Monday, December 13, 2010

A Little Christian in my Christmas

Early Snow by Mary Oliver
"Amazed I looked
out of the window and saw
the early snow coming down casually...
...I might have joined in, there was something
that wonderful and refreshing
about what was by then a confident, white blanket

carrying out its
cheerful work, covering ruts, softening
the earth's trials, but at the same time
there was some kind of almost sorrow that fell

over me. It was the loneliness again. After all
what is Nature, it isn't
kindness, it isn't unkindness."

Sometime in the last few weeks, I have pulled my gaze up from the manuscript of the copyedits of our book, realizing that this strange year is almost over. The horribleness started about a year ago, when on Dec. 27 we learned of eleven arsons in our town and had to figure out how to explain to our kids that we might be yanking them out of their beds and throwing them out the windows at any given time. I am glad I did not know at any point in the year that it would continue to pummel the people I love (not to mention a building I love) throughout 2010. It's better not to know these things. And anyway, there was much to love in this year, much to be grateful for. One night recently we lit a candle for National Children's Memorial Day and wept with gratitude for our own healthy babies, and with sorrow for all the ones lost, all those mothers and fathers with empty arms.

I had a hard time gearing up for Christmas this year. I wanted to. But I really hate that my mother-in-law is gone. It's completely wrong. She loved Christmas; she made Christmas. I don't want to have to pretend for my kids that everything is all right, and yet, that may be the best way to get through the day. I don't want to spend money we don't have on presents my kids will play with for just a day or two and then leave in the back of a closet. And I also don't want to deal with their disappointment when they don't get the pink sparkly barrettes and the five outfits from Hanna Andersson and the Tinkerbell sneakers and the pink crazy straws. (OK, only one of my kids is lobbying me full time, but it won't be long until the younger one catches on.)

We did a show one Friday in New York City. A new fan approached me.
"There's a lot of Christianity in your music," he said, nodding.
"Yes," I agreed. "that's the tradition we grew up with. But I also love Buddha and Krishna too, if you know what I mean."
He did. "Well," he stuttered. (He was drinking a big glass of white wine. Earlier he had downed a big glass of red wine.) "It is the season of Christmas, you know. And when someone dies for our sins, it seems kind of wrong to not give them their due, don't you think?"
I smiled at him.
He looked away. "Maybe I'm getting a little heavy for a music show."
"Maybe," I said. Then: "God bless you."

I just can't get with the idea that there is one way to God. That one tradition got lucky enough to be saved and all the others are doomed. It makes no sense. This is as true for Christianity as it is for Islam or Tantra. I love the Tantric teachings I have been learning all year in my yoga training, but what I love about them are first of all how unique and wonderful their stories are and second how their truths connect to the truths I have already known and loved and understood from other traditions. As the Buddha says, "One always knows the water of the ocean because it tastes of salt. One always knows the truth because it tastes like freedom."

And yet, I do miss Jesus, especially this time of year. And so, partly to honor my Catholic mother-in-law, partly to fill a part of me that was thirsty, I set about to find some Christian in the Christmas.

We set up the amazing rubber creche our (also Catholic) uncle Brian gave us last year. It is SUPER AWESOME! It looks like this:

And for Christmas, Elle got the three wise men, who truly rock.

I gave my dad and his sister, the Amazing Aunt Elizabeth each a copy of Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Bhagavad Gita. In turn, my father handed me a slim volume of a story he tells at Christmas: Henry Van Dyke's The Other Wise Man. This little book is a treasure in our household, though this year, I had forgotten why. When I was laid low with the inevitable stomach flu the last week in December, I picked it up and re-read it. The story goes like this:

A true Wise Man from Persia, wealthy, a healer, and astrologer, beloved in his community, becomes convinced that the stars are telling him that this is the once-in-anyone's-lifetime opportunity to seek and find the King. So he sells everything he has for three jewels: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl which he plans to bring the baby King, in the same way his bretheren will bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. Off he goes on his horse, to meet up with the three more famous wise men. But en route, he comes across a dying man. Rather than pass him by, he tends to the sick man and heals him. But this causes him to miss his caravan. He has to sell the sapphire to purchase a camel which will allow him to traverse the desert alone.

He misses the holy family by a day. And he gives his ruby to a Roman soldier to keep him from killing a young mother and her baby. He spends the next thirty years seeking his King, only to miss him again on the night he is crucified. But during those years, he makes himself useful, healing the sick, ministering to the oppressed. He sells his pearl to save a young woman about to be sold into slavery. In each of his crossroads--at the moment when he must decide whether to keep the precious jewel for his king or to give it away to help someone in need--he agonizes.

Was it his great opportunity or his last temptation? He could not tell. One thing only was clear in the darkness of his mind––it was inevitable. And does not the inevitable come from God? (p.68).

I love how this unfolds: that even a good man, a Godly man, who sets his sites on something as selfless and pure as seeking the king would have his will thwarted. God is not a jukebox. We don't just stick in our coins and get back what we want. But even more significantly, the ways of Love are mysterious indeed. This moment of ransom marks the end of the Other Wise Man's life, and as he is dying, he finally finds what he has been seeking. He seems to the ransomed young woman who is cradling his dying body, to be in conversation with someone, asking "When did I see you hungry and gave you food? When did I see you sick and healed you?" And in response, a voice says:

"Verily I say unto thee. Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it to me."

Totally Tantric, and totally Christian. In fact, this is what makes Christianity sing for me. This notion that we are all Jesus, and all our sisters and brothers are Jesus, and that we do good to others as we would have them do to us. That it is our responsibility to feed and clothe and heal those in need way before any other kind of worship.

Christmas ended up being sweet, fun, radiant and full of music, family and even presents well given and well received, even as we grieved our missing ones. My highlights were a Solstice party at our children's school, and our impromptu serenading of the animals at Smith Voc Ag.

This year ends. We will mark it by taking down the dry old fire hazard of a tree (grateful that this year we do not live in the daily fear of waking up to our house aflame), doing some shows at First Night, and gathering together with friends for more singing to ring in the new year properly. And my new year's resolution is to post shorter but more frequent posts.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Those Years on the Ship

I don’t like to look into the trunk in the attic
The one behind the dirty plastic baby toys
The one with the rounded top
Manufactured for long trips on steamers during the gilded age
Rounded like the shells of mussels
Lovely but useless for a coffeetable
I don’t want to unpack it
I don’t want my kids to find it
And see that girl
Dancing in a white dress with a strange man
Not their father
Not their friend

What is it about the nature of desire
That makes it turn on itself
Chasing its own tail?

There were no steamer trunks on our ship
But every time we circled back home,
We each procured some necessary artifact
A stuffed animal
A first edition
The CD with the song that jumped from ear to ear
Like a flea
I want to love those years.
I want to squeeze the sourness out of my muscles
And memory
And feel again what it felt like
To fly
Or, short of true flight
The illusion of it.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 16, 2010

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Celebrating the Poetry of Others: Wallace Stevens

This is from my friend and fellow poet/songwriter Whitney Hudak. We share a love for Wallace Stevens (who inspired the Nields song "Snowman.")

Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself
-Wallace Stevens

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Monday, November 29, 2010

One by Mary Oliver

Hi all,

This came from my friend Sarah this morning. Enjoy!


Still, what I want in my life
Is to be willing
To be dazzled-
To cast aside the weight of facts

And maybe even
To float a little
Above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

Into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing
That the light is everything-that it is more than the sum
Of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
-Mary Oliver

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Saw Peter on the Street Today

I saw Peter on the street today
Older, with a young woman
Just like always
His hair still long but thin and grey,
Loose curls like clouds
Cheekbones and shoulders all angles
Small Lennon glasses, still
Looking a few feet in front of his trajectory
Just like always.
Of course I felt it
Right in the solar plexus.
I didn’t used to feel like that.
Today I cry at the drop of a hat.
(Did you know that they dropped their hats
To signal a fight?
That’s where the phrase comes from.
We dropped more than our hats.)
I wanted to stop the car, stop the trajectory
Chase after him and tell him about the hats
-Just like always-
Offer him my newest packet of information
The gift that pleased him most.
Instead I watch the young girl
Craning her slim neck up
A crescent-moon smile on her lips
Perhaps she too is making such an offering
Up to that head-in-the-clouds.
Let her.
Meanwhile, I will keep driving
Following my trajectory
Keeping the gift for you, instead.
There: you have it.
Just like always.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 17, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

House of Bourbon (Notes for "Tomorrowland")

House of Bourbon
(“Found” poem from about 1998; revised 2010.)

