I stop writing the poem

“I stop writing the poem to fold the clothes. No matter who lives or who dies, I’m still a woman.

I’ll always have plenty to do.

I bring the arms of his shirt together. Nothing can stop our tenderness.

I’ll get back to the poem. I’ll get back to being a woman. But for now there’s a shirt, a giant shirt in my hands, and somewhere a small girl is a tanding next to her mother watching to see how it’s done.”

~ Tess Gallagher

Tess Gallagher wrote the poem above at what was probably the most fragile period of time in her life. Her life partner Raymond Carver just died six months after marrying. She was in the vortex of writing poems for the soon-to-be-iconic collection “Moon Crossing Bridge”, so the pause for reflection on the healing nature of mundane tasks, and the importance of continuing with the seemingly endless chores life demands of us was profound for her.

We can feel the grief behind her words.

She describes the ordinary yet necessary chore of folding clothes, and we get it.

Sometimes, when it comes to ‘being of service’, we can’t even manage to be of service to ourselves. We are forced by the worst circumstances to sort through closets we don’t even want to look at, clean up after an endless barrage of children-at-home days, and return a myriad of well meaning emails and phone calls, when our strongest need is to curl up under the blankets and never leave our bed.

But that’s exactly why it’s so important to make ourselves a cup of tea and do the laundry. It’s important to put one foot in front of the other, scrub a floor, make a pot of soup, fold a shirt.

“No matter who lives or who dies”, we always have laundry. We can either avoid these small, repetitive acts of mundane service or use them to ground us and remind us:

There will be a tomorrow and life goes on.

Water the Dirt

I think it’s obvious I’m a big fan of making the best of a situation. When my daughters were very small and I was a young, single mom struggling to create a career, I never had the funds for a highly polished and landscaped living situation. We always had to make due with a fixer-upper rent house, and I’d try to get the landlord to pay the water bill. I smile now as I remember standing in the dirt at the end of a very long work day, a citronella candle burning on the front porch and a watering hose in my hand.

Watering plants can be satisfying, almost like a meditation, but watering dirt requires a strong faith in, and hope for, the future. As I water, I visualize sprigs of grass where I’m sure a lawn once thrived, and flowering shrubs in the beds next to the house, planted by a previous tenant. I imagine they lay dormant under the dry earth, waiting for just a little encouragement.

It didn’t take long before I saw sprigs of grass sprouting in the once-barren dirt and I’d pay special attention to these. Often when I didn’t have time to do the whole yard, I’d just soak just those tiny, hopeful sprouts. And they spread. Eventually these would connect with other tiny, hopeful sprouts and we would have a green lawn of sorts, with holes. Then, I’d hand water the holes.

When I bought the property where my salon is now, we had to remove about five years of oak tree leaves to create a front yard and parking lot behind my new old farmhouse. The ground beneath the leaves was rich and black, but barren. So, when the leaves were finally gone I started watering the dirt. In about a year winter rye popped up in the back area and one side of my front yard had grass. As I watered the dirt in the other side, a client walked by. “What are you doing?” she asked me. “I’m watering my lawn”, I said. “Well, it looks like you’re watering dirt!” she said. I smiled, because that was exactly what I was doing.

I think about this frequently while looking at our new reality, the social distancing life style, the radical changes in our once-secure jobs and finances, the cavernous divide in relationships because of idealogical differences. How interesting it is that so many people rebel against the most basic of the changes in our daily lives. They want things back the way they were. They want their green lawn, now. But now is the time for us to look for the sprouts, the tiny signs of possible growth in a scorched earth.

I have a friend whose college professor told him to “Look at who is still working through this pandemic—Those professions are the future”. So we could do the same thing with our lives. Where is the spark of inspiration, the movement (no matter how tiny), the sprig of green? Pay attention and water it. You never know what kind of lush green new possibility will grow from it and it just might make you happy. Happier, possibly, than your old reality.

Soon you won’t be watering dirt anymore.

Mentally . . . adrift

I recently read something profound, on Facebook no less. It was a letter from a trauma specialist.

The headline:

“I want to acknowledge that living through this pandemic is a trauma.”

That stopped me. I know so many of us are beating ourselves up for not being more productive—I hear it all the time now. “Every morning I wake up with big plans for the day and wind up sitting and staring into space. Then guilt trip myself.” This from an someone who is usually an active and prolific writer. Another writer friend wrote, “Such a strange feeling of being physically confined but mentally . . .adrift.”

