Welcome to Sing With Your Feet, the podcast in which we imagine the kind of person we want to be when “we grow up”, even though by all standards, we already are grown up.
The podcast in which all the overlapping circles that make up the blueprint for our lives bring some of our private struggles into sharper focus.
The podcast in which we learn to have really important, really hard conversations that, while uncomfortable, are guaranteed to help us grow.
My name is Lily Fields, and I’m going to be your Fairy Godmother for the next half-hour or so.
Now now now, Lily Fields, Oh–that’s you. Look at you in your hoop skirt and gigantic flowery hat!
I take umbrage at the insinuation that I am not “grown up”. I am very much an adult, Lily Fields.
Now, please, please, please, do not take what I said about needing to grow up personally. It’s just that this week’s topic is something I think a lot of us struggle with in varying degrees: that is, Gravitas. We’ll get more into the what that means, but even if you, my country bumpkin, have perfect posture, a commanding presence and know when to keep your mouth shut, not all of us do.
Oh, Lily, there you go with those Venn Diagrams again. When will you let up?
Listen…I can’t let up. I just can’t. You see, it took me a really, really long time to understand that I actually had anything to offer in this life–especially since what I have to offer is not particularly conventional. What I discovered is that the things we love–our passions and our quirks– are what make us unique in this life, and that our lives can be more beautiful, more exciting, more delight-filled if we pursue the things that we love.
Me? I like Venn Diagrams. No, wait, I love Venn Diagrams. My five year-old might hear me say that and say, “Then why don’t you marry this Mr. Venn Diagram,” to which I would say, “If I could, my dear, I probably would.”
You see, I believe that there is a unique, gorgeous, exciting plan for each of our lives. It exists, it’s just that we have to go on a kind of internal scavenger hunt to find it. It exists in the way we, with a heavy dose of lucidity, want our lives to look in each individual area of our lives.
The way those areas, which I like to imagine as circles, overlap for us is as unique as each of us is…and it forms this intoxicatingly beautiful blueprint for our lives.
Well don’t expect a gift from me, Lily Fields, when you wed Mr. Diagram.
Oh, don’t worry. That won’t be happening anytime soon. As a matter of fact, today, I am going to tell you the story of how I met Charming Fields, my french philosopher husband and why it is that I married him. (As if you needed anything more than charming, french and philosopher as descriptors.)
Nonetheless, I think you will see how this Ideal Life theme of Gravitas, which is one of the circles on my Venn Diagram, is one of the reasons I married him. Not because he had it, and definitely not because I have it. But because he understood why this was a struggle for me and has stood by me for the last quarter century while I try to figure it out.
The Ideal Life Exercise is a habit of answering four questions about one different theme–just one circle of our Venn Diagram– each day. The exercise takes as little or as much time as you want to give it, but I generally spend five to fifteen minutes each morning thinking about it.
There are nineteen circles in our Ideal Life Diagram, which we cover over the course of three weeks, with one theme being repeated each of those weeks.
Just as a review, here are the four questions we ask for each of the themes:
What is working? What isn’t working? What do I need to think about? What do I need to do?
This repetition, over time, allows us to see how we have been making progress, and thereby celebrate (which, as you may have forgotten, is one of my favorite things to do: celebrate progress!!!!) Or, if we have stagnated, it gives us a safe, self-contained space to think about why, before our stagnation turns into backsliding. And, if things are going particularly badly in one area, it’s also an outlet to address these issues with ourselves, to articulate the problems, and start looking for solutions.
The Mysterious Gravitas
When I was younger, I would have been hard-pressed to define what it meant to grow up, but it was the thing I desired most. I came to believe growing up meant having experiences would somehow change the essence of who I was.
Having experiences, as it turned out, was not enough to change the essence of who I was around other people: too-energetic, too-enthusiastic and optimistic to the point of being annoying. I couldn’t have pinpointed this as a young person, but now I know: all that “too-much-ness” was a mask to cover up severe social anxiety, a crushing need to be liked and debilitating self-loathing.
