Moments of Sustainability

I am sitting in a packed airplane, speeding high above the earth. The landscape, when I catch a brief glimpse, looks tired and worn, vast tracts of brown with skinny braids of blue and black, precious water in a dry desert.

I have my computer open on the tray table in front of me, a tiny bubble of personal space, yet I can’t help but notice the people around me. Three women in the row in front of me each speak loudly and with a variation on a New England themed accent. Are they hard of hearing, I wonder? Or do they just not realize that not everyone wants to listen to their conversation, however profound. They began the dialogue with an intense discussion of their home turf and moved on to describing their reasons for disliking the pastime of reading. From there, transient bonds of friendship sealed, the woman directly in front of me, aisle seat on the right side of the plane—a hot pink shirt sleeve, wisp of bleached out blonde hair, and thick Boston accent (I have already learned that she is from Waltham and she pronounces the word hard like awed with an ‘h’)—began a prolonged infomercial about the benefits of supplements (she works for a company that can be found in at least 80—did she say 82?—countries around the world). She speaks with an air of expertise, but to me she sounds kind of ditzy and like she is missing the bigger picture of what health and wellbeing are and who they can be attained more naturally and sustainably.

Fun Facts from hot pink sleeve

Apparently, women especially need 70-100 something of protein a day, something else to get rid of all the toxins, and something else if we have problems with water and bloating or something like that. Each supplement has a certain number of calories as well. Even at the height of my own struggle with eating and body image, I never got into the calorie count craze. I stuck to carbs. Much healthier (insert sarcasm here).

Fun Facts from Marieke

I have found that much of my way of being can be chameleon-esque. My speaking habits, even my French accent, are often shaped by the people I spend the most time with. If I am alone for a while, I resume my own, individual speech pattern.

My stress level, too, is highly influenced by my surroundings. I am sure I am not alone in this regard. At the moment, I am doing my best to avoid even a peripheral view of the woman beside me, who can’t seem to go for 20 seconds without making contact with her hair, head, and fingernails. Having bitten or picked at my own fingernails and cuticles for decades, I clearly cannot judge this habit; however, I can feel my heart rate climb with each motion. It is actually kind of maddening and makes me wonder if I look as neurotic to my neighbors who have to endure my own incessant attention to my fingers.

Starting now (for the thousandth time), I am making a vow to stop. I think I can. I think I can.

Of course, part of the problem is that I don’t even notice that I am doing it most of the time. I have tried to take up other habits to expedite the process of quitting, but all I seem to do is pick up more annoying habits. Oh well. I guess all I can do is take it one day at a time and try not to be too hard on myself. My inner critic does this just fine.

Maybe, if I close my right eye while I type, I can sit facing forward and not notice her!

Even with the many moments of chaos we experience each day, I know there are moments of sustainability, those times when we seem to float on air, at the top of the world, as if anything and everything is possible.

I know that I have experienced these moments in abundance, yet they seem to be so fleeting and I have not yet found a way to bottle the emotion I feel so that I can release it at times of extreme duress for instant relief.

Ok. I can’t keep my eye closed and type at the same time. This kind of behavior does not lead to a sustainable moment, only a headache from squinting at the screen with one eye.

The beginning of a love affair can be cloudlike. Seeing a life bird is certainly up there, along with reaching a summit after a long hike. Really good books can provide a certain amount of escape from the less pleasant realities of daily life. Hell, hard liquor can work like a charm.

Is it possible to attain a sustainable moment when engaging in avoidance behavior? Herein lies something significant, at least in my opinion, for no matter how good we feel in that moment, the reality is that we will at some point have to return to our lives and once again face whatever situation we have been running from.

So, I propose taking the time to discover the behaviors that help us engage with whatever it is that is causing dissonance in our lives in such a way that we are able to rebound and experience a moment of sustainability.

I would like to pause here to try and explain what I think of as a “moment of sustainability”. For me, this is a moment where I experience transformation that leads me to feel like a sustainable being—happy, good about myself, and good about what I am doing in the world. This period of time may be variable, but the feeling is consistent.

On a side note, sitting askew so as to avoid my neighbor’s neurotic hair behavior is not a sustainable position for my lower and middle back. Ouch! Why do we knowingly engage in behaviors that cause us pain? I guess in this situation, it is mind over body.

The method I have found for creating these moments of sustainability is a musical method of autoethnographic songwriting called Story-to-Song. I am giving voice to the challenges in my life through a musical outlet. I have found that even if I am working on a story that is not my own, I still bring my own emotions and meaning to the song that is being written. For instance, the most recent songs I have been working on are those of women who were among the last generation of workers in the mills in Lowell and who were interviewed in the 1980s for a public television documentary. We have compilations of these oral histories on display in our exhibits at the Boott Cotton Mill Museum at Lowell National Historical Park. Listening to these oral histories, I was drawn to two women in particular—Celia A. Thing, the daughter of an Italian immigrant family, and Valentine Chartrand, the daughter of a French-Canadian immigrant family. Each woman told a story of a difficult time in her life.

My own life has been no cup of tea of late, and I wonder if part of the reason I felt such an instant connection to each of these women was because I felt a sense of solidarity in our collective suffering. I also sense a deeper desire to give voice to their experiences in a song that I could share with visitors to the park so these women would not be forgotten. What I have found in the songwriting process is that I seem to be combining my own emotion from the recent challenges in my own life with the emotion I sense from each woman through the rhythm and cadence of their voices and their body language and facial expressions in these oral histories.

I recently attended a talk by the author of many beloved books from my childhood, Katherine Paterson. She explained why she couldn’t seem to write about events that had transpired in her own lifetime in this country—the war in Vietnam or 9-11, for example. She said they were so real, raw, and awful that she could not begin to imagine how she could express in words what she felt when each horrific event was happening. So she sought events from another time and place in history where something equally awful had taken place, and she gave all the emotion and pain she felt to the story.

Perhaps, this is what I do when I work on a Story-to-Song. When I worked with a woman in my cohort on a song about how difficult it was when she first became a mother, could I have unknowingly made musical choices that reflected my own well of pain over not having a child of my own?

Whatever parts of myself I am bring to each song, the response is consistently that if things are working in the songwriting process—i.e. what I am writing feels good to sing, I hear or am able to reveal a melody for a chorus or verse or bridge, etc.—I experience a moment of transformation that makes me feel completely and wholly sustainable for a moment in time.

There are definitely times when my inner critic is hard at work to keep me from feeling good while working hard on a song. These are often moments when I call my research partner, Malcolm, and we troubleshoot. Indelibly, by the end of our time together, I am riding high, feeling good, and wanting to continue working on the song instead of fulfilling other obligations.

So, perhaps another ingredient of the recipe for a sustainable moment is having another person in my community I can reach out to in times of duress and who I can count on to be present, interested in listening to my troubles, and ready to provide support.

I recommend taking the time to discover how to create moments of sustainability in your own life. Thanks for reading!

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