Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Time Consciousness

Time Consciousness

I like the term “time consciousness” better than “time management” because we don’t really manage our time. We think we can, and this causes all sorts of frustrations and forms of mental illness. It’s the illusion of time management that leads to all manner of anxiety and uptight behavior. How can you manage the sun rising and setting? You just have to surrender to it. Besides, as an artist, one of the first rules I learned was that serendipity (which is, by definition, that which is out of one’s control) was the very best song-giver. At the same time, I found early on that the way to be open to serendipity was to leave myself designated times to create, to even go so far as schedule “write songs” into my day planner. We’d be in the van driving around, and I’d start to get that anxious feeling that I always get when I haven’t written a song in awhile. I’d look around quickly and confirm that it would be impossible for me to pull a guitar out of the attached trailer while driving 65 mph down Route 80, and instead sigh and write “songwriting week” into my calendar during the second week of March, the next time we were off the road.

The week of March would arrive; I would come downstairs first thing in the morning with my cup of coffee, notebook, and guitar, and I would write all week until the songs were written. It seemed to work pretty well. But during the interim, I acted like a little video camcorder, taking everything in, jotting down ideas, and humming tunes into a tape recorder. Whatever crossed my path turned into potential material for my songs. This is still pretty much the way I write. I go around figuring the universe is trying to tell me something, so I’d better listen.

The other reason I like the term “time consciousness” is the way it connects to the marvelous truth that all we ever have is this moment, and another way of saying that is all we really have is time. And maybe not as much of it as we assume. I try to hold this loosely, so that I’m not neurotically thinking “must get this done before I die” in a freaked-out, Type A kind of way; neither am I just lolling about eating bon bons and watching American Idol (though Katryna might be). I try to keep a schedule and also an eye open to the plans of others, in case they have a better idea of what I should be doing with my time than I do. Sort of like that excellent 38 Special song “Hold On Loosely.”

To buy the book, go here! Available as an ebook or a paperback!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Interview with Nerissa Nields by Robyn Day from WBUR

Below is a Q &A with Robyn Day from WBUR's The Artery. Her piece is here. But we thought you'd like to see Nerissa's answers to her questions.

Robyn: You mention the double shift in your writing, and the delicate balance that women must maintain between their professional and home lives-- I wonder how feminism has influenced you or how it informs your music?

Nerissa: Katryna and I were raised by a woman who just missed coming of age during the heyday of feminism, but she is a very strong women who raised us to believe we could do anything we wanted. AND there was never any doubt with either Katryna or me that we wanted to be mothers. I was very conscious in my teens and college years that I would have a career that had flexibility to include kids. We both hoped we'd make it big enough to continue tour full time touring and somehow have nannies and fancy music tutors and a tour bus equipped with a small trampoline, and side trips to the great wonders of the world, all with our kids and husbands in tow, but it didn't work out like that. And now, of course, we wouldn't have it any other way.

Both of us consider ourselves feminists. We're a little too old to be "third wave," but we're both in that camp. And we are fortunate to be married to fantastic men who are equal partners in child-rearing and (more or less) housework.

Robyn: You write about the difficulty of making time to work on your music (especially with this new album that took years to complete), and yet you embrace all of your commitments fully--family, home, art, work--and your life is richer for doing so. Much of your new CD is about these commitments. Would it be fair to say that they provide your inspiration and much of the fodder for your music?

Nerissa: Yes, absolutely! I think that's evident from all the songs. There are a couple of great websites by artist/moms who have made their children their subjects.
"Lenka Clayton, conceptual artist and full-time mother created Artist Residency in Motherhood as both a personal and political statement. Artist residencies are not usually intended for artists who have families. Mostly, they are designed as a way to let artists escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday life. Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticisation of the unattached (often male) artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labor, for exploration and artistic production."
And this incredible Creative Mom.

Robyn: Would it be more difficult, in a way, to write music without your other commitments (despite having more time to work without other obligations)?

Nerissa: I don't know. I honestly don't think so. My writing needs time and space, and the more I work and give my time to my family, the less time I have for writing. My output did diminished recently. But it's picking up since my youngest has gone to Kindergarten! I plan on doing February Album Writing Month in 2014. I did it every year from 2009-2011. Knew I would never be able to handle it in 2012. Tried in 2013 and could only write about 5 songs (you're supposed to write 14...) That being said, my other obligations certainly inspire me! But there is that law of physics thing. My fantasy, certainly, is to have way more time to write.

Robyn: Who and what has influenced your music? Which other artists, genres, traditions, or unexpected sources of inspiration? Have you had mentors along the way? What inspires you these days?

Nerissa: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell are my Top Three, and always will be from a seminal sense. Pete Seeger in terms of vision and career arc. Dan Zanes for the Family Music model. Anne Lamott for her courage and honesty. What inspires me these days are the writers who come to my weekly writing groups and seasonal retreats. I am constantly blown away by what they come up with, and how important it is to be dedicated to the craft. You do that by showing up. I guess I am most inspired and impressed with longevity; the daily showing up. That's what's needed above all.

Robyn: How was the process of making this CD different from your previous work? Did slowing down the process of creating new music change that music in some (expected or unexpected) way? Did it feel like a struggle to make time to write music, or were there unexpected benefits?

Nerissa: It didn't feel like a struggle to write the music. I wrote most of the songs in 2009, during a period of time where I had just had my second child (born in Aug. 2008). After foolishly believing I didn't need much of a maternity leave, I got wise and took most of that year to blog about the intersection of motherhood and being an artist (you can see these posts on nerissanields.blogspot.com and look at the 2009 posts --this one is about making the CD). I gave myself a lot of time for writing, and also for listening to new (to me) bands, like the Decemberists and Neutral Milk Hotel. We started recording in December 2009, with the idea we'd work every Friday. But it didn't go nearly as quickly as we'd expected! I wrote a piece about the process for my book How to Be an Adult and that excerpt is here.

Robyn: How has your sound developed? After twenty years writing music and performing, are you still learning new things and developing as artists? What are you excited about doing now or next?

Nerissa: This is such a great question! And would take another book to answer! I guess we started out as a folk trio, not even knowing what a "sound" was. On our third album, Bob on the Ceiling, we began to claim an identity, though it's hard to use words to describe what we were going for. I think the journey has been from an overly cerebral wordy, busy sound to a more spacious one, but maybe that's only my hope! I tend to write really wordy songs, but Katryna's beautiful voice does best with fewer words, more opportunity for her to hold notes. Our producer, Dave Chalfant, is scrupulous about sound, and his mixes always blow me away. We are so lucky to work with him!

When we did our 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse in Northampton in 2011, so many people said to us, "You've all grown as musicians! You're even better than you used to be!" The best thing about being a musician is that as long as you keep playing, you ARE going to get better, no matter how old you get. Even singers, whose voices can show the wear and tear of years, if they take care of those voices, they will get better and better. I feel very confident that this is the case with Katryna and me, and it's certainly the case with Dave Chalfant, our guitarist, and Dave Hower our drummer.

Robyn: What do you hope those who hear The Full Catastrophe will take from it? What motivates you to keep making music and performing?

Nerissa: I hope they will hear self-forgiveness! That was my main purpose in writing all the songs. We're all doing the best we can. Life is HARD. So we don't need to pile on and be hard on ourselves, especially in the realm of parenthood. Paying attention--that's the holy grail. But we can't always be present, especially in this internet-focused, iphone-obsessed culture. So we do the best we can, pick ourselves up when we fall, recommit ourselves to love and attention, love and attention.

Robyn: Do you believe it is more challenging or difficult for women to maintain their artistic lives when more is demanded of them at home? How do you work this out for yourself?

Nerissa: Yes! It's a painful struggle. Mostly I accept that my house is messier than I'd like it to be, and that I live in a state of disorganization. I work at organization, because it does make everything easier and go faster, so I am not giving up on filing and housecleaning entirely. But I do get help. I have babysitters at times so I can get work done. This makes me sad, too, because I'd love to be there all the time for my kids. But we do have to make choices. I am an artist AND a mother. I try to honor both roles every day. And accept that I am always doing B minus work (based on my own standards of grading). And I've learned that that's good enough. At least for now.

Robyn: How long have you been playing at Club Passim? How have they supported you and your music? How would you describe your relationship with them?

Nerissa: I think we first played Passim in 1995, but I am not totally sure about that. I know it was when we were a 5-piece band with a huge drum kit, so fitting on the stage was hilarious! And I think our guitarist electricuted himself on the mic because of some non-rock-friendly wiring. But once we became a duo in 2001, the room was perfect for us. We've been playing there at least yearly since. Passim shows are among our favorites. And our last record The Full Catastrophe won an Iguana grant, so Passim has very directly supported us! It feels like home. We love that room.