Yes, mentally adrift. That’s how I feel.
I have a whiteboard full of to-do’s, things I meant to do if I had the time. Well, now that I have time, that we have the time, I/we can’t. I wander, room to room, outside, inside. I sit on my front porch and stare at my roses and listen to the birds for hours. I get nothing done. I start reading a real book instead of listening to an audiobook. I can’t multitask. I clean out a drawer. Then I get nothing else done.

We can’t go out so I prepare a lovely meal every night around six, and my husband and I sit down to eat together; cloth napkins, candles and all. Sometimes wine, sometimes Campari and soda, most times Pelegríno and bitters on the rocks.

I’m craving deep peace, and I search for moments of it through my day. I resist hurrying, I have an unusually low tolerance for stress, and now I know it’s natural and I am not alone.

With trauma, parts of our brain shut down as a defense mechanism for survival. Our ability to fully process what is going on is limited, and feeling numb and out of touch is normal. Everyone manifests trauma differently: Some get anxious, while others get depressed. I sit on my front porch in my rocking chair, staring at my roses.

In-depth processing of trauma happens years later, long after the trauma-producing event, when we feel emotionally safe to deal with it.

When it’s over.

But not now. Now I refuse to feel guilty about being non productive. When we are experiencing trauma, if we can just get by emotionally, if we can just function, that’s okay.

We need to be kind even to, especially to, ourselves.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I was going to call this column “Isolation in the Land of Plenty”, but something changed during my self-quarantine—I started to enjoy it. This is brave to say, given the current climate of fear and panic buying, but I have begun to welcome the enforced pause in our frantic, frenetic lives. It’s as if someone pushed the ‘restart’ button on the world—“just turn it off and turn it on again.”

I know most of you have just begun and are probably going mad, so I’m in a unique position to give you this advice because I’ve been in self quarantine for about three weeks.

My husbands entire tour of China and Japan was cancelled (China first, then Japan) but before that, ever since that first piece of news from Wuhan in January (just one quick high-speed bullet train ride to his show in Shanghai) I’ve kept my eye on its advance.

When my husband strolled through San Francisco customs back from his cancelled shows in Japan on the first day of March, he saw no health screening security measures at the airport. He told me about it when I picked him up and I knew we had to self-quarantine.

So, when I tell you that this close time I’m spending with my husband is sacred and precious, and I appreciate it because it may never come again, I know. He travels a lot, or did. I worked a lot, or did. But lately we have been each other’s only source of entertainment outside of the internet. He can’t get away and I can’t get away, so here we are, together. Of course I wish we had our children here, too, but that would be a different experience than this timeless, intimate day to day existence.

It feels like a dream, like we somehow stepped out of an action film and now we are sitting in the audience, in comfy reclining chairs, watching the rest of the movie.

Parents are locked in their houses with their children and at first it feels insane, but once you snap to the fact that there is literally nowhere to go you can finally relax and stop running. As one young mother put it, “Today, I found myself very grateful. We made huge messes and watched way too much TV and didn’t get out of our pajamas until 4:00 p.m. Like just about every other parent in the world, i’ve had a difficult week, but the less I try to control our days, the more enjoyable they’re becoming.”

So, in this insane time, isn’t that the silver lining?

Forest Bathing

“Of all the paths you take in life, be sure some of them are dirt.”~ John Muir
‘Nature-deficit disorder’ . It’s a new term for an old malady—didn’t our grandmothers tell us to “go outside and get some fresh air”? As humans we belong in nature, of course. What is new is the that human beings (especially children) are spending more and more time in an artificially constructed civilization, created to hold us safely away from nature—artificial air, artificial light, and less and less time outdoors. Researchers now believe this results in a plethora of physical and emotional health and behavioral problems, or ‘Nature-deficit disorder’.

The more our society becomes dependent on technology the less we schedule for nature, and the more we need it. But we are all busy people, especially those of us who live and work in the city, so we need to know a magic number, the perfect amount of time to spend in nature, to counteract the negative effects of an artificially constructed civilization.

The answer is: 2 hours a week—-anything less showed no appreciable benefit .

A study of 20,000 people at the University of Exeter found that people who spent at least two hours a week (they didn’t need to be consecutive) in safe green spaces walking, exercising, jogging, hiking, or just sitting, felt better health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t.

Now we’re starting to see businesses all over the world incorporating nature into their work campuses. Therapists in Japan are even prescribing ‘Forest bathing‘ (a phrase coined by Dr. Qing Li) to their patients as an antidote to depression.

Time in nature can heal our stress, lower our blood pressure, enhance our immune system function, increase our self-esteem, reduce depression, anxiety, and confusion, fights fatigue and increases energy and vitality, Increases production of NK cells which destroy cancer and bacterial infections in the body, Increases sense of intuition and and improve our mood.