Years passed. Even as I had lived an interesting life, adding experience to experience, I still talked too fast, I couldn’t help but run when a normal person would walk (much to the dismay of my colleagues) and I still couldn’t control my impulses, especially at the extremes of my creative process.
So what is Gravitas?
I discovered this word about ten years ago and realized that it addressed my youthful desire to finally grow up.
Gravitas is a mish-mosh of both verbal and non-verbal communication. It is seriousness, dignity, composure, credibility, authenticity all wrapped up in a self-aware, confident package.
It is that element which, as a young person, I knew instinctively was missing. Gravitas was what I imagined when I said I “wanted to grow up.”
Here are a few of my “In My Ideal Life I am a Person Who…” statements as they relate to Gravitas:
In my Ideal Life, I am a person who:
- speaks her mind with concision
- is calm, slow, strong and composed
- knows what she wants and is patient while she works to get it
- manages her anxiety
- has remarkable self-discipline
- behaves the same in private as in public
- has well-placed self-assurance and is self-aware
- stays quiet when she has nothing useful to add
- doesn’t listen to gossip
- is classy
- lives in harmony with the ups and downs of her creative process
How I met their father
It’s probably time I tell you how I met my indulgent husband, because it was something he said some 25 years ago that brought to light just how much of a jumble my little silver threads were in when it comes to Gravitas.
As I headed towards the end of high school in 1996, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life; I only knew that I wanted to finally grow up. I had a lovely upbringing on the shores of Lake Erie, in a smallish suburb of Cleveland. I was surrounded by wonderful people: young people and grown-ups alike. In our upper middle-class village, we enjoyed activities and opportunities that none of us really deserved, and that many of us, now that we are adults having to navigate the world, many of us parents now, too, are only now starting to realize were privileged.
So really, that my only sure goal in life be to finally grow up is something that I will admit comes from a place of privilege. I had absolutely no idea what it would mean to grow up, but I suspected that it would mean I would be less sensitive, less emotional, less caught up in the millions of ideas that constantly swirled in my head. I probably thought it would mean I would learn to stop interrupting when people talked and would be able to not feel like the success of every conversation rested solely on my shoulders.
I was insufferable. That word is not one anyone ever called me. It was one I picked up from a Jane Austen novel and had to look up. I felt like, in order to grow up, I needed to get as far away from home as I possibly could. One idea was to go to Hawaii. The other was to go to France. I went to France.
For some reason, I was always good at French. The only possible explanation I have for this is that my sister Poppy started studying French when she was in sixth grade, as one does in a charming lakeside village in Northeastern Ohio. Hearing her spout off little French phrases here and there was irresistible to eight year-old me.
She went to France in high school with a trip organized by Mademoiselle Sands, her French teacher. This was too much for little me. I came to fantasize about the day I would get to go to France, too.
So when the opportunity arose to study for one year in France at a university just after high school, I took it.
My mother still asks herself how she could let her eighteen year-old daughter cross the Atlantic by herself. She didn’t even have a passport! But she did.
And that is how I ended up in Montpellier, France, at a bus stop in January of 1997, twenty years to the day before my youngest child was born.
There is so much to tell about the time between September of 1996 and January of 1997, but I know I need to streamline my thoughts, so bear with me while I swallow back a mess of circuitousness and anecdotes about discovering minimalism, my obsession with an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical which referenced the Montpellier train station, thereby going out of my way to use the bus stop there, and having peacocks for neighbors.
Up until that night in January of 1997, I had never attended a movie alone. On that particular night, I went to see “The Truth about Cats and Dogs.” I felt so urban, so grown up. I felt beautiful that night, too. I was wearing a red check skirt and a turtleneck sweater. By the time the movie let out, the buses had switched over to their night schedule, which meant that all the sprawling university housing complexes were served by the Rabelais, the nighttime bus line which took three times as long to get anywhere because it stopped everywhere.
I waited alone at the bus stop in front of the train station for a while. Then, a young man with longish dark hair and big heavy glasses arrived and began studying the timetables.
“Puis-je vous aider à trouver quelque chose?” I asked. May I help you find something? Because, long before I worked at Walt Disney World, I was already practicing being in Guest Relations.
