Monday, June 29, 2009

Small Queen of the Earth

Queen Of The Earth, Child Of The Stars
by Leela Grace
On the night that you were born, I looked out the window to the sky
And the brilliant stars sang to me as you uttered your first cry
I looked down into your face and saw stars shining in your eyes
My small queen of the earth, child of the stars
I held you in my arms and sang you to sleep
And your face shone so bright, I could not but with joy weep
I knew with every passing hour my love for you would grow more deep
My small queen of the earth, child of the stars
As you opened your wide eyes and held my gaze with your own
I could see, with aching joy, you dancing from me when you’re grown
But wherever you go, my darling, know you’ll never be alone
My small queen of the earth, child of the stars
Leela: lead vocal, banjo
Ellie: harmony vocals
(© 1998 Leela Grace, BMI)

To hear this amazing song, click here. I was so happy and amazed to find Village Harmony paying our church a visit last Sunday, and when they performed this song, I was rendered a weeping mess for the rest of the service.

Thank you, Grace sisters.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Shoulds and the Tao Verse 17

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, "Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!"

Tao Te Ching, verse 17 (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

I am reading a wonderful version of the Tao specifically for parents by William Martin. In his translation of the above verse, he writes, "You can control your children through threats and punishments/and they will learn to fear./You can control your children by praise and reward/and they will learn to look outside themselves/ for approval and worth....Or you can love and guide/without controlling or interfering/and they will learn to trust themselves./If your child fails at something/merely express your confidence/in their ability to handle the consequences."

The first few lines of Martin's verse generally describe the way I parent, or the way I have been, anyway. Big cereal bars are the most likely candidate for reward, with watching an episode from our Curious George Goes Green DVD a close second. Withholding one of those two carrots is our most usual form of punishment, though we do use the occasional time-out (trying to be extremely neutral about times-outs because we don't want Elle to connect quiet time with punishment. When we give a time-out, we try to emphasize our own need for space when we get disregulated. Who knows if she understands what we're talking about, but it makes Tom and me feel better.)

But as I wrote in a previous post, I am trying to get away from my habitual pose as Cheerleader Mom. I keep asking Elle, "Oh, how does that feel when..." When you put your toys away, when you make your brother laugh, when you have a tantrum. The answer is invariably (and interestingly) "Good."

Today at lunch she was filling me in on her morning with her babysitter.

"I played with her really well, Mama. I didn't even have a tantrum."

"Wow," I said, nodding. "What does it feel like to have a tantrum?"

"Good," she said, munching on her sugar snap peas.

"Does it a lot of movement, or does it feel still?" I persisted, genuinely curious.

She chewed some more. "Um," she thought about it. "It feels move-y and still. Both."

"I know what you mean," I said. "That's how it feels to me sometimes too."

As readers of this blog know, I am trying to slow down. I am trying to live in the margins a little more and not so much in the print. For years, lunch was the time in the day when I watched a DVD or listened to an audio book, under the theory that I should not waste time and that lunch was a great opportunity to fill my mind with some external source; to feed my intellect as I was feeding my body. When Elle was a baby, I ignorantly propped her up in an exersaucer with a handful of puffios while I sat next to her on the floor in front of the TV. Together we watched a ton of left-of-center documentaries like The Corporation, Born into Brothels, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and the like. It wasn't until I was watching a biography of George McGovern and some footage came on of atrocities during the Vietnam war and I instinctively covered her nine-month-old eyes with my hand that I put an end to this practice. But even recently, I have plopped her in front of an Elmo DVD or SuperWhy while I read articles from the New York Times as I chomped on my carrots and edamame.

