The tragedy of George Floyd invited many of us to wake up, to see the world as it is and not what we believed it to be.
To see the world of systemic discrimination, inequities, and violence that have been hidden in plain sight for years.
As for the outcome of the trial, I’m relieved, but I’m not the one to offer commentary. It pains me that racially biased police shootings and gun violence continued even as the trial was going on.
Instead, I’ll offer a small exercise in seeing.
See the world from upside down
When I was growing up, in my white bubble, I saw the America I was taught to see. I sang, “Sweet Land of Liberty.” I pledged allegiance to the idea of “liberty and justice for all.” I imagined that these phrases represented the America in which I lived. Not the country with a history of gashes, nooses, prejudice, cruelty, and scars that I’m waking up to today.
Today, I want to observe what is, with equanimity, objectivity, and compassion.
How can we see what is as we create towards the ideals we hold?
In a recent drawing class, Heather Williams, author of Drawing as a Sacred Activity, suggested that I sketch a portrait from a photograph turned upside down. This exercise, also suggested by Betty Edwards inDrawing on the Right Side of the Brain, encourages us to see what is actually in front of us when we draw instead of our concepts of what we think we are seeing.
Instead of a chin, I see diagonal and horizontal lines. A mouth looks like a flat line with a little curve. A nose is a series of circles and shadows that don’t make sense. Dark patches contrast with sections of light.
I record what I see. The exercise wrests me away from my concepts of what a face looks like. The drawing I sketch this way has flaws, but it also has a freshness and surprising accuracy.
In her brilliant work from three decades ago, A Soprano on Her Head, performance coach Eloise Ristad described how she worked with musicians to shake them out of their habitual, limiting patterns. She encouraged a well-trained soprano to sing upside down. By so doing, the soprano stopped singing the way she thought she was “supposed to sing,” the way she had been taught, She discovered a new voice with a fresh, new resonance. Then, she learned to sing upright again.
Maybe we should all spend time upside down. We can learn to see the world as it actually exists.
Observe the beauty along with the fault lines.
Viewed from upside down, the world gains new possibilities. Those on the bottom show up on top. Those on the top lose their grip on that position.
The earth is plainly visible soaring above us–no longer something to be taken for granted.
After we learn to observe, we can, like the soprano, right ourselves and use our new perspectives to resume our work.
Life without celebration is like hiking across a snowfield during a whiteout when the sky and the snow merge together and you can barely see your next step. Chilly and dangerous. Everything becomes a blur.
Like the past twelve months.
With the pandemic, lots of celebrations have been delayed or canceled. I salute the brave couples who got married anyway, the kids who graduated, and the families who held memorials, all doing their best to keep their spirits up over Zoom. I was happy to be able to Zoom-celebrate my granddaughter’s high school graduation, but I’m still waiting for her hug!
We’ve all been doing what we could.
Still, life has sometimes felt a little grayed-out.
Time to celebrate…
This week I have a big reason to celebrate: I shipped off a draft of my book to a few first readers. Woo-hoo! This is huge for me. I’ve been working towards it for months.
Balloons! Lights! Flowers! Special dinner and/or…
But wait. The anti-celebratory forces appear to be fast approaching carrying their time-tested weapons for dampening my spirit:
1) Downplaying. As in, “No big deal. The book is far from done.”
2) Task-ism. They intone, “Great. You did it. Now jump into work and see what’s waiting on your to-do list.”
3) No ready rewards. Frankly, I give my dogs many more rewards than I give myself. Where’s my box of handy treats? My dog Royce constantly reminds me that “a life without treats is not worth living.” Why didn’t I think of this?
I need to re-introduce the word CELEBRATE to my vocabulary. My path needs some sparkle and the gift of a pause.
Finding reasons to celebrate is easy, even in the face of periodically dreadful news.
Reasons to celebrate:
I got my second shot.
The first daffodils are up.
Most older people on our island have been vaccinated.
