What It Means to Do Work

I am sticking my head up for a moment to say I am here. We are playing two shows in NYC area this weekend: Friday at Rockwood Music Hall on the lower East Side, and Saturday at Jalopy in Red Hook (Brooklyn). I am bringing both kids with me to the City, and my beloved aunt and uncle are taking care of them. (In between gigs, we are going shopping for items for Elle’s Mad-Eye Moody costume). I say “sticking my head up” because I have been spending the bulk of my time gearing up to release our new album XVII. Though the official release date is not till Feb 2, 2015 (Groundhog’s Day! Imbolc! St. Bridget’s Day! Midwinter!), our Pledge Music Campaign starts October 27, and we are scrambling to film our video, write our copy, meet with our team, post the new photos by the amazing Kris McCue to the page, prepare the newsletter, send it out, pray for donations, etc. etc. Kit (our producer) is mixing tracks as we speak, and as soon as he sends them to us, we’ll be scrutinizing them (or whatever the aural equivalent of “scrutinizing” is) to make sure they are note-perfect. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Part of me wants to stay away from NYC because of Ebola (my kids are terrified about getting it), and most of me just feels so deflated that people are dying and their loved ones are standing by, helpless. This is just what the Climate Change scientists predicted, back in the innocent 00’s. Tuesday, in my guitar class, we played through Pete Seeger’s “Quite Early Morning,” and as I was singing the lyrics, I realized that though this song is about the Cold War, and the fear of nuclear annihilation, we’re now facing an entirely different form of annihilation with climate change. The more I learn about climate change, the more I want to hide my head in the sand, which is another reason I am sticking my head up now. A folksinger who hides her head in the sand, who doesn’t stay current, is not doing her job.

But neither can she do nothing but worry. We hiked in the Adirondacks last weekend, bringing almost-10-year-old cousin William with us. He is on Harry Potter 5, and even though Elle has technically finished all 7 books, most of them were read to her several years ago, and thus she does not have the same grasp of the details that William does. So as they marched up and down Hurricane Mountain, he instructed them on all the different spells they could cast with the wands they fashioned out of twigs (only certain twig shapes could be wands, of course. There was much searching for wands as we hiked.) They also decided to speak only in British accents. I, meanwhile, had downloaded a free pedometer app. Interestingly, while I now know I am way more sedentary than I’d previously thought, and though before the download I would have maintained to anyone who cared to listen that at 47 I am in the best shape of my life, after I downloaded and saw with dismay the meager number of steps I take on a daily basis, I immediately gained three pounds. But even though I am sorely tempted by the new Apple Watch, I am instead going to save my pennies for a treadmill desk.

As much as I do want an Apple Watch–and oh, doesn’t it delivers the promise we all had as kids, fantasizing about watching TV on our wrists?–I have some concerns about turning my body over to a device, or perhaps into a device. I have a strong feeling that Apple has already taken over the better part of my brain. Plus, I don’t want my kids to see just how obsessive I would be if all the answers to my potential questions were actually on my body at all times. Which is the problem with the pedometer and why I have resisted for so long in getting a Fitbit or any such thing. I’d rather just shoot for getting outdoors every day, breathing the air at its various temperatures and consistencies, feeling if my jeans are getting baggy or tight and adjusting accordingly.

As for Hurricane, it’s a pretty big mountain, and when we started out around noon, I felt ambivalent about ascending. What was wrong with a long walk in the woods with Stella and the kids? I had no need to actually go to the top of a peak. It was overcast, and there was no view. But as we hiked, and especially as we neared the summit, some internal chemistry shifted, and I was overcome with the desire to touch the fire tower at the top.

I wanted to pause, up there in the clouds, put my hands on my hips and sigh, turning 360 degrees to see what I could see. I wanted to say “I did it.”

Turns out there was a view after all.

