Sunday, November 12, 2017

How I Found the Courage to Sing

I was a pretty bad singer for a long time after I found the guts to start officially singing.
abstract angles from lisabmusic.com

How did I stand it? 

How did I tolerate the torment of trying to sound good, of knowing I had failed, and, even worse, knowing I would probably keep failing publicly, over and over, for some upcoming period of time? The embarrassment! The disappointment! 

And I’m talking just about the art of it. Forget the additional travails and rejection and dead ends of the marketing and collaboration required to get gigs and then actually do the shows.

By “officially singing,” I mean taking a Beginning Singers class, many years ago, at the wonderfully welcoming Blue Bear School of Music at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. I could justify this step to myself: I was giving frequent poetry readings, and taking a singing class would improve my performance.

It would be fun, though scary. But the fun part wasn’t enough for me. I needed some kind of productivity angle. I was a bit driven, as my mother would put it – focused on perceptible achievement and problem-solving ever since I was a toddler. As a young woman, I still felt compelled to get things done, make my mark, even while honoring my inner creative impulses.
Blue Bear School of Music logo from lisabmusic.com

Singing wasn’t going to be an art I would dedicate myself to. It was just, I told myself, something I wanted to explore, a basic skill set that would help my career as a poet, which was starting to go somewhere. Singing would be a way to expand my literary performance abilities.

Sure, I had a foundation in music that I could stand on. I grew up hearing jazz and lots of other kinds of music that my parents, and then I, played on vinyl, radio, tapes. I had spent time with some genius jazz musicians who were friends of my folks (Jackie McLean, Cecil Taylor, Elvin Jones, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago actually visited our family home, some quite often). I had studied classical piano playing, gained a grasp of music theory, even written a couple of songs as a child. 


And I had sung along to all kinds of music as a youngster in our living room – musicals like “West Side Story” and “Funny Girl,” singers such as Aretha and Carmen McRae, even the melodies of John Coltrane (“My Favorite Things”). And as I grew a bit older, I sang along with vocalists spanning Billie Holiday, Robert Plant, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Al Jarreau, the Supremes, and the great avant-garde jazz singer Jeanne Lee, to name just a few.
Aretha from lisabmusic.com

But actually become a singer? Impossible.

I didn’t have the voice. There was a lot about my singing to cringe over. There was no way I could measure up. Especially at the late age of 30. That would be like deciding to shoot hoops in the NBA at age 30. Who did that? Or so I told myself.

In singing, I felt far more exposed than in poetry writing. Even while singing a song by someone else, I felt much more vulnerable than I did writing, and performing, a poem about my deepest secrets.

For one thing, I could show my early drafts of poems to a supportive circle of teachers and fellow poets, then revise them. By the time a poem lay shivering on the page awaiting the judgment of strangers at literary magazines, it was completed. I felt a baseline confidence, because my respected fellow writers understood the work and approved it. Even amid the sting of rejection I could think back to those trusted readers and feel buoyed by their backup.

writing journal from lisabmusic.com

Not so with singing. A performing art, singing had to be done through the body. My body. In that moment. And this body was so damn variable. There was no perfecting a song in private. Practice, yes. Finished product, no. I could sound good one day and bad the next. I could control certain things sometimes and not others. Who knows what would happen that day, on that gig, in that lesson? A song was never finished.

And it took a lot longer, with a lot more repetition, to train the body and acquire the technique I was slowly learning via classes and vocal lessons than it did to use my mind (and other equipment) to write poetry. The body was dumber. Slower. Bigger.

As my longtime vocal coach Jane Sharp put it, there is an initial “cringe factor” period that most singers experience as they develop. It lasted quite a long time, it seemed, in my case. I had musical and interpretive ideas galore, but my “sound” came and went.

Do you remember the first time you listened to a recording of yourself speaking, or, if you’re brave or a professional, singing? A shock, right? This isn’t how you heard yourself in your head as you were blithely vocalizing away. It couldn’t possibly be this bad.

