How music changed my life, Part 3: Climbing up

When you are down, negative, depressed, burned out, or even just tired from everyday routine, having some form of creative outlet is a wonderful thing. It doesn't matter *what* you do – it can be writing or painting or really anything you like – but it does matter that you do something. For me, that is largely music.
This is a story of how, over the first 38 years of my life, I grew out of touch with myself and my values, got into a depression, and almost ruined my family. Reconnecting to music was a key element to understand where I was at, in life.
This post is the third in a series. If you have not read the first two parts, please do, starting at the link below:

How music changed my life, Part 1: Falling down

How music changed my life, Part 2: Recognizing and acknowledging the issue

Continuing the story from where we left it in the second post, I had come to the realization that I had to change track. My soul needed that. My family needed me to be my better self. The world needed me to be my better self. We all need to be, if we want to do something about the planet, and our health. Eat organic, eat more veggies, plant trees, make love, talk about your emotions, make music, play with your children.

My wife also wrote a very compassionate post about my depression, our relationship, and how she helped me tackle it. I invite you to read it as well, before I continue on rambling just about music…

My partner's depression was a growth opportunity for our family

Making guitars made me remember and gave me courage to say again that sometimes old versions work just as well. A piece of wood with strings is a piece of wood with strings, and it still plays.

Real human relationships need to be nurtured and shared time is what makes you happy, not all the stuff you fill your house with or the apps you have on your phone, or how many 'likes' or 'friends' you have on Facebook.
You don't need the fake plastic guitar with colored buttons in the same shape of the one a certain famous singer is using… the one you use while watching yourself in the game console mirror and pretend you are that chosen rock idol, while you live in fear you have not made it, unlike he did. He or she (your idol) is just a guy or girl like you and me. He might have something wonderful to sing and to say, but so do you!
As a society, we have largely become just consumers of music, not producers. Besides the very few who actually become rock stars, I know a lot of people who used to have bands but dropped them as they became 'mature' and went to grey workplaces that dimmed their light. We listen to selected famous singers but we don't play as much anymore. And a lot of those who play always try to replicate what those idols do, buying the same iconic instruments from the same three large corporations which are doing very little innovation and just selling large volumes.

We need to compose, CREATE original music. Simple music – doesn't have to be complex – but we need to be in touch with our creative side. We are CREATORS. We need that sparkle. That light. It is only dimmed – it never really dies, but it will kill you if you don't let it shine – but you need to have courage to dig really deep and go beyond your fears to find it back.

And it will hurt, but then it will liberate you.

You need to step in your power and BE your idol. Be the example you want to see in the world, not just blindly follow the largely unquestioned (but very questionable) way of life that someone else has chosen for you.

While wars are being perpetrated around who owns the oil, 'charitable' donations are being used to fuel even more the pharmaceuticals, our food is being genetically modified, Mother Earth is not being respected and invasive technologies are turning us into cyborgs… we need to be the change we want to see. If we don't like the way the world is going, we need to change it. And changing it means standing up for our values and not buying, supporting or producing 'progress' we don't believe in. We don’t have to always compromise.

Building guitars, during meditative hours of sandpaper work, made me go thru all this.

And I decided I was tired of complying, that I needed to stand up for my values. To be a better husband, a better father, a better citizen of this world, a better man. It was time to re-prioritize my life and what I was contributing to.

My wife had helped me, with her patience and her talks, to figure things out, but by now she was sick, I was in an un-diagnosed (and un-noticed at work), but real, depression and I still had a ton of stuff in flight for the project I was working on…

The first thing to reduce our level of fear and start moving forward was moving back to Europe, where we could have extended family around us to help, to at least help relieve the pressure on my wife, to start with. With miraculous help I managed to maintain my job even from abroad, so we had some time to buy a house and settle.
In the Netherlands, the family started coming back to life. Especially my wife and the kids started slowly getting rid of their fear (see article about my daughter's experience in American public school linked from the first post in this series). We could send the kids to a Waldorf school, now, which in the Netherlands is affordable to all, not just by very rich people, and they started coming down from their stress too. They reconnected with their manual abilities and bodies. They finally had cousins and new friends and grandparents close by. They started having the freedom to wander around the neighborhood on their own without social services threatening to take them away. My son started talking to me again and we did things together. He stopped being obsessed with Darth Vader.
Things did look better, and I started making some time for my kids and my family, i.e. now I could bring the kids to school – and talk to them – and then do grocery shopping in the morning, because I had no office to go to at standard 'office times'. My in law's also could give some attention to the kids – we were not alone anymore! – and gradually my wife got a little better with her tummy problems, she got some color back, she finally had some mental space and started studying.

