Martha Stewart, Fireflies, and The Soul of Business: An Epiphany

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There’s a feeling I get, that I have always gotten throughout my life. It is the feeling of warm summer nights, running carefree and barefoot as a child. It is the feeling of dinners outside at a long table, of convivial conversations and laughter, of sneaking scraps to the dog, of fireflies and candles and twinkling lights strung up around the garden. It is the feel of hot jasmine tea on a misty day, of a huge soft towel after emerging from a hot tub. It is the feeling of solitude and quiet, the feeling of sand between my toes as the sea rolls and crashes nearby.

I have always called this feeling the “Martha Stewart” feeling. The feeling that life is good. That there is enough. There is enough money. Enough security. Enough love. Enough kindness. It is the feeling that the world is a friendly place, a safe place to relax and laugh and create, a place to share good meals with friends and family. In this feeling, there is room for a big table in the kitchen. Or a beautiful garden with matching dishes and beautiful place settings. It is the feeling of plenitude, the “Good Life”.

This feeling represents “home” to me. And yet, it has been elusive for much of my life. For a long time, I associated this feeling with family. Since I was estranged from my family for many years, I have spent much of my life with a sense that I am outside of this feeling. That the “Martha Stewart” quality is simply not available to me.

Around the time I began making gentle inroads toward healing with my parents, I owned a home. This home had a dining room, and I hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners there. For the few years we owned this home, I felt like the matriarch, able to provide the “Martha Stewart” feeling for my family. We had a big table that fit 10 people. We had matching dishes. We had convivial conversations. But I wasn’t able to keep the house, and in losing the house, I lost something far more dear to me than 4 walls. I lost the sense of pride I had in being able to provide a gathering place for friends and family. I lost my ability to provide the Martha Stewart feeling.

I associate the Martha Stewart feeling with families that were not broken. With having enough money to create the sort of life that you see in Sunset magazine. I had neither of these things, so I tried to forget about it. I tried to be grateful for what I did have, and make do with that.

I went through my life, creating a world for myself within “alternative” communities. “Chosen” family. I strove to create life on my own terms, building a career as an independent musician, and doing reasonably okay with that, though the money won’t be getting me a house with a garden here in the San Francisco Bay Area any time soon.

At some point, as part of this “Building a business-crafting life on my own terms” thing, I decided I needed a manifesto. All the cool kids had one. The entrepreneurs who inspired me, who were doing what I wanted to do, and whom I was modeling my own career path on – the Chris Guillebeaus and Leonie Dawsons and Danielle LaPortes – they all had manifestos.

I decided that Neofolk Romantique needed a manifesto. So I wrote one and put it up on my website, and not much came of it.

I would still dream of the Martha Stewart feeling. I have Pinterest boards of beautiful homes by the sea – the modern day equivalent of Sunset magazine – and I find it relaxing to look at them, in the same way it is relaxing to imagine winning the lottery. You don’t really think it will happen, but you still enjoy the feeling the fantasy gives you. Since currently my life is very nomadic and I don’t have much of a sense of home, I suppose the boards fill a gap. I can flesh out with imagination what feels lacking in my “real” world. It is a way I can bring the Martha Stewart feeling into my life even though I may never have it in my reality.

Usually, I go about my life being thankful for what I have and working like a dog to grow it. I try not to covet what others have, and I try not to dwell overly much on the Martha Stewart feeling. For that is not my life. That life is for somebody else, I reasoned.

Then, the other day, I came across a collection of writings by a woman named Hiro Boga. A teacher’s teacher, Hiro Boga is the mentor of women whose businesses I admire, women like Danielle LaPorte and Leonie Dawson. The mentor of my mentors! I needed to check her out. I quickly realized working with her is beyond the scope of my financial ability, but I could afford one of her books.

So I bought an eBook, called Soul Business.

In Soul Business, Ms. Boga talks about our businesses as having their own souls. Our businesses are entities that we can communicate with, make pledges with, form relationships with. We can agree to take care of each other. Such a lovely, refreshing idea! I think of my business as something I forge from the fire of determination; the lone hustle, hard and relentless. I approach my business more like Mad Eye Moody approaches the Death Eaters; requiring “constant vigilance”. As much as I love the idea of the “soul” of my business, I act as though I don’t trust her. I treat my business as a house of cards that must constantly be fussed with to ensure it doesn’t fall over. I haven’t really thought of her having a soul of her own. I’ve thought of her as having a “vibe”, of representing who I am at my core. I have a strong sense of my “brand”. But I had not taken that extra step of seeing my business as having a soul. Of being a presence that can stand up on her own and let me know what she wants.

This notion felt completely natural (of course the vibe of my business, my brand, would have a soul) and completely eye-opening at the same time. My goodness, I treat my business as this fragile thing that will crumble the second I relax, instead of a friend who’s got my back! I immediately felt so much less alone.

And as this epiphany washed over me, the Martha Stewart feeling came rushing back to me.

It is the feeling of fireflies and secrets and whiskey-warmed belly laughs.

Words from my Neofolk Romantique manifesto! I realized that I had thought about this manifesto all wrong. Like a commodity. Like a business transaction, a thing I had to do to compete with the hip entrepreneurs of my day. A thing to get done and cross off my to-do list. Like a notch in my belt.

I had short-changed my manifesto, and missed the entire point of writing it. That manifesto is nothing short of the soul of my business, the quality that I have always longed for and felt was so elusive.

And then I realized what must surely be obvious to you already:

That Martha Stewart feeling, the Neofolk Romantique feeling, is not something to be attained outside of myself, touched only through glossy magazines and dreams of other people’s lives. It is not dependent on money or my parents approval. That feeling lives inside of me, and it always has.

