Monday, December 10, 2007

Green Grinchy Christmas

How does one be a good American consumer, enjoy Christmas and be good to the planet, all at the same time? I don't know but here are my Christmas suggestions for this year:
1. give everyone a twenty dollar bill scotch taped to a stick
2. drink a lot of eggnog and eat a lot of chocolate and otherwise numb yourself to the proceedings.

Just kidding. After reading my essays for the past year, it should come as no shock that I am not exactly the biggest fan of our consumer culture. Someone asked me today if I’d “done” Black Friday.” I can’t begin to convey how unlikely it would be to find me anywhere near a place of purchasing the day after Thanksgiving. I am severely allergic to traffic, lines of any sort, excess packaging, schlepping and any version of extra stuff coming into my house (my rule, not well followed, is if something comes in, something else has to go out.)

We are a people who want more. It used to be you would buy one television and if it broke, someone had an ongoing job of fixing it. Remember that 20 year old commercial about the MayTag repair guy sitting glumly around because the MayTag appliances never broke? The truth now is we don’t fix things; we throw them away (or stash them in our attics, garages and basements) and buy a new one. A good friend of mine said, “I just can’t wait for my dishwasher to break so I can have an excuse to buy a new one.” I can’t tell you how many hands free headsets I’ve gone through since getting a cell phone—I think maybe 32. We buy new things, like car seats, shoes, carrot peelers, coolers for our food, pedometers, little jackets for our cell phones, stuffed animals, exercise equipment, and forget about the fact that someday, that thing will no longer be welcome in our house. It will end up in a landfill somewhere where it will last for thousands of years; or else, in the case of plastics, it might end up as part of that great ever growing plastic raft floating in the Pacific Ocean.

So I am not crazy about the consumer aspect of Christmas. It reminds me of eating unhealthy food—fun for the anticipation and the first bite, and then not fun afterwards. Every once in awhile, I hit it just right and find the perfect present for someone I love; that makes it all worth while. Or, less commonly, I am truly surprised and delighted by something someone gives me, though more often, I get lovely things that I really didn’t need. Nevertheless, the holiday season can be the best time of the year, if I take everything with fifty thousand grains of salt and try to have fun, get in the spirit and all that. And my job as a blogger is to give you good ideas, not be a PC environmentalchik wet blanket.

My big truth about the holidays is that I only seem to get inspired, gift-wise, in the last few days of Sagittarius, when the clock is ticking down and all the best selling gifts have been sold. Christmas become Christmas when I personally get into the spirit, and that usually begins with the music. I have a box full of Christmas in my basement, and when I pull it up somewhere around Dec. 1, the first thing I do is put five Revels CDs on my CD changer ( (Revels is a yearly pageant, born in Cambridge, MA and now celebrated all over the country. It’s a combination of medieval music, ritual and ceremony performed mostly by a large chorus who act as citizens of a medieval Great Hall. It pure joy, as far as I am concerned.) We get a tree (yes, a real tree. Environmental sin #476); I put my holiday candles out and I take out the gift giving journal I keep (LCDP Weekly exercise number 45) and see what I’ve jotted down all year.

Some ideas for my loved ones that will help the earth and keep me out of the mall:
1. Sigg water bottles. I can’t say enough about this product! The water tastes delicious; you can wash them in the dishwasher; the cap is cool,a nd you can put stickers all over yours.
2. Homemade handkerchiefs. Now that was a great invention! Why waste paper when you can have your own soft cloth with your initials on it with which to blow your nose? Do what your granddad did—keep a couple of clean ones in your shirt pocket. With all that eating in the car that we Americans now do, you’ll always have a napkin.
3. Scrapbooks for other family members: this could be a great future gift: ask your sister for all those pieces of paper and photos and Bruce Springsteen tickets she’s been saving and make the scrapbook for her.
4. Homemade soaps. Why use plastic soap dispensers? Also, I didn’t say I was the maker of said soaps. But my friend, Pat makes fabulous homemade soaps, and I plan on supporting her buy buying a bunch.
5. I made my mother a version of the Day Planner last year, which she loved so much she insists I replicate it for her this year. It’s a weekly calendar with pictures from our family adventures plus quotations to go with the pictures and family members birthdays.
6. Dan Zanes CDs. Dan Zanes is the most innovative and restorative musician I can think of. Plus, our whole family loves him.
7. Anything hand knit.
8. A poem, story or song about a loved one, especially if you can perform it, read it or recite it to a crowd

Our family motto for Christmas is "take it down a thousand." My sisters and I have a deal to spend even less on each other this year than we did the year before (I think we’re down to an upper limit of $10.) I am planning to send an email to everyone in my family begging them not to give me anything, and to please, please not give Lila any plastic toys from China, or anywhere else. My husband and I will make a big batch of biscotti and put it in baskets for our friends, along with some Fair Trade coffee or tea. I am learning a few carols on the guitar. I might plan a party. I will take long walks in the low December sun. I will recite Luke 2: 10-15. I will find a photo of my daughter and make cheap black and white Xeroxed cards and send them to all my old friends. I will wrap presents in old newspaper and new ribbons. I will bake winter squash with cinnamon and cloves. I will frantically knit my husband’s scarf. I will sit with people who are intentionally silent and join them with my own silence. I will look around the Christmas table at the people I love most and give thanks for another year well lived.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

Monday, November 12, 2007

How I Know I Need Clutterers Anonymous

People often ask me how I am able to do so many things. The answer is: I almost never clean my house. As they say, something has to give, and in the Nields-Duffy house, it’s housework.

Don’t get me wrong. We only have a few ant colonies and the rats only show their faces at night. So far, the toys from the playroom haven’t migrated so far into the other rooms that doors can’t open, and so far no one has killed him or herself tripping over things, but it’s pretty bad. My friend and co-Day Planner inventor, Bonnie, made a suggestion to the group at one point that, “when things get kind of whacky, I sometimes take all the papers and loose ends and just put them in a box to file later.” I took that suggestion, only my box keeps growing—in fact I just added a second box—and I keep them both under the futon in my office. Lord knows what manner of important papers are in there.

I just paused to Google Clutterers Anonymous. I took their test: How Do I Know I’m A Clutterer? Twenty Questions. If I answered three or more as yes, I was probably a clutterer. I answered 15. Uh oh.

I have a closet overflowing with clothes. Old maternity things hanging hopefully (OK, not hanging—perhaps “crammed” would be a more accurate term), clothes from when I was ten pounds lighter than I am now; winter clothes, summer clothes, shoes in a heap. Piles of clothes, halfheartedly semi-sorted at one point to go to Good Will, get filched from regularly. I have a box in my bedroom marked “off-season clothes” that at one time was organized; now, it’s a dumping ground for the outfits I try on and reject when I’m actually getting dressed up to go somewhere.

I didn’t use to be this way. Honest. I went through a long phase where I studied Feng Shui and decluttered accordingly. In Feng Shui, there is a concept called a Bagua, which is a nine-celled map of your living space. You overlay it onto your home or apartment according to where the front door is and it makes a kind of grid. Each of the nine areas of your home has a corresponding point on the Bagua—areas such as Fame, Money, Children, Romance, Health, etc. The theory is, wherever you let clutter build up, there you will find problems and be stuck; the chi cannot flow freely in your home, and therefore you life, if you have clutter in any section.

Since I had clutter everywhere, I went to it. I decluttered my whole house, room by room, drawer by drawer, surface by surface. I sold excess and refrained from buying anything unless I simultaneously got rid of something else. It helped that I was going through a divorce and could pawn off lots of stuff onto my ex-husband, who LOVES clutter.

I got to like the new decluttered me. I liked leaving the house completely clean before going to bed. I kept my desk neat and my papers filed. I got a thrill from throwing things out.

So what happened? How did I fall off the wagon? Well, first of all, like a person who was overweight as a child but lost the baby fat at puberty, I was always one toss-of-a-sweater-onto-the-end-of-the-bed away from regressing. Conditions had been pretty perfect during my days of grace in the de-slobbing department. Rock the boat a little, and the sleeping monster would surely be woken.

