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IN GREAT COMPANY
How Do You Age Well, Catherine Burns?
May. 20, 2022
Having a community is key to navigating this life journey feeling backed and buoyed, so Phenology asked amazing women who weren’t born yesterday to share their MO.
Catherine Burns believes there are highly-impactful stories brewing in all of us. As the long-time Artistic Director of "The Moth," and a host and producer of the Peabody Award-winning "The Moth Radio Hour," she’s spent her career leveraging the power of shaping and sharing those intimate tales to transform perspectives, forge connections and shed light on meaningful topics, big and seemingly small.
As one of the lead directors on the Moth's Mainstage since 2003, she has helped many hundreds of people craft their narratives, including a New York City sanitation worker, a Nobel Laureate, the Tower of London’s Ravenmaster, a jaguar tracker, and an exonerated prisoner. She is also editor of the best-selling and critically-acclaimed books "The Moth: 50 True Stories," "All These Wonders," and "Occasional Magic," and co-author of the new book, "How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling from The Moth" (Crown).
Always a people person, before The Moth, Burns directed and produced television and independent films, interviewing such diverse talent as George Clinton, Chuck D, Ozzy Osbourne, Martha Stewart, and Howard Stern. Born and raised in Alabama, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and young son. You can find her on Instagram: @thecatherineburns, and tune in here, where roles are reversed and she gets a chance to take the mic.
If you could create a neon sign about aging, it would say:
HAPPIER, HEALTHIER, GRATEFUL. I sometimes hear people dreaming of being young again. But I am so thankful for the lessons learned in my 52 years; I wouldn’t want to go back!
Best wellness habit you’ve picked up?
I eat green vegetables and drink 8 glasses of water every day, walk everywhere, and fiercely protect my sleep. I also picked up running at age 50. I am a proud slow runner (I dislike the term “jogger,” as I feel distinguishing between running and jogging has a lot of baked-in judgment). When I first started, I literally could not run one city block (I know because I tried!) But I did a “couch to 5K” (stretching the training out for 10 weeks vs 6), ran my first 5K, then took on a 10K. I have come in last many times, but I don’t care, I just love being out there. I’ve now run a dozen half marathons and this past year, finished the New York City marathon!
How are you kind to yourself?
I’m constantly striving to learn and grow, but find I actually progress faster when I forgive my mistakes quickly, which allows me to pivot and keep going. I’ve lost 85 pounds over the past three years. I struggled with my weight for much of my life, constantly going on punishing, restrictive diets which I inevitably quit. Things changed when I started approaching food from a place of self-love. I’m deeply in touch with the me of tomorrow morning, and make choices that she’s going to be proud of. I have a 12-year-old son who is the light of my life, and I ask myself, “Would I feed this to Harry’s mother?” If the answer is no, I pass, but from a place of deep self-care. When I do eat something that I didn’t plan, instead of beating myself up or saying “f-it” and stuffing myself for the rest of the day, I ask myself, “What is my next best decision” and get right back on track. My weight loss coach taught me to spend the rest of my life searching for new, delicious foods that I will love to eat, that will also allow me to feel healthy. It’s hard to feel cheated while eating good dark chocolate, shrimp, fresh berries and omelets!
What’s your bedtime routine?
For years I didn’t have a bathtub, but just a few months ago we moved into a house with a lovely, deep tub. So now I head to bed early, wash my face and brush my teeth, then take a twenty-minute bath. I have a whole collection of bath salts and bubbles, and I often listen to a sleep meditation or quiet podcast in the tub. I then get into bed with a novel (only novels at night: no work reading!) I usually pass out in ten minutes and generally sleep through the night. This amazes me, as until recently, I self-identified as a terrible sleeper. Cutting down the amount of alcohol I was drinking also helped, and I’m a fan of Charlotte’s Web CBD gummies with melatonin and lemon balm.
How do you maximize your morning?
