Americans in Paris

We sat, stood, squatted or slouched—in sometimes impossible positions—late at night in a well-lit hallway of my college’s art building. Sometimes three-deep, we craned our necks and strained to see the hundreds of photos arrayed in tight formations along the walls of the lengthy corridor. It was all part of a hallowed ritual: Art 100. This massive year-long survey course sought to give each undergraduate the history of world art and its historical context. The memorization required was notorious in its volume and certain lecturers were “must see” in their presentations. One professor’s almost campy, effusive admiration of Donatello’s “David” had us in stiches, and another’s stories about the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka revealed just how personal art historians can feel about their subjects.  Still, I reference Art 100 repeatedly as I strive to understand world history, culture, and current affairs.

Art allows us to understand ourselves and each other. Neither simply a luxury or an extravagance, it can be sharp social critique or coded tableau revealing much about the society from which it springs. I rediscovered and unpacked an art history book in my attic about painter John Singer Sargent this week, and just hours later, purchased a book at a tag sale about Americans finding inspiration in Paris.  Historian David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” called to me from among hundreds of books. I did not need another book—the stacks on my bedside table are proof of that—but I inexplicably kept circling back to it. I finally relented. For goodness sake, it was only a quarter, and it clearly wanted to come home with me. When I had a moment to skim the chapters, I saw why: Sargent features prominently in McCullough’s work.

John Singer Sargent is considered one of the greatest American painters, despite the fact that he lived almost his entire life abroad. His American parents, Philadelphian eye surgeon FitzWilliam Sargent and the talented watercolorist Mary Newbold Singer, decamped to Europe after the death of their two-year-old daughter. Devastated by the loss, the Sargents found solace in Europe. According to McCullough, they wandered about the continent, “moving from one city or spa to another for twenty years, according to the seasons of the year, always in search of more amenable climate or more economical accommodations, seldom settling anywhere for long.”

Although John Singer Sargent was technically an American painter by birthright, he was born in Italy and was profoundly influenced by the incredible art he absorbed as his parents moved from city to city: Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Salzburg, St. Moritz, Venice, Dresden and more. McCullough asserts that although it was certainly an interesting life for the Sargents, it was far from “the romantic expatriate life commonly imagined.” It was more captivity than freedom; Sargent’s mother feared both that her health and her social standing would deteriorate if they returned to the more expensive United States. His father grew weary of the nomadic life but consoled himself with the knowledge that their lifestyle exposed his son to superb art. Indeed, Sargent had an early love of and appreciation for beauty.

McCullough notes that Sargent’s first memory was of viewing deep red cobblestones along Via Tornabuoni in Florence. They were so gorgeous that he constantly urged his nanny to take him to see them. By the age of 13, he knew he wanted to be an artist—an aspiration encouraged by his parents—and at 18 his expansive portfolio astonished his Parisian art teacher. Sargent’s talent not only pushed the other students to be better but soon surpassed his teacher’s abilities.

But, when Sargent hung “Madame X” in the Paris Salon of 1884, the portrait of American ex-pat Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau was considered scandalous and shocking. Gautreau, daughter of a Confederate major killed in the battle of Shiloh, was raised in Paris by her widowed mother. When she married a wealthy French banker, she became a “professional beauty”—a wife known for her extraordinary loveliness and socially-appropriate “stage presence”.  McCullough explains: “[I]n her appearances in society, [she] was expected to fill that role with all due attention to wardrobe and the artful use of cosmetics, no less than a great actress.” Sargent painted her in her trademark chalky lavender powder on her face and body, and had her strike an eccentric pose of self-confidence. Her poise was derided as arrogant in its strength. The original painting showed one strap of her dress falling off her shoulder as she leaned on a table; Sargent later retouched it to “fix” the Victorian version of a wardrobe malfunction.

The Paris Salon that year, not surprisingly, was filled with paintings of nude women. But it was Madame X—in her floor-length black evening dress—that caused outrage. The pallid, lavender quality of her skin, combined with her strong pose, made the portrait daring and decidedly unconventional. Both Sargent and Madame Gautreau were castigated for being vulgar in their magnificent audacity; no doubt because that audacity shook society’s notions of itself. The painting is subversive in its honesty. As Picasso reminded us, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

At least since Art 100, “Madame X” has been one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite American artists. Its apparent simplicity evokes so much mood and tone. Madame Gautreau appears luminous and confident, and her portrait is at once vulnerable and strong, sumptuous and straightforward. It is an impressive example of what French poet and art critic Théophile Gautier called “L’art pour l’art.”: Art for art’s sake.

 

 

Adopting an EcoMind

I found last week’s AP article about Maine’s rapidly warming coastal waters particularly alarming. The Gulf of Maine is heating faster than 99% of the earth’s oceans.  Scientists and those in the commercial fishing industry see cod, herring and northern shrimp leaving in search of colder waters. As they migrate out, black sea bass, blue crab and particular kinds of squid best suited to warmer water are popping up in fishing nets. The rising waters in the Gulf also affect Maine’s signature lobsters. There are fewer baby lobsters in coves on the Maine coast. It’s as hard to imagine Maine without lobsters as it is to imagine Vermont without maple syrup.

With facts like these, it certainly feels like we’re doomed.