I suffered the torments of the damned whenever I listened to tapes of myself, whether from my early jazz and R&B band workshops at Blue Bear or my actual gigs a bit later. No, I couldn’t really sound like this! I suffered, I cried, I listened closely, I hid out, I worked with Jane and on my own to correct and expand my skills.


How did I stand all this mortification, without much evidence that I would improve?

Well, I had a secret source of courage. An ally beyond what I’ve mentioned. Not just drive. Not just ears filled with excellent music. Not just dedication to acquiring a bedrock of technique. Not just proof via my poetry journey that hard work could pay off artistically and careerwise. Not just knowing that part of what I was here on earth to do was to honor my creative path as an artist.

It was something I had recently learned in the psychic training that I had begun the same year I enrolled in that first singing class.

Kindergarten from lisabmusic.com

“Be in kindergarten.”

That was probably the most crucial lesson of the clairvoyant training I was undergoing. And it was revelatory. Maybe I had never really been “in kindergarten” even when I was in kindergarten – I remember being beset with the buzz of ideas and drive in my own head and body even then.

You see, it is impossible to start accessing and using your own psychic abilities – which, trust me, you too have – without this core technique. And it is a technique. “Be in kindergarten.”

As opposed to “being in effort.” Effort kills clairvoyance. If you try, you can’t see a thing. Try harder, as you have been taught to do in the rest of your life, and you will discover that you are way down in a black hole being blind.

seeing graphic from lisabmusic.com

“Be in kindergarten” also is opposed to “being an adult.” Admittedly, we do want to bring some adult behaviors to a psychic reading or a musical rehearsal, such as taking turns, not running around the room, paying attention to timing. But now that I think about it, we learn a lot of this in kindergarten too. 

I guess what I really mean by “being an adult” is being analytical and serious and highly responsible. Those skills aren’t bad, and you do need them. But you can at least consider complementing them with the very different approach of “being in kindergarten.”

Kindergarten encompasses allowing yourself the spirit of play, adventure, openness. Of entertaining the unpredictable.

And, maybe more important, it means not judging yourself. You don’t have to measure up to anything much. You just get to be. You get to have the freedom of a child (at least, according to the image of childhood I gained in my developed-world, middle-class culture).

Another way to put it is to “come as a little child,” as Jesus is said to have taught his followers as the way to enter the kingdom of heaven (which, by the way, is supposed to be within yourself).

“Beginner’s mind” is another similar idea, from Zen Buddhism. Be open-minded, eager. Stay away from the expectation of being an expert. Be a beginner.



kindergarten class from lisabmusic.com
Armed with this approach, I let myself off the hook. The hook of having to be accomplished as I started singing. Of having to meet certain standards. I could stumble, bumble, screw up, choke, be off pitch, forget the words, forget the melody, have an unpleasant tone. And keep plunging ahead, open my voice, and sing. OK, I would suffer over all this. But it was permissible nonetheless.

At the same time, I was working as hard as I could to sound better by honing various other vocal techniques, and seeking to gain other singerly skills. (Such as being able to learn the melody. Understand who my character was as I was singing. Listen to the band in various ways while singing and not singing. Figure out how to write musical charts and be a bandleader. Blah blah blah. A whole new world.) It was a new kind of fun to do both at once as a singer: be in kindergarten, while becoming more accomplished.


Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) on a gig early on
The psychic model of relaxing in order to see clairvoyantly had a parallel in singing, where being relaxed was crucial in the making of sound. But you also had to be energized. As both a psychic and a singer, I needed to cultivate a state of energized relaxation. Who knew?

This state turned out to be one I’d been entering for years as a poet too, though I didn’t call it that. I would trick myself into just scribbling something, drafting anything. Then I’d look at my output. Often I found it to be bad and put it aside. But at least I had written something. Then, six months later, I’d look at that draft again: maybe it wasn’t so bad. So I’d draw on my skills and start revising.