This seems so obvious now, and in some ways I always knew this. But I also held it outside myself, only mine as some sort of material reward for being “good” or “successful”. And I now realize I don’t have to hold it outside myself as some sort of reward. I can allow it to blossom inside me and live in my heart forever, starting right now. I can make friends with it as the soul of my business, as the soul of Neofolk Romantique, which guides everything I hope to offer the world. Every song, show, workshop, piece of art, is merely a vehicle to share this feeling with others, to begin the convivial conversation. It’s as though I have been pushing it away because I believed it could only come when I had the means to have a big table in the garden. But I can create this anywhere and everywhere. And indeed this is my great gift to the world. This is what I am truly offering, this secret window inside my soul. My “offerings” are only the means of delivery.

I need never be separate from this feeling again. And I needn’t be lonely with longing. I simply need to own that this feeling lives within me, and it always has.

It as been a long time since I’ve read something that has sparked such insight, and I really needed it! Sometimes the “Aha!” moments we need most are the ones sitting right under our noses.

I am very thankful for this book, and I urge my fellow entrepreneurs to read it. I’d be curious to hear what sort of changes you experience, considering your business as a Being with it’s own soul.

Curses, Redemption, and Death: A Cinderella Tale

Michelle-Couchot

Michele Couchot June 13, 1944 – March 9th, 2016

My stepmother died Wednesday March 9th, at about 2:40 in the afternoon. My feelings about this are…complicated.

She was beautiful. She was also treacherous.

I remember the first time she came to our house for her first date with my Dad. Her hair was a little longer than in this picture, but other than that she looked just like this. I was captivated by her beauty. I had been without a mom for 2 years. I was 7. I looked up at her and said “Are you going to marry my dad?” She smiled, a dazzling smile.

She married my Dad.

I think my Dad was eager for his daughters to have a mother. Possibly he was too eager. Possibly he rushed in when he should have been cautious.

My stepmother was many things. Beautiful. Seductive. Talented. Vulnerable. She was a ballerina. She was a teacher. She knitted beautiful sweaters. She was extremely graceful. When she was happy, she radiated an ethereal light.

She was also a narcissist. And very certainly bipolar. She and my dad would have raging fights that could last for weeks. Sometimes these fights turned physically abusive. My sister, stepbrother, and I would cower in our bedrooms.

This abuse would also get turned on us kids. My stepmother would make it very clear that my sister and I were not her real children, and her cherished son was favored above all. I kept my head down and tried to stay out of the way. In this way, I avoided physical abuse. Mostly. Mostly the abuse was verbal, and that was constant. You would never know what you were going to get when you got home from school. Being ignored was the best you could hope for.

Sometimes there was kindness. Christmas was a time of joy. (Usually after an epic fight). Love was expressed with an absurd number of gifts under the tree. Christmases at our house exemplified the “Me” generation in grand fashion. Stuff was a token of love. But there was also kindness. Loving words. Laughter. My stepmother radiating her ethereal light. My dad elated to have this light shining on him. From Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, we were a real family. Almost three whole days of good will, before it would all start again.

My stepmother was sickly. She was in and out of hospitals always. She became anorexic. My Dad turned the other cheek at the abuses she heaped upon my sister and I, telling us we should be patient with her, she was sick and needed our support. He abandoned us to her abuses, which were sometimes sadistic indeed. No marks were made. Child protective services would probably not have taken us away. Humiliation was more her thing.

Usually it was my dad who lost his shit and turned to physical abuse. I do not ever remember him like this, until he married my stepmother.

I ran away from home when I was 15.

But first I tried to negotiate with them, to allow me to become an emancipated minor. I would stay in school and get good grades, I promised, and I would work after school, and get my own apartment nearby. I would still be in their lives, just not living under their roof. This was a legal arrangement you could make at the time, to be recognized as an adult at 16 instead of 18, if you met and maintained certain requirements, like staying in school.

They wouldn’t have it.

I could no longer bear to live with them and their horrific fights. I felt overwhelmed by feelings that if I didn’t get away from them I would turn out like them. So I forced the issue. I had to run 6 times before they would finally leave me be.

I thought it would be uncomfortable for 6 months, or even a few years, but once they saw I was getting good grades, working, and being responsible, once they saw I wanted to spend Christmas with them, that I wanted them in my life, they would come around. They would realize that it wasn’t much different, that I just moved away from home a few years earlier than normal.

That’s not what happened. They held a grudge for years. They got me fired from every job I got, threatening my employers with legal action, telling them I did not have a work permit. Which I didn’t. Because they wouldn’t agree to sign one for me.

I didn’t stay in school. I lived on the street. I slept in parks, storage units, garages, laundry rooms, friends’ cars. Sometimes men offered to let me stay at their houses. But not out of the goodness of their hearts. I usually chose the park. This went on for two years. Then I fell in love and moved in with my boyfriend. I was 17.  When I turned 18 and was able to participate in adult society, things got better.

My parents didn’t speak to me for twelve years.

My sister also ran away. She was 13. Things were harder for her than they were for me. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that without her big sister at home, she would feel even more vulnerable and want to run herself, but it didn’t. In my own panic, I abandoned her, just like her mother and her father had. I have carried guilt about this my entire life.

My stepbrother didn’t fare well either. My perception was that he was the spoiled child so he would get whatever he wanted. This was not his perception. The family pretty much came unglued once my sister and I left. The aftermath was not awesome for my stepbrother. The violence escalated dramatically.

My parents ignored all attempts at reconciliation. This was excruciating for me, for, despite the abuse, the humiliation, the cruelty, they also created a beautiful home. With normal things in it like ballet lessons and road trips and visits from grandparents. Like tea time and warm cookies and British comedies on the telly. There was a middle class when I was growing up, and we were in it. There was the possibility of a loving home, like the Brady Bunch, if only I could be good enough. But I never was. Christmases without my Dad were so painful I can’t even begin to express. I remember one Christmas, when I was about 22. I came home to where I was living at the time – I can’t remember where I’d been, with my sister maybe – and the entire house was empty. My room mates were all with their families. My boyfriend was with me, but he went to sleep right away. And the darkest loneliness and abandonment washed over me then. I thought it would crush me, snuff me out of existence entirely in its utter despair. I felt outside of everything good in life, a loving family completely unavailable to me. I have felt this many times since.

