Monday, September 28, 2009

Practice and Play

In my yoga class last Friday, the substitute teacher whom I love and haven't seen for awhile asked me how I was doing.

"Could you talk about resistance?" I said.

I have a tiny daily yoga practice in which I do one sun salutation, cobra, some movements that might qualify as push-ups if you excuse the fact that I'm not bringing my body anywhere near the ground, and lately something called dolphin or Pincha Mayurasana prep. I leave ten minutes to practice, and many mornings don't even come close, as Elle thinks it's hilarious to turn my downward dog into a slide. The whole thing turns into a pose called Horse, and Elle rides on me as I gallop her to the kitchen for breakfast. It's fun, but it doesn't do a lot for advancing my strength and flexibility to say nothing of my spiritual growth.

Also, the less I do yoga, the less I want to do yoga, which is true for everything I do. The less I play guitar, the less I want to play guitar. The less I meditate, the less I want to. This is true for relationships, too. I have always been less "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and more "out of sight, out of mind." So then when the alarm goes off at 6am, I don't leap from my slumbers to embrace the mat. Instead I think of all the reasons it would be better for me and the world if I slept for another ten minutes.

So I was hoping for some big epiphany from my yoga teacher last Friday, some wise piece of secret code that would change my attitude forever! Instead, she said, "People say that because I'm a yoga teacher, I must just love getting on the mat every day. That it isn't hard for me. That every time I practice I am full of light and joy. Not true. I'm as cranky as the next Joe. But I do show up. I just do it."

Ugh. That Nike appropriated wisdom again. But it's certainly the wisdom that's proved true for me in my 42 years on the planet. As Woody Allen says, 80% of life is about showing up.

The teacher went on to talk about change, and how most resistance is about not wanting to change. Oh, that one. Yes, I know a bit about that.

I am fascinated by the relationship between practice and resistance. I just wrote a chapter about it for our book on the musical family. I am thinking about it a lot these days because of my yoga journey, because I am trying to write daily and because I am thinking about enrolling Elle in Suzuki violin lessons. Last Saturday at the Pete Seeger Tribute, one of the other artists played "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," and my parents whom I was sitting next to clasped hands and started whispering to each other furiously. It turns out on their second date back in 1961 they had realized during a Pete Seeger concert while he sang that very song that they were in love. (I digress, but isn't that cute?)

Anyway, we introduced ourselves to the singer (Emily Greene), and it turns out she teaches three-year-olds how to play the violin. Just an hour earlier, as we trotted down the streets of Northampton to pick up our dinner, we passed a fiddle player busking on the street, and Elle shouted, "Mama! I want to play the violin!" Five minutes later we passed a saxophonist, and she said the same thing, so we maybe should wait for her to choose between the French horn, the flute and these other contenders before we sign her up for lessons. But at any rate, the idea of my children taking music lessons and the accompanying questions about practice are no longer in the category of "someday, a long time from now."

I am reading a fun book called The Talent Code that addresses the issue of practice head on. The author writes about myelin, this fatty substance that coats the brain's neurons to make the firing of the synapses faster. I am not far along enough in the book to say much more than this: when we practice with deep concentration, with a "rage to master" that manifests in the practitioner channeling the Clint Eastwood Squint, we coat our neurons with myelin and progress at a much faster rate than mere mortals. We create talent in ourselves. This process is hard and frustrating and not a lot of fun, and in order to maintain our intention to get better at whatever it is we are trying to master, be it the riff to "Smoke on the Water" or Pincha Mayurasana, we have to keep stoking the fire of that "rage to master." (I love that phrase! Can you tell?) Also, the building of myelin, which is something like the insulation one wraps a wire in, creates a kind of stress response, which is why so many give up the pursuit before they start to get good at their desired path.

Interesting theory. I plan to finish the book and write something more intelligent and thorough at a later date, but for now I'll just say this. What I notice is that my one-year-old son bangs on the piano every third time he circles around the play room. My daughter pulls two unmatching sticks out of the designated music box and drums on one of the many small drums we own. I know this because I catch her at it and I find the sticks in random places around the house. When I tidy up at the end of the day, I almost always find myself putting those unmatching sticks away. Of course I don’t tell her to practice her drumming any more than I tell her to practice her imaginative play with her dollhouse or to practice her puzzle skills. To her, it’s all play.

