Thursday, January 26, 2012


This morning the sky was striped, horizontally, gray and blue outside our new windows overlooking the back yard. I held a sleepy Jay, still nursing at 3, and balanced the feelings of this early, too early, thaw. Like everything in our culture, it is too easy to go jacketless in January.

For one of my new year's intentions, I foolishly told God I wanted the courage to share my faith more openly. Also that I wanted someone to come into my life to teach me with a bit more structure than what I've been getting. But first to the faith sharing.

1. I don't really want to share my faith. Believing in God is mostly not cool, unless you are Bono or Anne Lamott or Jesus. But way more to the point, believing in God can associate one with a certain kind of holy that smacks of know-it-allness. As I am a congenital know-it-all, this is really dangerous territory for me. But about God, there is one things I am sure of: I do not know it all. For example, I do not know that there is a God. But I do believe. Those are different things.

2. I don't want to argue with anyone, ever. I don't want to convince anyone else to believe. I don't think I am better than anyone. Opposite. As I have said previously, it is not the well who need a hospital but the sick. So it is with church.

3. I am not in any way shape or form allied with the Tea Party.

4. I think fundamentalism in any guise is fundamentally dangerous. OK--perhaps that is arguing. Sorry.

That said:

5. When I first heard about Jesus I fell madly in love with him. I was about four, and we were standing around my mother's piano at Christmas time. She was playing and singing "Away in the Manger" and I burst into tears because I loved the little lord Jesus and his sweet head so much; the tenderness overwhelmed me.

6. I prayed to God every night, but not on my knees. Just in my head, lying in bed. I asked God to keep everyone I knew alive, to have them not get divorced and wished that they would all be happy.

7. When John Lennon died, I imagined him on a desert island playing guitar and holding court. I would meditate and visit him there.

8. My parents attended a Presbyterian church that met in a farmhouse in Northern VA. The minister was kind, smart, full of struggles which he generously shared with us, rather than pretend to be perfect. He wore a white backwards collar and a goatee. He and his wife became my parents' best friends. When I was fourteen, he died of Hodgkins Lymphoma. A few months before he died, my father finally joined the church. During the service, my dad came off the dias to embrace the dying minister who struggled to his feet, stumbled and fell into my dad's arms. He was thin, young and heavily freckled from the chemotherapy. His hair was falling out. I thought he looked exactly like Jesus must have.

9. I started to pay attention at church. When my father stood up and said that the third teacher in a row had quit trying to teach the sixth graders, and that "Any one in this room is qualified to teach them," I thought to myself, "He said 'Anyone.' But I'm in this room, and I am not qualified." The following Sunday I was their teacher. I taught those kids for the next three years until I left for college.

10. My uncle Brian gave me a book of poetry and photographs by the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. I read it one school night when I was supposed to be writing an American history paper. In the low lamplight of my room, next to my collection of Beatles and Stones LPs I felt something land in my heart with a gentle thud. I was supposed to be a minister.

11. I told everyone. It was an unusual career choice, and I figured I'd only have to work Sundays. Perfect for raising a family, and way safer and easier than trying to be the Beatles.

12. I was in Campus Crusade for Christ for about six weeks after I broke up with the boy I had been dating for four and a half years. This was the first time I ever heard this equation: Adam sinned by disobeying God; therefore humans had to die. God had no control over this, but somehow Jesus sacrificing himself redeemed mankind, or at least those who believe in him. I could not get my mind around it, nor the idea that my best friend who was Jewish was doomed and I wasn't. So I left Campus Crusade, but not Jesus. I went to an Episcopal church and began to write songs.

13. I married right out of college, a man who called himself a secular humanist, and I visited Yale Divinity School and had an interview. Everyone there, it seemed to me, was 42 and female. "So," I said. "I am going to try to do this music thing. When I am 42 I will come back."

14. I had a music career. Deep in the bowels of that career, I got very sick with an eating disorder. I would pray to God, asking for help, but the answer always came back, "Why would God care about your ridiculous obsession with your weight and food? Just stop it!" But I couldn't stop it any more than I could change the color of my eyes. And one day someone told me I had a disease that I was powerless over. Someone suggested that God really might care that I was hurting myself. And I noticed that I was unable to sit still with myself. I could not sit and breath in and out without a surge of hammering thoughts, a kind of deafening pounding of my own heart. People suggested I meditate but that was as crazy an idea as would be telling me to fly. And I could not stop the compulsive behaviors. One night when I fell asleep in despair. I knew I had too much pride to ask for help, to admit that I was different from other people, to admit that as a thirty year old seemingly successful woman, I was incapable of caring for myself in this fundamental way. I could not feed myself. I went to bed utterly defeated. I woke up with this strange, calm willingness. There was a steady quiet voice inside that said, "I am here now. I will take care of you." And from that day forward, with a lot of help from my friends, I never hurt myself with food or lack of food again. The obsession and the compulsion were lifted. I was free.

