OMG, it actually worked: putting an extra step between me and Facebook

Like most of you, I am addicted to my smart phone. And I am addicted to Facebook.

facebook-addict                                                                                                                                                                       (image source)

There’s no point in denying it. The other day I caught myself compulsively reaching for the little blue icon while waiting in line at the grocery store … behind one other person. One! Can I really not wait forty-five seconds in line without having something to look at? And while I’ve occasionally gone through noble periods when I refused to look at social media when I wake up in the morning, that ship has kinda sailed lately. Typically it’s like this.

SCENE: Morning in bed.

ELLEN: [inner monologue] I’m awake … it’s a new day. I’m going to drink some water and take a look at my phone.

FACEBOOK: You should make this delicious cupcake recipe! Eric Garner’s death was a travesty! These 10 things will guarantee relationship happiness! Your friend Joe is bitter about his career stagnation! Your friend Jane broke her toe, or maybe just bruised it; she’s not sure! Baby Tommy is the cutest infant in the world! The US government tortures its prisoners of war! Look at this kitten wearing a viking hat!

And then all day I wonder why I can’t write, compose, or focus on a non-shiny object for longer than 1 minute.

When I was on meditation retreat last year, I turned in my phone (voluntarily) for seven days. I also undertook “noble silence” and did not speak except when absolutely necessary. I realized for the first time how healing, centering, and creatively/spiritually helpful it is not to talk to anyone, or listen to anyone else talk. I absolutely loved the silence and solitude that retreat afforded. Don’t get me wrong; talking with my fellow human beings is one of my favorite things in the world. But these outward interactions demand a great deal of energy.

During one of her talks, our retreat teacher mentioned smart phones and social media. And I suddenly realized that clicking on Facebook is basically like trying to listen to 999 people (my current “friend” count) talk. At once. And because I’m a fairly empathetic, responsive person, I actually try to listen! I actually think about each post and what it means! Talk about losing energy. Maybe this is why spending an hour on Facebook leaves me dizzy, slightly numb, and unsure what I’m doing today.

At the same time, I believe social media can be useful and fun. It can occupy a healthy, balanced place in our lives. But it’s like … Nutella. You have to be really, really careful or you’ll wake up from a coma with Nutella all over you. Am I right?

So I made a tiny, tiny change the other day: I put the Facebook app on the second page of my iPhone. You might not think that this would help, but it has. I can no longer perform the exact same compulsive task that I always do. There’s a teeny-tiny extra step between me and Facebook, and that teeny-tiny extra step helps me remember that perhaps I don’t need to check it again just now.

I wrote this blog post while I was resisting my Facebook compulsion. What will you do instead of pressing the blue button?

PS: If you’re finding this blog post via my Facebook link … Welcome!

What I Actually Did Today

In my fortunate life as a freelance artist there are some days that I don’t “work.” Except for a 30-minute violin lesson taught, today was one of those days. Here is what I did instead.

1. Meditated. It was my first time actually sitting my butt down to meditate since my visit to the Brooklyn Zen Center a few weeks back. I have stumbled on an interesting truth about my meditation practice, which is that for most of my two years of practice, I have been in extreme emotional turmoil. Now that I’m not in extreme emotional turmoil anymore (thanks, universe! thanks, love! thanks, friends!), I don’t exactly know how to have a meditation practice. I’m hoping that the nine-day silent New Year retreat I signed myself up for (back when I felt more confident about my practice) might help with this.

2. Wrote in my journal.

3. Went to the grocery store. I’ve gotten in the habit now of visiting Holzkopf’s Meat Market, the little butcher shop I’m fortunate to have a mere five minutes’ walk from our place, for meat purchases. (Today: three pounds of pork shoulder.) Then I visited Devon Market for the produce and spices and dry goods I needed to make my first-ever ramen soup. (The recipe is extremely fussy, so I’m adapting it some. Devon Market didn’t have “white miso,” but then again, who does?) By the end of these errands, I felt somewhat resentful of the time it had taken. It’s a messed-up world we live in when we begrudge ourselves the time to select and prepare the food we are going to eat. Like we should be doing something more important? What’s more important than food?! Over it.

4. Grieved. Grieving has been an important task for the past few days, although I didn’t realize it until today. For me, grief often starts happening before I am aware of it. But there are red flags: for example, calling my girlfriend in a state of agitation about fish sauce, hanging up the phone, and crying. Eventually I cry my eyes out about the correct thing, which is the fact that my mom is gone. Important things are happening in my life, and in my heart, and she is not here. It hurts like hell.

5. Cooked, while listening to podcasts. For me, podcasts and domestic tasks go hand in hand. I enjoyed browning my pork shoulder and pouring soy sauce into my ramen broth, while listening to David Lang talk about music. His insights on audiences seem especially resonant. (I also listened to Seth Godin, but turned it off halfway through. He seems an odd candidate for an On Being interview. His constant talk about products, profit, and industries seems an odd fit for a show about spiritual life, no matter how creative he may be. Am I alone in feeling that CEO’s, impoverished textile workers, and app developers are perhaps not “all artists”? Not to demean their work at all, but I think of art differently than this.)