Part of my days were 'free' because my job position was still with the American team. This also meant that I had to still be online and at work during part of my evenings and do nightly conference calls to match the timezone of my coworkers, or I would not get anything done.

Good luck sleeping after having been in a 'morning' status meeting at 10pm. My insomnia – and nightmares – became worse, and more frequent.

So, while I was starting to take some time to be a better dad and husband, I was still really in need of some time to heal myself too, and to completely detach from what I knew was the core issue: I had never felt aligned with 'scientific' and 'innovation' values pushed by the industry. I was still compromising with them. I was still doing 'poker face' with the world, to get my salary. We had changed country, but I was still not following my heart.

One of my recurring nightmares was that of my daughter having been replaced by a robot, 'for you cannot stop progress'. I kept waking up in cold sweat and with a cramped tummy. Another particularly vivid one was about Bill Gates telling me I didn't stand a chance on my own, that I could not go away since he owned me, and he was closing with 'where the heck did I think I would be going?' before I woke up feeling awful. Bill, don't take it personal, please – it's just a dream after all, and I don't control those. In my psyche, you were a symbol of the technocratic culture and this world that you helped creating, which has never felt my own, but which I infiltrated for a few years while wearing a mask, because that's what everybody else was doing with their lives – or so it seemed to me at the time – and because I really liked to understand how machines and systems work, so that I could control them, and not be controlled by them. It was a fear-based choice, and those are never good. Don't worry – the mistake was mine to join it in the first place but, like every mistake, it provided great learning. So, thanks for all that I have learned in that industry.
It's noteworthy to point out that, somehow, the mask I was wearing – or rather the restlessness that wearing it caused me! – got confused with 'drive' by that culture, and made me 'successful'.

Anyway, it was time for me to cut that cord. And to be done with fear.

So, I finished off all the last pieces of work I had agreed/promised to finish – because I like to maintain my words – but after that I was really done with 'innovating'.
By now we were in a relatively safe harbor, we had drastically scaled back our needs and monthly budget and had some savings set aside – it was time to really unplug, own my shit, change path and fix myself and my family emotionally and completely. So, in October 2015 I finally quit the corporation

Three quarters of 2015, my IT career and various ramblings

Now I was free to start going after my dreams and reinvent a career (or two) for myself that would be compatible with my values.

Now I was without a job but with some savings. A great weight had finally dropped off my chest, I had a good roof on my head, and plenty of time.

A week later, my sister in law stumbled across the FabLab in Alkmaar, which just at that time had set up a workshop on 'cigar box guitars'. I had never heard of them before, but once I saw what it was about, I got completely jazzed! It was *exactly* the type of idea I was searching for: not 'full blown' guitars, but simpler ones, that can be built inexpensively using recycled materials such as old cookie tins, cigar boxes, wine boxes, broom sticks, old screws, etc… and with this 'recycling' theme in mind I launched Plank Guitars.

With Plank, I therefore make custom, one of a kind guitars that are also pieces of art, for musicians who want to play blues, rock or other kinds of music (even techno!) on very special and unique instruments. Besides, my guitars have zero environmental impact for their production (excluding that I use some electricity for my power tools), since I reuse old 'junk' I collect at the local thrift stores such as cookie tins, cigar box guitars, pieces of old hardwood floors, etc.

I don't claim to be an 'expert' luthier (just like I never claimed to be an engineer in IT!) – I am still learning a lot, in fact I am also going to school at the Dutch School of Guitar making by Frank de Haan to improve my skills, and I am learning some cool tricks there!