We had one of those weekends that usually takes me three or four days to recover from. Friday Tom and I drove out to Boston with the kids and rode our bikes along the Charles, all the way to the Public Garden where Elle got to ride on the back of Mrs. Mallard. We had dinner at a great restaurant in Cambridge called Full Moon where kids have a playspace and grownups have a real menu. We spent the night with Tom's mother, and then on Saturday I had to be at a rehearsal for Revels SummersDay at 10am, back for call at 2:30pm and then over to Passim for our 8pm show. Katryna and I drove home, arriving at my house at 12:30. In between, and at evening's end, all sorts of breastfeeding logistics had to be co-ordinated. I woke up on Sunday, Father's Day, with a horrible case of the Shoulds. I should not be in such a bad mood, for starters. Also, I should not have booked so much to do this weekend (including a three-hour shoot for extra footage for the DVD we are making, scheduled for Sunday afternoon.) I should have planned on making Tom something special for breakfast. I should take care of the kids all day since Tom should get the day off, and I hadn't spent enough time with them Saturday. The tireder I got, the worse the Shoulds hounded me, like Hera's gadflies in the myth of Io. They persisted even though Tom graciously insisted I rest and even though we had a fabulous time at the shoot (we went to Town Farm and filmed the ducks, hens, goats and our four kids who marched around in the mud carrying little parasols.

By the end of it, Elle had one red foot from stomping around in a big puddle which made her red Mary Jane's dye run. She said, "Mama, I can have ruby slippers even when I'm barefoot!"

We came home triumphant with pizzas and Chinese take-out and celebrated all the dads. The kids played together in the yard with George Harrison, and I didn't even feel all that tired for a few minutes. But after we put the kids down, the extreme fatigue returned and so did the Shoulds. I decided to write them down--that if I could witness them, they might not bite me as badly, or at least I'd be prepared. I wrote them down, tried to find my limiting beliefs which mostly had to do with my fear of being alone ("If I am too tired, I can't be my charming self and people will leave me," goes some of the logic. Another version of this is, "If I take good care of myself by setting limits, people will leave me because I won't be taking good enough care of them." Then I brought the feelings into my body and did some breathing, thanked the gadflies and released them.

That night, I had the most amazing dream. I dreamed this fan of ours had taken hostage all the participants in a workshop Katryna and I were running at a kind of day camp for grown-ups. I walked in late and missed the drama; I was carrying Jay in my arms. Katryna filled me in. I was not told, but assumed the fan had a gun; how else would she compel everyone to stay and be afraid of her? Somehow I got permission to leave the building and get something from my car in the parking lot. On my way, I said to every single person in the parking lot (and there were hundreds, "Hey, _______ is holding everyone hostage! Call the police!"

"Yeah, right," everyone dismissed me. I found my car and put Jay down. He promptly disappeared, which in the world of my dream was a good thing: he was now safe. I got my cell phone and tried to call our manager, Patty, but the buttons wouldn't work. Frustrated, I went back into the building and climbed the stairs to the Art room. I told the instructors there that our fan had taken everyone hostage, and they believed me. (Artists, you know.) They rolled their eyes. "Yeah, she's crazy," they agreed (about the fan) and picked up the phone to call the police. Relieved, I kept climbing the stairs to the roof where theoretically the fan was herding everyone in order to somehow kill us. I found her and took her hand, calling her by name. "______," why are you so angry today?"

"Wellllll," she said, sounding a lot like my three-year-old daughter. "The last time you came to _______ [her state] you didn't stop by to visit us. You never pay any attention to me."

I was about to protest, to sputter with indignation about my two children and the fact that her town was three hours away from the gig, but instead I said, "Yeah, that's really disappointing. I wish I had more time to visit people. But, _______; you are going to feel pretty sad if you cause harm to these people."

Then my Zen alarm clock woke me up.

A few minutes later (it was around 6:30am) the whole household was awake. I was changing Jay's poopy diaper in his room and Elle was jumping up and down on the double bed.

"I have to pee!" she suddenly shrieked. A minute later, she was back, chagrined. "Sorry, Mama, but I tried to pee in the potty but I peed, I only could get to the bathroom floor, and I peed on my pants." Which she handed to me, soaked. I was about to express my disappointment when I remembered that verse of the Tao.

"That's okay, sweetie. You're figuring it out, and I know eventually you're going to always pee on the potty. But accidents happen. Just get a towel and clean it up."

"Okay, Mama," she ran off and returned with the damp towel. And I kid you not; the next thing she said was, "Mama. You listened to me today."

Jung would say all the characters in the dream were me, or versions of me. So the fan was me, pretending to have a gun when all she had was a lot of rage and threats. Mad that she wasn't getting enough attention. The participants in the parking lot who were dismissive of the threat were me, too, as was the uncooperative cell phone and even the disappeared Jay. And of course all the participants who were fooled by a mad person with only the threat of a gun.

