Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Smiles Raise Jowls

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with infinite sighing.
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfillment.
-Derek Mahon

I love this time of year. There is nothing more beautiful to my eyes than the light shining into my bedroom in mid-afternoon, filtered through the golden maples leaves to the west; the unflinching blue of the sky, the stateliness of the oaks, still holding on to their leaves when other trees are bare. I love the dying gardens, the shock of the asters and mums still blooming in my neighbor's garden. Are you still here? I ask them as I pass on my morning run. Meanwhile, i am solidly in long johns and wool socks, refusing to leave the house without some ludicrous head covering.

But this year the dying of the light is getting to me, as is the general mood of anxiety about H1N1 and the recent plunging of the Dow. Last Friday, I scrambled to get to a hair appointment which I'd broken once already because I'd double booked myself. As I sat in front of the mirror, I noticed to my horror that my face had fallen.

Is this even an expression people still use? My mother told me, when she was my age and I was fifteen or so, that faces fall, "like this," she said, pulling the skin on either side of her mouth down, creating jowls. "A face lift is when the doctor pulls it all back up and sews it behind your ears. You can see the wrinkles in old people behind their ears where the pulled-up skin would go." She made noises about not ruling out a face lift now that she was "that age." (For the record, she never did it, nor does she dye her hair which is still, in her mid-sixties, mostly dark brown. I have inherited my father's hair.)

So there I was, forced to stare at my reflection for an hour and a half. Usually I like to do this. I have a practice that's all about engaging myself in the mirror and telling myself kind things to make up for the abuse I hurled on my reflection as a nineteen year old. But something in the fallen jowls bummed me out, and that line from "Maggie Mae" went around and around in my head: "The morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age."

I really thought I'd be more evolved than this, so part of my angst was a disappointment in myself for being so vain. I wrote a song about plastic surgery in 1992, so now I can never have it, which is good, because I am terrified of knives. But somehow I thought I'd be immune to certain aspects of the aging process, like, oh, the whole wrinkles thing, the neck wattle, the sagging, the spread. Pretty much all of it, actually. Somehow last Friday, it felt like one of those storms that arrives this time of year and whips the last of the red and orange leaves off the trees in one fell swoop, changing the season from autumn to fall overnight.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that there are some people who are always going to focus on the first noble truth of Buddhism ("Life is suffering") and some others who are going to focus on the third ("There is a way out of suffering.") The greater part of my spiritual work is about deep acceptance. I am like the prisoners of infinite choice in the poem above, and I have been saved over and over by having limits forced upon me and then figuring out why that limit is the best thing that ever happened to me. But I also believe some of that Law of Attraction stuff about manifesting our desires. It certainly seems to happen to me on a pretty regular basis. (But not all the time.) I am after all a life coach, and the bulk of my work is to see ways in which suffering can be alleviated.

We had a show at the Iron Horse on Friday. These shows tend to be restorative. They are opportunities for us to take a good accounting of where we are artistically. We tend to debut new material at the Horse, and Friday was no exception. In fact, I had spent the previous week in a frenzy of songwriting, finishing two songs and writing two more besides. On Friday, before the fated hair appointment, I had missed my yoga class because George Harrison (our chocolate lab) had wandered out of our yard when sleep-deprived Tom had opened the gate instead of closing it. (I didn't mention that last week, and this week too, our children have re-discovered that when they cry for us in the night, we respond. They are liking this a lot, and no one is sleeping much.) So Tom went looking for George while I brought Elle to school and was too late for yoga. Instead, I came back home and wrote an entire new song in about a half-hour.

We arrived at the club, my two kids in tow, our beloved Patty not there because she was recovering in New Jersey from having donated her kidney to her sister's husband's nephew. It felt so strange not to see her there; she's an integral part of our Iron Horse experience, not to mention we were concerned for her recovery. Elle had dressed me in a shirt that fit me in the 90s. On Friday, its silky buttons kept opening at inopportune moments onstage. Our dear friend Jonas was filming the show. My dentist was in the audience, as was my minister and some of my best friends. Elle and Jay ran back and forth in the aisles, and as I sang and tried to keep my shirt closed, I kept track of their comings and goings.

The show was not sold out. I am not sure if this was the first time we had failed to sell out the club, but it certainly was the most noticeable. Capacity is 180, and our ticket sales were 140, so it wasn't terrible, just not the usual manic energy one receives from a full house. I watched the stories swirl around about aging and diminishing numbers and concentrated instead on authenticity and the way my sister's voice sounds when mine joins it; the fun of playing with Dave Chalfant and the magical elements he brings to our music. We debuted two new songs and I felt vital again, the way I only can when we are singing new stuff.

