On Creativity

So. I just finished this podcast episode. Like I literally just closed GarageBand (that I used to edit the audio) and send the file link to Ben Albert (who is using his marketing platform to promote my podcast). AND I AM REALIZING THAT I HAVEN’T BEEN TRULY PROUD OF SOMETHING I HAVE PUT OUT FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS!! UNTIL THIS VERY MOMENT. This is it. This is the one. This is The Project. If you want to listen to it, here it is.

My first conversation with @zahyiamusic was absolutely life-changing, and felt immensely nurturing and healing. We talked about letting go of perfection, appreciating the small stuff, and adjusting the “grind” to make life more joyful. I know we both came out of it feeling less alone, more understood, and more in touch with ourselves. The podcast episode is jam-packed with valuable reminders of our humanity. I have a new epiphany every time I re-listen to it, and think about her wisdom at least once a day now. For awhile now, I’ve sensed that my role as a teacher and “understander” of music/creativity fits my soul better than being in the spotlight myself. Of course I love performing for its catharsis & joy, but there’s something about the attentive silence of listening that makes my body feel right at home.

This is why I’m so excited about this new project, The Process Podcast. Not only does it align with my values and artistic journey (aka career), but it will help me explore Big Questions. It’s an incredible opportunity to listen to artists who are figuring Life out right along with me. Plus, I love that this is something I can give you that doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t demand anything from you except your open heart & ears.

With music, I always have a qualm about something when I release it – my vocals in this one spot weren’t perfect. The mixing cost too much and now I need to make that money back. But with this….. it feels perfectly imperfect. I feel genuinely excited to share it with the world on Wednesday. I have such a good humming feeling in my body about it. I know it’s true to me. I know it will resonate with people. And now I get to share it with you, my patrons! That makes me feel happy.

The podcast has been months in the making. Ben Albert posted on Facebook awhile back asking if anybody was interested in starting a podcast to take over for his long-standing Rochester Groovecast podcast. I read the post, and kept scrolling, thinking “I probably don’t have time for another project.”

But… I kept coming back to the post in my mind. I turned it over and over in my mind. I felt the excitement at the prospect of creating a podcast. I thought about how, in the past year or so, I listen to podcasts much more (by a long shot) than I do music. I thought about how much value I get from the podcasts I listen to regularly. And I just could not resist. It felt right. I sent Ben a message. 

Months, many meetings, an amazing interview with my first podcast guest, and lots of hours editing later, here we are.

You all know me. I’m a creative human – a musician, writer, artist, and teacher. I have Big Questions. How do we build a creative life? What keeps us going? What does our daily process tell us about ourselves? I genuinely just want to talk to other artists about how they do life. I’m working with Rochester Groovecast (by artistic community pillar @realbenalbert) to make this podcast the most valuable, most genuine project I’ve worked on in a long time.

Every month, I’ll have honest conversations with various artists that reveal the strength, challenges, purpose, vulnerability and joy of living a creative life. This is a place for people to feel less alone, and to gather inspiration for our own lives.

The podcast is complete. If you want to listen, here it is. Please enjoy. I am definitely enjoying myself making it. 🙂

On Shrek

We all watched Shrek and fell in love with the characters, humor, and revolutionary animation style. I saw it for the first time in the theater with my grandfather. I was entranced. It was the first time I’d seen such realistic animation, and I was completely enamored with the fart jokes, hilarious donkey, and tale of fairytale romance. Shrek even introduced me to one of my favorite songs: Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.

I’ve rewatched Shrek many times since then. At first, it was just a nostalgic activity. But recently, it’s turned into an anthropological study for me. What cultural values was the movie pushing? What had I unknowingly absorbed as a kid watching Shrek?

The answer? Shrek was one of the many movies I watched as a kid that normalized, and made light of, abuse.

On the surface, the movie does seem to subvert the misogyny that exists in most classic Western fairytales. Fiona is a strong, badass woman who can take care of herself. She fights for herself, saves Shrek and Donkey from thieves on the road, and finds her own dwellings at night. That’s how I saw it at first too. But, the deeper messaging of Shrek does NOT support that surface-level story. Here are a few examples, taken from throughout the film, that proves the movie doesn’t actually subvert the original misogyny/patriarchal system at all, but supports it throughout.

