say, “What do we WANT?” And we had been wanting to move from Cambridge for a while. Visiting Seattle for the first time a few years prior made Brent and I realize that you could really really love a place and that we didn’t really really love Cambridge, though we had built a great life there with lots of love and friends and, oh, the restaurants. So right after I finished treatment we visited Boise and looked at houses and decided to do a bicoastal-ish kind of thing. Which we did for a few years until settling in Boise for good for now.
While I was back on the east coast I got to hear this: “You. Are. Perfect.” My dad told me a week before he died, even though his speech had been garbled at that point. I gasped. I thought about it a lot. It wasn’t just for me. It was for everyone I ever get to tell. But it was also super for me because for a lot of my life no matter what I did it didn’t feel like I was doing quite enough to please my parents. You know how that goes. Hearing that was tremendous.
We also lost my brother-in-law Jim last year and miss him so much. Grief has become something that I allow to be at the table. I’ve gotten to know it. It happens to us, yes, but I also let it in now. I feel strong in part because I honor my vulnerability as the princess-and-the-pea tender-heart she is.
I also keep an eye on my privilege and keep working at doing less harm while learning and learning and learning. I amplify the voices of those less privileged than I am and speak up. Thanks to many teachers my eyes have been opened to the way our culture is structured and how it destroys people. I built resilience where there was fragility and continue to feel into that place. It is the least I can do and it is necessary that I do. I encourage others to do the same.
Things will always have their ups and downs if we allow ourselves the full range of human emotions. At any given time we've had anxiety, medical PTSD, depression in our house. But we’ve also written and recorded a beautiful album and are growing our community here and some of our loved ones from back east have visited and soothed bouts of loneliness. I also put out a solo album and can’t really express how grateful I am to have a fantastic studio in our neighborhood, where we’ve recorded with the band we moved here to make a reality, and our other besties from back east. Childhood dreams are coming true.
I celebrate all of this. I am deeply grateful for my own heart and those of my friends and family. I choose to continue to have my own back. I will be braver in the next decade.
“Stop hoarding your good shit," my coach Tanya Geisler says. I did a lot of integrating in 2019 without sharing too much about it because that was the nature of the learning. But I'm starting this year with the trust that my good shit must be shared. Even when sometimes my imposter complex will try to convince me it isn't good at all and just shit. I'm onto it. And I'm forty-four. Like, seriously enough with that. Ya funny, IC.
I will keep collaborating with kindness and compromise and beauty and trust. But I will also be sure I always make the space and time to create what I am meant to create on my own terms, manifesting my gifts on the physical plane regardless of what anyone else is doing. I will keep listening inward and outward, recalibrating where necessary. And I will keep honoring the muse by showing up, valuing excellence, clarity, vulnerability, innovation and deep connection.
The start of a New Year and a new decade might be "just another day," but then is any day "just another day"? I have a mind and heart that grieve hard and are sick with the injustice and blindness I witness in the world. But I also can wonder at the magnificent weirdness of this human existence.
I’m finally on (somewhat) solid footing again after my sister’s visit here to Boise. She sent a box of bagels and whitefish salad and cream cheeses and smoked salmon from Zabar’s, so I’ve been CARB-O-LOADING every day for breakfast for a week. I haven’t worked out all week either or written or played music. As often happens when I’ve got a vacation or a visit, a lot of the regular stuff went out the window (and a lot of carbs came in). No meditation, too much wine, but all the I-squish-you-against-me-until-one-of-us-coughs love.
My sister is a magical being who is an absolute joy to be around. We sang harmonies together like we've done since I was a child and it filled a place in my heart I didn't know needed filling. Having someone near who has loved and known you since you were born can bring into higher relief the contrast of not having a lot of that energetic “I see you” physically near you day-to-day. And so I thirstily soaked it up (and the bagels) like the sand absorbs the sea.
My sister was visiting during her wedding anniversary. My brother-in-law passed away in September, so I was touched she would visit me across the country during this time. And that even during grief being around her felt like true home. The day of their anniversary I took her to lunch and shopping, and while at Ruby Lou’s boutique James Taylor’s “Gone to Carolina” came on. My sister was outside on the phone. My sister and brother-in-law had bought a house in South Carolina that they loved so much and my brother-in-law worked with James. So the second I heard the song I burst into tears. My sister gasped when I told her it had played.
That night we had a wine tasting and paella dinner at The Basque Market. The gentleman working — as bubbly as the txakoli itself — lovingly explained as he poured the wine how the whoosh of bubbles when you first decant this effervescent white represents the fog on the water in Basque Country, and when the bubbles settle it represents the fog clearing.
“So, you could have just ordered a glass of wine,” he said, “but isn’t this better?”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “If I had just chosen off the menu I wouldn’t have shed a tear! Thank you.” And we all smiled, misty as the Basque shoreline.
And then the next afternoon she left.
“The house is so quiet,” my husband said.
We moved to Boise almost three years ago, but haven’t made many friends. And as a childless couple, our closest people here are super busy with their children, so it’s been an adjustment. At times a lonely one. So, the second my sister left, my husband and I kind of broke down like a jalopy in the desert dunes for a couple days.
After gnashing around and crying (and vowing to eat a vegetable at some point) we both found ourselves in bed, sad, really early.
“I miss him too,” I wept. “I wanted to make sure she was OK and had everything she needed and that I was there for her and so I followed her lead. I didn’t really give myself the space for that dislodged pocket of grief until now. I knew him my whole life — they got married when I was five — so I miss him, too.”
And now I’ve got to resource the shit out of myself by writing about it, moving my body (I’ll get there), eating something other than bagels (I finished the last of the whitefish salad, scallion cream cheese and smoked salmon yesterday morning), getting really good rest, taking it easy on the wine (but that txakoli!) until the fog clears. We enjoy each other as much as we can and then we miss the shit out of each other. This being human / human being business — it can take a lot out of you. Where we connect is stronger, I need to believe, I do believe, than the despair of disconnection and the heft of grief. The fog rolls in, the fog rolls out.
My sister playing one of the wonderful singing bowls we got at Eyes of the World. I have been playing the ones I purchased every morning since she left. If you have additional ideas on how to resource oneself, let me know in the comments! Do you know anyone who, even in grief, can turn the world on with her smile (besides Mary Tyler Moore and my sister Mary Beth)?
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.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.