Best-selling author and longtime environmental and democracy activist Frances Moore Lappé wants us to jettison this fatalism. Lappé once directed the Center for Living Democracy here in Brattleboro, and she spoke in 2013 at the Strolling of the Heifer’s Slow Living Summit. She has spent her entire adulthood advocating for sustainable food systems and practices.  Her multimillion-selling “Diet for a Small Planet” motivated many Americans to rethink their consumption habits. After reading this call to action, I also embarked on 13 years of vegetarianism. Although no longer a strict vegetarian, my food choices and those I make for my family are still informed by Lappé’s early work.  I recently tuned back in to her career when I caught an interview with Lappé in which she discussed her desire to combat the hopelessness she feels permeates the environmental movement.

Her 2011 book, “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want”, arose from a moment of despair. Lappé left an environmental conference in Washington, D.C.—a gathering of many of her heroes—feeling utterly defeated: “I walked out feeling like I was made of lead. I walked out paralyzed and I said, ‘Oh my God. This is not working.’” She then set out to find another way to think about our innumerable ecological crises—one that would not leave her feeling entirely stuck and would still remain “based in fact and not dreamland.” The key, she reflected, was to dramatically shift her frame of reference.

Forty years ago, as a grad student at UC Berkeley, Lappé challenged the conventional wisdom that we’d reached the planet’s limit in its ability to feed everyone. ”Diet for a Small Planet” offered another lens: World hunger is not a result of a lack of food or the capacity to grow food.   It is caused by flawed and ineffective food policies and practices. Changing the way we eat—reducing our dependence on meat in our diets, for example—can dramatically improve the ecological landscape.

Now she urges us to re-frame our ideas about ecology and environmentalism by first identifying the “thought traps” that limit us in our solutions. She then encourages us to embrace the “thought leaps” that will enable more hopefulness, collaboration, and remedies. Referencing the work of German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, Lappé begins her discussion with “frames of orientation.” She explains, “[A] defining trait of our species is that we each see the world through culturally formed frames that determine, literally, what we can see and what we cannot—even including what we can see in our own nature, and therefore what we believe is possible for our species.“

One of the seven climate change “thought traps” she identifies is one that I’ve heard a lot: “It’s too late.” Lappé responds: “Too late for what?” Yes, she concedes, it is too late to prevent climate change; it is already here. She continues, “Erratic, extreme, and destructive weather is already with us. It is too late to prevent suffering. Terrible suffering is already with us.” But, she explains, “[I]t is not too late for life.” We are creatures who yearn to make things better, to create a world conducive to life. It is, she asserts, the very essence of being human, and this core does not change with the tide of climate chaos.

The constant dark cultural messages about humanity and our shortcomings—we’re selfish; we’re in a constant battle for diminished resources; we’re too driven by consumerism; we’ve lost our connection to nature—do nothing to slow global climate change or ameliorate its effects. Instead, we must change the way we think about ourselves, our abilities, our connections, and our potential to solve challenging problems. If our mental frame is flawed, she asserts, we will fail despite our effort or our deep commitment.

Lappé may be a deep thinker, but she’s no Pollyanna . She soberly assesses the many threats to our planet, but she remains, in her words, a “possibilist”. In an interview with Mark Karlin of “Truthout”, Lappé describes a new frame of reference that comes when “we see that everything’s connected and change is the only constant.” Once she accepts this position, she explains, “Something shifts for me. I can see that we’re all actually co-creating our future moment to moment—which feels like endless possibility.” Although she concedes that hope can potentially distract one from the present moment, she doesn’t believe hope is just wishful thinking. Instead, she asserts, “It’s a stance toward life—one of curiosity and humility.” If we can adopt what she calls “an eco-mind”, we understand that it’s simply not possible to know what’s possible.

It has been a very long time since I’ve felt hopeful about the environment and our future. Lappé has brought me home to possibility and connection. Moving forward with curiosity and humility is a great place to start.

 

 

How the game is played

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the death of neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace B. Pert. Pert discovered what is known as the opiate receptor, but at the time of her landmark research, Pert was cut out of the accolades. A gifted graduate pharmacology student in the lab of neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, according to the Washington Post’s Emily Langer, Dr. Pert identified “the first verified receptor in the brain and the one responsive to painkillers such as morphine and drugs such as opium.” When Dr. Snyder later won the 1978 Lasker Prize for medical research related to the receptor discovery—along with two researchers in Scotland, Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes—Dr. Pert was not recognized as having made any contribution to the discovery. Stung, she protested.

While many at the time, Pert included, suspected that she’d been excluded due to unacknowledged and intractable sexism, Dr. Snyder defended his actions by saying, “That’s how the game is played.” Translation: graduate students don’t get credit for work done in their mentor’s lab under their tutelage. It may not be fair, the argument goes, but those grad students can pull the same seniority card when they’re in charge.

It’s easy to understand Dr. Pert’s protestations. Whether it’s the brilliant Rosalind Franklin and her omission from Crick and Watson’s double-helix DNA work, or the lesser known Victorian-era computer programmer, Ada Lovelace—women’s contributions to science and math are often overlooked, dismissed, or either mistakenly or intentionally attributed to men.

I’m embarrassed to say, I too, inadvertently made this same mistake several weeks ago in a column I wrote on memory research conducted by New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps. In my column, after reading several synopses of Fulbright student Daniela Schiller’s work, I erroneously—like other writers before me—said that Schiller had worked in Joe LeDoux’s lab at Mt. Sinai. LeDoux has been a 20-year collaborator with Phelps, but he did not head up the research I wrote about; Phelps did. Professor Phelps headed the lab, secured the NIH funding for the research, and Schiller’s work built on research Phelps had begun years before.  Nowhere in my column did I give Dr. Phelps credit, and I deeply regret this.