It’s certainly a cop-out to blame a person who isn’t even yet three feet tall, but I point to my 18 month old daughter and cry, “J’accuse!” Here’s a typical day: she wakes up just when I am rushing to make my morning phone calls, so I juggle her on one hip while I or her father makes her eggs and toast and applesauce. These she generally throws on the floor, though occasionally some of the above makes it into her mouth. But not until she’s thoroughly wiped applesauce into her hair, which won’t be washed until evening. Then we do the dishes. As we put plates into the dishwasher, she methodically takes out the utensils and bangs them on the floor, spraying bits of food all over. (As I type this, I notice there are small red drops on my screen—remnants of yesterday’s new discovery: pomegranate seeds.) I take her into the playroom to start cleaning up her toys. Before I can say, “Picasso” she has dumped her basket of mangled crayons all over the floor.

Don’t get me started on the time one of those crayons found its way into the laundry. It was dark blue. Dryers and crayons do not like each other.

It’s not really Lila’s fault. The bigger problem is that I have a negative time balance that greatly interferes with my already shaky ability to throw things out. Plus, just when I have convinced myself that I don’t really need that shirt, that old piece of wrapping paper, that Yoga Journal from 1999, I suddenly come up with a purpose for it, and I renounce my renunciation. True clutterer that I am, I have the notion that that box the Lands End stuff came in might someday be useful. I could be creative and crafty. Really. It’s happened. So I don’t throw it out, nor do I throw out the ribbons from the gifts I get, or the gifts themselves, even though I know I will never use them. I have stacks of random things that might someday be part of as yet unmapped creative project.

Last Friday morning, I was frantically cleaning up Lila’s bedroom because a new babysitter was coming over, and I didn’t want her to see the real me yet. I wanted her to see the me I was ten years ago; the me who would have folded and sorted all Lila’s hand-me-downs in some kind of clever color-coded seasonally appropriate way. As I cleaned, Lila toddled off to my office (I will spare you the details of my office). I vaguely heard her shaking something. I figured it was my bottle of Advil, which makes a great shaker, and fretted not, thanks to childproofing. I heard Tom come up the stairs, enter my office, saying, “Hi, sweetie, oh, look at you, uh AH AAAAAHHHHHH!!!! OH MY GOD!!!” I raced in, to find Lila sitting in the middle of a circle of Advil tablets and an open container in her hand.

We raced her to the emergency room, which she found delightful, played with the Johnny they gave her to wear and she ate her first chocolate in the form of pudding used to disguise the sweetened charcoal the doctors gave her to absorb any of the Advil she might have ingested (which appeared, after all, to be none.)

So much for cleaning! We returned home, and I dug around in a big pile of miscellaneous clutter until I found a medium-sized square box. I drew four circles at the top, cut a door out of the side and labeled it Lila’s Oven. She’s been calling it her “Kitzen” ever since. Clutterers Anonymous will have to wait.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

About Food, Again

I recently heard a talk by a wonderful meditation teacher named James Barez. He said:

“In the Buddha’s teaching called Transcendental Dependent Arising, he lays out how suffering can lead to a joyful heart. The list (what’s a Buddhist teaching without a list?) starts by showing how suffering, when held in the light of wisdom and compassion, can be a causative factor for faith. Our hearts crack open as we see we have no control over life. Surrendering our imagined control, we learn to trust that we can meet what is here with wise attention. This is the birth of faith. Faith then leads to gladness, and gladness flowers into joy. So suffering, in the light of dharmic understanding, is actually a precursor to joy. We can choose whether or not to let our suffering lead us into a downward spiral or open our hearts to life, allowing the goodness to shine through.”

Of course this makes me think about food.

Backstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, there was a sign reading, “Thank you to the farmers who provided much of this food.” Logos appeared under the words, identifying which of the many Manitoba farms had donated produce and livestock so that we musicians could eat. Later, at the Fairmont hotel in downtown Winnipeg, I asked the waitress if the chicken in my salad was organic and free range. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Our chef won’t work with any meat that isn’t. And all of the vegetables are local too.”

As we drove into Northampton, on our way back from the airport, I noticed in several of the town restaurants those big yellow and green signs saying, “We support local farms.” “Local heroes,” others read. Am I just opening my eyes to these signs, or is a subtle but crucial cultural revolution occurring right now?

I choose to believe the latter, though it’s also true that I have had my consciousness raised recently by two wonderful books: Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, in which the well-known novelist chronicles her family’s year long experiment with eating locally, growing much of their own food, eschewing bananas and hewing closely to their farmer’s market. And The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s wonderful account of four meals he serves to his family and how each one of them came to be.

My love for organic farms has its origin in my first summer as a professional musician. Katryna and I had moved to Williamstown in 1991 to take that little town of 8000 by storm (our motto: first Spring Street, then THE WORLD!) Coincidentally, my great aunt Sally, an eighty year old Taoist and gardener, chose that same summer to move back to Williamstown, her girlhood home. She invited us over to tea and said, “I’ve just joined a local organic CSA (Community Supported Agricultural Farm) but I won’t be able to eat even a third of the vegetables. Why don’t you girls come with my on Tuesday and help me pick? I promise I’ll let you have all the sugar snap peas.”

That was the deal of the century. For the next few years, every Tuesday we drove Aunt Sally to Caretaker Farm, nestled in a valley of the Berkshires, and she sat in a rocking chair in the shade of the old barn and knit while Katryna and I picked green beans, peas, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes and took home more fresh, delicious vegetables per week than we were used to eating in a year. Thus began my love affair with summer squash.

I’ve joined other CSAs over the years, and slowly learned the value of real, homegrown food. I began to get it that commercially grown food costs a lot more than the price tag would indicate: there are environmental and social costs the consumer pays in the form of taxes (subsidies for corn, wheat and soybean farmers) and in the form of environmental degradation (commercial fertilizers are literally killing the soil in the Midwest; age old methods such as crop rotation and the manures of local animals which used to protect the soil have been replaced by synthetic fertilizers which reduce the complex balance of elements in the soil to three: phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium.) In other countries, food costs more, and people generally budget for that, choosing nutrients over a new cell phone every year, and an entirely new wardrobe every season. Is this a bad thing? Certainly, no other country has the obesity epidemic we have, and perhaps a part of that is due to the cheap availability of calories here, many of them derived from soy and corn, turned into junk foods and soda.

When I buy a commercially raised chicken at Stop & Shop, it costs me $2.50 a pound. This chicken has probably spent its entire short sad life living in a room the size of my bathroom in a crate with 1200 other chickens, each in their own crate, stacked up one on top of another. Its beak has probably been removed so it won’t peck its neighbor in the tail feathers, a common occurrence among birds caged in this manner. As this isn’t the most supportive environment for the chicken, it needs supplements of antibiotics to keep it healthy. On the other hand, if I buy my chicken from a local farmer, or even at Whole Foods, and it’s been certified organic, or at least free range, that chicken will set me back more like $4 a lb, but I will know that my chicken pecked grubs and nibbled on grass and maybe even sat on eggs and knew its mother for few weeks of its chicken life.

As I am writing this, I have the same strange mixture of anger, shame and hope that I always have when I write about the places where my desire to be a good citizen of the planet collides with my desire to be accepted as one among many fallen humans, normal people who just want to live a good life, who want to enjoy the occasional chicken McNugget and not have that moment ruined for them by a Climate Change Cassandra campaigning against junk food. In other words I feel the need to apologize. There is no issue that divides people as quickly as food, and this makes sense, of course. Do you know anyone on the planet who likes and hates all the same foods you like and hate? Every mother I know tells me serving dinner to her family of three, four or five is almost impossible: someone’s not going to like something. Why should it be any different with our food politics? These issues are complex. My current belief that it’s more virtuous to eat locally means I no longer buy my weekly box of mangos from Tran, the owner of a wonderful local Asian market because that box was shipped from Haiti and cost who knows how much fossil fuel not to mention the mango pickers might not have been paid a fair wage. But where does that leave Tran? Michael Pollan writes about how monocultures-the growing of just one crop on a given plot—is one of the root problems in our agricultural system, and the solution is to support small, local farms who provide many types of plants and livestock, rotating fields, using the manure of the animals to nourish the crops, and using the grass of the fields to nourish the animals. But in our global economy, we now have farmers in third world countries committed to growing monocultures to feed our curious and growing appetites for exotic fruits and vegetables, which we’d like to have available all year long, and not merely when they’re in season. Do we pull the rug out from under them?