He was looking to get back to one of the university housing complexes, one called Triolet. I lived at Vert Bois. I knew that the Triolet stop was well before the Vert Bois stop, and I, ever the tour guide and secret bus stop stalker, told him so. I told him that if he sat near me on the bus, I would let him know when to get off.
This young man, as I said, had longish dark hair which he regularly blew out of his eyes with a rather exasperated sigh. It was a strange tic. I kept my distance.
When the Rabelais finally rolled up in front of the train station, the bus was full but for one seat. I ended up sitting next to the young man with the sigh and the glasses.
We made conversation. He thought I was Swiss, which I found to be a compliment, because at least, given my accent, he didn’t immediately think I was American. I had been trying very very hard to cover my American accent with bits and bobs of other regional accents and was secretly pleased to have pulled one over on a real French person.
Although I found him strange, with that tic and the glasses and the fact that he had to take off his coat in the bus because he apparently would get motion sickness if he got too warm, he said one thing that intrigued me: He was a philosophy student and would soon become a philosophy teacher.
This naturally changed my attitude. I had ideas, you see, and I wanted to, nay, was compelled to share them with anyone who would listen.
However, the bus trip proved shorter than I expected, I guess because I finally found someone who would listen to me spout my ideas. We vaguely shared building numbers (There were no cell phones back then. None of us had phones in our room. We had building numbers.)
A few weeks later I was having lunch at Triolet with a friend. Since I was at Triolet, I decided to stop by the building where the philosopher lived.
He happened to be home. He also happened to have gotten a haircut.
He also happened to have lovely brown eyes and when he spoke French I understood him.
Thus began a friendship of ideas. Of philosophizing and arguing logic and playing Mastermind late into the night.
A Theory on Everything
Before you start thinking “How romantic…”, let me just stop you right there. There was nothing romantic about this friendship. We were both poor students who liked to do free things (there was a free zoo just outside my window, thus the peacocks. There were free concerts offered by the university music department. We were cheap. Very very cheap)
The thing we liked to do most, though, was talk. I trademarked a phrase during that time: “J’ai une théorie sur ça.” I have a theory about that. This phrase has stayed with us for twenty-five years. I still have a theory on everything. Thus why I am exhausting on a good day, mindbendingly infuriating on a bad day.
He had theories on everything, too, but was a much better listener than I will ever be.
He listened so very well, and I talked so, so very much, that he was able to put into words the gigantic jumble of silvery threads that would take at least the next 25…and counting….years to sort out:
His theory about my silvery jumble was this: “Why would you want to grow up, when being childlike is what makes you so fun to be around?”
I liked his theory, so I married him.
Point One: What it is
There is no easy roadmap to Gravitas. It is something that is incredibly hard to define in a global way. It is not a function of age. Malala has it. Greta Thunberg has it. Margaret Thatcher had it. Kamala Harris has it. Queen Elizabeth has it.
It is a commanding presence and seriousness. Gravitas has a look, and Gravitas has a sound.
I have come to believe that defining Gravitas for my own, non-stateswoman or global activist lifestyle is often defined by contrasting it with what Gravitas is not. When I run-on at the mouth or attempt to make jokes that aren’t very funny, I am not expressing Gravitas. Therefore, to find Gravitas in this, I would need to learn to hold my tongue or to stop trying to be funny when I am clearly not.
Or, for example, my eldest son was taking pictures with my phone one day, and at the end of the day when I was flipping through them, I caught a glimpse of a woman with horrible posture. It so happened that the woman in question was me.
Many, many years ago, I took an adult ballet class with an instructor who was probably in her sixties, although maybe in her seventies. Her skin was thin and wrinkly. She was not particularly thin as ballet dancers go. But she was extraordinary to look at. She still, in my mind, remains the most elegant woman I’ve ever seen. Why? Because of her posture. Her posture gave her a Gravitas that commanded our attention and our respect.
Therefore, Gravitas also comports an element of posture.
By defining what I thought Gravitas looked like, I was able to see what about me I would need to make progress on.