While at the school more complex guitars are made, some of the instruments I make on my own are left intentionally extremely simple and 'down to basics' so that they can be played by kids or people who have never played any instrument before. For example some have three strings and a diatonic fret board (for the un-initiated, it means you can only play 'full' notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G but not sharps or flats – it's like a piano without black keys) which makes it really difficult to play 'bad' notes. See the 'Gnome's Dulcimer cookie tin guitar' here as an example

Gnome’s Dulcimer cookie tin guitar

There is a freshness and a power in making something simple – not 'over the top' – which actually gives joy to others!

A charismatic – but modest – singer, Seasick Steve, also uses very simple and beaten up instruments in his songs, and I love a quote from his song 'Diddley bow' (which is the name of the simplest ever 1-string instrument used to play it) that says it all:

"With only one string you can't go wrong. Go and make yourself a song." – Seasick Steve

That's the spirit: just sing and don't worry. Don't try to be perfect, just be yourself and enjoy!
Other famous people said that too

"Express yourself don't repress yourself" – Madonna

And there I got that my mission and differentiator was not about selling guitars by the pound and build the next cool label with a big factory, but make simple artifacts that give joy to people.

Earlier this year, with my wife, we also launched the Sanctuary of Joy, a holistic healing organization. We aim to help people to (re)discover who they really are: discover their passions, be true to themselves, improve their relationships and life in flow and abundance.

Sanctuary of Joy is operational

At the Sanctuary we do energy healing, we read Tarot and Oracle cards, and we counsel couples and individuals about their lives, their relationships, their work and their health. Our emphatic and intuitive abilities and our life experiences taught us to see the world – and people – from a unique perspective: over the years we traveled and studied with Indian and Western spiritual teachers; we lived in three different countries while raising our 3 children; we dealt with autoimmune diseases, miscarriages, burnouts, discrimination, bullying, corporate management jobs, and more. We gained deep understanding of cultural patterns and how they can block us from finding our true selves, and how communicating from a place of Love is an art that can be learned.

We think that music fits wonderfully into this picture, therefore we are going to cross-over the Plank Guitars brand and theme with the activities of Sanctuary of Joy, where we think that other people dealing with stress, depression, and all those people who 'locked up' in their emotions – like I had done – can also benefit from using music as a way to express themselves.

Practically this means that we offer:

To give you some Joy right now, in the photo below you can see an extremely simple instrument that my 6 years old daughter was able to build all by herself with a shoebox and some elastics:

Sara with her shoebox guitar

Find out more about our activities under 'Music Healing' at the Sanctuary of Joy's website

Music Healing

We are at the end of the tale. I described how music, and a number of other tools such as Tarot and Oracle cards for self-analysis (We are currently writing a book on this topic – stay tuned), with the help of my wife by my side and copious blessings from above, helped me get in touch with my real locked up self, and start a new journey. I hope the reading was informative and maybe helpful to some people who might be navigating similar times of fear and doubt like those that I went thru, or maybe now they are awakening as well.

Music is not the only thing that I do. I am quite busy with the counseling work of the Sanctuary, I am writing, I spend time with my kids, I cook. I take pictures. I paint. I occasionally do some IT to help small shops or individuals get visible, but not the big scale stuff. As someone else already wrote, I make guitars, but I am not a "guitar maker".

We are all composite people, and the jobs we do to make a living are just things we do, they don't define who we are. We are more that those.

And you don't need a lot of 'things' to be happy either, you just need to have enough, and bring out your light into the world.

All good things are wild and free - Henry David Thoreau
[Image previously shared on Sanctuary of Joy's Facebook page]

Imaginary Friend Sara (about public school in the United States)

This is one more post about things that disturbed us in America, and eventually led to the decision of coming back to Europe.