My manuscript is out to readers.
Peas are growing.
My grandson graduates from college this week. (Big one!)
Focus on celebration and you’ll come up with reasons.
Like gratefulness, this requires a bit of attention. And sometimes suspending an atavistic desire to keep moving ahead with tasks.
How to celebrate
I’m hearing some (younger) people saying they are going to have a mega-bash to make up for all the parties they missed last year. I’m not sure this is a good idea. Doctors say you can’t make up for the sleep you didn’t get during the week by sleeping in on the weekends. A big party may be in order, but not one that blows out your circuits.
Besides, for me to give a big party feels like work. I’ll take my celebrations simple, heartfelt, and easy.
12 ideas for celebrating:
Give yourself the gift of time. A guilt-free afternoon is at the top of my ideas! Yummy!
Plan visits with friends. My choice is a gentle rollout of long-overdue cups of coffee together.
Eat special food. We all have our list. Extra dark chocolate. An almond croissant (One gets to go high sugar/high gluten once in a while, right?)
Ask your partner for a gift. If my husband were telepathic he’d know exactly what I’d like, but it doesn’t hurt to tell him. I’ve found explicit works best.
Buy something cool. I’m not into big consumption, but adding a new tube of paint to my collection would be joyous!
Donate or give something away. Do good in celebration of you.
Clean. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but cleaning feels great after a spate of intense computer work.
Take a “create break.” A stretch of time dedicated to creating, whether it be painting, poetry or digging holes in the ground, could be luxurious.
Join someone else’s celebration and share their joy.
Perform a ceremony or ritual that has meaning to you.
Take an extra-long walk.
Or, make a list and extend the celebrations over time.
For my 60th birthday, I decided to list sixty mostly low-cost items or experiences that would make my heart sing. (I actually only hit 49. That was plenty!) On my list was coffee with a friend, a laughter yoga session, a walk in the park, an improv class, a phone call with an old buddy, a long trail ride, a new tube of lipstick, among others.
Just the act of creating the list was a celebration. I gave myself a year to fulfill on my list. It was so much fun that I’m considering repeating the process for an even bigger, fast-approaching, significant birthday.
Celebrating may only require adding a dash of intention or gratitude into what I might be doing anyway. Like taking time to weed.
Celebrating can be about transforming the ordinary with a moment of magic.
Because we all deserve that.
Now for a blast from a distant past…here’s a song from the kings of “Celebration.”
We made it. To here. That should be cause enough to celebrate while honoring the 500,000 plus in the US we’ve lost to COVID.
With a new year, new, very different, President and Vice President, vaccines rolling out, and spring on its way, I thought we’d be done with anger. Don’t you wish? Rather than hope for the unlikely, I’m looking at how to make positive use of my anger, asking,
“How can I turn my anger into fuel for my creative work?”
Any of my feelings, including difficult emotions like grief, fear, and anger, can be gateways to creativity. Anger’s especially tough for me. I grew up in a generation of “nice girls” where I learned to sit on my anger, or, more accurately, let my anger sit on me.
Those days are over. But expressing my anger doesn’t mean I want to act in ways that cause messes. I want to apply my anger, whether current or longtime suppressed, toward something constructive.
Turning rage into results
Nina Simone was angry after Medgar Evers and Emmett Till were killed. Enraged to learn that the 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed in Birmingham, Alabama and four children had died, she quickly composed “Mississippi Goddam,” a pulsing song whose fury pulls no punches.
Atira Tan, visiting Cambodia during a trip around the world. watched the local nightlife where mothers came out to sell their young daughters for sex. Tan was appalled and enraged. She canceled her travel plans and helped found Art to Healing to help victims of sex trafficking heal their trauma.
Not all of our creative work has to lead to action. Sometimes doing something small, just for ourselves, is enough.
Anger doesn’t automatically turn into art or action. It first needs to be alchemized.
