The Doctor Is In. 25¢ Please.

posted February 23, 2005

It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I was the next Dr. Andrew Weil. Or worse, Dr. Phil, God help us. No, it happened like this. My ex-mother in law, (Dr.) Marcia Jones, whom I love fiercely, sent me a book as my marriage to her son, David (ne Jones) was ending. The book was Expecting Adam and it was by a woman named Martha Beck whose son was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome within the first trimester of her pregnancy. A triple Harvard Ph.D. living in Cambridge, Martha was advised by colleagues to abort. Instead, from the firestorm that was this experience, she kept the baby and allowed it to transform her worldview. She moved quickly from a neck-up existence to a full bodied one. I could relate. I had a firestorm of my own, and before it, I’d focused on just two dimensions of myself and others: mind and body. After, I found a third: mind, body and awareness. Through the firestorm and an accompanying series of ordinary miracles, Martha discovered this third dimension, and her life changed from top to bottom.

I ate this book up and thought about its applications to my own life for years, noting only peripherally that she had become–post Harvard–a life coach. It was the first time I’d heard that term.

A couple of years later, when I was still living in the farmhouse in Hatfield, I got an email from an old high school friend named Julie Serritella. “Hi,” she wrote. “I’m in Taiwan with my husband, and I heard a song by you on the radio! By the way, I’m a life coach.”

That’s nice, I thought vaguely and took Mia out for a romp down by the river and didn’t think of Julie again or life coaching, until last October when she showed up at our show in Ithaca.

“What exactly is life coaching?” I asked. “Is it like therapy?”
“Sort of, but not,” she said. “You get to use what you know to be true, but life coaching is to therapy what personal training is to orthopedics.”
“Do you tell people what to do?” I asked, packing up my CDs and counting the twenty dollar bills.
“No,” she said. “They already know what to do. I listen, and if I’m doing my job right, I ask the right questions. They tell me what they want to do, and in telling me, they tell themselves.”
I looked up. A job where you get to listen to other people’s stories? A job where you get to witness the birth of little epiphanies all day long? My rabid curiosity took over. “I want to do that,” I thought but did not say.

Two weeks later, on tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer, Jill Stratton, my old friend who runs the Acoustic City Concert Series in St. Louis, started telling me about her amazing life coach and her own thoughts on the matter.
“Nerissa,’ she said slyly looking at me while driving us alone I-70. “You should be a life coach.”

That did it. I came home from the tour, dumped my suitcase at the bottom of the stairs, ran up and googled Martha Beck’s website. It turns out she trains people to be life coaches. I sent an email to her associate, Stacey Shively. Stacey called me back. “What’s your last name?” she said after we’d been talking for a few minutes. “Hey! I know you! I have Gotta Get Over Greta!”

From that moment on, training began. I read countless books, I wrote copiously about…myself, based on assignments Martha gave trainees. I talked to Stacey and to other life coaches and harassed them with questions. I packed for Arizona, where the training would take place.

The night before I left, I got a call from an old, familiar number.

“Hi, Nerissa. It’s David. Mia got hit by a car.”

For anyone who’s lost a beloved pet, I don’t need to tell you what happened next. Tom said afterwards he’s never seen me cry so hard. I lay on the carpet and wailed and held my head in my hands. It was as though I were mourning every single loss I’ve ever had.

I sat in the meditation room with my guitar, and I lit a candle for Mia and sang her “Eulogy for Emma,” a song for the dog I’d had before Mia. I thought about Mia’s soft fur, little tail wagging like a flag above the squash fields of Hatfield. I thought about her brave fearless soul: she died chasing a squirrel into the road. No matter how hard we tried to scare her out of her road complacency, she refused to see it as a deathly river. She just ran joyfully across it, the way she ran joyfully anywhere.

“Mia,” I whispered. “Could you stick around to remind me to run joyfully?”

And of course, I thought about my marriage to David, those years in the van, the good man my ex-husband is. And how after a year of separation in which Mia lived with me, though we shared “custody,” I came to realize that I was traveling too much to treat her the way she needed to be treated. Treated to a forty-five minute-a-day romp in the squash fields. So I gave her to David and knew he would love her at least as much as I had. He did. I cried for his loss, went to bed, cried all day on the flight to Phoenix.