Better to Strive in One’s Own Dharma Than to Succeed in the Dharma of Another

I love my job. It is, after all, my dream job. I have wanted to be a singer since I was seven. I am one of the lucky ones who got to do what she wanted. I love singing for a living, love writing songs, love traveling around the country with my sister. But at the height of my career, I found myself clandestinely purchasing Martha Stewart Living and reading it in secret in the back of the van, hiding its cover behind Rolling Stone. (I referred to Martha Stewart Living as my “porn.”) And sometime around the time I met Tom and we got married, I began having fantasies about having health insurance and weekends off. I began to wish that I didn’t have to rely on my wits so much. If I were someone with an honest trade, like a plumber or a nurse, I thought, I’d always have work to do. If I run out of ideas, I have nothing. This can make a person anxious, or at the least, give them Stiff Neck Virus. Stiff Neck Virus is my father’s term for what happens when suddenly your shoulders creep up to your ears and you have to turn your whole body in order to converse with the person sitting next to you in the car. I always seemed to get Stiff Neck Virus after a long weekend on the road or a plane trip where I had to lug my six-thousand-pound guitar.

In 2004, Katryna took her second maternity leave, and I did a solo tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer called “Folk The Vote.” (It was fun, but apparently we didn’t Folk enough because George W. Bush won a second term.) On that trip, my friend Jill Stratton suggested that I become a life coach. “A what?” I said. But I was intrigued. I’d heard of Martha Beck; I’d even read one of her books. I went home, did some research, made some applications, flew out to Arizona, and within a few months was fully certified in her program. I had a full client roster, and I discovered an entire continent of myself. Day after day, week after week, I sat in my sunny office at home, talking on the phone to men and women about their lives, their careers, their struggles. I listened, challenged, questioned, probed, got excited about their successes and grieved with them about their setbacks. I loved coaching. And I began to think I could do it for the rest of my life. It was fun and creative work, after all. It was especially fun to help them with time management (er, consciousness) and forgiveness work. Most interesting of all for me was exploring the mind-body nexus—getting clients (and myself) to feel feelings in our bodies and using a tool called “wordlessness” to make sense of them; to stay with feelings and not run. As this is not my strong suit—I am the proverbial helium balloon, constantly floating up above as a thought takes me away from the present moment—it was great practice to work with others.

But something nagged at me. There were many times when clients came to me with issues that were frankly above my head. There were many times when I wished I’d had more training. Should I go to grad school for social work? Divinity school? Become a “Master Coach”? But how could I get more training when I still had a music career, a writing career and a family to hang out with?
After the birth of my second child, the director of my favorite yoga studio started coming to the children’s music classes Katryna and I run. “Oh,” I said to her one day. “I have always wanted to do a yoga teacher training. But who has the time?”
“I will teach you privately!” she said.

Yes! I thought. Not only is yoga teacher training on my Bucket List, this is just what my coaching practice needs! I will become even better at being present, being embodied. I will help my clients so much—not to mention fulfill a lifelong dream to create a daily yoga practice. This was IT! The next breadcrumb.

And so for a year and a half, I met with her privately, went to several classes a week, practiced on my own in the mornings, read books on anatomy and medieval yogic philosophy. I learned to do a handstand, twisted my body till I saw things from an entirely different point of view, lost my baby fat, felt a new centeredness and groundedness. The training was half over. I looked ahead to an even more intense period of study and practice. Meanwhile, Katryna and I were writing a book for families, to teach them to make music with their young children; and we were also attempting to record our 16th CD The Full Catastrophe. Friday was our only day to work in the studio. Friday was also a yoga day. Every Friday, I found myself torn between my commitments. Usually I did both.
My teacher assigned The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient text that tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior who is about to enter the battlefield but has suddenly panicked. The poem is a conversation between himself and his charioteer who turns out secretly to be the god Krishna. At one point, Arjuna begs Krishna to reveal himself—to get out of his disguise as charioteer. So Krishna does. But the vision is overwhelming—full of monsters and blood and gore and so much raw beauty and horror that Arjuna is overwhelmed. He wants Krishna to put his Halloween costume back on to finish the conversation. He simply can’t bear to see God in all His glory. It’s like staring into the sun: for us humans, this is a recipe for going blind. And so Krishna takes pity on his poor human charge, and resumes his disguise as charioteer.

Towards the end of the poem, Krishna tells Arjuna, “One’s own dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own dharma is better, for to perform another’s dharma leads to danger.”
Something profound shifted in me as I read this. My dharma, for better or for worse, is my career as an artist: musician and writer. And, as I understand it, we don’t choose our dharma––which means vocation, among other things. It chooses us. All these months of studying yoga felt very much to me, in that moment, like my dharma. But teaching yoga––that belonged to someone else. Like Arjuna, I was avoiding the "battle" involved in the business of living by one’s wits, by one’s muse––in short, as an artist––by turning to alternative ideas about how to make a living. When I read the Gita, I related to Arjuna throughout; as wanting to get out of the battle, not go forward into my fate––of appearing to others (if not myself) as an aging musician who never had a hit, or of laboring to write a book that might not even make a splash.

Looking backwards at my career, I alighted at my 23-year-old self. If could talk to that 23-year-old, who was safely working in a boarding school as an administrator, just married, with just a dream to be a folk singer, and I, Krishna-like, revealed to her what would be in store for her/me for the next twenty years if I chose this path, that 23-year-old would not have chosen it. That 23-year-old’s idea was to try this music thing, succeed at the level of the Beatles, with the plan that, if she failed, she’d go to Divinity school in her forties. Given a reasonable back-up plan, who would choose to stay in a “failed” career? Who would choose to strive so hard and so long for a goal (world famous singer/songwriter) and not achieve it?

The problem was, I didn’t fail. We weren’t the next Beatles, but we have a very successful music career, landing in the gray area between world famous and sub-karaoke. Moreover, looking back, I would not change a single thing. I can’t say I have a single regret. I am so glad to have exactly the amount of fame and success I do have. Even the disappointments have made me who I am today. Every year, I am so glad I continue to make music, continue to perform. What a life I have had! Music chose me, wooed me, won me, in the end.

And I am glad I didn’t know how it would turn out. I am so glad I had those big dreams as a young person. Young people need to have big dreams, and their work is to mine those dreams, work hard to reach for the big brass ring. It’s none of our business whether or not we succeed in wrestling it down, but it is our business to reach.

We can't ever stand to know what our future will hold. It is too much, just as the vision of Krishna in the Gita is too much for Arjuna. We think we can’t possibly live through what we end up living through. But we do live through it, and if we are awake and kind—to others and ourselves—we come out the better for it.

Yoga is a process of making one’s inner intentions match one’s actions. To make my inner intention match my actions, I needed to admit that as hard as it was to go forward as an artist, I had to because it was my dharma. Also, as hard as it is to keep showing up on stages around the country, I do love it. I do believe I still have much to give. And if I am awake, I notice that after shows, over and over, people say things along the lines of “Thank you for sharing your gift. Thank you for bringing your message to North Carolina/St. Louis/Winnipeg/Seattle––thank you for traveling so far to sing to us.” In other words, I got, post-Gita, that we are actually doing a service by sharing our music. I still often feel just so grateful that anyone pays any attention to us at all. It feels like a gift to get to make this music. I feel as amazed as Willie Mays when he found out that he could be paid to play baseball. Most days, I would pay to play. Good thing our manager won't let me.

Only by single-minded devotion
can I be known
as I truly am, Arjuna––
can I be seen and entered.

I went back to the studio. I needed to take a leap of faith in my music career: devote more time to it, even though it might not be remunerative. Rather than get a degree or a certification, I needed to take a hiatus from my life coaching practice. I needed to continue to give myself, my artist––my Willful Child if you will––margins to play in and explore. I needed to write for the sake of writing again. And I needed my IAP to cultivate single-minded devotion. (Not to just one thing; that's not possible for me. But whatever it is I am doing, being, whomever I am loving, I must do this with devotion, focus and attention.) Our book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family came out in September, 2011. The Full Catastrophe came out in April 2012. Neither shot to number one. No matter. We are so happy with both projects, so delighted when people let us know that they read and use the book, listen to the CDs. And of course, making The Full Catastrophe proved to us that we still love making CDs, layering our harmonies in the studio, working with guest musicians. And our long-time fans repeatedly let us know that they love it; that they play it; that they are learning the songs and singing them with their families. We have a book that stands as a teaching tool and memoir, rolled into one. And we have another CD to represent a phase of our lives, of our career. Process, not product. This, to me, is success.

And finally, since my yoga training, the first thing I do every day is a single humble sun salutation. I can officially say that I have a yoga practice.

Excerpted from How to Be an Adult. To read more, buy the book!