How did I find out that I’d made such a mortifying error? I received an email from Dr. Elizabeth Phelps herself.  She wrote about how disappointing it is to not receive acknowledgment for her lab’s important work and how this happens all too often to women in science.  I know this. And I still made the error. It saddens me that accomplished women scientists like Dr. Phelps must monitor their press to ensure that their work is rightly credited to them. But I am grateful that she took the time to set the record straight. My embarrassment means I have learned the lesson in a new way, and I will be hyper-vigilant next time to prevent a similar error.

It is not just women in science who have a hard time being recognized for their accomplishments. Women in the tech world face similar struggles. In an article published last week in Re/Code, an independent tech news and analysis site, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of the “New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men—and Our Economy,” outline the reasons why women have a difficult time climbing to the highest levels in the technology field.

Rivers, award-winning journalism professor at Boston University, and Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, note that women in science and tech fields encounter “invisible” bias that goes unnoticed by men and women alike. They write, “[T]he old scripts that both men and women unwittingly follow still have amazing power.” One enduring obstacle is that teamwork is a central component of science and technology research. Although teamwork often produces rich results, mixed-sex teams rarely reward women for their contributions to the group.

Research by New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman and UMASS Lowell assistant professor of psychology Michelle Haynes highlights that women fall victim to what Heilman calls “attributional rationalization”. Heilman explains, “[A] woman member of a successful team is unlikely to get as much credit for a team’s success as her male counterpart, and she is seen as having been less influential in bringing about the successful outcome.” Even more concerning is research conducted by Haynes and UMASS Lowell colleague Jason Lawrence. They studied who gets blamed in mixed-sex groups when a project is unsuccessful. Their research reveals that 3rd party evaluators are more likely to assign blame to a female group member if the group’s project fails.

Heilman also investigates what happens when women “violate” societal norms as to how they “should” behave. She finds that women get a far greater negative reaction when they choose not to help others than their male colleagues receive for the same behavior. Her team has also shown that women are penalized for being successful in areas or skillsets that are viewed as traditionally “male” and are disliked as a consequence of their competence. And it’s difficult for women scientists to even get a foot in the door. A randomized double-blind study conducted by researchers at Yale revealed that faculty at research-intensive universities rated male applicants more competent and qualified than identical female candidates.

Although Dr. Pert—years after complaining about not receiving public recognition for her work—told the Denver Post that her protests had been naïve and that she had “stepped too far over the line,” she gave voice to an issue of continuing relevance.  I know many men actively confront these “invisible biases,” and my own mistake shows that simply being female does not protect me from perpetrating these oversights. Hopefully, my exchange with Dr. Phelps will.

 

Autumn commencement

At the end of a challenging 5K last year, a friend and I swapped remarkably similar stories of a “great” running moment. It comes back like clockwork when I’m huffing and puffing unglamorously up South Main Street. It goes like this: “I was running up an impossibly long, steep hill.  I sprinted my heart out and pumped my arms—I gave it everything I had. And then I looked at the racer next to me and realized they were walking faster than I was running.” Humbling? Yes. Embarrassing? Certainly. (But also undeniably funny.) It is difficult for many of us to try new things—to take on big challenges—when in all likelihood we will not be very good at the endeavor, at least initially.

I took up distance running in my 30s, after a lifetime of asthma almost had me convinced that I could never run a race. Since that first race 10 autumns ago, I’ve run a passel of half marathons and 5Ks. And despite being an unquestionably unexceptional runner, I did manage to place in my age group in a 4th of July race this year. Of course, it was a very rainy day, the field of runners was desperately thin, and I nearly lost my cookies at the end. Joan Benoit, I’m not.

But I do love to run, despite the “nothing special” quality of my athleticism. What I’ve learned about running is that, truly, there is almost always someone slower than you. (Like the guy I saw in the Casper, WY Half Marathon who ran the entire race in bright red knee-high socks and matching suspenders.)  And inevitably there is another runner who looks at you in a race and thinks, “If I could just catch her by the end, I would be happy.” I even discovered this past year that there were friends who admired me for my running– maybe not for the form and strength of my running exactly, but for my commitment to it. Surprisingly, the fact that I’m not a fabulous runner makes me a good role model for some folks.

Research on role models shows that choosing ones who are amazing (untouchable) in their greatness is not nearly as useful as emulating someone less like the divine Mozart and more like the hardworking Salieri. Alina Tugend, writing in the NYTimes, cites a study conducted by Chengwei Liu, an assistant professor of strategy and behavioral science at the University of Warwick in Britain. Liu and his colleague, Jerker Denrell, developed a simulation model in which success depends on both skill and past success. According to their model, those who achieved exceptional performance did not have better skills than those with fewer successes; in fact, their skill level was lower.

“The more exceptional performers are, the less we may learn from them,” asserts Chengwei Liu. Better to choose someone who keeps plugging along, without fanfare, and consistently performs well. Liu explains that luck and chance events often influence performance. And folks who have success early on are more likely to receive accolades and money than those who consistently perform well.  There is also that troublesome issue of cheaters. Time and again flashy top performers have been revealed as unethical: Think Lance Armstrong or any number of baseball stars.

Better to admire and emulate someone not so exceptional but ultimately more reliable—someone like my friend, Carrie.