What if I don’t want to be a princess?
My precious face. My beautiful face.
It’s not all I have.
Alternatively, you might see me as just another
Angry Cinderella who leaves her shoe
The way you leave a footprint:
To prove that I was there.
(I was there. I was there. I was there.)
Like a record album
Or a child.
I left that ball. True.
I walked out. Also true.
Just know the shoe you found
Was not by clumsy mistake
Nor left as a tease
but as a statement.
And after the anger
Which will fade like the red of my lips
There will remain this
My footprint.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Wake a Little Off Center

I wake
A little off center
As if I am only able to inhabit
The left side of my body.
My skin itches
I am afflicted like Job
And sleepy like a bear
In late November.
Craving a cave instead of the sunlight.
The winds rise up as I set forth
Blowing debris out of their carefully raked piles
Into my face.
I raked those piles.
Is it my fault because I left them,
Foolishly thinking they would stay the night?

My only job to rake these leaves.
Give me a different job.

My heart is heavy these days
Too much death,
Too many fallen leaves.

And remains so
Until a friend calls,
To say,
What I wouldn’t give for a rake
What I wouldn’t give for a tree.
You are so lucky.

“It is better to do your own duty
Badly than to perfectly do

And so I pick up the rake
Tidy the piles
Toss the fragments of leaf
Into the compost pile.

Perfectly at peace,
Even as I know
The winds could still come up again
And this time the fragments will be even smaller,
Mere dust
More painful to the eye.
Even so, Oh Lord,
I rake them again
For the love of you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

For Joan

I have nothing to say. I am empty. And anyway:
“Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O Lord.”
So why should I write? Why should I speak?
Apple-cheeked, you were here last month, last week, yesterday
And raised your fist in victory
When the doctors said you could go home.
It’s all backwards.
You knew you were going home to die.
You welcomed it.
And we coaxed our faces into reflected, refracted smiles.
In the Bhagavad Gita
Krishna tells Arjuna, “They will all die anyway
May as well be by your hand.”
My daughter writes the alphabet over and over in purple magic marker
The words to her favorite song
She knows language is not life.
It’s an overlay at best
But it does coax the tune back.
I keep returning to my desk
To see if there is a new message from you
Your family found your account
And sends emails to us
I see your name in my inbox
The overlay of you
Still sweet as honey in tannic tea
Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O lord.
And still, I would hear you speak once more.
-Nerissa Nields
Nov. 15, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What I Wonder about Prometheus

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Maybe God Is A Harried Parent

Maybe God is a harried parent just like, say, me.
We say, “God used to do great things,
Like create the world
And set it in motion
But now He’s this lame duck,
Just sitting back watching us destroy His creation.”

(The Deists would say this. They’re the ones that created the Enlightenment, the United States, Harvard and the New York Times not necessarily in that order.)

Anyway, what if God’s running as fast as She can
Just to keep up with our shenanigans?
Like when we take fruits and insects and birds
From one continent
And scatter them willy nilly onto another
-bananas, kudzu, sugar, starlings, eucalyptus, long horned beetles—
We put things where they don’t belong, creating unhappy couplings
We get sick and we mess with the ecosystem.
Then God has to work extra hard racing around
Trying to answer all our prayers
To get our sick selves well.
Trying to get our sick earth well, too.
Maybe God doesn’t feel so well.

My kids scatter lots of things, placing one of each into their small backpacks and purses, their own personal continents:
Tiny pieces of a ripped up pine cone
Papers covered with scotch tape and rolled up into tubes
Puzzle pieces
One card from a deck
And I race around, gathering the containers, sorting through the debris,
Returning each item to its land of origin.
Trying to make order out of the divine plan.
Who said chaos wasn’t divine?
Who said the divine plan was ordered?
The Deists, remember. And maybe me, once.
-Nerissa Nields
November 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Iron Horse, Spanda, And the Usual

Again the wind
flakes gold-leaf from the trees
and the painting darkens––
as if a thousand penitents
kissed an icon
till it thinned
back to bare wood,
without diminishment.
-Jane Hirshfield

On Saturday, Tom took Elle's training wheels off her little black and red bike, and, wobbly at first, she took off the way countless kids have done since the bicycle was invented. Her father and I wept, cheered, ran after her with our video camera and gazed at each other, our mouths dangling open, shook our heads in wonderment. Elle shrieked short little cries of glee laced with just a bit of fear, and gained skill and dexterity right before our eyes. The wobbles straightened out, and by Sunday morning, she was skidding and skidaddling all over the parking lot at her pre-school at the Bikes and Bagels Brunch, stopping to let the "little kids" scoot by in their tricycles. She'd mastered the art of balance. I kept thinking of all the similes about how picking something back up "came back to me like riding a bicycle." Now she has ridden a bicycle. She will forevermore know what that feels like.

It’s been a full and busy time. The other big event for Saturday was our annual Iron Horse show. We used to play the Iron Horse three times a year, and each time we played, we would do a Friday evening show, and two shows Saturday. We’d sell all three shows out, with lines around the block starting at 4pm. Now we have our faithful two or three who show up at load in, and we are lucky to sell out one 7pm Saturday show. Last year we didn’t sell out, and for the first time there were empty seats in the rafters. It was still one of my favorite shows––Iron Horse shows are always special, no matter what––but the week after we played, I felt a sadness that was akin to grief. I had a loss to mourn.

In the immortal words of me at 1am to my husband, “things cost things.” I think what I meant and would have said if I had had the wakefulness to be poetic was this: The world is round, and the sun can only shine on one side of it at a time. The life we had when we sold out those Iron Horse shows was the life of twenty-somethings who didn’t have mortgages or families or HooteNanny classes. Instead, we lived in Moby, our white 15 passenger van with attached trailer (Kitty Box, a window-less box on wheels full of our rotator cuff and S-I joint-destroying equipment) and played 250 shows a year all over North America. Our expenses had more to do with our personal and emotional lives than with our checkbooks (which were sparse too, 6-figure publishing and record deals notwithstanding). I loved the life of itinerant songwriter. I had the luxury of being a non-driver in the band, and so my days were full of writing and reading in the first bench seat. I matriculated at a kind of graduate school in that tiny space, reading everything I’d missed in college and honing my prose skills in composition book after composition book, amassing shelves and shelves of journals.

But man, was I lonely for a deeper, more grounded spiritual and personal experience. I wanted a home. I wanted a family. That life was great--it was all about me. I got to write, I got to perform, I got kudos galore and applause every night for my efforts. But a life that's so fully about self is out of balance; at least it was for me. I could never have articulated that at the time, but something in me yearned to give my time and energy to someone other than me, to focus on the experience of someone else. I don't mean to diminish the life of an artist, which (for me anyway) is all about looking deeply inward and drawing forth what is most true to share with others in the hopes that it will be a light to, or on, their lives. In this way, it's not intrinsically a deficit for an artist to be selfish, and I did feel justified in my narcissism. I rationalized that I was doing service by plumbing my own depths. I don't get away with that rationalization these days, at least not with my family.

We turned in the final draft of our book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family, Monday at 3pm. We've been working on this book for over a year. And while it's been a bit intense at times, it has not been all-consuming as past projects have been. When I was on book deadline for my novel Plastic Angel, I ate, drank, slept and socialized Book 24/7 for three weeks at a time. This new book, co-written with Katryna, has been like a second or third child; it has waited patiently while other mouths were fed. It sat neglected for months while I wrote songs for our new album Ten Year Tin and for February Album Writing Month. And it lay idle as I battled wrist tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome and Katryna made up curricula for HooteNanny and we left our families to go to gigs. And it waited somewhere on our desktop while we transitioned our sons to pre-school and kindergarten, wrote newsletters for the band, painted pictures for Falcon Ridge, ran our retreats and writing groups, taught our students, coached our clients; and most importantly, had date nights with our husbands, or simply sat with them at the kitchen table at the end of a long day, when the kids were finally asleep, or early in the morning before they had woken up with more energy in their thirty pound bodies than I can get into mine after four double espressos. Speaking of energy, if we could have, we would have spent five times more on this book. It is not the book I would have written in my days as pseudo grad student in the back of the van. And yet, it is what it is because it, like its theme, was so immersed in our family life. It grew out of the very life that neglected it. And I can only believe it is a better book not in spite of the neglect, but because of it. That 20 something in the van would not have had any of the life experience or insights this overwhelmed and often incoherent 40 something does.

“The whole world is an ocean filled with waves, learn to float on them and don’t get caught in them. Equanimity or balance is yoga. Learn to balance yourself and you will enjoy everything” Sri Gurudev

In my yoga training, I am working with the concept of "spanda": the pulsation of the universe, which is yet another way of approaching "balance." I like to think of this expanding and contracting as the universe breathing in and out, just like each of us, like everything that's alive on the earth. I tend to forget about this basic reality. I want everything to expand, all the time. For instance, I want the stock market to go up so the money I am saving for my Dream Kitchen will increase. I am greedy. Once I allow myself to think about spending money on all the ways I want to change that most important room of our house, I can't stop. Changes lead to changes: if we knock out the back bathroom to make room for all the windows I want, we'll have to make a new bathroom somewhere else. And when we do, I want a gorgeous Mexican tiled sink in it! And I want one of those stainless steel industrial stoves with six gas burners and two ovens! And if get that, I will have to have a refrigerator and dishwasher to match!