So here's where I am today: my life is so sweet right now. It's a delicious balance of family, personal health and harmony, professional satisfaction. But. I want this book Katryna and I are writing to be a beloved best-seller. I want the DVD we are making to be so wonderful that kids and parents alike choose it for car trips and make it the default, the go-to entertainment. Most of all, I want to enjoy these works of ours. I always enjoy making our CDs and writing our books. I am a process kind of gal. Taking a cue from my heroes John Lennon and Bob Dylan, I haven't always cared as much about the products once they become products. I move on to the next one. But doing so can be a kind of cop-out. In always looking to the next project, I can shortchange the current one. I don't want to do that this time. Jumping ahead to the next project while the current one is in its finishing stages is just another kind of resistance. It's a way of not dealing with the inherent grief that comes along with any artistic endeavor. Because no matter how hard we labor on our craft, the vision is going to be a little different from our initial vision, just as no child turns out exactly the way the parent thinks she will when she's a baby (thank God!) Often works of art (as well as kids) turn out much better than we imagined, and usually we can see this. But sometimes there's some disappointment. Rather than sit with it and feel it, some of us want to leap-frog into the future.

Speaking of Bob Dylan, I read an interview years ago in which he was asked what his favorite song was. He paused for a long time and said, "written or recorded?" From his perspective, those were two different animals altogether.

There are two kinds of art: art that takes place in time (dance, live music, theatre) and art that takes place in space (painting, sculpture, photography.) Books and CDs are an amalgam. There is the "time" effect of reading or listening, and there is the "space" effect of the artifact itself. I consider myself a good "time" artist. I love to perform and it's easy for me. I like the spontaneity of a performance. I am not quite as confident as a "space" artist, though I would like to be. I want the book we are writing now to be a beloved experience as it is read and played with today, and a beloved artifact, a treasure that a kid born in 2007 might love when he is five and that he packs away and finds again when he is thirty in 2037 to bring out and share with his small daughter.

Can practice still be play? Can we write this book and have a blast doing so, even when we get to the frustrating parts when the myelin is wrapping itself mercilessly around our neurons? I don't know, but I am going to find out. I am going to hold myself accountable to you, my audience and readership by saying this: I am going to practice and I am going to play. I am going to show up for the page, for the editing, for the mixing. I am going to give it my all. I'm going to make music and video and sentences that I love, that I want to hear again, see again, read again. And then I will let it go and move on to the next project, but I will have gained a new book, a new CD and a new DVD for my collection.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thank you, Mary

It's hard to overestimate how important Mary Travers was to our family. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father listened to an LP by Peter, Paul and Mary entitled simply Album. On it was a short song by the unknown songwriter John Denver called "For Baby For Bobby."

I'll walk in the rain by your side,
I'll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand,
I'll do anything to help you understand
I'll love you more than anybody can.

And the wind will whisper your name to me
little birds will sing along in time,
leaves will bow down when you walk by
and morning bells will chime.

I'll be there when you're feelin down
to kiss away the tears that you cry,
I'll share whith you all the happiness I've found
a reflection of the love in your eyes.

When Katryna and I were two, three, four-ish, our favorite LP was Peter, Paul and Mommy. I stared and stared at the picture of the three little kids on the front and the weird black and white overhead shot on the back that shows the band recording with an audience of children, wires connecting the various mics. I especially loved Mary's version of "I'm Being Swallowed By a Boa Constrictor."

At seventeen, I attended my first PP&M concert, again with our whole family. We sat on the lawn at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, a gorgeous outdoor shed. They were full of vim and vigor, having recently reunited. They sang a new song by Tom Paxton: "I Am Changing My Name To Chrysler." Paul sang a new original called "Right Field." They encored with "Blowing in the Wind," and Mary said, over the last big chords, "And the answer is STILL peace, love...and the Democratic Party!" OK, maybe not exactly that, but something to that effect. After all, it was the summer of 1984 and we Democrats were desperate.