Ancient alchemists wanted to transmute base materials into something beautiful. They used cauldrons and rituals to prepare themselves for acts of alchemy, which could be dangerous. My cauldron is the medium, project or activity I choose to work on. I must prepare myself as well.
When my anger is fierce, I may need help directing it into creative use. Left to roam around my innards unchecked, anger can do a lot of damage. And anger tied up too tightly can simmer and leech the life out of me.
I can learn to use our anger, expressing it without lashing out and hurting others.
Our job is to use the anger and not let it use us.
I ask, “How can anger help me create?” While anger management or self-analysis can be useful, I use the following steps to move my anger from reactivity to creativity:
When I’m in reaction, I’m more likely to explode or act in hurtful ways. It doesn’t matter how right I am. I use the mantra: “Shut mouth and breathe.” It gives my amygdala time to chill. I don’t deny my anger, shove it down or prettify it. I just apply a little self-control. I tell it, “I hear you and I’ll attend to you after we’ve both settled a bit.” Reactivity is different from creativity.
The worst thing I can do when I’m enraged is to sit and seethe, although that’s often tempting. Talking probably won’t help. My approach now is move, walk, stretch, run, dance, or pick a flower. Stay out of my head or at least balance my anguish with physical activity to get my heart pumping. Shaking is excellent.
I don’t like anger and often want to just get over it. But not wanting to be angry doesn’t help. Sometimes a situation deserves anger. (The situations Simone and Tan faced certainly did.)
After I’m breathing again, I ask questions to understand the context. Am I triggered by what somebody just said to me or by pain from the past? Or both? I want to be kind to myself for how deep some hurts can go.
Accepting that I’m angry, though, doesn’t mean I have to accept centuries of violence to women or the trafficking of a child.
As I ready myself to create, I delve into my imagination. “What color is the anger? What does it smell like? What shape does it have? What song might it be?” I become curious about this high-octane fuel I’ll be using.
As I become curious, I start the process of creating.
An alchemist can transform anger into action or art. Carefully. After all, anger, like a fire, burns. I don’t want to be caught in the flames.
I may need to pray.
Prayer for me uses simple words like, “Help me move this anger.” “Help me harness this force,” or “Help me use and then release this energy.” I sound my S.O.S. to any guardian angels who might be in the neighborhood, “Help me sing, dance, or create my way through these difficult feelings.”
I can use my intention, telling myself. “I’m want to feel my anger, and then move it constructively.”
I may want to say an affirmation or chant a simple mantra, such as “I create beauty.” Having something to say repeatedly can move me out of places where my mind is stuck.
I can laugh. Laughter helps me work with anger and pull beauty out of it.
Aim your fuel into a form
Next it’s time to put my emotional energy into creative use. I don’t have to make art, but I want to work on something I’m passionate about. What art medium. music or project can be a channel for the energy I’m feeling?
I can work either directly or indirectly with my emotions.
Direct work: I can channel my anger directly into a project. After the presidential election in 2016, I used my rage to write a blog post. It saved me.
Tan started an organization. Simone wrote her song
Indirect work: When I work in this way, I put my feelings into my work without a destination in mind. If I’m writing, I free-write. If I’m painting, I pour paint on a page and see what happens. In the garden, I might dig until I have a sense of what wants to be planted. Feelings flow out of me into a safe space where I can enjoy them, allowing them to morph.
As I create, I become bigger than any particular feeling. My emotions can change. Just because I have anger doesn’t mean that’s all I have. Other feelings are free to show up in my work.
In this last step, I rinse out my feelings with a cool flush of gratitude. My anger may not be gone, (in Simone’s case it certainly wasn’t). Or, maybe my anger has shifted into joy or exhilaration. Whatever I feel, when I create I feel more whole.
I move beyond being a reactor to becoming a generator. I feel connected again to the world outside of me as well as to myself.
“Out beyond right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
How I’d love to visit! I only wish he’d left directions.
