Monday, January 24, 2011

Optimal Blueprint and How I Found My Tibia

Yesterday just before dinner, I came home from a weekend away and scooped up my four and a half year old daughter, kissed her, listened to her adorable recounting of the day. I cuddled her up and said, "Oh, Elle, I just love you so much. Let's be best friends forever and never ever fight."

This is a line we have been using on each other for a year and a half. But today, she just smiled as if she were the mom and I were the kid and said, "Oh, Mama, I don't really think that is possible."

I burst out laughing, hugged her again and marvelled at her maturity. We agreed that it would be OK to fight as long as we made up and forgave each other; and that that, in fact would be even better than not fighting at all. Fighting, it can be argued, can be sort of fun.

Five minutes later, she was lying on the floor having a tantrum because her dad was serving edamame for dinner and this was unacceptable. Twenty minutes after that, she was sitting in my lap gobbling up that same edamame and declaring it the best meal ever.

I spent the last weekend at the Yoga Sanctuary in Northampton, where readers of this blog know that I have been doing an Immersion in preparation for a teacher training for the past year and a half. The workshop I just attended, taught by Martin Kirk, was on anatomy. I wasn't sure what to expect--after all, anatomy has never been my strong suit. I could never remember which of the six bones in the arms and legs were which. (I think maybe I knew that the femur was the thigh bone, but humerus, tibia, ulna--whatever.) But from the moment I took my seat in that gorgeous orange room on Friday night, I knew I had come to the right place.

Martin started with a discussion of what Anusara yoga founder John Friend calls "The Divine Matrix." "There is an underlying Source that directs this dance [of creation, of life] called the Invisible Matrix. It is unseen, unmanifested energy that is you--the you that is you before you were you. That Invisible Matrix is always still there. In Anusara we are trying to line up to our individual matrix [or what is sometimes called our 'optimal blueprint'] But we are all connected to a Supreme Matrix."

I am not sure what exactly prompted me to push aside so many projects last year to focus on yoga. In many ways, it seemed a strange choice. I whittled down my coaching practice to make room for yoga classes and trainings during a year when I was under pressure to deliver a book to a publisher by a certain due date. I proceeded despite an injury to the wrist. I studied the Bhagavad Gita when I should have been blogging or writing songs. And even though the benefits of yoga for my mind and body have been abundant, I remained unclear about what inside me was so dogged in my pursuit.

And here we pause for some amusing Before and After pics.

After one month of yoga:

After 10 months of yoga:

After 15 months of yoga:

The discussion of the optimal blueprint answered my question. This was why I was here. The number one guideline for Anusara yoga teachers is to help students "Align with the Divine;" and that alignment will be different for every single individual on the planet. My job is to align with the optimal blueprint of me, and to thereby be the Nerissa-est Nerissa possible; yours is to be the Elizabeth-est Elizabeth possible, or the Fred-est Fred possible.

This is exactly what I tell my clients and the writers who write with me. The hairs on my ears and arms, not to mention the back of my neck all rose when Martin reminded us teacher trainees of this number one directive. And this: When we're injured, we ask "let me see if I can line up again." When we are off track in our lives, don't we ask ourselves the same question? What worked before? Where am I now? How to I get back to home/back to wholeness. When we find ourselves, our true path, we feel as though we have come home. When we heal, we become whole. We become holy. We return to our individual matrix.

I had a client recently who was in deep despair because he believed his whole life's work up to this point was a reaction to what his father wanted him to be rather than what his own dreams were. "And now I think that even though he was a bastard, my dad was right. I should have gone to med school. I should have become a doctor. Instead I am a failed writer who can't stop watching Grey's Anatomy. I cut off my nose to spite his face. Only it was my face."

There is a Tantric sutra that translates "Even the individual whose nature is consciousness in a contracted state embodies the entire universe in a contracted form." The laws of physics tell us that if you cut a hologram in pieces, you still retain the entire image, though it does weaken in its resolution as it gets smaller and smaller. Martin called these pieces "God molecules," and insists that "It takes pure light to project the fullness of each piece. Only you are your frequency. Refine the pure light of your own frequency and you will be luminous and unstoppable. Even the parts of you you don't like are God. It's all condensed God."

He was preaching to the choir. This is right in line (in line!) with everything in my understanding of late; that God is in the sweetness and the bitter. That everything we live through is allowed. AND that we can get closer to our own individual matrix, our optimal blueprint. Which reminds me of that old aphorism, "God loves me just the way I am and too much to let me stay this way."