And I want our career to grow and grow and grow and never diminish. And sometimes it feels like it always will. This weekend, we did sell out the Iron Horse show. We were joined onstage by our long-time bandmate Dave Chalfant, Katryna’s husband. He played bass with us on the road, guitar on our last five albums and has produced all but one of our CDs. He makes our music three dimensional. Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry joined us on three numbers, adding fiddle, vocals and guitar to our more country-esque tunes. And as we were loading in, our former drummer Dave Hower walked up to us on the street and we convinced him to sit in on the last few songs of the night. As always, it was my favorite show of all time. But, as I said before, it would have been even if the show hadn't sold out. Darkness has its own gifts. Sparseness too.

And of course, I already have a wonderful kitchen. Like the icon in Jane Hirshfield's poem, it's been worn down by life, most notably by the crayon scrawls all over the walls and the tea stains on the Formica. My babies are no longer babies. They are infinitely more complex than when they weighed seven pounds and needed only breast milk and even their poop smelled sweet. Now they have tantrums and ask for four different breakfasts each morning (never finishing one) and tell me they have to use the potty at the exact moment I've finally succeeding in strapping them in the detestable car seats on a cold morning when we're late to school and work.

And I get to lie with them in bed and wonder with them about God and falling leaves and blue helicopters and shyness. I get to witness Jay, just two, say, "Tank you, God for Gwammy and Gwandan." I get to listen to Elle play four different variations of "Twinkle Twinkle" on her tiny violin. I get to learn from them about balance and spanda. I get the high honor and privilege to love and serve them.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Iron Horse October 16, 2010

ANNUAL NIELDS IRON HORSE SHOW!!! Saturday October 16th at 7pm.

ANNUAL NIELDS IRON HORSE SHOW!!! Saturday October 16th at 7pm.

Hello friends and Happy Fall.

I must say that this is the first year in a LONG time that I have not resented the hell out of the fall. I so love summer in New England that I am always sad about it. Maybe it's the fact that we had a really long summer this year thanks to a hot June; maybe it's the fact that I got to see a majestic Moose crossing the road this week; maybe it's the fact that Monarch butterflies chose OUR front yard to lay their eggs, live their caterpillar lives and spin their crysalides(I looked that up); or maybe it is the fact that my son, having started Kindergarten, is as cheerful as I have ever known him to be. No matter why, everyone's favorite season in New England is finally also mine. Though the leaves are different than usual owing to the drought, they are no less beautiful this year. I tell you this because I am attempting to lure you here. You really should come. It's gorgeous and better than that, Nerissa and I are planning our annual Iron Horse show.

Some of our very favorite musical memories happened at the Iron Horse. Three of our cds include material recorded live in this magical space. Two of them were recorded entirely in this our beloved hometown club. We moved to this Pioneer Valley in large part because of this club. People all over the country are always telling us that they dream of making it to Northampton for a show in that hallowed room. Well, folks, now is the time. But I am guessing you are wondering about those famed musical memories. Here are my top 5:

1. Our first headline show at the Iron Horse in June of 1992. We had only played the open mic. We were as green as anyone could ever be. We were given the amazing opportunity to play a free show on that stage by the founder of the club, Jordi Herold. Nerissa made us the best press kit out of our two measly pieces of press and wrote us a fabulous bio and included photos taken of us by one of our students at the time. She sent it to every newspaper in western Massachusetts and some of them chose to print it. We plastered the town with posters and told all of our fans in Connecticut to come. We expected about 25 people if we were VERY lucky. 165 came. I will never forget the sound of their feet above our heads as we sat in the dressing room, incredulous. We played the best show of our lives up to that point and danced around the dressing room afterwards, happy, oh so happy. And then we knew that we might actually be allowed to do this thing again. After that, Jordi let us open for Cheryl Wheeler and Vance Gilbert. And a beautiful relationship was formed between the Nields and the Iron Horse.

2. One snowy night in January, we were scheduled to play two sold out shows. The first show was exciting and joyful. But during the encore, the electricity went out. We did something off mic and expected that everything would be fine in a few minutes. The audience carefully left and Eric Suher came up to us and said, "there is a line all the way down the block for the second show and the power company has no idea when they'll be able to get the power back on. What should we do?" We were a 5 piece band. And only three of us had instruments that worked without amplification. So Dave drove to Hatfield to pick up acoustic guitars at Nerissa's house. We figured we do 3-4 songs and be done. But when we started to play, we realized that it could be better than amplified sound. The room was lit by a candle on every table and several candles on the stage itself. We sang without mics, Dave Hower played drums with brushes, Dave Chalfant, David Nields and Nerissa all played acoustic guitars. Without a sound system we were not even tied to the stage. We hung off the rafters; we swung from the metal balcony; we joined the audience on the floor as we sung our hearts out. When the electricity came on halfway through the show, the audience all shouted to leave it off. We did. The Iron Horse could handle it.

3. In March of 2001, when I was 32 weeks pregnant with my first child, we took over the Iron Horse for our second set of two shows that we were recording for Live From Northampton. Recording was wonderful, but I had not accounted for how difficult it was going to be to play guitar for "Snowman"! We worked it out, but I am guessing that the Dec version of "Snowman" was the one included on the live CD. The CD ("Live From Northampton") was the last recording the 5 piece Nields ever recorded. It remains our ode to our favorite club in the world, filled with the best fans on the planet.

4. On a terrible day in 1995, we did what we thought might be our last Iron Horse show. Jordi Herold had sold his beloved club to Jo and Craig, two very nice people who, that day, told us they could no longer afford to run it. Everyone said that whoever bought it would turn it into a run-of-the-mill rock club with nothing but cover bands. But then Eric Suher bought it and protected it and preserved the amazing musical treasure that it remains today. This is one of my favorite musical memories because I was so very grateful that night for what the club had given me- both as a performer and as a member of the audience. This club is a community center, and we are so lucky to have it in our Valley.

5. Then there are the times when we were in the audience: Michelle Shocked in 1993 from the third row, Fleming and John- one of the coolest bands EVER. Google them. You will not regret it, Moxy Fruvous so many times, but particularly one night when a couple got engaged. We saw The Story in 1992 playing on a stage crowded by the set for Daniel Lanois; Ollabelle in 2003--one of Nerissa and Tom's very first dates; Ben Demerath and Dave Chalfant and Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry- Dave sang! The Roches- from the balcony. I almost died when they did "Hammond Song;" Suzanne VEga when Nerissa was a couple of days away from giving birth to Johnny. Northern Lights when Katryna was a couple of hours away from giving birth to William... and so many more, too many to count. This place is like no other. Come sit in the audience and sing with us. It won't happen again for a WHOLE YEAR!

So there. Come to our show. We like you and we want you to be there!

Love, Katryna & Nerissa

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bhagavad Gita #1

Our editor has our book, and so I am sitting on my hands. To pass the time, I am reading the Bhagavad Gita. Just for fun. OK, also because it's part of my yoga teacher training, but details.

I love this text. I love the central idea, which seems to me to be stated perfectly in Chapter 2:

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions' fruits.
Act for the action's sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results
open to success or failure. (2.47-48 translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Such a wonderful ideal for writers and songwriters, performers, mothers, lovers–all of us. And how hard it is to live this way! Open to success or failure? Are you kidding me?

And yet, when one begins a novel, how else can one be? Who has been able to start any endeavor without the knowledge that failure is at least a possibility. I certainly felt this way when I tried to get pregnant, and I have felt this way every single time I sit down to write a song. Most of the work I do as a writer is in silencing the voices that tell me how doomed my nascent writing is.

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the central poems in the Mahabarata, a sacred Indian text written sometime between the 5th Century B.C.E and the first century CE. It may have been an independent poem inserted within the greater work; at any rate, its title means "Song of the Blessed One," and it takes place on the battlefield of Kuru at the beginning of a war between two clans, the Pandavas (good guys, led by Arjuna) and the Kauravas, evil cousins. But Arjuna pauses right before he is to enter the field, stricken with doubt and confusion. Why should he kill his relatives? He drops his weapons and his charioteer, Krishna, who happens to be god incarnate, begins a dialogue that turns into a meditation on the nature of life, death, duty, nonattachment, love, and yoga, which is defined here as "skill in action."

Renunciation of action is giving up, says Krisha; doing what Arjuna wants to do, which seems like humble peacemaking but is really unskillful inaction, shirking duty, fleeing his dharma. (I won't at this point go into why this is so––peacemakers, suspend your disbelief; stay with me!)