1) In this scene, Fiona says “who could love a hideous, ugly beast” when speaking with Donkey towards the end of the movie. She truly believes that she is unloveable as an ogre (which is to say, she believes that she is unloveable as she is). It is not until the very end, when Shrek (a male character) tells her that she is beautiful, and that he wants her in whatever form she takes, that she seems to accept herself as she is, in her ogre form.

Fiona does not even have the confidence to assert herself in the conversation with Shrek following her secret discussion with Donkey about her being an ogre. Because of her true belief that she is unloveable and ugly, she assumes he’s talking about her when he repeats her words back to her: “who could love a hideous, ugly beast.” She doesn’t dig deeper into the issue. Shrek confirmed her greatest fear – that she won’t get what she wants (love) because she is not enough. She doesn’t deserve love. She doesn’t deserve desire. She doesn’t deserve a self.

Fiona was NOT, prior to the scene where Shrek interrupts the wedding and confesses his love, confident in herself. She hid this terrible secret, that she was UGLY, from all the other characters, every single night. The fact that she was ugly was shameful to her. The movie depicts a woman who does not have a strong sense of self, and cannot validate her own existence. She only validates herself when a man tells her that she is valid.

2) Fiona DOES have to be saved at the end of the film. When she perceives that Shrek has rejected her, she leaves to go marry Lord Farquad. Because that is what a man told her she has to do. The movie gives her two choices: be with one man who despises you (as she thinks Shrek does) or be with another man who you despise (Lord Farquad). There’s no third option, and it’s very important to realize that the movie does not depict her creating a third option for herself.

At the end, Shrek has to save her from being with Lord Farquad by interrupting the wedding. She made no decisions, except to accept Shrek’s offer. This is key: before Shrek assured her that he thought she was beautiful, she was unwilling to put herself out there to be with the one she loved. She was so insecure that she was resigned to be with a mean, ugly man, rather than get what she wanted: to be with Shrek. She needed a man’s validation to feel she deserved what she desired. In this way, Shrek did actually save her at the end. Fiona did not have agency in their romantic relationship. Shrek did.

3) Who were the other female characters in the movie? There are only three. Princess Fiona, the Dragon, and the Old Woman who sells the talking Donkey. Snow White and Cinderella are not characters in movie 1, since they’re just depicted on a screen for a couple seconds. Princess Fiona is not shown in a community of other women who are equally strong and able to take care of themselves. If she was, I would accept the claim that the movie depicts a badass woman, and therefore subverts the fairytale image of femaleness. However, Princess Fiona is an outlier. She’s shocking. Based on the movie’s depiction of female characters, she could be the only woman of her kind in the history of the universe, and the only woman of her kind in the foreseeable future.

None of the other female characters do anything besides display the regular tropes of weak, untrustworthy, and helpless femaleness. The Old Woman who sells Donkey is not taken seriously by the guards. They don’t believe her that Donkey talks. She is manhandled by the guards and never gets rewarded for the Donkey because he (the male character) saves himself. We never see this woman getting what she wants – money to support herself. She has no agency. Instead, we follow the male character, the Donkey, on his subsequent adventure.

The Dragon is a promising female character, because she can breath fire and goes right for what she wants: a romantic relationship with Donkey. However, she has no agency in her own world, either. She is extremely unhappy, forced to remain chained in the castle all on her own. She is incredibly lonely, and after Shrek, Donkey and Fiona escape her clutches, we don’t see an angry, aggressive female character. Instead, we see a sad one that longs for a life outside of her chains. She is a slave until Donkey comes to rescue her.

In contrast to the lack of female characters, there are MANY male characters, with a variety of personalities and storylines. “Maleness” is very fleshed out in this movie. There’s Shrek, Donkey, Lord Farquad, The Three Blind Mice… the list goes on and on and on.

There are literally no other female characters in the movie. So maybe on the surface, Fiona seems all badass and capable because she can fight and take care of herself, but that’s not the messaging we’re really receiving. The messaging we’re receiving is that she is an unusual case – not the norm. The movie doesn’t normalize her supposedly strong female nature.

4) Take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the Magic Mirror presents three eligible bachelorettes for Lord Farquad to marry. The Mirror makes a blatant joke about abuse, describing Cinderella as a “mentally-abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away,” as if being mentally abused is not something to be concerned about. Then, we hear that Snow White lives with seven other men, but “she’s not easy.” The Mirror’s casual judgement of Snow White’s sexuality normalizes diminishing a women’s worth to her sexual tendencies and sexuality.

