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.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.