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.