At Winnipeg, we ran into an old friend, and got to talking about the OTHER big concert happening that day.

“Can you believe Madonna?” he scoffed as we watched the Manitoba sunset at 10:15pm. “Doing this Live Earth benefit, pretending to be all holier than thou, and here she is flying her own jet to get to her stage. Some carbon footprint!”

“Yeah,” said my sister Katryna. “But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

This has been our mantra recently. Also, “It’s not easy being green.” My mother just called to tell me she was eating nothing but local food, and the seventeen-year-old in me wanted to point out that her rice had come from China, her peach from California, her chicken from God knows where and her coffee from Indonesia. But good for you, Mom, for your zucchini and tomato!

Where does that get me? Into a cranky, aversive judgmental place. Glass houses. We all have plenty of environmental sins; no one’s hands are clean. The problem is there are too many of us using the slim resources the earth has to give us, and by that logic, we are guilty for just being alive. But where’s the hope in that? Thinking along these lines—judging my mother, looking at anyone’s plate besides my own, for that matter--just brings me to a place of despair.

Here’s what I like better: I like to think of the changes I feel called to make as challenges, sort of like the challenges I faced when I was starting my music career. Or the challenges I like to think I would take on if I were ever crazy enough to train for a triathlon. Eat locally? Sure! That’ll be fun! I’ll find some farmers and get to know them; ask why they make the choices they make, put a face behind the food on my dinner plate. Feel good knowing that my dollars are going into the pockets of those neighbors with the red barn and the big fields so that their kids can go to college or take over the business when the time comes. Use less fuel? Hey! What a good way to get more exercise, burn some calories, see my town from the vantage point of a bike or on foot. And when I’m on foot, I run into more people I know. Spend less money on the various plastic things I buy, the cheap clothes and ingenious gadgets (like the new iPhone I covet)? Great! I’ll save money and find other ways to spend my time (which is not exactly one of my problems.) If I can take the Buddha’s precept about suffering turning to joy, it’s easy to make these small sacrifices, and I do always find the surrender a gift, that when I give something up, my pack becomes lighter and my journey therefore more easy and pleasant. But that’s my journey—not anyone else’s. So above all, I get to be gentle with all the other six billion humans stalking the planet, and be gentle with myself, treading as lightly as I can and knowing that even with the best of intentions, I’m still going to make an impact.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In Defense of Reading Harry Potter

One day in early August, our babysitter arrived at the usual time, and as I was handing Lila to her, along with Lila’s tofu, wild rice and cheese, she said, “I hope Tom told you I have to leave at 3:30 today. Doctor’s appointment. I told him last week.”

Suffice it to say Tom had not told me, nor did he remember being told even when I pressed him on it. As I had two clients after 3:30, I had to scramble to switch them. Though it all worked out, I felt like a victim of my own mess of systems—the unsynchronized palm pilot, the colorful calendar on my computer, the scrawled To Do list which my sister inadvertently took with her to the Adirondacks, and the non-existent family calendar we keep meaning to create. And the results of my disorganization are manifold—the kitchen floor covered with bits of tofu, wild rice and cheese; the dirty diapers in mid-cycle in the washing machine; my not yet unpacked suitcase from last weekend’s gigs; the manuscripts to all three of my current book projects in my office (not to mention penultimate printouts which may or may not be in boxes in the attic); the DVD of the HBO Drama Big Love half-played in my computer; the leggy runners keeping my roses from blooming. But at least I finished Harry Potter.

I’m only kind of kidding. That day, I did something I almost never do: I lay in bed after lunch and read 200 pages of a novel. The day was sunny and too hot even in the shade, but my bedroom was cool and I had a mason jar full of water and a gripping story to dwell within. I laughed and cried and cheered and felt when I had finished that there was no better way I could have spent my time.

For me, this is progress. Some of my dear friends have pointed out that I am something of a workaholic. “It’s your Capricorn rising,” say my astrology pals. “You can’t bear to let people down.”

While this is true, it’s not the whole story. Fear of disappointing people is not the motor that drives me to work. I like to work because my work is mesmerizing, compelling and rewarding. Right now I am making little movies of my band to put on YouTube. I am touring our new CD Sister Holler. I am editing The Big Idea to release as a serial, and I am writing songs to go with it. I get to coach fascinating people, people whose calls I look forward to taking. And I get to participate in writing groups in my own living room. What’s not to love?

But as I’ve said before, the problem with loving your work (be careful what you wish for) is that if you wade too deeply into it, you risk being pulled out by one of the strongest undertows known to man—the undertow of success. As my astrology pal recognized, one of the pitfalls of success is that it says, “See how important you are? All these people are waiting for you to do the next successful thing. They need you! They are counting on you!” And while this sometimes might appear true—people might even write you letters and tell you just this—it’s really not. You are somewhat replaceable. I say “somewhat” because I also believe that each of us is a unique channel and all that Martha Graham blah blah blah that I’m constantly quoting.* __The other pitfall is the way in which the best, most delicious, fun “work” takes you away from your feelings, from any kind of pain you might be in and might need to address. When I am feeling restless, irritable and discontented in any way, my favorite diversion is to start planning how I am going to fill up my time with useful and productive Things To Do.

But ultimately, when it comes down to a choice between your work and what for lack of a better word I will call your equanimity, I would hope to chose equanimity every time. By equanimity, I mean that sense of rightness within yourself. That sense of balance. I know I have it when I pass my reflection in the mirror and have the thought, “She looks like a nice person. I trust her.” I know I have it when I don’t feel like I’m on speed. I might be full of energy and able to handle the diapers, the manuscripts and my daily jog, but the energy seems to be coming from deep within; not the fleeting caffeinated high I often settle for.

And if you live with people you love, equanimity is about sharing the best parts of yourself with them, and not hoping they will settle for the half-asleep remnants of what is left of you when you spend your day racing from one flaming bush to the next. It’s about getting down on the carpet or the lawn and playing with your child. It’s about asking your partner how his or her day was and really listening for the follow up. It’s about looking those people in the eye and holding contact.

And most importantly, it’s about giving yourself—your dear, worn, imperfect, trying-her-best self-- a break; a break that won’t break you, like going on a shopping spree you can’t afford, or eating a tray full of spice cake. Rather, it’s about pretending for a second that you are the absolutely, uniquely, perfect mother for you; and given that, what would be the kindest, most helpful thing you could do with your time? Perhaps paying attention to your food as you eat a nutritious lunch. Perhaps going for a slow walk by the river. Perhaps riding your bike to an art museum. Perhaps browsing in a book store. Maybe it’s actually tackling that closet full of clothes that don’t fit and packing them off to Good Will. For me, yesterday, it was letting the tofu and cheese remain on the floor for a few hours while I finished a fun novel with my feet up while Lila was downstairs playing with a babysitter.