Diminishing women to sexual beings makes it much easier to abuse us.

But that’s not all. The Mirror continues, inviting Lord Farquad to “kiss her dead, frozen lips and find out what a live wire she is! Come on!” Then you hear a drum set go “ba dum smash,” which officially turns this image of treating a dead woman like a sex toy into a joke. This image should be disturbing, but the movie turns it into something funny. Once again, Shrek normalizes powerless women without agency: easy targets for abuse.

Disguised in jokes, it’s easy to miss how dangerous this normalization is. Boys and girls watching this absorb the following messages:
1) abused women are funny
2) women are just sexual playthings
3) a woman who cannot consent is fair game for sexual activities

5) In another scene, Donkey and Shrek finally arrive at the castle Fiona is trapped in. Donkey asks, “So where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” Shrek responds, saying, “Inside, waiting for us to rescue her.” I know it’s been discussed a lot, but I have to talk about the problematic message this sends. Shrek’s response assumes that there is a helpless woman inside the castle waiting for a man to rescue her. It takes away agency from women in our culture, showing us that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves. This is dangerous because it gives men permission to control our lives – if women don’t have any agency, we don’t have any right to say no or argue with a man’s opinion/action in our lives. It might be “rescuing” one day, but it could be something much less desirable the next. And what if we don’t need to be saved?

Yes, “rescuing the princess” is a classic fairytale trope. I don’t care. it needs to change. Luckily, movies like Tangled and Brave have JUST STARTED to unravel this dangerous message.

Then, as if that’s not enough negative messaging, Donkey delivers the punchline. After he asks “where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” and Shrek responds “waiting for us to rescue her,” Donkey retorts, “I was talking about the dragon, Shrek.” This joke, laughing at a woman’s needs and display of anger, is so overused and so damaging. It’s the Eve story. Eve gives in to temptation and eats the fruit she’s not supposed to eat. This woman’s desire is the downfall of man. Women are evil. Women are a “pain in the ass,” in the words of Shrek. It’s not difficult to make the leap to “we should hate women” and “we don’t need to take any woman’s needs seriously.” Again, Shrek writers manage to turn “stripping women of their power” into a joke, as if it’s suddenly okay because they’re joking about it.

Shrek paints a truly disturbing image of what a woman is in our society. She is powerless, hated, needs others to validate her experience, and doesn’t need to consent to be touched by you. She is, in other words, extremely susceptible to abuse. This is a MOVIE FOR KIDS. And it’s contributing to abuse culture by NORMALIZING WOMEN WITH NO AGENCY.

I am not, by any means, discounting Shrek as a movie. I don’t believe in cancel culture – I think things are always so much more nuanced than that. The movie really does bring me so much joy, even watching it this new perspective, even after the abuse I’ve experienced at the hands of multiple men.

But. I think it’s important to recognize this dangerous, deeper messaging. Why is it important? Because I know for a fact that it’s watching innocuous movies like this, that hide true misogyny behind a surface-level strong female character story arch, that led to me thinking it was OKAY TO BE ABUSED. Abuse culture is serious and needs to be examined from every angle. Even a movie we all know and love so much. I’ve been rewatching a lot of the movies I watched when I was a kid, and noticing similar messaging popping up in almost every movie. Abuse culture was very prevalent in the media I consumed as a kid, and there was nothing my parents or school could do to reverse that. It was just…there. I just absorbed it.

And I haven’t even started discussing the way “Blackness,” as well as the complete lack of female Blackness, is portrayed in this movie. That’s a whole other conversation and blog post.

On Real Conversations

Tonight I actually forgot that I was supposed to write a post. I worked so hard today, doing way too many things with way too much vigor. I wrote a vision/outline for a new podcast I’m starting in January, sent the stems (raw audio files) for a live album I recorded at a festival in September to two different mixing engineers, started editing my new music video, and got my Pfizer Covid booster shot.

Now, with a headache and feeling woozy from the vaccine, I’m just going to quickly write about my ideas for this podcast. My friend Ben Albert, a fellow booking manager and creative business person in Rochester, NY, started this really awesome community called Rochester Groovecast. He wants to expand his idea into a Collective, including to a diverse bunch of artists, podcasts, articles, and creative showcases.