Renunciation of the fruits of our actions, on the other hand, is not only the path to enlightenment: it is nirvana itself, in the moments in which we let go. Gandhi says (referring to the Gita), that this kind of renunciation of our fruits "is the central sun around which devotion, knowledge, and the rest revolve like planets."

Better to do one’s own dharma badly than to do someone else’s perfectly (3.35)is another way the Gita states its theme. I can only be Nerissa. I can’t be my yoga teacher, or Joni Mitchell, or my grandmother. I can try to be someone other than me, and in some ways I might seem like I am succeeding, but ultimately I will be cheating myself and the world out of the particular image of God that is in me and only in me, not to mention passing on a lie. And that dharma, whatever it might be, might not please me all the time, just as Arjuna does not want to fight and is full of conflict. I might wish to practice asana like my teacher; to write songs that reach millions of people like Joni Mitchell; or be perfectly kind and never lose my temper like my grandmother, but this is not who I am. Or it might be, but for me to cling to the outcome of my actions and have in mind specific ideas of what the outcomes should look like is wrong thinking. However, I can take disciplined action to practice my asanas, practice my songwriting, practice kindness and compassion. This is yoga: skill in action. Or, put another way, practice.

Our Suzuki violin teacher Emily Greene said to Elle yesterday, "Elle, do you know why we practice?"
Elle: No.
Emily: To make it easier.

Douglas Brooks writes, “How we experience ourselves in the act determines our experience of bondage or freedom.” (p. 64 of Poised for Grace) And so when I practice asana, it’s about the moment that I come into the pose, working to align with the optimal blueprint of my own body—letting go of how “perfect” the final pose is. Was I aligned? That is what matters. Moreover, there are ALWAYS actions to take, even when the actions can seem completely fruitless. Today Jay drew with marker all over our hardwood hall floors. This was just after both he and Elle completely trashed the house right after I’d spent about an hour tidying it up. I got mad, thinking, “I do all this work for nothing! Like Sisyphus!” But life is about cleaning up messes. Life is messy. Generating new life is extra messy. We will always have messes, just as we will always have the Brahman and the untouchables. Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you," and I would argue that the yoga is in how we treat them; how we keep giving even when it feels fruitless. Besides, it is good for our souls to give. It helps me remember (as I am in the act of giving) that that poor person is me, just as the Brahman is me. When I clean the marker off the wood floor with a heart full of gratitude, seeing the situation for what it REALLY is (that I am so so blessed to have two creative, lovely kids, not to mention a house with gorgeous wood floors, arms to scrub with, sponges to scrub with, knees that bend) I am in heaven; I have reached nirvana.

Ch. 6 verse 2
Know that right action itself
Is renunciation, Arjuna;
In the yoga of action, you first
Renounce your own selfish will.

Abhinavagupta’s wonderful analogy about the gambler—that it is easy for a gambler while gambling to feel like a king, but this doesn’t make him one—is perfectly stated for this point. I have many desires that are not wholesome, and usually they fall into the category of wanting to do nothing when doing something would be preferable. I want to sleep a little longer instead of getting up to mediate. I want to keep reading the newspaper when the phone rings and I can see that it’s a friend who might need me. I want to keep eating when to do so would mean less food for others, and more than my body needs.

Renouncing my “own selfish will” is crucial for me to have a good day, fulfill my dharma, align with the divine, my optimal blueprint; be useful to others. To align myself with God’s will is my daily aim. In fact, I begin each day by asking for my thinking to be divorced from self-seeking motives. I begin each day by turning my will over to the care of the Self (God, for me, but the God who is in all of us) and not to my self. I can easily delude myself into thinking that some action I would like to take is a good one if I don’t take the time to center myself.

Over and over again, I find that when I let go of my own will and surrender to the greater will, what I know intuitively is God’s will for me, I grow, I have a great time, I feel of service, I feel useful, I feel like an arrow who is hitting its mark, AND I feel like the archer. I see much farther, the way one gets a much clearer lay of the land when one climbs to a higher vista on a mountain. Just to be clear, I don’t always know what the divine will is, but usually I can tell because it’s What Is rather than What I Wish It Would Be! It's my kids drawing on my floors with Sharpie rather than filling the empty recycled journals with clever drawings and wobbly letters that spell out their names.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Nerissa on Channel 22 Mass Appeal 9.1.10

Ashley: What do you do as a certified Martha Beck Life Coach?

Nerissa: I help people uncover their inborn joy and creativity, mostly through writing, but also through learning how to listen to their bodies, talking, and recognizing limiting beliefs.

Ashley: What is Writing it up in the garden?

Nerissa: Writing it Up in the Garden is the name of my weekly writing workshops and occasional weekend retreats. I take groups of up to six writers (twelve for retreats) and create a safe and comfortable environment in which to write. I start writers off with a prompt, and we write for about 50 minutes. Then we re-group and share what has been written with non-prescriptive, supportive feedback (we look to what is good in the piece. We save the "pruning" for a later date.)

Ashley: What are some ways we can create containers for time and space to do practices, such as writing?

-do it first thing in the morning, or some other time when you know you won't be distracted. Best to find a consistent time (or times) of day to write, and to do it daily.
-write with a timer
-write for a limited number of pages
-write with a buddy
-write in a group
-make dates with yourself and write in coffeeshops
-hire a coach!
-notice your biorhythms and write when you have energy

Ashley: How is writing a practice, just as yoga is a practice?

Nerissa: There is no end game in either, though we can be tricked into thinking otherwise. We can THINK the goal is publication (for writing) or enlightenment/fitness for yoga. But the real goods are in the practice itself. In both, we are present, in the moment, for our experience. While it's been wonderful to have my books published, my songs performed by others, checks in the mail for the books and CDs I sell, or even praise for my work, nothing can compare to the sweetness I have felt when I come up with THAT PHRASE, or THAT NOTE. Actually, nothing can compare to the relationship I have built with myself over time, in that sacred space I make and maintain for writing (or yoga). I show up for myself. And what I know now is that I am a trustworthy person because of that.

Ashley: What are some ways we can be at ease with what we have?

Nerissa: Practice gratitude! Enumerate the good things we have, especially when we want a particular something else. Notice how great the kitchen we do have is when we start fantasizing about someone else's. Notice how healthy and strong your own body is when you start to wish you had thinner thighs. Notice how well your car runs when you start complaining about how shabby it is. I have my clients do this in writing.

Also, it helps to clean up and declutter. Often we hate what we have because we're not really taking care of it, e.g. paying attention to it. Or we actually have too much stuff, and what we really want is empty space.

Ashley: Who can benefit from coaching?

Nerissa: People who are ready to tell the truth to themselves about themselves. People who want to grow.

7. How is life like a couch? AH! I love this. I believe the universe is ultimately waiting for us to cry "Uncle" and flop down on our bellies on a nice, soft couch. It's when we admit our weaknesses that we can start to get well. Also, it's been my experience that everything goes better when we take little breaks and rest. Couches are better than beds for resting (because in a bed you could fall asleep for TOO long.) And I think there's a kindness to the universe, to Reality, that is not unlike a couch. And a couch, unlike a chair, sits two. Coaching is all about keeping company.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Break in the Fast

I have been on a blogging fast because the deadline for our book is Sept. 7. And I need every hour. But I couldn't resist posting this.

We were on our way to the Electronics store finally to get our tuner fixed. It's been seven years of static. It was time. As I turned right from the corner of King Street onto Damon Road, Elle spied a construction man smoking a cigarette. He was ageless; sandy grayish hair, a slouched aspect, no affect in his face which seemed somehow as though it had collapsed, folded in on itself. He stared into the middle distance as if he were a statue.

"Mama," she said pointing at his hand. "What's that?"

Let me say right here, that I am not proud of my response. I was on edge anyway, for reasons I would happily go into if I weren't on book deadline. Suffice it to say, I was doing my thing: trying to control my kids through scare tactics. And so I said something mild like this.

"That's a cigarette. He's smoking. He's going to die because of that."


"Really. It's deadly. It's a very stupid thing to do."


"How will he die?"

"He'll get lung cancer."

"What's that?"

"Well, it's this horrible disease where your lungs start to turn black and disintegrate and soon you can't breathe anymore."

At this point, I was feeling the first twinges of remorse for my extreme fear tactics, and I softened a bit. "You know where your lungs are, Elle?"

She nodded and pointed to her chest.

"They're like two big balloons. They stretch out," I breathed to demonstrate––"and in." Perhaps because of the breathing, I calmed down a bit myself. "People don't always die, actually. And if they stop, they can be completely fine again." And I told her a story about a friend of ours who quit smoking and is, evidently, not dead.

We dropped off the tuner and turned around, drove home a bit more slowly.