6. Wrote this.

Later tonight: finish cooking dinner, spend the evening with Susan, and continue taking baby steps towards a NewMusicBox response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Stay tuned for that.

Being a low-income freelance musician has its perks, for sure. Sometimes the most important “work” gets done on the days I don’t work. I try not to feel guilty or unproductive about this time, but rather consider that these are the slow-going days that help balance the busy times.

Feel, think, act: on grief over Ferguson

In grappling with the Ferguson grand jury decision — and with the violent, racist and unjust system that it indicates — my overwhelming response is grief. I have been searching inwardly and outwardly for spiritual guidance to help make sense of his heartbreaking moment. I listened to an On Being interview with Joanna Macy yesterday. Macy is an environmental activist, poet, translator, and Buddhist teacher. She was talking about the great sadness that we feel when we understand that the Earth is being destroyed. But this is the very same sadness we feel when we understand that our justice system has trampled on the humanity of an entire group of people. This was the quote that landed with me most:

“I teach people to not be afraid of [their grief]. Because that grief — if you are afraid of it, pave it over, clamp down — you shut down. Our difficulty in looking at what we’re doing to our world stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain. That was a big learning for me as I was organizing around nuclear power, and at the time, the Three-Mile Island catastrophe and Chernobyl. It relates to everything: what’s in our food, the clear-cuts of our forest, the contamination of our rivers and oceans. So that became, actually, perhaps the most pivotal point in the landscape of my life: that dance with despair. To see how we are called to not run from the discomfort, not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage, or even fear. If we can be fearless, and be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only refuses to change when we refuse to look at it. When we can take it in our hands, when we can be with it and keep breathing, it turns. It turns to reveal its other face. And its other face is our love for the world: our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”

When I worked as a labor activist in college, I once sat with my fellow organizers and did a little exercise. We took three words — act, think, feel — and asked ourselves what order we did those things in when approaching a problem of injustice. Without a question, mine is feel, think, act. It hits me in the heart first. I’m glad to have these words from Joanna Macy, because they let me know it’s a perfectly fine place to start.

Indeed, I can see how so many of the frustrating responses to Ferguson — the racism, the ignorance, the callousness, the lack of compassion — serve as protective responses against heartbreak. If poor black people in Missouri are not our brothers and sisters, we don’t have to feel their excruciating pain. If Michael Brown “deserved” to be shot, we don’t have to grapple with the senseless tragedy of his death. If we numb ourselves with the legal “facts” about grand juries, we don’t have to feel the profound disappointment in a legal system that does not serve us all equally. I can see how it would be easier that way. But personally, I’m sticking with the grief and the rage, and seeing where they lead me.

Words tumbling out faster than I can write, because New York City.

I’m in New York, and the usual hormone swing that occurs on Day 20 or so of my menstrual cycle has coincided with (helped create?) one of the most joyful, intense, emotional, vulnerable, soul-searching, inspiring weeks I’ve had in a long time. Is that too much information? Well, that’s too bad, because for me, hormones rule the roost. If we ain’t talkin’ about them then we don’t got the full picture. Moving on:

How is that things move so quickly here? There is a different sense of time. The two-hour transit journey with my castmate Alex from Newark International to our AirBNB in Bed-Stuy felt both brief (as the commuter rail whisked us to Penn Station and we talked about what being in Wayfinders has meant to us) and interminable (as we lugged our suitcases up the 8th flight of stairs in as many minutes, sweating, peeling off our winter coats). I had rather dogmatically insisted that we take the train because it’s upon boarding MTA that I truly feel I am in New York. There are mysteries to the transit system here that I enjoy solving. For instance, none of the EMERGENCY EXIT signs are true. People just push the doors open and they don’t make a sound.

Brooklyn! My God, what a city. I had never been to Brooklyn before this week, and now I find myself wrapped in its loving embrace. Enjoying its beautiful, fashion-forward, diverse people (man, Chicago is REALLY segregated compared to here), its wonderful shops, cafes and restaurants (props to La Bagel Delight, Smoke Joint, WTF Coffee Lab, Black Forest, and Propeller Cafe among others), its beautiful parks and brownstones. Bonus: our “office” for the week is the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I feel tremendously lucky to be performing. The facilities, staff, and history of this arts institution make my heart sing. I wish every artist could be surrounded by such support, all the time. But it takes decades of hard work to get oneself here, methinks. The Fisher, where we’re performing, is the newest BAM venue — just a few years old. The blonde wood floors of its rehearsal studio make me want to choreograph something. They make me want to LEARN to choreograph something, anything. There is at least one place in this country where adventurous art can find a highly resourced home, and it is here. Quite amazing.

This week, I’m pretending to be a theater person. I have much to learn. Every conversation (like today’s, with the delightful Adam Marks) yields little trails of artistic breadcrumbs for me to follow later, connecting me to something I didn’t know about before. Someone will drop an ensemble name in conversation and I nod as convincingly as possible, while making a mental note to Google this later. When I get home I’m going to watch/learn everything I can get my hands on about Big Dance Theater, and The Builders, and Fiasco Theater. I’m going to watch John Doyle’s production of Company on Netflix. Study Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk and people who found a home here, became legends here.

