Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Doctor Is In. 25¢ Please.

It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I was the next Dr. Andrew Weil. Or worse, Dr. Phil, God help us. No, it happened like this. My ex-mother in law, (Dr.) Marcia Jones, whom I love fiercely, sent me a book as my marriage to her son, David (ne Jones) was ending. The book was Expecting Adam and it was by a woman named Martha Beck whose son was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome within the first trimester of her pregnancy. A triple Harvard Ph.D. living in Cambridge, Martha was advised by colleagues to abort. Instead, from the firestorm that was this experience, she kept the baby and allowed it to transform her worldview. She moved quickly from a neck-up existence to a full bodied one. I could relate. I had a firestorm of my own, and before it, I’d focused on just two dimensions of myself and others: mind and body. After, I found a third: mind, body and awareness. Through the firestorm and an accompanying series of ordinary miracles, Martha discovered this third dimension, and her life changed from top to bottom.

I ate this book up and thought about its applications to my own life for years, noting only peripherally that she had become--post Harvard--a life coach. It was the first time I’d heard that term.

A couple of years later, when I was still living in the farmhouse in Hatfield, I got an email from an old high school friend named Julie Serritella. “Hi,” she wrote. “I’m in Taiwan with my husband, and I heard a song by you on the radio! By the way, I’m a life coach.”

That’s nice, I thought vaguely and took Mia out for a romp down by the river and didn’t think of Julie again or life coaching, until last October when she showed up at our show in Ithaca.

“What exactly is life coaching?” I asked. “Is it like therapy?”
“Sort of, but not,” she said. “You get to use what you know to be true, but life coaching is to therapy what personal training is to orthopedics.”
“Do you tell people what to do?” I asked, packing up my CDs and counting the twenty dollar bills.
“No,” she said. “They already know what to do. I listen, and if I’m doing my job right, I ask the right questions. They tell me what they want to do, and in telling me, they tell themselves.”
I looked up. A job where you get to listen to other people’s stories? A job where you get to witness the birth of little epiphanies all day long? My rabid curiosity took over. “I want to do that,” I thought but did not say.

Two weeks later, on tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer, Jill Stratton, my old friend who runs the Acoustic City Concert Series in St. Louis, started telling me about her amazing life coach and her own thoughts on the matter.
“Nerissa,’ she said slyly looking at me while driving us alone I-70. “You should be a life coach.”

That did it. I came home from the tour, dumped my suitcase at the bottom of the stairs, ran up and googled Martha Beck’s website. It turns out she trains people to be life coaches. I sent an email to her associate, Stacey Shively. Stacey called me back. “What’s your last name?” she said after we’d been talking for a few minutes. “Hey! I know you! I have Gotta Get Over Greta!”

From that moment on, training began. I read countless books, I wrote copiously about…myself, based on assignments Martha gave trainees. I talked to Stacey and to other life coaches and harassed them with questions. I packed for Arizona, where the training would take place.

The night before I left, I got a call from an old, familiar number.

“Hi, Nerissa. It’s David. Mia got hit by a car.”

For anyone who’s lost a beloved pet, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. Tom said afterwards he’s never seen me cry so hard. I lay on the carpet and wailed and held my head in my hands. It was as though I were mourning every single loss I’ve ever had.

I sat in the meditation room with my guitar, and I lit a candle for Mia and sang her “Eulogy for Emma,” a song for the dog I’d had before Mia. I thought about Mia’s soft fur, little tail wagging like a flag above the squash fields of Hatfield. I thought about her brave fearless soul: she died chasing a squirrel into the road. No matter how hard we tried to scare her out of her road complacency, she refused to see it as a deathly river. She just ran joyfully across it, the way she ran joyfully anywhere.

“Mia,” I whispered. “Could you stick around to remind me to run joyfully?”

And of course, I thought about my marriage to David, those years in the van, the good man my ex-husband is. And how after a year of separation in which Mia lived with me, though we shared “custody,” I came to realize that I was traveling too much to treat her the way she needed to be treated. Treated to a forty-five minute-a-day romp in the squash fields. So I gave her to David and knew he would love her at least as much as I had. He did. I cried for his loss, went to bed, cried all day on the flight to Phoenix.


A group of eleven of us, hand picked by Stacey, met the next morning and commenced training. We did a number of exercises in which we examined fears and useless, unhelpful beliefs. I kept thinking of the work I’ve been doing in meditation for the past seven years, the focus on living in the present moment and how rich life is when I can do that. I also thought “Who knew all those books on Feng Shui I bought in the ‘90’s would come in handy someday? Who knew all those books on the Eneagram and astrology I read in airports and in the van driving around the country would be more than a guilty pleasure?”