But part of me went to that place of being mad at myself for not working harder to envision a sold-out show, to manifest a Beatles-like career, to be a straight A student in the music world. Part of me is still struggling with acceptance about the numbers. Part of me still takes it personally, even though numbers are down at the Iron Horse, among all of my other musician friends and across the board in the music world, folk, pop, rock, hip hop, even country. Why would it be different for me?

A few things helped right off the bat. I remembered that whenever I feel this way, I'm about to hit my edge and see things differently. Nirvana is samsara, and samsara is nirvana. Sadness and grief always lead to epiphany and a new re-ordering. We grow. Also, I had to go to the dentist to have a filling replaced. By the time I came in, it was Tuesday and I had mostly digested the spiritual lessons of the weekend. I was grateful again: grateful that I have had exactly the life I have. Grateful for library books, for the color of my son's hair, for the warm sunny days we had at the end of the weekend, for my yoga practice. On Monday I had gone to a different class (because my teacher was sick) and learned the term Anava Mala, which roughly translated means, "a limited, veiled view of the soul; a minimizing view." When we are in this mode, we experience a false duality. We see ourselves as separate from God, and our ego blooms. I did my practice and reconnected with my body, wept for being so mean to my jowls and forgave myself for my vanity. So I was in a better place in the dentist's chair than in the hairdresser's.

My dentist and her assistant had photos up of all sorts of scenes in nature, including shots of lions and South American primates as well as their two dogs. I meditated on the photos as they drilled and vacuumed, and I began to worry about their livelihood. Does a dentist make enough money in this economy? My dentist is extremely reasonably priced, and I calculated her hourly rate and the number of employees she has, and became concerned. Then I thought about how much this might be costing me; I'd neglected to ask. Oh, well, I thought. Whatever it costs, I am glad to support these folks. I love them. And I did. I just felt waves of love fill me, even as my tooth was being drilled. Eventually they took the purple mouth dam out of my jaws and I was able to blurt out, "I just love you guys! You do such amazing work!"

"Well," said my dentist. "I wanted to tell you the same thing. We were really moved by your show on Friday. And so we want to offer you--you and your family and Katryna's family--a permanent discount on dental services. Because of the work you guys do for the community."

Gifts come in all sorts of ways. As an audience member, I much prefer a moderately full room to a sold out show. The people who came to our show had a great time; no one other than we cared or noticed that every chair wasn't filled.
And smiles raise jowls. That's the best plastic surgery there is. I'll take my two kids outdoors on a sunny autumn Sunday over the version of me who became a huge pop star any day. Anyway, that version is off somewhere in the afterlife of dead leaves. God bless her.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Which Side Are You On?

I wrote this song over the course of the past 3 weeks. Katryna suggested the title and the idea that in a round world, there are no sides. She also suggested the image of the sun creating a silver lining, and how what that really means is that on the other side of the cloud, the sun is completely visible. Elle wrote the line "shake a kula," which is cool because a kula is the word for community in the world of Anusara yoga, which is the tradition I am pursuing as a student. We will be debuting this song on Friday at our Iron Horse show.

Ask me if I smoke? I don’t
Not in my back yard you won’t
Keep to your own side of the tracks
Early morning on the bus
Keep on just ignoring us
Wishing we’d stay hunkered in the back
Stinking freaks out on the street
Messing with your chill we meet
Aren’t you glad that you’re not her
Shake a kula mix it up
Toss us in a giant cup
Turn it in the gyre and stir stir stir

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.

Up in Northern Pakistan
They’re building schools and making plans
And teaching girls their knowledge to increase
Pass it forward, pass it on,
In reaches of Afghanistan
Pennies fill the jar for peace
Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew
Zoroaster, Sikh, Hindu
Each knows how to love a newborn baby
Each knows how to greet the sun
Weep when the beloved’s gone
Fall upon the ground crying, Save me, save me

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.

(Insert wicked cool guitar solo by Dave C. here.)

You tell her she can’t understand
Nothing went as you had planned
Slam the door and slam it again
Get into your car and go
M. Ward’s on the radio
Windshield wipers can’t beat the rain
Driving home you see a cloud
Makes the sun a giant shroud
Makes you understand the phrase: silver lining
Though it’s dark as far as sight
Dark can’t terminate the light
Somewhere on the other side the sun is shining

Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
The world tells you to figure it out,
She says, Haven’t you noticed? I’m round.