Today I want to be a person who listens more than anything else. I want to be a witness to the hostage in me as well as the hostage-taker. And of course I can never know how the dream might have ended this morning before the alarm cut it short, but I can hope that the fan figured out on her own that she didn't need to be feared or despised in order to get what she wanted, which was just to get some love and attention anyway.

Top photo by Nerissa. All others by Kris McCue.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Amy Ray and Frances Crowe

"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark."
-Rabindranath Tagore

In case your child ever breaks a compact fluorescent bulb and it shatters in thousands of pieces, DO NOT VACUUM! like we did. Instead, calmly take your children and pets out of the room and wait 15 minutes, preferably with the window open. Then, assuming you can secure your kids, return to the room and clean up the pieces using a piece of cardboard and a damp rag. Use sticky tape such as duct tape to get the smallest bits.

Then pray.

I absolutely hate that this happened today, and I hate that I was such a good little environmentalist that I replaced all the nice, friendly incandescent bulbs with harsh Soviet era CFBs. Is it really worth risking mercury poisoning to save the planet?

Well....This is exactly the kind of moral conundrum we parents are in, constantly. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as it were. I used to make my own yogurt; now I save time but spend money and create garbage by buying it (Side Hill Farms yogurt, though, which is infinitely better than anything I've ever made. A local company, too, in Ashfield MA. Try it if you live in New England! YUM!!) As I posted eons ago, I would have loved to walk to the co-op to get my groceries, but when I tried it once with my two littlies, I almost died of a heart attack (the co-op is on a pretty scary artery; not to mention it's hard to load up on groceries when most of the real estate of your stroller is taken up with children.) So now we drive.

And usually, we drive at least part way to our local organic farm (Town Farm in Northampton which is on the complete opposite side of town from us). So we park in town and walk the rest of the way. At Town Farm, there are goats, chickens and as of today, baby ducks. Elle and Jay were entranced. Our friend Liz said she liked the yellow ones best. Elle liked the black ones, and I liked the ones with light brown feathers and black beaks. Not sure which ones Jay liked best, but he seemed to say, "Duck!" Elle and I are constantly on the lookout for Jay's first word. Sometimes it is "Dog," sometimes, "Dada" but always it is some version of "Duh." So who knows? Maybe it really was "Duck" today.

On our way back from the farm, in order to avoid traffic, I took the sneaky way across Main Street through the parking lot behind the Calvin Theatre. There was a gigantic bronze tour bus. Idly, I wondered who was playing, and as soon as I remembered, I saw Amy Ray come out from around the front of the bus. I rolled down my window.

"Hey, Amy!" I said, acting like a totally cool, casual, one-time-almost-almost-famous folksinger, myself. She came over to the car and peered in. "It's Nerissa Nields from the Nields."

"Oh, hey," she said. She's extra friendly and social. I have met her several times in the past fifteen years and she has always been warm and supportive and engaging. At South By Southwest, for example, she told me to go to Thaiphoon for Thai food, and of course, she was right.

"I so wanted to come see you tonight, but..." and I gestured to the back seat towards my kids––which is only metaphorically true. I actually have a writing group to lead tonight, but one could argue that in a broader view, I lead writing groups instead of attending folk shows with legendary duos because of my kids.

"I can see why you aren't coming tonight," she chuckled, waving at Elle and Jay.

"Have a great show," I said, driving off. We were trying to get Elle's hair cut, and as I pulled into a parking space across from Pam's Kickin Cuts, I realized that it really was true that I'd rather be right here, right now on this beautiful Juneteenth day with my little daughter and son than performing for a thousand loyal, loving fans at the Calvin."

I guess this surprises me a little. I remember in 2000 visiting my friend Melissa in Mill Valley, CA. She was pregnant with her first child and glowing with anticipated glory. She asked me if I wanted to have kids.

"I do and I don't," I said. For the previous ten years, I would say, "In about five years," whenever anyone asked me that question. My preparatory husband David felt differently; he always said, "In about a year," but the result was the same. So I said to Melissa, "The thing is, I am afraid that if I have kids I will love them more than I love music. And that I wouldn't be as engaged with my career. that I wouldn't love it as much. And then I might have to do something else besides music."