But how do we refine the pure light? What is the pure light? What if we wake up on a dark snowy day with a head cold and a pipe has burst and it's negative two outside and our spouse is in a bad mood and the news on the radio makes us want to vacate the planet? And I'm not even mentioning the writer's block.

Another aphorism: "The greatest gift we can give someone is our attention." So far, this is my version of turning on the light. I give myself my own attention for starters. Instead of turning on Facebook (not that I don't love it) or the TV or reaching for a donut or a beer, I sit quietly and listen to myself whine. Sometimes this takes a long time. But it works.

When my daughter was apoplectic over her dinner selection, I just held her and let her moan. Sometimes I repeated back to her what she had shouted to let her know I heard her. Eventually she cleared up, just like the sun coming out from behind the snowfilled clouds and wiped her eyes and took a bite. And remembered she liked edamame.

I listened to my client complain about his dad and his "bad" choices for a long time too. Sometimes I repeated back what he had said to make sure he knew I was listening. I try to be like a good yoga teacher; to offer support where needed, especially when I hear a painful unnecessary thought. I offer an adjustment. I point out when the form is gorgeous and right. But mostly I give my attention. In the light of pure attention, something miraculous happens. The client begins to heal himself. Yes, I definitely point this out, encourage the healing path. But, again, like a good yoga teacher, I am not the healer. I just make the space, offer the simple instructions. Then I let him work through his own possibilities. Should he at the age of 47 go to med school? Should he become a body worker? Or maybe send his resume to a medical journal for an editorial position? My job is to listen and ask him how each of these possibilities ricochets around in his body. What feels exciting? What feels deadening? What thoughts are contributing to each feeling? It is painstaking and delicious work. And nothing is lost from the process except a bunch of used up stories that he finds were not serving him. He finds himself a free man, free to rejoice in his past, and free to make new choices for his future.

There is a phrase in Anusara, an instruction a teacher will often begin with: "Inner body bright." Martin's version of this instruction was: "Let the sun shine in your heart." I, of the notoriously slumped shoulders (which are getting much better!) notice that when I hear this instruction, I naturally lift the sides of my body as well as my rib cage. This small action not only erases the slump, it raises my spirits. I can't help smiling and feeling hopeful, even on the darkest of snowy days. And I dare say, I think this is the way we shine that light to reconstitute our God molecules into so that we, in turn, become luminous.

Here's to the return of the light.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jury Duty

I have jury duty tomorrow. I am terrified I will fall asleep on the bench. That is my number one fear. Other fears:
2. I will starve to death between breakfast and lunch.
3. I will know the accused and be embarrassed for him/her.
4. I won't understand the trial.
5. They will explain it to me and I still won't understand the trial.
6. I will have to admit that I am a Yale graduate who doesn't understand the words of lawyers whose main communicating mission is to explain civil matters to folks who may or may not have graduated from eighth grade.
7. I will surreptitiously multitask while on the bench and get publicly scolded for it.
8. I will end up on a trial that takes 3 months and therefore go broke and miss HooteNanny and my writing groups.
9. Did I mention that I have to be there at 8 and not get to eat lunch till 1pm?
10. I will get there and the trial will sound absolutely fascinating--better than Dallas or West Wing or Friends or ER or Mad Men--but that I will be rejected for all the above reasons and regret it for the rest of my life.

Winter Greens Soup Recipe (From Fields of Greens)

This is an amazingly nourishing soup! Cure all that ails you. I modified it slightly, but it comes from the wonderful world of Greens, a vegetarian mecca of a restaurant in San Francisco where Tom and I went for our honeymoon. I don't have a picture of the soup, but here's a picture of me having just eaten dinner at Greens.

@ 4 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced, about 3 cups
salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup chard stems, thinly sliced
1 medium potato, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 bunch kale, stems removed @ 8 cups washed & packed
1 bunch green chard, stems removed @ 8 cups washed & packed
1 bunch spinach, stems removed @ 8 cups washed & packed
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Make the stock, or buy it. Either way, heat it up and keep warm over low heat.
Heat the olive oil in a soup pot and add the onions, 1/2 tsp salt and several pinches of pepper. Saute over medium heat until the onion is soft, 5-7 min. Then add garlic, chard stems, potatoes and carrot. Saute until the vegetables are heated through, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup stock, cover the pot, and cook for about 10 minutes. When the vegetables are tender, add the white wine and simmer for 1-2 minutes until the pan is nearly dry. Stir in the kale, chard, 1 tsp salt, a few more pinches of pepper, and three cups stock.Cover the pot and cook the soup for 10-15 minutes, until chard and kale are tender. Add the spinach and cook for 3-5 min, until just wilted.

