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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Happy to Sing the Blues (aka Self-Coaching Report)

Some of my best parenting moments have happened when I’ve used my first love – music! – to get what I need from my children. My best, most effective punishments have been musical in form. For example, when my older son, Theo, would get mad at me, he would call me: “BAD!” And I would respond by singing: “Bad to the bone! B-b-b-b-b-b-bad!” He was two years old at the time, so this made him UNSPEAKABLY furious. “NOOOOOOOOO,” he would wail. “Well,” I’d say, “If you don’t want me to sing that song, then don’t call me ‘bad’!”

I use music as a way to create happy memories, too. My boys and I have gone through phases of howling to “Werewolves of London”, by Warren Zevon, and dancing around the kitchen to “The Freaks Come out at Night,” by Whodini. But by far, I feel the most righteous as a parent when I use music to turn what would have been a fight into a situation where my kids are writhing in agony and I am laughing, and we are all listening to loud music instead of yelling at each other.

Recently, I called on the Rolling Stones to stop whining. My kids were literally crying that they didn’t like what was served for dinner, and I put my phone on the middle of the table and played the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get what you Want” at top volume. They escalated to falling out of their chairs and crying on the floor, and I got to feel calm in the face of fury, and just get my message across: you won’t be starved here, but you simply CANNOT have hot dogs every single night. I’ve found that this works amazingly – when whining is at its worst, I put everyone in time out for the duration of that song. It is SEVEN MINUTES LONG. Hallelujah. I have found a way to listen to Mick Jagger instead of whining.

For years and years, I have harbored the fantasy that someday I’ll have a family band. That I can play guitar and sing, and everyone else will chime in with their talent of choice, and we’ll be able to pass bad-weather-days that way, and maybe sometimes perform in public. But for most of Theo’s life (the older one), he’s seemed much more inclined to be my art child than my music child. And that’s ok.

Zeb, the littler guy, LOVES music. My friends would comment from the time he was 5 months old: “Look how he lights up every time the music starts!” He dances in his car-seat. But Theo shook and trembled when invited on stage to sing with his pre-school class at graduation, and has repeatedly declined my offers to place him in music-enrichment classes. Then . . . When I tried to make family holiday cards with my kids’ hand-prints stamped inside with finger-paint, Zeb made it very clear he resented being used for a stamp, and quit after five cards. Theo stripped down to his underwear, flattened out cardboard boxes to paint on, and painted for four hours on the kitchen floor. We are who we are, and my children may be whomever they like. So I’ve told our family that Theo wants art supplies at holidays, and I’ve hung his very-detailed art all over our house to celebrate him.

For a while, I stopped being on the lookout for him to develop music interests. And that brings us to last month. Theo started first grade, and we were asked to help him memorize his seven-digit student-ID number, so that he can type it in on a keypad as he goes through the lunch line at school. Naturally, I thought up a little song to sing the number over and over again, to help him learn it.

“That’s not a song; that’s just a jingle,” my husband said, while he was being subjected to it for the nine millionth time after dinner one night. “Yeah,” I conceded, “but don’t you remember every jingle from every commercial in the ‘80’s? I rest my case.”

The next morning in the car, I had dropped Zeb off at daycare, and was alone in the car with Theo taking him to school. “It’s not just a jingle,” I tooted, still defending myself from the night before. “It’s a whole blues song!” And I sang it over to Theo in the form of a 12-bar blues progression. He stopped being annoyed for a minute, and listened thoughtfully. Then he asked:

“Mama . . . how do you know it’s a blues song?”

Great question, buddy. “How do I know it’s a blues song? Let me think about how to explain that.”

Gosh. How do you explain the essence of a 12-bar blues progression to a six-year-old who doesn’t even know what a chord is yet?

“Well, listen to this,” I said, and turned the blues station on, with our car’s satellite radio. I started to sing along, superimposing my blues-jingle of Theo’s 7-digit student-ID number over the chords, for a full two to three songs. “See how all the songs are different, but they all have the same order of sounds?” I asked.

“Yeah . . .” he said, digesting. And he listened a little bit longer. Then he said: “Mama, is ‘Bad to the Bone’ a blues song?”

WOW. “Let me think about that for a minute.”

I turned the radio off, and had Siri play “Bad to the Bone” to play on my phone. Hot damn. He was right.