So it turned out that “being in kindergarten” was a technique I had unconsciously used as a writer. It was just another tool. Meanwhile, it was a technique among others I was practicing in clairvoyant class. All three of these disciplines – singing, psychic reading, and poetry writing – required me to both act like an adult and to come to them as a little child.

And then there’s the jazz musician part. For that, you really do have to be in kindergarten, because you have to improvise. That requires having integrated a lot of cool melodies, chord structures, and scales. Yet without the kindergarten part, your improvisations would be rote and boring. To create on the spot: the spirit of kindergarten.

music from lisabmusic.com


For me, singing itself was giving myself permission to play, and include my body in that play, and it was reserving a part of the experience for the tolerance of failure. Not merely private failure, as in poetry writing, but semi-public failure. Yet I could melt through the profound fear of failure by trusting in the technique of cultivating a childlike attitude. It was OK to screw up. Loudly. Embarrassingly. Because to be a child was to have the freedom to just play without achieving anything.

The courage to regain the childlike impulse to “just do it,” forgiving myself for not meeting certain achievement standards initially, also meant realizing that I had other inherent things to give while honing my craft in public. I couldn’t suppress those other appealing qualities – because they were part of myself. They weren’t the result of effort but there to be expressed. 

I discovered that my presence, my own wisdom, if truly revealed and expressed in a song, even if imperfectly, were meaningful to others. And I know in my gut that this ability to be present fully on stage is linked to the ability to be “in kindergarten.” The performer, like the child, reveals part of her authentic self, no matter what veneer or costume she also employs.


Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) and Peter Barshay
To do what we want to do as singers, as creators, as humans, we need all of what I’ve written about here: determination, hard work, talent, trust in our inner talents, a solid set of techniques, the support of teachers and peers, and the opportunity and time to grow and improve.

And we need that other ingredient, which isn’t emphasized much in our culture of achievement: the freedom of the child within each of us, before doubt or shame or outer strictures have corrupted it. We need to be in that space where learning and playing are the same thing.

Try being in kindergarten when you do something you already know how to do. Cooking. Petting a dog. Some activity you do on your job. What does it feel like to revisit that activity in a fresh, more open, un-self-judging way?

And try pretending you’re in kindergarten while doing something you don’t already know how to do. Notice how that feels.


I’m imagining you considering doing this now as if you’re staring up at a rollercoaster. It’s big, it’s rattling, screams of excitement float down from above you. Riding it is risky. It’s playful, it’s unknown. Go buy the ticket.


I did start to sound a lot better, and sing well more reliably. And I learned to get used to (freak out less over) the body’s natural variations, and to keep taking risks as a singer and record producer. 

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign to help launch my sixth record as a leader, “I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined,” due out on the Jazzed Media label in January 2018. Asking my tribe(s) for help is a risk. But since I now am fairly practiced at being in kindergarten, I put my head down and went forward with it, letting myself enter the unfamiliar territory. 

If you’re reading this before Thanksgiving 2017, I hope you can join me there. I offer many different perks; one of them is a discounted coaching session in which we can work together on making your own goals come trueand finding kindergarten along the way. 


Help launch Lisa B's I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined at Indiegogo.com


copyright © 2017 Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ted Panken's Liner Notes for "I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" (Jazzed Media 1/19/18)

A True American Original

            In my booklet notes for Lisa B’s second full-length album, Center of the Rhyme (2003), which comprised her striking original compositions and collaborations, I described the Oakland-based singer-poet as “a rugged individualist of the jazz tribe [who] articulates her accomplished narrative with a tonal personality entirely her own.” Fifteen years later, on her sixth CD, B embodies those same qualities in a distinctive homage to Cole Porter (1891-1964).
Cover "I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" by Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) from Jazzed Media 1/18 (photo by William Duke)
            She places her lovely instrument at the service of ten songs composed for stage and screen between 1929 (“Wake Up and Dream”) and 1954 (“All of You”). With the freewheeling control of the raw materials that only the finest jazz practitioners possess, B (short for Bernstein) takes possession of Porter’s witty, poignant stories. She deploys her considerable interpretative vocal gifts to deliver the message, occasionally interpolating her own spoken word passages for an evocative multilayered effect (on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” [1929], “I Happen to Like New York” [1931], and “Night and Day” [1932]).