We have to raise $30,000 for our new album, XVII. I guess we don’t HAVE to. We have to eradicate Ebola and figure out a way to consume less fossil fuel and save the planet and try not to kill off any more other species. But it would be nice to raise $30,000 too. I could just as easily go with a plan where we do the bare minimum, like we did with our last album, The Full Catastrophe. In that case, we made 1500 copies, did a super cheap cover (in fact, I took the picture. If we’d asked Katryna–an actual photographer–it would have cost more.) We did almost no publicity, and certainly no radio. We did exactly one CD release show with a band. Releasing that way, low budget, felt like going for a long walk in the woods. There is merit in climbing to the top inherent in the climbing. We artists are communicators. If we don’t do our job as fully and as well as we can, we feel we have failed, even as the work stands strong and proud (and I firmly believe that The Full Catastrophe is a strong, proud, truthful, helpful, beautiful record.) If you are reading this, we have already succeeded in communicating with you. But there are people who love the Nields and don’t know it yet. We need to reach them. This money that we are raising, we hope, will do just this. Someone’s life will be saved by “Witness” or “Princess.” Someone needs to hear “Victory” and “River.” Someone will be changed by “Dave Hayes the Weather Guy.” To paraphrase Pete Seeger: we want to put our one grain of sand on the beach we believe in. We really really really love this record and we firmly believe you will too.

Last winter, when faced with the choice of writing new songs or starting a new book project, I wrote new songs. When the first one wasn’t great, I wrote a better one. When that one didn’t totally get at the issue, I wrote another. I wrote until Katryna said, “You’ve written the album. Let’s record. These are the best songs you’ve ever composed.” I hope they tell the truth, that they bring hope, that you can dance to them, that kids will learn them on their guitars and pianos and that one day I will hear them being covered. Then I will feel as though I have done my job.

Wormholes, Best Trick in Beating Resistance, and Perfectionism

Wormholes
And here’s where the concept of Wormholes comes in. Wormholes, as I define them, are these little breaks of opportunity in my great wall of resistance. They’re the moments when I feel like maybe, if the circumstances were just right, I might possibly be talked into:
• Giving up bananas (they are SO not local)
• Organizing my office
• Writing a new song
• Doing more than just my one sun salutation in the morning
• Doing more than just 2 miles in my morning run
• Doing whatever totally heinous chore has been on my To Do list since two years ago Christmas (Today it’s finding a new stylus for our aged turntable; last week it was filling out copyright forms to register the songs on our new CD)

Now, if I take advantage of these miraculous wormholes, the impossible not only can happen, but usually does with remarkable ease, especially if I have a little grace and humility about it. I resist playing the guitar until I stop telling myself I’m supposed to be playing the guitar. Then, usually, I want to play it. I go through phases with it, and today I know that about myself. Some years I practice diligently, with love and great enthusiasm and creativity. Other years, I coast along. Even though I have made my living as a singer-songwriter who plays the guitar, I know I will never be a virtuoso. What I have done is evolved my own style, and today it’s good enough for me. And I got that style from a certain amount of “just doing it,” as a certain shoe company would say. Just showing up and gritting my teeth and pushing that Sloth to play scales and figure out songs. On the most wonderful days, actual enthusiasm would appear in the middle of a practice session, and I know there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than just joyfully banging away at my guitar.

Best Trick Beating Resistance
“Play till you feel like resting. Then rest till you feel like playing.”––Martha Beck

When I have a lot to do and I don’t feel like doing anything, I make a deal with myself. I say, “Okay, then: do nothing. But really do nothing.”
Doing nothing involves reclining on my couch and staring into space. I do not get to talk on the phone, read, check my email, or sleep. On the other hand, I do not have to meditate, count my breaths or practice any kind of spiritual discipline whatever. All I do is space out. Somehow, this always relaxes and refreshes me, and before too long, my spinning mind has a million things it wants my body to do. I jump up and start accomplishing all the tasks I was fixing to resist.

Perfectionism is the Enemy
So when I look back on my “goals” list, my IAP sees all the things I haven’t done and won’t ever do. (Not going to be the next Beatles. I am clear on that. Don’t think Harvard Div’s in my future either, but that’s another story.) My IAP can sometimes be quite disappointed. But the truth is, I played the guitar well enough to make a career that has sustained me emotionally and financially and artistically for the past 22 years. Instead of becoming the next Beatles, I have this fantastic patchwork life: a manageable, wonderful music career, and a life as a freelance teacher of writing, music and life. I get to write books, go to my kids’ assemblies, and have date night with my husband once a week.
Like the person who really wanted to be a gardener in Ogunquit, the Real Me chooses the life I have made over the life I thought I should have when I was 22. This life, as they say, is right-sized. But I am also glad I gave it my all and “went for it.”