No, I don't mean to say everything about America was bad. It wasn't. We have learned a lot. We did amazing things, met some incredible people and visited places and nature that is so beautiful it can't be described with words or pictures: my limited attempts to portrait the beauty of that continent are on my photos on Flickr… but in real life it is so much more fantastic. I loved to see Eagles flying over us; I enjoyed camping like primitives among huge trees that have seen an ancient world and shared those spaces with the Native people, in harmony; it's not in many places in the world nowadays that you can drive thru forests or deserts or prairies so beautiful that take your breath away for hundreds of miles; I even had a good laugh when the occasional raccoon decided to climb on our tree at night and eat all the plums (which sounded like a Pig was stuck on the tree, by the way – another strange night episode, but actually funnier that the one with the police I wrote about in my previous post).

But we also experienced a society that, weighting all factors, is not the one we want our offsprings to grow in, and after the first euphoric and exploratory years we couldn't really see ourselves growing old there.

So, here's another story that happened to us. And – as the pain it caused is starting to heal – I am still grateful it did happen and life manifested itself this way, because it truly opened our eyes.

 

One day in November Sara said to my wife: "You know, mum? I have a friend called Sara – she stays out of school, and Sarah enters the school. Then we meet again when I come out."

Sara and Sarah. A trailing 'h' and a fairly different pronunciation (you'd pronounce it 'Sara' closer to 'Zara' than how you say 'Sarah' with an American-English accent). But wait, it's not just about the name – the kid was really telling us she was not allowed to be herself – Sara – in school, where she has to pretend to be someone else – Sarah (the only way people in the States were able to pronounce her name), to meet expectations and handle the pressure in school. The name was just a label for the different 'roles', but this was to us a wake-up call: hearing this from your 5 years old, as a parent, deeply hurt my wife (and myself, later).

Sara had always been a very happy and nice little girl.
But she was telling us she had been wearing a mask, doing everything according to the book in school, while she was being deprived and denied in her own self-image and esteem.

This was her first year in kindergarten – previously she had been in a 'cooperative' pre-school, which had been a relatively nice experience, as basically all the mums were co-teaching the toddlers, so my wife could really be involved in her education and have a clear idea of what was going on.
But at the public school, the school year had only started for a couple of months, and we didn't really know what to expect – sure, Luca, our older son, had started school in America when he was 7 – before that he had done kindergarten and began elementary school in Italy – and his first couple of years had been largely 'English full immersion'. With Joshua we had seen junior high and high schools. Lots of math, largely, I wasn’t particularly happy of the programs either… but with Sara we saw the public school system from the start and that made us even more unhappy.

We expected that 5 years old kids, even if they had to start learning something 'mental', would still be allowed to play and to interact to some extent with each other.
That is not what we found: it was more of a crash course in obedience, submission and a rat race to learn things way too fast and way too early, that completely stressed out our kid.

In the photo below you can see how she had developed an eczema from continuously biting her lower lip – basically respecting the 'stay quiet' and 'listen' and 'don't talk unless you are asked to answer something' she was given as rules. You can also see she was forced in a stiff 'standard' type of smile, not natural at all. If it wasn't that the topic is about my daughter and it hurts, it would almost be ironic this is the 'official' picture for the picture book of the year… so the school can keep good record of how they did that year…

Sara school photo america 2014
What were they asking of her, you might be wanting to know.

Well, we found it pretty intensive that in 12 hours a week (3 hours a day for 4 days):