A group of eleven of us, hand picked by Stacey, met the next morning and commenced training. We did a number of exercises in which we examined fears and useless, unhelpful beliefs. I kept thinking of the work I’ve been doing in meditation for the past seven years, the focus on living in the present moment and how rich life is when I can do that. I also thought “Who knew all those books on Feng Shui I bought in the ‘90’s would come in handy someday? Who knew all those books on the Eneagram and astrology I read in airports and in the van driving around the country would be more than a guilty pleasure?”

I was blown away by my colleagues, learning as much from them as I did from Martha and her team. We couldn’t have been more different from each other. We were men and women, ranging in age from mid twenties to fifties, liberals and conservatives, therapists and a jewelry maker, a yoga instructor, a couple of PhDs, and one (choke, gasp) Republican who was a marketer and press person for the Bush campaign whom I, liberal apologist and passionate peacenik, adored. One woman had spent years in the bush in British Columbia with indigenous tribes (she spoke of Mom Jack and Auntie Mrs. Nyman which I thought would make a great title for a novel or memoir.) All of us were there because we want to help people get through the transitions of their lives and emerge stronger, not depleted and discouraged.

I believe from my own experience that everyone goes through a firestorm or two at some point, and when that happens, a person has three choices. She can be destroyed; she can chose never to risk again; or she can become steeled, strong, joyful and show others how to do the same. Flying back home over this country I love, I looked down and saw the green fields of Texas. Spring is coming. I couldn’t help but think of Mia, and her fearless spirit.

You can lend a hand,
You can make a call
You can say a kind word or not speak at all
You don’t have to speak
Just sit by my side
And help me grieve….

Here’s to running joyfully.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. Thank you Nerissa. In a way I can relate to your blog. My beloved pet mouse, Nala, hasn’t been doing well. The vet said she is nearing her last days on earth. Nala has brought me so much joy during the year and 9 months that I have had her. If I am having a bad day, all I have to do is open the cage, and my mood is instantly lifted by her mousey affection. I get so much satisfaction by having a little creature who is totally dependent on me…even though she’s only a mouse. Jim tells me, “You take better care of that mouse than some people take care of their children!”
    I’m sorry to hear of the loss of Mia. May she rest in peace up in doggie heaven.


  2. Oh, Nerissa. I’m crying in my tea. I’m so sorry about Mia and I’m so thankful that you write and that you share things like this with all of us out here. I have only listened to Eulogy for Emma three times in it’s entirety. It’s a gorgeous song, but I can’t listen to it because I become a blubbering mess. When I loose my dogs someday, my heart will shatter. But I’m going to need that song when that someday comes along. You are going to be (and already are) a superb life coach. Your retreats and guidance have done all for me that a life coach provides for those who seek them out. Take good care! Love, Melissa

  3. I agree completely with Melissa. Your retreats are like a little weekend of life coaching, and the writing is just a wonderful amazing by-product.


  4. Nerissa, you couldn’t have summed it up better. It was a magical experience, and we are all bonded by it, aren’t we? You are the most amazing woman with so many gifts. Not the least of which is your great, giving heart.

  5. Nerissa,

    Thank you for your post. I am so sorry to hear about Mia.

    “No matter how hard we tried to scare her out of her road complacency, she refused to see it as a deathly river. She just ran joyfully across it, the way she ran joyfully anywhere.”

    Those sentences really struck me, because I had the same trouble with the dog I grew up with, Pepper. She loved to run, but she was not careful near the road. When I first heard Eulogy for Emma, I was so struck by the relationship you had with your dog, as it was so similar to my relationship with Pepper.

    I am glad to hear that your life coach training went well. I think amazing things happens when we just take the time to listen thoughtfully to each other, and to try to help one another. Good luck with your coaching – you will be great.


  6. I had to wait a few hours to respond because I wanted to respond about coaching, but needed to process the emotions that reading about Mia raised. I cried in my study carrel. For you, for Mia, for the pets I have lost and will loose. You and Mia are inmy thoughts.

    I am fascinated by life coaching. I had a friend who became a life coach several years ago. I was suspcious, for a bunch of reasons and he could not allay my concerns. But when I read your description of being a coach, it sounds like an excellent idea. Someone to help sort out what you want and need, and how to achieve it. Based on the premise that you are well, rather than sick. Which is often true!

    I really liked what you said about transitions. I have been trying to learn to take the personal and professional transitions of my recent past and get them to form me into the kind of person I want to be–strong, gracious, and joyous ratehr than afraid or bitter. It is hard, and so I think that focusing on transitions makes lots of sense. I am sure you will be good at it–your insights, both in conversation and song, have given me food for thought and for my soul.

