Dirt and daydreaming with Gemma Gambee

Written by Brianne Garcia

Thing of Wonder

Gemma Gambee

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish what exactly draws us to certain people. Like gravity, we don’t have much of a choice in the matter. To gravitate towards someone is to surrender to this process of being drawn in, and to suddenly find ourselves in front of or next to this person in all their glow, or power, or command, without any further complications or questions. We are just happy to be there.  

Gemma Gambee is this kind of force. She is a person whose presence is noticed and sought,  yet is also devoted, in her daily work, to remaining grounded, both literally and figuratively. Her favorite pastime and current source of inspiration is staring into dirt, taking stock of all its little fragments and inhabitants. She sees an entire world of beauty and complexity in a surface that usually goes unnoticed, untended, cleaned off. Though she is an admitted daydreamer, she is always examining where her emotions originate, using meditation as a tool.

Gambee has and continues to work in the “brand” world – as a creative strategist, professor in branding at SVA, consultant, and trend forecaster – but she has also spent the better part of her adult life spiritually seeking what she calls “the deepest truths.” After years of asking, listening, and learning, she finally turned this inward curiosity into something she could share with others, as a meditation teacher and “mystic”, as she has referred to herself on more than one occasion.

In our interview, however, she is forthcoming about her struggle to find the confidence to teach others how to go inwards too. It’s scary territory for anyone to explore on their own, but it took Gambee four years, after completing her teacher training, before she felt ready to serve as a guide for other people’s dive inwards. And though she has accumulated decades worth of insights and knowledge on various mystic healing practices, she still possesses a childlike awe of the world around her. “There’s a whole world in there!” she continues to proclaim, of the dirt, until a squirrel from the park climbs onto her shoulder and brings her abruptly back to reality.

This interview has been slightly condensed and edited.

What kind of kid were you?

I was always very active and curious. I loved finding out what things were about, and how they worked, and what it meant, and how it fit together. I used to stare into the dirt and try to find as many insects as I could, or find all the different little clovers I could. I always loved daydreaming and imagining why everything fit together.

What did you get in trouble for?

I lived in a rural town about 45 minutes south of Buffalo, New York. In this town there was only a firehouse and a post office, but the post office was our neighbor’s living room. I went to the Catholic school that was a city block away from my house, so my mom used to send me out the front door to walk to school by myself every morning. And one day I was walking to school and I decided I didn’t want to go to school, so I kept looking over my shoulder, so once she stopped watching me from the door, I turned left down a different road and I crept around the corner and went into my neighbor’s yard and sat behind this massive tree. I knew my mom would eventually come looking for me, so I sat on the hidden side of the tree, and I was laying there in the grass with my head against the tree, snacking on my lunch, daydreaming and looking at the trees, like “skipping school is awesome.” And all the sudden I hear my mom calling my name, and I can tell she’s worried and a little upset. So I get my stuff together and I stand up, and I turn around the tree, so as she’s coming in one direction, I’m scooting around the other so she can’t see me. So I start laying down and relaxing and eating my lunch again. I don’t remember what my actual punishment was, but I remember getting whisked away. But I remember that day so well.

Editor’s note: A woman feeding a squirrel interrupts our interview, and Gemma politely asks them to feed the squirrel elsewhere.

I used to stare into the dirt and try to find as many insects as I could, or find all the different little clovers I could. I always loved daydreaming and imagining why everything fit together.

Did your curiosity and desire to observe get you into a lot of trouble in general?

It was definitely a problem, but only if people misunderstood me, but a lot of teachers understood. The reason they ended up understanding me was because even though I was a procrastinator, I would come back with really good work, and turn in papers with good little nuggets teachers appreciated and liked. So even though I was a daydreamer, that was the time I actually connected the dots and came up with new ideas.

Editor’s note: The squirrel proceeds to crawl up Gemma’s back, and we are forced to pause again.

What is the first time you sensed there was a higher level of consciousness aside from the default mode you were existing in all the time?