Even writing those words, I feel a twinge of guilt. The army of “I shoulds!” comes marching out of my ears and I expect thousands of “good” mothers and fiscally responsible householders to condemn me for my sloth and extravagance. Also, I expect that all of you reading this are wondering how I, self-proclaimed time management guru, could possibly schedule such an activity during the peak productivity hours of the day. (I have a lot to say about so called peak productivity hours, but I’ll save that for later.) What I’ll say now is that in the simple act of writing what I have just written, I no longer feel like the victim of my mess of time management systems, but rather the conqueror. For I see that I’ve achieved exactly what all those systems hope to promote, and that is a happy balanced life. Who ever said dirty diapers have no place in a happy balanced life? Who ever said a happy balanced life never left a residue of cheese on a kitchen’s wood floor? These artifacts are ample evidence of the life we are all craving, because they are proof that we are living fully, richly, messily, creatively. My daughter has a big bucket of blocks which are, most of the time, not encased in their bucket but dumped out all over the floor. What purpose do the blocks serve? They are not the kind of blocks that make building meant to last for more than five minutes. From a certain perspective, one could imagine their purpose is to cover the carpet. But I see Lila playing with the blocks. She loves to dump them on the floor, yes, but she also loves to put them back one by one, singing her “Put It Back” song which goes, “Ba---Ba,” to the tune of “Sol-Do.” She also loves to pick one block out and cradle it to her chest and carry it with her all over the house, leaving it finally in some incongruous place like my desk or the toilet. This is part of what she needs to do to learn how the world works. Life is inherently messy.

Because I took a long delicious break in the middle of the day yesterday to enjoy Harry Potter, I was cheerful and present today. I felt spoiled, as though I’d gotten a massage. I felt like someone whose job it was to take care of me exquisitely succeeded. Who knows? Tonight I might even unpack my suitcase.

*FYI, the Martha Graham quote: _"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."-Martha Graham

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

On Turning Forty, Sgt. Pepper and the Tao

tao te ching
verse 65
the ancient masters
didn't try to educate the people
but kindly taught them to not-know

when they think that they know the answers
people are difficult to guide
when they know that they don't know
people can find their own way

if you want to learn how to govern
avoid being clever or rich
the simplest pattern is the clearest
content with an ordinary life
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature

(trans. Stephen Mitchell)

I turned forty last month. I share this birthday with my favorite album of all time: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the Summer of Love, 1967, both of us were released in the US on June 2. I didn’t know the Beatles until the spring of 1977, when we were both about to turn ten—my first big round birthday where the odometer flipped the second digit. Though my best friend, Leila Corcoran shared with me every Beatles album in existence, the songs that most appealed to me were the colorful, psychedelic tapestry-like ones from Sgt. Pepper (those, and “Hello, Goodbye,” a single that was released a few months after SPLHCB). As Aimee Mann said in her recent Op Ed piece in the NYTimes, Sgt. Pepper was made particularly for children.

I spent my birthday weekend “working,” if by that participle one means “playing shows.” I never know, before a show, whether it’s going to be a “working” show or a “playing” show. One show was for children and families in Philadelphia at the World CafĂ©, and the other a festival in Herndon, VA. On the way home from our weekend of gigs, Katryna swiped a copy of USA Today from the front desk of the Comfort Inn in Newark DE and read a list of “things that have all but vanished” in the last 25 years. These included indoor smoking, typewriters, the rhinoceros, pay phones, Oldsmobiles, the Baltimore Colts, Michael Jackson, videos on MTV, checker cabs and service stations. At our Herndon festival, Carol Welsh, a girl who was a freshman when I was a big senior, showed up; she’d been my “new girl”-an important tradition and designation at my high school. When she mentioned that she is now thirty-seven, I couldn’t believe it. Yes, I knew I was forty; yes, I can do math, but somehow her being thirty-seven was much more indicative of how much time has gone by than my nice round odometric numbers.

I’m kind of in denial about the whole thing. Isn’t forty the new twenty? That’s what my mother said when I came down dressed to go out for dinner on June 2. She said, “You don’t look a day over twenty.” Thank God I’m not twenty, is all I could think. I remember my twentieth birthday. Carol’s older sister Elizabeth, one of my best friends, and fellow Beatles fanatics, gave me a poster of the cover of Sgt Pepper. We were all flipped out because our favorite record was 20 years old (“It was 20 years ago today…”). Meanwhile, I was depressed, lost, 15 pounds overweight, fighting constantly with my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, clueless about what I was going to major in for college, despairing about the Reagan administration, angry at my parents and sad that it was raining. It was truly a low point of my life. I spent the entire 90’s thinking “I hope I never see another 1987 again.”

If I had a list like USA Today’s for just myself and my inner thought parade, here are some of the rhinoceri:
1. Fear of dying in a plane crash
2. Fear of gaining 15 pounds
3. Perms
4. Obsessive thoughts about my ex-boyfriend and the idea that it was his (or anyone’s) job to make me feel good about myself, specifically to answer the question: “Does this make me look fat?”
5. The band Heart (sadly. I really love them, but I cannot listen to them anymore.)
6. Blue jean mini skirts
7. Gigantic bran muffins the size of my current mug of Starbucks coffee
8. TV
9. The belief that it matters where one went to college
10. Fear of being too revealing in my writing.

I used to think there were two kinds of musicians: the kind who were cryptically silent about the meaning of their songs, their processes, their inner lives, their personal lives; they emanated a cool through their dark glasses and silence; they dragged on cigarettes and regarded the reporter (and therefore, you) with a mixture of pity and contempt and mild curiosity. The other kind were completely forthcoming, blabbing about their latest therapist/colonic/girlfriend/boyfriend and of course how each strand of a creative idea came to them. Bob Dylan was the quintessential first kind of musician while John Lennon and Paul McCartney were famous blabbers. (If you don’t believe me, read Jann Wenner’s Lennon Remembers and Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions.) I always aspired to be like Dylan, and for a whole year and a half kept my age top secret by orders of my then manager. (That was from 1996 through about, oh, June 1997 when I turned thirty). Somewhere in my DNA lurks the idea that if I don’t say it in public, the world will not be able to handle the loss of the information.

Lao-Tzu, the great Chinese teacher and sage, says that the wisest among us cultivate don’t know mind. That the older and wiser we get, the more we understand how little we know, and the more we are glad of it. I wrote once “I’d rather live expecting the best though if you gave me the choice I’d like to know the rest/A figure in the distance always running.” I wanted to know the answers. I wanted to know, for instance, that I’d never have to feel as depressed as I did in 1987. I wanted to know FOR SURE that I wouldn’t die in an airplane crash, or of cancer, or that anyone I loved would die of cancer, or that anything bad would happen to anyone I knew. Yes, I knew we all had to die, but I didn’t want any of us to die in any way you could propose to me. I pushed it away.

But we all have to die. We all age. I now have compassion for people who get plastic surgery. Just last month, I noticed that my neck has taken on the cast of tissue-paper; that the bags that were only occasionally under my eyes after all nighters have now, excuse the pun, unpacked, as it were and are here to stay. The aging process is bad enough; the fact that it signifies the actual decrepitude of my dear beloved body is horrifying.

My “new girl,” Carol, has been battling a rare brain tumor, Adult Ependymoma for seven years. She has written bravely about her experiences on her website, and can tell her story better than I ( I have watched her face the worst with humor and love and courage, and I am amazed at the resilience of some of us humans when confronted with that which we fear most. There is nothing like the very real possibility of death to make one put into perspective one’s complaints about one’s neck, or the numbers of CDs one sells. Standing in the rain together after the festival, Carol told me about the Paul McCartney article in last week’s issue of the New Yorker, and we all marveled at his ability to continue making music, showing up for his fans, his muse, his calling even though he has every reason on earth to retire and spend his old age with his little three year old daughter Bea and his four older children.

Someone recently pointed out to me that we all kill to eat. Even those of us who are vegans are guilty of murdering insects, microbes, animals (by destroying their habitats, which unless you eat completely off the commercial grid, is impossible to avoid) and of course, plants. It’s the nature of life; in order to live, one being sacrifices its life for another. And around and around we go. Death is a part of life; as integral as the yin yang symbol makes it out to be, with the little dot of white amidst the black and the dot of black amidst the white. I hold my gorgeous little 13 month old baby up to the mirror and we put our faces together and grin at ourselves. I am shocked at how much older I am than she is. Next to her brand new face (which people in the know will quickly agree looks remarkably like my own) my every wrinkle and age spot comes forth. And I rejoice at my years, at my aging face, at my surgery-free parts and most of all at all the baggage I’ve long ago left at the terminal. Someone else can claim it if they need it. I’m looking forward to forgetting more and more and achieving less and less and spending my remaining days finding my way back to my own true nature. I just hope that includes the Beatles.

