Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”

[I wrote this post for a private music blog my friends have together—yes, we are dorky like that—but since I haven’t blogged in awhile, thought I’d post here too. Mad props to Sarah for being my musical educator since college and for suggesting I give this is a try even though I’ve never been particularly into Beyoncé.]

Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” was first released as a “visual experience” on HBO last month and then streamed on Tidal.  As I mentioned before, I think the album really IS this video release, not just the CD (although if you by the CD on Amazon, it comes with the video).  I hate to call the music video a music video because it flows seamlessly, almost like a movie that happens to be set to music.  Cinematography is fantastic, editing, costumes, design. . .can the Oscars have a music category?  :) “Lemonade” defied categorization in this original release because along with the visual effects & songs, it was interspersed with spoken poetry written most likely by Beyoncé, who co-wrote every song, along with a large team of writers.  The poetry between the songs and extra clips in the middle of a song (like a speech from Malcolm X) elevate the lyrics.  I highly recommend watching the film first—in fact Michael and I find ourselves unable to listen to the album without thinking of the spoken parts and seeing the gorgeous cinematography.  In this respect I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Beyoncé created a new art form, unless anyone else has seen something like this.  More performance art rather than, say, extended music videos that are spoken films like “Magical Mystery Tour.”  End my propaganda.

For the purposes of writing this I’m going to use “Lemonade” to refer to the video, because it contains all the songs as they are on the CD, with just some added bookends and occasional interruptions.  It’s no secret that “Lemonade” is B. trying to come to grips with being cheated on by Jay-Z.  The ending of the song “Freedom” is Jay-Z’s grandmother saying “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to cool myself off. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”  Thus the title. . .out of being cheated on, Beyoncé made this work of art.  I’m going to ignore cynical haters who say this whole album was a publicity ploy on the part of Jay-Z and B.  They invented drama to sell an album.  I think if you read the lyrics and see how raw it is, that interpretation is impossible.

There are several explicit references to her marriage throughout, and all songs (except the last) are preceded by an emotion/grief process that is flashed across the screen to set the tone for the next song.  These loosely follow Kugler-Ross’ six stages of grief, as B. comes to grips with him cheating on her. Jay-Z is also in the video, and in an interview just before the release, B. said that she was nervous because “only my husband and mom have seen this.”  (Along with some producers and writers I’m assuming).   His knowledge and complete support of the project is interesting in and of itself, especially when you see how explicit and raw “Lemonade” is.  I called B. a “prophet” in the sense that she opens so herself completely and through this performance art finds catharsis, while helping other women to do the same.  For those of us who have happily never been cheated on, there is plenty of political, sexual, and social commentary to identify with here.  It is beautiful when someone uses their suffering to create art; it is even more beautiful when that art simultaneously grounds us in reality (“Amen, sister!”) and transports us to dream of future sexual, political, and social progress.  Visually, there are images of lovers as trees.  The large cast is 100% black, with the exception of a black woman with vitiligo who appears throughout.  A lot of the songs and spoken parts contain commentary on how black women are specifically vulnerable to men, and how black men prey on black women, discarding them easily after they’ve been used.  The set moves between plantation farmland (and plantation homes) to modern-day parking lots.  From 19th Century dress to B. in a barely-there bra and fur coat.  Often when speaking of the subjugation of black people and women in particular, they are shown in white dresses/petticoats.  I could probably do an entire post on the set design & costuming, but that at least gives you an idea.  The 19th Century dress and plantation locations are definitely drawing us back to times of slavery.  The spoken parts, grainy videos of black women talking about their lives, and songs like “Freedom” speak to the different ways in which black women are controlled and demeaned today.

I should note that the first song opens with B. on a stage, wearing a long black hoodie, her head shrouded and face partially covered.  Her arms are pinned behind her back.  In a later song, she is Nefertiti, sitting in the exact same position with her arms completely invisible.  And in “Freedom,” what I argue is the actual last song of the album (the final two being more of a coda), she is back on stage, her arms are behind her but she is dressed in white.  She sings “Freedom, freedom, I can’t move/Freedom cut me loose/I break chains all by myself/won’t let my freedom rot in hell,” at which point her hands are brought down to her sides.  The stage is an interesting device as bookends to the album, she goes from a black shroud to the white of redemption & hope, and uses this performance of “Lemonade” (stage) to catalyze this process.

The two video clips below are the only ones I could find that weren’t crappy YouTubers trying to get famous by recording “Lemonade” covers.  Although. . .speaking of covers, a few days after “Lemonade” came out, the Dixie Chicks performed “Daddy Lessons” on their tour, adding some extra fiddles and harmonies.  This reminded me of Jimi Hendrix covering the intro to Sgt. Pepper days after it was released and improving upon it.  I know.  .  .country stars playing Beyoncé?  It’s hard to classify this album as hip-hop/R&B/rock/country, etc. because all the genres are seamlessly blended.  Now going track by track:

Intuition (Pray You Catch Me)  :  The chorus: Pray to catch you whispering/I pray you catch me listening/I’m praying to catch you whispering/I pray you catch me

This is the shortest song on the album and is more of an intro.  Poppy with some orchestral elements.  It starts off with a glissando, and that same glissando is repeated at the end of “Freedom,” after Beyonce’s grandmother-in-law makes her short speech about making lemonade out of lemons.  These glissandos are bookends of the album, and the last two songs (one of which does not have an emotion/stage of grief attached to it) are more of a coda.  I love the puns of “catch” which are more readily seen in the video.  This song reads a bit as a threat, because it shows a depressed Beyonce who ends up jumping off a building at the end of the song, with the last “I pray you catch me.”  She hits the concrete, which transforms into a pool of water.  So there is a “save me from myself” plea, and also a desire to catch Jay-Z cheating, as well as to be caught catching Jay-Z cheating, which is the more important sense of the word.  Let’s face it: when someone wrongs us, there is no satisfaction like them knowing that we know.