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties, by Nerissa Nields, Mercy House 2013

Setting Goals and Resistance, Part 2

The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals

I am working on songwriting even as I post this. So far, so good, but man is it hard to get me to sit still!

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties

The trick for me is to get the IAP and the Willful Child talking calmly to each other instead of having one of them throw a tsunami-size tantrum while the other one nags like a critical op-ed writer. For this is the challenge. As soon as I set a goal––like getting in shape so I can look great in a Betsey Johnson dress—my inner six(teen) year old (WC) immediately rolls her eyes and curls up in bed with a book. Meanwhile, my IAP goes ballistic on the poor reader, screaming, “Your thighs! That bulge above your triceps! Not to mention you’re going to get osteoporosis and heart disease! Get out of bed and do forty laps around the park!”

Eventually I learned to treat these two opposing personalities the way I would treat a cat. Cats (at least the ones I lived with) don’t respond well to direct orders or being scooped up and cuddled. They like to be wooed, approached at a 45 degree angle. Slyly. Gently. Coyly. And so when I am feeling listless, I have my IAP say, ever so slyly, gently, and coyly, “Wow, remember how nice it was to go for a run? You used to bring your iPod and listen to Anna Karenina. That was fun. Hmmm. Maybe if we go back to running, we can download Middlemarch. You could start by just walking, and call Susan on your cell phone… no pressure.” The six(teen)-year-old responds much better this way (though she negotiates for Patti Smith’s Just Kids in lieu of Middlemarch), and there is peace, harmony and fitness in the kingdom once again.

But this diplomacy has been long in negotiation. This should give you hope: in order to meet my second goal (to be the next Beatles) I knew I would have to practice my guitar a lot more. (I am undisciplined about practicing my guitar, and I pretty much always have been.) When I started at age eleven, that directive: “I should practice more!” rang in my ears every time I came home from school and saw my little nylon string guitar safely tucked away in its black pleather case. What did I do? Sometimes felt kind of sick and guilty and stuck the guitar in the nether regions of my closet. But often the desire to make music would come and pull at my heartstrings, and I would pull the guitar out of the case and open my Beatles for Easy Guitar book, sit down on the carpet and painfully play a few songs with especially easy chords. But I’d get so frustrated because the songs sounded nothing like the Beatles LPs I’d put on the record player that I’d slam the book shut in frustration and lock my guitar up in its case, to be ignored for the next few weeks. Still, the IAP had some effect, as I eventually played the guitar for my living.

Setting Goals and Resistence, part 1

Today, Katryna and I rehearsed (and even kind of wrote!) songs for our new CD. So my post is from my book How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties. Makes an excellent graduation gift. Just saying.

Setting Goals
Goal-setting is probably not new to you. Who hasn’t at some point tried to achieve something just beyond one’s reach? How does one do such a thing? By working a little harder, a little longer, a little more often, in a focused way. We can set goals for ourselves around almost anything: making it through school, training for a race, mastering an instrument, achieving a social status, winning a chess ranking, winning first prize at a Rubik’s Cube tournament. When I was 22, my goals were: to never have to feel lonely again; to start a band that would be the next Beatles; to write a hit song; to look great in a Betsey Johnson dress; to have a daily yoga practice; to run every day; to keep a daily journal; to (eventually—many years in the future) have a family; to go to Harvard Divinity School and be a minister living in western Massachusetts.