Posted by Nerissa at 6:41 AM 0 comments

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cultivez Votre Jardin

Recently, at a meet and greet for a benefit, a young woman approached me and said, “I’m from your past. You might not remember me, but I was an actor in your ex-husband’s play.” She was wrong—I not only remembered her, I remembered the play, the way I felt back then, the way the theatre smelled and the kind of summer it had been. I sat down and had a wonderful conversation with her, grateful to have someone to get me off my feet and take me back twenty years to a time when I believed my whole life was in front of me.

This young woman, convinced she would be a famous actress, had gone through college, followed her star to Hollywood and spent most of her twenties on both sides of the camera. She decided eventually that the sacrifices necessary to pursue the often heartbreaking career of a performer were not worth it, and instead went to law school and is now making a difference, saving the world, fighting and righting one injustice at a time.

I admired her. I also envied her. And I began to think, “Maybe I should go to law school and be a public defender.”

Jack Kornfield, a wonderful writer and meditation teacher, would call this thought “number one on my hit parade.” By this he means that we all have perpetual, repetitive, compulsive, obsessive thoughts to which our minds return over and over, forgetting that we’ve solved the problem (or pronounced it unsolvable) countless times. It’s sort of like that joke on The Simpsons where Montgomery Burns inevitably points out Homer and asks Smithers who he is. “That’s Homer Simpson, Sir,” Smithers says each time. “Simpson, eh?” Burns mutters, scratching his chin. I might as well say, “Law School, eh?” Except that my “Simpson” comes in myriad disguises. Sometimes it’s Divinity School. Sometimes it’s getting an MFA in writing. Sometimes it’s getting an MA in psychology; sometimes it’s teaching high school English. Recently it was becoming a yoga teacher. I went through a phase where I thought I should become a poet—because that’s where the money is, naturally. Today I was on the phone with a friend who started to tell me about her teen age daughter’s amazing guidance counselor and I don’t know what she said next because I was off on my thought, “maybe I should be a guidance counselor.” If I’m reading a book to Lila, I think I should write children’s books. If I’m cooking dinner, I fantasize about opening a restaurant.

The common ingredient here, pardon the pun, is an obsession with being great. When I started my music career, I wanted to be the next Beatles. By this I mean, I wanted to be so famous, so successful, so influential that I would steer the zeitgeist my generation. If that meant sacrificing all semblance of a normal life, so be it. I felt sorry for Tracy Chapman and Billy Bragg, because they were just kind of famous. I wanted to be SUPER famous. As the years went along, I decided I would settle for “critically acclaimed.” I didn’t need the money. I just wanted to be adored by people with big brains and opinions.

Instead, I have built a sturdy little career as a folk musician. With my sister and the band we formed in 1991, I have released 13 CDs (going on 14 as of this July) and we continue to tour internationally. We have a lovely and loyal audience and have made friends all over the country through our music. Through the music, I now also have careers as a writer, novelist and life coach, and most of the time, I have more than enough to do, more creative projects and joyful experiences than any one person deserves to have. When I am spiritually centered, I know this. Then there are the other days.

One day, while on tour, I was staying with an old high school friend who was living in Mill Valley, a town in the Bay Area. She was six months pregnant and about to quit her six figure income job to be a full time Mommy.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” I said.
“Why? She said. “Nothing’s better than motherhood.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said. “I am scared that if I have a baby, I’ll love it so much I won’t care anymore about my writing, about my audience, about advancing my career. I’ll just fall in love with the baby and drift into a kind of happy ever after stupor.”
She looked at me with confusion. “But if you’re happy—then isn’t that the point? If you’re happy, you won’t care about your career.”

What I was embarrassed to admit then—and it’s actually embarrassing to admit now, too—is that I thought, “but the WORLD will not have me, then!”

I so want the world to want me.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Starbucks hasn’t done its part to raise the dialogue. This from a Starbucks cup two days ago:
"A person's pursuit of goodness leads to greatness, but the pursuit of greatness leads to ruin. Pursue goodness and you will achieve great things."-John E. Kramer, VP of communication, Institute for Justice. From Starbucks The Way I See It #245.

I have come to peace with the greatness issue, most of the time. I no longer strive to wear a size 2. I no longer detest everyone who gets reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. I no longer get depressed when Entertainment Weekly chooses not to review our new album. I have what the Buddhists call Sympathetic Joy for my friends in the arts who have achieved a higher profile and accompanying bank account. But I have to work at it, because I was born with a supersized ego, and I suspect that my life’s work—this go round anyway—is about deflation. I have been deeply blessed to have found a spiritual path and to live the life of an artist, to sustain a career doing what I love. I have been deeply blessed to share the journey with others—to be trusted with stories and problems and to witness metamorphoses. As a result of winning the husband-and-child lottery, most of the time I would rather be cuddled up with the two of them, or pureeing some organic chicken, or making scrapbooks of digital photos than doing battle with the ever more baffling media to try to Get Known. On Friday, I got off the phone with a client and made dinner for my husband and daughter, and felt so full, so grateful, that I didn’t even think, “Maybe I could be the world’s greatest life coach.”

Voltaire at the end of Candide concludes that the object of life, “in the best of all possible worlds,” is to cultivate one’s own garden. My husband is on vacation from grad school, and it’s springtime. He spends every free moment out in the garden, growing basil from seeds, moving plants to better locations, our half acre plot his canvas. Except it’s not just his canvas. “My favorite part,” he says. “Is transplanting little seedlings into their spots and patting them down. It’s like tucking them in at night.”

I’ve often thought that gardening is a man’s way of nurturing, of getting to be a mother. Gardening can be a practice divorced from the concerns about what the world thinks. One’s creation unfolds in a natural manner, partly divine, partly mid-wifed by our own attention and love and creative impulses, but not something one holds up to the world to judge as one does one’s career. (Of course there are some people who hold up their children or gardens to the world’s gaze as if they were accomplishments, but those people are very bad.)

And the truth is, my new old friend, the public defender, said, “I am so envious of you for making it.” I need these reminders from outsiders (and by outsiders I mean anyone who isn’t me). I need to remember that “making it” is always relative. That the real satisfaction, as I’ve said many times before, is in the creative moments when I am in the stream of songwriting, or onstage in the moment with my sister, or at my computer typing a new thought, or handwriting a page of dialogue, or on the phone with a client and listening to the story and seeing a new angle that might be helpful. These are the moments when I am not striving for greatness, but merely doing the next right thing; the “good” thing that’s right in front of my nose.

Last night, Tom and Lila and I sat on the floor of her bedroom reading her favorite book, Doggies by Sandra Boynton, and yes, I did think, “Maybe I would be a great children’s book writer.” But mostly, I gloried in my one year old’s newfound obsession. She can now point to the different dogs and say, “Duh!” And “Ar ar ar!” We got to the second to last page, where all the dogs howl a the moon. The precise text is, “A-a-a-a-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” And when we get to that part, Tom and I throw back our heads and howl like werewolves. For the first time, Lila looked up at us while we did this, very excited, and went, “A-a-a-a-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” too.

This isn’t just great. This is greatness. I have made it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Beach, oh WHY the Beach?