Denial (Hold Up) :  This is a catalogue of Beyoncé’s admirable qualities in contrast to those of other women competing for Jay-Z.  The playful, reggae beat contrasts nicely with the bitchy lyrics. Beyoncé is on the verge of losing her shit but isn’t willing to be crazy/jealous yet.  She strolls through a neighborhood that looks very much like where I lived in Brooklyn—Caribbean, friendly, lower-income.  During the song she’s trying to pick an M.O. and finally picks up a bat and starts smashing cars & fire hydrants towards the end. Kids play in the broken fire hydrants.  “How did it come down to this?/
Scrolling through your call list/I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’m a fuck me up a bitch.” Her sunny yellow, low-cut dress and the  smiling faces of passerby (and kids!) may also be an illustration of “Denial.”

Anger (Don’t Hurt Yourself) :  Prior to the song, B. speaks the following: “I don’t know when love became elusive.  What I know is no one I know has it.  My father’s arms around my mother’s neck: fruit too ripe to eat.  I think of lovers as trees, growing to and from one another.  Searching for the same light.  Why can’t you see me?  Why can’t you see me?  Why can’t you see me?  Everyone else can.”

This was co-written by Jack White and he sings a small portion but adds a lot.  Black Keys meets Janis Joplin meets T. Rex (during the “Let It Be” portion, all I can think of is Janis’ “Cry Baby”).  Beyoncé’s voice is completely raw with what Janis called that talent of “getting under the music.”  It will give you cold chills and really wish I could post the video here.  Best song on the album in terms of production.   “And keep your money, I’ve got my own/Keep a bigger smile on my face, being alone/Bad motherfucker, God complex/Motivate your ass call me Malcom X.”  A speech from Malcolm X follows in which he talks about black women being the most preyed upon and disadvantaged members of society.  This is followed by B. in a wedding dress, screaming into the camera with blonde hair and a whitened face.  She looks a bit like a Kabuki actor.  This reference to white women, a later reference to “you better call Becky with the good hair” and frequent appearances of the woman with vitiligo lead me to believe that Beyonce’s beef isn’t just with Jay-Z cheating, but cheating with white women specifically.  In one spoken part later on she talks about how the legacy of her race is to betray black women.  Men leaving black women.  I think Missy Elliott would agree although she had a spunkier way of putting it.  The chorus “When you hurt me/you hurt yourself” aren’t just a threat I believe.  They are also a commentary on two-becoming-one.  She says “When you love me/You love yourself.  Love God herself.” and the last words are “You know I give you life/ If you try this shit again/You gonna lose your wife.”  I don’t know what was intended by the lyrics, but this song is a good illustration of the vulnerability of relationships.  Hurting her IS hurting himself in a literal sense.

Apathy (Sorry) : She speaks the following before the song: “So what are you gonna say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me?  Here lies the body of the love of my life, whose heart I broke without a gun to my head.  Here lies the mother of my children both living and dead.  Rest in peace, my true love, who I took for granted.  Most BOMB pussy who, because of me, sleep evaded.  Her shroud is loneliness.  Her god was listening.  Her heaven will be a love without betrayal.  Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.”

This is one of the most techno/dancy songs on the album.  It’s started going by the name of “Boy, Bye!” Surprisingly light-hearted despite the heavy intro: “Stop interrupting my grinding/I ain’t thinking bout you/Middle fingers up/Hold ’em hands high/put it in his face/tell him boy, bye!”  At the end of the video, she talks about taking her daughter and “being alright” just the two of them, and is dressed as Nefertiti.  In the beginning of the video she and a large cast of women are dressed in traditional African (not sure which country) face paint, hair, and clothes.

Emptiness (6 Inch) : See video below.  One of my friends thinks this is a commentary on abortion and I’m starting to think that too: the comments on feeling empty after sex, getting periods, being ruled by men, men “pulling out” before women get a chance to come, the hospital-like doors, the red lights (red light district), etc. . .but at the very least it’s about a working girl having power over men by “murdering” them with her sex and “working hard for the money/she grinds Monday to Friday/work from Friday to Sunday.”  I have a lot to say about this song but since ya’ll can watch it would like your thoughts first! The tone of this piece is mournful rather than laudatory.

Accountability (Daddy Lessons) :  Probably the funnest song on the album.  Starts off with a long intro that is very New Orleans jazz, a little zydeco, then goes into more acoustic, gospel-style country.  I believe the “accountability” is where she holds herself accountable for not heeding her dad’s warning that Jay-Z is “playing” her and that all men are posers.  He taught her to protect herself.  Interspersed with modern-day images are home videos of her with her family.   The chorus is highly repetitive but sounds like a gospel ballad musically.  In fact, it makes me want to raise my hands and say “AMEN!”   “When trouble comes around/and men like me come to town/Oh my Daddy said shoot/My Daddy said shoot.” It’s also a tribute to growing up in Texas so we should all have fun with this one.

Reformation (Love Drought) :  My least favorite song on the album, probably because musically and lyrically it’s too sweet.  I like the sweetness of “Sorry” combined with its harsh lyrics, but if everything’s sweet as in this song “You and me could move a mountain/You and me could calm a war down,” it sounds like Mariah Carey or anyone else could sing this song.  HOWEVER I will say it’s a nice breather, and without it “Lemonade” wouldn’t have great flow.