Dealing With Resistance
The problem with setting goals is that as soon as we do, 95% of us come up against the source of all evil: Resistance. [For more on Resistance, you must MUST read the excellent Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art.] Resistance, as I am defining it here, means not doing something you know you want to do, ought to do, love to do, and won’t do––yet have no logical reason for not doing. There is something about the nature of resistance that speaks to the very heart of this question of maturity. We all know resistance in some aspect of our lives; we all know that huge creature slouching toward the mall, if not Bethlehem, this three-toed sloth who sleeps all day in the cool of the trees and rouses itself only to eat and excrete. We all know the frustration of setting a goal—to keep our living room tidier, to jog three miles in the morning, to practice the guitar, to send out that resumé, to straighten out our finances––only to watch as the weeks go by and helplessly observe that sickening refusal in some deep part of ourselves to participate. What is it? Where does it come from?

I have no idea. All I know is that I recognize this sloth in myself, and it baffles me that I have accomplished as much as I have, given its hegemony over me. But I do have some observations.

Of course, if we never set goals, we’d never have to deal with resistance. I tend to see the whole issue of resistance to goals in myself as a conversation between a very willful, creative child and a very ambitious parent with the “Real You” stuck somewhere in the middle.

Sigmund Freud uses the terms “id,” “superego” and “ego” here, but some of us have problems with old Siggy, so I’ve provided some alternative jargon for you. Perhaps your resistance is actually healthy and self-protective. What if the goals you are setting for yourself are the wrong goals anyway? What if these particular goals do not support your true dreams and desires? What if the Real You––your true self before socialization, the unique person you were meant to be during your brief sojourn on this planet—what if this You does not care about glamour and fame and money? The Real You might think your perfect manifestation to be a gardener in the town of Ogunquit, Maine. The Real You might fall in love with an overweight, illiterate cab driver with eyes like Tom Hanks’ and a heart as big as Canada. The Real You might just want what it is meant to want.

Your Inner Ambitious Parent (IAP), on the other hand, is who and what our peers, People magazine, The New York Times and perhaps our actual ambitious parents tell us we should be––what we should look like, how much money we should make and what we should accomplish in our lifetime. Your IAP has been told to follow in the family business, or to be a doctor or a lawyer or something (please, God) that will provide our parents with some security upon retirement. Your IAP might want you to be straight, though sometimes, in some communities, gay. Your IAP wants you to contain your feelings (unless it’s Italian, which means it wants you to be extremely emotive, operatic, and a good cook and lover to boot. Pardon the “boot” pun). In short, the Real You and your IAP might be worlds apart.

Maybe the reason you keep procrastinating on your screenplay or sleeping through your morning workout is that you don’t really want to be an award winning documentary filmmaker or a triathlete. Maybe your house continues to be a disaster area, even though you subscribe religiously to FlyLady , because you don’t really want your house to look like it sprung from the pages of House Beautiful. Maybe this resistance is some kind of divine protection, a cry from the dark saying, “This is not me!”

The Willful Child on the other hand is not that helpful either, though some of us in our teens and twenties champion our WC and follow her on a long goose chase to degradation (see The Prodigal Son and a bazillion other characters in literature). The Willful Child is not that keen on making money, friends, or attending to personal hygiene. She’s fun for awhile, but not for a lifetime. You really don’t want her running the show, or you’ll end up like one of my actual willful children who, on occasion, refuses TV and candy simply because their actual IAP (me) is offering it to him or her. Or in my case, the WC is that same sloth spoken of earlier who doesn’t so much stamp her foot but rather curls up on the couch for an entire season if left undisturbed. Life, of course, is a process of finding that balance between chaos and rigidity. The balance point changes over time, which is why we need to practice balancing a lot.

(For tomorrow: The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals)

New CD, New Van, New Commitment

What have we been doing lately? Glad you asked. In addition to the usual, Nerissa has been writing a huge number (like 20) of songs; we drove our new van, Bessie Van Gogh, down to Virginia where we played at our church Immanuel Presbyterian, and also at the Ethical Community Charter School where we did our Pete Seeger Wasn’t That a Time? show. Meanwhile, as we drove up and down the Jersey Turnpike, our kids made a chart of all the states represented on the license plates of the cars we passed on the way.

We visited the Mall in DC and tried to go to the East Wing of the National Gallery, but it was closed. So we visited the West Wing and gave the kids a scavenger hunt: “Find a painting with fruit in it.” “Find a painting with two women,” etc.