Several years ago she went into recovery for the 3rd time for compulsive overeating; she’d become morbidly obese. One aspect of her treatment was a solid hour of daily exercise. She started out by walking on a treadmill at a local gym. She saw runners there, including me, but couldn’t really imagine a time when that could be her. Despite feeling decidedly out of place, she doggedly kept at it. She recalls, “I sweated and flushed and floundered after walking for an hour, but I kept doing it.” Every single day. No matter what.

As she got stronger, she added a little running and some other exercises to her regimen. A little over a year later—through hard work and fierce determination—she lost half her body weight. Soon after that, she told me, “I hatched a wild plan.” She entered her first 5K. Her goal was to become a “mediocre” runner. She explained, “[G]iven my starting point, even shooting for mediocrity seemed audacious.”  In the process, she discovered that her body was stronger than she ever realized: She could run for over an hour without stopping!  Carrie’s whole life has changed.  She explains, “I now savor misty mornings with the sun rising and the dew on the ground… I enjoy scurrying along dirt roads past stone walls and curious horses and rambunctious morning glories.” She now can’t imagine a life without running, and I see her running each day against our lovely autumn backdrop.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables”, Anne says, “’I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills?” I have always found autumn exhilarating. If lovely, but ordinary, trees can re-invent themselves and try on new dazzling cloaks, what’s stopping us? The fall lends itself much more to fresh beginnings and the stirrings of new prospects than the gray, heavy skies of January.  New Year’s resolutions? Bah! Who wants to start a new project when simply pulling yourself away from the toasty woodstove can be a terrific effort?  Start now under the cerulean skies and riotous and ambitious leaf canopies. By January it will be part of your muscle memory, and you will have become an inspiration to someone else who yearns for a change.

 

Liquid Gold

Local officials in Bruges, Belgium recently approved a plan to build a beer pipeline under the city in an effort to preserve its cobblestone streets and protect its many canals. Picturesque and historically relevant, the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the 100,000 tourists who visit De Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery certainly take their toll. But it’s the brewery’s heavy truck traffic that concerns residents.  To reduce its carbon footprint and protect the historic city, according to Agence France-Presse, the brewery will build a 2-mile underground pipeline to connect the brewery to its bottling facility. De Halve Maan’s director, Xavier Vanneste explained, “The idea is born of environmental and quality of life concerns, and not economic ones.” A beer pipeline pumping 1,500 gallons of beer an hour? Now there’s an environmental idea that even Homer Simpson could get behind.

But what to do when the liquid gold in question is an unquestionably valuable by-product of consumption but is plagued with the “ick” factor? I’m referring to the over 100 gallons of urine that each of us produce each year—urine that is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous and makes an excellent natural fertilizer.  Consider this: Each year, your urine contains 8 lbs. of nitrogen and 1 lb. of phosphorous—enough natural fertilizer to grow food for someone for an entire year. But due to habits, squeamishness, and ignorance, we flush over 4,000 gallons of clean water per year per person to send “liquid gold” into our sewers where it then becomes pollution.

Collectively, Americans flush away 1.2 trillion gallons of drinkable water to transport our urine from our homes. Then we expend a lot of energy and pay big bucks to remove the urine from the water to make “cleaner” wastewater. And we’re still stuck with a sludge of all the chemical and organic pollutants.

To locals Kim Nace and Abraham Noye-Hays—founders of Rich Earth Institute (REI)—this is madness. Nace, a longtime educator, and Noye-Hays, an eco-sanitation expert and designer of dry toilet systems, teamed up in 2011 with the mission of “advancing and promoting the use of human waste as a resource.” REI’s first project was using source-separated urine as fertilizer (referred to as “pee-cycling”).  Over 170 residents of Brattleboro and its environs signed up to donate urine for this project—the very first of its kind anywhere in the United States. There has been no other legally authorized and publicly documented community-scale “urine to fertilizer” project conducted in this country.

Nace recently told me that there are trials underway in Europe, Africa, and Asia, but REI was the first here to collect detailed data on the effects of urine fertilizer on the quantity and quality of harvested hay and the underlying soil. More than 3,000 gallons of prime Southern Vermont urine have been collected, sanitized, and spread on agricultural fields. And the resulting yields were impressive.

Local participants have been eager to help with this project; it saves on water bills and greatly reduces the amount of water they waste. We are a thrifty lot here in New England and, if we’re honest, we’ll admit to enjoying feeling somewhat morally superior.  It feels great to know that simply removing your urine from the waste stream drastically diminishes the phosphorous and nitrogen in our water systems—nutrients directly responsible for eco hazards like algae blooms—and returns these valuable nutrients to the soil.

In addition to enthusiastic volunteers, Rich Earth Institute has received significant additional local assistance for their groundbreaking project. The folks at Best Septic in Westminster have been a great help, as have Chris Campany of the Windham Regional Commission, Bruce Lawrence of Brattleboro’s Waste Water Treatment Plant and Steve Barrett of Brattleboro Public Works. Their technical experience is surely vital, and Nace also deeply appreciates their belief in REI’s work.

Rich Earth Institute’s project offers tremendous potential for a state like ours—a region in which we feel closely tied to the land, protective of it, and constantly strive to maintain agriculture as an important way of life. I think our love of our natural landscape can and will trump the aversion some of us might feel towards putting our pee to work.