  7. I read Expecting Adam a few months ago in my book club. A woman in the club suggested it, as she was given it to read when she found out that she was pregnant with a Down’s Syndrome baby (that she kept.) I thought it was the most amazing book, and I was thrilled when I saw it mentioned on your blog. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, and I hope you are comforted by all the memory of all the good times that you had with Mia. I think it’s great that you’re becoming a life coach. Your blog (and your music) are so inspiring to me; I know you’ll have a similar effect on everyone your work with.

  8. seconding (maybe thirding or fourthing? i didn’t read the rest of these comments…..) melissa, i’m crying in my chamomile tea.
    you’ve been a life coach all along as far as i can tell, and now that you’ll be in somewhat “official” (?) capacity, you can help even more people. you’re pretty amazing, you know.

    i’m excited for you, but more so for the people that you’ll meet. not sure i could think of any better guide. you do always ask the right questions. thanks for sharing.

    much love!!

  9. Nerissa, I’ve said this before but I’ll say it here as well…you already do the work of a life coach, so I am glad to hear you will be making a career of it. You are amazing at asking all the right questions, then letting us go find our own answers–always with support and encouragement. Thank you for that and good luck with the official coaching.

    So sorry about MiaPup.

  10. Oh, Nerissa…
    I am so sorry for your loss.

    Thank you for having the strength to share your sorrow with such an open heart.
    My furry friend has become a senior citizen, and each day I see further signs of his aging. I know that all too soon, I will be left with only memories to hold on to. In all honesty, I don’t know how I am going to cope…
    Somehow it helps to know that there are other people out there who consider their pets to be a part of the family, and feel the loss of that life as deeply as any other.
    Your post reminded me that there is no right or wrong way to face one’s grief, and that eventually, we all find a way through it. Thank you for that.

    Congratulations to you on your Life Coach training! It sounds absolutely amazing, and I am sure with your strong intuition and insight, you will be a natural.



  11. Nerissa,

    I’m so very sorry to hear about your loss (((hugs))). I am very very close with my 16 year old cat and am ever so grateful for his presence in my life each day… I can’t imagine the pain I will endure when he is not around anymore. I think Eulogy For Emma is a beautiful song, I used to cry each time I would play it on guitar…but it was a good healing cry. You are in my thoughts & prayers during this time of loss & healing.


    On another note, congratulations on becoming an official life coach. It really does seem that your past & current experiences were leading you to this career…it seems like a natural next step for you 🙂

    Take care & be well,
    ~ April

  12. Wow, Nerissa, you sure do get a lot of love in response to posting these blogs. I hope you’re able to pass the affection and affirmation on to your clients as a life coach (I’ve felt the positive energy in the Iron Horse, certainly!) I also hope you are able to give gentle and invigorating critiques from time to time, which never ever seem to appear here.

  13. Nerissa’s postings and other musings quite often strike a sympathetic chord with me. She’s a pioneer, and pioneer journals can be such a revelation. This last posting about Mia’s accidental death not least, since my nephew Jake was murdered by a faceless enemy in a car bombing in Iraq four days ago, while he was delivering the mail. I have a strong desire now to go to Iraq to see the place where he breathed his last. It’s tough knowing we’ll never see Jake again. I can’t even imagine the pain of Jake’s widow. Our whole family is in a state of shock. For better or for worse, the far-off country of Iraq which we hear bad news from every day has become forever a part of our family’s life. It’s even painful for me now, just seeing an American flag. How strange! There are flags flying everywhere.


  14. Bruce, I am so sad to read of your loss! My heart aches for you and your family — please know that thoughts and prayers are being sent your way. Take good care.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this. I cried when I read about losing Mia, since I recently went through this. My 10 yr old Sheltie, Sally, died just after the new year of complications from hemolytic anemia. One week she was fine, then she started tiring easily, and could barely climb the stairs. A week later she was gone, despite some awesome, almost heroic, vet care. My husband and I are devastated. Since we never had kids, she and the cats are our family.

    Music has always helped me get through difficulties, and I immediately thought of “Eulogy For Emma,” although I haven’t been able to listen to it yet. I know Mia and Sally are somewhere together, safe, healthy, and happy, chasing toys and small animals.

    Congratulations on becoming a life coach. I firmly believe we are put on this earth to help make it a better place, and you are contributing in such a huge way.

    Take care, stay safe, and I’ll see you the next time you’re in the DC area. -Joanne

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