After spending the first fifteen years of my life being what all my teachers euphemistically called “an underachiever” and what my mother and father called “a lazy slug” I have preceded to reinvent myself as the opposite. When, at my first job, (assistant Dean of Students at a prep school for girls) the school psychologist said in a meeting, “Nerissa, you couldn’t possibly understand Student X because you’re such a natural overachiever,” I almost wheezed in indignation. “I am NOT!” I wanted to shout at her, while stamping my little feet. I say I’m not an overachiever because the truth much of the time is that the reason I do so much is in order to avoid that horrible feeling of being called a lazy slug. (Not that I blame my flawless parents, mind you.) And because I’m proficient at doing a lot of things and, more to the point, I’m good at doing a lot of things at the same time, or at least I think I am, I indulge in that fine American art of Busyness/Multitasking/Overproducing. What gets lost, though, when I juggle as fast as I can is actually noticing the fun of the activity. It becomes something to check off my “to do” list, and the only hit I get is the action of checking it off. And we’re talking fun things, here, like writing you this paragraph; like going for a walk with my daughter; like sending my mother in law a present. Why not take a moment to enjoy the task? Well, because I can’t afford to take that moment, or so I think. Until I stop, breath, relax, and do that most sacred of rituals, practice gratitude. Which by the way is The Secret, in case you haven’t seen the DVD or read the book or watched Oprah or read People Magazine. I ‘m here to spoil the ending. Practice gratitude, cultivate good feelings. That doesn’t mean whitewash, fake it, squash sadness, anger or fear down; it just means that each of us is infinitely blessed, if we can but just recognize it and take a small moment (OK, I just timed it: less than one second) to say “Thank you.” If you don’t believe in God, thank the trees, the grass, the clouds, your mother, yourself, your dog, your child, your partner, your hands, your feet.

And now, on to our regularly scheduled essay:

My sister’s ex-boyfriend once said to her, “I bet you’re the kind of person who couldn’t just go to the beach and watch the horizon. “ When she told me this story, I pointed a finger at my head like a gun and said, “J’accuse!” It runs in our family. How on earth could anyone possibly hang out and stare at the horizon? How mind numbingly boring. I have never been able to understand the appeal of the beach. What does one do? One splashes in the water. One fishes around in the sand. One slathers oneself with sunscreen. In short, one lolls. A loller I am not.

I don’t get it. I could get it if I still liked getting a suntan, which was once a part of my identity, a part of my uniform. As a teen, I scheduled “Lie by the pool from 10am-2pm” into my day planner on Saturdays in April and May. If I used any skin protection, which was rare, it would have been a tube of baby oil, but in any event I spent the summer with a nice almond colored tan. Nowadays, you need to apply oily sticky sunscreen from hairline to bikini line to top of the foot or suffer at least the fear of melanoma if not the real thing. As a person who doesn’t even bother with moisturizer after a bath (OK—full disclosure--a person who bypasses the luxurious pause of a bath for the 3.5 minute shower) I really can’t get with the sunscreen. I can’t get with the sand in the shoes. I can’t get with the water, which is too cold. I don’t like to swim, even in a heated pool. I don’t like looking at other people in their bathing suits, and I don’t really want to be seen in one. Throw into the mix my aversive givens, which are an integral part of my profession (soon-to-be-rock star): driving long distances, parking, hauling gear—that leaves one thing I might like about the beach: reading. But now we’re back to the sunscreen. Why apply sunscreen just to sit out on an uncomfortable plastic chair where it might be hot, you might get splashed only to do something which I could do from the comfort of my bed or couch?

See what I’m dealing with here?

Tuesday of this last week, I got a call from my life coach ten minutes into what was supposed to be our session. I’d gotten overwhelmed as usual, playing catch up from the weekend. I’d had two shows and then hosted a book group for my church, given a speech at the VA hospital for Women’s History Month, and continued to do all the other things I do: mother, wife, life coach, writing group leader, writer, yogini , daily jogger, etc. I had just sent an email to the other judges of a local poetry contest to let them know that I would have to withdraw from my position as the packet of poems I was supposed to read and judge was still sitting shamefully unopened on my desk. When my life coach called. I burst into tears.

“I can’t do all these things!” I sobbed. “I need a Sabbath!”

She did that annoying thing that life coaches do—she didn’t tell me what to do but instead said, “And how would you go about giving yourself a Sabbath?”

This is where time consciousness comes in. Instead of filling up all the blank spaces in my calendar, a little trick I use to keep myself busy or as my cruel life coach says, to keep myself from having to feel all my feelings, I would need to leave down time. I would need to say no. I would need to accept imperfections; need to accept that for now anyway, I may set goals, but I probably won’t meet them. I may want to be in super physical shape, and I can be if I don’t also want to be an adequate mother and wife and get some writing done and earn enough money to keep us in our lovely house. I may want to be a famous folksinger, and I can be if I don’t also want a full-time presence in my home and town, my community. Also to be sane and healthy.

In short, I may need to stare at the horizon.

My life coach said something wise and helpful: recognize that when you say yes to one thing you are saying no to something else.

I hate that.

However, through my struggles with food, I understand this. I may want to eat an appetizer, a main course, a salad with bleu cheese, dessert and bread with olive oil and two glasses of Cabernet, and to fit into my favorite jeans—but I have to choose. Of course, I could run six miles a day or make myself puke it all up, but that was not a solution the Buddha would have chosen. It’s the same way today. On the plane, I wrote down a list of Sabbathy things I wanted from my four day vacation to Florida.
1. Be with my family
2. Get some gentle exercise
3. Read Anne Lamott’s and Liz Gilbert’s new books
4. Write in my journal
5. Take Lila to the beach (not for me, you understand, but under the rubric of “being an adequate mother and witnessing key moments in the life of my child.”)

When the collective pulse started its post-caffeine/high-impact-aerobics-class beat the first morning, and we had to agree on a schedule, I forewent my jog in favor of a trip to the detested beach to see if in fact I could stare at the horizon.

We slathered on the appropriate amount of sunscreen and headed off, hauling our gear and parking and the whole nine yards. Once there, I had a moment of panic. Id’ forgotten a book! Oh, yeah—I had a child and my whole purpose was to be in the moment with her, to watch her first experience with horseshoe crabs and conch shells and not miss her childhood. Let’s see if I can just be with her and see the beach from her perspective. So I did the work of slowing down, which to me feels almost like shedding my skin. Have you ever seen a snake do that, by the way? They go very still and seem almost dead. That should have been a tip off for me.

I got behind my eyes. I held Lila and stood next to my mother, a fellow Type A overachiever and together we let our feet sink into the sand, getting buried a little more each time the waves passed over. It felt delicious. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to feel the wet sand between your toes. The Gulf of Mexico is the perfect shade of blue green and the water in the low 70’s. I had the pleasure of watching my husband go tearing into the waves, swimming and splashing like a golden retriever. Lila watched and squealed but was too scared and still too cold to touch the water herself. Tom took her for a little walk and I squatted down in the place where the sand gets covered by maybe every fourth wave. I built a little dyke and watched the water overcome it. I dug my fingers into the sand and got lost in the sea shells, the bits of rock. I noticed that my mother (who earlier had been jonesing for a jog worse that I was, even) was now sitting in her beach chair facing the horizon. I turned from where I was and sat, too, my legs sticking out towards the water in staff pose. And just took in the view. Pelicans were diving, delighted, a hundred yards off. Older kids were hauling a green blow up sea turtle. The air was soft and moist and benign. The water felt warmer. Tom came over with Lila in his arms and I reached for her. He put her in my lap and proceeded to slather me with still more sunscreen. I promptly dropped my resistance to sunscreen. What exactly is wrong with having someone you love slather you with cream?

Lila didn’t seem afraid anymore. She laughed at every incoming wave which splashed up into our laps and even when a big one got us both in the face, she didn’t seem to mind. “This is the beach, Littley-Lou,” I said. “This is where we come to just sit and be with the water.”

Now I can’t wait to go back.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Environmental Indulgences

Trying to be a good environmentalist is at least as difficult as trying to be a good Catholic. Or Buddhist or WWJD Christian or, I suspect, Jew or Muslim. I catch myself wanting to confess my sins to my organic-food-eating, hemp-wearing friends. Bless me, righteous ones, for I have sinned, in thought word and deed; by what I have done and by what I have left undone.
-I still drink bottled water (instead of Brita filtered)
-I eat mangoes (which are imported, since so far they haven’t figured out how to grow them in Western MA)
-Though I am in the process of replacing all my incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and I haven’t bought any new clothing since 2003, I still eat Atlantic Salmon (sometimes) and keep my heat turned up to 69 (I use the excuse that I have a baby who needs the heat, but in truth, I don’t feel like wearing my hat and scarf around the house. Yet.) I have looked lustfully upon SUVs and sinned in my heart by contemplating central air conditioning. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

Of course, I want them to grant me absolution, send me off to pick up some litter as penance.