I have memories of loving being at church and praying since I was a little girl. I think it was because, on both sides of my family, there was a very strong commitment to faith and to higher power. Both sides are Christian – one side Catholic, one side Protestant – and luckily the Catholic way is to always examine the meaning of the metaphor, instead of the rules or literal interpretation. Watching my grandparents in their devotion and faith, I understood it immediately, and I always wondered and thought deeply about it since being little. I remember, too, that if anything went wrong at home, I would get on my bike and ride to church, and just sit and pray. And that was starting at around 8 years old.

At what point did it stop being Christianity, per se, and start becoming a different spiritual journey?

In high school, I went to a Catholic high school, but with super intelligent “gray nuns” who cared more about spirituality than rules. I had a teacher who taught me a class about international religions; we studied briefly all the different world religions. I always had this interest in knowing what the similarities were, and I was confused why people were emphasizing the differences. From that moment I remember being inspired deeply to want to seek and learn what all the similarities were in different religions. That led me eventually to all the mysticisms, and all the mysticisms of religions, which ultimately were the deepest truths that seekers were finding and then sharing.

Who did you learn from, gravitate towards, or discover during this early period?

Oh my gosh, so many. Rumi, of course. Kabbalah; I studied many courses. One of the first books I picked up was Reiki, believe it or not, which I know is pretty esoteric, because it’s like a function of spirituality. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was a major book for me, at around age 18 or 19. I gave it to my grandmother and was so excited for her to read it and hear what she had to say. And she was like “honey, they all say the same thing!” Even at that age, when I read or heard truth, it just felt right.

The same squirrel has now crawled into my purse, so Gemma gets up to shoo the squirrel away.

When I read or heard truth, it just felt right.

If you could collaborate with anyone outside of your field, in a totally different industry or medium, who would it be?

A painter, and it would be Agnes Martin. I feel her paintings, and her devotion to her work. The way she thought of sequence and process all resonates with this deep calm. And there’s a question there for me, when I look at her work, and I’d love to be able to experience her in her studio and watch her process to fully and better understand her work.

When did you go from being a learner to a teacher?

I finished my teacher training about five years ago, but I didn’t feel ready to start teaching. I had the desire and wanted to start teaching, but I didn’t feel ready until about a year and a half ago. I was still so scared and nervous. But I felt ready, like it was time. My dad’s death had a lot to do with it. He had died about a year before that, and I think when a parent dies, death becomes so much closer to you, and so much more of a reality. It put my life in focus, and allowed me an opportunity to really stand with courage and decide what I wanted to leave behind and what kind of work I wanted to do here. That was a nudge. My father and I had a very complicated relationship, so my relationship with him was also part of my own spiritual growth and growth as a person. So much was wrapped up and yet completed, with his death, and the relationship I learned to build with him and carry with him, after he died, has been a part of that healing and being ready. It’s amazing to watch how it unfolds; there’s no getting in the way of it.

How do you keep track of ideas or concepts for your work, and what meditations to do with or for different people?

I have so many different notebooks, and tons of workbooks I developed based on the courses I developed through my different teachers. And then I write them down in little black Moleskine notebooks, which are the perfect size because they fit in my purse, so I can take them everywhere with me.

What’s your favorite day of the week, and why?

Thursday. I always like to be right on the edge of the end, but it’s not the end yet. It’s also why I love fall. I don’t know what that says about my soul, or not, but I guess I like being on the edge of death. (laughs) But there’s something kind of nice about looking back at everything you’ve done in the week, you’ve got a day to wrap it all up, and Thursday nights are for city folk.

What is the most uncomfortable you’ve ever been, and how has that experience shaped you?