I remember another time, living on the street, when I was about 16. I had been sick for a month. Somehow I heard my parents were going to be away for Thanksgiving, and I snuck into the house. It was raining and I needed to be warm and dry, and to eat real food. A house sitter came, and I freaked out, and hid in the closet beneath the stairs. The house sitter freaked out too. Different lights were on. The dog was in and he was sure he had let the dog out. The house sitter – a friend of my brother’s – and I had a good laugh about this many years later! Living on the street was rough, but I was far more afraid of my parents, and what they would do if I came home. So I never did, not when they were there.

My parents finally began to come around when I got married. Yes, in case this tale sounds familiar, I did marry the handsome prince. I invited my parents to the wedding, and they came. The first step in healing began that day. The doors were open for me to resume a relationship with them. I was so grateful. But also cautious. For a few years we visited them and had Christmases with them. Things seemed better. The violence seemed to have subsided. Then they moved to Portland. Because it was more affordable. But also because my stepbrother was there. For my stepmother, everything was about her son, (whom I’ll call James), and my dad blindly followed. He was the good child, the one who did not run away. Of course they would move to Portland to be with James, even though my sister and I had only been renewing our relationship with them for a few years. All the old hurts were so easily triggered, the reminders that my sister and I were second best.

I was glad to come back into their lives, and so was my sister. But my stepmother still monopolized so much of my dad’s attention, we rarely got any time with him. All visits were constantly consumed with her medical needs. Even when we made it up to Portland, Dad was so distracted catering to her that there wasn’t much time to just sit and talk.

Then my Dad got cancer. He died 5 years ago, on February 10th.

Shortly before he died my stepmother was away in a convalescent home for some illness. I had a few days just with my dad. We talked about everything. We cried a lot. We forgave each other. We were both filled with regret that we hadn’t done this years earlier. Late though it was, I am so profoundly grateful to have had that talk. He died a few months afterward.

Fast forward to the current era.

Winter and I rented a cabin by the sea for a few days, a much needed vacation after a very busy season. The minute we returned to the land of cell reception, there was a message from my sister, with “bad news about our stepmother.” I figured she had some sort of medical event, maybe a stroke. I did not expect to be told she was dying.

Winter and I immediately turned around and went to Portland to be with her. No one had thought to call her son, James, who is now living in Boston. Or even message him on Facebook. I did. His phone was disconnected. He hadn’t posted anything on Facebook in a month. I sent him Facebook messages anyway. I didn’t hear back. I stalked his Facebook friends. I found someone I vaguely remembered him dating. I contacted her. Luckily I remembered correctly, and she is now his girlfriend and I was able to get a message to him through her. I arranged money for him to fly out. I needed to negotiate this with my mom’s power of attorney agent, who has no love for my brother. She said if I was sure this is what we wanted, she would release some money to get him an airline ticket.

I wasn’t sure. Is this what Michele would want? Or would it cause agitation for her? She and James have had their own issues over the years, and were not entirely on good terms. Was I interpreting her desires correctly? Or was I projecting my own self-importance onto the situation, thinking I knew what she’d want? Was I projecting what I would want? How can we be sure we are interpreting the wishes of the dying correctly? She couldn’t squeeze my hand. She could barely open her eyes. My brother wasn’t sure he wanted to come. He wasn’t sure he’d make it in time. We agreed we would check in the next morning.

That night I saw her Advance Directive paperwork on the table. In the section where it asked who she wanted with her when she died, my brother’s name was listed. My name was not. This should not have blindsided me, but it did. Completely. All my abandonment issues came flooding back, threatening to drown me. I am nothing, I don’t matter, I have no family, no mother who loves me. She didn’t even want me there. What the hell was I doing there? Trying to make myself the hero? The good child? Trying once again to get approval that I will never, ever attain? James should be here, not me.

I began to second guess her expression when Winter and I arrived the evening before. When we arrived we announced our presence – the dying can hear right up to the end, even if they can’t do much else. She opened her eyes a bit and looked glad, but then bitter, as though she were angry or afraid. I thought it was that she became aware of her situation, but now I wondered if she was disappointed that I wasn’t James.

I tried not to make this into a thing, but by the next morning I was so triggered I could not find my center at all. I was afraid to go into her room. I considered just going home. I felt ashamed, like I had no business being there and it was just my ego, thinking I am some great “Midwife to the Dead” and I was making her death about me and I should just go away. I was interjecting myself where I wasn’t invited. I decided I would try and talk with her one more time so that I could let James know her condition, and he could decide whether to come or not. And then I would go home.

I went up to her room. I asked her if she wanted me to get James out here. All I could do was try and read her energy, what little expression she was able to make. I felt something in her surge, as though she were trying to scream “yes, yes!” Even though her PoA agent was saying “I don’t know know how you can interpret anything from her, she is just lying there” and the nurses saying “It’s hard to say what she wants”, I felt strongly that she wanted James to come.

I called James and told him I thought he should come. His name was on the list. It was his mom. And everything she has ever known or loved is going away, forever. She hadn’t seen him in three years, and of course she would want to hold his hand one last time.

We bought the tickets. He would take three different planes, and be traveling for about 10 hours. Would he make it in time? Was I interpreting her correctly? Or would there be angst between them? Was I being irresponsible with my mom’s money?  Was this the right call?

I wasn’t sure. And meanwhile I was struggling with my own emotions. My own fear that I was meddlesome and unwanted.

I tried to just be present with her, and throughout the day, I began to calm down. I sang to her and she seemed to appreciate that. I talked to her, telling her about various family members and what they were up to, and that seemed to bring her comfort. I began to feel that, even though I hadn’t been on the list, she was grateful for my presence. My sister’s daughter called her, and she was visibly glad to hear her voice. She sent pictures from New Zealand, and my stepmom tried to sit up and look at them. She wasn’t able to but this made it clear she could hear and understand what was being said. A hospice nurse came in for the night. My mom’s vitals were stable, and I felt I could get a few hours’ sleep. I was staying in a spare room at the assisted living center where she lived, so I was right down the hall. At this point, I thought she would make it until James arrived, and I felt much more relaxed about things. I told her I was going but that I was right down the hall, and got the distinct feeling that she really didn’t want me to go. A slight flicker in her facial expression. I promised I was close and the hospice nurse would call me if anything shifted with her. Perhaps she did want me there, after all. Perhaps my emotional scars are not the sum total of reality.