Hint: The kids in the video below found it.
Me, I’m a judge-aholic.** I grew up with self-judgmentalism. A condition that may be inherited.
I wish I could have a second vaccine dose and be done with it! Instead, it’s taking me years to unwind the effects of my upbringing and our culture.
Early training in self-judgment
I grew up in suburban Connecticut where comparing yourself with others was played like an Olympic-level sport. As children, we began practice in second grade, when we were diced, sliced, pureed, and graded. I learned then that a bad mark could endanger my acceptance into Harvard. (No matter that Harvard was not accepting female undergraduates at that time.)
Harvard, in our community, was placed spiritually just under “Heaven.” Yale came next.
I’d love to purge parts of my cultural upbringing.
To witness or to judge
Recently I’ve had the experience of singing in triads where one person takes the role of the singer, one becomes the encourager/timer, and the third, the witness. Then we switch roles.
Given my training in coaching and listening, I assumed I’d be a good witness. I know how to listen in silence and find something to appreciate in another.
Instead, I learned that the witness role asks me to listen to the singer, hold space for her, and suspend any evaluations. Including appreciations.
Could I learn to witness a singer without having opinions? Even positive ones?
When it was my turn to sing, I found it magical to sound into a space of non-judgment. I could observe and witness my own voice without worrying how I sounded. So what if my high notes broke or my low ones sounded like gravel under a pickup?
I sang without the overlay of judgment. I observed, then returned to silence. My voice relaxed.
But there was still an obstacle to overcome: I like compliments.
“Good” and “bad” comments go together
I am very sensitive to people’s criticisms and negative judgments. I wish I had a magic wand to disappear that part of me.
Even as I loved being witnessed as I sang, a voice in me peeped: Did you like what I did? Did you like my voice? Was it good?
I wanted to let go of the negative comments and hold on to the positive.
In some situations that’s fine. But not when you’re a witness. And if you’re a judge-aholic, en guard!
Praise can feel fabulous. But for us, it’s a slippery slope.
I start by wanting to hear that my voice sounds good. Then the inner peeper starts demanding: More! More! Am I special? Am I loved?
When discernment is necessary
Of course I don’t need to judge myself for judging myself or wanting comments, right?
And, some of the time, self-evaluation isn’t bad. It’s necessary in order to learn the requirements of certain forms of art or music. We learn to discern what works or doesn’t.
The art of discernment is tricky when you’re self-judgmental. For example, when I read music at the piano, there are right notes and wrong notes. You can’t say anything goes. Beethoven would roll over.
Practicing is the art of increasing the percentage of right notes.
But playing wrong notes affects me viscerally. They gong in my ears and quiver in my chest. They cloud my mind and send my back into spasms. When my symptoms escalate, I have to stop playing.
How can I work with standards, aka right and wrong notes, and be a calm witness and not a judge?
It beats me.
My guru in this regard is my husband.
He continually tells me that he really likes to hear me play the piano. I remind him that I play a lot of wrong notes.
He tells me, “I know but they don’t bother me.”
Thunderbolt! How could that be?
He is able to discern right notes/wrong notes and still enjoy witnessing.
He can judge the accuracy of the notes without judging the player.
My husband is clearly ahead of me when it comes to enlightenment. (But not, alas, when it comes to judging himself.)
On a cheerier note
My dogs understand how to hold this paradox. They do not waste time holding on to judgment even when I repeatedly fail them.
For example, during our recent blizzard, they yapped and yelped, “WE WANT TO PLAY IN THE SNOW NOW!!! even as I explained that it took fifteen minutes to wipe off the 15 pounds of snow each of them carried home after a romp. And I had already done it THREE times in the past TWO hours.
They disagreed but soon the incident was forgotten and the boys settled back into the gentle, witnessing state called, “It’s fun to be with Mommy,” and “Can we come up on the bed, please?”