Forgiveness (Sandcastles) :  Piano-driven ballad that really shows off her pipes.  Video is her and Jay-Z in a house with some clips of their daughter, Blue.  I couldn’t help but think of Fiona Apple when her voice cracks in the second verse.  Without this second verse, it would be too sweet.  “We built sandcastles that washed away/I made you cry when I walked away/And although I promised that I couldn’t stay, baby/Every promise don’t work out that way, oh, babe/Every promise don’t work out that way.”  I love that the promise that doesn’t work out is her promise to leave him.

Resurrection (Forward) : Here is where forgiveness sets in and she tries to move on.  This is entirely James Blake singing until the very end, and it’s the shortest song on the album next to the intro.  My favorite line: “I love you more than this job/please don’t work for me. Forward.”

Hope (Freedom) : Video below.  I think of this as the accompanying song to “Don’t Hurt Yourself” in the sense that it’s also a little bluesy and glam rock like the Black Keys.  As much a commentary on her new freedom in a renewed relationship as a commentary on black women freeing themselves from oppression.  I may be too “meta,” but the ballerina in the video struck me as a little like a prop—as if the creators wanted to reference old minstrel troupes.  The rap by Kendrick is fantastic and a little glam rock at the end.  I dig it.


Redemption (All Night) :  Makeup sex song.  The video shows a lot of happy couples (wait, there are a couple white people!) kissing and touching.  I used to hate this song but see it’s necessary to have a consummation of their renewed relationship.  The trumpets add an unexpected ska element that’s  refreshing.

Formation: The only song that does not have an emotion/grief process attached to it.  I honestly don’t know what to do with this one as far as how it fits in with the rest of the album, although “When he fucks me good/I take his ass to Red Lobster” is probably one of the best lines in the album.  Overall it’s a brag on how successful she is and how much money she has.  The last lines are “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation/Always stay gracious/the best revenge is your paper.”  I WANT this song to be ironic, particularly because it’s called “Formation.”  Like “OK ladies, it’s a man’s world.  We have to make lots of money to get respect.”  In this way it reminded me of Missy’s “Gossip Folks.”

Here’s a link to the Superbowl performance.  It’s lacking in vocal quality and some of the lyrics are taken out, but you get the idea.

Thus far I’ve only read All Music’s review of “Lemonade” and was hoping for a more robust and extolling review, but sometimes they put out an earlier review and a later one once the staff has had time to digest it. Excited to know what ya’ll think about this opus!:)


2015 Wrap-Up

Android (1080x1920)I have 10 drafts in my WordPress queue. . .so much to blog!. . .but when my friend Bobbie posted a 2015 wrap-up I was inspired to do my own.  Thanks, Bobbie!:)

1. Did you do anything this year that you have not done before?
Visited Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright’s great masterpiece. Went to a fabulous Art Deco bar in Minneapolis. Moved to Houston, which I’ve always wanted to do. Saw Fleetwood Mac in concert!

2. Did you keep any of your New Year’s resolutions?
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Trying to create regular habits instead….sometimes you have to push the horse before there’s a carrot.

3. Did someone close to you die?
My grandmother-in-law, Yvonne. She was my only real grandparent figure and has written me letters for the past 12 yrs. I really miss her, and wish I had written back more!

4. What countries did you visit?
None this year!

5. Is there anything you lacked in 2015 that you want in 2016?
Stability.  Routine.  Acceptance.

6. What date will you always remember ?
All of June–found out we were pregnant and that changed everything.

7. What is the best thing that happened to you during the past year?
So many things. . .having whole conversations with Lucy is pretty incredible.

8. What was your biggest mistake?
Having high expectations of people that they can’t/won’t meet. Underestimating Houston cost-of-living.

9. What was your best buy?
This sounds totally nerdy, but our SkipHop *backpack* diaper bag. Going hands-free with a toddler is a must. It weighs nothing, clips onto the back of the stroller and even comes with a cooler for her food.  If I had more money I’d buy one for everyone I know, whether they have a baby or not!  And my highly-discounted MZ Wallace purse.  Their handbags are sturdy and versatile.

10. What did you spend most money on?
IKEA furniture for our new apartment.  Moving to Houston.  Diapers, wipes, and organic milk for Lucy.

11. What made ​​you really happy?
Chatting with long-distance friends: Chris, Bobbie, Rebecca.  I’ll make myself a drink and it feels like we are gabbing in a cafe together for hours–no holds barred.

12. Have you been sick or hurt?
Yes….but grateful for fabulous doctors and health care! Hoping for fewer appointments this year, although I’m not off to a good start—10 scheduled for this month alone.

13. What songs or artists will make you think about 2015?
Gillian Welch!

14. Felt better or worse this year than you did in the previous year?
I feel wiser and stronger definitely. I feel like life keeps getting harder and more complicated, but I’m becoming more adaptive.

15. Is there something you wish you spent more time on?
Yoga. Whenever I do it my body screams at me “THIS is what I want!”

16. Is there something you wish you spent less time on?
I’ll echo ya Bobbie…watching Netflix once Lucy is in bed. I even rewatched the Office, Battlestar Gallactica, & Frasier. Not to mention the new shows! Making a Murderer is a whole two days I don’t remember.

17. How was your Christmas?
Wonderful! We hosted Michael’s family here for Christmas brunch and that was a lot of fun. Did almost everything on our Christmas wish list too, and didn’t give each other gifts which was really liberating.

18. Were you in love?

19. Which program has been the best thing on TV?
Top Chef is always awesome but we have to cook food in the middle of it or we get so hungry.

20. What was the best movie you saw this year?

21. What was the best book you read this year?
I’m enjoying 1491. Still going through that. It’s a tome and the vocabulary is above my reading level, apparently.  It’s about what the Americas were like before Columbus/other settlers came.

22. What was the best food experience?
Cocktail flyte & appetizers at Tongue in Cheek in St. Paul. Any of the breakfast options at Blacksmith in Houston. . .they make their own creme fraiche!