"I wonder if he's dead yet," Elle mused.


"That smoking guy."

"Oh, sweetie! He won't die right away!" Now I was really remorseful. "Let's pray really hard that he stops in time."

We both scrunched up our faces. "Maybe he'll stop today!" Elle said.

"Let's hope!" I agreed.

We arrived at the intersection. No man.

"He's dead, Mama," said Elle, pointing at the space where the man had stood. "See?"

"No," I said, anxiously scanning the horizons. "He just went somewhere. He's not dead, sweetie. Really. It doesn't happen like that." I was about to go into a long pontification about how the things we want that aren't good for us are really hard to let go of, when she spied him across the street.

"Mama! Look! He's alive! And he doesn't have a cigarette! He's quit! He's going to live!"

"Hooray!" I said. We both waved at the man.

"Mama," Elle said. "Roll my window down." This I did, though I feared a repeat of my diatribe in four-year-old vernacular. I shouldn't have worried. She called out, "Bye!" and waved. He turned his folded up face in our direction, and I swear I saw a flicker of presence there that was absent before.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Death and Birth in Three Days

Last Wednesday, my mother flew up to Boston and met up with Katryna and me and our sister Abigail who lives near the city. We were manifesting a dream my mother had articulated sometime last year: wouldn't it be fun to have a mother/daughter night out? Abigail, the most planful of the four of us, had gotten us to put a date into our calendars––urged on by the fact that Abigail was due to deliver her third baby on July 25. So the four of us showed up in Boston on Bastille Day, our husbands and kids back at home. Katryna and I met with our editor at Shambhala and then put the book on hold to meet our mother and sister at the Museum of Fine Arts on an unseasonally cool rainy day. We stepped into the first exhibit and almost in one voice, murmured "Grandmummy!" as we gazed at some lithographs by one of her favorite artists: Toulouse-Lautrec.

Grandmummy, AKA Margaret Brett Tenney, was born in 1907 in her parents' apartment in New York City. She spoke French before English and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris in the twenties. She loved modern art, and we three granddaughters grew up being taken to art museums. I didn't think this was unusual until reflecting on it recently; didn't all children know the difference between a Giacometti and a Rodin? She stayed single until the age of 35, running a hat shop called The Mad Hatter (in Manhattan) and acting with a troupe called the Snarks. At 36 she had my mother. At 40 she gave birth to my aunt Sarah. Her husband died when she was sixty, and she began to travel all over the world, visiting communist China and the Soviet Union in the seventies as well as South America, Africa and many parts of Europe, especially her beloved Paris where she maintained many friendships. She spoke too many languages for me to count; she learned Spanish in her seventies. She discovered acupuncture while visiting China in 1972; she took up yoga at the age of sixty-five, and we grew up witnessing her morning ritual: sun salutations, a headstand and then a breakfast of yogurt and granola.

She just celebrated her 103rd birthday on July first. She has been senile for the past ten years, unable to walk unassisted and needing round the clock care. We came to visit her regularly, introducing her to her six great grandchildren, playing drums with her, singing to her. We'd had some calls recently from her caregivers letting us know that she seemed to be fading, refusing to eat and drink. So when the four of us stood in the MFA looking at the Toulouse Lautrec lithos, I had the thought, "Grandmummy's dying. Grandmummy's here."

The next morning, I woke at six, my mother sleeping in the same bed as me, Katryna on the fold-out couch in our suite in the Park Plaza. I went for a run around the Boston Commons, wished Elle and Jay were with me to see the swan boats and the Make Way For Duckling bronzes. My mother called my iPhone as I was coming up the elevator to let me know that Jean, my grandmother's caregiver, had called to say that this might be my grandmother's last day. Our aunt Sarah happens to live in Cambridge, so my mother called her right away and the two of them made plans to drive to New York together. We hugged each other goodbye and wished each other well.

Grandmummy died that night with both of her daughters by her side, so peacefully that it was difficult to know if her last breath were really her last. As she was born at her home, she died in her home.

Three days later, Abigail was in labor, and on July 18, my grandmother's seventh great grandchild was born: Trenor Augustus Hillman, a beautiful healthy seven pound one ounce baby boy. Tom and the kids and I drove out to meet him the next day, having dinner with my mother and Sarah and Abigail's six-year-old twins on the way. My kids were delighted; partly because they got to eat graham crackers in the hospital, but mostly because of "baby Twenor" whom Elle got to hold.

On the way home, the kids were too excited to sleep. The night sky was pink and purple, with a half moon and flashes of lightening in the distance. They wanted stories of their grandparents, so we obliged. When my voice got tired, I asked them if they wanted to listen to George Harrison songs--I don't know why I thought of that; maybe because I thought they'd be curious to hear the musician their dog was named for. I played them a mix on my iPod that I'd made last spring: semi-hits of Geroge's from the 70s, like "Blow Away," "Crackerbox Palace," "Give Me Love" and "My Sweet Lord." They convinced me to sit in the tiny space in between their car seats. An arm around each child, I sang along and savored how much they loved the same music I do.

"Mo mo Ge-haa-ison," said Jay. "Again Ge-haa-ison!"

When the slide guitar came in at the beginning of "My Sweet Lord," Elle said, "Mama, why can you not play guitar like this?"

Why, indeed.

We rehearsed last night for Falcon Ridge; our second rehearsal in the past two weeks with our CrackerJack Band, Dave Chalfant, Paul Kochanski and Lorne Entress. I was sick with a sore throat and fever, and during the first half of the rehearsal felt dazed and in a trance-like state the way one does in the early throes of a head cold. I have not cried since my grandmother died. Frankly, it hadn't felt that sad. She lived to be older than anyone I've ever known, and she died peacefully and painlessly at home with both of her children by her side telling her they loved her. What more can one want?

And yet.

When one loses a loved one slowly the way one does when senility comes at the end of life, there is a way in which the grieving goes deep underground. It's there, like a stream at the bottom of a frozen river, but hard to access. When our other grandmother Lila died (also after ten years of Alzheimer's) in 1996, I felt those ten frozen years powerfully unthaw. That particular event coincided with the release of our first major label CD, Gotta Get Over Greta. We flew in for a funeral wedged in between gigs. After the funeral, we got into our van Moby and began a three and a half month tour that took us all over the country. When I returned from that first big tour, I was a different person. In many ways, that grandmother's death was the beginning of my journey back to myself, coinciding what anyone's friendly neighborhood astrologer would call my "Saturn Return" (always happens around the age of 28.5).

We played through the first part of the set, which consists of a healthy mix of old Nields chestnuts from the 90s, Nerissa & Katryna songs from the Oughts and four, count ;em, four) new songs slated for our 2011 release. As we got to "Creek's Gonna Rise," the song I wrote for our church which burned down in January, I felt the river thaw. I couldn't hold back the tears, and as we moved on to "Easy People," they flowed down my cheeks in relief. As it always goes when we really truly cry, I wasn't just crying for my grandmother, but for all the losses: my mother-in-law, the church, my grandmother Lila, the loss of the innocence I had as a young musician in my 20s, the gratitude for a life full of music that could have this effect on me and my emotions, not to mention my two children. And by the end of rehearsal, I actually felt more healthy. Music does heal.

I am ready to grieve my grandmother's death, celebrate her life and also move on to what's on the plate for today. Last night when I got home from rehearsal, Tom told me to check in with Jay. Recently graduated to a big bed from his crib, he was lying on his back, his blanket tossed off, both arms and legs akimbo, his peaceful little face still and perfect, his breath rising and falling gently. I stared at him, thinking, "THIS moment, THIS moment." I might not remember it. But I might. I hope I have it with me for the rest of my life, and that on my death bed, in whatever state I am in, it comes back to me with all the sweetness it contained in its actual moment.

And if not, my prayer is to stay awake to the next luminous moment. I am sure I will have many this weekend at Falcon Ridge.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Books, Ballet and Suzuki

... The quiet stars came out, one after one;
The holy twilight fell upon the sea,
The summer day was done." - Celia Thaxter

Katryna and I finished the draft of our book this week. By "finished" I really mean our editor at Shambhala now sees what we have: almost 200 pages of text in various degrees of polish. There are a few places where we write, "Don't despair! I promise to finish this next draft!" and "Confusing. Sorry." And "That part about that thing we talked about in the car goes here." There are some typos and inconsistencies. I'm still not sure about the whole last third of the book. But that, after all, is what first drafts are for.

I noticed as I was getting closer to our deadline that I became surprisingly interested in decluttering my house, cleaning out the fridge, washing the windows (isn't it true that it is impossible to get any kind of meaningful writing done with smudged windows?) and sorting through every single article of clothing Elle, Jay and I own. I alphabetized our entire library. I made about seven trips to Good Will. And then I got down to work.