15. I read everything I could. I had this Presence, and It did care about every aspect of my life, or at least It listened. I read Thich Nhat Hanh, more Henri Nouwen, Marcus Borg, Pema Chodron, Ram Dass, the Bhaghavad Gita, Jack Kornfield, Thomas Merton, Stephen Mitchell, Byron Katie, Eckhardt Tolle, the Bible, Elaine Pagels, and much twelve step literature. I made the twelve steps my path and slowly, a day at a time, my thinking changed. I became different. And I was the same. But in a lot less pain.

16. My marriage fell apart--too much God, he said. I was terrified, but on the first night alone in my house, I felt that Presence again. I lived well as a single woman. I followed the next breadcrumb. I met the guy I was always afraid I would meet--the one for whom I'd have to leave my first husband, or else suffer silently for the rest of my life. We found a church where the minister was a poet and a shepherd and not ordained. We pitched our tent. We got married there, baptized our daughter and then our son.

17. Being a mother proved to be the undoing of any pretense that I was holy. Every stitch of spiritual education was used until it frayed. I prayed on my knees to not yell at my kids, and by seven am I would have broken my resolution. But when I could remember to ask Jesus to show up, i became at least aware of my failings, if not able to act like the grown-up in the room. Sooner or later, I would apologize and the domestic tangles would unravel. I know how to apologize now. I can't live with my own half-turned shoulder for more than a day anymore. So I face front, heart forward. My children are my best spiritual teachers, by far. But recently I have yearned for a more orthodox teacher who can diagram sentences and answer my questions with experience rather than the koan-ic mutterings of my wee gurus.

So a few days after January first, right on schedule, I guess, one of our town's most beloved ministers, the retired pastor of the church where I found 12 step recovery, nabbed me. "It's time for you and me to talk about you going to seminary," he said. (How did he know that every few years I order the course catalogs from Harvard and Yale? Did someone tell on me?) "Do you have time to have lunch with me and another new minister?"

Of course I did. And so we are beginning a process called Discernment, to see if and when I will go on to the ministry. I don't know if it will be ten years or twenty years. I love my life right now, and I have a lot more music to make, a lot more retreats to run, a lot more HootenNannies to teach,and most importantly, a couple of small kids who need me near and close--body and soul. But I have comrades on the journey now, and it does feel as though I am on my way back home.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dreaming of the Dead

(My grandmother)

Last night I had a dream about my grandfather, a man who died in 1981 at the age of 66 from esophageal cancer. When he died, I was thirteen, and I had just discovered him. For most of the overlap of our lives, he was grouchy and clearly regarded his three granddaughters as a noisy nuisance at best and competition for his wife's attention at worst. He regularly yelled at her, and occasionally at us, so we hid from him, spying on him from behind open doors. He was mostly deaf and completely so when he didn't wear his hearing aid. He had a bad back, and I'd watch him stretch it when he thought he was alone. It made me feel strange to see him looking so vulnerable, back against the wall, lifting his arms like the Romper Room lady, wearing funny long white underwear.

He was a fire-breathing monster before his first drink. He yelled at my grandmother in public if dinner wasn't on the table by 6:30. We never ate before seven. Also, my grandmother didn't actually cook the dinner. So I am not sure what that was all about, but at any rate, I was afraid of him, and so were many people.

For Christmas 1977, after years of letting my grandmother handle the gifts to the grandkids, he gave me a stereo--a real stereo, with high quality hi-fi speakers, a synthesizer and a turn table. It was the best present I ever got, and that system followed me to college and to my first apartment, or pieces of it did anyway. He loved listening to music more than anything in the world; he worshiped at the church of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, filling the house with music played so loudly the house shook--remember, he was deaf. The next year, he gave me a Swiss Army Knife with every attachment imaginable. I felt seen. The last summer he was alive, I came to stay with him and my grandmother for a week in the summer. In the still-sunny evenings, he'd drink his soup--the only thing he could eat anymore since his tracheotomy--and ask me what I was reading. When I told him I loved Agatha Christie novels he smiled conspiratorially. "But just the Hercule Poirot ones, right?" And I fell in love with him.

His children deny his alcoholism. But my sister said to one of them, long after he had died, "But they had to pour whiskey into the feeding hole in his stomach every day. I think that means the doctors understood that he was an alcoholic."

Today I joined the Y. I should say "rejoined" since we are foul-weather members, always quitting in late May. Tom and I thought long and hard about joining. We don't know how much we'll really use it since we both prefer to run, walk, bike and do outdoor activities over indoor ones. I have a fabulous yoga studio, so I don't intend to bring my danurasanas there, either. But the kids love it. They need a place to swim and to learn to swim. Everyone I know is a member. And I want a Y two blocks from my house, so I see our membership as neighborly support in part.