I went home and pillaged my father's LP collection (this was before CDs, you young 'uns!) and discovered "For Baby For Bobby." Upon hearing it, I promptly burst into tears. When I mentioned this to my parents, they looked at each other in amazement and said, "That's exactly what you did when you were three, and again when you were six. We happened to play you that song, and you burst into tears each time. You must remember it from being in your Mummy's tummy." (Incidentally, "For Baby For Bobby" showed up on shuffle on my iPod at the exact moment Jay was born.)

I spent many an hour with my ear pressed up against my stereo speakers learning all the parts to the PP&M arrangements to teach to the high school folk singing group I led ("Humditties," which I did not name) and later my college folk singing group, "Tangled Up in Blue" (which I did). Both were essentially PP&M cover bands. I loved those harmonies. I loved also the way Mary's big alto, so mercifully in my own range, soared over the voices of the two men.

There's a great song from one of their earliest records, "See What Tomorrow Brings" where Mary comes in on the third verse:
Never been contented no matter where I roam
It ain't no fun to see the settin' sun when you're far away from home.

As with "For Baby, For Bobby," just hearing her voice, the tone of it, the inflection of it, made me feel the opposite of "far away from home." Rather, I felt like home had just arrived to surround me in the person of Mary's warm familiar voice, my father's stack of LPs (some of which I still have. I need to return them as my stereo is mouldering in the basement.)

Speaking of my dad, when I called to talk to him on Friday, he told me how PP&M had come to do a concert at his college in the early 60s. "This is a song by a great new young songwriter named Bob Dylan," Peter said. And they sang "Blowing in the Wind." It was the first time my father had ever heard of Dylan. The list of songwriters PP&M made famous by championing them and covering their songs is legion. Besides Dylan and John Denver, my first exposure to Pete Seeger, Shel Silverstein, Tom Paxton, Laura Nyro,even Rod Stewart was through PP&M.

I read in recent obits that when she started singing with Yarrow and Stookey, she never spoke from stage. Their manager, Al Grossman (who also managed Dylan) wanted her silent so as to create mystery. Watching her in the YouTube clip, above, I can't help but wonder what she was thinking. Was she intimidated by Mama Cass and Joni Mitchell, or was she confident? Did she love the song she was singing? What did she think of that cheesy Musak-y accompaniment?

In Judith Thurman's recent article in the New Yorker, my favorite author from childhood, Laura Ingalls Wilder, comes across as frumpish, reactionary and a little soft-headed: nothing like the defiant, lovable heroine of the Little House books that I read and re-read obsessively at age eight and nine. I read this article the day after Mary died, and it got me to thinking about the projection of personality which show business (as well as some forms of literature) requires us to do. There is not a lot of room for complexity out there. The media (and perhaps the human brain that created the media) likes simplicity. John was the smart, angry Beatle; George the spiritual one. Laura Ingalls was spunky. Mary Travers was sincere, righteous, sexual without being a threat. Also tall, leggy and slender. When any of our heroes and heroines stray from the box we put them in, the media (and our brains) has a reaction. Look at how much weight she gained! Look at how stupid he's being! Look at how phoney that projection was! She's not innocent and spunky! She's mercenary, and she can't even write a proper grammatical sentence! And the truth is, we are all so much more than any three word combination of adjectives. We all have a smart, a spiritual, an uneducated, a spunky, an innocent, a corrupted side of ourselves. Maybe we feel threatened by these revelations around our celebrities because it makes us come face to face with our own complexities and inconsistencies. It feels so reassuring to see Barack Obama behaving like a responsible gentleman, because that's our image of him. When we see images of him riding a bike on Martha's Vineyard without a helmet, we are shocked, disturbed even. What's he doing being risky? He's not a thrill seeker! He's breaking character (also endangering the fragile head of our Head of State, but that's another issue.)

The Mary we all saw in the sixties was much more complicated and interesting than the blond, leggy, silent-except-when-belting-her heart-out Greenwich Village waif we mostly got to see. She was a mother, for one thing. By the time Katryna and I got to watch her perform in person in the mid-80s, she was silent no longer. Au contraire: she was full of opinions. She was also significantly overweight, a fact she joked about from the stage. She was breaking all the rules, tossing out all the adjectives assigned to her. And through that singular revolution, she liberated two future folk singers.

Our friend Jordi Herold told us last week that when he was a teenager, his friend was dying of ALS, a ward of the state in a row of institutional beds. Somehow Mary had heard that this young person was a fan, and she came to the bedside and sang to her.