Melissa looked confused. "Well, then..uh...but that would be because you were happy with your kids. And if you're happy with your kids, who cares what else you do?"

I was ashamed to say this to Melissa, and I am embarrassed even to write it now (though my wise friend Judy says this is a perfectly normal developmental stage that twentysomethings go through), but my answer was that I thought I would be subverting my destiny; that I owed my music to the universe and that if I denied it, something essential would be forever lost! This was before I had the concept that God is a river that flows in a certain direction and that, by this theological perspective, it would be impossible for me to deny the universe anything the universe demanded. (Also, this was before I believed that it was okay, spiritually, to be happy.)

Frances Crowe, amazing local activist and legend in her time, came to preach at my church last week. I got to do the music, and I was told ahead of time to focus on peace songs. So I did nothing but peace songs: "Down By the Riverside," "Imagine," "S/He's Got the Whole World in His/Her Hands," "Redemption Song" and my new favorite, "May There Always Be Sunshine," a Russian kids' song that we have been doing in HooteNanny. Katryna figured out the ASL movements to go with it, so I taught it to the kids at my church (and the congregation) technically in three languages.

Poost svig-da boo-dyet sohn-seh
Poost svig-da boo-dyet nyeh-boh
Poost svig-da boo-dyet Mama
Poost svig-da boo-doo yah

May there always be sunshine
May there always be blue sky
May there always be Mama
May there always be me.

Someone in the congregation corrected one of my signs: I'd been doing "I" instead of "me." "I" in ASL is a fist to the chest with the pinky up, as in ASL alphabet "i" while "me" is pinky down, a closed fist. Perfect. That was me in the '90s, striving to get my music "out there"--but of course, I couldn't because I was close-fisted; it was all about me. That day in church, sitting at the feet of Frances Crowe (who, among other amazing feats, once put up an antenna in her backyard so that the town could get Democracy Now) I got to be a part of a whole, a big river of music that came before me, includes me and will keep on flowing downstream into the ocean, up into the rainclouds and back again. I'll take that.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Scenes from "With A Little Help From My Friends" benefit at Appel Farm

Pete Kennedy using uke to play slide:

Here are some images from the stage of Appel Farm Festival. I got to sit next to my favorite blues singer, Guy Davis. How I love him. Here's his tribute to the late great Odetta.

Human Billboard, Anusara Yoga... Oh, and Pedicure

Above are the necklaces my friend Jen McGlashen made. She sent me these and asked me to please wear them as a human billboard for her design. She also sent me a pack of cards with her website address which I stuck in my purse and always mean to hand out to people who compliment the necklaces, of which there are many. But I always seem to have the wrong purse when this happens. So here is her site: Enjoy.

She's brave, my friend Jen. It's really hard to put yourself out there, I am continuously reminded. We have been working as musicians since June of 1991, which means as of June 7, we have been The Nields in a professional, yes-we-take-money--please--for-our-singing way for 18 years. Our first gig for real money was on that date (June 7, 1991--someone please alert Bruce Palmatier) at Trinity College where Katryna and I along with Mary McCormack (yes, THE Mary McCormack) sang two sets at a Trinity alum party.

I go back and forth with the whole putting-self-out-there thing. Obviously some part of me loves it. Why else would I be a professional musician, or for that matter, writing this blog? I love the connection I get when I go forward in life with my heart open.

And some part of me doesn't. It is said that the number one fear in this country is public speaking. Not death, which is number two. More people are afraid of what others think about them than they are of losing their lives. I love public speaking, and if you asked me whether I'd rather have the love and admiration of million people or a million dollars, I'd choose the love every single time. Fame practically guarantees both kinds of millions; but it almost always comes along with the disgust of a million people. Or at least one person, and I don't love the idea that even one person might be offended by me.

For my birthday present, Katryna gave me a spa pedicure along with her presence and participation (namely, she had to sit next to me and chat and get a pedicure for herself while I got my tootsies tended to). In the picture below you can see the tops of my sweet kids' heads along with my pampered foot.