I also saw that they have a class at 4:15 called Family Yoga. I have been fantasizing about bringing my kids to a family yoga class since before Elle was born. It's never worked out timing-wise. But today, I saw it would--I am officially looking for something to do with the kids during what is in our family lo-o-o-ong witching hours of after-school to dinnertime.

We started out eagerly enough, each of us choosing a different colored yoga mat from the closet. We set our mats up in a row, with mama in the middle. Elle was terrific, able to do every pose. Jay was predictably hilarious, sitting in half lotus, jumping around on a one-footed tree, inventing something that looked like table pose with one leg up in the air, perpendicular to the floor. Eventually all that devolved to the kids running around the room. I was told that this is usual for this class. The whole thing was a half hour. I was in heaven.

And then we stepped out of the class to put on socks, shoes, winter coats, scarves, hats--all in triplicate. And it was as if I had scalded them with hot water. "That was too short," Elle whined.
"Oh, I am so glad you liked it!" I said. "I wish it were longer too."
"Not longer, Mama! I hated it! We didn't get to run around enough. I wanted to go swimming." And she threw herself down in the middle of the hallway sobbing. Meanwhile, Jay screamed at me when I tried to put his socks on him. "Why do you DO dat, Mama? You are SO MEAN TO ME!!!" And he ran away down the hall.

As I write it now, it's pretty funny. But in the moment, all I could think about was my disappointment that my fantasy about family yoga was going up in smoke; and also that the class that had just started in the yoga room was listening, eyes closed, wishing for a peaceful pre-OM silence, to the sounds of kids berating the World's Worst Mother. So I acted like one. "I'm leaving," I announced. "See you in the parking lot." And I marched off, their coats and hats and shoes in my hand. The kids followed me screaming, "Why are you so mean, Mama! You are being SO MEAN!"

In my dream, someone said, "Granddad has come back." And I saw him first in a wheelchair, many years older, bald and round, lost-looking. But then he stood up and was transformed. He rose to a towering height, and shone like an angel. Perhaps he was one. He was the most handsome version of himself. His hair was silver and gold, and his skin shone gold, too. His eyes were clear and peaceful and kind. I came to him and put my ear to his chest. He held me for a long time. I pulled away and looked up at him. I didn't know what to say. I needed to say something--because I thought he was dead. So I finally looked him in the eye and said, "Should I be worried about you?"

He took a breath. "Well, I am abstinent," he said. "So no. But I haven't beaten cancer yet."

"You will," I told him.

I woke with the sweetest feeling about him. Even now, writing about it, I have tears in my eyes. My friend Judy, an author who writes in my Wednesday group, recently said, "When we dream of dead people, these are not really dreams." Of course, I see myself in this dream, in a very dream-like way, so I don't know. But I also feel as though I had the most wonderful visit/visitation imaginable.

I told the kids on the car ride home that I was sad we had joined the Y because of how terribly they had behaved.
"We didn't behave terribly, Mama. YOU behaved terribly."
I thought about this. They were right.
"That's true," I said. "But it doesn't solve the problem. I think we all need to just take a big break from each other between pick up from school and dinner time. We're all too cranky."
"I'm not cranky!" screamed Elle. "You're cranky! I want Dada!" And she collapsed again on the floor sobbing.

I gave up. I started to make dinner, pulling food out of the fridge with one hand, texting Tom with my other. "Please do not go to the store. Just come home now."
He texted back: "Need to not come home. Need time to myself. Need to come home after you feed the kids dinner." It was a conspiracy. He was going to leave me with them, me whom they hated. Possibly they would have killed me by the time they got home. No, that wasn't realistic. They wouldn't have killed me, but they would probably steal away in the middle of the night to marry men from the motor trade like the girl in "She's Leaving Home."

I started to pray. Help, help, help, like that.

At that moment the phone rang. It was my father. I took the phone into the bathroom, burst into tears and told him briefly about the bad afternoon and then about the dream about my grandfather, his father. As I sobbed, Jay came in and threw his arms around my legs, patting the backs of them consolingly.

"That's wonderful," said my father. "You're lucky to have had that dream."

"Daddy's home!"shrieked Elle, and sure enough, in came Tom to the scene of chaos, me with a tear stained face and the kids attached to my legs, my father under my ear. And I knew we'd all be ok for the foreseeable future.

My grandfather believed in God. I didn't see this myself, and when I learned as a teenager that he was the believer and my saintly grandmother was the atheist, it threw my straight Protestant concepts for a loop. But now I get it. Saintly people don't need God, they don't need church. It's those of us who wrestle with our rage, who look for Spirit in a bottle, who fall down again and again in our relationships, and who are saved by saying we are sorry--we're the ones who need church, just as the sick are the ones who need a hospital. And on good days, we are the ones who see angels.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Update on our Church

Last Sunday, we drove up to church. The new building is going up. Two of the four walls are up. There is a new waterfall in the rock behind the new building--something in the blasting caused its existence. There was a way in which I hadn't really believed our church would ever come back, that it couldn't really rise from the ashes. But it did. It is.