When I used to have to read out loud in 4th grade. I couldn’t pronounce words; I stumbled over words and the kids used to laugh at me in class and get really frustrated, huffing and puffing. And it was the worst feeling in the world. I used to just sit and pray the teacher wouldn’t call on me. Over and over, “please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me.” I wasn’t able to pay attention at all because I was so obsessed with not getting called on. I used to pretend I was sick and go to the nurse’s office. But then that’s when they found out that I was dyslexic. One of my teachers told my mom I was retarded, and my mom disagreed and had me tested. I had a high IQ, but I was dyslexic. It was an amazing opportunity because in the end, being dyslexic is a gift. I see the world in a way that a lot of people don’t, and I can connect dots other people can’t. I’m lucky enough that I had a family who recognized that and supported that. My dad was dyslexic and came from a generation that didn’t really understand that, so I feel lucky that I was able to feel nurtured and taken care of in that process.

I’m a person who is led very much by my intuition, so in every moment I’m continuously checking in with myself.

Is there a book, magazine, or other written work that made your mind shift, or made you think a little differently about life?

Go Ask Alice. It was such a dark book; she dealt with such pain. But I really enjoyed feeling the mix of emotions I felt for her. The empathy I had for her, being forced to be open and feel for someone like that. And also feel that connection, that this could happen to anyone.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees, it was magical. It was about Native American life in Arizona. It is one of those books that completely transports you.

What visually inspires you?

I don’t understand the direct correlation between what visually inspires me and my painting; I love staring into beauty. I look at and examine all the details, and then internalize it into a visual history, but I don’t know how that works exactly. I know that this comes out later when I’m painting or drawing. One of my favorite things to do is lay under a tree and look at all the leaves, and the sunlight going through the leaves. I also love looking at the reflection of sunlight on water, on waves rippling. And I also love looking in dirt; it’s this huge little world. I was taking a hike the other week and we came to a river, and the forest floor was mostly pine needles everywhere, so there wasn’t a lot of grass, it was this red brown, and inside would be these little acorn pieces, and little ants, and there was so much in there. A whole world! And it was just so beautiful and detailed and rich.

I love staring into beauty. I look at and examine all the details, and then internalize it into a visual history.

Is there a city or place you’ve been, to which your mind or heart seems to return? Why?

My second home town, Orchard Park, New York. I often return there in my mind. It’s an old Quaker town, a little village outside of Buffalo. It was so quaint, and beautiful and peaceful, and simple. My sister and I could just run out the door with my cousins and run down the street and go to the pond and go cray fishing. There was so little to worry about; it was so idyllic. It’s kind of crazy that I think more about returning there than I do all of the amazing, beautiful places I’ve been across the world.

I loved finding out what things were about, and how they worked, and what it meant, and how it fit together.

What quality do you value most in yourself?

My sweetness. There’s a purity to it. I have a sweet soul, and it’s fun when that gets to show and kind of oozes all over people.

What quality do you value most in others?

Lyricism, which can come through in the vibration of their voice, or in their movements, but there’s something dreamy and elegant about someone who’s lyrical. And there’s something fun and imaginary. For me that’s the magic, when people are here to decorate life, and make it playful.

Do you have any guiding principles or truisms that tend to impact the way you live your life or make decisions?

Stopping and recognizing where the voice is coming from. I’m a person who is led very much by my intuition, so in every moment I’m continuously checking in with myself, moment to moment, like “is this from my thought, my emotions, or my intuition?” And when something comes from my intuition, I know it’s the right thing.

What’s the most alive you’ve ever felt?

Standing on the cliffs in Ireland.  I studied in Ireland for a month, and lived in a town of 50 people, a seaside town, where it was just a short walk to these cliffs that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and I used to go there as much as I could to just walk along them. It was a time when I was filled with myself, and desire, and I was so young, and I remember asking the world and universe for things, and knowing my deserving power and worthiness in asking for them, and it just felt so powerful.

What are you most excited about right now?

Falling in love.

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Explore the things that have inspired us and made our minds shift


Go Ask Alice

Author anonymous

Orchard Park New York

Agnes Martin

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Sogyal Rinpoche


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