Monday, November 04, 2013

Time, Resistance and Priorities--From How to Be an Adult

This chapter starts with what I consider some important skills to develop when moving from the carefree, fake-cheese eating world of adolescence to the kale omelet world of Adulthood. These skills are:
1. An ability to know who you are, so you know what you like, so you know what you want, so you know what you need, so you know what you must do.
2. An ability to work with the currency of Time
3. An ability to deal with the related issue of inner resistance, otherwise known as DPI (Desire to Procrastinate Indefinitely)
Now, some of you soon-to-be-adults will have no need for the chapters that follow, and if that be the case, skip ahead to the practical sections on exercise, food and sleep, and knock yourselves out. Your problems (if you have any) may have more to do with sitting back and relaxing rather than kicking your own butt, which may be sore from all the lunges and squats you’ve done over the years. There’s a section just for you a little later on. It’s called “Eight Cheap Forms of Therapy.” For the rest of us who know a little something about sitting in front of the TV for five days straight eating nothing but microwave popcorn and diet Shasta, read on.

Know Thyself
Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
––Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

Everyone seems to know that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” Very well. What most people ignore is that the character who says this oft-quoted line is the big blowhard and hypocrite and oh, by the way, spy, Polonius. In the context of the scene within the play Hamlet, what he really means by this bit of wisdom adopted by the New Age, is, “Make sure whatever you do, you look appropriate and protect your interests.” Still, there’s a reason the New Agers (and many Hallmarky-type cards and refrigerator magnets) have sold this quote. It’s valuable advice. Even so, because as a teenager I really hated Polonius, I prefer Socrates’s “Know Thyself,” which is more succinct.

How do you know who you are, anyway? Until you do, you can’t really do much. You just kind of whirl around in circles, following whatever is the most sparkly (or safe) person, situation, trend, idea, diatribe, religion. You get your idea of self (usually) from your family of origin, or perhaps from your social group at school or elsewhere. But what if they are all saying things that don’t ring true to you?

Get out of the house, and get out of town. Or at least, begin to question: what feels unharmonious to you about the messages you’re getting from these people? Are they walking their talk? More importantly, are you? When you listen to that core set of values deep inside yourself, does it match how you are behaving on the outside? When your inside matches your outside, we call this “integrity.” Look for others with this quality. Get to know them. These people are the real deal. As Gandhi says, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Figuring out who you are and what you like and what you want and what you need is a lifelong pursuit. Some get clarity earlier than others; you might already have a very good idea of who you are and what you do best and what you like and what you want and (sometimes hardest of all) what you need. If you know these things about yourself already, use your knowledge to be—to paraphrase Dr. Seuss–– the Youest You you can possibly be. If you don’t, take some time to find out. It does take that most valuable resource: time. I first took this kind of time the summer I turned fourteen and was leaving the school I’d attended for seven years to move on to high school. I lay in my bed every morning, thinking, “who am I really?” And by the end of the summer I’d made some important discoveries. First, that (like my heroes, John Lennon and Bob Dylan) I was an artist, and therefore (necessarily) different from everyone else. And second, that therefore I didn’t need to worry about “fitting in” anymore. Eventually everyone would catch on that I was hip, but for now, I could march to the proverbial beat of a different drummer. With these empowering discoveries, I had a huge surge of energy and creativity. I began writing songs; I spoke out about what I believed; I started to wear a lot of red and purple, and also strange hippie garb from the Salvation Army. “I have found myself!” I announced audaciously to anyone who cared to listen. (I really impressed my mom, but my sisters told me later that they were horribly embarrassed for me.)

And indeed, I had found myself. But then “myself” changed, and I realized I looked terrible in red and that I wasn’t really a hippie. We discover ourselves like the layers of the onion. It’s an ever-evolving process. We have to keep asking ourselves what we really love, and make sure we are not swayed by the opinions of others. If all our friends were suddenly abducted on a spaceship and we were left with a totally different crowd, would we adopt the new crowd’s preferences and predilections? Would we stay true to what we loved now that we are a part of the (now Martian) crowd? Or are we secretly glad our old buddies have moved onward and upward? In fact, you might want to listen carefully to those outside your strongest spheres of influence. If you are a diehard Christian, read the Koran. If you are a lifelong Democrat, read Atlas Shrugged. If you grew up listening only to classical music, try some hip-hop. Don’t let others define you. Make up your own mind. See for yourself.

Play a game of “What Do You Like Better?” Oatmeal or chocolate chip? Red or blue? Liberty or Justice? Urban or Rural? When in the day is your energy strongest? What makes you lose your temper? Which is harder for you: anger or sadness? Which is harder for you: your own feelings or the feelings of others? Do you really like jazz? Big drooly dogs? Ernest Hemingway? Short hair? Sci-Fi? Downhill skiing? Or do you just wish you were that kind of person?

To some of you who have strong, healthy egos these questions might seem ridiculous. But I must confess that when I was in my teens I “put on” a lot of likes, dislikes and opinions that were not quite true to who I really was—and I certainly believed I had a healthy ego, and I came across to my friends as a leader. Looking back, here are some of my “should likes.”

• Camping
• Rush (the band)
• Charles Dickens’ novels
• Soccer
• Lord of the Rings

And some “should not likes.”
• Tiny cuddly dogs
• Peter Paul & Mary
• Makeup
• Woody Allen (I know I’m supposed to hate him, but…)
• iPhones
• Starbucks

Some of these are things I realized as a young girl. I should definitely not like:
• To play with dolls
• To like fairy tales
• To wear pink
• To watch The Brady Bunch
• To re-read the Little House books when I was in 7th grade

And so I did these things in secret. I “put on” being a tomboy instead.

Even as I write this, I am cringing. I don’t want anyone to know some of my true likes and dislikes. But one of my favorite parts of Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful Happiness Project is her First Commandment (to “Be Gretchen.”) This reminds me of the Hindu observation that God dwells within us as us. Those quirks we can’t stand about ourselves––they are divinely wrought. And our work is not to eradicate them but to learn to love them.

The older I get, the more permission I give myself to love what I really love. Our twenties are a time when we start to put down the masks and stop trying on different personae. By the time you hit thirty, you should be well on your way in a lifelong game of Hot/Cold (“Warmer….warmer…hot! Hot! Hot! You’ve found it!”).

“Why try to be a Pekingese if you are a Greyhound?” Listen to the still small voice within. Get to know it. Take it out on dates. Write to it. Talk to it, but also listen. See if it has any better ideas. Some people have an Inner Child. (More on this coming up.) In addition to my Inner Child, I seem to have been gifted with an Inner Sneering Older Brother, whom I probably acquired from reading too much Creem Magazine when I was a teen. Some of my work today involves standing up to that Inner Sneering Older Brother (ISOB) and singing, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow!” or some similar drippy 80s ballad. (ISOBs hate 80s ballads, 100% of the time.)

Now is the time to do something wild and crazy. Join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or teach English abroad. Move to New York City or Los Angeles and live the life of a starving artist. Move to Bhutan and become a monk or nun. Go to Europe and be the founder of a political movement. Start a rock band like I did and travel around the country. Or, if you know you are going to end up being an artist, take a few years to do something totally different. (One of my friends from college became a cop. He’s now a writer. What amazing material he got during those years!) You will never be this unencumbered and free again! And your back will never enjoy sleeping on other people’s floors as much as it does now! Seize your moment!

This of course assumes you have your college loan situation under control. Mindful of paying off the bills, do so—in the most adventurous way possible within your comfort zone. And use your weekends for exploration. Take a weekend to be alone. Go on a Vision Quest. In Native American tradition, youths are sent away with no food (usually) to spend a period of time communing with their spirit guide. At the end of this period, they come back to the tribe clear on what direction their future will take.
Can you find a way to do something similar? I am only asking because, adult though (I think) I am, I wish I could say that I have done a Vision Quest. Everything about it terrifies me: the wilderness, the fasting, the insects, the boredom. That’s why I think it might be necessary. Next edition, I hope to report back.

One more thing about my crazy vision quest idea: it is worth noting that in every ancient tradition on every continent the young males went through some kind of initiation rite (the young females did not because they were usually impregnated at that point and/or breastfeeding, and believe me, motherhood is a pretty thorough initiation rite in and of itself). The point is, people have known for millennia the necessity of taking time apart to know oneself so that one can find one’s place in the community, make choices that are true and right and not end up like Zelig, the famous Woody Allen character who, chameleon-like, became whoever the people he encountered wanted him to be. Too many of us fail to buck peer pressure even when we’re well beyond Junior High. “Know thyself” is an ongoing project; the work of a lifetime.

To buy the book, go here! Sale this week: ebook=$2.99!

Also, which cover do you like most? This?
Or this?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to Beat (Song)Writer's Block

A few months ago, I was struggling to write songs. This fact totally shocked me. I have been a songwriter from the age of 13, and for quite some years, I was averaging one new song a month. Starting in 2008, I have been a loyal participant of February Album Writing Month, and while I never succeeded in writing 14 songs that would make a decent album, I usually came out with a pretty great take.* But last February, I fell way shy of my goal, and not only that, the process of trying to write was excruciating. (I was destroyed by social media, if you must know, but that's altogether another story, though about that I will say that the root of all evil is busy-ness. Being too busy and overloaded with Thoughts, and Things To Do)

Bent, but not broken, I sat back and contemplated my disappointing case of writer's block. What was wrong? What could I do to make it better?