The pedicure is important because I have come to the conclusion (for the umpteenth time--this is not new) that I will not have lived a completely happy life unless I go through yoga teacher training. It's not so much that I want to be a yoga teacher, though I might. It's more existential than that. My grandmother, Margaret B. Tenney, discovered yoga in 1967 after traveling to India. She came back to New York City and began a practice that included standing on her head every morning, along with sun salutations and a bowl of yogurt and granola. (In two weeks she will be celebrating her 102nd birthday, so she's not exactly a bad advertisement for these practices.)

Yoga is not new to me. I had a pretty serious Ashtanga practice in the late 90's and continued to study different paths, spending time at Kripalu, doing prenatal yoga in both pregnancies. When I practice yoga, I am incrementally more grounded than I am at any other time of the day, even when meditating (trying to meditate, I should say.) This doesn't mean I'm always present in my yoga practice; I spend much time wondering when class will be over and what I will eat for lunch and how nice that other person's mat is and how I wish I could do a backbend like the guy in the tank top and how I probably will never be brave enough to do a handstand and how I hope the teacher is noticing how flexible my hamstrings are. Speaking of which, I once injured my knee so badly when I was trying to show off my flexibility doing a standing half-lotus with forward bend that I had to stop practicing for a month. Still. I tend to catch my mind drifting off the beam into its competitive, acquisitive, judgmental ways more quickly on the mat than off.

Plus, there's the sheer bliss I experience when and after I practice. The hard part is getting me on the mat.

Anusara yoga, the path I will be studying, is all about opening the heart, which I have been convinced for a long time is my life's work. The central philosophy is in line with my own: that God dwells within us as.
The art of Anusara yoga is a co-participation with the Supreme-not a practice of domination, subjugation, or control of Nature. The poses in Anusara yoga are considered to be "heart-oriented," meaning that they are expressed from the "inside out." Instead of trying to control the body and mind from the outside, the poses originate from a deep creative and devotional feeling inside.

It's not lost on me that this time around my intention began because I was in pain. My back hurt, so I went to the physical therapist who pointed out that I walk around in a slump. I wrote about it and one of you angels out there sent me a link to Esther Gokhale's lecture. I was forced, through pain, into my body: to pay as much attention to my small body movements as I try to pay to the small adjustments my mind needs to make in order to be as calm and happy and helpful as possible. And all I could think of was, "Yoga, yoke, embody. Heart forward. Be brave. Heart forward."

Do one thing every day that scares you, said Eleanor Roosevelt.

So here I am with my new pedicure which will serve as a bell of mindfulness every time I lunge forward from down dog. Of course I wish I'd chosen purple like Katryna did, but probably if she'd chosen Cancun Fiesta instead of Louvre Me Louvre Me Not, I'd have wanted the pink. (What a fun day job that would be, to come up with nail color names!)

I am really scared. I am going to be studying with the yoga teacher of my dreams. We have become friends recently, which is a whole other amazing, grace-filled story. I have mentioned a few times about my secret wish to do yoga teacher training, and she kept saying it would happen when it was meant to happen. And then in the space of a few hours we figured out a way to make it happen--this summer.

In a strange way, this is an even more frightening version of "putting out there" than speaking is, or certainly singing is. She is going to see me as an imperfect student instead of her strong, smart friend. She's going to see my pride, my competitiveness, my weakness––all the things I regularly try to disguise. I am going to have to show up with my body, in my body, with my heart open and forward, even when the last thing I want to do is move my body, be in my body, risk my own judgmental competitive thoughts. I am going to have to show up for the God within when I'd rather tune out and read Twitter posts or find some other way to slump in a chair. But what I've learned is this: I get to show up in whatever state I'm in, and I only ever have to work to whatever my own edge happens to be. I am pledging now to honor the tightness, to go gentle, to embrace the body that I have and work with what is, not what I think might be (given years of practice and some plastic surgery.) And whether or not my teacher loves and approves of me is ultimately none of my business.

And I don't fully know why my call in this direction is so strong. I believe and think empirically that it will make me a better songwriter and musician, a better coach and a better writer. Most importantly, I think it will make me a happier person which will infiltrate all my relationships, but maybe none of this is true. But my body says, "GO," and I've learned that the body knows.

