Archive for ‘Creative Inspiration’

April 17, 2012

All Things Must Pass

Hi.

This is going to be my last post on this blog. I have enjoyed writing here over the past year – kind of sliding back into it after a long and difficult period of my life, without much fanfare… I’ve been able to explore a lot of different topics here with some great support from my readers. I will miss this spot.

But it’s time to move forward. My new blog is called She Says Yes. I hope you will come visit me there and share your thoughts, often!

While it’s true that all things must pass, I am also learning that so much is possible.

Thanks for coming along for the ride,

Deborah

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January 22, 2012

Deb Margolin inpires me AGAIN!

Can I tell you something?

Every time I write something, I have this fear. I have this fear that it will be the last thing that I ever write. I am afraid that I will run out of ideas. Or, that my ideas will become a THING. I do not want to be part of the next big thing. I want to operate outside of that whole framework, outside of that flow of flashiness that comes and goes and before you know it, it’s on to the next big thing.

So this is not “shit writers say” or “shit widows say” or “shit mothers say” or even if it IS shit, it’s just shit because it’s shitty, not because it’s “the shit.”

Again, I am deeply inspired by Deb Margolin. Again, I have heard her play, “Good Morning Anita Hill It’s Ginni Thomas I Just Wanted To Reach Across the Airwaves and the Years and Ask You To Consider Something I Would Love You To Consider an Apology Sometime and Some Full Explanation of Why You Did What You Did With My Husband So Give It Some Thought and Certainly Pray About This and Come To Understand Why You Did What You Did Okay Have a Good Day.” (Yes, that is the full title.)

Only this time, instead of seeing her perform it in person, I just listened to her perform it on the radio. Live on wbai.org, just a few minutes ago. Just her voice in my headphones over my i-phone, taking me through this journey of frustration and yearning and bittersweet loving and aging and lamenting and poetry (oh, the poetry), while I washed the dishes, my son watching his cartoons in the background. And I didn’t think I could wait until the end of the piece to sit and start writing this. And at first, I tried to do both things at once, listen and write, but of course, I couldn’t.  So I settled instead for the listening and the warm water flooding over my hands, which seemed to make so much more sense.

Because you see, the words are flooding out of me. I am writing, then breathing a sigh of relief, and then a few minutes later, I want more. I need more. Like a sex addict, I just can’t be satisfied. I can’t get enough. I must put down more words, I must trace another path, another journey, another story, another wave of release, of sharing, of comparing, of touching you, whoever you are, just to connect, to know that I have been heard, to know that you know, that you recognize, that maybe you also feel what I’m feeling.

And I’m afraid. Deeply afraid. Afraid to want this so much, to need it so much. And yet, more afraid NOT to do this thing which frightens me deeply. Because really, when I take a little step back, I realize, I have already survived some of the most frightening things imaginable. Terrible losses, shocks, tragedies, disappointments, frustrations. And of course I have imagined even worse. And I know that there are people who suffer so much more awful and unthinkable things every single day, so really, what could be so bad about writing down what I feel and letting others read it?

Really.

What is the worst thing that could happen? You might not like it. You might not like me. You might not think I am a good writer. You might not enjoy my style. You might think me self-indulgent, maudlin, sarcastic, or even irrelevant. You might feel bothered, imposed upon. You might say, please, stop torturing me with your damn feelings, FEELINGS, blah blah, whatever. Shit, tell me something I don’t know.

Deb Margolin is brilliant with this play, because in it, she says so much of everything, but in a very particular, specific way. It’s a story about the experience of this one woman, Anita Hill, in this one moment in time, but it’s also the story of all women who have been harassed by men and then been powerless to have their voices heard and then ACTED UPON in the right way! And then it’s the story about her, Deb, but it’s also the story of mothers, who watch their children grow up and become their own people who don’t need us anymore, and then must contend with this world where terrible things happen. And other stuff about too many gadgets and dead birds and Bristol Palin…

I experience a strange thing when I hear this play of hers. Part of me is so filled up with the completeness of the experience. And yes, it is complete – this play is solid, and it is thorough and tight, and I can hear that it has been tightened up even more since I saw it performed in person (kudos to Deb and director, Merri Milwe). As I listened to it this morning, I felt as though it was saying everything there was to say. That there was nothing left. And I cried for being touched like that. For my own experience (yes, I identified with it so deeply) being so heard and so well articulated for others to share.