  • The kids were supposed to learn to read, write, and count and do math with numbers under the 20 – way too much 'logical' thinking at that age, too fast, too soon.
  • No time (or not allowed) to interact with each other (kid to kid) during the lesson and learn social skills and boundaries – just listen to the teacher and return the results, fast, because they need to be measured. Wikipedia has a good comment on those standardized testing and programs:
    •  […] Critics argue that the focus on standardized testing (all students in a state take the same test under the same conditions) encourages teachers to teach a narrow subset of skills that the school believes increases test performance, rather than focus on deeper understanding of the overall curriculum. For example, a teacher who knows that all questions on a math test are simple addition problems (e.g., What is 2 + 3?) might not invest any class time on the practical applications of addition, to leave more time for the material the test assesses. This is colloquially referred to as “teaching to the test.” […]                        
  • They only had a break of 10 minutes each day: 10 minutes are not enough at that age they still need to run wild and play spontaneously…
  • Even in those 10 minutes, they were NOT even allowed to eat anything. Because of other kids with food allergies. About this, we even arranged for her brother Luca – who was in the same school but a higher class and was having break at the same time – to provide her snack in the courtyard. The teacher 'closed an eye' on it, until someone found out and complained to the Principal of the school. No, really, my kid needs to eat, and even eat something healthy, *especially* if you expect them to be able to focus and use their brains. They won't offer them to others, and it's easy to implement some slightly more tolerant policies (i.e. please don't give you kids snacks of some categories that cause allergies. Albeit a future post on food allergies – and food in general – in the States is probably something I'll write in the future.). I know that when I am short on sugar, I get grumpy and I can't think straight myself – good sugar is actually good for your brain
  • There was, however, time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (almost) every day. If you don't know what the pledge of allegiance is – it's because you come from a (even if only slightly) more decent country like myself. Also, if you are European, you might have studied that the Americans came to rescue us from the evil Nazi's in second world war, so you might have this feeling that Americans wouldn't do the same things as the Nazi's… would they? Well, you can read about the pledge on Wikipedia but essentially it is a ritual where you swear your loyalty to the American flag that you'll love it and respect it and be a good robot citizen, to say it my way. The whole thing is coupled with holding a hand on your heart, or with a military salute. There is an interesting photo (and its comments) you should read
    • A photo of a child is titled: “little girl giving the Heil Hitler salute 1934.” It is so funny to read comments from U.S. citizens (and others) remarking that the photo is disturbing because it shows how pliable children are. No one is aware that it was the salute used in the U.S. and originated in the U.S. (see the work of the symbologist Dr. Rex Curry). None of the U.S. citizens is aware that the photograph could be of a U.S. girl (and not a german girl) and the commentators would not know. The thought has never entered their minds. They cannot even make a comparison to the modern Pledge of Allegiance ritual and gesture in the U.S.   
[About similarities in the american public school system and the Nazi schools, you should also watch this Disney movie, which ironically was part of American's Anti-Nazi propaganda during World War II]
  • No real 'playing' as kids are not really allowed to touch/get close to each other during play – everywhere they stress about respecting 'personal space'
  • Kids were given 'rewards' when performing what we would consider simple normal tasks – i.e. putting back your chair next to the table (rather than leaving it a mess in the middle of the room) is something we do expect kids to learn early on and do simply out of respect and courtesy. Not something that has to be specially 'awarded' like having been heroic or patriotic. Especially if the reward is this stupid bottle with more Stalin-style (I compared to the Nazi – let's use a different totalitarian example) propaganda:

Bibitone

  • Kid's behavior was tracked and also 'rewarded' with stickers and ribbons and tickets every week – green, yellow and red. I think it's what they use in some prisons in Europe, not in toddler schools:

Stayed Green all week

 

The above list should have given you an idea. And I am sure I am missing and I have forgotten about some details.

If the above looks 'normal' to you – it doesn't have to be like this. It's not like this across the ocean in many countries.

And by the way – we were not leaving in a 'bad' or 'poor' area either – this is one of the 'best' school districts around Seattle, where a lot of educated people live who work for big companies such as Microsoft, Google, Nintendo, Boeing, Amazon, etc…

I broke down when I understood what I made my kids go thru, by coming to work to the States. Thru this and to other episodes.

I am convinced that many people – both Americans from previous generations (when schools were better) or even immigrants like us – don't even *realize* they are exposing their children to this type of programming. Largely because life is frenetic, work is demanding, and both husband and wife both work.

We (me and my wife) like other school systems and methods, like Waldorf, or even Montessori (for some kids it works well, albeit not for all) – that place an emphasis on raising individuals that can be critical thinkers and self-standing humans, not obedient calculating machines.
Anyhow, I didn't even like a 'mitigation' such as sending them to a private school of that kind – they do exist, but private schools are *so damn expensive* that they are really only affordable by a very small rich segment of society. If I had one kids, maybe, but with three – 20 thousand dollars a year per kid are just not something many families can get by, and those are the prices… but even if I could afford it, I believe that gating access to 'better' schools thru money just makes the school environment an 'elite' one: not only unfair for those who cannot afford to access it, but even detrimental for the students who can, as they get no exposure to 'real' society and are raised in a 'bubble', which kind of defeats the purpose and premise of those schools' supposedly more 'open' views. This is of course also what allows some people to go to 'prestigious' colleges and get jobs easily, while others can't even try getting close to the bottom of the ladder. But higher education and access to workforce – is another topic I might look at in a future post, not right now.