I went to bed at 10pm. They woke me up at 12:30 am. Her oxygen levels were falling. My brother wouldn’t arrive for 11 hours.

Winter and I went to her. We wanted to make sure she had family with her, even if she couldn’t make it until James got there. She had definitely taken a turn for the worse. I talked to her. We had been telling her James was coming but at this point we felt we needed to give her permission to go, that she didn’t have to hang on if she wasn’t up for it. So we did. We sang to her and held her hand. All the nurses said she could go at any time. Around 5:00am I went back to bed. She was completely out of it and she had the hospice nurse until 8am. So I set my alarm for 7am, got a bit more sleep, and returned before the hospice nurse left. I sat with her, sometimes talking, sometimes singing, sometimes just holding her hand.

Sometime between 8am-9am, her breathing became considerably more labored, more agitated. The nurses said her systems were shutting down, and automatic functions weren’t happening automatically so much any more. Like breathing. It seemed to me that she was forcing herself to keep breathing out of sheer will. It was still at least 5 hours until my brother would arrive. I told her once again we would all understand if she needed to let go, and that we all loved her. She just kept breathing. Incredibly labored breaths, like she was running a marathon. For 5 hours. I would tell her each milestone of James’ arrival. “James is in Seattle now mom”. “Less than two hours to go mom”. “Well you’ve made it this far, you may as well hang in there at this point”.

Watching her in this state, breathing like that, as though it was taking everything she had to hang on, for 5 hours, was excruciating. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, holding space for her while trying to keep my own emotions grounded. Trying to be the psychopomp and the family member at the same time. By now it was very clear that yes, she was hanging on for dear life to see her son one last time.

James arrived in time. We spent some time with her all together, and then I left them alone. She died an hour and 20 minutes after he arrived.

At this point, I allowed myself a moment: I fucking called it.  If I wasn’t confident it was the right decision at first, I most certainly was by the end. My willingness to trust my judgement went a long way toward facilitating a good death for her. I say this not so much to pat myself on the back, as to remind myself that facilitating death is something I can do. And something I want to do for others.

So now it’s done. I served in my role as psychopomp. I was able to interpret what needed doing even when those around me didn’t know what to ask for. And now I can deal with my personal emotions.

Is it terrible to admit that relief is part of it?  And not just relief that her suffering is over. Seeing her at rest after hours of labored breathing was a relief, certainly. But also, I realize I have been holding my breath since she married my dad all those many years ago. I remember their wedding day, and I remember a sense of foreboding. It seemed too fast. There was a “be careful what you wish for” quality in the air. She married my father, as I had asked, and a nightmare ensued. A nightmare that destroyed our family.

I loved my dad more than life itself. And I lost him the day she married him. I know that her cruelty toward my sister and I was jealousy. She wanted all his attention for herself. And she got it. I am certain she fueled the fire that kept him holding a grudge years longer than he would have on his own. Losing his relationship with his daughters destroyed him. I believe it put him in an early grave.  He told me, that day a few months before he died, when we finally had some time to talk alone, that he probably shouldn’t have married her.

So there was relief. A sense of  “It’s over”. My stepbrother echoed this, unbidden by me. He said “Is it wrong to feel that the curse is broken”? In a way, the terror she wrought did feel like the doings of a beautiful, evil witch out of a faerytale, who ensnares a man and holds him in a trance for years while the stepdaughters are slowly eliminated, while their father is driven to madness and ruin.

Her own son was hurt too, slowly withering from a poison not meant for him, but leeching out into his air nonetheless.

So yes. It does feel like a curse was lifted.

But it is too late. It is too late to resume my relationship with my father, for he died first. There is anger here. Anger, and loss, and regret.

These are the emotions that have compelled me to write. A curse lay upon our family; a curse of heartbreak and betrayal, of ruin and madness. A curse of guilt and regret, of abandonment and worthlessness and black bottomless despair. A curse of failure and wrong choices and hopelessness, of never belonging. A curse finally broken on the merciless wheel of death.

Do I sound heartless in the face of death? I am not dancing on her grave by any means. Compassion won out. I know she suffered too. She had her own childhood horrors, and unless we come to terms with our damage, we pass it on. She apologized later in life, more than once. She mellowed out considerably after my Dad died, and I came to enjoy who she was in the last few years. I forgave her, of course I did, though I can never get those years back. I had genuine compassion for her in the end. I did not play the martyr. My desire for her to have a good death was sincere.

I did love her, as I loved my dad. When she was joyous, she was beautiful. When she was dancing, she was beautiful. When she was excited about one of the many trips she took with my dad, she shone. She was capable of sweetness. She was capable of remorse. Her apologies were genuine, and I accepted them wholeheartedly.

Healing was possible, with both her and my dad, before they died. I am very thankful for this. Now, both of the parents who raised me are gone. I don’t know that anything has ever made me feel more like a grown up. I don’t even know what this means yet, or what this “It’s over” feeling will grow into over time.

I do know that my sister, my brother, and I can now be free of who we were in relation to them. We can be free of the grasping for approval, the never feeling enough. We can define our lives on our own terms. We always have, of course, but we were compromised. Those hooks were always there.

I know that I like who my sister and brother have become. Survivors. Strong. Compassionate. Committed. These are people I want to know, people I am proud to call family. I know that something has come full circle, and that the feeling of brokenness I thought I would never be free of has begun to heal. I know that I am capable of doing “family” after all. This is something I thought was simply not available to me. For the first time in many years, I see a glimmer of possibility, that it may not be too late for me to experience a healthy, loving, supportive family. Even the bleakest pit of despair can eventually turn in upon itself and be swallowed up by hope, light, and love. There is always a chance for redemption, though it may be years before we can see our way through.