This category of Gravitas is one that I am still in the process of defining for myself. Every three weeks when I consider it, I am able to reconnect to my deep-seated desire to finally grow-up, and am sometimes able to see and celebrate progress toward that end.
Point Two: How can we work on this?
This being a rather squishy topic, one that each of us must define for ourselves, it begs the question: how can I make progress on Gravitas?
I think a big part of making progress is in the observation of women we admire. What is it we find admirable about them? I will always remember singing at the funeral of a wonderful woman named Susanne. Susanne never beat around the bush. She spoke her mind without hesitation. And even though she could be blunt, I never remember being hurt by what she would say but because she never spoke out of turn and she was always right.
That is an example of Gravitas to me. Learning how to break that down…learning to be bold and say what I am thinking, but also to listen to the voice of wisdom in my heart that tells me if it is the right time or place to do so. That is making progress.
Or, for example, this year, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to improve my posture. Practicing sitting up straight, walking straight, and everything that implied. (By the way, this has been quite an adventure and I will put a link in the shownotes to an article I wrote about it.)
In any case, developing Gravitas is about setting little challenges for ourselves, about continually seeking to grow into the person we will be proud of being at the end of our lives. Starting by observing, and then setting tiny relatively measurable goals is a great way.
A measurable goal might be, for example, “This week, at least once, I am going to speak up when I don’t agree with something…” something as little as my coffee not being hot enough when I receive it at the coffee shop, or addressing the festering problem with my neighbor about their trash bags that they leave outside in the hallway all night.
Or, “I am going to concentrate on my posture for five minutes each day for the next week.”
These are tiny, measurable items that we can check off our to-do list and thereby, we can celebrate them!
Point Three: Three Conversations
LiElla Kelly, Death Doula and your wicked stepsister is here to expose a critical facet to Gravitas: the ability to talk about difficult topics with grace. Give her a listen.
LiElla, the floor is yours.
Hello. I’m back, your wicked stepsister and I have some chores for you today. As you know, Wicked Stepsisters love to assign chores and I just can’t help myself. I have three chores for you. Actually, they’re not chores, they’re conversations. I have three conversation assignments for you. Let me spell it out.
Conversation number one. You can get started on this conversation right away because this is a conversation you need to have with yourself. I want you to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with death. You may need to grab a notebook because you will likely have some complex, perhaps conflicted feelings and writing them down can be very revealing. Do you have your notebook? At the top of the page, write this sentence, just 3 words. I will die. Flowers die, animals die, people die and you too will eventually die. If you give serious thought to these 3 words, you may find it hard to write that tiny yet enormous sentence, and that’s ok. For now, that’s a great place to start the conversation. When you’re ready, here are a few talking points and prompts to help you continue:
What scares you about death?
What are some not-so-scary things about death?
What is the purpose of a funeral?
Would you rather die in an unexpected manner, like an accident or would you prefer to know that your death is coming?
What are your dignity boundaries? If you needed help with toileting, who would you want to help you?
Do you want to be cremated? Buried at sea? Buried in a cemetery? Natural burial? What are your preferences?
These are some questions to get you thinking about death and dying, clarify your own feelings and get you more comfortable with the topic in general. There are endless thoughts you could explore, just start the conversation and see where it takes you. Make note of road blocks you encounter. Don’t allow them to derail you, just make a detour and come back to them a bit later. If you need assistance, check out the book, I Will Die, A Creative Journal For Mortals by Jessica Featherly. She offers a wide variety of prompts to make this conversation a bit easier.
Here’s another idea. If you’re a more visual or artistic person, perhaps you’d find it beneficial to draw this conversation. Little drawings that convey your feelings.
And if you’re an action person, get started on some practical items…like filling out an Advance Directive.
When you feel like you’ve reached a point where you’re pretty comfortable with your own feelings and wishes, when you feel like you can have a conversation about death without getting super weird, it’s time to turn your attention to the other two conversations.
Conversation #2. Which people in your life will you likely be caring for as they die? For whom you will likely be making final arrangements? For a lot of us, this is our parents, or our partner, but there may be others whom we will care for. We love these people and we want them to have as good a death as possible. For that to happen, we need to know their feelings and their wishes. We need to have a conversation.