A good friend just told me about a parenting philosophy (Vicki Hoefle who has a program called "Parenting on Track" ) that resonates with me. She said, "Instead of praising your child when she hits a home run or paints a beautiful picture, ask her how it feels to do this. That way she gets her affirmation from within rather than from an external source."

I love this. My inclination is to shower my kids with praise for every little accomplishment. I'm an enthusiastic cheerleader, so this happens all the time. But what if I inquired instead? What if I held back just a tad, so that it's not about me and my reaction but an invitation to curiously explore the feeling? That way my children get to find their own God within, their own North Stars, without all my editorializing. And then maybe, just maybe, they will not need to stand on a stage or look at their bank balance or be dependent on a partner to feel how fully and completely they are loved by God, by the planet, by their own miraculous bodies.

Update on Felted Pick Necklaces

Here is the ongoing evolution of the felted pick necklaces which are sure to make us RICH!

I still need to knit a cord for this. And then I have to take a giant leap of faith to see if it's true that if you cut into felt, your stitches won't come apart, for this needs a button.

I am making projects from this great book. Here is what I hope will be Elle's school lunch bag. I still need to knit the strap (my first I-chord!) and felt the bag. I can't find any #11 needles so I am going to use #10s and hope for the best. Also, I am going to try to find some waterproof fabric and line the inside. (If you look at the above picture sideways, you can see what the finished bag should look like: it's the middle picture on the book's cover.)

Jay loves his pillowface cat so much. When I give it to him he leans back and then hurls himself forward onto it, howling with delight.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Don't Try So Hard"

Is it a requirement that all children who become older siblings go through a regressive phase that includes talking babytalk, crawling, wanting to drink from bottles and eat from babyfood jars and, in some cases, breastfeed? And furthermore, is it a requirement that their parents find this phase cloying at best and mysteriously irritating? I say "mysterious" because when I chunk it down, nothing Elle is doing right now is not cute, including her high squeaky "I-am-just-a-baby" voice. And yet every parent I know cannot stand when their child acts younger than he or she is and in fact often snaps at said child, losing the desirable parental cool we all aspire to. Also, the babytalk the child uses is not real babytalk but some proximation of it. For instance: "goo goo ga ga." I notice real babies don't actually say "goo goo ga ga" as such.

I am trying again to meditate properly. I go in and out of this attempt. My mind hates to stay still. I am an inveterate planner, which serves me well in a way. I have been known to get a lot done because I am good at filling all the cracks and crevices of my day. When I find myself with a spare five minutes, I love to fill it with a phone call to a friend I've been hoping to catch up with, or I sponge off the counter which always needs a cleaning. At some point I internalized both the phrase about the devil liking idle hands and also "Don't just sit there; do something!" When I started meditating, I was told to reverse that last directive: "Don't just do something; sit there." I find the latter much more challenging.

Our minister Stephen Philbrick wrote a poem which he often recites as a kind of benediction, especially on communion Sundays.

The space between stars, where noise goes to die;
And the space between atoms,
Where the charges thin out;
These are places too.
The moment in the movement of the soul
When it all seems to stop, seized up.
This is true too...
"Not a thing" is something. After the end
And before the beginning
Is time, too.
Let it alone, don't try so hard.
This is God, too.
All of you is.

This coming Tuesday, June 16, our town of Northampton is about to vote on whether or not to override the budget. Because of the catastrophe that is the US economy, Massachusetts has slashed its budgets and towns like ours are scrambling to make ends meet. The vote's in a week. The override would put a million dollars into the school system, and that alone is enough for me to be for it. The rumor is that if the override doesn't pass, my daughter's first grade class will have 35 kids in it. The increase in our property tax comes out to something like $62 per $100,000 worth of property value per year. To me, this is a no-brainer. Moreover, an override very similar to this lost by one vote in 2003. Guess who was too busy to go to the polls that day.