If you have read this far, I am moved. I don’t know that this will have meaning for others. But I know I needed to write it.

 

Musings on Home in a Changing City

Photo Jul 24, 10 25 17 AM

We are wintering in a city I no longer recognize. San Francisco struts mockingly across the bridge, flaunting its facelift and its newfound wealth, as it slowly creeps across, promising to envelop the side of the Bay I call home into its ostentatious fold. I bide my time, each renovated house as sand in the hourglass, signaling my time here is coming to an end.

Let the new tech-gold miners cast their hopes and dreams amidst this net, as they live in tents hoping to climb high enough up the ladder to pluck the promised fruit. No, that life is not for me. I made my choice long ago, and as a result, the road is more home to me now than any place I know.

So I bide my time. I spend my days creating layered songs in our recording studio, weaving  together strands of musical beauty from musicians far and wide, cobbling together rent from whatever we can find.

As Portals enters its final phase, something is ending.  I taste the dregs of my life here,and I wonder what is next. I know that song will bring it, whatever it is. I know that there are many more adventures on my road, but I don’t know what they are. I suppose if I did, they wouldn’t be adventure!

It is strange to realize that you are perceiving your life as no longer your own, but a veneer over what is real. That is how life in this city feels to me now. It no longer reflects back to me my inner landscape, my values and priorities, as it once did. Home is an extension of our innermost soul, I have always thought. This place has been that to me, my entire life. Now? I don’t know. Only that being on the open road, singing songs to people each night, opening up portals of beauty and wonder and magic for people as we go, is the closest thing to that feeling I currently have.

All of you, whom we have sung and played for, and will sing and play for again; when I look out and see your faces, that is when I feel at home.

You are my home.


 

We are the Light Returning

Winter Solstice is upon us, and with it, themes of the returning light, of the glimmer of hope endured after hardship, and the general goodwill of humankind. I have always loved this time of year, and associate it with Return of the King-type sentiments. An epic journey completed, with the fruits of a long struggle at last beginning to shine through the darkness.

Of course, for us in California, this is kind of a joke. By the time we reach Winter Solstice, our epic journey through the darkness has been going on for all of 6 weeks. Oh the horror! The rain has barely gotten started by Solstice, if we get any at all.

For this California girl, the Return of the Sun is something felt more as an internal process than as something that ties me to nature. It has always been more about the bleakness in the human soul, and the hope of return to a better life. This internal bleakness, I am sorry to say, is something we have a plentiful supply of.

My world has been seeming mighty bleak of late. I don’t know if events of the world are worse than usual or if it is just easier than ever to access a wide variety of news. Whatever the case, the human struggle has been hitting me pretty hard these past several weeks.

The woes of the world touch us all at different times, and different events trigger different people. Regardless of the what or when, we all know this feeling of bleakness, when it seems that no light touches us, but only a never-ending, grinding cruelty.

A cruelty that threatens to overwhelm us.

Many times over the last year, I have seen people plaintively express feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and overwhelm. They want to do some good in the world, but they don’t know where to begin. They don’t know how they can possibly make a difference when so much is going wrong all at once. Or they feel crushed under the weight of their own burdens, with scarcely enough money or time to handle the immediacy of their own lives.

I have felt this way myself, many times, and recently.

What helps me through my own periods of hopelessness is to take action. Even a small action. It doesn’t have to be some epic “Save the word in one fell swoop” action. Just a little something. The act of taking one small step toward the world you want to live in has the power to move incredible amounts of energy. Energy that will shift the paralysis of overwhelm.

Too often we think our gestures have to be grand, or they are worthless. By judging what we can do as “Not enough”, we shame ourselves into doing nothing. In our frozenness, we shut down and close out the world. And thus, we cut ourselves off from a sense of connection to and belonging in the world.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

This little saying has helped me immensely. We don’t have to build a non-profit from scratch. We can donate $10 to one. We can volunteer one day a month. Even if we have neither time nor money, we can devote an hour a week to learning about a situation that troubles us. Education is often the first step in figuring out how to be part of a solution.

How do we pick something, in a sea of troubles so numerous that the very thought of narrowing them down triggers overwhelm?

I always start with this question:

What is breaking my heart?

Usually one thing will flood to the surface above the others. Take the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t second guess it. It may not be “The One True Thing Forever and Ever”. It doesn’t need to be. You can support another thing down the road.

Hell, you can write different things down on paper and draw one out of a hat. It doesn’t matter what you pick, only that you pick, and then take a small action in support of that choice. Whatever you pick, I guarantee you will feel so much better investing a part of yourself into its healing.

Once I have chosen something, I look for organizations local to me that I can donate to or work with. Keeping it local makes the most sense for me, because that is the community I am invested in. (My pick for year’s end donations this year is Planting Justice, an organization that combines several of my interests at once into their mission. Check ’em out!).

By participating, however small, in solving a problem that breaks our heart, we become part of that solution. We become part of the light of the world. It is so easy to think that our offerings are small and unworthy, and therefore not worth doing. But real change is made from a thousand small gestures. We really don’t need to ride in on a white horse with capes billowing, and save the day. This world will be changed not by the mighty heroes, but by the small gestures of all of us, woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. The changes that can be realistically sustained over time by regular folks are the ones that will endure.

We are the light. We must never forget this. A thin sliver shining through a crack in a dark room is light nonetheless. We are the Strengthening Sun. We are the Return of the King. The Solstice season reminds us yet again to take stock of what truly matters to us, and to shine our light on it.

And when we do? We light a fuse that burns away the darkness. We renew hope, not only in ourselves, but in all those we touch. We become the light.

Pick something. Some small gesture. Commit to it. Own what breaks your heart, and let yourself crack open. And then feed it your care, your commitment, your compassion.

Become the Light. And Shine.