Nerissa Nields & Katryna Nields
Oct. 19, 2009
©2009 Peter Quince Publishing, ASCAP
All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 19, 2009

Il Sistema

Jay and I watched this today, both of us totally transfixed. Jay's attention didn't waver except during the parts where the conductor spoke. Jay also clapped along (though not exactly on the beat) when the orchestra members clapped. Watch with your kids. For more about Il Sistima, click here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marmosets and Writing and Life Missiony Thoughts

Please don't throw eggs at me for posting this picture of Cesar Millan, AKA "The Dog Whisperer." I know some of you have strong feelings about his horribleness as a dog trainer (see under "comments" here) and I want to reassure you that I am not endorsing him in any way as such. In fact, I did rent three Netflix discs worth of his TV show and was only able to watch one and a half episodes of the program, each clocking in at 20 minutes. I found the show strange and disturbing and not entertaining, so I sent the discs back (also giving up on training my dog George Harrison, but that's another story. George Harrison is great, by the way. Totally not pooping on the carpet and mostly not eating our food since we started keeping it on top of the refrigerator.)

This particular image comes from Sunday's New York Times. I am posting it because I have a huge marmoset reaction to it every time it enters my field of vision.

The marmoset reaction is a term coined by my mentor, Martha Beck. She uses it to denote the look one has when one does a double-take, as marmosets are famous for doing (when something interests them, they kind of twirl their heads and bug their eyes out). She says we need to pay close attention to these reactions in ourselves because they are pointing us to the truth (or at least to something really cool, something one simply must have like this Irish cable knit sweater which I covet. I've wanted one since I was sixteen and my former best friend Leila Corcoran showed up from boarding school one Columbus Day weekend wearing one, but I digress, and I'm not sorry. In fact, I am going to find a picture of it and post it now.)

Anyway, as I examined my strong positive reaction to this image of Cesar Millan, I realized what impresses me most is his carriage. I was impressed with his carriage in the Dog Whisperer videos too. He stands with such natural authority, so full-chested, leading with his heart the way my Anusara yoga teachers do. Would you mess with him? I wouldn't.

My family spent four blissful days in the mountains of the Adirondacks, a place we spend as much of our free time as possible. I have been coming to a small town in the high peaks since I was a baby (before then, actually, but again: another story) and I find the mountain air, the lack of internet, the birches, the bald peaks refresh me more consistently and predictably than anything else. My whole family loves it there, and part of the fun is the four hour drive during which we listen to my iPod. On Friday's drive, we found a talk by Martin Seligman on TEDTalks, a wonderful and amazing resource that all should discover. Seligman has been studying the art of happiness for over thirty years, and as such, he tell us that there are three kinds of happiness one may pursue in order to live a "happy" life.

The first is to seek and attain a life of pleasure and positive emotions. Pleasure is defined by gaining sensory delights: food, sex, beautiful vacation homes, Irish cable knit sweaters, etc. Positive emotions come from being in satisfying relationships, love, marriage, parenthood, deep long lasting friendships. It's about feeling.

The second is to seek a life that's about flow: finding work that is absorbing and engaging, or finding a hobby that is like that. Golf, bridge, gun running, doesn't matter what, as long as you lose track of time when you do it. It's about not feeling.

The third way to a happy life is through meaning. Seligman writes, "A meaningful life consists of again knowing what your highest strengths and talents are and using them in the service of something that you believe is bigger than you are." It's about feeling it all--happiness, sadness, rage and fear--and learning to surf on a wave of equanimity.

As I posted earlier this month, I am reading Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, which is all about how deep practice creates skills in the practitioner. Deep practice is when you engage your focus, take action toward a goal (say, playing a scale or throwing a football pass), make mistakes, correct them, and get it right s-l-o-w-l-y. It's that feeling you have when you really want to achieve something and you're not quite getting it. As awful as that might feel (to me it feels so awful I often quit before the miracle happens), this is what creates myelin, and myelin is what creates talent. I've been trying to apply this to everything I do: parenting, guitar playing, singing, being a wife, friend, coach, writer, housekeeper, lightbulb-changer, etc. There's something in Cesar Millan's stance that speaks to this yearning to improve, especially in the realm of present moment living. He is so there. His very presence connotes presence. His story is inspiring too: he only just became legal here after immigrating in the early 90s. With very poor English, he had aspirations to be on television. His employer, Jada Pinkett, who later became his student, told him he was not yet ready for prime time but encouraged him to pursue his dream.

He's hugely rich now, and I am sure he is able to fulfill all his earthly desires. But what Seligman's work concludes over and over again is that a life of pleasure does not lead to long term happiness. As we all know, there are diminishing returns to pleasure: one bite of chocolate cake is heavenly, the next OK, but by the end of the slice, we're not really tasting it anymore. Eat a whole cake and you feel sick and disgusted. It's the same with anything, even vacation homes and cable knit sweaters (in fact, I'm sick of them already, having spent ten minutes googling them online.)