And besides, says Nace, “We are so much more than people peeing in jugs.” The work that they’re doing at REI is sophisticated and well-respected. They are EPA and USDA funded, and they work with academic and industry leaders in water quality. REI also recently teamed up with SUNY Buffalo and University of Michigan to conduct at 2-year study on trace pharmaceuticals in the urine. Nace and Noe-Hays want to guarantee that drug residue does not show up in soil, groundwater, or in harvested crops.

Just a few blocks from my house, Nace and Noe-Hays cultivate important partnerships with researchers and agriculturalists from across the nation and the world. Says Nace, “We want to have greater impact beyond our little state.” To that end, REI’s 2014 goals involve scaling up and improving its reach. They‘re developing a mobile urine-processing facility and working to install simple urine diverting toilets and waterless urinals in public buildings. As businesses and institutions realize the cost-savings (from reductions in water bills) and understand the relative ease with which the switch can be made, the folks at REI are confident that they can facilitate large-scale shifts in our thinking.

I’m certain several years ago that Belgium’s beer pipeline would have been dismissed as a frat boy punchline, but our pressing ecological needs force us to think ingeniously about seemingly intractable problems. Rich Earth Institute is a home-grown leader in creative, practical solutions that will benefit so many people. They are moving the possible to the probable.

 

The century tree and the blooming Bush

At the University of Michigan, a remarkable 80-year-old American agave plant –a so-called “century plant”—bloomed for the first and last time this summer. It sent up a 26-foot-tall shoot, and workers removed a glass panel from the conservatory’s roof so the aging anomaly would have room to unfurl its many flowers. Century plants were long-rumored to bloom only once every 100 years, but botanists now understand this is hyperbole; most bloom after only 10-30 years. But all perish after their last glorious hurrah. It is as if they have given every bit of themselves to produce something stunning.

News of the Ann Arbor agave reminded me of the soundtrack that played constantly while I worked on my first master’s degree: The work of a talented, quirky Louisianan named Victoria Williams. Williams’ high-pitched vibrato makes her an unlikely star, but her songwriting chops more than compensate for her unusual voice quality. You can find her name on several lists of the best living American songwriters, along with legends like Dylan, Mitchell and Springsteen. Her poignancy nests in stories of the commonplace lives of average folks who turn out to be remarkable in their sagacity.

When Williams croons, shouts and whispers on the track of “Century Tree”, it is as though we have been let in on a precious secret. She starts off singing about the century plant outside her house, but then deftly shifts gears: We never know when we will bloom. She urges us, “Hey, do you want to come out and play the game? It’s never too late.” Williams ends with the story of a man who rediscovers joy after the unexpected heartbreak of his wife leaving him: “Now he brings roses to his sweetheart/she lives most everywhere/ He sees someone suffering/he knows that despair/He offers them a rose/and some quiet prose/ ‘bout dancin’ in a shimmering ballroom/’Cause you never know when it will bloom.” It’s not just about our untapped potential and unspoken reveries; it is the acknowledgment that we just don’t know when we will send up our own spectacular signal.

It was in the midst of my rediscovery of Williams’ work that I learned that another early musical hero of mine, Kate Bush,  shocked fans and music critics by announcing a series of concerts at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. She hasn’t toured since 1979. Over 35 years have passed since she shot to fame in Britain as a 19-year-old with her single, “Wuthering Heights”—yes, a musical take on Emily Brontë’s classic. (Only in the U.K. could the bleak tale of Heathcliff and Cathy become a smash hit. It’s hard not to feel like they really are more erudite on the other side of the pond.)

Bush’s recording company had wanted her to release a more pop-friendly tune as her inaugural effort. But she dug in her heels and insisted on “Wuthering Heights”, which climbed to #1 in the U.K. Her musical savvy and artistic sensibilities have continued to serve her well: She is the only U.K. female recording artist to have had a top 5 album in five consecutive decades. And she did so with an atypical piercing soprano vocal quality, videos full of interesting interpretive modern dance moves, and complex lyrics that referenced James Joyce and Tennyson.

She was decidedly not your average pop star. I remember being overjoyed when she toppled Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” from the U.K. chart’s top spot. Art triumphed over artifice for at least a few weeks.

But there has always been that lingering question about her refusal to give concerts or go on tour. Her first and –up until now—last concert series, “The Tour of Life” was a six-week tour de force in the spring of 1979, full of complicated sets, lush dance and lighting sequences, and 17 costume changes. As the years slipped by, she was often referred to as “reclusive” or “withdrawn”. Some of the British press even dubbed her “Miss Havisham”—the withdrawn spinster of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. Others pronounced her a total perfectionist who was afraid to make a mistake.

The truth is a lot less scandalous and salacious: Life intervened and she had to piece together bits of time she could commit to her performance art. The death of her beloved mother, the birth of her son, and the death of a close friend and fellow musician all took their emotional toll. And the sheer amount of time and energy required to raise her son without requisite nannies meant she could not be as artistically productive. Reclusive? Not really; she was fully engaged in the present and the greater world, and yet she doggedly continued to craft her art.

Her fans, especially her stalwart British ones, did not expect that after more than three decades she would launch a tour. Joyous admirers sold out the 22 shows in just 15 minutes.  At the opening night last Tuesday, according to the New York Times, fans sat stone silent during the music, only to leap to their feet applauding at every brief opportunity.  Eleven of her albums are set to break the U.K. top 100 simultaneously.

We never know when we will bloom.