23. Did you wish for something you got?
Yes. . .Like I’m gonna tell you.

24. Did you wish for something that you did NOT get?
Starting my business. Getting pregnant and moving changed that, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! It’s what they say, right?  Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

25. What did you do on your birthday?
Went to park with Lucy, Turkish lunch, Rothko Chapel & Museum of Fine Arts, hit up a couple cafes, made homemade pizzas with Michael, played with Lucy til late, watched Bourne Supremacy, watched ball drop and muted Carson Daly. . .seriously what is with all those annoying “celebrity” commentators?

26. Who were the best people that you met?
Ginger, my oldest friend! We hadn’t seen each other in 17 years and had an entire weekend of chatting when she came to visit. Such a kindred spirit.

27. What made you feel good?
My physical therapist.  Pre-natal massages.  Painting.  Writing.  Cafe dates with Val.  Getting to have conversations with Lucy!  Sermons.  Labyrinth walks.  Long baths.

28. What celebrity did you most fancy?
Amy Schumer forever.  Mariska Hargitay.  I love how they both use their celebrity status for charitable causes.

29. Who did you miss?
All long-distance friends. But we are always connected in spirit!

30. What was your best month?
May because I went to see Bobbie and beautiful Minnesota. It was my first time being away from Lucy. It was a lovely break!

31. Is there anything you could have done better?
I was talking to a friend about how questions like this (and guilt) are not constructive.  We are constantly evolving as people, so technically, there is nothing *I* could have done better, because the *I* in 2015 is different from the *I* now.  Things you can do better at the time, you usually DO do better.  The key is to be open to growing and pursue growth as much as possible.  How’s that for an easy answer?  But yes, as a Type-A perfectionist I am acutely aware of what I, in a perfect world, could and want to do better.  The list is too long.

32. How will next year be different from this?
It will definitely be busier, but full of more love with the new baby. I want to be more prayerful & meditative and use ten minutes here and there (bc when you’re a mom sometimes you only have ten minutes) to do yoga, pray, read my Bible, etc. Often I wait for big chunks of time and they rarely come so I watch TV or pick zits or do something else completely mind-numbing. Hoping to fit these things into a few mins each day!  And I want to be more grateful and have less resentment.  (Image above courtesy of Danielle LaPorte).  Life is always a mixed bag, and everyone has struggles they don’t share with others—it’s important to focus on the positive just to keep yourself sane.

18 Ideas for Advent

IMG_0130Usually the first week of Advent goes by before I realize it’s Advent.  So to get myself in the spirit, I’ve compiled a list of cleansing, bite-sized Advent ideas that will help bring me/you more joy this season.  Why bite-sized?  Because all spiritual practices are meaningless if they are torturous and impossible to work into your life.  These Advent activities go from 30 seconds to however long you want to practice them.  But before that. . .

What is Advent?
Thanks to the recent proliferation of Advent calendars at Pottery Barn and West Elm, everyone can get in on the Advent spirit.  But traditionally, Advent marks the beginning of the Christian church calendar year.  I like to think of Advent as a meditational breathing space, where we look for how love and grace exist in the mundane.

Wordsworth said,
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

How much getting and spending and power play do we engage in between Thanksgiving and Christmas?  I received a “Black Tuesday” email and realized the prophecies are true. . .Americans can’t even be thankful before we get greedy again.  If we go straight to the Christmas celebration we miss what we are actually celebrating, and it is over far too quickly before our minds can wrap around the meaning of Christmas, much less our role in it.  If Christmas is an orgasm of joy, Advent is the foreplay.  Advent allows us to clear space in our petty, materialistic, anxious lives and wait expectantly for the coming of Christ.

Why do some Christian denominations practice Advent and not others?
I was raised Baptist and then Episcopalian.  As an adult, I went to a non-denominational International church, then Presbyterian, then Methodist.   I’ve seen a full range of how different denominations practice Advent, if they do at all.  It doesn’t matter if a church is politically conservative/liberal, theologically conservative/liberal: if a church follows the church calendar year and the lectionary (Bible reading schedule) that goes along with the different seasons of the calendar year, they will practice Advent.

Some churches celebrate Advent with one candle lighting and a special Scripture passage on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.  Others go all out with meditation circles, vigils, Advent concerts, reading collections, special Sunday schools, etc.  I like full-out Advent now, but had to work up to it.  For people who are used to jumping straight to Christmas it can seem ridiculous at first.  Ease in.

IMG_8505What’s the point?
I was that kid who knew, based on the wrapping paper formation and heaviness of a present exactly what lay in wait on Christmas morning.  It helped that most of my presents were book or CD-shaped.  Then my family switched churches and we started doing Advent readings and meditation practices in anticipation of Christmas, which made our actual Christmas that much sweeter.  I may have known generally what lay under the tree, but I no longer felt empty after unwrapping presents.

Many people celebrate Christmas and think, “That was great!  That’s it?”  Advent helps us slow wayyyy down.  Christians sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” during this period.  Emmanuel means, “God with us,”—we are literally begging for God to come and be with us.  Not just the baby in the manger, but welcoming Christ on a daily basis: Christ as the strangers we ignore, the clingy people we find annoying, the relatives we disagree with, the friends we hurt for, the drivers that give us road-rage.

This is a more difficult task than singing a few Christmas carols and waking up to open presents and enjoy being with family.  And it is much more rewarding in the end, I promise!

Do you celebrate Advent?  What are some things you’ve enjoyed doing in the past to prepare for Christmas?  I’d love to hear them!