Today I visited at the New York Insight Meditation Center. There are many contradictions inherent in the experience of taking two trains into Manhattan, buzzing into a high-rise, getting into an elevator, and arriving at … a meditation room. I spent a silent hour there meditating and reading. In their book-loan area, I stumbled on Christina Feldman’s book, Woman Awake. I left a $20 bill in the donation box. Somehow this book was precisely the one I need to read. I’ve been thinking about my spiritual lineage — my parents and grandparents. I am lucky to say it is an amazing lineage of devoted prayer, creativity and contemplation. In the electric buzz of this city, sacred space is even more essential.

There are no sure voices to guide us. We listen for them, anxiously, and search the lonely corners of books and churches and, yes, even the minds of friends and teachers, but none echoes the counsel of reassurance for which we yearn. We shake the old order with cries of anger and contempt, demanding its yield of authority and knowledge, but when the words fall, we cover our ears against the shallow ring. We are the women of solitude, being taught the art of living in and through the Spirit, and it is not easy.”

– Mary E. Giles, The Feminist Mystic




The Wrong Idea

I’m so happy to tell you, friends, that my solo album is out today. I wrote a lot of the songs in June 2013, recorded them in July 2014, and am having the release show tonight with my good friends and fantastic string players, Liz Weamer and Aimee Biasiello. It’s been a long and rambly road for me and these songs, but they’ve meant a lot to me along the way. I spent yesterday going antiquing to pick out the vintage postcards that will be my album art.

rosesIn the past several months, I’ve started to feel more committed my own music — about really trying to get it out there. I’d like to travel with this music, and make more of it, and keep growing and learning alongside awesome people who want to play it with me.

saturn In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the music! You can stream it for free, own it (digitally!) for $5, and get a cute vintage postcard from me if you want to lend a little extra support the music.

Nothing, and then everything

When I returned to Chicago from two weeks of performing at the Gesher Music Festival in St. Louis, I found myself in a period of confusion and downright depression. My trio was off for the month, my teaching load was light, and I had all the time on my hands that I had craved and wished for the previous several months. But the time off now felt unwelcome, leaving me restless, adrift and with the distinct feeling that I was doing things wrong.

As July turned into August, I found myself with the opposite problem. Events seemed to present themselves at ever-increasing speed, and I suddenly found myself recording a solo album, moving into a new apartment with my girlfriend, and preparing a 45-minute Mozart divertimento in the space of two weeks. Today marks the end of this big push, and the beginning of another, as I fly to Portland, OR for a Wayfinders residency and then a vacation.

The last three days have left me incredibly grateful for my amazing Chicago Q Ensemble colleagues. It was a rare treat for us to really dig into an entire classical work, as we are so often rehearsing contemporary music. Today we performed excerpts live on the radio and then shared the entire piece with a friendly outdoor audience downtown.


When it rains, it pours. And I’m grateful it’s pouring down good stuff. It just goes to show how quickly things can change. When I next write, it’ll be from the West Coast! May your dark days lighten and your summer feel long.

Six hours of ukulele on the Paseo Boricua

Yesterday I recorded my solo album in Humboldt Park. It is an excellent neighborhood: gritty, charming, humble, resilient in its own way. I arrived at the Paseo Boricua fifteen minutes early and smiled as I passed under its gate, a metal sculpture shaped like a giant Puerto Rican flag blowing in the wind. In spite of the neighborhood’s economic challenges, it eschews the anti-homeless tactics of removing or partitioning or spiking park benches. Instead it simply lays the benches out, two on every block, next to big planters graffitied with tropical flowers. There is less propriety, less Midwest restraint here than in the neighborhoods I have lived. A well-groomed woman parks her car at Division & Rockwell and blasts R&B on her car stereo as her two young children somehow sleep in the backseat.

I make it through a seven-hour day at the recording studio on two protein bars. Afterwards, I stumble towards Papa’s Cache Sabroso like a zombie, hungry and weak. As I eat my life-restoring meal — flavorful steak and onions squeezed between fried plantains, lettuce and tomato slippery with mayonnaise — a couple in their late forties sits down. They joke with their waitress and enter into a good-natured argument about the proper Spanish words for various plantain preparations. They rebuff an offer of beer with a breezy call of “We’re New Lifers!” I can hear every word of their conversation: the woman’s fervent retelling of the one time, inexplicably, that she had an allergic reaction to salmon. The man listens with great interest. It is clear how much he respects her, and clearer still when the red plastic basket arrives with its four little slices of bread and its soft pat of butter and she is the one to say grace. If I were at dinner with her, I too would nominate her to say grace. Her joyful devotion is with me still, and I was just the stranger dining alone three tables over. “God, we thank you for this day, God. This day had been JUST. BEAUTIFUL, God. And God, we just pray that you will bless this food, God, and the hands that prepared it, God. We just thank you for this day, and this food, and this fellowship, God.” She is one of those people who says your name repeatedly during conversation, making it abundantly clear that she still sees you, that you are still here. Even in my exhaustion I know I will not forget this: taking in one of the city’s most resplendent $10 meals in the good company of strangers.