Time spent in nature reduces feelings of isolation and promotes a sense of calm and well-being. It’s easy to get started. The key to effective forest bathing is: Be mindful of the present moment.. Go to a forest (or woods). Walk slowly and mindfully. Breathe deeply. Open your mind and body to your senses. What sights and sounds are you experiencing? Absorb these sensations and simply be aware of them.

2 hours a week—that’s it.

Happy 2020! Now, start reading.

Happy New Year, and I do mean happy! We’d like to (metaphorically) gift you all a book, so welcome to our yearly book recommendations, this year for 2020. We were careful to choose each book for its special usefulness to each astrological sign and what they can expect from this next year. Admit it—We can all use a little help to max out the great energy this next year brings.

CAPRICORN (Dec 22 – Jan 20)

This is your year! This is the time to put all your grandiose plans into action. You’ll find no goal too big, no dream too far fetched. To help you along a little, we recommend reading Super Attractor: Methods for Manifesting a Life Beyond Your Wildest Dreams by Gabrielle Bernstein. Capricorn’s are magnetic this year, so think big. No, bigger than that.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov 22 – Dec 21) Finally, 2020 is the year you’ve been waiting for, the big payoff, the pot of gold at the end of your work rainbow. But, you need help to handle this windfall with grace and aplomb (and not shoot yourself in the foot), so we insist you use The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey as the template for your new prosperous reality. You can do it.

SCORPIO (Oct 23 – Nov 21)

You’ve often been accused of hiding behind a wall of silence, but this year that wall comes down. Communication is your Golden Ticket, and the world is your audience. So, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know, the new book by Malcolm Gladwell will be an essential and necessary tool.

LIBRA (Sept 23 – Oct 22)

This year your focus is on home and family, expanding, improving, and growing everything connected to it. You feel the worldwide movement towards a cleaner, more authentic environment on a personal level and you can benefit from a thorough de-cluttering, both metaphorically and literally. The book you need for 2020 is The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life by Joshua Becker, who may be a little easier on your book collection than Marie Kondo.

VIRGO (Aug 23 – Sept 22)

2020 brings out your most fun, creative, self, so you should really like the book Embrace Your Weird—Face Your Fears and Unleash Creativity by that clever writer/producer/actor Felicia Day. This book offers unique techniques to conquer anxiety, fear, procrastination, perfectionism, criticism, and jealousy—all natural tendencies for Virgo’s, but enemies to your creativity.

LEO (July 23 – Aug 22)

This year 2020 is a circus! It’s possible you’ve never been as busy in your life as you will be this year. We have an image in our (collective) mind of you as a juggler, trying to keep all your balls in the air, determined not to drop any. We know you will need and appreciate the new best-selling book Everything Is Figure-out-able by Marie Forleo. She even narrates the audiobook herself, so you can listen to it while you’re too busy to sit still with a book. Multitasking is your new superpower.

CANCER (June 22 – July 22)

By the end of this year you Cancers will be relationship pros, and we mean all sorts of relationships, from business colleagues to ‘flat mates’. You may need a little help navigating and organizing that tricky landscape, so I’m recommending the remarkable book I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael Sorensen. you will be able to get lots of experience to use this book as your manual this year.

GEMINI (May 22 – June 21)

Death and rebirth, endings and beginnings, you Gemini’s are in for a very intense year. You’re trying to figure everything out, what to end, and what to start working on, so you may need a little help. Do we have the book for you—just read Big Magic—Creative Living Without Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. Then email me. It’s THE unexpected gift you need for this year.

TAURUS (April 21 – May 21)

2020 is your year for travel and philosophy, even if you feel a little stuck, especially if you feel a little stuck. You can use the book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner to help you travel your world. It uses a quirky and humorous mixture of psychology, science and travel while the author investigates not exactly what happiness is, as much as where it is.

ARIES (March 21 – April 20)

Don’t fight it, argue about it, or run from it—you are living in a powerful career year where you can grow your dreams exponentially. Try not to get angry at the ‘Universe’ for forcing a new direction on you (you know what I mean.) Read Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Heart by the remarkable Brene’ Brown. And just go with it.

PISCES (Feb 20 – March 20)

No hermit-ting for you in 2020. All you sweet souls must read The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters’ by Priya Parker. This book will give you the ammo you need to really tackle this next six—eight months and get the most out of your group interactions, because groups (and followers, and fans, and friends) are pivotal. And profitable.

AQUARIUS (Jan 21 – Feb 19)

This is your year for self-examination, delving deep into the recesses of your unconscious mind and establishing who you really are. You’ll find a big payoff at the end of this introspective cycle, so we recommend the book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. This book that will also help you dig deep into the hidden motives of the people you deal with as well. And you will love that.