Puree the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth. Thin with a little more stock if you like--here's where I departed. I left it thick, almost like a paste. (People actually could ladle it onto a plate as opposed to a bowl and eat it like a green stew.) Season with lemon juice and more salt and pepper. We ate it with garlic bread and optional parmesan cheese. Makes 9-10 servings. From Fields Of Greens cookbook.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On The Dreaded WB (Writer's Block.)

I just finished running a writing retreat here at my house, affectionately called "Big Yellow" by the marvelous cast of writers who have been coming, practically en masse, since 2005. I love retreats. I love these people, first of all, and I love having them in my house. My kids love them too, and refer to the front room of the house as "the writers's room." They also like that whenever we have a retreat, Tom makes a batch of what he calls "crack brownies" because they are that irresistible. My kids agree. On Friday, we pulled out new candlesticks. We found our favorite Bali blue tablecloth and waved it till it settled on the dining room table. We cooked spiced lentils in butternut squash and made Tom's excellent winter greens soup from the Field Of Greens cookbook. (This soup is like drinking pure health, by the way. Ask, and I will post the recipe.)

Selfishly, I also love the opportunity to write. The method I learned for running writing groups comes from AWA--Amherst Writers and Artists-- and it demands that the leader write along with the attendees to show that the method works. In the past, I have gotten huge chunks of my books written; songs have come to me (most notably "Endless Day") and I have generally left retreats feeling refreshed and inspired.

This weekend, one of the retreatants, Ashley King, sent us all a link to a fantastic TedTalk by Dr. Brene Brown, which thoroughly primed the pump. Dr. Brown spoke movingly and sometimes humorously about her research which involves figuring out why some people have trouble with connection and others don't. It comes down to a quality she calls "wholeheartedness," and what she means by that is something we might more easily recognize as "courage." The word courage has its roots in the Latin "cor" which means "heart." ("Core" is a cognate of this word, and I love that at our core is our heart.) Courage is heartfulness, leading with the heart, with the feelings, with the emotions. In other words, courage is not so much about bravery as it is about vulnerability.

And what is more vulnerable than writing? What is more courageous, for that matter, than writing? What indeed, especially when one has what writers dread more than any affliction, even bad reviews: writer's block.

Rewind a few days. Katryna and I met with our friend Beth Spong for lunch to discuss ways in which the organization for which she is executive director--MotherWoman--and we, the Nields, could join forces. MotherWoman is a fantastic organization that creates support groups for women who have postpartum depression. Actually, their full mission is this:
MotherWoman supports and empowers mothers to create positive personal and social change through: powerful mothers groups, innovative programming to confront the feminist crisis of postpartum depression, and effective political action. Mothers face enormous challenges, including unrealistic expectations, isolation, depression and appalling family policy. By valuing and supporting mothers, everyone benefits.

Yeah. Right on! So up our alley to get behind this! And so we are and we will, but one of the tasks Beth gave me was to write "a song about motherhood which we will videotape and release on Mother's Day. Our aim is for it to go viral."

And I said, "I am up for the challenge! I will start to write it today!"

That was Wednesday.

I poked at the topic. I journaled about my own mother. I wrote a poem.

Then the retreat began. Before my writing pals arrived, I went for a walk, searching for inspiration. The sky was that kind of ice blue that you only see in January. A foreboding sky that you could almost skate on. I got lots of ideas about the song. I could see the video. I could see Katryna and me singing it. I could hear it, in a way. Oh, wait--that was the Ingrid Michaelson song I had on my iPod.

I came back and we all talked about courage, vulnerability and telling the truth about ourselves. The truth is, what keeps us from being courageous is the fear that we are not good enough as we are: that WHO we are isn't good enough, and that if the others could only see what a fraud and excellent faker we are, we'd be kicked out of the nest. This leads to more obfuscation of our true selves and therefore to more disconnection--it's a vicious cycle. But what we find out when we write together and share what we have just written is something quite different: the more truthful we are about our so-called faults--our fears, quirks, addictions--the more easily others can relate to us. While our strengths, our beauty, our kindness, our intelligence, our fashion sense might attract us to each other, all too often, it is our broken parts that connect us to each other. They seal the deal. They help us to bond. (Usually when I bond with someone it's by sharing some deeper part of myself, while the other does the same.) And it is in that connection that we begin to heal, too, or at least to laugh; and laughter is the best healing agent of all.