I moonlight as a coach for creative types, and so I have some tricks up my sleeve. Here's my general advice for beating songwriter's block:

1. Give yourself permission to write some really bad songs. In fact, TRY to write the worst song ever.

2. Along these lines, if you do get a good idea for a song (say someone, like your sister who is also your bandmate, gives you an excellent idea, since you currently have zero ideas), tell yourself that you will write no less than five versions of this great idea song. That way, you won't be overwhelmed by the great idea. That happens to me. I think, "Man, this is such a great idea. And now I am going to wreck it, because I am so completely uninspired." And I think, "I'm supposed to write a song about a princess! But I have so many divergent feelings about princesses! How can the case of princesses be summed up by one mere song? It'll have to be a great song! That's way too much pressure!" So then I think, "OK, I'll write five princess songs!" I give myself leeway, again, to write some bad stuff. And since we always think what we're writing is bad, we'll be pleasantly surprised when we find a good line or two.

3. Fill the well. When I am empty of ideas, I need to be filled. So I start listening. I start watching TV. I go to the movies. I read read read read. I make sure to read and watch a lot of junk, as well as some good stuff. I just go into collection mode. I become a packrat of ideas. I let it all settle down at the bottom of my river, like so much flotsom and jetsom. Or, to use another metaphor, I collect a lot of scraps for compost and let it all meld together. Rich soil, effluvium, for later.

4. Along these lines, I listen to my old favorites: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell. Last month, I wrote a princess song that was totally inspired by Joni. More on that in a moment...

5. I also listen to new stuff. Brandi Carlile, Ingrid Michaelson, Miley Cyrus. (Just kidding about Miley Cyrus.)

6. Study an instrument. Usually when I get writer's block, I work on my guitar playing. This time, I started taking piano lessons. Piano!

I have to digress at this point to wax poetic about my love for the piano, and my piano teacher, Maggie Shollenberger. In just 5 lessons, Maggie has unlocked the secrets of the keyboard for me, taught me some blues, helped me to improvise for the first time, not to mention taught me "Imagine," "Hey Jude" and "Woodstock." I practice my "chord gym" every day, and I even played "Imagine" and "Sarah's Circle" in church last month. Studying piano has restored the freshness of music to my tired ears. I hear totally differently now, as a budding pianist.

But did these ideas work in terms of my songwriting? YES! Last month, Katryna and I debuted two new songs: "River," a Gillian Welch-inspired sister to my song "Give Me a Clean Heart;" and "Princess," an ode to princesses and anti-princesses everywhere. (And I only had to write one princess song, as it turned out.) We'll sing these songs, and many others on Friday Nov. 15 at Passim in Cambridge. Hope to see you there!

Nerissa and Katryna debuting new songs at the Parlor Room in Northampton, October 12, 2013

*Songs written during February Album Writing Month: "Good Times Are Here," "I Am Half My Mother's Age," "Between Friends," "Rise and Shine." Plus a bunch of HooteNanny songs.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How I Got a New Cover for How to Be an Adult

I had full confidence in my taste, until about ten days ago when I met with my brilliant little group of fellow creative entrepreneurs, and by unanimous vote, they told me to change the cover of my book How to Be an Adult. I wouldn't have even listened to them, except that one of the voters was Katryna, the creator of said cover.

"It looks too much like your kids' music album covers," one said. "Too hard to read," said another. "You need something hip. Your target market is 20 somethings. You need to appeal to them." "Don't go for Nields fans. They all have the book. Go for a new audience."

The hilarious thing about all this advice is that I have been getting it all, word for word, for the past 22 years vis a vis our music career. Well, except the part about the kids music, since 20 years ago we had no kids music, but we did used to get complaints about our newsletters being hard to read. And once an A&R guy rejected the songs for the next record saying, "Too Nieldsy."

Someone in my creative entrepreneur group suggested I go to a site called 99 Designs where they have contests among designers to make book covers (among other things), all for $299. In a week, I could have a new cover.

My group got very excited about this idea. I, meanwhile, wept quietly in the corner. I love the cover of my book so much it hurts. I love everything about it: the color scheme, the little me holding up the world of stuff, Katryna's inimitable artwork. When I see it laid out next to my other two books, I love it the most and whisper to it, "You are my favorite child." It's SO pretty!

But eventually, I was swayed. OK, it does kind of look like a kids' book. It is not exactly hip. This made me doubt my taste, which is the worst feeling in the world for an artist. There is that mean voice that says, "What do I know? Have I ever had a bestselling anything? No. So the other people must know something I don't know."

My friend Beth listened to me whine about how sad I was about changing covers, and how maybe I should just abandon the project and move on to the next one, and she said, "Right. You like what you like. And your cover didn't work. And you love starting things, and you hate marketing them. So now you get to grow up and listen to your friends and get a new cover and do some work you hate. That's being an adult, my friend."

So finally, I went back to the 99 Design Website, clicked "Agree," and starting a week ago Friday, the contest was underway. I was very quickly underwhelmed. I got a bunch of bad clip art covers, and too-many-to-count images of a young girl, half-dressed, sitting on a chair, her head bowed. In some, she wore a hat. In some she gazed wistfully off into the middle distance. Because I'd told the designers I was a musician, many featured electric guitars--as if that would somehow signify adulthood.

Then I realized I'd made a terrible mistake, timing-wise. From Monday-Wednesday of this all-important design contest week, I had my biannual mini-retreat (I call it a vacation from Suzuki practice, honestly) where I go to Kripalu, sit around and let others cook for me, go for runs, mediate, do some yoga, haunt the bookstore, and get my batteries recharged. I always say I will have a tech fast too, but so far that has never happened. And this time, with the contest underway, that would be an impossibility.

The way these contests work is that you have to constantly give feedback to the designers. "Try that in red." "How about little hikers walking around a globe?" And you have to bother your friends––or in my case, my kids' babysitters––with polls soliciting their opinions; then read the polls, sift through which demographic of your friends (and babysitters) likes which design, think about which of them would actually be a customer, then regret having sent it to your friends because now they will be annoyed with you for ignoring their advice.

So I went to Kripalu thinking I would work on my novel The Big Idea, and also do a tech fast, and also immerse myself in silence and meditation and yoga and become enlightened in two days, and also maybe write some songs, and also read some new book that I hadn't yet discovered, and also organize the files on my computer. By Tuesday evening, my back hurt and I'd only worked on one scene of my novel, and I hadn't found a book to read, and I definitely wasn't yet enlightened, and my cover contest was a total bust, and I missed my family (and even Suzuki practice) and wanted to go home so badly I almost left early. But then I got a massage and went to sleep.

What ended up happening was that I got a bunch of sensible designs, none of which was a knockout, and then this one crazy Edward Gorey-esque cover that made absolutely no sense. "That one!"I shouted, and all my family members said, "Whaaaa???" I stuck this outlier in the poll, and all the poll takers said, "Whaaa????" And then, the Edward Gorey-esque artists sent me a new design that actually kind of worked. At least it worked for me and a bunch of my poll people. (Many of my poll takers still said, "Whaaaa?" And one said, "I have no idea what this even is.") The artist was from Serbia, I think, and I fell madly in love with her work. I had her tweak the covers until the strange Gorey creatures stopped making my children cry (the one remaining is a rabbit playing...wait for it...a guitar). I did one last poll, and about a third of the people chose her design, and the other third chose something so heinous and clip arty I wanted to cry, and the last third chose an image with a ripped jean and the title coming through—a very clever image, actually, and one that might sell books. But just as many who loved the ripped jeans hated it.

Once again, I was confronted with the question: do you want to sell stuff, or do you want to like what you’ve made?

Several friends counseled me to choose the ripped jeans image. "You have the opportunity to reach a much bigger audience!" one said. Yes, but maybe not. And at the end of the day, I need to be proud of the work I do, and that includes my choice of cover. The ripped jeans image makes me feel sad and cheap. To me, being an artist with integrity means putting the work before my ambitions for the work. Does that mean I'll never be a best-seller? I sure hope not! Am I self-sabotaging? My creative entrepreneur group may well call me on the fact that the new cover is basically just a hippification of Katryna's old cover. It's like a teen-aged version of such. But I love it. It makes my heart sing. The girl looks just like I felt as a twentysomething: what's all this stuff on the floor, and what am I supposed to do with it? I wrote the book for people who feel the way this girl feels.

I am going to try both images. Stay tuned. In fact, I might use all three (Katryna's too!) The great thing about self publishing is that you can do this.

To order the book, go here!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why is GenY Unhappy? "Special" Is Not the Problem. In Fact, It Might Be The Solution

I just finished re-reading WaitButWhy’s latest post called “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.” In it the author posits that young people today (born between the late 70s and the mid 90s) are unrealistically ambitious, were raised with extraordinary expectations, and spend too much time in the virtual world and not enough in the real one. They were told all their young lives that they could do anything they liked and that they were the most wonderful creatures on earth. Most damningly, the author says, they were told: you are special.