We could see the new building from the window of the Parish House where we currently hold services. It's been almost exactly two years to the day that the circa 1839 building burned to the ground due to a faulty furnace. And today we learned that a Congregational church in Somers, CT just burned in an eerily similar fire. Before our service began, we brainstormed about ways to help the other congregation. Most of what we could give, we realized, was our experience.

For scripture, Steve read, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water."

That's it. Make a CD, do a load of laundry, pick up the kids, write a song, do a load of laundry, have a party for friends, do a load of laundry, do a photo shoot, raise money for your church that's burned a load of laundry.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Photo Shoot for The Full Catastrophe

Last week, Katryna and I had to do a photo shoot for our new CD, The Full Catastrophe, which against all odds is finally looking like it will be finished. We started making this CD in December. December 2009. There are songs on it that I wrote in the Bush administration. Since starting production, my kids have graduated from schools, become potty trained and verbal, learned to ride a two-wheel bike and one of them can now play violin better than I can play guitar.

I hate photo shoots more than almost any other aspect of my job--even more than traveling, even more than playing to a room where we almost outnumber the audience. I hate photo shoots because I feel fake, holding a smile when I am wondering if I am going to have that look in this shot: the one where I look like someone next to me just announced that Democrats should be put in jail for making consumers buy compact fluorescent bulbs--but quick! Smile, because this is the picture we're going to mail to cheer up someone's sick grandma for Christmas in Seattle! I hate standing around. I hate the part where Katryna thinks of something clever, which translates to me looking foolish.

And recently, there's been another wrinkle. That is, wrinkles.

Present at this photo shoot were photographer Kris, our manager Patty, our friend Liz and another Patty who is a hair stylist and beautician. Kris kept saying, "Neriss, it is not torture!" Patty #2 kept saying, "Nerissa, relax your brow! When you're tense, all your wrinkles show!"

"I am relaxing!" I'd shout. "This is as unwrinkled as I get!"

And I'd demonstrate. In order to unwrinkle my brow, I had to lower my eyelids so dramatically that I looked like that blue dog in "Huckleberry Hound" who rode the elevator and said, "Going down, sir?"

I seriously wondered if I should have gotten botox for the shoot.

Our one-time manager Dennis Oppenheimer told us never ever ever, no matter what, to tell our ages. He said, "Just say you're in your twenties. And when you turn thirty, just keep saying you're in your twenties." We followed his advice until we turned thirty. Then we told everyone when our birthdays were and enjoyed the cards and presents.

I have always felt proud of my age, owning it and naming it. I like the way I am aging, mostly. Until I have to have a photo shoot.

This CD is so long in the making, so tenuous in its existence in my mind, that I've kind of let go of all expectations of how it's going to be received. The whole album is about parenthood, marriage and the challenges of staying present to the gifts of these most precious relationships, the challenge of losing oneself in one's beloveds. So of course it is ironic and natural that our husbands and children and the life we have made for ourselves over the past two plus years are the very reasons we have not been able to just put our noses to the grindstone and get the thing out there. We had one day a week--sometimes--to show up in the recording studio, and on these days we really only had from about 11am-2pm. Three hours before we had to go pick up our kids from school.

Anyway, something funny happened on the way to this photo shoot. I actually had fun. First I had fun with Katryna thinking of the image we wanted: a sort of Hopper-esque shot of us sitting on a couple of chairs linked together in the middle of a laundromat, us dressed in finery as if we were going to a ball, but instead surrounded by laundry with one of us checking her iPhone. I saw the image clearly--a blue-green background with stunning overlit shots of us looking gorgeous and washed out, our faces so overlit that all you can see are our shocked features and fancy hairdos. It would be funny and beautiful all at the same time.

It wasn't possible to get that shot because
1. We didn't have the lighting. Instead Liz held up a big gold hula hoop with gold foil stretched over it to shine the lights our friend Jennifer lent us into our faces. But washed out it did not make us.
2. The room was not bluegreen but beige and black and truly ugly, not jolie-laide as I'd imagined. 3. We really looked like women in their mid-forties dressed up to go to a party and not hipster twentysomethings who resembled Delores O'Riorden. I can't get away from the fact that we were born in the late 60s and that we're now in the two thousand teens.

The photo shoot was fun after all. We laughed. We focused. When we saw that our initial vision wasn't going to work, we punted. Our amazing friend and photographer Kris took shots of us in the reflection of the dryer windows. Afterwards we all went out to dinner at one of those little restaurants tucked away, and we tucked ourselves away in the far back corner. All that glamour had made us hungry.