 

Statement of Solidarity

T. Thorn Coyle and Brennos of Coru Cathubodua in Oakland, CA

I have been seeing statements in the Pagan community coming out in active support of people of color. Just now I have heard that people of color are asking for our overt support.

Here is mine:

On behalf of Winter, Paul, myself, our band Pandemonaeon, and our festival Hexenfest, I publicly state that we are 100% in support of the black and brown people in our community, and their struggle to overcome the obvious racial inequities within our justice system.

We want you to know that we see you, hear you, and are actively educating ourselves as to what your experience is. We are listening.

We are committed to calling out racism when we hear it spoken. We will do so firmly, with as much skill toward not triggering defensiveness as we can, that true dialog can happen. We will withdraw our support from any person or organization who continues to demonstrate racist behavior even after genuine discourse has been attempted. We are committed to challenging racial stereotypes as they come up, within ourselves as well as our communities.

We will continue to educate ourselves, and share what we are learning. We will continue to listen to the voices of color in our communities, and to remain open to to further ways in which we can support you.

We do not want these militarized police. We will not stay silent.

We know there are good cops. We know that all lives matter. However, we will not diminish the discourse that needs to happen right now by stating these obvious facts. Right now, the emphasis needs to be on the frequency with which black and brown lives are discarded, not only by police but by those of us who remain complicit by justifying police brutality with racial stereotypes.

We care about you and will stand for you. Black and brown lives matter to us.

Sincerely, Sharon, Winter, and Paul, representing Pandemonaeon and Hexenfest.

 

Honoring the Dead at Samhain

photo reposted from: reclaimingthedarkgoddess.blogspot.com

Honoring the Dead at Samhain has become more important to me over the years. The reason for this is likely obvious; as we get older, more and more people in our lives have gone from us.

When I first began practicing Pagan traditions in my late teens/early 20’s, the Samhain season was more about turning inward and focusing on deep personal work. It became a time of deepening my understanding of self, of striving to heal wounds and uncover more of my own authenticity. It was a time of creative gestation and introspection. There was always the element of the Dead, of course, but for me that aspect had more to do with the Mighty Dead than with loved ones who had passed on.

(The Mighty Dead, as understood in the Anderson Feri Tradition, are beings who shone so brightly in life that their imprint is still felt upon the ethers long after their deaths. Jimi Hendrix, Grace O’Malley, Martin Luther King, would all be examples of the Mighty Dead).

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the recently deceased. It was simply that I personally didn’t know many dead people.

This is no longer the case.

This year, our greater community has lost more people than in any year I have been alive so far. People who will surely claim a seat at the table of the Mighty Dead. People whom I was very close to.

Since last Samhain I have lost yet another coven sister to cancer, as well as a cousin to stroke. Added to those who already grace my altar from seasons past, I have come to realize just how important it is for me to have one night that is dedicated to sitting alone in private communion with my Dead.

This I did last night.

What an lovely tradition this is!  We Pagans have our foibles to be sure, but this is one thing we really get right. To set aside space to remember, commune with, and celebrate departed loved ones answers a longing left in their absence that little else can. I miss these people so much! I miss my Dad, I miss Tara Webster and Teresa Morgan. Hell, I miss my cats! To make a special place to toast them, share memories, say things I wish I had said, opens me to life and meaning in a glorious way. This tradition honors our Dead, reminds us of the connections we shared, and makes sacred the roles they played in our lives. It evokes melancholy too, of course; I sobbed full out for a long while. But that is part of it, part of fully owning who these people were to us.

Our Samhain traditions give us an opportunity to really sit with Death, to process it and come to terms with it. My cousin Sandra died while I was on tour. Aside from a brief conversation with my aunt while in the car, I had virtually no time to unfurl my feelings about it.

Lest my way of talking about this makes it sound like this is purely a psychological process that benefits the living, let me say that I see it as more than that. Yes, for those of us left behind, these rituals are profoundly healing. But it is not only that. The field of consciousness is a fascinating thing. I won’t pretend to know how it works, but there is something to the collective unconscious, the Akashic records, and those types of things.  There is something that happens in the field of consciousness that is more than “our own psychology”. At least that is how I see it. I am one of those who believe the Gods have a life of their own, and yet our own consciousness can flow into them and theirs into ours. There is a continuity of consciousness that continues on somehow, that transcends life and death and the boundaries of physical composition, and this is how we can commune with our Dead. As Lon Milo DuQuette likes to say, “Yes it is all in your head, you just have no idea how big your head is”.

But I digress, on a topic that has been discussed at length, with no known way of answering definitively. Suffice to say, communing with my Dead – and my Gods – from the perspective that they are more than a part of my own psyche, is the most empowering for me.  This was certainly the case last night.

My private Samhain reminded me how important ritual is in my life, and how I have let my ritual practices slide somewhat in deference to career. I have become “All Business” over the past few years, with my Capricorn tendency for goal setting, and the realization that as I get older I’d better have my financial house in order. That, coupled with discovering that the thing I most love to do – music – is also the most viable of the career paths available to me, but only if I work it relentlessly, has made me very driven indeed. As such, my ritual practices have suffered.

It is crucial to have parts of our lives that are not about goals, strategies, and saving for retirement. These thoughts can easily dominate; we live in difficult economic times, and most of us have to think about these things constantly just to keep our heads above water. This is all the more reason for us to practice, IMO. We need to remember why we work so hard. The things that are most meaningful are often not the things that bring home the bacon. Honoring our Dead is just one of the rituals that are important to me. Others are opening the gates to inspiration and beauty. Rituals for healing and relaxing. Spending time with friends and family among the living.

This year, my Dead have reminded me that all work and no play makes Sharon a dull girl. They have reminded me that feeding my soul is every bit as important as putting food on the table. One mustn’t be sacrificed for the other. This Samhain marks the beginning of a new commitment to keep the magic alive in my life on a regular basis. I give thanks to my Beloved Dead, who continue to teach and inspire me in death as they did in life.