That was all well and good. Everyone in the group wrote brilliantly, full of courage, full of wisdom, vulnerability, exuberance, grace. Meanwhile, I took my guitar up to my bedroom with my notebooks and MacBook and wrote about seven different completely unsatisfying mother songs. (I am trying not to call them "suckitudinous.") Or at least the beginnings of suckitudinous mother songs. I was like a posterchild for everything I encourage writers not to do. I started something, then my wicked inner critic who had somehow gained access to the process, said, "That is just suckitudinous! Or, maybe it's not so bad, Maybe it's OK. But it could never go viral!" Waiting just outside my door was a parade of all the rejections I have had in my entire life, dressed for Mardi Gras, 8 weeks or so early.

I haven't had WB (writer's block) in about nine years. The last time was after I had finished recording our album Love and China and had no earthly idea where to go next. So I was caught off guard by how truly terrorizing it can be. But this time there was a new twist.

"If you were still on caffeine, you'd get the song," sneered the voice.

Oh, right! Caffeine. And thus began another parade outside my door, this one of all the New York Times articles I have read over the past ten years about how caffeine is great for brain connections, people with ADD (I am certainly a candidate) and overall heightened mental alertness. Oh, how I craved a cup of my strong black tea at that moment! I remembered back in college, my friend Leon Dewan teaching me that whenever he wanted to write a song he brewed himself a huge pot of strong Keemun tea.

What was the point of giving up caffeine if it robbed me of my muse? Was I really going to choose some principal like my health over my mission in life?

The timer went off for the fourth and final session of writing. I had something--probably nothing that would go viral, but something. I packed up my guitar and trudged down the stairs. And because, as I said, the AWA method requires the leader to show up creatively too, I started the sharing session with my bit of song. I figured at the least, I could practice courage. The retreatants were kind and supportive. And I reminded myself that it took me a year to write what is our number one song now on iTunes, the song I got a book deal for, called This Town Is Wrong, and that if it takes me that long to write a great song for mothers, so be it. It might take even longer. But I am not going to give up trying, because I really do have a lot to say.

And I am also not going to pick up caffeine. At least not today.

Instead, I am going to rely on my many WBB's (Writer's Block Busters) that have proved themselves in the past. I would love if you would, in the comments section, post your own WBBs. Here are mine:

1. Let the song go. Keep the spirit alive, but let the body go. Wait for it to come to you. It will. Trust that it will; invite it in. Treat it like a cat. Seduce it at 45 degrees.

2. Listen to lots of music. Notice that many songs you love have not gone viral.

3. Go for lots of walks and runs.

4. Every now and then, remind yourself of a nugget of the song that you like. Hum it.

5. Take lots of naps. Before you take the nap, ask the muse to help you with the song. I often wake up with a tune in my head.

6. Write a different song.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Peter Pan and Caffeine

Lately, it's Peter Pan all the time in our house. Jay insists on listening to the Mary Martin soundtrack every night before bed. Actually, technically, during bed, as we turn it on and let it play him to sleep. "Dat's my number one," he says when the song "Neverland" comes on. "Oh, ya, dat's my number one." He recently informed all of us that we should call him Peter. Also that he is from New York. He forgets the rules of the game, though. Elle wants to be referred to as "Baby Bop," but Jay will enter the room and wave casually and say, "Hi, Peter," to her.

Speaking of Neverland, in 2011, Katryna and I will turn 20. In June 1991, we played our first show for money, billed as "The Nields." That summer we got a regular gig (at the Williams Inn in Williamstown, MA) and put together a press kit (with an article from the Berkshire Eagle by Seth Rogovoy which read, "Come see the Nields. There's never any cover.") We went to music biz seminars and learned the Golden Rule for new bands: Say Yes To Everything. We did this, and it lead to us playing in the lobby of the Bushnell Theatre in Hartford, playing to attendees of a benefit. We had the idea that we could put "Bushnell" on our resume and get lots of fans. Instead we played "Closer to Fine" at the very moment a Channel 22 News camera happened to catch us in action. We also lost the local talent show to a teenage KISS cover band.