We also went to the American History museum and looked at a display on the Civil Rights era. We watched footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and also saw Joan Baez’s guitar, which she played at the Lincoln Memorial.

We sang Pete Seeger songs and some of our new ones. We used our brand new sound system. We were grateful for every single extra inch Bessie Van Gogh afforded us. We hung around the playground while our kids gamboled, and we talked about the new CD we are going to make this summer. We talked about a CD release tour in 2015; about going to Florida for a gig, about our dream of performing in all 50 states in our lifetime (we’ve played all but Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Hawaii.) We showed our kids the neighborhood we’d lived in in the 70s. We saw our parents. We saw spring in Virginia, which gave us hope that spring would eventually come to Massachusetts.

Last weekend, we celebrated Elle’s 8th birthday. Katryna’s kids gave her the soundtrack to Frozen, a movie she’d watched with her friends at least twice before we got to see it as a family. Jay had also seen it without us. Katryna’s kids know every word of the soundtrack, and after dinner Saturday night, the four kids closed the French doors, which separate the dining room from the music room and proceeded to sing and dance along to practically the entire movie, emoting majestically with their arms, shooshing their hair back dramatically along with “Let It Go.” We grown-ups snuck over to the backstage area to spy on them. They were in perfect bliss; and I realized that this was their music as much as anything has ever been my music, and for that reason, I decided to love it, even though it is the kind of aggressive pop music I have historically eschewed.

I was 8 when I discovered my first LP–the LP that I would wear out, play over and over, knew every note to: The Captain and Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together. Katryna and I used to do the same kind of interpretive dance, belt-it-out reveries to that LP.

The joy and vulnerability is so delicious to watch, but we felt almost guilty spying on them. In fact, five year old Jay eventually spotted us, and when he did, immediately said, “Go away. This is pwivate.”

We are about to record our 17th CD. We have almost all the songs. I should have been working on a song tonight, but instead I wrote this. I feel the need to connect back to the readership of this blog during the next few months. My creative entrepreneurial group (CREMA—Creative Entrepreneur Mastermind) met last week and talked about how important it is for writers to be disciplined, to write when they say they will write. To write for at least an hour a day. I want to commit to that for the next two months leading up to our time in the studio. When I am not writing and performing regularly, I forget who I am. (Which might not be a bad thing, but for the sake of argument…) It’s almost impossible for me to remember that my music matters unless I am onstage, or it’s the day after a show, or I’m singing a new song in church. By day two, post-show, I have forgotten that anyone likes my music or remembers who I am (if I have forgotten who The Nields are, which I usually do, why should anyone else remember?) We are not gigging very much this summer because this time around, we’re doing the “hole up in the studio” version of recording a record (whereas with The Full Catastrophe we did the “let’s try to live our whole lives while recording for an hour a week” version. Result? A record that took three years to make.) Now is a good time to remember that I am a musician and a writer and not get distracted by my child’s guinea pigs (more on that later) or get consumed by a clutter-clearing initiative.

I need, once again, to commit to an hour of creative time per day. Not so much in the hopes that I will write something Outstanding That Outlives Me (OTOM=my perpetual goal), but to remind ME that I am an artist, first and foremost. Remember when I spent a whole month blogging every day? That was March 2009, after having that formative tour/vacation in Florida where I couldn’t appreciate the view of the Gulf of Mexico because I was too tired. On that trip, we played a couple of shows at the Craftsman House, and while resting between, I found a book called The Mud Pie Dilemma about an artist named Tom Coleman who had struggled to raise a child and make a living while remaining an artist. It gave me a kick in the pants at the time––I was newly postpartum after my second child, Jay––and I committed to a daily blogging practice. I don’t think I can do that right now, though I hope to in July and August while we’re recording the new CD. But for now, I can commit to hitting the piano, guitar or laptop for some daily open-ended creative time. I want to feel some of that exuberance my kids feel when they sing along to “Let It Go.”

“If you had started doing anything two weeks ago, by today you would have been two weeks better at it.”
― John Mayer