But for now, put a pin in conversation 2 and let’s move to #3 for a moment.
Conversation #3 is with the people who will be taking care of you at the end of your life and will be making final arrangements for you. It’s conversation 2 in reverse. Most likely this is a conversation with your children or again, with your partner. You no doubt want a good death for yourself so you need to make you feelings and preferences known.
Conversations #2 and #3 may seem daunting and it’s true that there are so many roadblocks we could encounter. Fortunately, you’ve already done some research and worked on your own feelings in conversation #1. So, you are now in a good place to start these conversations. Let’s consider a few tips to make these conversations a success.
First, don’t spring this conversation on people. We’re out to a nice dinner, relaxing and Boom! Death! No, find a way to give people a heads up that you want to have this conversation.
Second, share the reasons why you want to have this conversation. You recognize the value of the discussion, help them to see it as well.
Third, it’s a conversation, which means it’s not a monologue. Be willing to listen and allow them to engage in the conversation, sharing their questions and concerns. This is an opportunity for you to make informed choices together and to share your worries.
Last, make room for emotions. Fear, sadness, and tears may be part of the discussion and that’s ok. Emotions don’t need to be hidden.
These are some big chores. Really big. Unfortunately, I don’t have time here, on this podcast, to share everything. I will however, being posting more on Leaving Well…The Blog. You can find the link in the show notes. I hope you find it helpful.
In the meantime, get started on conversation #1 and as always, remember…Talking about death won’t kill you.
LiElla, thank you for getting to the heart of the matter. I’ll link to your blog in the show notes.
So let’s take a minute to review the four questions we ask for each of our Ideal Life Categories:
What is working?: Were you able to broach an uncomfortable topic? Did you manage to keep your mouth shut instead of saying something you would regret? Good for you! You are on your way to being a true stateswoman!
What isn’t working?: Whatever it is…whether you put your foot in your mouth, or you felt underdressed for an occasion, don’t judge yourself. Just right it down. Forgive yourself for failing. It happens.
Things to consider: LiElla gave you some homework. I would suggest you get to work on it. There are a bunch of things to think about in there!
Things to do: This is often a little personal challenge. For example, stop talking so much, just for one day. Or, walk more slowly, just for today. Anything that can help me feel a little more grown up is game.
In my Ideal Life, my insides and outsides match.
I want to give you a little bit of a pep talk, because I think that the women of my generation, we often feel like imposters. We don’t feel like kids anymore. Some of us even have kids, so we *know* we’re not kids anymore. But we don’t feel like those women that we saw when we were growing up, who had so much poise and elegance. We don’t know how to become like them, when in our hearts, we’re still feeling like kids.
We are not imposters. We need to start chipping away at what it means to be a grown up for *ourselves*. We are legitimate. We are credible women and we need to embrace that. We need to define what that means and we need to start making progress towards it.
Thank you so much for listening to the podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe on your podcatcher, and please, if you enjoy something you’ve heard here please share it with someone you think could use a fairy godmother, too!
A great big thank you to Seven Productions here in Mulhouse France for the use of the song La Joie for the Intro and Outtro to the show. Also, thanks to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.
This is your Fairy Godmother signing off. Just remember, it is never too late to start singing with your feet.
Talking Points: Gravitas–what is it? What does it look like? How do you get it? Plus, LiElla gives us a concrete exercise in developing Gravitas.
Episode 22: Gravitas is part of our series on the Ideal Life Categories, this week’s theme being “Spiritual Life.” The series began back in Episode 15: The One About Our Bodies, in case you want to get caught up!
The article about learning to develop good posture is here: Good Posture Starts in the Mind
The journal Liella talked about can be found here: I Will Die, A Creative Journal For Mortals by Jessica Featherly
Learn more about LiElla Kelly, Death Doula, on her website and blog, Leaving Well…The Blog. or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/leaving.well.death.doula/ or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=leaving%20well%20end-of-life%20planning
A great big thank you to Seven Productions, https://7prod.fr/, here in Mulhouse France for the use of the song La Joie for the Intro and Outtro to the show. Also, thanks to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.