He's also engaged in his work. The article in the Times talked about how passionate he is about his dogs, how he and his wife Ilusion have built an empire around his work. But does he live for something greater than himself?

I don't know. But I like the way he holds his body. And all this gives me the courage that one can indeed unite practice and play, a question I was struggling with a few weeks ago. In fact, it is in finding one's calling in life--one's mission, one's purpose--and pursuing that that all three forms of happiness come together. For if one does what one does best--in Cesar's case, train people to better live with and love their dogs--one makes the world a better place. And often this leads to wealth, friendships, relationships, and excellent food. Or Irish Fisherman pullovers. But these pleasures that create positive emotions are, as Seligman says, the cherry on top of the sundae. The sundae is the meaning and the flow.

So how does one find one's calling? Sometimes it's obvious, as it was for Cesar. He was known as El Perrero ("the dog man") from the age of seven. For others of us, it's a process rather like the game of Hot/Cold. In order to play this game properly, of course, we need to know what we are actually feeling, which for some of us is no small trick. Do we like the mountains or the ocean? Or both? Do we prefer working with people on a team or working solo? A little of each? Hotter. Colder. Ice cold. Warmer, warmer, warmer. On fire!!

We also know because if we find something we love, we lose track of time. We would pay someone to let us do it. This is the way I felt today when I got to host my first Writing It Up in the Garden teleclass. As I listened to the nine other amazing writers on the line encouraging each other's writing, finding the bits that could improve, I felt as deeply satisfied as I can remember feeling. And even before I was on the call, as I read over and listened to the work of the writers and songwriters, I lost track of time. This is also how I feel when I myself am writing, be it songs or prose. It's how I feel when I am cooking a big meal for a dinner party. The marmoset in me sits up and notices, and it's as simple as, "All right! Let's do more of that, please!"

And I may be naive, but I believe that writing for writing's sake gives meaning to a person's life. I have found for myself and for others that while one is writing, something changes in an alchemical way. I need to write the way I need to exercise, the way I need to eat carrots, the way I need to connect with my husband or other beloveds. I need to write the way I need to pray and feel the presence of something greater than myself. Writing gives meaning to my life, and because I have seen it transform the lives of my friends and clients, I know I'm not alone in believing that.

Plus, I finally found the perfect Irish sweater:

Monday, October 05, 2009

"Oh I was always afraid. but I never let it stop me. Never."-Georgia O'Keefe

A few weeks ago, back when it was still warm in the mornings, I started out on my daily run. I was fiddling with my iPhone trying to find a satisfactory podcast to listen to, changing my mind, changing the volume, looking for the place where I'd left off. By the time I'd settled on a story and was ready to pay attention to my run, I was well into the park across the street from my house. I lifted my head to take in my favorite part of the route--the crest of the first hill, after which it's downhill for awhile--and I found myself staring into the eyes of a black bear.

In all truthfulness, the bear was a good twenty yards away in a copse adjacent to the path, but he definitely met my gaze. The one thing I know about black bears is that when you encounter one, you should not run lest they think you are a meal worth pursuing. So I slowly turned and attempted a saunter out of the park. I almost bumped into a red Saab. The driver rolled down his window and said, "That bear just followed you into the park! I was watching him, and I thought I'd better follow you in too. He walked right past you into those trees over there. Do you want a ride out?"

"No thanks," I said, as the one thing I know about strange men in cars is that you should not get in with them. "I'll just leave now." And I did. I ran for twenty minutes on the streets of Northampton, circling my park and keeping an eye out for more bears. Because it hadn't occurred to me before, but of COURSE there were bears in the woods! Northampton is replete with bears, and we had one on our porch last fall (which I wrote about here.) Why wouldn't they choose to frequent the park? If I were a bear that's where I would go!

The next day, I ran into the park, right past where I'd seen the bear. I can't say I wasn't afraid, but I knew that if I let my fear win, I'd lose something crucial, not the least of which would be my beloved route.

I'm not always brave like that. Fear is a funny emotion, and someone who is brave enough to join the army might not be brave enough to speak in public. Someone who is brave enough to confront her boss on a tough issue might not be brave enough to get through an evening without eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's. As I wrote last week, I'm just beginning to discover that part of my inclination to start (and often finish) hundreds of projects, take on several careers simultaneously (musician, writer, life coach––hey, maybe I'll be a yoga teacher! Maybe I'll go to Div school and become a minister! etc, etc) is a way of not facing the truth about where I am at with some of these projects. If we had sold a million CDs, I would not be career-hopping. By constantly jumping from one project to another, tossing my little fledglings out of the nest and then immediately hatching new ones, I am shying away from my own disappointment.