:: NOTE ::
God came in the flesh and made us people with flesh.  Warts and all.  I firmly believe that we are meant to pray/worship/celebrate with our bodies and senses as much (if not more) than with our minds.  If you don’t usually use incense, light candles, clap your hands, kneel in prayer, etc., try incorporating something physical/sensory into a spiritual practice you already have.  Most of the ideas below are very physical and this helps focus your WHOLE self.

IMG_013218 Ideas for Celebrating Advent:

  1. Pray in color with your own Advent calendar.  Free download here.  You basically color a piece of a Christmas tree while meditating on Advent or praying for a particular person.  By Christmas, the tree is decorated and you have a visual reminder of Advent.  (We are doing this next year but Michael and I have tried Sybil Macbeth’s “Praying in Color” methodology before and LOVE it.  Very cathartic, especially for us artsy types).
  2. Pick an icon.  Icons are powerful visual tools–usually artistic representations–that help us focus spiritually.  This can be a cross, rock, snow globe, whatever. . .hold it when you pray, look at it when you leave the house, keep it in the kitchen while you are cooking, etc.    It’s symbolism may shift for you during Advent.
  3. Light Advent candles on each Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve.  We are using super traditional  Meyer’s Clean Day candles, because we already had them in the house.  This practice is more about marking down time leading up to Christmas and filling your house with anticipation.  The light is a reminder that in life’s darknesses, God is present and with us.  The “Christ candle” is typically white and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
  4. Buy an inexpensive Advent calendar with boxes and fill it with carols, readings, meditations, names of people to pray for. . .whatever you want!  Since we are not regular Bible-readers outside of church, we filled ours with brief Bible scriptures and reflections and peppermints.  After dinner, we suck on peppermints while meditating the readings.  The peppermints help us relax and take in the verses slowly (plus they are delicious and Lucy enjoys this part).
  5. Write frustrations/prayers on small slips of paper, fold them up and put them inside a box in an easily accessible place.  Write anything you need to let go of and give over to God.  You can read them on Christmas Eve, or have a little burning ceremony, which is very cathartic!  Putting these items outside yourself in a physical place helps to make you feel less burdened and then you are more ready for Christmas.
  6. Light extra candles for people you want to remember or pray for.  Maybe I should be Catholic because I just looked around our living room and there are 19 candles in here alone.  If you’re reading this, you might have your very own candle!
  7. Do a short breathing exercise and body scan.  This video is a short exercise or you can guide yourself here.
  8. Ask yourself what your ideal Christmas would look like, and how you want to feel on Christmas morning.  I imagine gifts have little to do with it…Journal or make an artistic piece to represent this ideal.  Rachel Held Evans posted 5 Questions for Advent that I like to journal.
  9. Read a collection of Advent reflections.  I have gotten a lot of use year after year from Richard Rohr’s and Enuma Okuro’s.

    via Upper Room Books

    via Upper Room Books

  10. Mourn.  The holidays can be difficult for people who have lost other family members/friends, be it through death, elective estrangement, abuse, etc. Have a ten-minute cry every day leading up to Christmas.  Beat pillows.  Don’t think it will take the joy out of Christmas.  Christmas isn’t going anywhere.  You have to process grief before you can even think about the word “celebration.”  Advent is the perfect time to let it all out.
  11. Pray for your enemies.  Enemies might be a strong word.  Frenemies?  Pray for your frenemies.  It’s much easier to be around a difficult person if you have GENUINELY prayed for their well-being for a month.  Against all just desert, be their advocate in prayer and try to identify with *something* about them.  If I can’t find anything, I imagine the 3 year-old version of this person.  Then I pray for that 3 year-old that was innocent and cute and probably wouldn’t have been such a jerk if. . .if other people hadn’t been jerks to them.  If tragedy hadn’t struck.  That helps to situate my own pain/frustration with that person and to realize that they are loved by God as much as I am.
  12. Try something new.  I don’t mean take up ballet or painting classes. . .I mean change up your routine a teensy eensy bit.  If you usually eat breakfast before showering, shower before eating breakfast.  Make a few tweaks like this and stick with them for all of Advent. If you are very methodical like my husband, small changes like this will make your skin crawl.  You can always go back in January, and in the meantime you might find a new pattern or way of thinking that you like.  Changing something physical often opens us up to God.
  13. Go outside.  Nature really is God’s cathedral.  It’s even better if you go for a walk by yourself, and if you do it at regular intervals (like once a week).  I like to go to Houston’s Arboretum with a small notepad and nothing else, but usually I just enjoy the silence.
  14. Have a snowball fight at midnight.  One of my favorite memories in our entire marriage was when Michael, after a stressful day, told me to put on winter gear because we were going to build snowmen.  The snow was too powdery, but we had a rollicking snowball fight in the backyard.  Lucy was in her crib sleeping and totally missed out.  Oh and I had to wear oven mitts on my hands because my gloves were in her room.IMG_8201
  15. Choose a few Advent albums and play them regularly.  We like Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony and George Winston’s December.  They have nothing to do with Advent directly but playing them at this time of year, every year, helps us get in the spirit of Christmas!
  16. Place only one ornament on your tree for each day leading up to Christmas.  If you have things like Nativity scenes, you can do this too. . .add pieces until baby Jesus is the last one added on Christmas Eve.  And don’t worry about not being able to enjoy Christmas decorations for a long time.  There are twelve days of Christmas, so you can keep everything up well into January!😉
  17. Choose a charity/cause to support and not only incorporate it into your Christmas budget but pray for it’s growth continually during Advent.  Be an evangelist for that charity/cause. Volunteer for it.  Get to know who runs it.
  18.  Consider going gift-less with your immediate family.  Instead, be intentional about spending time together, trying new activities around town, cooking, making art, etc.  It’s amazing what gifts we already have and fail to appreciate year-round, and promising to not get each other presents for Christmas day opens us up to each other and new possibilities for our time.  Michael and I did this one year and are doing it again this year.  It makes me want to go gift-less every year!

thoughts on. . .Paris?