For my podcast, I imagine interviewing artists of all kinds: musicians, visual artists, craftspeople, designers, videographers, specialty food makers, dancers, actors, writers, etc etc etc. It’s an endless list. I want to have honest conversations with these people that reveal the strength, challenges, purpose, vulnerability and joy of making music/all other art forms. I want to disassemble romantic myths about the artist’s creative process.

I’ve already made a schedule for who I want to interview each month for all of 2022. Sometime this weekend I’ll start asking the artists if they’re down to do it! Nobody gets paid, including me, but I’m hoping I can provide something useful for these creators, even if its just a media/press link they can add to their portfolio. And, someday, I’d like to get sponsorship so I can pay myself for my time, and potentially provide each interviewee with a small stipend.

I want the podcast to be a place for people to go to feel less alone. I imagine building a community around art and creating art. I envision the podcast as a real space, uninhibited by social media algorithms or marketing guidelines, kind of like how I’m approaching this blog format. I want to be unafraid, or at least unabashed. I want to encourage my interviewees to be unabashed right along with me.

On Chicken Coops

About two days ago, my grandma and I started receiving irksome texts from my dad. Where’s the chicken coop? he kept asking, I’m sure it’s on the property. He wouldn’t give it up – he even sent us pictures he had taken last year of this mysterious chicken coop that was supposedly in my grandma’s Floridian yard. The problem was, there was no chicken coop to be found. There was an old red shed, filled with mismatched chairs and gardening tools. There was a big deck, and a round outdoor table. There were palm trees and aloe growing everywhere. But no chicken coop.

My grandma made sure to clear this up with my dad. She told him that “the whole thing is gone” and that the previous owner “probably cleared it away so (the) house would sell better.” And so, after many bemused texts had been sent back and forth between my grandma and my dad, the mystery of the missing chicken coop mystery was dropped (the only person who truly dropped it was my grandma – I’m sure my dad was still agonizing over it).

Today, in a rush of inspiration, I decided to go on a search for the chicken coop. What’s the worst that could happen? I turned on “We Can Do Hard Things” by Glennon Doyle, and walked out into the sunshine of a gorgeous Florida afternoon. I felt like a brave adventurer, out to discover whatever might happen along my path.

In truth, I vaguely remembered where the chicken coop was. I was actually there when my dad first discovered it, and I remembered seeing it with him, and being astonished by this rare treasure: a relatively large chicken coop in the backyard of a house in the Florida Keys. But, because everything is generally very cloudy in my brain, I thought maybe the chicken coop had been at a different house, or that I was mixing it up with a childhood memory of a chicken coop, or that I had simply fabricated the memory of a backyard chicken coop, and now it was parading around in my mind like a real memory, trying to trick me.

So when my dad first started sending chicken coop inquiries, something dim stirred in my brain. I ignored that dim response (because it was dim) and continued on with my life. But after a couple of days, the call of the chicken coop grew too strong to resist: I knew it was out there. All I had to do was go out and find it.

A minute later, I was standing in front of the chicken coop door. It was mostly obscured by vines. We had missed it because, until yesterday, there was a big tree covering it. We assumed the shed was a part of our neighbor’s property – we didn’t realize that we had access to a door. In that moment, I felt like Mary in The Secret Garden (I reread that book this past summer – there is some problematic racism in it, but I still connected, on a deep level, with the story of a girl growing healthy by spending so much time playing outside) finding the door for the first time.

I yanked it a couple of times, and it opened. Then, I snapped a few pics to send to the group text with my dad and my grandma. Proof. And then I went back inside and continued on with my day.

Moral of the story? What you’re looking for might just be right in front of you.

Just kidding. There’s no moral. It’s just really ridiculous that my grandma and I didn’t know there was a chicken coop in our backyard.

On Honesty

I’m gonna be honest, I’m looking forward to this daily writing challenge being over. I’m tired of prose. I miss poetry. I miss not making any sense, but making the most sense at the same time. I don’t wanna write coherent sentences anymore. But I must. I’m sticking to the challenge. I almost switched into poetry tonight, but then I stopped myself. Siena, I thought, you gotta finish what you started. There’s a reason you wanted to write prose every day, right? A reason, even if you can’t remember it right now. You can’t just give up.