There’s hope for us judges
If you’re a judge-aholic, I’m here to tell you there’s hope. It may take a lot of practice, a lot of witnessing, and a lot of letting go.
In my case, perfection isn’t the goal. That’s a judgment, anyway.
Wish me luck. Recovery requires a steady commitment I can only make one day at a time.
And now for a real treat…kids who get it from Britain’s Got Talent:
I just finished Nina RIgg’s uncommonly beautiful and ultimately uplifting memoir of the last year of her life, The Bright Hour. Nina, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, weaves reflections on Emerson and Michel de Montaigne into this tale of family and cancer. Although living while dying might sound morbid, it isn’t. It’s a challenge we all face, ultimately, even if we’d rather ignore it. Nina dies the month after finishing her manuscript, leaving us with a note of sorrow and a great appreciation for life.
Nina had no interest in “bucket lists,” full of dramatic must-do-before-dying experiences. She preferred to spend her year immersed in her family, treasuring the commonplace, appreciating what she thought she’d miss most. She wrote:
“I want all of it–all the things to do with living–and I want them to keep feeling messy and confusing and even sometimes boring. The carpool line and the backpacks and light that fills the room in the building where I wait while the kids take piano lessons.”
Today, with COVID-19, “bucket-list” travel is not an option. We’re unlikely to jet to Paris, climb on Macchu Picchu, or walk the Great Wall of China.
Yet we can admire, like Nina, the messy and ordinary in our lives, finding within it magic, knowing how much we would miss it if our lives were to change.
I started a list: small, ordinary, no-cost things I adore in my life today. This was easy to make.
Small, ordinary (no-cost) things that I love and would miss
Dappled sunlight on a path.
Face-coating licks from bro-dogs Winston and Royce.
A bear hug from my husband, Steve.
A blueberry, fresh-picked from our patch.
The moon before dawn.
Purple gladiolas in bloom.
A simple piece of Chopin I can play on the piano.
The two Doug firs standing sentinel next door.
This list goes on and on.
But the more important list, perhaps, is the second I made:
Small, ordinary (no-cost) things that I don’t love but would also miss
Thatching ants, colossal composters, whose two-foot-high home (for a million ants?) covers a much-used walkway
The birds who have abandoned our protocol of share-zies at the raspberry bush and have decided “winner take all.”
A lawn full of false-dandelions, with bright yellow flowers and puffballs about to send their seeds everywhere into the garden.
Royce’s mistake as he steals my best pear off the counter then distributes its juicy remains on my favorite carpet.
The electric hammer my neighbor is using to build his barn.
My husband’s wheezie snore at night.
If I knew my life was limited, which of course it is, I would not take any of these for granted. The moment I thought I might lose them, I’d regret them all.
For these lists, I focused on small parts of life in front of me. In these days of global crisis, what’s right in front of me brings me the most comfort.
Appreciating the small in a time of COVID-19
With COVID, I move in a reduced orbit. Yet, my world is plenty big when I enlarge its scope by noticing the magic around me.
Two questions for you
You don’t have to meditate on dying, even though this is a powerful spiritual practice. Instead, try these two questions:
What are the small, ordinary things that you love?
What are the small, ordinary things that you don’t love but might dearly miss should your life be at risk?
Then, bask in appreciation for what is messy, common, and wonderful around you.
As part of my stretch-my-creativity-during-the-pandemic campaign, I’m taking an online course about voice called “Express the Music of Your Soul” from Chloë Goodchild, a teacher in England. She coaches students from around the globe on how they can access their “Naked” (authentic-soul) voices. I hoped the course might help me confront my I-can’t-sing-in-front-of-people phobia.
I love singing, and I make up songs which I belt out enthusiastically to my horses when I muck their paddock. They are quite a willing audience, especially when they know this means food is on the horizon. All it takes, though, is the sight of one person in the field nearby and my voice instantly retreats. If I’m chanting on a trail and I see another hiker approaching, my voice makes a quick dive for shelter into the pit of my stomach and doesn’t come out until all risk of being heard is gone. I consider this a problem, if not a pathology.