Are you Happy to see me?

For various reasons this last year, I’ve spent a lot of time in the front office of Dripping Springs Middle School. Teachers, parents, nannies, and children come and go, and It’s interesting for me to notice how all these folks greet one another.

The woman behind the desk (I still don’t remember her name) always has a smile on her face and seems to be genuinely glad to see me every week, though I know it can’t be true. For my part, I make that poor women jump through three hoops before finally my guy, the reason I’m in the office of the DS middle school in the first place, pops his shaggy head through the office door twenty minutes before the rest of the school let’s out.

He’s happy to be out of school early, and it shows. I’m happy to see him and I make sure I show it—big smile, big affectionate greeting. When our eyes meet and he sees mine light up when I spot him, he smiles at me too and we’re off.

He immediately starts telling me about his day before we even climb into my car, about the new 3D goggles at the library, or the new code he’s learning, or the plans he has for a future career with his 7th grade best friend. I’m purposeful as I listen with rapt attention. I ask sincere and thoughtful questions—this is the favorite part of my day.

Early in my teenage years, high school actually, I had a boyfriend who dropped by my 6th period office occupations class once a week. The event made me acutely aware of the importance of initial greetings. He’d tap on the window to let me know he was standing there and I beamed at him, happy to see him. I let my happiness show. Later he told me, that moment, the moment when I spotted him and smiled obviously happy to see him, was the favorite part of his day. A moment. One moment, one smile.

Much later when I find myself married to a man who travels frequently, I make a special effort to pick him up at the airport in person, face-to-face. I park close in and wait for him at the foot of the escalator, searching each face as they step onto the top of the moving stairs, looking for my guy. The moment when I spot him among all those exiting travelers is the best part of my day.

If you really want to get happy, go early to an airport and watch the arrivals. The joy generated by that first sighting, those first smiles, those kinds of huge happy-to-see-you grins on others is infectious. You can’t help but smile, too.

But I’ve also seen arguments started, arms tugged, questions asked and barely answered, backs turned so some poor soul needs to race to catch up, and I wonder how much sweeter an interaction can be if at the very beginning, at that first eye contact, that first face-to-face, it starts with an obvious, “I’m really happy to see you”.

It just may be the best part of someone’s day.

Our Spidey Sense

Recently I came across an interesting article on Time.com, “The U.S. Military Believes People Have a Sixth Sense” and I just had to laugh. I remembered all the times I’ve had interesting discussions with cynics about a ‘Sixth Sense’, something I believe everyone is born with.

Our ‘Sixth Sense’ is inner knowing or intuition, a noun, defined as “a (supposed) intuitive faculty giving awareness not explicable in terms of normal perception. Similar: instinct, intuition, intuitiveness, clairvoyance“. But, many people refuse to accept the notion that there might be another, inherent way for we humans to collect information using something outside of the five senses we were limited to in school: Sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell.

Every chart I found, decorated with happy, smiling faces of children, showed only these five senses, no other options. Science has already proven those charts to be woefully out of date and inaccurate anyway, because we now know we have more senses than Aristotle’s five. We can add: Sense of pain, Sense of balance, temperature differences, sense of direction, and sense of time.

We humans use our senses to help us survive, like many animals. Spiders can measure prey and predators just by sensing them, Comb jellyfish can sense direction without eyes, and pigeons use what scientists think is magnetoreception to get around. How millions of salmon are able to pinpoint the exact rivers and streams they were born in and travel thousands of miles to spawn there, has puzzled scientists for years and remains a scientific mystery. These guys obviously use a sixth or even seventh sense to help them survive.

Could we be trained to use our sixth sense? The US military thinks so. Field reports during battles often documented a ‘sixth sense’ or ‘Spidey Sense’ that alerted certain soldiers to an impending attack or I.E.D. The Pentagon wanted to figure out a way to maximize this ‘Sixth Sense’ for operational use. Because of the stigma of ESP, they changed what they called it. “Under the Perceptual Training Systems and Tools banner, extrasensory perception has a new name in the modern era: ‘Sensemaking.’”

It’s not hocus-pocus if the military is using it, so why are we as a culture so adverse to acknowledging it? Why are we holding on to an out-dated and inaccurate chart? And why are we still teaching it to our children?

I, for one, am all about maximizing my ‘Spidey-Sense’ or ‘sense-making’. Who knows? It just may save the lives of a few of my favorite humans..