The above notwithstanding, I love writing. I love the whole process: from the first giddy splashes to the nit-picky edits. I love to sit with my hard copy print out, a red pen and a cup of green tea, writing notes to myself (and the audience--and in this case, often to my sister) in the margins. I am sad to take a break; I feel like Katryna and I have just found our momentum. But the last editor I worked with forbade me to touch the book while she was reading it. "Think of it as sending your kids away to summer camp," she consoled me. So I am on a forced hiatus.

Life has changed since the last time I wrote a book for a publisher. Back then, I had no day job; just gigs on the weekends. A few weeks before my due date, I would cancel everything, stop making phone calls to my friends or answering their emails, and hole up in my house reading my manuscript and re-writing until it seemed perfect. I'd send it to my publisher and they'd take three months to get it back to me. There were always major re-writes, but I had time for that.

This book is different. Today I have a husband, two small children, a full life-coaching practice, HooteNanny, a house to clean, cars that need mufflers, a yoga practice, friends whom I refuse to put off, and, oh, yeah--those gigs still. Most weeks, I get about two hours of writing in, max.

The weekend before the book was due, I tried to clear the decks to finish. Still, I had to take Elle to her ballet rehearsal, and then her ballet recital, go out for dinner to celebrate her, run a writing retreat, have dinner with my mom friends, run music at church on Sunday and show up for Father's Day.

Her recital was stunningly great. What's not to love about little kids on stage? (Make-up and hair spray and stage moms. But other than that, nothing.) Jay sat on my lap and watched the whole show, transfixed. He seemed at first to have a crush on a three-year-old dancer named Amy. His new favorite game is to race around the house, screaming, "Amy! Amy!" and hurling himself on the couches in ecstasy. But then I found out that Amy was actually his tormentor, and that he might be suffering from a kind of PTSD. We caught him shouting to Invisible Amy, "NO, Amy, I DON'T WIKE DAT!").

Elle shuffled onto the stage with the other Little Clowns (including William) and they proceeded to do their dance, which was mostly composed of "clown kicks": straight legged kicks with straight backs and hands at their sides. Then her costume started to fall off, which was my fault since I hadn't fastened it well enough. An older dancer rescued her, and she went back to her clown kicks and twirls.

Oh, life. Sweet, sweet life.

It was the singing at church on Father's Day that did me in. Penny was on vacation, so I took over and sang songs my father taught us when he and my mother ran something called Junior Worship back in the 80s at our Presbyterian church. I led the congregation in "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" and "Lonesome Valley" ("You've got to walk that lonesome valley/you've got to walk it by yourself/ Ain't nobody else can walk it for you/You've got to walk it by yourself."--new lyrics by Woody Guthrie). I also sang a couple of our original songs: "We Go To the Beach" and "I Choose This Era." The latter is a song I wrote for Elle a month before she was born. The last verse goes like this:

I'll take you to the ocean
To every edge that invites me close
And there I'll make my vow to you
Before everything I love the most
There's danger in the ocean
Danger in the sun above
But I'll put my arms around you
And surround you with my love.

Something shifted inside me as I sang this song, Tom sitting next to our friend Kris who'd come to visit. Jay was trotting back and forth between Tom in the back of the Parish House and me behind the baby grand. I thought of the Gulf and the devastation. I try--most days--not to think of it, using as an excuse all that I wrote about above: the kids, husband, coaching practice, car muffler, etc. etc. But the Gulf is me. It's you. We're punctured. We are drenched with oil. We are soiled. We have soiled.

So I cried a little, and that was fine, except I left the church feeling like either Orpheus or the Scarecrow, depending on your preferred cultural reference. (Orpheus was a guitar player--ok, lyre, but details--who, after losing his true love Eurydice due to some kind of cruel faith test, went mad, and was eventually torn to pieces by Dionysius's crazy consorts the Bacchae. The Scarecrow was (temporarily) torn limb from limb by the notorious winged monkeys who were trying to protect the Wicked Witch of the West. "First they took my legs, and they threw them over THERE! Then they took my arms and they threw them over THERE!")

Why torn apart? I felt, in the moment, connected to my audience, and as though I'd given them a gift, a gift that was given to me by my parents. I love to sing. But there was something missing in the playback loop. People came up to me and thanked me, and I could tell they were moved, but I didn't feel connected.

I used to be able to use myself up on the stage; turn myself inside out and pour forth all the bits of me, night after night. I knew I'd be put back together by the next morning. But lately, as I become more embodied, perhaps, I don't seem to put up with this ritual as handily. Maybe it's the yoga. Maybe it's motherhood, Maybe it's breastfeeding. But something has changed.

Motherhood is a process of turning oneself inside out and pouring forth everything one has. Mother birds feed their young their own regurgitated dinner. As tired as I have been recently, I still have to put my kids to bed. Jay has figured out how to climb out of his crib. Last night, he was up playing the Amy Game (screaming her name, running as fast as he can across the house and hurling himself so powerfully onto the couch that his legs fly up backwards over his head.) Elle now plays the Amy Game too, but she has been afraid lately; she wants more cuddles. She wants more Mama.

So do I. All stereotypes of the procrastinating writer to the side, I believe my recent fervor to declutter and clean my house is a way of desperately trying to mother myself. For about a month now, I can't leave our bedroom in the morning without making the bed. I can't leave the sink with dishes in it. It seems essential to survival to take care of myself and my family in this way. When I do these things, I feel comforted. Mom's home.

I think this is why the stereotype of procrastinating artists cleaning madly instead of working on their drafts persists. It's true. The inner parent needs to let the inner child that she is there, watching from the wings, tying the costume on, making sure to provide an audience. And so before the child can perform, the parent needs to clean.

I was telling a client today that I think of most of our work together as being about seeing our thoughts as books. Books, of course, are thoughts--very organized thoughts, but thoughts none the less. That is all they are: they have no authority other than what we bestow on them. Someone wrote the Bible just as someone wrote The Veleveteen Rabbit and Skateboarding For Dummies. Some people have more organized minds with more organized thoughts than others (Tom was just marveling at a colleague whose mind he compared to a library. "Mine, on the other hand," he said, "Is sort of like our garage. An old sneaker here, a rusty pitchfork there...") When we can start to see our thoughts as close-able, we can stop responding from annoying habitual reactions and instead go, "Oh, there's that book from my childhood. The one where boys are bullies and only like the thin girls." Or, "The one where Dad stonewalls Mom and the only one who gets attention is the one who's always getting injured." When we can start to see our thoughts as books, we also start to take care of ourselves, monitoring what goes in to our consciousness in the same way a good parent prevents her kid from watching horror movies when his little synapses are still forming. (Or, for some of us, ever.)

Any kind of mindfulness practice helps us see our thoughts as books, and can help us not to pull them off the shelf and dive into them, becoming engrossed in the story. I admit to having a meditation practice, but I also like to look for other opportunities to be mindful since I'd rather do almost anything than sit still.

Elle just started Suzuki violin lessons. Part of the deal is that the parent (and it can only be one parent) must agree to attend these lessons, observing and participating, even practicing with the child (daily). I was skeptical at best, terrified at worst. I never would have gone for this--Suzuki runs somewhat counter to my own music ed philosophy which more accurately resembles what my grandfather would have called a well-organized zoo.

Except Elle came up with the Suzuki plan herself. She hounded me for nine months to learn the violin. Today, she ran up three flights of stairs to my office, shouting, "Is it time to go, yet, Mama?" On the way there, I mused, "I'm not actually sure where Emily lives..."

"What?" She cried from the backseat. "Do you have her phone number, Mama? Can you call her?"

"I think I know the way, it's just that I've never been there..."
"Call her, Mama! Call her! Is this the way? Are you sure this is the way?"

Jumping out of the car, she clutched her little violin case to her chest with one hand and held mine with the other. Emily, her teacher, opened her door and let us in. In one half hour, she taught Elle how to stand, how to hold the bow, how not to touch the "magic part" (horse hairs), how to move her body up to four ascending notes, and down to the same descending ones. She gave us "Mississippi Hot Dog" to practice on "shoulder violin" (a scarf on her left shoulder), drew a violin on her left hand and a bow on her right, showered her with stickers and sticker charts and kept the little violin "for a sleepover" for the week. Next week, Elle will get to play it.

The child is giddy. "Can we practice as soon as we get home, Mama?" And we did.

As for me, I was transfixed the entire time. I can't remember when my attention has been so completely riveted. Sitting on my observer chair, watching my daughter's straight back, her little shoulder blades riding against the straps of her way-too-big-sundress, raising and lowering her bow (looking extra dandy with a tiny straw hat at its tip), playing rhythm games with Emily's set of cards) I felt used in the most exquisitely perfect way. Does she love music because I love music? Does she love music because she's gone to HooteNanny since she was 3 months old? Or does she love music because music is inherently fun? Who knows. But today I am celebrating the fact that I have a daughter who thinks its as fun as I do to tap out different rhythms on the ground, and whose biggest concern was that Jay might want to touch the forbidden magic part of the bow.