In 2007, Katryna and I would share a stage with Noel Paul Stookey at the World Folk Music Association fundraiser outside of Washington DC. He came backstage to tell us how much he'd loved our set, and I was (almost) tongue-tied. How could I tell him how much he had meant to us over the years, how much his kind attention in that moment meant to us? It was like Katryna's recent story to William, about how the Beatles came back in a space machine to do a concert on the rooftop for William and William alone. That's how magical it felt to have "Paul" come into our dressing room and praise us.

He said, that night, that Mary had been very sick, but that it looked like she was going to make it.

It's so strange, and it feels so wrong that I will never get to take my kids to see Peter Paul & Mary do an outdoor summertime show; that they will only know "Puff The Magic Dragon" from CDs. But then again, it feels wrong that they don't know my grandparents, or Tom's father, or see the World Trade Center towers when coming east over I-80. It must have felt strange to my parents that I would never watch the New York Giants play baseball, or know their grandparents or my mother's father. But they internalized these things and these people, and they told me the stories. They sang me the songs. That's all we can do. We can sing "Going to the Zoo" and "Car Car" and pass along what we were given, and sing that top line with our best Mary Travers belt. Moreover, Katryna and I can try to live our beliefs and our values as bravely as Mary did, and sing along with her:

And when I die
And when I'm dead, dead and gone
There'll be one child born
And a world to carry on
There'll be one child born to carry on.
-Laura Nyro

Thanks to Sharon Goldberg for alerting me to the YouTube clip. And for selling our merch in New York!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mind Maps

When you want to write a song (or do anything creative, like start a business, organize your office, figure out what to do with five unmatching skeins of yarn), here's a great idea: Make a Mind Map.

A Mind Map, as I use it, is simple. It looks like a child's drawing of a sun. Big circle with you in the middle, lines to represent your rays. In the middle of the sun, write down the central theme of your desired creation (eg "tote bag," "toy store," "clean floor" or "song using that great line that's been kicking around in my head for ten months.") Then make your rays, and at the end of each ray, write down anything and everything you might throw into your project, any ideas at all. So for instance, if you are starting a business, your mind map might look like this:

Click on the image to enlarge and read my chicken scratch.

As you can see, there are a number of different ideas here ranging from the very small and practical to the decidedly woo woo. Once you've got a bunch of ideas down, you can begin to winnow and weed. You can see which ones might be do-able right away, and which ones need more research. For instance, in my example, the first name for your potential toy store that comes to you might be "The Island of Misfit Toys." You are thrilled! Until you tell your best friend and she said, "That is the worst name for a toy store I ever heard." Then you Google it and find out there actually IS a store called The Island Of Misfit Toys in the next town over, so you stick your tongue out at your best friend, but your confidence has secretly been zapped, and you decide the next right move would be to sign up for a teleclass in branding offered by some fabulous life coach.

By the way, here is what I did with my skeins of yarn. I made a gigantic bag, big enough to use as a sleeping bag for Elle.

Then I threw it in the wash and felted it.

Tom was just saying, as he was crushing some garlic that he grew, "I know this garlic isn't really any better than the garlic we could get in the store, but I just love my food so much more when it has my garlic in it."

I told him I knew just what he meant. Up until Jay was born, I made my own yogurt. Honestly, it was pretty ordinary, slightly watery yogurt, but I loved it anyway. Same with this bag. It's a little lumpy and I wouldn't give it away as a gift, but I will carry my iPhone and journal and water bottle in it with great pride. Nothing like homemade. Same with your mind maps. When you put down all your great ideas for your fabulous future life, shining like the sun right back at you, you will love every step of your journey. Because it's yours.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Yoga and The Voice, part one

I haven't written about my yoga teacher training because I'm afraid if I do, I will blather on ad infinitum. It's such an amazing process. I have to be honest: most of the time I have NO IDEA why I am doing this. I don't see a future for me as a yoga teacher, per se. The idea of standing up in yoga clothes in front of a roomful of similarly clad people makes me sleepy, which is a sure indication that my essential self is not on board with the program. No, what I am clear on is that I want a committed yoga practice, and this is a surefire, albeit sneaky way to get me to practice every day, or at least regularly. Also, I know one of my core missions in life (Midwife Of Joy; thanks Bill M for giving me my job description) is to live fully and joyfully in my body and to teach others how to do that too.