Back to the specific effect this school experience had on Sara: I showed the 'stress lip' physical sign above, but there were also deeper psychological effects on her (not) growing up – in fact even regressing in some sense. For example, the summer before she started kindergarten, she was starting to draw more detailed 'puppets' – not just a head with 'sticks' – she was starting to add bodies and fingers and more details… and then, only a couple of months in kindergarten, she was only drawing heads again. And small ones.

Guess what happened once we moved to the Netherlands and she started attending a (public, tax-funded – here it's normal) Waldorf school?
In this last couple of months her drawings 'evolved' again, and they started featuring bodies again (in fact, the body is now drawn before adding a head on top of it – and it even gets a belly button!) and hands and feet have become more detailed due to the stimulation of being immersed in physical/practical/interpretive activities as opposed to just 'mental' ones like it was the case at the public school in the states.
Besides drawings, she has had a growth burst – she grew a few centimeters all of a sudden, and started changing not one but FOUR teeth, and she's literally blooming with vitality.

And the imaginary friend? We have not heard from her again – there is just the real Sara now:

Sara and the windmill

Sara with the ultimate Toy Camera

Sara with the ultimate Toy Camera

I have had a "new year's resolution" post in draft for more than two months… since we now reached march, I have wasted it – not much point anymore posting it.
One thing that was NOT written in that post but that did work out, tho: I smoked one last cigarette on the 31st of december and I decided to quit smoking. So far so good.
I also have a draft of a technical post sitting there for a long time… I'll eventually finish it at one stage.
I thought I'd post a picture of my beautiful little girl, instead, in the meantime.

Sara's

Sara's

Sara, my granny, is very old, and very sick.
I was afraid she wouldn't even have lived long enough to meet Sara, my daughter.

She has Alzheimer, Osteoporosis, and a million other diseases; She had a heart attack two months ago, then another one, and also a stroke. She can't walk anymore, she can't see much anymore, her whole body is giving up. The doctors now say that she probably won't live much more than another month.

But she made it to meet newborn Sara, even if the encounter has been somewhat different than I might have hoped earlier on.

"what a cute baby! is he a boy?"
"no, granny, this is Sara, your grand-grand-daughter, and she's called Sara, just like you…"
"Oh, how nice! This is a honor for me… you called her like me? how sweet of you!"

Of course we had told her this earlier, but she forgets things.
In a way it is nice to make her happy and give her this honor multiple times, but at the same time it isn't.

She does not understand what surrounds her anymore and most of the time she is in a dream-like state. Some old people have this, but their dreams are good, and they become just like young kids with visions that make them even happy at times.
But those dreams she's having are obviously bad ones, as she sighs and puffs and seems to be having a very hard time. And a lot of fear.
She is too afraid of letting go: after she dreamed a couple of times of my granddad and her mum (in the dream they were calling her to come and join with him in heaven), she is even afraid of falling asleep. And with little sleep she gets even more confused and depressed. And fearful. In a vicious circle.

She does have some moments of lucidity, and you can have short conversations with her, even if these moments tend to be shorter and shorter. And when they happen they even frighten her – I suppose because she realizes how she is the rest of the time.

But inevitably, five minutes later she will ask you again the same question:

"who is that cute baby I see over there?"
"dear granny, this is Sara, your grand-grand-daughter; she's called just like you"
"Oh how nice. This is a honor for me…."

She has lived so long, has had bad and good times, and done many good things, as well as many mistakes just like anyone does a lifetime.
Seeing her suffer is heart-breaking for us all.
I hope her suffering stops and her fears abandon her and that she might find her well deserved peace.

Amen.