            Lisa B’s approach to Porter echoes her remarks about the Art Ensemble of Chicago—a deep if not obvious influence—during one of our first conversations. “Their goal is to create a whole from various sources,” she said. “I love their ‘It's all possible’ attitude, the complete artistic freedom and invention they personify, their incredible versatility and dedication to craft and discipline.”
            B’s first documented immersion in Cole Porter’s work is on her 2006 CD What’s New, Pussycat?, where she augmented a suite of largely original songs with interpretations of “Night and Day” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (1942), presented here in remastered form.

            “I got a lot of positive reaction to both tunes,” B says, explaining her decision to focus on Porter’s songs, and not her own, as the creative springboard for this project. “I feel a real affinity with him; it’s also fun to inhabit someone else’s work and take a left turn with it. Porter was such a brilliant songwriter, both a composer and a lyricist. What he’s doing seems simple maybe, and then you get into it, and just a little half-step and he’s in a whole different place. Also, he was gay or bisexual, but pretty closeted—there’s this sense of longing and heartbreak and isolation, as well as being Mister Society Guy. And there’s the wit, commenting not only on high society but also on the larger society. You always feel he’s the outsider on the inside. His body of work has a more profound doubleness than most of the Great American Songbook.”

Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) on back cover of "I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" (photo by William Duke)
         In culling Porter’s corpus for tunes that could serve as vehicles for “adventurous interpretations that have not been done before” (B’s goal), she relied, of course, on personal taste (“probably it leans towards love songs”), but also on her encyclopedic knowledge of American music canons.
             Consider how she starts the CD-opening “I Get A Kick Out of You” (1934), sing-speaking the verse in duo with Fred Randolph’s conversational bass accompaniment. As the drums enter and the pace ratchets to edgy fingerpopping swing, she illuminates the lyric with luminous timbre and precise articulation, then transitions seamlessly to a pair of original vocalese choruses.
            She signifies on the eternal question posed by “What Is This Thing Called Love?” with a lengthy spoken word declamation over a beguine rhythm, backdropped by a horn section (B’s long-time collaborator and co-producer, Jim Gardiner, executes all the instruments on this track except for Jeff Marrs’ drums).
            And her intense, erotic reading of “In the Still of the Night” (1937) includes Michael Zilber’s keening soprano saxophone obbligatos and a funky rhythmic base inspired by Randy Weston’s Monkish approach on his 1954 debut recording.

            B also stimulates the senses when rendering the songs straight-no-chaser. That’s evident in her clarion reading of the less-traveled “Wake Up and Dream,” which she describes as “a dreamy, inspiring waltz,” and the yearning she evokes on the more oft-covered “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” counterstated by a percolating bossa beat.
            On “I Happen to Like New York” she melds straight interpretation with pure imagination: after a fondly ironic opening vignette depicting the arrival of her grandparents, Sonia and Solomon, from the old country to Ellis Island on July 4, 1923, she morphs into Porter’s heartfelt paean to the “new city” into which they disembark.
            The image of arriving into a new city is an apt metaphor for the fresh, in-the-moment approach that Lisa B, a true American original, brings to every second of this inspired recital.

Ted Panken, Recipient of the Jazz Journalists Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Your Fears Are Not You

As I'm starting to prepare to release my new recording project ("I Get A Kick: Cole Porter Reimagined" from the Jazzed Media label in January 2018 -- lots more on that to come!), of course a few doubts and fears are getting kicked up in my personal reality. 

So it's great timing to share this new blog post from my psychic reader-healer-coach space: an inspiring story about a client of mine who faced down her fears about an exciting new job opportunity. 