I spent my 21st birthday and New Year’s in Paris.  It was one of the best times of my life.  I’m not going to litter Instagram or this blog with pictures of my travels and in conjunction, talk about how tragic the terrorist attacks were.  They were.  Everyone loves Paris, almost everyone has been to Paris.  Even my students in rural Japan knew all about Paris.  It’s the city of love, cafes, great art, and spiritual pilgrimage.  But it has people like any other city and the reason the attacks there are garnering so much attention and sympathy (and front page news multiple days in a row) is because Westerners—white Westerners—feel it is their city.  And if the terrorist attacks can happen there, they can happen in London, Chicago, Toronto.  Anywhere.

Pot here, calling kettle black.  Honestly, I cared more because it was Paris.  And I shouldn’t.  It popped up more in my news feeds because there are more English-speaking, Western journalists on the ground or in close proximity to Paris than to Cairo, Beirut, or Istanbul.  I may have to actively seek out news because my feeds are biased towards people who are already like me—even if that “likeness” is only the fact that we’ve eaten croissants in front of the Arc de Triomphe and we really like Monet.

LEBANON-master675If we want to go by casualties, more people died in Egypt at the hand of ISIS this month than died in Paris.  224 innocent people dead.  100+ innocent people died in Istanbul last month while attending a PEACE RALLY.  Their stories were blips on my screen, and received brief news coverage.  They certainly didn’t receive an outpouring of love on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.  This might sound harsh, but I believe that’s because Westerners lump all Middle Eastern/Eastern countries together.  No one will make a movie about the Russian passenger jet downed by terrorists.  That’s already been done.

Anywhere where brown people are the majority of the population, we assume, like we assume of victims of rape, that they were somehow in close proximity or were asking for it or knew the perpetrators.  And while these things are never said, aren’t they implied by our disinterest in HIGHER and MORE FREQUENT murders in those countries?  Aren’t they also victimized by ISIS, just like France?  Or if we are going by the number of occurrences and casualties, we should word that more like “France was attacked by ISIS, just like these other countries.”

I’m notoriously bad at following the news because it’s incredibly depressing.  There isn’t a huge difference in political knowledge between me and my toddler.  Fo reals.  College was my Joni Mitchell period: I was the secretary of Students for Social Justice, attended political rallies, listened to NPR religiously, read the NYT almost from cover to cover, and knew what was going on.  And it didn’t make me happy.  But you know what, maybe I don’t deserve to be happy when terrorist attacks are more common that earthquakes.  When people are fleeing their beloved homelands so their children can be safe, go to school, have food.

But I mean to become more educated and to care more, because Jesus suffered and sat with the poor in spirit.  He lived in Egypt, and Lebanon, and he was brown.  Mary looked much more like the women in the above photo than a fair Mona Lisa.  And Jesus’ empathy for others was generous and egalitarian.  God is hurting with France, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and Lebanon.  He’s hurting with Syria and Iraq too.  My only thoughts on Paris are that I have to open my eyes to the world and send love, sympathy, solidarity to all those who are suffering.  Especially those whose voices aren’t as loud, whose deaths don’t gain the attention they deserve.

**Image courtesy of the NYT.


confession: I have diabetes.

IMG_2863Heart on sleeve.  You may have noticed a little *chirp. . .chirp* with this whole blogging thing.  I used to blog 2-3 times a week, even with a newborn.  It kept me sane.  Lately the posts have been dwindling, not because I didn’t want to write but because I lost passion for the things that make me ZOOM.  Call it mojo, ambitions, hobbies, whatever. . .I’ve been in a rut.  And the best way to get over that rut (for this consummate extrovert) is to share it.

With past ruts, my husband would command, “Heather, turn on some music, get into the kitchen and cook!” (in the least sexist way possible).  I would grumblingly put on some angry 90’s bitch rock, bust out a beautiful cookbook, and for an hour be focused on scooping, measuring, and producing something deliciously ephemeral.

Then about a year ago, a lot of things happened.  I’m one of those annoying people that things happen to/around, and I rather wish they wouldn’t.  Let’s leave the earthquakes and shootings stories (and a beheading!) for another time.  The point is, I learned a year ago that one of the most unsettling things that can happen to you is for your own body to suck.

I was diagnosed with several conditions and allergies, most of which have the same dietary limitations. If I say “screw it” and decide I’m OK with my face swelling if I eat a slice of pizza, it will affect another condition and I’ll have fun symptoms times 2.  Here are the dietary restrictions if I’m going to be perfect for a day:

  • low nuts
  • low fruit
  • low dairy
  • low alcohol
  • no gluten
  • low “healthy” sugars like agave, honey, maple
  • low fake sugars like aspartame, splenda
  • no meat (this is the only self-imposed restriction)
  • low carbs, including rice and whole grains
  • low salt & caffeine
  • keep cold & hot foods and drinks to a minimum
  • consume exactly 100g of protein every day

As you can see, this diet leads to starvation and malnutrition.  I stopped cooking and blogging with passion, because I LOVE blogging about food.  I baked tons of things for other people just to live vicariously and became that crazy lady who forced brownies on people: “EAT them!!!! They are cooked with Guinness and have a ganache icing, I promise you’ll love them!”

Along with this, I was diagnosed with the ugliest of words: diabetes.  I’ve had another endocrine condition since I was a teenager—PCOS. There’s a great, humorous, heartwarming blog post I am entirely grateful for about it here and a more science-y Atlantic article here.  PCOS causes insulin resistance, and women with PCOS are more likely to be overweight.  In turn, overweight people are more likely to have diabetes, which is an insulin-resistant state.  It’s a triple whammy.  33% of women with PCOS also produce little to no breast milk, which I found out after giving birth to Lucy and trying to nurse her.  I wrote a blog post about that struggle and feeling like a non-woman here.  Given the risks of getting diabetes with PCOS, and being overweight since before the Internet was invented, I’ve been regularly tested for diabetes.  It was always negative.