For example, “I don’t have time to dream things; I just need to do them. That’s how late it is…”

This speaks to me in a deep, deep way.

And so here I am writing about writing, and about Deb Margolin AGAIN. Because when something inspires you, it’s OK to let people know, so they can also be inspired. (Please listen to her play. I am sure it will be archived at wbai.org. If I get a more specific link I will post it in the comments.) Because I am realizing that I can write whatever I want, and that it’s OK if I posted something yesterday and now I’m posting something again today, because if it’s too much, or you don’t like it, then you won’t read it. And it’s OK if I put my feelings out there for you to share, because you might actually feel something similar.

Oh, and I think I’m going to change the name of my blog soon, because I’m pretty sure that this is original.

PS – The broadcast of Deb’s play has been archived! You can hear it or download the entire program from January 23rd, 2012 here.

December 31, 2011

Wild Women Just Do It

I have received a request. A dear friend and creative compatriot has suggested that I change the name of my blog. She says it is misleading. It’s not that she doesn’t get the irony therein, I’m sure she does. She is quite perceptive and has a brilliant sense of humor. However, she seems to think that people may not bother exploring any further if they are hit with something that reads as a psychic stop sign upon first meeting me in cyberspace.

Perhaps I should re-title this blog, Fucking Fantastic Writing. Maybe it’s time for me to come out of the shadows of my own modesty (read: insecurity). Perhaps it’s really OK for me to blast my message confidently throughout cyberspace and beyond. After all, I do not have an agent or a marketing guru or a PR firm working on my behalf. It’s just me.

See here’s the challenge. I might think what I’m penning is just brilliant, but you might hate it. There it is. Nothing complicated. What if I act like I’m the shit, and you just think I’m shitty?? That could be pretty awkward for me. Do you see my predicament here?

OK, you’re all pretty creative. Some of you might even make a living off your creativity. By the way, I hate you. No, ha ha… I don’t mean that. Seriously, I’m just playing, because I’m sure you really are brilliant and deserve whatever you have achieved. I’m just a mite jealous of anyone who doesn’t have to navigate the schizophrenia of the day job mind split.

But do you see what I mean?? This is a perfect case in point. I’m a pretty compassionate, loving person, and here I am openly admitting that if you have what I’m striving for, I would say I hate you and be jealous. Seriously. This is not a benevolent situation here, people. I absolutely want to be that person that arouses that kind of jealousy and hatred. Of course, if when I achieve that level of success, I wouldn’t won’t be a big dick about it, and I would will try to help as many people as I could can before, during and after, and who knows if I would will really be happy once I got get there… oh, the dog eat dog part of this really makes me a bit weary…

The bigger issue here is this. How do I claim my identity as a writer – own it, really own it, without worrying about you thinking that I’m a conceited, narcissistic, needy, insecure… need I go on??? OK, ok, you think I’m just fishing for compliments, but seriously, this shit gets very debilitating. I know, I know, none of you are sitting around thinking about me. You’re all busy dealing with your own shit. I get that. I learned that in therapy years ago, (to my great relief, I might add).

But nevertheless, I still get way too attached to what you might or might not be thinking. What writer doesn’t care what her readers are thinking??? I mean, you can’t really think about it while you’re writing, but like any act of bravado, you put it down with a flourish, hit send, and then the anxiety begins. It’s not easy to be brave when you know on the back end you’re gonna hear it from someone who says, um, that wasn’t a good idea, or, really, do you think you should be writing about THAT??? I mean after all, you are a (choose one) mother, professional whatever, someone who has to face your neighbors in the supermarket… the list goes on…

What am I, Catholic??? What’s with all the guilt? Yeah, I’m Jewish… OK. Let’s not make this a religious argument. I’m pretty sure I’ve stumbled into what my other extremely creative and brave friend describes as the plight of many women writers. We are often strangled by our sense that we, as women, can only express ourselves in certain prescribed ways, and to step out of that safe zone is to open ourselves up to all sorts of nameless dangers.

Seriously, girls, are we still buying in to that? You’d think after all this time we would have figured out that it’s OK for us to use naughty language and talk about sex or violence, or changing the government or being angry at corporate greed or protesting war, or pointing out injustice, or WHATEVER THE HELL YOU FEEL LIKE TALKING ABOUT!!!