May Samhain weekend bring equally insightful and meaningful communions with your own Beloved Dead, as well as a period of fruitful creativity!

Love – it isn’t just for Hallmark Cards Anymore

CupidLove has become cliche.

It seems trite now, a meaningless hippie platitude.  Love is not all we need. We also need water. And oxygen. And preferably, all our limbs. We need banks to stop robbing us blind. We need a stronger economy so that we have a chance to thrive. We need to find sustainable ways of living on our finite planet. We need a healthy immune system. We need to be able to defend our loved ones. We need competence and compassion. We need reliable news sources. We need creative outlets.

So, with a roll of our eyes, we toss “All we need is love” into the rubbish bin, alongside “We are all One” and “Visualize World Peace”.

Which is too bad, because it is one of the most ennobling experiences we humans can have.

How can we reclaim love? How can we remind each other that it is more than a sentiment for Hallmark cards and pale pink hearts and cloying romantic comedies where all problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after within a 90 minute time frame?

Maybe we need to remember how fierce love can be.

  • Love is the strength of a mother to lift a car to rescue her child.
  • Love is a Tibetan monk setting himself on fire in protest of his culture being destroyed.
  • Love is giving up a cushy job so that you can devote your life to ending sex trafficking.
  • Love is speaking out against the oppression of others.
  • Love is keeping our commitments.

To reclaim love, we can also think about the awesomeness (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, not with “dude” added after it) of life itself . Consider our situation: We experience our lives from within these automated meat suits, itself a miracle. We are breathing air because a long time ago a bunch of chemicals decided to bunch together for whatever incomprehensible reason – or no reason at all – and create life. And here we are, with a zillion different types of flowers and animals and rocks and things to eat, look at, and experience. We are on this planet alongside music. And Fjords. And Lions. Lions! And a gajillion stars that are 200 million miles away from each other. And those are the close ones! Just the ones right next to us in this one galaxy, which is frigging huge. And of which there are a gazillion more.

If this doesn’t inspire love, or at least awe, you might already be dead.

I believe this level of awe is also love. For what is love if not an experience that cracks our hearts open to the beauty, wonder, and amazement of creation? What is love if not to be overcome by the majesty of this glorious, mysterious life?

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! May you fall in love with everything!

 

20 Penises

www.catherinebuchanan.com

Several years ago, a friend and I went to the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco.  As you probably know, San Francisco is sex-positive mecca, (or a den of debauchery, depending on your viewpoint), and the Folsom Street Fair is sort of our Kink Pride Day.

So off we went in full leathers, drinks in hand, weaving our way through thumping techno, writhing bodies, drag queens, leather daddies, damsels in distress,  and impossible heels. Among many, many other things. Mark my words, if you can think of it, someone has developed a fetish for it.

I love a good freak show. And Folsom Street Fair delivers. My eyes nearly popped at the imaginative costumery! I saw fabulous feathered headdresses, skin-tight leopard print and latex body suits, chain mail and patent leather platform boots, scantily clad women with pig noses, masters with slaves on leashes, spectacular tattoos, drag queens dressed as nuns –

“Penis,” said my compatriot.

“What?” said I.

“Penis. Didn’t you see it? It was right there.”

“Right here on the street? With all these people all over the place?” I said.

“Yep,” he said.

Some people are braver than I will ever be, I mused.

And on we went. We had lunch and listened to a band. We checked out various vendors. I saw men in top hats and nose rings, queer pirates with epically long beards, half naked Indian-pirates, bras made out of soda pop tabs, faces covered in glitter-

“Penis,” quoth my friend.

“Again?” said I. “How do I keep missing them?”

I decided I would make extra effort to see some penises. We continued on. I saw transgendered folks in bootie shorts, green hair and cat ears, impossible piercings, Hello Kitty underpants –

You guessed it:

“Penis”.

This happened at least 20 times. And I never saw one.

So then – several years later, there I was, reading a book on exploring our money mindset (“Get Rich, Lucky Bitch” by Denise Duffield Thomas, which at first peruse is a little too “Law of Attraction”-y for my tastes, but reviewers swear she’s got all kinds of practical exercises so I am giving it a chance)  and the author suggests we do an exercise where we write down all the ways we do bring in money. Every time money comes in, write it down. In this way, we see that we already are better at manifesting money than we realize.

And it popped into my head: “Just like the penises!”

We can be surrounded by abundance, whether it be penises or money or love or whatever, and if we are in our tapeloop of lack, we don’t even notice it. We filter things out ALL THE TIME. We can’t possibly process all the information our brains receive, so we develop selective attention. And we decide what we will let in based on what we expect to see.  So, if we have already decided “I’m always broke” we are not likely to notice the ways in which that isn’t true.  We end up seeing what we are already attuned to, constantly affirming all the ways in which we are broke, unloveable, unlucky, or whatever, and not even noticing the wealth, love, luck, or whatnot that is all around us.

This is why gratitude practice is so important! It helps us to tune into the parts of our lives that are glorious! Parts that we may well be taking for granted.

I went to the Folsom Street Faire expecting to see some fabulous drag. And boy did I! My friend, who was at the time exploring his attraction to men, saw a sea of penises.

The verdict is still out for me with this “Get Rich, Lucky Bitch” book. The Law of Attraction has issues, as far as I am concerned. But still. It isn’t total bullshit. (It is partial bullshit, which is the most deadly kind of bullshit, but that is another blog post). Remembering the penises helped me to remember that we really do see our lives through selective filters. “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves” Robert Anton Wilson always said. And it helped me remember how often we can improve our lives just by consciously taking note of the awesome that is already in them. And the more awesome we see, the more we attune ourselves to other opportunities for awesome. Instead of habitually seeing everything that sucks, and turning into a big curmudgeon that no one wants to hang out with, you start seeing opportunities for more of what you love. This is how the Law of Attraction makes sense to me. And this is why I am going to give Denise’s book a chance. Because maybe my judgements about the Law of Attraction are just that – judgements. Perhaps there is some value I can glean from it.