I learn a lot from my clients. Read on...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Fear is a feeling. And like all feelings or emotions, it is physical. That is, fear mainly has to do with the body.fearful woman from lisabintuitive.com
Despite its physicality, fear can keep you, the spirit, from moving forward.
I help many of my clairvoyant reading clients work through their fears. It makes sense that fear often comes up in a reading. Usually, someone contacts me because they want to make a change, embark on a new direction, or get guidance about an opportunity or decision. With the contemplation of risk, some fear may light up – followed by a request for help.
My neutral, clairvoyant response (with a dash of calm Jewish mother) is twofold: 1) assess the present situation and 2) check out the fear that it has triggered for the person. Then we can narrow the gap between the two – the upcoming opportunity vs. the fears – noticing whether the latter really have anything to do with the former, or instead are spectres from the past.
Now that insight is the gift you want to get to. The opening feeling of possibility now.
I’ve been working regularly with someone on a mission to improve her financial situation. I’ll call her Marjorie (and never fear, she approved this blog post). A job opportunity had come up within her current workplace, a government office, that piqued her interest, but she had some reluctance about pursuing it. It would be more interesting than her current position, with better pay and improved status. Still, she felt torn about applying. I took a look at it and saw that it was a great opportunity for her.
Click here to read more about Marjorie's story...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dynamic Jazz Performance Photography from Lenny Bernstein/Jazz Jones Photos

Wayne Shorter, photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com
Wayne Shorter 
(photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com)
The recently launched website Jazz Jones Photos is the place to go for compelling live jazz performance photography.

The site showcases the work of photographer Lenny Bernstein. Check out dynamic shots of hundreds of musicians and vocalists, from Anthony Braxton, Michael Brecker, and Lester Bowie to Jeff "Tain" Watts, Joe Williams, and Randy Weston, and everyone you can think of in between. More photos are being added all the time. 


Bruce Forman, photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com
Bruce Forman
(photo copyright Lenny Bernstein,jazzjonesphotos.com)
All photos are copyright-protected, but Jazz Jones offers very reasonable licensing fees. Contact Lenny and his staff for permissions and the digital files and/or prints you need.


Cindy Blackman Santana, photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com
Cindy Blackman Santana
(photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com)
In Lenny Bernstein's work, you won't find artful black-and-white compositions conjuring up nostalgia for a bygone jazz era. He does not romanticize jazz. Rather, he captures and amplifies the dynamic moment of music-making. His photos show the player deeply inside the music, and the music deeply inside the player. The two elements exist inseparably in his images.

In these photos, the music and the player are still moving in time. Here you don't see etched shadows of black and white: you enter vivid color. And you don't see an isolated portrait of a musician in the footlights: you experience the musician in the multi-hued act of creation and communication. That act of jazz music-making as revealed here is both personal and communal, involving both private reverie and collective inspiration.


Bobby Hutcherson, photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com
Bobby Hutcherson
(photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com)



You might say that Lenny Bernstein's photography arises first of all from his experience of what jazz musicians invariably refer to simply as “the music.” He doesn't seek to freeze the music or the musician — he allows the music and its players to generate the image. Look: and listen again.

Lenny Bernstein is the co-author, with Reginald Carver, of Jazz Profiles: The Spirit of the Nineties from Billboard Books. His photographs are permanently exhibited at California State University, Monterey Bay. They have been shown at Yoshi's Jazz Club, Oakland; the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz; and the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and others have licensed Mr. Bernstein's photographs for use, including such publications as Art Forum, The Atlantic, The Economist, Forbes, Gourmet, Harper's, House Beautiful, Interview, New York Magazine, the New York Times, Saveur, and Vanity Fair.


