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. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 2010

I'm trying something new. I'm speaking rather than typing. Can one even call this writing? We'll see. As many of you know, I have carpal tunnel syndrome and an additional annoyance known as DeQuervian’s Tinosynovitis, a condition caused primarily by breastfeeding a large child while simultaneously “mousing” on a powerbook. In short, it hurts to type; the kind of hurt that is as much about the fear of making the injury worse as it is about the pain in itself.

I haven't written, really, since February. And even then, all I did was videotape my new songs and post them. I haven't really written anything since the church burned down.

The church burning down -- that seems like a different age. Since then, the seasons changed dramatically in more ways than one. On February 9, my mother-in-law Mary Duffy got a flat tire and ended up having to walk a mile into town to get help. She was hale and hardy, three weeks away from her birthday--I am sworn to secrecy about her age, but I will say it was a good round number. The next day, complaining of stomach pains, she was taken to the hospital. On the way she fielded a call on her beloved Bluetooth, which never left her ear. She was a realtor, and in the middle of an important sale. At one point during the conversation, her client said, "Mary, I'll have to call you back; I can’t hear you over that ambulance in the background. I'll wait until it dies down."

Mary, without missing a beat, said, "Oh no, honey. I’m in that ambulance."

Three days later, the doctors gave her the bad news: pancreatic cancer. One month to the day after that, on March 13, she died in a hospice in Natick Massachusetts. Oddly, I have had the word Natick on my calendar on March 13 for the past eight months. We were scheduled to perform at the Homegrown Coffeehouse in the Unitarian Universalist Church on Highland Avenue that night. Driving my husband in the pouring rain to his mother’s deathbed, I was on the verge of canceling the gig, but Tom said he needed to hear us sing. And knowing somewhere in my consciousness that music heals, I agreed.

At the concert, as per her daughter’s strict instructions (“Mimi wouldn’t have wanted you to cry”) we didn't say anything about my mother-in-law's passing until the end of the evening, when we did “Ain't That Good News, “ and got the entire audience to sing along with us on "Oh Mary Don't You Weep Don't You Mourn.” For the encore, even though it was still technically winter according to both the weather and the calendar, we sang the “May Day Carol” in honor of my mother-in-law’s gift for gardening.

Tom and I met in December 2003. I had recently been divorced and had spent the past couple of years dating lovely man that I just couldn't go the distance with. I realized that fall that I was never going to connect with anyone who didn't have some kind of a spiritual background. I didn't care if he was Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or even a Jungian agnostic, as long as he was a seeker.

In his post on, (yes, we really did meet on he wrote, "Here is something that's new for me: I've recently gone back to the Catholic Church. If this is a turn-off, read no further." Catholic? I could go with that. Even though I was raised Presbyterian and was becoming more and more convinced that my spiritual path was as Buddhist as it was Christian, I had great respect and love for the Catholicism modeled for me by my aunt Jenifer's husband Brian. It was Brian who gave to me for Christmas the year I was 16 a book by the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. The book was a kind of meditation on prayer, as much about the black-and-white photographs of Amsterdam and her people as it was about God, and I was moved by this book so deeply that I vowed to follow Father Nouwen to the place where he was purported to be according to the information on the book jacket: Yale University.

Anyway, I winked at Tom, he asked me out for coffee, and the rest is history. For the first few months of our courtship, we attended St. Mary's Catholic Church in Northampton, a church he had found through another strange connection. Interested in his mother's devotion to this new group called Voices of the Faithful Tom, at the time a journalist for People Magazine, tagged along with her to some of their meetings, and in the process became hooked himself. He did a radio piece on Voices for WFCR and received a phone call shortly after from a woman named Ann Turner. Ann had hunted him down, and when she got him on the phone, said, "You must come to church with me and my family."

For a few months, I thought it might be in my future to convert to Catholicism. But it was 2004, and Massachusetts had just legalized gay marriage. Our priest began to make noises about this, and that was that. Tom and I discovered our sweet little Congregational-cum-Taoist church in West Cummington, where the minister wore a gigantic button that read, "Marriage is for Everyone."

But I still maintain great love and respect for Catholics, for Thomas Merton, the Berrigan Brothers and all my dear friends who believe, if not for the institutionalized church itself. And I knew that my mother-in-law sang in the choir at St. John's in Wellesley, continued to support Voices of the Faithful through all sorts of activities, including everything from marching with them to organizing paperwork. When I asked her about her spiritual life during those last weeks, she said, "Oh, I speak with Sister Evelyn all the time. She's wonderful. God is so good to me, Nerissa." So when Tom found out that the priest—Fr. TomPotter-- who had been so instrumental in supporting Voices of the Faithful would only be available to conduct the funeral on Wednesday, March 17 -- better known as St. Patrick's Day -- and his sisters protested, in part because they would have to reschedule a caterer (no small feat in the Boston area on St. Patrick's Day), he went to bat for Sr. Evelyn and Fr. Tom.
I happen to mention this on the phone to my aunt Jenifer and my uncle Brian, as part of my conversation with them to let them know about Mary's death.

"Sr. Evelyn Lowen?" said Brian.

"I don't know her last name," I said.

"Sr. Evelyn Lowen and Fr. Potter for my spiritual advisors at Harvard!" said Brian. "They were there when Voices of the Faithful began, and they've been nurturing it along ever since. I'm sure it's the same people."

Hearing this, I had chills. I brought the telephone downstairs and confirmed with Tom that indeed Sr. Evelyn's last name was Lowen. And I remembered back to being a teenager, sitting around Brian and Jenifer's kitchen table, talking about liberation theology, Fr. Nouwen, Thomas Merton and my newfound faith. There are angels hovering ‘round, indeed.

Throughout this period of time-- the bullet train that is pancreatic cancer, the shock of losing a parent, the confusion about how to talk to my children about the loss of a grandmother--I have been buoyed by that faith that I discovered amid the black-and-white photos of modern day Dutch in prayer 25-odd years ago. I thank God -- the God of my understanding -- every day for connecting me to my husband, not just through the passions of our hearts and bodies, but by our shared desire to understand all these things, seen and unseen.

Mary died in the middle of a nor'easter. The wind howled as loudly as we did at the foot of her bed. On the day she was buried, the sun shone on the garden in her backyard, the garden she had spent over 40 years cultivating, the garden that is perhaps more purely her, more alive, than anything else she left behind. One of her daughters made sure that she was buried with her Bluetooth. When Lila asked me why people had to die, I pointed to the trees and bushes and flowers in her grandmother's garden. "See those trees? And see the way the land rises over there? This whole garden, and all the trees around here are alive because people and plants and animals died and their bodies went into the ground to feed and support new trees and plants and people and animals. That's how it all works. We take turns."

Also I told her that her grandmother was up in heaven reunited with her grandpa. Because that's what Mary would've wanted me to say. That's what Mary believed: in fact, a week or so before she died, she told my parents that she thought we'd all meet again in heaven. "And if I'm wrong... I'm going to be really angry."

It's what I want to believe, too. I miss you, Mary. We are going to meet again in the kingdom. That's good news.

Monday, March 01, 2010

FAWM #8 Ten Year Tin

Possibly one of the most self-indulgent videos ever made, but here it is. Since recording this demo, we've decided to raise the key and we've messed with the arrangement quite a bit. Once again, the inspiration as well as the title, first line of the chorus and last line of the chorus are Katryna's. She and Dave celebrated their tenth last September.