These expectations were born from their parents’ beliefs that the world would be the proverbial oyster for their children, born from said parents’ pleasure in giving them the world; born from the encouragement that flowed their way from their very first baby steps and indoctrination by Fred Rogers (“You Are Special”) to their conflict-free recesses and supportive RAs, Deans of Students and Career Counselors. But these expectations, which gave them fantastic self-esteem, left them, post-college, wide open to profound disappointment. A career is not something one creates in a few hours, or even over the course of an especially inspiring summer camp season. A career is wrought over many years, many professional relationships, sometimes multiple locations, and (in my opinion) through many defeats and rejections and failures.

I liked this post a lot, and I have some quibbles. I liked the final advice the author gives these youngsters, which is to:
1) “Stay wildly ambitious.” For ambition is certainly what’s needed in any case, in any time, given any (or no) amount of talent.
2) “Stop thinking that you're special. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.” I agree that it’s through working hard that one develops one’s specialness; but it’s through believing one is special in the first place that one has the impetus to take the pretty ballsy actions necessary to do anything out of the ordinary.
3) “Ignore everyone else.” Don’t look at your friends on FaceBook and compare their glamorous, pre-packaged outsides to your own gelatinous insides.

Like "Lucy," the author's sad stick-figure twentysomething, I have known that awful feeling of despair when the world failed to recognize the specialness my parents my parents kept insisting I exuded. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was being absolutely miserable for most of my grammar school and junior high career where many (okay, most) of my peers and teachers failed to see my wonderfulness and brilliance. The struggling I did during those years to establish myself to myself may have saved me from a twenties rife with the kind of disappointment WaitButWhy sees in twenty-somethings today. The disparity between what my parents had instilled in me and the reality of the way the world treated me was so painful that I had to rectify it. I could have lost my illusions and accepted myself as just another bozo on the bus, or I could choose to see myself as the star of my own life story—the underdog pushing up from the bottom to shock and surprise everyone! Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman! Rocky in Rocky! Pretty much everyone in any movie ever made! Most days, I still choose to believe in my Secret Life of Me. Is this a bad thing? Am I delusional? Maybe. But so far, it’s worked for me. And I would wager it’s worked for most people who have ridden the waves of ambition to create a means of living on their own terms, and not the obsolete system the Greatest Generation came into after the war.

I am not Gen Y––I’m a Gen Xer raised by a boomer mom. She was young when she had me, and she was definitely drinking the same Kool Aid that produced the kids who believed that their purpose in life was to find a fulfilling rather than a secure career, and she definitely told me, every other sentence, how special and wonderful and brilliant I was. Based on my delusions of being special, I did something crazy a couple of years out of college. I started a rock band and traveled around the country trying to get famous. I took my wild ambition, I worked very hard (together with my band mates) compiling my 10,000 hours of mastery, and somehow, it worked. True, I didn’t get famous enough to have a dance move named after me, or to start a college fund for my kid based on one hit song, but I did get famous enough to build a career. After ten years on the road and about as many CDs, a reputable publisher who had never seen a line of prose I’d written offered me a book deal. She just loved my songs and took a chance on me. Not really knowing how to write a novel, I was undaunted. Why? Because I had been told my whole life that I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special. I must have annoyed the hell out of my editors (who, being benign boomers, were very patient with me), but I did learn how to write a novel, and went on to write more. During this time period, I found a house I loved, though it was out of my price range. Undaunted, I looked around and decided I could make the mortgage by offering writing groups––something I had no prior experience of doing––but because I believed I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special, I succeeded. It turned out that my work in a band had prepared me well to work with groups. I fell in love with the work, quickly adding retreats and teleclasses to my repertoire. One day a friend suggested that I become a life coach. Believing I had something to offer––because I believed I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special–– I applied to a program (run by the similarly sure-of-herself Martha Beck) and within a period of six months, I had a full roster of clients. I continued to tour and make CDs because the dictum in my head that I was wonderful, brilliant, world/oyster, etc. was louder than society’s notion that aging female singer-songwriters were obsolete.

You have to believe in yourself, with a ferocious, unshakable loyalty, if you want to make it in today’s economy, where creative entrepreneurs are able to make a decent living, often a far better living than what their parents made. When I say "far better," I don't mean as full of pensions and health insurance and retirement accounts (not to mention new cars every five years or two-week vacations to dude ranches), but more full of––yes––fulfillment. And while I disagree with WaitButWhy’s suggestion that we lower expectations on our specialness, I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that we need to lower our expectations when it comes to material goods and lifestyle choices. If you want to build the life of your dreams around doing what you love, the money will certainly follow, but it might not be as much money as you think it should be. In my experience, if we can work with reality on this one, honestly assessing what it’s worth to us to have a life where no one is our boss, where we live by our wits, where what we earn is the product of our own minds and hands, most of us would chose freedom over wide screen TVs.

As a mother of kids under the age of ten, I am aware that the pendulum has swung away from “You’re wonderful, brilliant, special, the world is your oyster” to the current “Oh, look, you just mastered Beethoven’s Minuet in G on the violin. How does that feel?” The current thinking is against overpraising for many of the same reasons WaitButWhy highlights: it feels crappy to be told how great we are when we don’t feel great inside. And it feels even crappier to tap dance to great applause in the family living room only to find ourselves laughed into oblivion at the local talent show when we discover that actually, compared to most of the population, we have two left feet. I get this. But I can’t help myself. When my kids do something––anything––my instinct is to praise. Poor them. Perhaps I am making up for the treatment my own mother got from her Greatest Generation mother, which was often a severe critique of my mother’s interpretive dances.

The story isn’t over for Generation Y. Pretty much every generation feels despondent in their twenties. I’d argue that we’re supposed to feel unhappy in our twenties. One needs a portion of harsh disappointment and failure to thrive. So they are getting theirs now, during this meager economic time, during this season of late-adolescence. I am willing to bet that they end up saving the farm, saving themselves, saving the world, proving to us all that they are the special generation they’ve always known they were.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

How to Be an Adult Cheat Sheet: 20 Suggestions

Cheat Sheet: What I Know About Being an Adult
1. Work hard, be disciplined, have courage to change the things you can, tie your camel, etc.
2. Trust God (the Universe, your Inner Light, Krishna, Jesus, Allah, Gaia, etc.), relax, accept the things you cannot change. Also, take regular days off, a.k.a. a Sabbath.
3. Follow Your Bliss.
4. Bloom where you are planted.
5. Make and maintain friendships. Be loyal. Be kind. Show up when you say you are going to.
6. Don't cling to friends or lovers. There are other fish in the sea.
7. Pay your taxes joyfully. If you can't do this, read One Day in the
Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Or read an article about Darfur, Iran or
Saudi Arabia. Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to
8. Be your own best friend, or as Anne Lamott says, become militantly and maternally on your own side. God dwells within us as us.
9. Minimize crap in your life, be it substandard food, entertainment, gadgetry or experiences.
10. Be honest.
11. Question your thoughts and stories.
12. Forgive your enemies.
13. Forgive yourself.
14. Cultivate your own garden.
15. Reach for the stars.
16. All the terrible things that happen to you will be extremely helpful if you get through them and then use your experience to help another person. My friends and I call this “going through the fire.” At some point in your life, you will go through the fire, after which you will never be the same again.
17. Don’t gossip, try not to criticize, because it will make you sick, and try not to complain because it will zap your energy.
18. Practice gratitude. This is The Secret of the universe, so you may as well join in.
19. Don’t postpone joy. Or put another way: when you find a chance to feel really great without using a substance, abusing a person or doing anything clearly illegal and immoral, don’t hesitate. Jump in. Splash around and live, for God’s sake! Or, to quote the rabbi, “If you’re going to eat pork, relish it and let the grease drip over your fingers.”
20. Exercise daily.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Martha, Mary and Michaelmas (And Cheryl Wheeler and Louis C.K.)

Sept. 29, 2013

Scripture: Luke 10:38-423
8 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

…and second scripture:

In every instant, two gates.
One opens to fragrant paradise, one to hell.
Mostly we go through neither.

Mostly we nod to our neighbor,
lean down to pick up the paper,
go back into the house.

But the faint cries—ecstasy? horror?
Or did you think it the sound
of distant bees,
making only the thick honey of this good life?
-Jane Hirshfield

Today is Michaelmas, a lesser Catholic feast that somehow always gets my attention. It makes me think of midlife. Maybe it makes everyone think of midlife. It comes, after all, just a few days after the autumn equinox, and autumn is certainly the season of midlife, what with the balding maples, the falling leaves, the drama before the long quiet.

This year Michaelmas falls also on a waning moon. It seems all of nature is conspiring to force us to think about the brevity of life. The two readings—the Martha/Mary story which Steve has preached about often, and the Jane Hirshfield poem—both touch on this idea of the choices we make, and it seems to me that midlife can be an especially painful time to sit with our choices. (Though I suspect every phase of life has this potential pain…)

When we were kids, we were Marys. My kids are Mary-like. They pay attention to the important stuff. They know that it’s good for them to play, to move their bodies, to climb on things. They know a good story when they hear one, and they also know justice. They have an acute sense of what is fair.