So what have we learned here? Start seeing that which we want more of in our lives. It may already be there more than we think.

Also – if we are seeing nothing but scuffed shoes, empty coffee cups, and gum on the cement, and our friends are seeing penises – maybe we need to set our sights a little higher.

 

Contemplating the Artist-Patron Relationship

Wherein I explore the “Hunger Games – Touring Musician Style” video log-fundraiser, and weigh its successes and shortcomings….

Winter and I are back from our tour through the South. We are mostly unpacked and integrating back into our home life, and I thought I would take a few moments to muse on our fundraising experiment, which went on for the duration of our tour.

Including a donation outside the Indiegogo framework, our fundraising efforts yielded a little over half of what we were shooting for. While this was still very helpful, it didn’t get us entirely out of the woods. Also – it was a lot of additional work in an already pretty grueling schedule. Was it worth it? Well – yes,  in that, as we feared, we would have lost money on this tour, and due to the fundraiser we did not. So in that regard I am glad that we did it.

However, I probably won’t do this particular thing again. It required entirely too much hustling just to get it where we did. I never want my promotional strategies to take on the qualities of a henpecking housewife . An effective strategy should take on a life of it’s own, because it’s a cool idea and folks want to share, and want to be part of it. I believe that if you create something that speaks to people, it will “sell itself” more than this did. Of course it is my job to tell folks it is happening and to give reminders here and there, but this one felt like it needed too much push, so that toward the end I began to fear I was bugging folks.  I prefer the voice of “rallying the troops to glory” over “old battle-ax”.

Also – in retrospect I wish I hadn’t posted all the videos on my blog. It isn’t really what my blog is for.  Here is to be my musings on the quest for beauty and wonder in this world, a place of inspiration. When I look at my blog now and see nothing but several videos of us doing this or than on the road, I lose interest. I can only imagine that my readers have as well.

I know some of you did follow along on the whole thing and will probably tell me I am being too hard on myself. Let me  say, I do acknowledge it had some successes. It did engage some folks and it did earn some money.  It was a worthy experiment, and I think in general the artist-patron relationship is something worth cultivating, and indeed a necessary piece of the pie for most artists. It is not my intent, in declaring this fundraiser a bit wanting, to diminish the value of any contributions made. Those of you who did contribute helped us shoulder the weak spots on the tour, the new territories – which were many – and thus you saved us from a financial burden at holiday time. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that! Winter and I felt truly supported.

My only real complaint is that it didn’t resonate with more folks. Since it did not, this particular model created too high a work-to-results ratio.  So we live and learn, we experiment and evaluate, until we find our sweet spot.

I would  be interested to know your thoughts about this particular endeavor –

Did the Hunger Games – Touring Musician Style videolog fundraiser speak to you? Why or why not?

What sort of supplemental activities or projects would you like to see from me as far as generating fundraising support for future musical endeavors? What kinds of things would you be excited to participate in?

Some ideas I have are:

1) The Ring of Enchantment – a membership area of my site wherein I endeavor to inspire you and your own dreams, which will include 1 essay a month on cultivating enchantment, magic, living creatively, etc., and 1 supplemental practice with custom music written by me to support the practice, delivered as an audio file meditation. This will also include a social network and/or forum area where we can converse online, and maybe some Google hangouts. It is my hope with this to create a community where we can all share and support each other’s greatest dreams for our lives and our world. We’ll have an internal marketplace, and I will also include deep discounts on everything I create, musical and otherwise.

2) A store filled with all things “Neofolk Romantique” – vintage, upcycled, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind, made or found by me, and that brings the flavor of my music into your lives in a tangible way. Store would be online and also a floating market that I bring on tour

3) Travel guides of some of the highlights from the places we visit on tour. Emphasizing the romantic and magical.

4) More chant Cds.

5)Workshops – online or in person. What types?

Please let me know if any of these excite you, what you thought of the Hunger Games video log, and also what types of things you would find engaging as future fundraising efforts. Got an idea I haven’t listed? Feel free to share it in the comments. Ideally, I seek ideas that don’t require constant hustling, because they are things you want to participate in anyway.  So if you have any thoughts or ideas you want to share, I am eager to hear them.

Alright! Back to our regularly scheduled programming of finding the enchantment and magic tucked into every nook and cranny of this beautiful world. I have many things to blog about from tour, and am looking forward writing them up! Stay tuned…..

Song-A-Week Songwriting Update

You guys.

I’m not pulling it off. In fact, I am flat-out tanking on this “one song a week” bit. In April, I managed to write two chants, one of which those of you on my mailing list received as a mermaid kiss in early May.

But that is it. And so far, no new ones this month.

It’s not that I am a flake. Honest. It’s that touring season is now upon us, and I am balls- to-the-wall with tour details. Winter and I do this entire operation ourselves – every phone call, email, inquiry, finding of new venues, promoting of shows, finding places to stay, answering questions, mailing posters, creating Facebook events, plotting out routes, picking up band members from airports, booking hotels, asking folks to help spread the word, etc. etc. etc. is on us.

Not to mention this time out, preparing two separate shows for the same festival. And getting the new songs I have written up to performance speed.

Not that I mind any of this – I love my life and there is nothing I would rather do. But I bit off waaaay more than I could chew, saying I could write 4 songs a week AND be on the road.  I wondered, when first I declared this Song-A-Week bit, how it was going to play out during touring season. Now I know. I am laughably overcommitted!

So there we go. I told you all I would report each month, and report I am. Apparently that report is going to read FAIL at times.

Does that mean I am quitting? Hell no! Believe it or not, I am still going to strive to get as close as I can to 4 songs a month, even during the summer. I am just not going to beat myself up if I fail. I will just pick myself up, dust myself off, and dive back in. And of course, I’ll keep you posted.

Speaking of tour, I will write up a full report of this first leg in the next few days. Beltania was downright epic, and it was great to travel with all of Pandemonaeon for our first time out of the state. I look forward to telling the tale – for now, off to the next gig!

Love to you all – Sharon