I’m a big meditator, so most days I wake up before my family and try to sit for at least 15 minutes (though even 3 makes a big difference!). I like to make a cup of coffee and hold it, sipping it with my eyes closed, while listening to a guided meditation. I started out doing “The Daily Calm” on the Calm app, but now spend more time on the Insight Timer app because they have a wonderful variety of instructors. My current favorites are Sara Blondin, Liza Colpa, Lalah Delia and Koyya Webb. For years I wanted to be a meditator, but couldn’t get it to stick. My mind would drift, and I’d beat myself up. But then I took a class with the meditation teacher (and Moth storyteller!) Sharon Salzberg. Sharon teaches that the moment you realize you’ve drifted is the most important moment of meditation, because you’re training yourself to notice. By practicing concentration, inevitably drifting, and then redirecting my mind, I slowly become more able to do that in real life. It helps that Sharon is warm and funny, and will keep you entertained as you practice.
As a woman who wasn’t born yesterday, what’s your best girlfriend advice?
Practice deep listening. When your girlfriends talk, listen closely. In my work at the Moth, I listen to many hundreds of stories every year. Truly listening is something that’s active. It involves not just hearing the words spoken, but paying attention to tone, body language and subtext. As I grow older, I’m trying to listen more and talk less. But also, be mindful of friends who don’t listen in return. I’d also say that sometimes friendships ebb and flow. I’m lucky to have many friends that I’ve known for most of my life. We haven’t always been in close touch all the time, but we always eventually come back together. Sometimes friendships have seasons. So be patient with that friend who is newly in love and absent for a while. And be particularly kind to friends with small children. Do what you can to stay in touch, but be open to stretches where you might not be as close, and also open to the joy of finding each other again at a future point.
What Catherine Burns is Loving Right Now:
"Misfits": A Personal Manifesto, by Michaela Coel. A gorgeously produced slim volume of a book, the transcript of her passionate lecture given at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. It’s wise, honest and packs a punch.
Dior Nail Glow: I’m a recent convert to gel manicures, but they are expensive, tough on my nails and require salon help to remove (a “fun experiment,” painting my nails pale gray, stretched out for months as the pandemic closed down New York City. I was still picking the unflattering polish off in May 2020). The Dior polish is a splurge, but it’s so pretty. It’s a faint pale pink with a little shine, but goes on so easily that I can manage painting my non-dominant hand without making a mess.
Bamboo pajamas: sustainable and so deliciously soft. I’ll never go back to cotton. Ora’s Amazing Herbal Salve, created by a mom looking to cure her daughter’s eczema. It fixes everything from sunburn to itchy skin. Last year I fell and got a cut on my forehead. Everyone said it would leave a scar, but after two weeks with this applied daily, you’d never know it happened.
Fish Scale Ring (or really anything) from 84GEM: Designer Kimone Young is Jamaica-born and Brooklyn raised, and I’m obsessed. One of her mottos: “Never conform. Be bold and enhance your greatness.” Amen!
Folios Cheese Wraps: A dear friend recently brought these into my life. I’m slightly allergic to wheat, so these have been a game changer for me. Wraps made of cheese. I sauté mushrooms, spinach and deli chicken, and then wrap them in one of these. Delicious!
"Uncivil": My favorite podcast of all time. Hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt (both many-time Moth storytellers) retell the story of the Civil War, pulling out stories that have been lost to mainstream history. The music and stories are riveting. It won a Peabody award and rightfully so!
Alabama Chanin: Their founder Natalie Chanin (also a Moth storyteller!) is from my home state of Alabama. Her clothes are often hand sewn, and always beautiful and sustainably produced. I have a handful of her pieces and they look brand new even though I’ve been wearing them year-round for years. My plan is to get to my goal weight by this summer, and then treat myself by slowly filling my wardrobe with Natalie’s stunning creations. Bonus fun: her staff teaches sewing classes online, so you can also buy a kit and make your own creations. I’m a total beginner, but with their instruction, I sewed a journal cover last year, and am working my way up to a swing skirt!
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