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.
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.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
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