I'm afraid of disappointment.

When we first started out, we encountered a cadre of older folksingers, mostly men in their fifties, who were in charge of or participants in the open mic nights we frequented. Some of them were really kind to us, encouraging and friendly. Some others regraded us as young upstarts and talked about us behind our backs, dismissing us as pop (which we took as a compliment) and fleeting (which we refused to be). There was a lot of bitterness in the way they talked about their "almost made it" moments and in the way they proclaimed their has-been status. The bitterness frightened me, and we vowed never to succumb to it ("I drink the drug of hope/With my breakfast/To ward off bitterness.") One way of combating the potential bitterness is to never acknowledge disappointments, to always spin them in a positive way. We have become masters of the silver lining, queens of making lemonade out of lemons.

But there was a lot of disappointment, too.

This past weekend, we drove out to Walton, NY to perform at the majestic Walton Theatre, an old vaudevillian venue. It was a great drive; a beautiful autumn day, the views full of crimsons and golds, greens and blue blue sky. Katryna and I brainstormed about our creativity retreat (the theme will be "I Want to Be a Woman Like Me," which is a line from our song "Georgia O" and Katryna will take a portrait of each participant. We will write, paint, draw, make paper mache bowls with favorite quotations, do vision boards, and of course, sing....) We got to see our aunt Elizabeth, a potter from nearby Gilbertsville, staying up way past our bedtime to reminisce and laugh with her.

But five minutes before the show, I peeked through the velvet curtains. There were a scattering of people in the old theatre, none of them familiar (besides our aunt). Sometimes when this happens, I just ignore it, move forward, do the show. That night, I felt like crying.

"There's a lot going on tonight!" the promotor reassured me. "Homecoming, fall weekend, blah blah blah." I still felt like crying. Katryna gave me a great pep talk which I only heard afterwards: "It's amazing that 100 people paid so much to see us! We need to play to the people who are here, not the people who aren't." Still, I felt deeply disappointed. But then I remembered that I was trying to feel these things in general, and that feeling was good, even bad feelings. So I turned to Katryna and said, "We are brave! Lots of folksingers would have given up long ago in the face of dwindling numbers, but look at us! We're still doing this!"

Brave or stupid, one might say. But I didn't say that. I still felt like crying for the first two songs and couldn't say a word to the audience. Then I got into my body (best trick ever) and did the breathing thing. The third song was "This Town Is Wrong," which is about two girls who leave the town that doesn't understand them to pursue their dreams of being musicians. I almost laughed. I didn't laugh, but I didn't want to cry anymore, and from that moment, I fell back into my groove.

Earlier Saturday, I had taken Elle to her first Suzuki "concert." I will have to write another post on Suzuki at some point. The whole experience was fabulous. But what I want to say here is that the kids, all between the ages of 3-5, played many many different versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and not much else. Earlier today, Jay was playing with an electronic toy that had the tunes to "Old Macdonald," "London Bridge" and "Twinkle Twinkle," and without really focusing on it, I kept noticing how superior a tune "Twinkle" was to the other two. I had the thought: "Wow, Mozart wrote his greatest hit at the age of 4. He died penniless in a pauper's grave. It was basically all downhill from age 4." Now of course, I don't believe that. But in a certain frame, one could see his life that way, instead of recognizing that in between "Twinkle Twinkle" and the pauper's grave he wrote some of the best music the world has ever heard, and incidentally forever changed Western music. (Which reminds me of a distinction my fellow MB life coach Pam Slim made to me the other day: if you have a problem with the word "fame," try "reach" or "impact" instead.) We put our stuff out there, and the world judges it and renders a verdict. It's up to us to either believe it or ignore the judgements and just keep creating for the joy of creating.

Elizabeth is a great example of the artist who creates out of the sheer joy of it all. She lives in a kind of potter's paradise which she and her late husband Roy built together in bucolic western NY, and she weaves all sorts of strands through her work: family, food, sensuality, elephants, spirituality, nature, architecture, mythology. She approaches individuals and art with so much spaciousness, compassion, good humor and optimism that to spend time with her is to be similarly infected. She lives with great relish, and her art reflects that. She is going to be 70 at the end of next year. Her work is better, richer, more colorful, deeper, more fun, more serious, more wonderful than it's ever been––and I have always been a fan of her work. She is not living in fear that someday she will be a has-been. She always has a new set of pots to discover on the wheel.

And I bet she's not afraid of bears, either.