Speaking of penance, there’s a website called TerraPass where you can pay money to offset your yearly carbon usage for everything from your car to your home to your recent plane trip to Florida (and maybe even the air conditioning you enjoy while you’re there). Tom calls it “buying indulgences.” Remember how in the Middle Ages your local parish priest would accept a little wad of cash (or perhaps hot crossed buns) to pray for you and insure your spot in Heaven? Kings and barons who’d carried on a little too loosely in those Chaucerian days were especially quick to open their pocketbooks and shed some guilt. In the case of TerraPass, the money doesn’t go just to assuage your guilt, though I can attest that it works really well for this, but to enrich companies dedicated to exploring green energy sources: solar, wind, water, etc. The site insists “these projects result in verified reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. And these reductions counterbalance your own emissions.”

I don’t argue. I click some icons and spend about $150 and for the year anyway, my carbon footprint is balanced out and I can sleep at night.

Until, that is, I roll over in bed and wonder why I seem to be more upset about climate change than almost anyone I know. What’s with me? Am I just wired to react to powerful belief systems? In my zeal for environmental correctness, I remind myself of a, well, zealot. I read the New York Times, Yoga Journal, Mothering Magazine, all the usual leftie green suspects, and, like a Bible thumper, I see the evidence in the text! It’s right here, in black and white, and in the case of the Internet and An Inconvenient Truth, technicolor! We are going to severely harm our species if we don’t take action now!

Notice how I didn’t say, “The Earth.” I said “our species.” I’ve been thinking, recently, the Earth is going to get through this just fine. It has its ways. I think something like five new movies are coming out this summer where the climate is the bad guy instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Anthony Hopkins. The earth will overcome whatever poisons we inflict upon it. It’s we who are expendable, or as my minister, Steve Philbrick likes to say, “we’re expensive. The Earth may not be able to afford us for much longer.”

Before having Lila, I heard these dire warnings and rolled my eyes in annoyance at our collective greed and ignorance and kept driving my fossil fuel belching car, kept tossing my plastic bottles in whatever bin was handy. I bought many a canvas bag, and fully intended to remember to bring them to the supermarket, but inevitably I’d leave them by my front door and have to ask for a paper or plastic one at the check out counter. The demise of the human race was sad, but darn it, we kind of deserved it.

Nothing like a baby to turn a misanthrope into a zealous compassionate people lover. I heart people now! I puppy heart them! I want the human race to overcome its wicked ways, to see the (compact fluorescent) light and to change! I want them all to join me when I get up to sing hearty folk songs to get the environmental mojo happening. I want them all to agree that we should boycott all clothing stores except ones that sell hemp. I regard it as a personal affront when people bring beverages made by the Coca Cola company into my house.

And then, I am stopped short in my tracks when some stranger shouts at me across the Whole Foods parking lot, “Nice bumper sticker, lady! Your pal Deval Patrick sure has padded the pockets of all his fat cat corporate buddies!” I was lifting Lila into one of those little car shopping carts, the ones where the kid gets to pretend she’s controlling the trajectory of the vehicle, kind of like life here on earth, but that’s another essay topic. Anyway, I stared at this person who, after yelling at me, beat a hasty retreat into Whole Foods. I followed him slowly, seething and making up clever retorts in case I ran into him again. Though really, I just wanted to say, “Why are you so mean and judgmental?”

Why indeed? Why do I get so judgmental? If you do accept the premise that we humans are responsible for the future of our environment, and therefore our species, that our grandchildren if not ourselves are going to burn in hell (on earth) by our actions and inactions, very few of us get off the hook, carbon-neutrally-speaking. But in what ways exactly do I differ from the religious zealots I spend so much time arguing with in my head? They believe what they believe because a book said so (the Bible, the Koran.) I believe what I believe because the New York Times, some scientists and Al Gore said so. I put my faith in science, and they’ve put theirs in the wisdom of the ages. I believe with all my heart that I am right, but the same can be said for them.

Maybe there are two kinds of people in the world: zealots and normal people, and I am just a zealot. Zealots are fine when they’re with their own kind—for awhile, until one of them turns to the other and says something mean about the progressive candidate for governor you supported and you realize that it’s ok to support a progressive candidate until he becomes The Man, and then you must rip off your bumper sticker and denounce him as a corrupt fat cat. Meet the new boss same as the old boss and all that.

Here’s what I do know from my long 40 years on the planet. I know that I am a being who needs to worship something, who needs to put something above herself in order to feel sane and happy and grateful everyday. People who need to perform rituals may be zealots, or they may just be wired a little differently. For today, I know that changing my incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents made me feel really happy, the way my Catholic friend Mary tells me she feels when she’s said a few Hail Marys using her rosary beads or the way Jonah, my Buddhist friend feels when he’s hung his prayer flags. Someone said to me this morning, “I don’t know whether or not I believe in God. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I definitely feel better when I believe in God, so I figure, why not?”

People have been making up their own gods since time immemorial. That’s just plain fact; every culture has some kind of higher power, and there are several books on the best seller list currently discussing the various reasons why people are compelled to have faith in something. My feeling is: there’s something cool out there that’s bigger than us, even if it’s just the life force that propels a crocus up from the ground in spring or causes a river to flow from the north to the south. That’s the God we all worship, when you come right down to it. The different masks of that god—Gaia, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, Krishnu, the Bible, the Secret, the practice of mindfulness, the practice of good stewardship, whatever—are just personal interfaces to help individuals connect with that force. Interfaces are useful as long as we don’t insist that everyone use our interface. When you get behind the interface, that’s when the really good stuff happens—that’s when we get to see that this force is connecting us all.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Cranky Buddhist

I should call my blog The Cranky Buddhist. At this rate, I will never attain enlightenment.

On Friday, my husband Tom and I along with our baby daughter. Lila and my sister, Katryna who is my singing partner, got up at the crack of dawn to warm up the biodiesel Jetta and drive to the airport to catch a plane to St. Louis where we were to be performing in the St Louis Folk Festival at the beautiful downtown Sheldon Theatre (an almost perfect replica of Cambridge's Sanders Hall, by the way). On the way, pining for coffee and watching the gorgeous southern sky as the sun began its ascent, we listened to NPR and the latest findings from the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) that assembled in Paris under the aegis of the UN. What they discovered, as you probably know, is that there is almost no doubt anymore that human beings are directly contributing to the rise in temperatures we've been experiencing, along with the unusual number of hurricanes and tsunamis and floods that have been plaguing the world as of late.

"I am a scientist," the woman from the panel said to the NPR interviewer when asked what should be done about this, since sea levels are now expected to rise between 1-2 feet by 2100, which will threaten low lying cities everywhere—what happened in New Orleans might happen in New York by the time Lila is my age. "I am not a policy maker. We are not politicians. Our work is to tell the world what is going on, not how to stop it." She went on to say that global warming may not be stoppable at this point, but it can be arrested and the worst won't happen IF we mobilize now.

I thought, again, about all the work it would take for us humans to save ourselves. We need to do big things and little things. Big things include voting for politicians who fully understand this issue and are willing to pass legislation that will change the way we all live. Politicians with tremendous courage who will raise taxes on the usage of fossil fuels; lawmakers who will fund the exploration of alternate fuels. That will affect our pocketbooks, all of us. We need to be willing to sacrifice, maybe in a big way now so that we’re not perpetrating the ultimate sacrifice on our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren (should the human race survive that long.) And each of us also needs to make small daily sacrifices: I need, for example to give up my love affair with the incandescent lightbulb and switch to the detestable compact fluorescent bulbs that cast my office in a depressing glow. I need to be better about turning off the lights in all the rooms of the house, turning the heat down at night, unplugging unused appliances, not using plastic wrap on leftovers, buying organic fruits, vegetables, meats and yogurt, and even (heaven help me) eschewing my beloved imported mangoes because of the huge amounts of oil and gas it takes to get them here from Haiti. I took a deep sigh and nodded, looking back at my daughter playing in her carseat, slapping the dangling toys that amuse her and babbling her “rah rah’s” and “buh buhs.” Recently, she’s been squealing with delight when her father or I pick her up, kicking those little chubby legs and waving her hands up and down, wriggling her whole body with glee. A little sacrifice never killed anyone.