Except the thought was much more like: you’re being lazy. Just write about how you don’t wanna write. You have to write anyway, so might as well be honest.

And that’s not even how it went. It was really more like: what the fuck am I doing here on earth. Why did I open my computer again? What is the meaning of all this bullshit?

Alright, it’s time for some truth-telling. There were reasons I started this challenge, and I do remember them, and here they are:
1) I was moving from Rochester, NY to live in Big Coppitt Key, Florida for the month. It seemed like a good opportunity to challenge myself, since I was placing myself in a new environment. It’s sometimes hard to start a new habit when you’re surrounded by the same stuff.

2) I wanted something I said on here to be true enough to enough people, that the post would go viral and I wouldn’t have to work anymore to have a platform for my voice. I wanted the chance to be completely myself without constantly trying to tell people why they should follow me, come to my shows, or give me money. I was tired of using my “Story” as a marketing tactic, like I feel forced to do in my music business.

3) I think I’m a really good writer, and I want to become a great one. And, I want other people to think I’m a great writer. This one pains me to write here. I don’t think anyone should be motivated by wanting other people to think they’re good, so I try to keep this as secret as possible.

4) I seem to be more into words than music. This is another difficult one for me to write down, because music is my “career,” whatever the hell that means in 2021. Music is what I center my identity on, at the moment. I guess that’s a more 2021 way to say it. So, saying that I connect more with words than I do with music is a bit sacrilege. It’s a bit squirmy. Do I need to choose between them? No. But do I need to parse out this balance between words and music, and understand the relationship between them better? Yes. And I started this challenge hoping that the true shape of my desire, for music and/or words, would start to emerge.

5) I’m going to publish a book. I don’t know when, and I don’t know what will be in it, but it’s out there. Well, it’s in here. It’s out there and in here simultaneously, and the book will get written at some point. I saw this as the practice round.

6) I love language. And I missed writing language that was public. I missed the thrill of knowing someone would read your words, that you were sharing something of yourself. Turns out I love performing even when it’s not musical.

7) I like the communal idea of a blog. I wanted to see people’s comments, to see their reactions to my stories. You get to converse with people without actually having to sit down with them and sip coffee for two hours.

8) I took the month off social media, and this seemed like a cleaner, more truthful (less influenced by the algorithm) way to share myself with the world. I still felt connected to other people, but didn’t have to pander to the unspoken rules of Instagram and Facebook.

9) I had a lot of questions. Not a lot of things made sense to me, including my own reactions to my home and my partner. I needed to figure some shit out, and this seemed like a chance for me to do that. Maybe once I was away from my familiar backdrop of domestic partnership, home, and performing grind, something would reveal itself. And if it did, I would catch it. I’d write it down.

So why didn’t I want to write tonight? I told you already, I’m tired of prose. I kind of got more into it once I started, and it was nice remembering all the reasons I decided to do this challenge in the first place, but I still feel this heavy sense of purposelessness. Also, I’m tired of myself. This whole month I’ve been writing about my own experiences, my thoughts, my inner world. It’s almost blasphemous how self-centered the blog format is. Ignoring the community. I thought I was writing for “the community” (whatever that is) but I might just be blowing hot air.

How do people spend 80 years doing this shit? Living with all the questions all the time? We’re all just wandering around trying to make something out of ourselves, trying to figure out what it is we really want, trying to figure out how to love and be loved. It’s all complete bullshit, but it’s so beautiful too. The heady realization that we can keep learning, every single day, makes me feel alive and a little less tired. I do think writing these posts every day has made me feel more alive. Maybe.

On Driftwood

This morning my grandma and I woke up in the darkness at 6am to shoot a music video.

We wouldn’t have done this, except we were walking along a remote beach last week, and came across this abandoned homestead made of driftwood. There once was a community of people living here, my grandma said: I used to see them when I walked my dog down here years ago. In place of the colorful tents and long-haired men that once nestled into the sand, only a driftwood castle remained. They built this massive, angular structure, the center of their village, the gathering place. They tied emblems to the ends of the bone-dry branches: old Nikes, beautiful glass bottles, buoys, and strips of colorful ribbon. They painted a few branches with vibrant blues, yellows, and pinks, penning all-seeing eyes and names of past lovers. They put up a plaque for someone named “Red” who died there in 2009. There were clear outlines of different rooms, like the Aztec ruins in New Mexico.