Lenny Bernstein of jazzjonesphotos.com
Photographer Lenny Bernstein
of jazzjonesphotos.com
 
 

An electronics engineer, attorney, and WWII veteran as well as professional photographer, Bernstein writes, "I spent a great deal of time at Yoshi's in Oakland, Keystone Korner and the Both/And in San Francisco, and Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz, along with the Monterey Jazz Festival and other clubs and concerts. In these settings, I photographed more than 1,000 jazz musicians in more than 30,000 photographs. What you see here is only a small selection from my archives."

(Since this post appears on her blog, it's worth noting that Lenny Bernstein's daughter is the singer, poet, and intuitive Lisa B, aka Lisa Bernstein. His website includes some instrumental versions of her compositions.)


Jason Moran, photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com
Jason Moran
(photo copyright Lenny Bernstein, jazzjonesphotos.com)


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Poems by Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) in Caliban Online #20 and #21

Caliban Online logo from lisabmusic blog
I am thrilled to have poems included in the 20th and 21st issues of Caliban Online, especially since editor Larry Smith has believed in my work since publishing it in the original print version of Caliban (see an earlier post about how groundbreaking Caliban was even then, and this one too). 

Download free PDFs of all issues of the online Caliban at the link above.

Janet Kauffman, Nathaniel Tarn, Ray Gonzalez, Elizabeth Robinson, Timothy Liu, Brian Swann, and my old acquaintance from the 80s San Francisco poetry scene Ed Mycue are just some of the writers in Caliban Online #20, while #21 boasts such writers as Gerald Vizenor, George Kalamaras, Karen Garthe, and Anna Halberstadt. 

This online mag includes the most striking work from a range of visual artists that I've seen in any magazine anywhere not totally dedicated to visual art. Worth looking at!

Here's one of the three poems of mine in Caliban Online #20, from a series identified there as "Persephone Post-War" but whose name I just changed to "Kore: After the Battle." (Thanks to poets D.A. Powell and Brent Sunderland for helping me figure out that change, which is nearly a restoration to the sequence's original name of years past.) 




plums from lisabmusic blog
Plum Juice

The fleshy plums
firm and black-purple
falling, shriveling,
in days
rotting on the ground.
The relief
of just looking.
Just stepping past them,
bits of plum skin
sticking to my slippers.

The space in my throat
where a bite of sweet plum
could slide past.
From that hollow,
my voice
echoing on gray
wood, apples
mottled,
a woman’s
sweet singing in the lanes
of trees.

A faint
gleam is hidden
in the crack of a mossy
rockface. I reach in
my thumb
—it stings. Pull it out
dripping blood.
I suck it,
weeping.

So,
I can still feel pain
even gone from the world
which sliced into me
when I saw through it.
Here a simple line
of blood from my own flesh.                         

Sucking                                                                       
my juice.                                                                     
See the water pooling
in a hollow of
grassy dirt, sap
in circles in
the bark. And transparent beads
of liquid welling from the sliced
pumice-white fruit
which he places for me
on the tops of tree-stumps
at points along my
unplanned path.
He must see

where I walk and
when I want,
the sharpness of light
and liquid blurring
into hunger.
After each bite
a space of air.
I am inside

and outside
the orchard, a lady
in a gray dress,
myself
treading the leaves.
A matted scent
like singing warms my throat,

and then
silence,
warm as the orchard air,
where I can breathe.

copyright 2015 Lisa Bernstein

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Who’s setting the tone of your holiday season?

So, who’s setting the tone of your holiday season? And how’s that working out for you?




It’s a cliché that we in the developed world are bombarded with messages saying that our winter celebrations should involve consumption and commodities. The other part of the cliché is that you should fight these messages by somehow returning to the true, original, spiritual meaning of your preferred traditional winter holidays. Two competing shoulds.

I have a simple, technical suggestion that’s a little bit different. Reset the tone, the vibration, for yourself, of your own holiday season. More on how to do that below; you can skip to the end right now to read about it. Or continue on for more of my own holiday story.