As we age, we become more Martha-like. We don’t pause from our dinner preparations to run outside during one of those summertime micro rain storms, to dance in the rain after a long dry dusty hot spell. We do the never ending laundry—Mount Washmore, my friend calls it. We go to the grocery store. We pick up the kids. We exercise—but on a schedule. And we justify our good, hard disciplined work: in any revolution there is work to be done, and Jesus surely was a revolutionary.

And don’t the ones who do the work get the praise? So why is Jesus saying that Mary’s the one who gets it?

Part of the gift of midlife is that we do get it. We see how painfully brief it all is. Now I know Mary’s got the right idea. And I still can’t stop doing doing doing. Still can’t stop frantically doing the dishes, doing the laundry, telling my kids to hurry up so we won’t be late to school. I do my meditation and my yoga—but I time myself with my iPhone and don’t let myself linger. I tell myself I will go on a meditation retreat when the kids are older.

But I have the usual questions. Is Jesus saying we should always listen to God? Or just when he comes over for dinner? Does Jesus really want us to forgo making the beds in the morning and instead practice piano? Wasn’t Jesus glad that Martha was making preparations? I know I’m not alone in having some feminist annoyance with this passage. Would it have been better if Martha had sat down too? But then there’d be no food for anyone. Maybe they would have just eaten locusts, then. Is Jesus saying “Sorry, babe. You’re just a Martha. Marthas cook and clean. Marys sit and listen. Try again next life, and you might luck out.”

Well, of course not. Jesus’s whole point was to free us from the binary thinking of the old world, teach us non-dualism. No I, no Thou. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one. And so it is with you.” Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Last time I looked, it was hard to tell the difference between vine and branches. We’re always Martha and Mary, just as God is in each of us, beyond all of us, and in the interactions between everything.

Moreover, when I grumbled a version of this to my friend Peter Ives, he pointed out that at the time of Jesus, women were barely considered human. For Jesus to say that Mary should sit and listen to him, and in fact Martha should put down her dishrag and join in too, was completely revolutionary. He was calling them, these two sisters, to be disciples, equals to his male followers. It’s not really news in Bible scholarship that Jesus elevated the role of women to that of equal, though the Nicene Creed and fifteen hundred years of organized religion put the kibosh on much of that. But when I heard this, I had to look at my own internalized sexism. It hadn’t occurred to me on first read-through that in fact Jesus might indeed have been saying, “Dudes, your turn. Go make the dinner while Martha and Mary get their time with me. And if you don’t know how to make the dinner, go find some locusts.” For all we know, that was in the original text, only to be nixed three hundred years later during the Council of Nicea. Three hundred years later, women were back in their historical place.

This came through my email-box this morning from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar:

Did you know the first half of life has to fail you? In fact, if you do not recognize an eventual and necessary dissatisfaction (in the form of sadness, restlessness, or even loss of faith), you will not move on to maturity. You see, faith really is about moving outside your comfort zone, trusting God’s lead, instead of just forever shoring up home base. Too often, early religious conditioning largely substitutes for any real faith.

Usually, without growth being forced on us, few of us go willingly on the spiritual journey. Why would we? The rug has to be pulled out from beneath our game, so we redefine what balance really is. More than anything else, this falling/rising cycle is what moves us into the second half of our own lives. There is a necessary suffering to human life, and if we avoid its cycles we remain immature forever. It can take the form of failed relationships, facing our own shadow self, conflicts and contradictions, disappointments, moral lapses, or depression in any number of forms.

All of these have the potential to either edge us forward in life or to dig in our heels even deeper, producing narcissistic and adolescent responses that everybody can see except ourselves.

And the other wise sage I came across was the comedian Louis CK who went on a rant about iPhones on the Conan O’Brien show. He basically says the same thing as Father Richard:

…you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it...

To be an artist, or a revolutionary, or just a good person trying to feel our way through life with a modicum of consciousness, we need to rest, Mary-style, fill the well. We need to do nothing. We need to look up at the sky, notice what kind of moon it is, breath in the smell of falling leaves and pond scum and compost and fall-bearing raspberries. To love someone, to really love someone, we need to give them years of our attention. Years. Focus and appreciation every single day. That’s the sunlight they need to grow.

Last week, I happened to notice, as I occasionally do, all the people around me who were doing it better than me. By “it” I mean everything from having a music career to gaining spiritual insights. I couldn’t help but notice all my spiritual friends who all seem to be gaining enlightenment at a frightening clip. My friend Julie went on a 10 day silent retreat, and now she has no more anger. My friend Charlotte did this three year long inventory of her greater defects and now she hears God’ voice loud and clear and never has any questions about what she should do. All this makes me want to give up, give in, throw in the towel, text and drive, abandon my highly scheduled meditation practice. Instead I called my mom and asked her what she thought of Sheryl Sandberg, the latest voice in the Mommy wars. Sandberg wrote a book called Lean In, which points out the sexism still rampant in our culture, and how hard it is for career women to be mothers and gives excellent advice to women who want to fight to keep their careers thriving. Sandberg exhorts women to lean in rather than lean back when they even begin to think about having a child. Recently, I’ve heard my peers rumbling with discontent about this message. “The problem is,” said one of my closest friends, a highly successful author, “I really do want to lean back right now. I want to volunteer at my daughter’s school. I want to make her Halloween costume. Is that so wrong?”

“Well there’s just so much to hate about Sheryl Sandberg,” my mother began. “She has nannies raising her children! What are all these people thinking, making $300,000 a year! I am so glad I invested my time in you girls.”

I’m pretty sure my mother hasn’t read the book. She, like me, had a career and also had kids, and tried to balance them as well as she could, which seemed to involve a lot of yelling and tossing of backpacks into the car with a hot cup of coffee sloshing about. It’s true that when push came to shove, she would choose her children every time. But still, my mother worked hard. She sure as hell leaned in. She was always grading papers at the kitchen table, cooking our dinner, making our lunches, or playing extremely competitive tennis during those hours after school and before dinner. She did not get on the floor and play games with us, or engage in imaginative play. But she did sit on my bed at the day’s end and ask me to talk about things. She knew what the better part was. Mostly. Like all of us, she was sometimes Martha, sometimes Mary.

So if Jesus is calling us to be disciples, if Jesus is calling women to be disciples with the same urgency that he calls men, this brings us right back to the question women have been wrestling with since the dawn of the women’s movement. I, for one, certainly can make the dualism about choosing family over career, for instance. Last week, Katryna and I opened for a great singer songwriter Cheryl Wheeler. Cheryl is one of a kind. She looks like what she is: a 62 year old who dresses in LL Bean (onstage and off), loves her dogs and Cathleen, her wife of 10 years, and doesn’t give a whit about what the music business—or anyone else for that matter—thinks of her. She is hilarious, occasionally raunchy, onstage, so funny that my sides often hurt from laughing so hard when I am at one of her shows. She has a song on her latest CD called “Shutchier Piehole”, making the point that it would be really hard if your last name were “Piehole” and your parents named you “Shutchier.” Hard, yes, but funny. A few songs later, she delivered her 1980’s love ballad “Arrow,” a song so achingly beautiful we were all in tears by the end. Her following is as strong today as it ever was. Her fans are loyal; we opened for her in 1992 at the Iron Horse, and a couple from last Friday’s concert came up to us and said, “I remember seeing you at that show, 21 years ago…”

Cheryl has what I always wanted. A career that keeps growing. She sang songs she’d just written, along side songs that were over thirty years old. But what’s most enviable about her show is that she is just…Cheryl. She is totally herself. There is no artifice. She is completely unconcerned about whether or not we like her. She performs sitting down and refuses to leave the stage for the encore. She asked the lighting engineer to turn down the lights because “No one paid to see the visuals. If they did they would be sorely disappointed. They came to listen.”

Though I can try to make this about right and wrong, Martha and Mary, kids versus career, what I really want is that comfort with myself. I want to not care whether or not you notice that my face isn’t airbrushed. I want not to care if you notice that I’ve gained or lost a few pounds. But more than that, I want to not care what you think about how hard I’m working, how much I’m doing, how the fact that I spent the last seven years trying to raise human beings has resulted in flaws, in big gaping holes in my artistic work, not to mention the more painful flaws in my parenting. I want to stop trying to prove my worth by scrubbing the dishes for the revolutionaries. I want instead to sit around, the way Cheryl did, and chew the fat with her old buddies who’d paid $25 a head just to see her. And I want the humility to keep learning, keep growing. I want to laugh. And this is both the gift of an awake, aware midlife passage, and the gift of discipleship.