When we first came across the driftwood complex, I felt like I was in Peter Pan’s wonderland. The place had magic. I felt so inspired. I casually mentioned how great it would be to shoot a music video there, and my grandma said, why not? We should do it.

I don’t think many people can say that their grandma was the videographer for their music video. I’m feeling really blessed to be in this position. My grandma happens to be a really masterful photographer, so she’s accustomed to being behind the camera, and was really excited about collaborating on this project with me. And I’m accustomed to being in front of it – it’s part of my job as a professional musician. I especially love shooting music videos where I’m interacting with nature – I shot one on an iPhone camera last fall, and made one with Lilac Milk last winter.

So this morning we drove out to the beach for sunrise and shot the first footage for the new music video for my song Meteor. In the castle on the sand.

On Gratitude

Today, I drove 27 min to the library, so I could stop being so desperately bored. I’ve know boredom is supposed to be good for your creativity, because if your brain has room to wander, it is more likely to wander into something interesting. That’s true. I’ve had a lot of great ideas and breakthroughs in the last couple of weeks. But the less romantic truth is that, 84% of the time, a wandering brain just….wanders around aimlessly into absolutely nothing.

So I’m at the library, piling books into my arms like a fiend, getting so excited about all the different topics. Cupcake baking? Yes please. Bob Marley’s journey while recording Exodus? Yup, piling that on. Novel by Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes please. Memoir by Ruth Reichl? Mmmm yes. I even grabbed a synonym dictionary. I’m not even kidding. I saw this huge, old-fashioned book full of synonyms and thought I’d grab it for some light reading. I was PUMPED. Then, I picked up a couple books that my grandma asked me to get for her, and headed towards the check-out desk, stumbling a bit under the huge pile. I couldn’t wait to get home and read all of these books!

At that moment, the place went completely dark. I looked around, thinking stupidly “is it nap time?” Of course it wasn’t. Unfortunately. Then I got kicked out of the library.

It turned out that the power went out in the whole island of Key West. Before I got my library books!!! And now I was stranded out on the street, longing for all those books I was forced to abandon on a table inside. It was madness. Luckily, I had 5 dollars in cash and I was only a five minute walk from the key lime pie shop. So I went and got a slice (dipped in chocolate, on a stick). It was fucking delicious. It made me smile. I ate it as I walked back to my car to drive home.

Gratitude is like that. I was still PISSED AF that I had to go back empty handed, but then this little sliver of joy presented itself to me. Gratitude is noticing the unexpected gifts in ordinary life. I know gratitude isn’t always a piece of key lime pie. It’s not always that obvious. But the key lime pie is such a great example of how gratitude shows up in my life. It’s unexpected, hard-won, beautiful, tasty, and it gets me through. I’m not at the point yet where I can be grateful for hard things, but I can be grateful for the tiny moments that get me through the hard things.

I think boredom is on the docket for me again tomorrow. And I’m okay with that.

On Food

We sit by the ocean, sunglasses on, blessed down to our toes in sun. Hibiscus beer gives off a rosy glow from our glasses. The waitress places two metal trays in front of us, covered in salty, greasy fries and grilled fish sandwiches. There’s nowhere on earth as joyful as my body when I take the first bite. Flaky white flesh, tomato dripping with ruby juice, tiny green morsels of lettuce, covered with delicate layer of tartar sauce, and drizzled with juice from a bright yellow lemon slice. It seems impossible, but it’s really happening. I’m here, with you, and I’m in my body. I exist. I love.

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On Memory

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For the second time today, I’ve left the pot of water boiling on the stove. It sat there, bubbling away, until the last drop of water sizzled out, the kitchen filled up with a concerning hot-chemical smell, and the inside of the pot turned a sickly white color. I discovered this scene when I casually ambled back into the kitchen, totally unaware that anything was amiss…until I sniffed the air and caught sight of the pot.

Aaaand cue the shame and amusement. Ashamed because I know it’s dangerous to leave the stove on, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve forgotten to turn it off this week. Amused because it’s pretty hilarious to forget something so simple. Turns out everything is gonna be okay, because my 82 year-old grandma is teaching me how to not forget.