 

 

Lasting rites

I recently rediscovered “Finding Nemo”. We’ve had an unusually sad stretch of news lately: roiling conflict and bloodshed in Gaza, wholly unnecessary civil war in Ukraine, yet another killing of an unarmed African-American teen, and the heartrending death of one of my favorite comedic actors.   I don’t generally turn away from difficult political and psychological events, but I finally cried “Uncle!”and introduced my kids to a plucky clownfish and his hilarious blue tang sidekick. Days later, I am still chuckling at Ellen Degeneres’ voiceover and her attempt at “speaking whale.” I find myself amazed that a Pixar film has prompted me to contemplate rites of passage.

When young Nemo is snatched from the ocean and brought to live in the tropical fish tank of a Sydney-based dentist, he’s thrown in with fish from a variety of pet stores and one mysterious Moorish idol fish from the “Big Blue” named Gill. Gill, the elder of the group, understands that to  unify  these disparate fish, they must all go through an initiation rite. It involves swimming to the top of “Mt. Wannahockaloogie” and then passing through an intense bubble storm caused by the filter, which they have dubbed “The Ring of Fire”.  It is not dangerous, but it appears so. Nemo, delightfully proud of his accomplishment, is welcomed into the “bonds of tankhood”.  Nemo’s disposition changes dramatically when he is received into the supportive group.

We all want to feel a sense of belonging and fellowship. Positive rites of passage and initiation can provide our children and teens with a means to center themselves in a world fraught with the perils of uncertainty and disconnection.

A dear friend recently decided to send her adolescent son to the group of camps in central Vermont where we’d both worked 20 years ago. It is a remarkable organization and one’s whose mission I still completely embrace and support. But, as is true with any multi-week residential summer camp, it is not cheap.  Amid much anxiety, she signed him up before she and her husband had any idea how they would pay for it. She told me, “I realized this was more important in his development than wherever he’ll go to college.” She thought about his being on the cusp of adulthood and sensed that this was an absolutely critical summer for him; he needed meaningful rituals to both ease his transition into adulthood and help him embrace his wonderful qualities. She took a leap of faith and was able to do a work exchange to offset the cost of the camp. I saw them both at the end of his camp session; she’d made the right decision.

At this particular camp, each boy receives a special name at a ceremonial gathering of the entire camp. It is done at night in the firelight’s glow and many members of the camp community take turns speaking publicly about each boy’s special qualities. The rite is both deliberate and spontaneous. The staff and senior campers meet before the ceremony to discuss each boy and his unique personality traits. At the naming ceremony they then invite the younger boys in the group to add their reflections on what their friend contributes to the community. Although to an outsider it might seem hokey and contrived at times, it is not received this way by the adolescent boys. It is a sacred time imbued with meaning and tenderness. My male friends who attended this camp as boys (or worked there as adults) are still hailed by their camp name—decades later—by former campers and staff members. They never forget the time when the camp community held them up as absolutely special and critical to the group.

Arnold van Gennep—French ethnographer and folklorist—is often credited with articulating the importance of rites of passage ceremonies.  His seminal work, “Les rites de passage”, published in 1909 was highly influential among Western anthropologists. But, let’s face it: Cultures around the globe have understood the importance of ritual and rites of passage for thousands of years. We have our own humdrum examples—graduation, earning your driver’s license among them. And certainly religious traditions have their own weightier ones: Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, etc. But there are so many youth in our communities who do not partake in any positive, meaningful rites of passage. We must do a better job of intentionally tethering them to something larger than themselves.  Creating powerful rites of passage won’t solve all society’s ills, but it would guide many young people towards a clearer path to finding themselves.

Twenty summers ago, a colleague gave me a walking stick that he’d made for me. We were wilderness trip leaders together, and at the end of the summer, as part of an appreciation ceremony, he gave me this carefully crafted stick—ornamented with beautiful thread, strips of leather, and feathers—and told me what he appreciated about me. I have moved it over 15 times from home to home; I wouldn’t dream of tossing it out. When I see that stick, especially when I am gripped by doubt, I remember his belief in me and what he told me I contribute to the world.

Several months after he lovingly and purposefully fashioned this gift for me, he died in a fire that had been deliberately set. Of course, that stick means even more to me now than it did on the night he spoke of why he appreciated me. It was a rite of passage at its best, becoming more meaningful as the years pass:  connecting me to him, to my younger self, to my community, and to the very best parts of me.

Meditating over the wood pile

I know I should meditate more. My life is busy, harried sometimes, and quieting my mind would be a great idea. In a town like this, I am reminded of my meditation shortcomings all the time. I can sign up for Mindful Parenting workshops, every imagined style of yoga, breath work, and Buddhist meditation. I make promise after promise: I will meditate 5 minutes a day at the beginning and end of each day, sitting on the floor with a candle. Okay, instead: I will meditate 2 minutes each morning and evening while resting on the couch. And then, finally: I will pour myself a cup of good strong coffee at dawn and think about how darn good it is. Success!

New England singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler has a song that captures how many of us feel when we make these promises and don’t follow through: “I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho/I should turn my attention to repairing all those forty year old socks there in that bureau.” After a huge litany of all the things she “should” do, including chanting “in impossible positions till my legs appear to not have any bones,” Wheeler finishes with an exasperated, “I’m unworthy!” I have felt like that, certainly, and still do in moments, but a friend at Brattlemasters (our town’s Toastmasters meeting) turned me on to the work of positive psychology researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. I may still be unworthy, but now I don’t feel so bad about that.