As children, we usually default to the tone, and all the accompanying customs and emotions, that our family sets for the holidays. The result for me has been mixed. As a child in suburban Long Island, New York, I lived mainly among other secular Jews. Though my family was grounded in what I call the left-wing branch of Judaism – focused on progressive social action but not religious observance – we did what most of our neighbors and friends of various political leanings did for the holidays. We decorated a tree and exchanged gifts on Christmas, pretty much in the spirit that to do so was to be American; we also lit candles in a menorah and gave Hanukkah presents. It felt normal and comfortable.

We moved to Cupertino, Calif. when I was 10 years old, and I suddenly felt like an outsider.

 
The only Jews I was aware of lived across the street, but they didn’t have that comfortable New York-y feeling that was connected to modern intellectual culture as well as to the “old country” as personified by my Russian-born paternal grandparents (who had helped overthrow the Czar in Russian and were still Communists, and who still lived in the Bronx). No longer did my immediate pals and neighbors follow the traditions we did.

And I couldn’t really call them traditions anymore. My parents, in their interests and actions, increasingly matched the overall tone of cultural, social, and political change of the late 60s and 70s (peace marches, relocating to a self-reliant life in the redwood forest, and other experimentation, usually involving people much younger than themselves, even while my father still worked in Silicon Valley and my mother carried on to some extent the traditional life of a suburban mother). Amid all the hubbub, not to mention my father’s career switches and the economic challenges of the time, they never reestablished a consistent approach to celebrating the winter holidays. There wasn’t much of a tone for me to match.

In recent decades, one person in my immediate family made a strong stand for a December celebration: my only brother (and only sibling), not quite two years younger than me. He and his wife, an observant Catholic, started giving a big party every Christmas Eve. He swathed his house in Christmas lights, more of them each year, and put out a lavish spread. At first, though his approach felt startlingly foreign to me, I enjoyed these parties. They were fun, even though filled with a sea of his wife’s relatives whom I didn’t yet know well. 
 

But the pleasure of the parties was increasingly marred by what went on during the rest of the year. My brother, whom I loved dearly and was once quite close with, was extremely busy with a high-tech job and four kids, and his wife disliked my parents. Though he lived about a 10-minute drive away from my folks, and about an hour-and-a-half drive away from me, he and his wife chose to spend little, if any, time with us. The time I did gain with them was hard to schedule with him.

The only reason for all this that I heard from him was that he was too busy and wanted to focus on his new immediate family, and that our parents’ requests felt like big demands on him, while what he needed was help. Yet it was difficult to reach either him or his wife to schedule such help. Also, my brother and his wife wanted my parents to take care of their grandchildren for long stretches of time, but arthritis made it hard for my folks to do this for more than three hours or so. My brother and his wife couldn’t comprehend this. Finally, my parents, whom I remained very close with and saw often, didn’t understand why their son and his wife didn’t want to hang out with them as my parents had so loyally hung out with my grandparents, as often as every two weeks, kids in tow for a happy gathering.

I felt hurt and perplexed by the situation, and frustrated by my unsuccessful pleas to my brother about the value to everyone of us spending time together. So, every year at his Christmas Eve party, I felt more uncomfortable about the disparity between the cheer around me and the emotional pain and distance during the rest of the year. But I attended, managing to enjoy the festivities and the company, in some ways at least.

Then a second complication occurred: I began living with a man whose widowed father (also Catholic), celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. That was where we had to be. My brother wouldn’t hear of it. He wouldn’t see us any other day of the holiday season, or for that matter, of the year. It was his party or nothing.

So my Hanukkah/solstice/Christmas season became a welter of impossible desires, frustrated expectations, and confused sadness.



Gradually, it dawned on me that I, just me, could have – did have – my own experience of the darkest time of the year, in which humans historically set out light and gather together for warmth and company. I didn’t have to simply react to what others wanted. I didn’t have to only try to be a peacemaker, or, when that didn’t work, to feel an underlying drumbeat of frustration and anger and disappointment throughout the holiday time. That drumbeat was me being busy resisting other people’s decisions and tone for the season.