As Hirshfield seems to be saying, every instant has two gates, but it’s true that we mostly go through neither. We’re just not that awake most of the time. Martha didn’t choose incorrectly just because Mary happened to see the instant and go through the gate of paradise. Martha just missed seeing the gate. We all do, all the time. We get worried and upset—that’s a guarantee if we are human. It’s more than guaranteed if we’re parents. In fact, every single day I vow, on my knees, that I will do better, that I will be patient with my kids, that I will not be short with them, that I will react to frustration with humor (in fact I have “react to frustration with humor” as a reminder on my iPhone, and it pops up regularly, along with “don’t read your iPhone right now—pay attention to the kids instead.” And still, every day, I lose it. I lose it even as I am praying not to. Even as I am thinking, “don’t shame her, let her be herself,” I say, “You’re wearing THAT to school?”

But then, there is grace, too. Somehow, I can sometimes see the gates and choose the better one. Yesterday, a perfect September afternoon with a cloudless sky, I abandoned my agenda and let the kids stay late at school to play on the playground. Johnny found a pick up game of soccer. I stood and watched him race across the field, galloping after the ball, kicking, falling, getting up again, chasing the bigger kids, leaping from one foot to the other. I breathed in the sweet smell of cut grass, the late blooming sedum, and said Yes. This is the better part. Or maybe it’s just the thick honey of this good life.

How to Be an Adult Introduction, Part Three: Missing Owner's Manual

There Is Always Someone Who Can Help, So Ask
Beware: this is a spiritual lesson as well as a practical one. There is always someone out there who can help you. If he or she doesn’t respond to your call for help right away, keep calling. Eventually someone will, and in the meantime, you will have made lots of connections. Ask questions. How to Be an Adult Golden Rule: If you want to do something well, find someone who is doing it beautifully (or at least adequately) and ask her how she does it. People love to give advice. They love to feel like they know something you don’t know. You aren’t bothering them. Figure out the channels. And thank God for Google. When we were your age, there was no internet! (At least, not that I nor any of my friends knew about, though of course, Al Gore and people at NASA did.) Today, finding out information is as easy as typing, “How do I change my oil?” into the search box.
And thank God (or whatever you think runs this ship) that we live in a world where we’re supposed to intermingle and get to know each other. Ignorance and abject terror are wonderful prods toward this end.
Speaking of God, I should let you know that I believe in God. I don’t mind at all if you don’t, but you should know this about me, because it informs all of the advice in this series. The older I get, the less confidence I have in the aging, creaky body that used to be able to leap from the top bunk halfway across the room unharmed, and more confidence in 1. the wisdom of those who have gone before me, 2. the wisdom of the ages, 3. what actually works, and 4. what I know resonates in my bones as true. All this fits into my definition of God. So if God talk bugs you, feel free to translate the “G” word to “the Universe” or “Truth” or “The Great Reality” or “Presence” or “Big Cheese” or “Yo Mama” for all I care. Or else—and I give you my permission—just roll your eyes when I bring up God.
Missing Owner’s Manual
But regardless of your spiritual beliefs, you don’t need to suffer the way we did! Because Katryna and I have put everything you need to know into one handy volume, with each book highlighting a different delightful area of adultification. Within these pages, we address: time management (er…consciousness), goal-setting and goal-resistance, mental and physical health, jobs and work life, home, food, money, cars, insurance, getting along with others, voting, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and parenthood.

Even though I probably would have ignored it, I wish I’d had a manual like this back when I was 21. When I went to the bookstore looking for how-to books, they inevitably intimidated me with their length and writing style. Things with numbers threw me for a loop. Some people really do have a knack for navigating their way through the world and finding out how it works as they go—like my friends Jenny, Susan and Giselle. But others of us would much rather spend our time reading The New Yorker or Ann Patchett novels and have someone else figure out the quarterly taxes.

So for those of us who are artists or marchers to the beat of a different drummer, I attempted to create a series that speaks in the language we can understand: the language of poetry, humor, literature—a set of right-brained manuals. There is some concrete practical advice about money and insurance and stuff like that (think of this part of the book as the raisins in the cookie). The cookie part of the book is a series of how-tos in essay form, told through anecdote, in a way that is (I hope) palatable and memorable. A portable older sister, if you will. And like an older sister, it is full of partisan opinions. Other so-called adults will surely take issue with me on many of my claims, especially when I bash consumerism or blow the horn for the environment. I am sure I will annoy you at times; feel free to ignore me when I do. Also like an older sister, I will probably change my mind and do things differently a few years from now; after all, adulthood is not a static state any more than adolescence is. I’ve given you a lot of my own stories and life experiences because it’s the life I know best. When I had scant experience, I asked all my smart friends on your behalf. Thus, it’s the absolute best advice I can give you today. It’s the book I wish I’d been given at my graduation, or better yet, it’s the instructions my Latin diploma should have included, scrawled on the back like the Dead Sea scrolls.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

How to Be an Adult Introduction, Part Two: What We Learned About Life in 20 Years on the Road

What We Learned About Life in 20 Years on the Road
Katryna first got the idea to write a book called How to Be an Adult after graduating college. She felt clueless, living with her sister and brother-in-law in a prep-school dorm and eating the prep-school’s free food, while trying to figure out things like how to get health insurance and how to pay her taxes on the non-existent income of a budding folk singer. She pronounced, “Someone should write a book called How to Be an Adult. How are we supposed to know any of this stuff? We all need a manual. Someone should write it, and since no one else will, I guess it’s got to be me. Except I don’t know how to be an adult, so why don’t you do it?”

We had grand plans to research the topic, but we never followed through. Over the years, we’d revive the project and toss around some ideas, but mostly the concept of either of us writing a book about how to be an adult reduced us to fits of tearful laughter. Who would take a couple of folk singers as their models for responsible adulthood?

But by my mid-thirties, I had observed two things. First of all, somehow along the way, like everyone else, I’d figured it out, mostly, and so had Katryna. It took years, and we made lots of painful and hilarious mistakes. But many of those mistakes were wonderful lessons.

Secondly, what I hadn’t figured out (taxes, insurance, retirement accounts, bill-paying) were easily deciphered by the simple act of homing in on someone who clearly appeared to be a competent adult and asking that person how she did what she did. Believe me, if you ask enough people, someone will have a strong opinion on this topic and feel it’s their mission in life to sit you down and set you straight.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How to Be an Adult Introduction, part one


On the occasion of my college graduation, I received my diploma and immediately began to examine it. It was written, unhelpfully, in Latin, a language I studied for one year at age thirteen. Undaunted, I flipped it over in the hopes that somewhere among the ovems and the isimuses there would be some final directive, some code that would tell me what to do next. I’d been an English major in college, taking the advice of my favorite high-school teacher who told me the purpose of college was to read all the books you’d never get around to reading otherwise. So while my roommates were studying pre-med, pre-law and economics, I was immersed in Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, and Samuel Beckett. In March, Jenny was accepted to medical school, Susan was off to Stanford Law, and Giselle had a job offer on Wall Street. When anyone asked me what I was going to do, I said something vague about bringing my acoustic guitar to England, where I was planning to become a famous folk singer.

As the snow melted and the hackysackers returned to the green in the spring of my senior year, I noticed a consistent shortness of breath accompanied by a low buzzing in the back of my head. The approximate content of the low buzz was something along the lines of, “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” How, for example, was I supposed to find an apartment? What exactly was a down payment? Or a security deposit? For how long could I live solely off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles? What was the difference between a premium and a deductible? Were they really serious about that whole filing taxes thing? That just seemed mean.
Hence the frantic fumbling with the diploma. There were no instructions on the diploma, just the smudged signature of the college president and some unintelligible Latin. So I did what any sensible, practical-minded person would do; I married my current boyfriend, David, who happened to be seven years older than I and, in my mind, a bona fide adult.

This worked out well for a while. David was happy to deal with what I termed the “grown-up stuff”: security deposits, medical insurance, bill-paying, and yes, taxes. My twenties rolled by pleasantly enough: I started a rock band along with David and my younger sister Katryna, and we drove around the country in a fifteen-passenger van.

Although in the early days of the band, I’d had to do a lot of what seemed like pretty “adult” stuff—booking gigs, putting together press kits, opening and maintaining a checking account—eventually, we hired a manager to do all that for us. Once again, I was off the hook. “Your job,” said our new manager Dennis, “is to write songs, stay in good shape, and rest up for your performances. Let me take care of everything else. After all, that’s why you pay me 16.67% of your gross income.”

So I spent my days in a kind of prolonged adolescent summer vacation: writing, reading, shopping for clothes that would make me look like a hot rock star (and running up credit card debt), exercising like a maniac so I would fit into said clothes, and driving around the country performing at festivals, coffeehouses, theaters and rock clubs. It was a blissful existence.
But nothing lasts forever, and by September 2001 the band had broken up, David and I had separated, and I was thirty-four years old—clearly an adult no matter how you did the math. I needed to learn how to function on my own and fast.

To read more, or to order the book, go here. Or...just wait until tomorrow when I post the next part.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

How to Be an Adult is Here! Preface Excerpt

I can't believe how long it's taken me to do what seemed a small task: to turn my 2008 paperback book How to Be an Adult into an ebook. Answer: almost 2 years. Really five years, since I had the thought as soon as I published the paperback. How hard could it be?