So we have a big sign on our lawn and Tom's been making calls trying to get out the vote. I have no idea what the chances are, but it's been interesting to see how my mind reacts to this whole issue. Of course, what comes up are some of my primal fears. I was raised in the religion of higher education: to believe that all of society's problems could be solved if only we could imbue our children with information and the skills to acquire it, we would make better choices which would lead to fewer wars, better stewardship of the planet, eradication of poverty and support of NPR. I still believe this. But I also know that it's not that simple and that people who don't agree with me are not the enemy. And yet, when someone close to us called today to question why we are for the override, I found myself yelping in the background (Tom was on the phone) things like, "Our kids won't have music, art or PE! Our kids have to bring their own paperclips!" And then trembling with rage when he hung up the phone on the caller.

This behavior kind of goes against my desire to be a compassionate person.

Sometimes when Elle is being a baby, I lose my patience and say, "Too bad you're just a little baby. Only big girls get to _________ (watch TV/eat cookies/ride their trikes, etc.)" And it works; she suddenly becomes a big girl and uses her proverbial words. But I'm not crazy about my behavior in this situation, clever and manipulative though I think I am. If I took the long view, I'd see that she's acting out beautifully. If I weren't in such a hurry, I'd just let her prolong her babyhood and be amused at her recreation of that time, goo goo ga ga's and all.

I hate the idea of her going to a school with 35 kids in her class. I hate that I can't give her what my parents gave me: a school rich (literally) with music, drama, art and athletics. I most of all hate that she might suffer the way I did; that kids might tease her, call her names, ignore her, not recognize her brilliance and beauty and specialness. But of course they will, no matter where she goes: that's part of the walk of childhood. I don't know a single person who didn't experience some kind of social pain at some point in childhood. Mine wasn't the worst, but it was enough to scar me.

But who's to say I am not better off with those scars?

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's where the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen

And where is God except in the suffering? I was listening to a Speaking of Faith interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite bodhitsattvas. He was talking about how the lotus flower needs mud to grow in. "Not marble," he said in his French Vietnamese accented gentle voice.

It's like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That's why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering…

Ms. Tippett: The kingdom of God?

Brother Thây: Yeah, because I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering because, in such a place, they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. And the kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion, and, therefore, suffering should exist.

"Don't try so hard," Stephen's poem reminds me. Tom had our friend Mike Biegner set it up, printed it out and framed for my birthday last week, and I have been savoring it ever since. My practice so far, in my 43rd year, is to honor the margins by giving myself and my family more of them. Rather than scheduling myself down to the minute, I am trying to leave a half hour, an hour, a few days, a few weeks between activities. I am living in those in between spaces, and––who knew?––it turns out, in the end that there's a lot of life there. Maybe even more life than in those blocks in bright colors on my gmail calendar.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Writer Unblocked

Half-screened porch. Once it's completely screened, I will be able to write our book.

… "Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known."

Seamus Heaney, "North"

"A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."-Thomas Mann

I am trying to write a book. I have written three books already, and published two of them, so I was under the mistaken assumption that it would be easy for me to write another book.

Not so fast, lady.

My friend Nalini Jones, a wonderful writer whose book of short stories What You Call Winter practically oozes grace and depth of character, told me years ago that whenever she had to write, whenever she had a deadline, her husband would come home to an exceptionally clean house.

So for the past two-and-a-half months, I've been cleaning my house, making long to-do lists of projects I should have done last September, gotten excited about crafting little teeny tiny knitted-and-then-felted pick necklaces (which, I decided after several cups of extra strong green tea, were going to make Katryna and me MILLIONAIRES!),

Soon-to-be, pre-felted pick necklace which will make us rich.

Also, I sorted about thirty-five hundred loads of laundry, flossed my teeth too enthusiastically and fantasized about how I could only really write the book I'm supposed to write if my husband would locate and put up the screens on our porch.

In short, I did all the things I tell my clients not to do.

I've been in a kind of a rut. Not the regular kind of rut where you feel stuck and sad and frustrated and it's raining and muddy and your car won't move even when four large humans come to push it out. My rut is comfy, in a way. But I've dug it for myself with phrases that I repeat, like: "I am so exhausted!" "I am so busy I haven't had time to wash my hair!" "We are just in survival mode, that's all there is to it." And my favorite: "there are just too many things I want to do and not enough time to do them."