After my pregnancy with Lucy, I lost all the pregnancy weight and then some.  I weighed less than I did when the first negative diabetes test came back.  And you guessed it. . .I had diabetes.  How could I be diabetic after LOSING a significant amount of weight?  My doctor said “It’s not your fault.  You’re predisposed, and pregnancy often exacerbates conditions so that things you are prone to become a reality after having the baby.”  I started crying, picturing endless insulin pumps in my future.  I felt like I was diabetic because I was fat.  I hid sugar testing strips, kept my food diary a secret, or swung the other way and ate everything other people ate so they wouldn’t think I was weird.

It turns out there is no direct causal relationship between being fat and having diabetes (as my skinnier, healthier, diabetic self proved) but there is a lot of shame surrounding diabetes because that was the old way of thinking.  Do a lot of fat people have diabetes?  Yes. But there are also 300 lb.-plus people who don’t have it at all.  There is merely a high correlation, much like how there is a high correlation between having acne and being a teenager.  But not all teenagers have acne, and many adults do.

There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2.  Type 2 is generally perceived as the preventable disease you eat yourself into, much like how a lot of people with lung cancer smoke excessively.  Type 1 diabetics love to talk about diabetes: “I’m Type 1 diabetic,” say Halle Berry and Chef Sam Talbot, while the rest of us say “I’m diabetic,” and leave it up to others’  imaginations whether this is because of diet or not.  It’s time to debunk that shame.  Type 1 diabetics, good for you.  Type 2 diabetics, hold your heads high.  Even if you are fat.  After meeting with nutritionists, several endocrinologists, a diabetic educator, and regular doctors in New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas, I can say with confidence: “I’m Type 2 diabetic, and it’s not my fault.” Managing diabetes, with PCOS and other conditions, requires a sense of humor, creativity, and weighing pros and cons on a daily basis.  I’ve learned that:

  1. I can’t follow the diet listed above.  It’s not possible to eat only vegetables and beans and be happy.  Plus you’re a really annoying houseguest.
  2. It’s OK to choose “lesser evils” and deal with some annoying but manageable symptoms.  For example, I had a small slice of birthday cake at a party this week, carefully scraping around the icing so I was just eating cake.  I dealt with the facial and eyeball swelling, and the fun indigestion because of the gluten.  I tested my blood sugar and it was fine.  1 point for managing diabetes!  You win some, you lose some.
  3. I need to continue to enjoy eating, cooking, and blogging to stay sane.
  4. I need to come to peace with my body and do the best I can.

It’s weird to advertise a personal medical condition on the Internet for anyone to read.  And there are so many worse things I could have like cancer.  Don’t think I’m not grateful to have something that’s manageable.  But diabetes, especially Type 2, is an elephant in the room that needs to be talked about. Diabetics and women with PCOS struggle with health on a daily basis.  We don’t need a sticky layer of shame on top of that.  We definitely don’t need to be fat-shamed.  You know what fat-shaming does?  It makes people bury their feelings in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

So I’m getting back into the kitchen, and (hopefully) blogging more regularly.  Lucy napped this morning (thank you, Jesus), and I took the opportunity to open the “Smitten Kitchen” cookbook for the first time, carefully earmarking all the fabulous recipes to try.  I may have to tweak them, eat them sparingly, and weigh pros and cons, but opening up that cookbook and getting excited about cooking *for myself* was an achievement a long time coming.  I’m going to go turn on some music and cook.

to tidy or not to tidy?. . .a skeptic’s review

IMG_2585-2When this bestseller was released I snickered.  Any book title that begins with “The Japanese art of ~” gets an automatic eye roll from me.  Can you imagine a book called “The American art of sport/food/cleaning/etc.”?  Labeling a skill as not only an art but one that is shared by an entire culture is a dangerous enterprise.  I lived in Japan for five years, and there are hoarders and slobs there like anywhere else.  There is no sweeping “art” driving the Japanese to modify their lifestyles or houses.  But several people recommended the book to me, my friend Chris being the last to say “No really, I was skeptical too but you have to read it, it’s changed my life.”  Since Chris is similarly skeptical of Oprah Book Club lists and New York Times bestsellers and is my go-to for all kinds of inspiration, I immediately ordered it from Amazon.  And you guys, it’s changing my life.

Maybe Marie Kondo is trying to start a movement and her methodology IS the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, much like how Martha Stewart invented the American art of being, well, perfect.   I’ll swallow the icky title and take it as a bold manifesto rather than a generalization about the entire culture.  Sidenote: the flip side to exoticizing an entire culture is that you continue to see them as “Other.”  The more you travel and live in other cultures, the more you realize people are similar everywhere.  “Stars, they’re just Like Us!” etc.