Apparently electric stoves can cause electrical fires, which you can’t put out with water. I did not know this before sitting down to write this, so yeah, I’m glad I know now. I guess you’re supposed to use baking soda. Who would’ve known. Side note: I am absolutely floored by the number of uses baking soda has. Almost every time I ask Google how to do some daily activity, the answer is “use baking soda.” Get a grease stain out of a shirt? Throw baking soda on it. Cat pee in the carpet smelling up your hallway? Shake some baking soda on that shit. Rusty pan? Baking soda. Gunky sink? Baking soda. Clogged garbage disposal? Make a volcano by dumping baking soda and vinegar in there! (This is not even a joke – I actually looked this up once, tried it, and it worked). Pro tip.

Anyways.

So I keep leaving pots on the stove until they boil out. The irony of this is that I’m living with my grandmother, who does not leave pots boiling on the stove, and who is dealing with the lasting effects of a stroke. She is fascinated with the ways her mind has changed in old age: she mixes up opposite concepts (lemons with limes, hot with cold, dark with light) and sometimes will do the thing opposite to what she wanted to do. She says that since our memory of binary concepts lives in the same part of our brain, it’s difficult for her to separate them. It’s like you’re reaching into a single dark cupboard, feeling around for two identical cups. They might be different colors, but they feel exactly the same. At least that’s how I imagine it might feel like.

She also talks about how it’s often difficult to recall words (I imagine this like trying to draw water out of a deep well full of lily pads and cattails with a small bucket, but she’s the only one who knows what it’s actually like) and how her short-term memory is less powerful than it used to be, and more selective.

So just to recap: who is the one leaving pots on the stove? It’s me. Me, the 25-year-old whose frontal lobe JUUUUST BARELY firmed up into its full-fledged adult form. I have a newly-minted brain. So what’s going on here? I have no idea, but I find it intriguing, so here are some musings on memory.

Memory is a fickle thing. It turns out that most of us remember in stories, not in concrete accounts of exactly what happened. Each time we recall something, dredging it up from our well of past experiences, we handle it, shape it, and share it. We mix up the memory while fitting it into our current belief systems and habits. When we put it back, it’s more of a story than before. It’s a reflection of our identity.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk invites us even deeper into the confusing world of memories and recollection. He describes a study in which veterans were interviewed directly after returning home from the Vietnam war, and then again years later, when they were in their 80s. In their old age, the healthy vets gave very different descriptions of the war than when they were young and fresh out of battle. Over the years, they had moulded their memories to fit nicely into their current identity. They had a core self, and their recollections had become fully transformed by it.

Conversely, the vets who developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder gave THE EXACT SAME descriptions of the war when they were 80 years old as when they were 20. They told the same story. Their memories (of the traumatic event) were frozen in time. Here’s the crucial difference between the vets with PTSD and the vets without: for vets with PTSD, memory was not transformed by identity. In fact, the memory itself, stuck forever in its original form, becomes a permanent part of their identity. Not the other way around.

People with PTSD don’t just have trouble integrating our memories with our current core self. We also have trouble with basic memory functions. Specifically, PTSD affects the first stage of memory function: initially acquiring and learning information. This is very crucial when we’re trying to remember something in the short-term. Like returning to the stove a few minutes after putting the water on to boil to pour our tea, for example.

All this memory gobbledegook may have something to do with why my grandma is the expert on memory in this household (besides the fact that she has a PhD in psychology from Columbia). She’s had many more years of practice not remembering things. She knows the secrets. The solution? Don’t use your memory at all. Just use your senses. Sensory memory comes before short-term memory on the path to storing information in our brains. Use a physical habit that takes the place of needing to remember. Stay in the room. Don’t let yourself leave while the pot is on the stove. Keep it within sight. And voila! No need to remember a thing.

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On Decisions

I woke up this morning and shuffled to the bedroom door. What followed was a mess of decisions, routine, habit, emotion, and, like it or not, just plain humanness. What followed was a mess. A beautiful, powerful, ordinary, exhausting, comical mess. A regular day. A regular day where I made so many tiny decisions, each one influencing the next, and influencing the people around me. What a complex web we weave around ourselves!