I was blown away by my colleagues, learning as much from them as I did from Martha and her team. We couldn’t have been more different from each other. We were men and women, ranging in age from mid twenties to fifties, liberals and conservatives, therapists and a jewelry maker, a yoga instructor, a couple of PhDs, and one (choke, gasp) Republican who was a marketer and press person for the Bush campaign whom I, liberal apologist and passionate peacenik, adored. One woman had spent years in the bush in British Columbia with indigenous tribes (she spoke of Mom Jack and Auntie Mrs. Nyman which I thought would make a great title for a novel or memoir.) All of us were there because we want to help people get through the transitions of their lives and emerge stronger, not depleted and discouraged.

I believe from my own experience that everyone goes through a firestorm or two at some point, and when that happens, a person has three choices. She can be destroyed; she can chose never to risk again; or she can become steeled, strong, joyful and show others how to do the same. Flying back home over this country I love, I looked down and saw the green fields of Texas. Spring is coming. I couldn’t help but think of Mia, and her fearless spirit.

You can lend a hand,
You can make a call
You can say a kind word or not speak at all
You don’t have to speak
Just sit by my side
And help me grieve….

Here’s to running joyfully.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Artist's Way and Hiring a New God

Kripalu, Day Three. Kripalu is a former Jesuit monastery, turned—by stages—New Age Holistic Yoga Retreat. Nestled in the Berkshire Mountains in the sweet old upper crust town of Lenox, the building itself is uninspiringly institutional (Kripalu rarely if ever portrays the building in its literature or promotion.) But the grounds are breathtaking, varied, full of spirit. From the South side of the building one can see the lake below, the mountains in the distance. Today, as I sit in the dining room, the snow is falling so slowly I could almost count the flakes.

I like Kripalu, but something about being here awakens my inner seventeen-year-old boy. His name is Hal, and he works at a CD store, reading Rolling Stone and sniffing at the choices the customers make, sort of like the character in the Nick Hornby novel High Fidelity. Customers are made to feel as uneasy buying the latest Beyonce CD as they would if purchasing feminine hygiene products. Hal writes a blog about acceptable vs. unacceptable prose and footwear. If Beavis and Butthead were still on the air, Hal would emulate them.

Hal does not like Kripalu. Hall cannot believe it when he passes a balding man with a lavender tee shirt talking to a 50 something red-haired woman in which the bald guy uses the phrases “significant other,” “self-actualizing” and “successfully accessed my inner child” all in the same sentence.

Then there’s the food. Hal won’t even go there, but fortunately, on this retreat, I have also discovered my inner 65-year-old Matron from Hell—the miserly, overly-critical, thoroughly unpleasable Madge the Badger. Madge is the aging parent who complains about everything you do for her, and the harder you try to please her the more she finds fault. She says of the food, “You paid $418 to eat bad red delicious apples and dry brown rice? And steamed KALE? Why didn’t you save your pennies and take that nice boy Tom to Grossinger’s in the Catskills?” (Madge’s voice resembles that of George’s mother on Seinfeld.)

I’ve been hearing Madge’s voice for years now, but I hadn’t been able to identify her so strongly and clearly until I came here this weekend to do a workshop on The Artists’ Way, a book/program by Julia Cameron. Julia asked us on the first day to identify our “censor” and give it/him/her a name. Madge obligingly showed up and revealed herself to me in all her passive aggressive, (mostly aggressive) albeit consistantly irrational glory.

I started doing The Artist’s Way in the summer of 1995. We were at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. At a party one evening, Dar told me about one of the exercises in courage she was practicing from this program. I was intrigued and a few weeks later, at a wonderful bookshop in Blue Hill Maine, I bought the book.

It’s not the kind of book you read. It’s the kind of book you do. I did that book, every day for the next two years, and I continued to use the main tools: morning pages, artists dates, quiet “aha!” walks, for the past ten. I credit the program with the vast number of songs I write (well, I think it’s vast—it’s more than I can use or even remember!) and the fact that I have been able to make the leap from songwriter to novelist with just a few bruises to show for it.

Writing or music –or any art form—is more than something one does. It is something one is, to a certain extent. Identifying as “Artist”—for me, anyway—is one of the bases from which I get my daily juice to go forward in the world, to be a creator. And as such, it is not an intellectual process but a spiritual one. What Julia’s book gave me was a kind of spiritual program, a framework within which I could see myself and see the world I was using for my work. Plus it was just plain fun.