But there was something I really wanted to do, and that was sit down and write this book about how anyone's family can be musical if given just a few ingredients and a dose of permission. Katryna and I have been talking about this book for years now on our drives to and from our gigs. We even have all sorts of wonderful outside supporters encouraging us and cheering us on. It's the best gift our grown-ups gave us, and now that we are grown-ups (really, we are), we want to pass it on. So why was I trolling felting sites on the internet and buying yarn to make an all-purpose summertime tote bag instead of working on our outline?

There are lots of good answers to that question, actually. I'm a firm believer in letting the muse have its way before it gets down to business. Think Pat Morita in The Karate Kid making Ralph Macchio paint his fence. But I'm also a believer in bum glue: that at some point you just have to show up with your laptop and sit until something comes out.

I read an article in the New York Times last week that enhanced the process of my liberation. The article was about the newest trend in parenting, which the writer called "slow parenting." It cited a book by Tom Hodgkinson called “The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids” and it featured a cover — parents lounging with martinis as their small child mixes up their drinks. "Pay attention to your own needs," writes Hodgekinson, "back off on your children and everyone will be happier and better adjusted."

Don't worry--Elle and Jay won't be mixing our drinks for us. And don't worry is actually the point--it may well be that the worst thing you can do for your kid is worry. At any rate, something from my coach training snapped into place after I read this article. It was a long-forgotten, or perhaps long-ignored voice in my head: the voice that questions. "Is it true?" the voice asks when I take as fact what Martha Beck calls a "limiting belief." What if, I suddenly thought, my idea that every time Elle or Jay cries it's my fault, that I am doing something wrong as a parent, what if that thought is not true? What if they're just in a bad mood? And more importantly, what if all that's required is a small shift, a small adjustment in my behavior--not a giving-up-my career adjustment, not a quit-my-yoga-class adjustment, but a two minute cuddle and kiss and be-present-in-my-body adjustment?

As I wrote in the last post, my back is much better, due in fact to an adjustment--a tiny one at that. And it seems to continue to be better as I do my simple exercises (imperfectly) and notice when I am hunching. Course corrections, I remember from my few times on a sailboat, are minute but they have huge consequences for the direction the ship takes.

It's all about the breath. I've heard that for the past twelve years, but it wasn't until recently that I've taken that in and lived it, the way Helen Keller finally got "water" at the end of The Miracle Worker. When I get shaken up by all the events and people in my life that conspire to shake me up (it's their job, after all--every moment is my perfect teacher), my first task is to get back in my body, and the easiest way for me to do that is to come back to the breath.

I turned 42 on Tuesday. I'd planned a kick-ass day. I'd scheduled a session with a Martha Beck life coach––for me. I'd scheduled a Dr. Hauschka facial (I adore them and am an ambassador for their products.) I'd told Tom that all I wanted from him was to take the afternoon off so we could bum around town together. I'd invited my sister and her family for BYO take-out dinner. So when I woke up that morning, I was already in a good place. But in my first moments of being awake, I set this intention: may I take whatever happens as the way it's supposed to be and fit myself to it rather than trying to get it to conform to my hopes and expectations.

So when Elle hopped into bed with us and immediately started kicking and pouting instead of cuddling and kissing, instead of thinking, "She hates me! I'm a terrible mom! She needs more attention! She needs less attention! My day is ruined!" I smiled and thought, "She's three. She's fine. Her mood will pass." And it did. Five minutes later, she was cuddling on my lap cooing, "My baby Mommy! I love my baby Mommy!"

"Everything passes, and the problem is already solved."

"Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-doing." This last from the Tao te Ching and from my new life coach Terry DeMeo who royally kicked my butt on Tuesday morning. I told her how hopelessly busy I was and instead of sympathizing and shaking her head with wonder at my multitasking fantabulousness, she said, "Oh, really. And who is making you be so busy?" She got me to see that my dread of the feeling of being busy was much worse that the actual moment-to-moment reality of my life. She also reminded me that, as Mark Twain said, " I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." In other words, it's my thoughts that are keeping me in this rut.

All this is to say, for the moment, my little vehicle is back on track. I have the proposal almost finished, and feel as though someone came in and cleaned my windows. I can see clearly now, the smog has gone, and I can't believe this is my life.