MORNING
walked out of the bedroom door
thought about boiling water for coffee, but didn’t
thought about picking up my phone
gratitude for coffee
more gratitude for coffee
dragged my feet to the bathroom
while peeing, considered not working out
tried to justify not working out (“I’m sore from yesterday, I didn’t get enough sleep,” etc)
realized that was bullshit
brushed my teeth while dreading working out
realized I could drink coffee right before my work out
got considerably more excited to be alive
turned on the shower accidentally (that was my habit before I started working out in the mornings)
turned off the shower
felt sheepish
walked to the stove to put on the water to boil
went back to the bedroom to pull on my workout clothes
walked out of my bedroom, forgot why I walked out, then walked back in
thought about picking up my phone
resisted the phone addiction (I have a rule – no phone in the first hour of waking up)
grabbed my yoga mat and brought it outside to the deck
chose the YouTube workout I wanted to do
went back inside to pour the water over the coffee grounds
picked up my phone to text someone before I forgot
felt a bit guilty for breaking my “no phone in first waking hour” rule
breathed an audible sigh of relief as the coffee percolated (and my phone addiction was appeased)
poured milk into my mug like I always do
took the first, heavenly sip
walked outside to start the workout
thought about how terrible this feels
thought about how strong I’m becoming
gulped coffee like it was water and I was on a desert island
thought about how I still don’t have a “perfect body”
thought about how I definitely don’t want to do these fucking bridges
drank the last dregs of coffee
was amazed when the workout suddenly was over (I didn’t think I’d actually finish it)
stood up shakily
rolled up my yoga mat
thought about breakfast
thought about all the things I wanted to get done today
realized that the workout actually made me feel super energized
gratitude for my body
gratitude for a full day with “no plans”
almost immediately decided to go into town with my grandma to keep her company at the bank
thought “so much for a day with no plans”
thought “look at me, being helpful”
thought “oh shit, now I’m not gonna get as much done”
thought “fuck it”
tried wheat germ for the first time
discovered that wheat germ is pretty much a much blander nutritional yeast
got really excited about wheat germ
gratitude for wheat germ
had a fantastic conversation with my grandma about nothing and everything
gratitude for my grandma
showered and chose an outfit
decided I didn’t feel attractive enough in the first outfit
changed my shirt
got into the car to drive into town
realized I forgot my chapstick
went back inside
grabbed the shitty chapstick because I couldn’t find my good one
headed back to the car

AFTERNOON
called Chris while I waited for my grandma to finish at the bank
learned a lot from talking with him
decided I love being with him (I usually decide this 1-7 times a day, as if it’s a new revelation)
thought that I really want to trust him more
gratitude for Chris
thought about how I really really have to pee
talked about Christmas plans
felt stressed about buying Christmas gifts
received a text from my grandma which read “I’m going to scream soon”
felt panic rising in me, that old, familiar “I’ve been at the bank for almost an hour” panic
thought about how much I have to pee
went over to sit by my grandma, trying to be comforting
decided to go find a bathroom
wandered around the neighborhood for a few minutes, desperately searching
felt weird about going into any of the fancy hotel lobbies nearby, so just went back to the bank

EVENING
hid in bed watching Monk
felt incapable and anxious
forced myself to venture out of the bedroom for a family video call
thought about how far away we all were from each other
gratitude for family
tried to time things so our dinner would be delivered before we both got way too hungry
decided what I wanted for dinner from the Cuban restaurant
called to order
thought about how luxurious it was that we didn’t have to leave to pick up the food
shared a beer with my grandma – Blue Moon – her favorite kind
finally read a text sent that afternoon, from the parent of a piano student (S)
realized she’s asking if I could teach S this evening, instead of tomorrow evening
weighed all the factors: my crippling anxiety, my love for this student, my deep exhaustion, her dedication to the instrument, and her recital coming up in December
decided to let go of my “free night” and teach her an online piano lesson at 7:45pm
ate dinner with my grandma
thought about what I wanted to teach S
thought about how proud I was of her
thought about how I wasn’t making any sense
wondered why the hell I was talking so much
thought about how inadequate I was as a teacher
thought about how much awesome wisdom I was imparting
wondered if anything I’m saying is actually getting through
ended the lesson on a strong note

NIGHT
felt proud of myself
gratitude for my student
gratitude for teaching
dreaded writing this blog post
said goodnight to my grandma
begrudgingly sat down to write this blog post
had zero clue what to write about
lay down and snuggled into my blankets, trying to feel more at peace
then decided what the topic would be: decisions