Once of the main premises of The Artist’s Way is that if our ideas of God are blocking us from being creative—and if you aren’t identified as an “artist” you can substitute the words “happy,” “fulfilled,” “merrily productive,” “making a positive difference in the world and towards those you love” for “creative”—then it’s time to get a new God. How is it, for an example, going through the world with the idea that there’s a god up there setting up all sorts of inscrutable tests for you? Tests like, “Are you willing to sacrifice your first born son?” “Are you really going to take a bite of that forbidden fruit?” and “Are you going to marry this woman even though she’s pregnant and you know for a fact that it’s not your baby?” Or “Are you going to say yes to the gig in Westchester County?” Just for instance.

I had this idea of a God who was up there, totally fixated on me (naturally) but not exactly in a helpful way. More like a high school dean, trying to decide who was going to get the prize for Most Noble Character at graduation.

More recently, I ‘d been working with a more Taoist model of God: God like the proverbial river that flows North to South. God that IS. Actually, not so far from that God that Moses discovered in the burning bush: “I am that I am.”

“I am a river that happens to flow North to South,. I’d like to help you out when you pray to me to give your dying mother a full recovery, but the fact is, to do so would be to reverse the flow of the river and I don’t do that. I can’t do that.”

As an artist, and as a life long inhabitant of my own slightly whimsical Spielberg-esque imagination, this has been a helpful reality check. It also helps me deal with a lot of my existential anger. But it leaves something out. Something all spiritual traditions point to, and that is the love of God.

My first thought when I arrived at Kriapu and saw the other suitcase in my tiny 2 twin bedded room was, “Dear God, Please don’t let my roommate be thinner than me.” Not to be bullied, God disclosed my roommate, Chitra, a lovely red head from New Jersey, a yoga teacher and—yes, alas—thinner than me. I like her anyway. I am sitting here at breakfast watching the parade of skinny yoginis and refugees from New York City go by. They are filling their plates with steel cut oats, honey apple cake (vegan, of course), miso sea vegetable soup and grapefruit of a questionable age. I have already eaten and am not hungry, but even so, I am envious of the others, who mostly get to eat a lot more food than I do. Why?
“Because!” shouts Madge the Badger. “You have the slowest metabolism on the planet! If you would only life weights and get some aerobic exercise in, you’d be able to eat more!” (Just to give you a clear picture of what I’m dealing with here, as soon as I start lifting weights and doing aerobics, Madge starts screaming about how anorexicly I am behaving.)

The God of the One Direction River says, “Sorry, pal. You are a really small woman and you just don’t need that much food. Be grateful—your grocery bills are low.”
But the new God I’ve recently hired says this: “You know that part of the Bible that says, ‘Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’?” It’s about love, my dear one. I want you to have the juiciest, best possible life you can have. And that’s not really about how much food you get to eat—unless, that is, you are very hungry. Are you hungry?”
“No,” I reply. “Just occasionally bored and anxious.”
“So let’s take that one around the block a few times,” says my new God. “I’ll keep you company.”

Yesterday evening, after the session , I went to a room where a joyfully, gorgeously zaftig music lover was leading a dance class.

“Don’t dance in one of those herds where all you do is move en masse in a circle around the room,” she shouted above, “I’ll Take You There.” “Other than that, do whatever you want.”

Now, I am not the world’s most graceful dancer. Hal says I resemble Elaine from Seinfeld, but I think that’s an exaggeration. I am one of those people who, if I can’t do something well, I don’t really want to do it at all. And looking like a goofball in public—all evidence to the contrary- is not something I am all that keen to do. Plus, I was not exactly anonymous. No fewer than four people in a room of maybe 25 admitted that they’d seen me perform at Falcon Ridge. Even so, I let go and danced the way Katryna and I danced as children on our parents’ white shag rug, to Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up.” (Mostly, back then, we danced herd-like, in a circle but we also shimmied and shook, especially on the chorus.) So last night, I hopped around to “You Were On My Mind,” and skipped around to “Gentle Arms of Eden.” I did some improvisational yoga to Dan Bern’s “Revolution in the Basement.” And God was in the corner nodding along. No—I take that back. God was right in the center of the room, kicking up her feet and laughing her head off.

“Girl, you look great,” she told me. And even though Hal was so embarrassed he had to keep his back turned almost the whole time, I knew She was right.