For here’s a handy truth you may have heard: what you resist is what you get. If a good deal of your energy is tied up with something, that’s what you experience. So why tie up your energy with what you’re fighting?


I still try to spend time with those I love around the holiday season. I still try to broker agreements where there are none. I help create and attend others’ celebrations. And I still feel some of those uncomfortable, even heartbroken, feelings. But amid all this, I also make sure to set the tone for my own holiday season – a largely happy tone. 



How? Well, as a poet, a singer, a psychic, or, for that matter, someone who cleans my own house, I believe in using good technique. It’s not an intellectual approach. You don’t have to be perfect at it. You don’t have to be particularly qualified either.

The technique I recommend is to consciously set the tone or vibration of your own experience of the holidays by imagining a color for it. Sit down in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted for 5 or 10 minutes. Ignore the phone, the computer, and other devices. Give yourself this time.

Put your two feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Imagine a connection between the base of your spine and the center of the earth. Don’t make this too difficult. Just be like a child and imagine it – some connection that happens instantly, descending from the bottom of your spine and hooking into the middle core of the earth: a tree trunk, a rope, a stone column, a giant stream of water, something about as wide as your body. Once you’ve done this, your body is grounded, feels safer, and has some conduit through which to release feelings, thoughts, and energies you want to let go of.

Now, bring your awareness back up to behind your eyes. Postulate that you will see a rose in front of you with a color that embodies the tone you want for yourself holiday season. Don’t make it hard. Just see a rose. What color is it? Red? Gold? Blue? Green? This should feel good to you. If you don’t like the color, let the color change. Let the rose take on the color that represents the vibration you want to feel throughout the holidays. What’s the color? Let it fill the rose.

Look at it. Enjoy it. Does it conjure up a particular feeling in your body? What does it remind you of ? What song? What sound? What food? What place? Savor this rose you just made.

Reach out and grab the imagined rose you just created. Pull it up against your chest. Experience what it’s like to have this feeling. It’s all yours. Right in that moment, practice having this feeling. This tone. This vibration.



Then, when ready, let go of the rose and let it travel out into the universe to manifest. 





Energy vibrations can be communicated and quantified in various ways. In the slowest way, they become things. In the fastest way, they are subatomic particles we don’t yet know how to scientifically track or measure. One way to notice and set vibration is to use a mental picture incorporating color. I like to work with this mode because, for me as a human – as the old adage goes – seeing is believing. You don’t have to be officially clairvoyant to work with color as a way to reset a goal, an experience, a plan. (And you don’t have to be a musician to target and re-find a vibe via music.)



So with this simple technique, you can reset the tone of your holiday season – or for anything in your life – by targeting a color (that is, an energy vibration) and owning it for yourself, using the neutral, lovely, even healing image of a rose, then letting it go out to do its work. Then you don’t have to work at it all the time – you can let this energy analogue you created, the rose, do the job of keeping the tone you want for your holidays. You did it – it’s done. But you can call back the rose to check it, remind yourself of it, or even recreate it entirely if you can’t find it anymore or it looks a bit worse for wear.


Family conflict, external or internal expectations of what you should be able to buy for yourself or others, or just the demands of survival in the dark winter – all this can be painful and difficult. Even those of you who have harmonious family relations may feel the claims of the season to be exhausting. Life feels more complicated over the holidays. Time really is shorter.

All the more reason to try this simple tactic for changing the energy. Be the one calling your own tune for the holidays. No one else even has to know about it. 



When you do this, you’re no longer competing with the demands around you. You might meet the demands, or you might not meet them, but you’re still the one setting the tone for how you feel. And others get to set the tone for how they feel too. Which doesn’t have to be your responsibility or your problem.

It works for me.

Wishing you a joyful, easy, satisfying holiday season – along with a little bit more awareness of your own (changing) energy tone, and the tones of those around you! I can see the colors lighting up (or not), and hear the bells and the melodies sounding even now…