Embracing camp culture . . . As a grown up

It’s the end of summer. Kids are coming back from a mind-boggling variety of summer camps–from week-end art camps to stay-for-a-month horse riding camps and everything in between. But while I was reading American Airlines in flight magazine I saw an ad for a different kind of camp, a camp for grown ups. The “Game of Thrones” camp is a role-playing camp and so authentic they only dry clean the real fur cloaks twice a year. One can only imagine the authentic smell.

That article got me thinking about my own, most recent (and more pleasantly scented) grown up camp experience at Full Moon Resort in the Catskills. It’s called Music Masters Camp because the resort invites different master musicians to host week long intensive music camps. Usually about 100 Campers leave their cell phones and good internet behind for the woods and streams and their new home; tents, cabins, barns, and a communal dining hall.

My particular camp, the “Three of a Perfect Pair” music camp is held in August and hosted by three musicians who have played in the legendary group King Crimson: Pat Mastelotto (my husband) Tony Levin and Adrian Belew. King Crimson is considered the godfather to a genre of tricky and difficult-to-play music called ‘Progressive’, and it attracts a unique combination of talented musicians and brainiac fans. No, I am not a musician, nor a brainiac fan. I went with my husband.

For the first couple of years of attending this camp, I maintained my role as an interested observer. But a wondrous thing happened; I became one of them. This camp is now my camp, these Campers are now my people. It’s more like being invited to join a secret society and discovering, in addition to a common interest, a love for each member. We even have our own ‘Honk’. How did this happen?
It’s a simple technique, really, and it’s frequently used by foreign language schools. It’s called ‘immersion’. I was immersed up to my eyeballs in camp culture. And it changed me.

How does camp culture work? Professor H. W. Scarlett once wrote, “You get a rustic setting, away from modern devices … so you’re connected to the natural world and thrown back for the first time on your own instincts. Camp stresses caring – not a phony kind of care, but a very deep caring for the group. It takes time to develop that sense of community.” That’s why going every year seems to be important, and why it took a few years for camp to ‘take’ with me. You can’t just observe camp; you must immerse yourself in it.

Real camps, of course, sell the dream of perfecting something; that’s why you sign up. It actually does happen, but that’s not the treasure you take back with you to the real world. The true value you get from the camp experience is change. As camp photographer Avraham Banks wrote, “Now i feel like an old piano that was finally tuned. For how long will i maintain the change? There are people i met that made my life better.”
Me too Avi, me too.

Thirteen pieces of advice to my favorite thirteen-year-old on her birthday

1. Forgive people. Even if they’re wrong. Even if you’re wronged. Even if they don’t ask for forgiveness. Let it all go—holding on to a grudge is poison to your soul.

2. “Eat food, not too much, mostly green.” ~ Michael Pollan

3. Keep your passport current. Travel is the best education, and a current passport means you’re always prepared for a spontaneous trip.

4. Spend a little time with nature every day. Take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the grass, dig in the dirt with your hands, plant a pot of flowers for your balcony, sit under a tree with a book, open a window and listen to the rain. Civilization causes stress and illness—nature is the antidote.

5. People will tell you to narrow your focus and concentrate on one thing. Don’t listen to them. Follow your muse in whatever direction it takes you, even if just for a short time. Make art, make music, dance, do things just for fun. You’ll be a better, happier person for it.

6. Learn to cook a few cheap, decent meals. Feeding yourself will be a lifetime occupation. You might as well enjoy your own cooking.

7. Don’t be afraid to say “No” and mean it. It’s not necessary or healthy to be agreeable all the time. Stand up for yourself. Set boundaries. Walk (or run) away if something feels unsafe or makes you uncomfortable.

8. Take photos and actually have them printed. You’ll be glad later when you and your college friends find a box of old photos in a closet and stay up all night giggling over them.

9. Never visit anyone’s home empty handed. Always bring a gift, even if it’s just freshly picked flowers.

10. Learn to listen. So few people really listen to anyone else. Undivided attention is the greatest gift you can give someone. Put down your phone and listen, face to face, eye to eye.

11. Happiness is a choice. It’s a bad habit to give anyone credit for your happiness, or blame for your unhappiness. Every day decide which way you want to feel and work towards that.

12. Learn to ask for what you want. It’s sometimes easier for girls to complain about what they don’t want, than to say exactly what they do want. Be clear about what you want—you’re much more likely to get it.

13. Say your “Thank you’s”. Gratitude takes you further in this life than any other single thing. Say “Thank you” often, not only when someone does something nice for you, but first thing in the morning, out loud, and often throughout the day. If you’re having a difficult time, stop and say a few “Thank you’s” and mean them. Watch how things change for the better.