"Mama," she said on the drive home. "When Jay's a big boy can he play violin too? I want him to."

I want him to, also. But for tonight I will settle for him not playing the Amy Game and instead curling up with me and falling asleep in my arms. For today,I can close the book on all my plans for my kids and just celebrate the long, warm June day.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem?

Tom carrying our 3-week-old up to our church on Arnold's birthday, May 2006

Site of the West Cummington Church which burned down on January 17

"The spiritual path wrecks the body and afterward restores it to health. It destroys the house to unearth the treasure, and with that treasure, builds it better than before"

Today would have been Arnold Westwood's 89th birthday. I am remembering his infectious smile, his unflagging enthusiasm for our church, his love of the shoreline in Little Compton RI and his admonition to all of us a year ago at this time, when he preached his final sermon at the West Cummington Church, to "ignore exercise at your peril!" And I am thinking of him because this Saturday May 22 we are doing our annual gig at the West Cummington Church.

Except this year, there is no church standing in West Cummington. The church burned down on January 17. While the congregation has now officially voted to rebuild, and to rebuild on the site, in quite the style and manner of the old church with the addition of two very welcome bathrooms (there were none before, and parishioners had to walk a good seven minutes to the Parish House down the road), rebuilding is a long way off, and a big job. The show we are going to do this year is a benefit for this rebuilding. The Village Church in neighboring Cummington has been gracious enough to host us.

I have rarely looked forward more eagerly to a show. I can't wait to sing the new songs we have been accumulating since the fall. We plan to debut at least two new ones, and to fill the room with everything that's been brewing in our hearts for the past year. I for one am especially grateful to have back the use of my hands. I am typing this post, the first one I have been well enough to type since February when I was waylaid by Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (which I wrote about here). Like a person who wakes up after a two week flu feeling miraculously better, I stretch my wrists back and forth, amazed at the miraculous flexibility now achievable in those joints I used to take for granted. I can't wait to see my people on Saturday. I can't wait to sing with my sister. It's May. It's just over five years since I stood in a similar church and took my wedding vows with my husband Tom.

It's just over four years since my daughter was born. Arnold used to make a big birthday cake for all the May babies. When Elle was just fifteen days old, he added her (real) name to the cake.

I've been on a strict no-blogging diet as of late, as the rough draft of our book is due on our Shambhala editor's desk in a month. I am eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping The Musical Family. And this makes me think, of course, of The Sound of Music.

The Sound of Music is certainly (okay, probably) my all-time favorite musical, as it was the very first musical in which I was cast. I was 1977 and I was ten and in fifth grade. A big (literally) director named Calvin Remsberg came to my school to cast the seven Von Trapp children. I was one of those picked, and the experience was akin to dying and going to heaven, winning the lottery, the Grammy and the Oscar and getting chosen as number one on Todd Shey's Like List. My mother drove me to rehearsals every afternoon, and I got to hang out with gigantic, amazing teen-age girls at their fancy theatre while they in turn doted on me, called me "Marta" (my character's name--remember Marta? Second youngest.) I wore my long straight hair in two braids which the wardrobe lady curled under and fastened into large loops that resembled beagle ears (coincidentally, as a teenager, I wore those same long beagle braids in my role as Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, on that same stage. But that's a whole other story.)

The musical was my first experience in a real play, with a real director (who has gone on to be a big shot--he stared in off Broadway productions of Cats as Old Deuteronomy and in Sweeney Todd...) But it was also my first experience fitting in with a group of people who seemed like my long lost tribe. I loved everything about the theatre. I loved the way the basement smelled, I loved the lights, I loved the way you could sit in the auditorium on seats that bounced up against their backs when you stood up, and the way you could drape your calves over the seat in front of you. I loved the make up, the costumes, memorizing my seven or eight lines "My name is Marta and I'm going to be seven on Tuesday, and I want a pink parasol." I loved my "siblings" and truly believed that they were my brothers and sisters. I loved learning, for the first time, about Austria in the Third Reich, and the evil Nazis and World War II and the Trapp Family Singers who now lived in Stowe VT. (I of course read all the biographies and autobiographies about Maria Von Trapp and how Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse had changed many of the names of the kids in the staged musical.)

Most of all, I loved the music. I loved having a part to sing. I loved the choreography where we got to poke our heads out like cuckoos in a clock. I loved the way music saved Georg von Trapp from marrying the horrible baroness and instead fell in love with the lovable, unsolvable Maria. That story planted itself deep within my psyche--that music saves, that music is like the blood that runs through a family, connecting it, oxygenating it, renewing it, healing it, nurturing it.

And yet, believe it or not, I had never seen the Julie Andrews movie version until last week! How I managed to deprive myself of this pleasure, I don't quite know, except that I guess as a ten year old in 1977 it would have been challenging to watch it at will. This was pre-Beta Max, after all. Besides, someone I respected (most likely, Calvin Remsberg) had suggested that the staged Mary Martin version was far superior. So, loyal to a fault, I was given the LP soundtrack for Christmas that year, and that was good enough for me.

Anyway, I watched it over the course of the last week, which is pretty much the way I watch all movies lately. I only have about a half-hour a day, three days a week where watching a DVD is even possible: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when Elle is at school and Jay is taking a nap. I sit in front of the TV, soaking my right hand in hot water and Epson salts and then icing it, while eating with my left hand. I let Elle watch the first half-hour, and while she liked it enough so that she makes me tell her the story every night at bath time, she does not want to actually watch it anymore. She thinks the dad is too scary.

I can relate. Marta's last line is "I'm scared." Looking back on this winter of losses (the church, my mother-in-law Mary Duffy and ––mercifully briefly–– my hands), I see how fear ran through these experiences in ways, though inevitable, were not helpful. As I wrote about the church, my first reaction was of pure horror: I had feared that the arsonist who had been responsible for multiple Northampton fires had a copycat in West Cummington. When I learned that the fire had been started by a faulty furnace, my fear turned to grief, and then hope and faith in our rebuilding efforts.

Debris from the fire a the West Cummington Church

My mother-in-law's death was harder, of course. But there was something in her full-out embrace of death, her passionate faith in her vision of being reunited with her late husband, that challenged me to my core ("cor" being the Latin root for "courage.") I am used to fighting illness, to taking every possible measure to "rage rage against the dying of the light." It was foreign to me to do otherwise, but for her sake, I let her go.

Tom, Mary Duffy and me in front of the West Cummington Church at our wedding rehearsal

Leaving me with a ton of excess fear I didn't know what to do with, and perhaps it went to my wrists. I will never know, but I do know this. One day about three weeks ago I made the decision not to believe that I needed surgery or shots. I made the decision to experience the pain as a kind of muscle ache, as the pain of growth, of childbirth, rather than the pain of injury, where to access the pain is to create damage. I was in a yoga class, with the intention to do a fully modified practice. But during the meditation at the beginning, I suddenly had the thought, "When I play the guitar, I think: this will hurt, but I will be okay. And I always am. I am going to take that attitude towards this yoga practice right now."

And so I did. And lo! I am healed. Yes, sometimes there is some stiffness, some slight pain, and yes, I am working organically on my posture and the ergodynamics of my writing situation, and no, I have not done a handstand yet (though I do a wicked pinchamayarasana), and I am madly in love with a product recommended to me by the fabulous Trina Hamlin called Traumeel (homeopathic anti-inflammatory cream that does not stink.) But I am not afraid. I am getting better.

Today I finished watching The Sound of Music. As the family crosses those Swiss alps, little Gretl on her father's shoulder's and Marta being guided gently by Maria, I wept. From the top of those alps is quite a view.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where's The Lamb?

... Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all -- the clearer eye
of heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface, stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seeds will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.

Abridged from "The Slip" by Wendell Berry. North Point Press, 1987

I am writing this in the hopes that it might help somebody.

Right around the time our church burned down, I began looking at the calendar with a great deal of dread and trepidation. Every weekend, it seemed, for months and months, I was going to have to either board an airplane, drive miles and miles to a gig, or both. The sweet lull we'd experienced in December -- preserved to record our new CD and celebrate the holidays -- evaporated, as did the cozy, familial holiday cheer. Instead, there seemed a hard reality: as hard as the ground underneath the snow; as hard as the taste of ashes in our mouths as the result of our great loss.

Throughout this period of time, I clung to my yoga practice. There were stresses in my life, but aren't there always? Mastering arm balances -- those positions in yoga where one holds one's entire body above the earth through sheer willpower, prana and miracle; over 100 pounds of person balanced on tiny little wrists -- seemed to give me the strength I needed to get through the cold winter, through the crazy schedule, through the grief. But one day I noticed something: a pain in my right wrist. I ignored it.