About vocation/avocation: I believe that once we are in the habit of telling ourselves the truth all the time, in every circumstance, Life takes us by the hand and guides us gently but firmly on the path we're meant to go down, and that this path will always take us to our best possibly destiny. This path ends up being both one of service and also one of great joy, and we begin to see that we can't have one without the other.

Above is the statue of the Dancing Shiva, one of Hinduism's wicked cool gods. I have a gigantic scholarly tome on the subject of Hindu Deities, but yesterday when Elle and I were at Forbes Library, I found a treasure trove of 8th grade level books on Hindu mythology and snatched them instead. Much more my speed these days.

Shiva is one of the Big Three of the Hindu gods, the other two being Brahman and Vishnu. Shiva is known as The Destroyer, and he dances his way nonchalantly through and around the universe. The Five Divine Acts of Shiva are Creation, Sustenance, Dissolution, Concealment and Revelation. My homework last week was to write about how each one currently relates to my life. I want to say a few words about Concealment, because of all the Acts, this one gave me the most food for thought. Especially, as I said, because I still don't really "know" why I am so drawn to taking this Yoga teacher training in the first place. All the reasons are in a state of concealment.

I was on the phone a few weeks ago with my friend Michele the formerly Republican life coach (she voted for Obama so I can no longer count her as one of my five Republican friends.) She mentioned that she had the idea to hire me at some point to do a workshop with some other coaches on singing and voice.

I got what Katryna and Dave call the Citrus Effect: shivers going up the back of my neck to my crown chakra. Or what I call the Hansel & Gretl effect: another pebble on the path begins to twinkle and shine up at me. I can't count the times I have been asked to teach people how to sing. "I can't," I always say. "I'm not trained." This isn't true; I have studied voice with amazing teachers who have phDs from Peabody and MAs from Yale, and I've been what anyone would call a formal student of voice for a good twenty-seven years. Oh, also I am a professional singer. And I am writing a book about singing with one's children.

Here's what I know about the voice and singing.
1. The voice is the nexus of body, mind and spirit. All three are engaged when one sings or speaks well. In order to sing, one must do a kind of yoga: engage the breath, the throat, the tongue and the mouth in a certain way (or ways) to achieve sounds. One uses the mind to formulate the content, especially the wordy parts, and one relies completely on the spirit for the breath. In the Tantric philosophy on which Anusara yoga is based, we all breathe in the collective breath of the goddess Shatki (one of the many names for Shiva's partner) and it is she who breathes for us in a kind of cosmic dance.

2. When I am under a lot of stress, I lose my voice. When I take the time to connect with my breath, relax my body, let God/the goddess/the Collective Breath "sing" me instead of my trying to sing, the results are a lot better.

3. My "voice" is not just those rubbery membranes in my throat. The instrument that is my voice is really my whole body.

4. Yoga is a way we solve problems. The way we deal with discomfort on the mat is the way we deal with any kind of discomfort in our lives. So as with meditation, we "practice" with our bodies. The same can be said of singing. We can sing in a kind of absent, careless way, or we can sing with intention, with our full presence and make something holy.

5. Singing with others compounds the issue: it can bring great joy, and it can also be a place where we work out our problems and "practice" with each other to achieve literal and figurative harmony.

Brian Eno says it better. In a recent "This I Believe" episode of NPR, he says,
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor. A recent long-term study conducted in Scandinavia sought to discover which activities related to a healthy and happy later life. Three stood out: camping, dancing and singing.

Well, there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don't for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call "civilizational benefits." When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

The curtain of concealment is still drawn for me, but I feel like I am beginning to peak around it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tucking In

Elle: I remember when I wasn't even in your tummy!
Me: Where were you then?
Elle: (slightly exasperated) You could imagination me!
I get up to leave.
Me: Night night, sweetie.
Elle: Mama, why did you choose me?
Me: Oh, Elle, if I could have chosen you, I surely would have chosen you. But God chose you for me. And me for you. That's why I love God so much.
Elle: And Tom chose God for Jay!
Me: We're lucky.
Elle: Yeah, we're lucky.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Sticker Charts

Sticker charts work. I know, because they’ve been working on me since I was eight and had to stop sucking my thumb. My mother told me that if I filled up a sticker chart for forty days (it was Lent) I could get whatever toy I wanted. I filled my chart, delighted with every inch of real estate slowly disappearing under a puffy Hello Kitty, and on Day 40, my mother took me to Toys R Us and I picked out a platinum-haired Ballerina Barbie. She had a small gold crown at the top of her head which I promptly removed.