We had a lucky break and got booked at the legendary Bottom Line, recorded our first CD (66 Hoxsey Street, now out of print and doomed to stay that way, as long as Katryna and I have any say in the matter.) We got our first radio play (on WWUH in Hartford, thanks to Ed McKeon) and the rest is history. Or geometry. Or paleontology.

The rest has been a really great 20 years.

Katryna and Patty and I met early this week to talk about details of the big celebration we plan to throw for the fans who have been coming to see us lo these many years. Though I cannot divulge much of what we discussed or they will cut off my caffeine supply, I can tell you this: it's going to be remarkable. Meaning you will remark upon the happening for years to come. It will be a happening. it will be June in Northampton, and you will be there. Need I say more? OK, I will say this: We are playing the Iron Horse on Saturday night (June 11) and we have thoughts to play one song from each year we've been together. That means, unfortunately, that we will be playing material from 66 Hoxsey Street.

We all got sick at Christmas time. It wasn't the fault of the barnyard animals we serenaded. Jay threw up in Dave's face on Christmas eve, and after that, we fell like dominoes, one after another, until the only one standing was Tom. He was in such excellent health that he went ice skating several times and built Elle and Jay a double loft bunk bed.

That thing about them taking away my caffeine? was a joke. Because part of the fallout of the stomach virus was that I gave up caffeine. This was no small feat. I believe that I am hard wired to be addicted to caffeine. My whole life, BC (before Caffeine) was one long snooze. I slept through pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school and the first two years of high school. I remember many a teacher picking me up by the scruff of my neck and shaking me as I tried my hardest to use my desk as a pillow.

Then I discovered Diet Coke. I woke up! School made sense! I got good grades! I wrote long poems!

In college, I found my true love: dark black thick coffee, the kind a spoon will stand straight up in. I bought a hot pot and a filter. I lived at Willoughby's in New Haven. I became a morning person.

Sadly, I learned what all lovers of the brew learn: that caffeine stops working after a month or two, and you have to keep drinking more and more, not even to replicate your buzz, because baby, that's long gone. You have to keep drinking more to stay awake, and if you miss a cup, you're headed for the worst headache of your life.

I tried to quit. O, foolish girl! But I couldn't. Something always brought me back, usually the headache, but sometimes just the desire to feel happy. Caffeine made me happy. Like Peter wanting always to remain a little boy, I wanted always to remain up. UP! Even when it stopped working, I kept drinking it, searching for that elusive high.

Once, I gave up caffeine for Lent. Those 40 days were the longest and most dreary of my entire life. I sucked on sugarless cinnamon mints to try to extract some kind of jolt out of them. On Easter Sunday, I was in Pittsburgh, the day after a gig, on my way home. I got out of bed, threw my suitcase and guitar into my car and made a beeline for Starbucks. There I bought: a grande Americano, a venti Awake tea and a cup of decaf just for old time sake. As I drove, and drank the assorted beverages, I became a genius. Again, I wrote long poems, I had huge epiphanies about spiritual principles, I solved all the problems of each of my family members. I think I also painted in oils as I drove along Highway 80, but I'm not completely clear on that. I was pretty high.

After giving birth twice, I switched to black and green tea, also so thick a spoon will stand up in it. In order to get enough caffeine, I had three huge mugsful a day, each one with two or three teaspoons of loose leaf Peets tea (really good tea! Keemun and a fine green called Lung Ching Dragonwell.) I would have two cups in the morning, then eat lunch, make a third cup to bring up to my bed, take a nap (because I was always tired despite the tea) and revive myself with the lukewarm tea. But it doesn't work anymore. It doesn't revive me. It just makes me revved up and anxious. I have been hoping for an opportunity to quit. Who says stomach bugs don't come with unexpected bonuses?

So here I am, January 4, eight days off caffeine, titrating my daily dose of ibuprofen and feeling my own nervous system for the first time in maybe twenty seven years. For the first three days, I slept, on and off for twelve hours a day. The second three days, I needed an hour and a half nap (which, honestly, was true when I was on caffeine, see above). Then one day, I woke at 5am, went to a yoga class, had a meeting, ran for 25 minutes, picked up my kids and went shopping for dinner, fed my family, ran a writing group and went to bed at the normal hour. All by myself.

I am all here. And giving up caffeine makes me think that I can do pretty much anything. Time will tell if I can keep this resolution, but for now, nothing feels as good as my own wakefulness. I am going to miss the highs, but they may be in the past anyway. Far sweeter to face the day clear eyed and ride the waves of my own energy.

Just don't go waving your Americano under my nose. For now.