Csíkszentmihályi—professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University—asserts that “flow” is a mental state that occurs when a person is fully immersed in a task or activity. When you are so consumed by an activity, you may feel an energized focus, happiness, and calm as you become fully involved in the process of that activity. Flow is that mental “zone” you enter when you are completely absorbed in a particular task and feel contentment, even elation, from the process.

His interest in “flow” began when he pondered the state of complete absorption that artists sometimes experience: “getting lost” in their work.  Contemporary accounts suggest that Renaissance artist Michelangelo became so engrossed in his work on his masterpiece—the Sistine Chapel—that he often went for days without meeting his basic needs. Despite lying on his back in an uncomfortable position on scaffolding, he was tremendously productive and creative. Csíkszentmihályi suspects that Michelangelo experienced flow, and this may have contributed to the artist’s prodigious productivity.

Steven Kotler—in a February 2014 “Psychology Today” article, “Flow States and Creativity”—highlights research indicating that the positive effects of “flow” are felt even after the flow state is over. Theresa Amabile—professor at Harvard Business School—has documented that people experience greater creativity the day after they’ve been in a flow state. There may be biological reasons for this. During a flow state, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—that part of the brain that monitors impulse control and works as our inner critic—goes into radio silence. When this area is deactivated, we lose self-doubt and gain more courage. Kotler asserts this augments “our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities with the world.”

I am relieved that I can gain a feeling of calm and confidence by entering a flow state because it feels like there’s little time to meditate when three cords of wood in my backyard  demand stacking. As the logs rest yet another day in their haphazard repose, I know their little bark jackets molder as they start their slouch towards decay. And I imagine the grass beneath gasping for breath as the sun is choked out and crickets take up residence. Time to get to work.

Two sayings prod me in my work: The Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” And the classic advice to wood stackers across this land: “Leave space enough for a mouse to get through but not the cat chasing it.”

I grouse about the mountain of logs. I bemoan how long it takes to make demonstrable progress. But really, I love that I must stack it. I cherish the time spent in the flow, finding just the right pieces for the end caps to hold the stacks in place and fitting the hodgepodge of sizes and shapes into a coherent, stable whole. The task at hand forces out other thoughts and I must dedicate my attention to not dropping logs on my foot, not smashing fingers between logs, and to trusting that I am making progress—despite the enormous pile still taunting me.

My daughter has no problem finding her flow space. All I need to do is flip over the logs at the bottom of the pile and she is immediately, totally immersed in exploration and discovery. Crickets, spiders, worms, ants, beetles, centipedes and unidentifiable bugs and blobs—she adores them all. As I hauled wood to the pallets the other day, her cries of indignation and disappointment bounced over the swing set. She called to her brother, “Hey! You didn’t even say how beautiful this larva is!”

If only we all could see loveliness in larvae. I certainly would be happier and more contented for it.

Stigma’s wrath

When I first heard of the unexpected death of popular Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, the pieces just didn’t fit. She was 48, healthy, and she died at home. There was that remote chance that she had had a sudden brain aneurysm or heart attack, but my intuition told me she’d taken her own life. When her husband told reporters that she’d been struggling through a severe bout of depression recently, the truth came into focus. My heart has been heavy for days.

My spouse and several of my close friends attended Vermont Law School where Hanna taught—one of the many jobs she juggled: commentator and contributor on both WCAX and VPR, lawyer, writer, mentor, and mom.  I’d met Hanna, sat in on her class a few times, and even appeared in a short video that some friends produced for an assignment for her class. Hanna liked to keep things fun and interesting and was not above showing scenes from “My Cousin Vinnie” in order to demonstrate how to qualify an expert witness. As so many who knew her mourn her death, even more—including those who never met her—wonder why it had to come to this.

Her close friend, Ellen Sklar, told a reporter, “She was more full of life than anyone I’ve ever know.” And yet Hanna’s husband, Paul Henninge, explained that Hanna “went to a dark place so quickly. For Cheryl, she began to loop. And when you loop in a dark place, you lose your ability to see outside of this dark place.” I am in my own loop—perseverating over what might have helped her let in some light.

She was a very talented woman, a popular teacher and someone with the means to get help. She also had so very much to live for; she left behind her 11-year old daughter and 8-year old son. The thought that terrifies me is: If depression can swallow her whole—someone with so many gifts and resources—how is anyone safe from its ravages?  She hid it so well from her students, her colleagues and her public. Henninge described Hanna’s facility with concealment:  “When she had her public face, she put on the face she wanted the public to see.”

How many people in your life—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues—do this same thing? Perhaps you yourself are among the one-in-four Vermonters doing this exhausting dance with mental illness and trying to “pass” because the public can seem so very unforgiving.

We have got to start talking more honestly about mental illness. Now.

For those who have not suffered it, that kind of anguish is almost unfathomable. In quiet moments this week I have cried for Hanna, for her husband and her children. I can’t help but wonder if the stigma of mental illness was a barrier to true healing for Hanna. Her husband said she did seek treatment in the past few months, but it seems clear she felt limited as a well-known public figure in Vermont’s legal world and media.  We live in such a small state where everyone knows each other and the gossip mill is fast and furious. Where could she turn and feel safe in anonymity?