I used this same method last April to get Elle to potty train, though truth be told, I had tried sticker charts earlier to no avail. She was suddenly ready, just shy of three, and the sticker chart did the trick. In her case, it was 14 days and the promise of any toy in our favorite store, A Child’s Garden (which Elle uncannily calls "Kindergarten.") I was thinking I’d be out $200 for a Plan Doll House, but what she really wanted was a $7 pink kick ball with yellow flowers on it.

I have a sticker chart now for myself. Every day that I do my writing for our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen, I get to put a sticker on my chart, which is one of those 2009 Sierra Club calendars they sent us last year to guilt us into contributing (it worked, though we have about 5 such calendars from 5 organizations.) Elle and Jay and I went to Staples to find stickers. I let her choose, and instead of puppies and kittens which I’d been hoping for, she selected a series of positive affirmations to the tune of, “Excellent!” “Way To Go!” and the like. Thumbprint-sized stickers in primary colors with swirls and stars. So perfect. When I fill thirty slots, I get a new pair of glasses.

Here is why I need a new pair of glasses:

We are home from a blissful weekend in the Adirondacks. We climbed mountains and hung out with my parents and were amazed by all the free time we had when there is no On Line or cell phone access (I've forgotten how to use a land line.) On the way down Big Crow, Tom and I decided to renovate our barn ourselves. It may take years (since we don't know what we're doing) but it will be fun, and what a great activity for the kids! Maybe by the time we are actually doing the renovating, as opposed to the planning and drawing pictures (architectural equivalents of stick figures) Elle and Jay can be apprentices. Or slaves. We want to turn it into a studio space where I can hold yoga/writing retreats and workshops with an upstairs where he and I can see individual clients. Somehow there will also be a kitchen, bathroom, woodshop and chicken coop.

Earlier today Jay learned how to say "cock-a-doodle-doo!" and to growl like a dog, or a rabbit (it seems he makes the same guttural "REDRUM!" sound whenever he encounters any creature walking on four legs). I was putting Elle down after Jay was asleep in his crib. She insisted on being covered with every last one of her stuffed animals. When she was finally comfy, curled up on her stomach with the lights out and I was kissing her goodnight, she said, "Mama, my bed smells bad."

I leaned down and sniffed her pillow. Fine. More stalling tactics. "No, it doesn't, sweetie."

"Yes, it does. Smell here," she said without a trace of whine.

I sniffed again, this time picking up a strong odor of ammonia. Also, the bed was wet in one corner near her head. "Yuck!" I said. "Oh, sweetie, I am so sorry. George Harrison must have come up here and peed while we were away. It was probably his way of saying he missed you." (No, I haven't yet read or watched Cesar Milan or Victoria Stafford. It's on my To Do list though.)

I swapped her crib mattress for the one she uses as a trundle bed and took the offending sheet to the laundry where Tom was running a load. "George somehow got up to her bed and peed on it," I said handing him the wet sheet.

"Ohhhhhh," said Tom. "No, it wasn't George. It was Jay. I was letting him scramble around naked and he must have marked his territory."

What a relief. Somehow baby pee seems way more innocuous than dog pee on my sweet daughter's bed. And I can live with my baby peeing in places where we don't really want him to for a few more years. No sticker chart required.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

God Dog

Many of you have asked about our garden. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I have taken a picture of our two, count them 2, eggplants. We harvested them because Tom says eggplants need heat, and it looks like the heat part of the summer is gone with August. So tonight we are going to make ratatouille with our two little fruits. It will be a small portion.

Just to show you the scale, here is Elle holding the larger of the two eggplants.

About vocation/avocation: I believe that once we are in the habit of telling ourselves the truth all the time, in every circumstance, Life takes us by the hand and guides us gently but firmly on the path we're meant to go down, and that this path will always take us to our best possibly destiny. This path ends up being both one of service and also one of great joy, and we begin to see that we can't have one without the other.