The problem was, once I reviewed the book, sometime last summer, I saw all the places I wanted to add, expand, and in a couple of cases, subtract. So I set about rewriting. And rewriting. And then factor in 2 kids, 5 careers, husband, beautiful summer weather, computer fatigue, etc and here you have it. September 6, 2013. A good a date as any to get started.

Once a week, I am going to publish an excerpt from the book. So here is the new Preface.

Preface to the 2013 Edition

In the five years since this book has come out, I have wanted, almost daily, to revise How to Be an Adult. This is natural, of course, as Adulthood is not a static state: one never arrives. New insights, new ways of changing car tires, organizing one’s finances, even new ways of roasting a chicken emerge, and I as an extroverted blabbermouth feel compelled to trumpet the new findings to the masses. Moreover, as the mother of two children (ages 7 and almost 5 as of this writing), I’ve had some good practice with some adultish skills that helped me to refine my perspective since the first edition, which was mostly written before motherhood, though edited and published when Lila was just two and Johnny was three months from being born. Those two kids have taught me more than all my life experiences to date combined. Also, as I am fond of saying, I was this close to enlightenment before I had kids. All that forgiveness work and cultivation of a relaxed attitude about the things that really matter, which I spout on about in the earlier edition—well, let’s just say I have been put to the test. And failed miserably. But as I have also written, it’s in the failing that we learn most.

When I asked for suggestions for the new edition, here were the requests:

• An expanded Vocation/Avocation section, especially with the advent of Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn.

• Advice on resumés and interviewing

• More on time management (er, consciousness)

• A section on common illnesses and what to do about them

• A discussion of the importance of getting enough sleep

• A handy domestic toolbox full of tips

• Eggs and egg recipes

• More healthy recipes

• Skin care suggestions

I wrote this book because I love to give advice. I love to get advice too, and it’s extremely gratifying for me to find out the answers to the nagging questions—my own, and those of my friends. To this end, I regularly annoy my family by grabbing my iPhone as soon as anyone says, “I wonder how…” or “I wonder when…” or “I wonder what…” and then Googling like a madwoman. In my work as a life coach, I work with many twenty-somethings. I love it when they ask me basic questions to which I know the answers. But I love it even more when we work together to figure out some of the deeper problems we all confront—like how to break an addiction, or how to figure out what career would bring the most joy, or whether or not to marry the guy (or girl). I wanted to condense some of my coaching experience, too, in this new edition.

It can be lonely to be in one’s twenties. Not always, and not for everyone—sometimes the twenties are a rowdy extension of those bright college years. Some twenty-somethings are already married. But even then, even so, many folks I have spoken with confess to a sinking feeling of being alone with their cluelessness. Everyone else seems to know what to do. Why don’t I?

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown talks about the important distinction between “fitting in” and “belonging.” We think these terms are synonyms, but actually they are worlds apart. “Fitting in,” to my mind, has always been about trimming off objectionable parts of myself so that I take up less space and don’t stand out in any way. I think that if I can do this, more people will love me. “Belonging” is the feeling I get when I’m among people who see my whole self––all the parts of me––and love me anyway. In fact, in many cases, it’s exactly those objectionable parts that create bonds between people. For me, my twenties were a journey that began as a “fitter-inner” and ended with a profound sense of belonging, and the way I got to this brave new place was through embracing my own objectionable parts. In doing so, I found my people, my Tribe, and through their collective wisdom, I got my answers, at least most of the time. When they failed me, when I had to strike out on my own, I came back with answers for them.

In this age of easy access to all kinds of information, we are training ourselves to Google things like, “Will my daughter have friends in Junior High School?” and “Is my neighbor stockpiling weapons of mass destruction?” as if Google were an oracle. The answers to many questions, in ancient Greece and modern-day America, are equally unknowable, but my sense is that when we’re compelled to reach out to the faceless unknown for answers, what we really want is to connect with the Tribe.

This book is in large part about identifying and finding that Tribe. In the beginning, you might start by looking among others who are equally clueless, and begin to commiserate with them. And then, ask questions. To that end, please join the conversation this book has launched at www.howtobeanadult.org where I will be posting regularly. Here, you can actually ask questions and get answers. We need your input!

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this book. I hope I have kept the very best aspects of the original and added and improved where it was lacking. If you have suggestions on other topics, send them my way. And of course, if you have better ideas on how to manage time, organize a budget, roast a chicken or change a tire, let me know.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Everyday Minefields

Last week I found out that a high level administrator from the school where my sisters and I were students from 1974 to 1990, pled guilty to multiple counts of “indecent liberties,” including “abduction with intent to defile,” fancy legalese for “he was a perv.” In fact, that’s exactly what we girls referred to him as—a perv. And being 12-13, I just assumed that schools had male administrators who occasionally copped a feel, who chaperoned every single student event including dances; who regularly stuck his head into the girls’ locker room to tell us to “keep it down” while we were changing into our field hockey uniforms. This man was a fixture at the school by the time I arrived in second grade. At a school with a strict uniform, he wore his own version: a Brooks Brothers button down with preppy chinos or cords, always in some outrageous combination of colors: one leg red, one green, one yellow, one blue. At our occasional and thrilling dances, he’d be standing near the sound system, flirting with the pretty ninth grade girls, sometimes dancing with them, occasionally slow dancing with them. He was a little scary as a disciplinarian. He was larger than life. Some kids adored him. He was a loving father and husband, from all accounts. Like all of us, he was and is good and bad. What he did cannot be undone. The hurt he caused lives on. And still, I feel very sad for him and for his wife and children. I'm not writing this to pass judgment. I'm writing this because I am curious about my own strange blindness to a crime that was going on all around me.

What surprised me was how thoroughly I’d know this and how I hadn’t bothered ever to tell anyone in authority. Why? Because his perviness was wallpaper in my life. I didn’t know any different. And what’s bothering me is, of course, what else do I know and yet not know? What else is wallpaper?

At that same school, in the 6th grade, I had a woman teacher whose husband worked for the entertainment industry. It was 1979, and he'd give his teacher wife posters of the current blockbuster movies: Jaws, Star Wars, Grease, which she'd hang up on the perimeter of the upper walls of the classroom. He also gave her posters of the day's pin up girls: Farrah Fawcett in her famous wet bathing suit, Cheryl Tiegs in a yellow bikini, Bo Derek who was lauded at the time a perfect "10." As a reward to the rambunctious eleven-year-old boys, she'd hand out these posters at the end of the day for good behavior.

There's so much wrong with this picture, I don't know where to begin. "What did she give the girls?" a friend recently asked when I relayed this story. "Nothing," I said. "We always behaved." So boys behave badly, and then they get a treat for containing themselves? Girls, whose bodies are just starting to change, are presented with models (literally) of women whose bodies have been deemed "10"s, while the boys drool over them, equally longing for something they can't really have. But what I really see when I squint back at this memory is loneliness. There was a whole culture at this school that encouraged competition and judgment (discernment). We were all trying like mad to fit in, to feel OK, to understand our changing bodies, to find a kindred spirit. The grown ups, as far as I can remember, seemed remote, or else they seemed to mock us in our confusion. How dare we be so nubile and confused? Like many in my generation, I took this in. Now, as an adult, I want to take it on. I want to take over. I want to take it back.

I started a conversation on Facebook about the Upper school administrator. I included everyone I could think of, though only the girls. At first, only the people I had been close to at the time joined in. But a few days later, one girl who’d been touched spoke up. Then another, and then another. Now there’s a healthy dialogue, with all sorts of memories pinging about. We’re talking about how and if to bring up with our own children the potential dangers that might lurk in their schools. We’re talking about the sexism rampant in our culture in the late 70s and early 80s, and all that remains today despite great gains by women and girls. It’s not over. There is so much wallpaper in my own sexism, I expect to be scraping it down for years.

I am thinking about a story my daughter told me last year about a teacher who unfairly disciplined her. At the time, I thought my daughter might have been stretching the truth. I am not going to assume that ever again. I want my daughter to know that I am militantly on her side no matter what. I want her to know that she can trust me with stories about adults acting strangely.

I took a break from my work this afternoon to visit the farm where we have a share. The city was going to spray it with Round-Up, a horrible pesticide with potentially lethal ramifications for mammals. But people had banded together to protest. The mayor listened. The organic farms won, and the fields remained organic. I was alone today in the field, to lean forward, choose a sunburst orange tomato, choose another, toss away the cracked ones fill my quart to the brim. I paused to stretch my back and looked up at the sky, something I try to do every day. It’s all we have, really—the sky, the relationships we make, the tomatoes we pick. We don’t know where danger lies until it’s here in our midst. That’s why it’s dangerous. And yet, I keep thinking, “God is in the repair.” I don’t want pesticides in my tomatoes, but neither did I want my friends molested by a trusted school administrator. We don’t always get to choose. But we do get to choose to pay attention, to love our friends enough to listen deeply to their stories, to repair the damage we have done.