The truth is, I’m 50 pages into “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and started reading it LAST NIGHT.  And I stayed up until 1:00am (poor choice, I’ll admit) throwing out an entire trash bag of old stationery, letters from students I looked at once every five years, etc. In doing so I basically didn’t follow Kondo’s advice, which is to start tidying your home by just sitting and thinking.  But still, I was INSPIRED quickly by a book I expected to hate.  Here is Kondo’s basic advice, distilled for all you skeptics and translated into my own words.  It’s incredibly simple yet I’ve never thought of how effective and transforming it would be to organize this way:

  1.  Start by asking yourself what kind of life you want to have.  What are your goals?  Example: I want to be a writer who is calm.  I’m calm when I do yoga.  I want to write and do yoga on a regular basis.  This step is necessary because “tidying up” is not just cleaning or organizing.  It’s creating space for the life you want, not the life you get caught up in and just maintain out of laziness, busyness, etc.
  2. Ask 3 follow-up questions (at least) for each of those goals.  Such as “OK, I want to be a writer?  Why?  What does writing achieve for me?  How do I feel when I write?” etc.  For yoga:  “How does yoga calm me?  Why yoga and not another activity?  Do I want to do it for agility, weight loss, etc., or just to calm my mind?”  This step is necessary because anyone who starts off with a vague goal like “I want to write” will never do it on a consistent basis without knowing all the why’s.  And in asking the why’s they may discover what they REALLY want is to do another activity.
  3. Think of an ideal space you could come home to that would nurture this lifestyle and habits.  Be specific.  For example, what is your ideal writing & yoga environment?  This could be as simple as having writing utensils on hand and a sturdy desk & yoga mat, or it could be (and probably should be) more cohesive, like “Well, I do yoga best when the room is organized a certain way and the mat is one of the first things I see when I walk in the room.” This is the daydreaming portion of the KonMari method: look at magazines, notice friends’ houses, and think of an ideal space.  I’ll add one caveat that Kondo doesn’t talk about: think of an ideal space, not ideal STUFF.  Because in my ideal yoga space, I’d have a reflecting pool and a garden facing the mountains.  And that’s not realistic with my budget or with living in Houston.  But how I want to FEEL when I come home and creating a yoga-inducive environment IS something I can daydream about.
  4. Once you have a vision in mind, DO NOT CLEAN OR ORGANIZE ANYTHING.  Instead, start by throwing stuff away.  The only criterion for throwing stuff away is asking yourself “Does this spark joy?”  Of course this criterion doesn’t apply to things like floss and tampons.  There are functional practicalities we have to keep around, and I wish Marie talked more about those.  By throwing things away you will create space for the items you want to keep, and all you have to do after that is find space for the things you truly love, and then your life is about maintain that one place for that item (i.e. putting it back on a daily basis), rather than about organizing.  Ever again.  In fact, Kondo says she spends 1-2 hours once a YEAR organizing her home.  That’s all the time you need when everything is already in its place, and you’ve eliminated huge amounts of closet items, storage items, and anything that doesn’t spark joy or isn’t immediately useful.   (Note the word immediately, not “I’m saving this old car mirror because it might look cool if repurposed into a mirror for my vanity.  One day.”)
  5. Throw things away quickly, in concentrated spurts.  Do not ask “Do I have room to keep this?”  Or “where could I place this?”  Only ask “Does it spark joy?” or, phrased in another way, “Does this object contribute to the lifestyle and goals I outlined earlier?”  I get stuck on #5.  This is the meat.  Kondo says that we have to throw things away quickly because otherwise we will find reasons to keep them. And also because when we tidy up on a continual basis, our lives are never the way we want them to be.  We are constantly back to square one (How many times have you thrown away a garbage bag of stuff, only to spend $200 at Target and replace that quantity with another?)  Kondo says, Give me 6 months.  6 months of your life where you will intensely throw away and then reorganize your remaining space, and you will never have to tidy again.  She says this will be intense, hard work, and it is.  This is not a “buy these handy-dandy storage systems” kind of book.  You are basically gutting your life.  #5 is also hard because I’ve always approached organizing from the point-of-view of the object itself, rather than from the point-of-view of my life as a whole.  For example, I used to collect little bodhisattvas and Buddhas from our travels in Asia.  When we acquired a new one, I would think “What shelf can I put this on?” and if I got too many, “Who can I give this to?” or “Could this fit in storage?”  I gave the object itself authority to determine whether I kept it or not. If it was small and could easily be stashed someplace (like the drawers under our bed) it stayed.  100 tchotchkes later and I may have room to walk around my house, but the longer I live the more things keep piling up.  I revisit them when we box up our stuff and move, do a quick little, “Ah, cute Buddha!” and move to a new city.  All while hauling this STUFF.
  6. Throw items out by type, not by area.  Probably Kondo’s most useful tip. I’ve tried to clean out Lucy’s closet only to spend hours smelling her old baby clothes, showing them to Michael, reading through old letters from my students, etc.  I MIGHT come away with one bag to donate.  Instead, Kondo says you should say “Today, I’m going to throw out all the books that don’t bring me joy.”  All. the. books. in. your. house.  Because we are nesting, complicated people we tend to have different areas for the same objects (6 rolls of masking tape, anyone?)  Eliminating by type rather than by area helps you identify multiple objects and not get sidetracked by mementos.
  7. Revisit #1-6 as you struggle with throwing away items.  Cleaning and organizing will come later. For now, just throw away items.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in the book, but I hope this helps other skeptics.  Like most self-aware people, I can TASTE #1.  I know what my ideal lifestyle looks like, what kind of space I need to come home to.  Now I just need to keep whittling down our space like a beaver cutting tree trunks into poles. It’s hard work but I think our home and life will be a lot less heavy without all this stuff. More to come once I’ve finished the book. . .and deep thanks to Chris for convincing me to give it a try!

PS.  I realize this isn’t a very critical review, but I don’t have much to critique at this point.  One thought while reading it though was to distinguish between what brings you joy and what brings other people joy whom you live with.  My daughter has little nests of what I would call “trash” all over her room, but they bring her a lot of joy to crinkle and play with.  And similarly, my husband has a lot of Genesis albums lying around.  Also trash.  Just kidding. . .kind of.  (Love you, Michael :))  There is a lot of “I” in Marie’s book, but we have to consider the people we live with.  And they may have different criteria for what brings them joy.