And then, more bad news. Worse news, much worse. Tom's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We got the bad news while in Florida, and for some reason, it was this that compelled me to tell Tom, "I think something’s wrong with my wrist." He, of course, urged me to get it checked out right away, and so when I returned home, I visited my primary care physician who in short order diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome. I set about on my way, confident that I would conquer this quickly and be back on my hands in no time. I bought the dictation software, I diligently took ibuprofen, I bound my hands in wrist braces.

But it was February Album Writing Month. I don't know why, but the thought of not finishing those 14 songs and presenting them to the 36 or so people who read my blog seemed tantamount to death. A death of sorts, anyway. And so I finished the songs, made the videos, play the gigs, diapered my son, seat belted my children into their car seats even when they wriggled and kicked, bought the gigantic organic grapefruits and gallons of milk at the co-op, folded load upon load of laundry, and eventually began to drive back and forth along the Mass Pike to witness my mother-in-law readying herself to leave the world.

The pain got worse.

People  from all corners of my life called and e-mailed and made suggestions. I took them all, including the observation many offered that the pain was related to my stress. I became a keen observer of my body and its habits, and I began to notice that I have a nervous tick: when I am anxious, I furtively flick my thumbnail against my forefinger, which of course is exactly the repetitive motion that causes injury. So I tried to stop doing that.

Here are some of the other things I've tried: acupuncture with three different practitioners, positional therapy, modified yoga, mind over matter, as in just notice the pain but don’t believe it, occupational therapy, wrist braces, a thumb spica splint, the aforementioned ibuprofen but this time in gel caps, massage, Thai massage, vitamin B 6 and 12, a new ergo-dynamic mouse, a new ergo-dynamic office chair, a new ergo-dynamic keyboard, Feldenkrais, fish oil, the health-food version of Ben Gay, giving up all vegetables in the nightshade family, and begging off diapering my son whenever I see a willing substitute.

During this time, I have been meeting with a group of people from my church to study the book of Genesis. One night, we talked about the story of Abraham and Isaac, and how Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his longed-for son, finally born to his long-barren wife Sarah. In the story, father and son, along with two servants, journey three days to a mountain top. As they trudge along, Isaac asks Abraham, “Where is the lamb?”

“God will provide the lamb, my son,” says Abraham.

But Abraham's intention is to bind Isaac and kill him. It's the binding that really gets me. It's such a horrible thing Abraham does. Isaac is lying on top of the wood with his hands tied, and Abraham lifts the knife to slay him. At that point, the Bible says, an angel comes, and cries, “Stop! God sees that you fear him.”

And just then Abraham notices a ram stuck in the bushes, which he substitutes for Isaac.

I read this story as being about how messed up our ideas can get about how God wants us to be in the world. We can go drone-like into what we think is God's will for us. We make all sorts of decisions this way: over-working, marrying the guy we think we’re supposed to marry, having children when we think we’re supposed to have children, spending our weekend shopping and buying that new iPhone or whatever. And the only way I can make sense of the moment when Abraham puts down the knife is to think of the angel as internal to Abraham. Abraham's own inner angel wakes him up at that moment when he has the knife over his son and says, “Wait a second. Do you really want to be lead by fear? Can this really be God's will? There is a perfectly good ram suffering in the bushes over there. I think God would prefer I kill that ruminant to my son.”

And, after that, the angel says “Now Abraham, you are well blessed, your descendants will be as the stars in the sky or the sands in the earth.”

This is how we find our right lives. Not by the direction of some external God, telling us seemingly insane things that go against our hearts, but by listening to the voice of the angel.

I was on the verge of opting for surgery, speaking of knives. I was sick of waiting for my body to heal, tired of the mindfulness, the need to be so vigilant about my alignment and posture and ergo-everything. And then, right before meeting with an orthopedic surgeon, I got some information that rang true to my own experience--an inner angel communing with an outer one. I met with a physical therapist in Florence that several people have raved about. He quickly assessed my posture and pointed at That Spot between my shoulder blades which I wrote about last year at this time: the place of chronic pain and tension that many people share with me. (I think of you as my people. We of the hunch. We who use our arms to bring life toward us, rather than meeting it with our hearts.)

"See these wings you've got going on?" he said pointing at my scapulae which do indeed jut out in a rather alarming way. "These are like handles, lady. And feel these muscles in your neck. You have this little body, but a neck like a weight lifter’s." And, lying on the table, I felt him manipulate my neck, bringing it backwards in a way that I found both alarming, and somehow familiar. Like I was going back to an ancestral home.

After I saw this therapist, I went to an orthopedic surgeon. He gave me about 10 minutes of his time, spoke at about 1000 words a minute, and said that it would take many more tests to conclude this, but he was positive I did not have serious enough carpal tunnel syndrome to even consider me as a likely candidate for surgery. Instead he diagnosed me with something called DeQuervain's Tinosynovitis. (Just for the record, I am not against surgery. I still might have it, if the situation warrants. But everyone seems to be saying--even the surgeons--that I am many months away from a knife. I am hoping I can find a lamb.)

I'm trying not to make a big story about Nerissa out of all this, but I can't help it. The story goes like this, and I tell it here in part because this was such a large piece of my inspiration to blog last year at this time, and I feel embarrassed that I am once again in the same place: the place of having to admit that I work too hard. I love to work. Working gives me such pleasure, such a sense of self-importance and affirmation. I hate to say no to anything. I hate to say no to anybody. I feel as though my hands are telling me in the only way they know, "My dear. We need a rest."

One of my favorite treatments for whatever this condition might be is to soak my girls (I've been calling them my girls) in steaming hot water with a half a pound of Epsom salts, and then applying this cayenne cream all over my dry fingers, letting the heat sink in, and then putting the wrist braces back on and covering my hands with gloves, warm big soft mittens. I have stopped checking Facebook; I have stopped reading the New York Times or anything else online. I dictate all my e-mails. I don't read anything or respond to anything and less absolutely have to. Little by little, I am slowing down. Little by little, I am doing less. I've been noticing that it hurts to eat with a knife and fork, so I'm trying to find foods that are spoon-friendly, or that I can pick up and eat with my hands. I am buying pre-chopped frozen vegetables. I am having our milk delivered.

And I'm sitting on the couch and cuddling my daughter while she watches Mary Poppins, crying every time the dad has his epiphany and comes home, skips around the family room singing "Let's Go Fly a Kite.” I sang in church last Sunday, my hands hanging idly by my sides. I am working on opening my chest, opening my heart. I thought I had done this work years ago. Funny, how it always seems to be the same themes. Fear less, love more. Do less, be more.

"Is there hope for me?" This is what I ask every healer I visit. They always say yes, but many qualify that. The positional therapist I saw said, "Yes, but you're going have to give some things up. You can't play guitar and write and knit and garden. You have to choose." Well, of course we know what I will choose. But I grieve that bag of beautiful yarn that won't get turned into felted bags. I grieve the rosebush out front that won't get pruned. But aging is a process of loss and of losses. We become limited with every year that passes. I remember being heartbroken as a 10-year-old, when I realized it was too late for me to be the next Nadia Commenici. And in a way, that was a blessing: I was free to focus on what I really love to do, which was sing and play guitar. My girls have given me some pretty clear direction, and when I'm honest about it, they are answering a prayer I've been praying for the past year or so: give me clear direction about what I am supposed to do. In the past six weeks, I have not wasted my time poking (OW! painful!) around on my iPhone, or thinking of things to post on Twitter. I've been present for my husband, my son and daughter, my clients and writers, the book Katryna and I are writing. Things are pretty distilled right now. Plus, I have these fabulous divining rods attached to my body. Whenever I think or say something, I get an immediate gauge of its true usefulness to me. That fabulous Bible study has been way too much for us to commit to, and we recently made the decision to let it go. Actually that's a lie: the group decided to meet on Wednesday nights, and I have a writing group on Wednesday nights. Even though, I have no business trying to fit one more thing into my life, I found myself scheming about trying to convince the Bible group to move so that I could do both. When I said this out loud to a trusted friend, the nerves on my hands went zing zing zing! I laughed out loud. The body doesn't lie. My girls don't lie.

I have long suspected that the point of study and contemplation is not knowledge, but to become familiar and more comfortable with the not-knowing. So I can't know if this pain will go away. I hope it will, and I suspect it will. I hope to be playing the guitar for the rest of my life, to be writing many more books, to dance with my children at their weddings, and to be doing handstands in my 60s. But in the meantime, I see this... whatever it is... as a great teacher. I asked for a mindfulness teacher, and now I have one -- two in fact -- right here, on either side of my body.