At the airport, we gratefully unloaded our checkable bags and moved our posse to the coffee bar at the airport hotel, where I breastfed Lila and watched ESPN, which was on the overhanging TV at the bar. Now, as many of you know, I don't usually watch TV. It's not exactly a moral choice; I just don't have time, and once you get out of the habit of watching TV, it loses its appeal. (I used to watch lots of TV, back in the 90's, and I don't have any judgments about those who indulge, and as you will soon see, I am a person replete with judgments.) But now, whenever I turn on the TV, I get the heebeejeebees, and my internal artist, who is an incredibly sensitive 8 year old, freaks out and wants to hide under the covers of her bed with a hunk of cheddar cheese.

On Friday, as I was watching at the airport, a commercial came on for Hooters. Lila pulled off to watch too, fascinated, as a young woman with thin arms and big breasts who apparently works at Hooters, said, "I'm not supposed to tell you this…but you can take me home." She then looks secretively right and left and goes on. "Well, sort of.” You see, she tells us, Hooters is giving away a flat screen TV as some kind of Superbowl promotion. In fact, as the camera pulls out, you could see that the woman was IN the TV! You could see the background of a friendly neighborhood Hooters, both inside and OUTSIDE the TV! How amazing!

The camera then shifted to seductive shots of various kinds of Superbowly Hooters food, like hoagies and cheese fries, the cheese melting luxuriously over the ham. Next frame was a couple of All-American men (by which I mean—and I say this with all due respect-white blond guys with buzz cuts who weigh at least 250 pounds), placing their hoagies in a Hooter’s take-out bag on top of the flat screen TV and then lifting it up with the woman looking back and forth at both of them, pleased and surprised, a la Barbara Eden in the bottle in I Dream of Jeannie. Next frame, they were in their car. The flat screen TV had been placed in the back, with the woman in the TV still looking a bit delighted albeit bewildered, peering back and forth from between the two men who are in the driver’s seat and shotgun, respectively. They opened their bags of Hooters food and took a bite of cheese fries. One of them dangled a fry in front of the woman. She reached for it, but of course couldn’t get to it, being as she was on TV. “Aw, no fair!” she pouted.

That’s when I almost lost my mind. What hope can the planet possibly have when we have this to contend with? I am expecting something as flimsy and feeble as a Democracy to vote their conscience? Just as the Bush administration responded to the findings of the IPCC by rejecting unilateral limits on emission, saying, “We are a small contributor to the overall, when you look at the rest of the world, so it’s really got to be a global solution,” so I thought, “Why should I give up my mangoes when there’s no chance in hell this culture will ever look up from its rampant addiction to soft porn, big cars, mindless television and junk food to make the necessary changes to prolong our species? I give up. Until they change, why should I? I want a dictatorship!”

Then, as I covered Lila’s eyes, I had this other thought, from the other side of my pinbally ricocheting mind: “I am way to serious. Why can’t I relax and join the Superbowl culture and not be so judgmental and angry and self-righteous and all those other words they throw at liberals? By judging (prejudging) everyone I am just as close-minded and contemptible as those I wish would change. Hypocrite! Cranky Buddhist!”

As a Buddhist, I am supposed to be embracing the four brahma viharas; loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy. I’m pretty sure that precludes my indulging in detesting white blond football-loving Hooter patrons. Also, I think it precludes my wishing that we had a dictatorship that would tax the usage of fossil fuels at a rate of 200%, and while at it, ban football, Hooters, cheese fries and flat screen TVs. I’m pretty sure that falls under the category of “worshiping a God who hates all the same people you do probably means you have created God in your own image,” as Father Tom Weston says, by way of Anne Lamott.

Rats. And I don’t really want to live in a dictatorship, by the way. Even if (especially if) I were the dictator.

Humor is a torch we bring with us down into the darkness, into hell itself. Without humor, we are damned, even as we try to damn others. And there can be no peace when the peacemakers are so angry their faces and hearts are as contorted as those of their oppressors. These are serious times, and sometimes I need someone a little more rational to explain to me that when someone is joking about how global warming will give them beachfront property in a few years, I shouldn’t react by screaming at them about how my daughter will never see a play on Broadway because it will be underwater by the year 2026.

We are now entering a new phase of life on this planet, one in which we can no longer pretend that what John Donne said isn’t true, about no man being an island entire of itself. We are all a piece of the continent, just as many of us are already integrally a part of a family, either the one we were born into or the one we are creating with a partner and children, or a creative family of our own choosing, or a mix of these. And just as I work to bring balance to the individual me and the me who is a wife/mother/daughter and sister, so we need to work at bringing a balance between the self with her unique needs and the citizen of the world who is a giving and taking part, one who breathes CO2 out and takes O2 in. How can we bring our awareness of these roles to our daily practices? What did we do for the Earth today? Did we take too much? Did we dance lightly? Did we pass on our understanding to another?

And yet we need to do this gently, if we are going to break what President Bush has called our “addiction” to fossil fuel. Jane Aikin, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis gave the keynote speech at our Arts and Activism panel yesterday. In speaking about violence against women, she made the point that there is a lot of ignorance out there. “Never assume that your friends know what you know,” she said. “Don’t be shy about educating them. Share what you know! That’s how we learn.” The same is true for us. We need to create a climate of support, of modeling good stewardship of the earth. I ask my husband to remind me to pack the canvas bags when I am making the weekly trip to the supermarket. (In Ireland, and perhaps in other European countries, they charge you if you don’t bring your own bags back). He asks me to nag him if he’s spaced out in the shower and overusing the hot water.

If my experience as a veteran dieter teaches me anything, it’s that you have to do it with love, patience, compassion, gentleness, humor and tolerance for others. Just as I couldn’t give up junk food because someone told me too—it had to come from a deep inner desire—so I won’t give up driving the mile to the Stop & Shop because someone’s trying to shame me into walking. I will walk to the Stop & Shop because I want to do my part for the earth, out of love and not out of guilt. Feeling like I am an environmentalist, that this is my issue, that I have a relationship with the earth that is personal and private will make me walk instead of drive, buy organic rather than saving 75¢, and yes, changing my incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent. As always, the solution starts with us, and part of that solution is seeing the greedy Hummer-loving, energy wasting, junk food consumer in ourselves and forgiving that someone.

*If you want to see a really funny piece on how to respond to global warming, check out this link from Monday’s New York Times:

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Three Poems


Why his liver?
That’s what I want to know.
If it had been me, I feel sure
That God would’ve taken my voice.
And it wouldn’t have been a violent desecration, either, with the mysterious restoration
In the night while the victim slept, wiped out, from the brutal operation
No, more like a borrowing—a book from the library, slyly
Returned with a different page dog eared each day.

Surely I came from the fire
Of their newly minted love,
One piece hot from the furnaces of Hephaestus,
Another wet and glistening
Via a conch shell,
Like my mother, naked and ridiculous in my unabashed joy.
And we together, in the blessed moments at sea
Still had no clue that once she washed to shore,
The marriage would be forced
Cobbled, even-
a beauty not even pretending to love a kind hardworking hunchback.

And now we leave pieces of ourselves all over the earth.

In the sill of the window
In the frame of the door where you’ve been hanging
By the tips of your fingers
For minutes now
Neither in nor out
In the almost silence of the passing cars.

Nerissa Nields
Jan. 28, 2007