At first, that idea was disturbing because I never hear silence. I have a moderate case of tinnitus, which means that even in meditation, there is no silence. I call the ringing my personal, cosmic orchestra.
Turns out tinnitus isn’t a block to hearing silence. Neither is standing in a place that isn’t completely still. National Geographic reports that there are very few truly quiet places left on earth–the crater of the Haleakalā National Park in Maui being one of the quietest. Yet, we can all find silence when we listen to the silence that lies deep within.
I am learning to stop and find silence before and after I sing, chant, or warble a few notes. Anchored in silence, I’m discovering a welcoming space where I can soften and even escape the fierce voice of self-judgment that’s ready to offer commentaries: “Your voice wobbled.” “You didn’t hit that note.” “Your higher voice sounded strained.” “Your lower voice sounded like mud.”
Silence is a safe harbor where those nasty thoughts lose much of their bite.
Silence opens a judgment-free zone that becomes as important to the singing as the singing itself.
Drawing in silence
When I precede singing with a few moments of silence, and a couple of breaths, it’s easier to allow my voice to come forward and do whatever it does. It’s all an experiment, an opportunity to notice.
Re-reading Frederick Franck’s classic book on drawing, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing. I was struck by how he always started his classes with silence and asked his students to remain in silence while sketching.
Silence opened the door to seeing.
The value of silence may not be a surprise to anyone who meditates, yet I had never thought about how foundational it is to creativity.
We don’t have to wait for our daily meditation or an occasional retreat to find silence when we can make room for it in our daily lives. I can find silence while standing in a grocery line (that is, when I return to the world of stores and lines).
When, with silence, I shift from my “How-am-I-doing?” fervor into more “What-am-I-noticing?” attention. I can drop some of the judgments that inhibit or impede creative life.
A creative’s best friend
I admit I’m still learning to develop the discipline of taking a pause, a moment of silence, before plunging ahead with my writing, a project, or playing the piano. Inspired to start, I jump in and try to build momentum at the keyboard. Yet too often, when I become tired or distracted, I lose that momentum. Taking an initial moment of silence is a way of setting a peaceful focus.
Sitting at the piano, the legacy of lessons-past, and my aversion to mistakes, still haunt me. Rather than playing through the chatter in my mind, I can Just Stop. It’s my practice session and not a concert, so who cares if I interrupt a piece mid-phrase in order to touch into silence for a moment before continuing?
If I no longer feel my spirit delighting in sounds or loving the music, I’ve lost touch with my creative core—time to pause and reconnect.
Chloë Goodman likes to ask, “Who is singing?” and “What is left in the silence after we sing?” She’s listening for the foundation from which the note comes, the sound before the voice finds it. She’s also listening for the resonance left after the voice has sounded, and we return to silence.
In a noisy world
With the din of current events banging on my ears, and self-judgment always nibbling at me from the inside, silence becomes an ally.
Silence is part of the pond we draw from when we create.
Am I still shy, singing or performing in front of others? Yep. Changing that pattern of timidity and self-consciousness may take time, but there’s no “have-to-get-to” to get to. My voice is what it is now. My job is to keep paying attention. The part of my soul that is filled by singing doesn’t care about results. It asks, “Were you present, alive, enjoying your right to be creative?”
Four ways to play with silence
Try dropping into silence at the start of a project, whether it be your work, music, or a piece of art.
Listen to what you can hear when you are in stillness, allowing yourself to listen deeper.
Find music in the ordinary: a kettle on the stove, a refrigerator making ice, a toilet flushing.
Feel the peace that comes to you when you sit, however briefly, in a moment of judgment-free observing.
Are there areas where a healthy dollop of silence could improve your practice or your life? Try dipping into silence as you move through your day, and I’d love to know what opens up for you.