But it's hard to always tell yourself the truth. Oy, that's the rub. Harder still is to consistently come from love and not fear. Last week, I was in despair because my writing groups weren't filling up the way they were supposed to. How do I know how they were supposed to fill up? Well, I thought I knew because in the past they always did; in the past, I have had wait lists. So what's changed? Maybe, just maybe the fact that I added a third group where there had previously been two. Or maybe the economy. Or maybe everyone is content writing by themselves, or maybe everyone has found a writing buddy. All of these would be good explanations for the part of me that lives in the fear that I am one meal away from food stamps. (I call this part of me Liz Newton. Martha Beck says this part of us, programmed for flight or fight is just the amygdala, a part of the brain we share with lizards. Get it? Liz Newton?)

So anyway, I was being a good little self-coach, gently asking myself why I had these fears and what were the thoughts feeding them, and I kept breaking it down to a core belief which was, "If they knew me, they wouldn't love me because I am basically unlovable. The writers have known me, and naturally, they have found me out." This is an old threadworn thought, one I had thought I was done with years ago, but apparently I wasn't, or at least Liz Newton wasn't. So I sat at my meditation alter (AKA the pillow at the head of my bed) and tried to meditate. Instead I prayed: "God, what the F??? Help! How do I love myself? I am sick and tired of not loving myself! I have been trying to love myself for years and years and obviously I STILL DON'T!!! Help me out here."

What came back, quick as a flash was a genial voice saying, "Why don't you try loving me?"

What a needy God. But whatever. I scrunched up my face and said, "Okay. I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!" And immediately, I felt a WHOOSH. The big black hole, previously empty except for a few empty beer cans rattling around inside, was filled with that love, the love we all want and think we lost when we left infancy. More than that, I felt as though my heart had turned into a three dimensional puzzle piece and was suddenly plugged into its rightful spot in something much bigger than me. I felt whole.

This all makes sense, now that I feel it. I have known cognitively for ages that in order to feel abundant, I need to give; in order to feel helped, I need to reach out a hand, and in order to feel loved I need to love. When I exercise that muscle (and it is a muscle) I get strength. Come to think of it, in yoga, when I exercise my back muscles by doing cobra, my back pain goes away, much more quickly and permanently than it does when I get a massage. Strengthening= strength. Or to use another physical analogy, I found that the knee pain that kept me from running completely disappeared once I started running (and stretching the leg muscles) on a daily basis.

But back to my meditation cushion AKA my pillow: I was so shocked by the force and suddenness of the revelation and the change in my attitude that my eyes flew open and I shouted, "Tom! Tom! I've discovered the secret of the universe!!!!!" I tried to explain to him what had happened; like many who have had a "religious" experience, I was an instant evangelist. He smiled at me and gave me the equivalent of a pat on the head. That was okay, too, though. After the ecstasy the laundry and all that.

What I got from that moment was something I remembered from reading the wonderful Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, one of my all-time favorite spiritual writers. He writes in his essential book Life of the Beloved: "Coming home and staying there where God dwells, listening to the voice of truth and love, that was, indeed the journey I most feared because I know that God was a jealous lover who wanted every part of me all the time. When would I be ready to accept that kind of love?" And: "I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, 'You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother's womb. I've written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don't be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are.'" See here for complete text.)

God can be like a jealous lover, which comes as a shock to me. I try not to, but I can't help imagining God as The Big Celebrity in the Sky; sure He loves everyone, but if He loves everyone, then why is it such a big deal if He loves me? He loves me, but He loves six billion other people plus plants and animals and insects and all the space creatures from other galaxies. Big Fat Deal.

But in my moment of revelation, I got that God just might be more like a little dog who follows you around trying to get your attention all the time. Play with me! Love me! Pay attention to me! And no one but me (you) will do.

We each have our own little God dog. Mine happens to eat raw catfish and occasionally other gross things.

My writing groups still aren't full, but I imagine that's because God wants me to have light groups so I can better serve those writers who are coming. And maybe because I need more time to write my half of the book Katryna and I are working on for Shambala (interesting that our book publisher is most famous for publishing books on Buddhism and yoga, huh? Coincidence?)