“Yes,” I replied. “’Bad to the Bone’ is MOST DEFINITELY a blues song.” I was blown away by this observation, from my six-year-old son, who I thought was mostly not paying attention to music. But he was – deep in his soul. I’ve never been so pumped to be wrong! We sang his ID number to the tune of “Bad to the Bone”.

We spent the rest of the car ride playing other blues songs, and listening, and singing together a bit. I saw the scene from outside the car for a moment, and I realized: I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so complete, so grateful, so . . . happy to be alive and part of this world – filled with pride that my children are learning things I value but cannot see, and hearing the chords of blues music. I took a deep breath, and reminded myself to be fully present in that moment.

Back in June, I wrote a post online – on Linked-In, my personal Facebook, and my business Facebook, as well as in an online community for people eating Keto – declaring June to be Self-Coaching Month. It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek; after all, who am I to declare a fun fake holiday? But also, why not, right?

It was also an earnest attempt to hold myself accountable. I’d been meaning to get myself into the habit of having a disciplined mindfulness practice for a while. And, embarrassingly, I had put off signing myself up for therapy for way too long. I truly believe this is something we would all benefit from, and I had allowed scheduling, insurance research, and obtaining childcare to do self-care, be my barriers. I reasoned that if put my intentions out in public, I would be more accountable to myself where the whole world could see. So I committed to 10 minutes of daily mindfulness practice and to making my first therapy appointment by June 30th, 2019.

Finally, this was also my attempt to be a good example of vulnerability (posting to complete strangers that I think I need to go to therapy???) in a world where I avoided social media until after I was 40 years old, partially because I lacked the confidence to keep my own ship on course in the face of others’ curated existences. This was my way to say: “Let’s all be a little more real. I’ll go first.”

I promised, at the end of that post, to come back with a full report, and this is it: I did ok! In the first month of trying to meditate for 10 minutes per day, I only missed 3 days. At first it felt goofy. And then it became a daily date with my cats, who insisted on climbing on me when I attempted stillness without small kids around.

Probably, I shouldn't let this cat drink coffee.

Meditating made me cry. (Anything meaningful to me makes me cry.) By the end of the first week, I would finish the 10 minutes with tears running down my face. I quickly figured out how to listen to guided meditations led by people whose messages spoke to me (Sarah Blondin, on the Insight Timer app, if you’re curious), and my meditations became a form of therapy unto themselves. I realized that spending 10 minutes in quiet mindfulness each day was something I really needed.

And like many other times when I’ve finally decided to meet my own needs after denying them for a long time, the experience cracked me wide open and I had a few weeks of weeping through my meditations in a deep state of gratitude and vulnerability.

I also learned things, and had some deep insights about myself. For one, to quote Sarah Blondin, “. . . the opposite of control is not chaos; it’s faith.” Wow, did I ever need this one! To conceive that I could choose to have faith in the universe, and believe that things will turn out ok, rather than grinding myself into the ground trying against all odds to bend the universe to be the way I want it to be . . . without fearing a horrible, spiraling descent into irreparable entropy . . . was mind-blowing to me. I guess somewhere along the way, I had lost my faith in the universe; I had lost my faith in faith itself. This opened my eyes, and maybe it was the first moment when I experienced the Zen-like reason so many of us turn to meditation: to learn how to feel better by letting go.

I did get myself into therapy. I made the appointment, as promised, by the end of June; I had my first appointment in July. Now here, at the end of September, it seems like it’s going to be a really good thing. But what’s even better is this: I can now report that I have kept going with both my promises, WAY past the end of my self-declared fake holiday, the “Self-Coaching Month” of June.

I’m still logging my mindful moments on most days. On many days now, I’m working them into my life – breathing deeply while the sun comes up and I sip coffee on my morning commute, or really noticing the way the grass moves in the meadows where I run, rather than sitting myself down in my dining room alone. And I’m giving myself some grace on the days when I cannot make this happen.

But the best part is how I really feel the difference, how I can feel myself re-learning the things I feared I had forgotten about HOW TO BE PRESENT for my life. “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself, to hold on to these moments as they pass,” as Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows wrote in “Long December.”

After four months of mindfulness now, I have let go of enough that sometimes . . . when it really counts . . . I can hold onto the moments that mean so much to me. Right when they’re happening. Like the moment where I was driving my art-child to school and he opened his heart about everything he’s learned about blues music without my coaching. And asked to know more. Damn. I have never been more happy to sing the blues.


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