The other night, while mulling over the horrible news about Cheryl Hanna, I unexpectedly picked up an interview with award-winning actress Glenn Close done by Jian Ghomeshi on The Best of Q, a radio program on cbcradio. Close held me in rapt attention as she discussed how and why she speaks out against the societal stigma of mental illness. She shared with Ghomeshi her own family’s experience with mental illness and addiction, and explained that she saw an important role for herself in changing the conversation. She says of her anti-stigma campaign, Bring Change 2 Mind, “I thought as a public figure I can help focus on the issue.” Close continued, “Because everybody has been so reluctant, ashamed, fearful about talking about it openly, there has been no conversation…If we talk about it enough, it will become natural.” It is part of the human experience—and all too frequent to be called anomaly.

Close donated her time and talent to narrate a free downloadable documentary of mental illness called “A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness”, created by KVIE—Sacramento’s public television station. What struck me as I listened to her talk about her work was this: If open, groovy California can’t even talk about this stuff, then surely we are doomed here in the taciturn, reserved Northeast. But the Brattleboro Retreat’s “Stand up to Stigma” campaign is a strong start. We can all do much better in talking about mental illness.

What might have happened if Hanna had felt able to talk openly and honestly about her struggles? What if she hadn’t felt some obligation to be “perfect” for her colleagues, students, friends, and family? I’m certain her circle of support did everything they could to help—as much as she would give them admission to her hell. We all need to accept that highly-accomplished, loving, lovely and powerfully intelligent people can still be cripplingly depressed.  We should also accept that with proper treatment, they can continue to be highly accomplished, loving, lovely and powerfully intelligent. But without sufficient treatment, this disease kills as surely as diabetes or heart disease.

Enough. Please start these important conversations. Secrets and euphemisms don’t provide lasting hope for the future, just temporary ephemeral refuge. And they can be complicit in taking gifted people from us.

 

 

Strike a pose

I made a new friend while on vacation last week. Our kids went to the same day camp in central Vermont, and while they made maple butter, canoed and built fairy houses, we bantered about balancing life and kids while we waded in a glorious, frigid stream. After a career in television production, she now raises her three children and struggles to figure out what “Career B” is going to be. She doesn’t think her former career—with intense production pacing and deadlines—will fit in well with the more balanced life she wants with her children. She wants to write more, and she has a screenplay with a story that she believes needs to be told.  But she feels utterly paralyzed by her insecurities. “What if it is not really good at all?” The underlying subtext: What if I’ve been an imposter all along?

In my career as an educator and in my work with my coaching clients, it’s clear that an awful lot of folks—regardless of their experience or their line of work—feel as if they will be discovered as imposters, as folks not really qualified for the jobs they have. This insecurity spreads like kudzu, limiting even our aspirations. Our fears and insecurities keep us small, and we erroneously assume that others are successful because they have no fear.

A client once told me she felt awful about her own life after watching a successful author give a presentation. She explained: “She showed pictures of her writer’s garret—a cabin high up in the hills—and talked about her simply idyllic life. She was amazing. I wish I could have a life like that.” I smiled, reminding her, “She showed you what she wants you to see.” As is human nature, the author presented her world in the best possible light. She didn’t tell the stories about how she sometimes wakes up and feels consumed by self-doubt. And she didn’t mention that she wonders why she’s a writer and not something more sensible so she could better provide for her family. We all struggle to keep inner saboteurs at bay. Some folks just learn how to dance with them better than others.

In my quest to teach my clients self-forgiveness and confidence, I’ve recently added the remarkable work of Amy Cuddy, assistant professor of social psychology at Harvard Business School to my tool belt. I first learned of her research last spring and have since watched one of her TED Talks—Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are—numerous times. If you don’t have time to read Cuddy’s articles, watch this talk.

Cuddy calls her clip a “free, low-tech life hack”—a simple thing we can all employ to improve our lives. Cuddy takes the ubiquitous philosophy, “Fake it ‘til you make it!”, applies a researcher’s curiosity and eye for detail, and reinvents it as “Fake it ‘til you become it.”

In her lab, Cuddy discovered that even just two minutes in certain “power poses” were enough to increase testosterone levels and decrease cortisol (the so-called “stress” hormone). People felt more powerful and successful, but those around them also viewed them as more commanding and more accomplished. “Power posers” also did significantly better in job interviews than participants who were asked to strike “weak” poses—sitting small, closed in, with hands protecting one’s neck.

 

We spend a lot of time worrying about what our body language conveys to others, but Cuddy says we should be even more interested in what our body language conveys to ourselves. Non-verbal expressions of power and dominance and those that convey insecurity and powerlessness send unconscious messages to the world about how we see ourselves. But they also send cues to our own brains as to how we feel about our sense of control.

Whether you’re heading into a stressful job interview, are about to give a speech, or are entering a family situation in which you always feel powerless, Cuddy asserts that taking just two minutes to strike a “power pose” will help you feel more in control. Just put your hands on your hips, tilt your chin slightly upward, and make yourself as tall as you can get. You can also strike a “victory” pose—that universal posture runners make after crossing the finish line: Head cocked back, arms out wide in a “V”.

At the end of her TED talk, Cuddy reveals that she herself recovered from a bad head injury car—one that doctors thought would surely end her academic career. She believes that she was able to “fake it until she became it.” She suggests, “Change your posture for two minutes…It could significantly change the way your life unfolds.” Moreover, she exhorts her audience, “to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power…and it can significantly change the outcomes of [their lives].”

I am doing my part. In the past week, I’ve had a friend striking power poses in the stream, another in the blueberry patch and a third before a speech she had to give. Next time you spy me standing like Wonder Woman, you’ll know why.