Well this may be an extremely roundabout way of getting around to making a New Year’s resolution, but there you have it. 2012 will be my Year of Living Dangerously. This shit burns a whole in my brain, and it’s either write or die…

Earlier this week, my son and I participated in a Kwanzaa celebration with another dear friend. For those of you who are not familiar with its workings, Kwanzaa is a relatively new African American holiday designed to inspire and support a sense of family and community spirit. Its daily principles resonate with power and potential. As part of the yearly tradition, a libation (small offering of wine or water) is poured in honor of our departed ancestors as we celebrate their continued presence in our lives. We then honor ourselves and our children as the holders of our future.

In this spirit, I wish to honor some of the creative women I know who have  inspired and continue to inspire me through their work. Women who are not afraid, or if they are, they are not letting it stop them from pursuing their passion, their truth.

Kalae All Day – At the ripe young age of 23, one of my youngest friends, Kalae is someone who is coming into herself so quickly, she’s going to explode. She may think she’s already there, and honestly, she’s in there pretty good, but this is one young woman who brings so much to the table, I feel like she’s only just scratched the surface. Singer, rapper, writer, designer… the list goes on. See for yourself. Visit her blog. She is a force.

Deb Margolin – What can I say about Deb? She is quite literally one of the smartest, funniest, most honest women I know. As an artist/mother/lover she really gets the painful dilemma of creating, loving and letting go. Her experience, from playwright to performance artist to Yale University professor, and everything in between, speaks to the range of possibilities for creative women. She is also a damn good musician. Get her to a piano, and see what I’m talking about…

Kim Schultz – When I first met Kim, she was performing a one woman show about her relationship with a con artist and the death of her father. It was really funny. This incredibly candid woman has a knack for turning the sorrows and challenges of her life into the most enlightening and entertaining works of drama and comedy. A trained actress and improv performer, Kim’s latest is a piece she wrote after falling in love with an Iraqi refugee. Artist and accidental activist, she puts her heart on her sleeve on a regular basis, and for that I love her dearly.

Lillian Ann Slugocki  – Lillian’s stuff is so immediate, so passionate, so familiar (to me), and so unfettered by self-consciousness, that she inspires simply by being. I love the way she embraces the full range of her experience as a woman, and explores all aspects of her history, her desires, her needs… and she is one helluva storyteller. One of my newest mentors and friends, I look forward to her bravery and inspiration rubbing off on me as I resume working on my fiction.

Jennifer aka J.J. Brown – Jennifer’s background is extraordinary. As a scientist, she brings a level of insight to her fiction that is rare, indeed. Another woman who perceives herself and her work in the context of the world at large, she is not afraid to look unflinchingly at life in all of its dimensions, and explore the light and dark aspects with equal curiosity and sensitivity. I am proud to count her among the new friends I have made this year.

Jenifer Jackson – For the last decade or so, I have been enjoying the quiet evolution of one of my favorite singer/songwriters. This Austin, Texas resident who used to live in the East Village writes songs of love and loss and hope with a sweetness that touches me deeply. I saw her perform live the last time she came to NYC, at the Rockwood Music Hall, with her seasoned band. I think I cried from joy through half the songs.  Her music evokes at different times strands of folk, country,psychedelic pop, bossa nova, jazz and soul. I go back to it again and again…

Cherie Blackwell – This talented visual artist is also, I’m proud to say, my cousin. Another woman who incorporates a passion for science into her art, Cheri is currently engaged in a cubist exploration of Brooklyn landscapes. She is also a New York City public school art teacher, which automatically elevates her standing in my book threefold… not to mention the fact that she does a mean beat box.

Alice Bradley – Unless you count a few brief exchanges on Twitter, Alice Bradley and I do not personally know one another. Co-author with Eden Kennedy of the pee-in-your-pants funny book, “Let’s Panic About Babies…” (it’s a really long title), Alice is someone who I will probably run into at some point or another. She’s from Long Island, like me, so already, we are practically friends. Her book about birthing made me rethink everything I know about trying to be inspirational and give advice to other women. Plus, she says fart a lot. Well, at least once that I know of…

Carole Hart – Award-winning producer/director of the film, For the Next 7 Generations, Carole has been paving the way for women who believe in the healing power of the arts for decades. A seasoned television and film producer and writer, Carole has been at the helm of such notable works as Free to Be… You and Me, Hot Hero Sandwich, and this most recent documentary about the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. She has taught me volumes about bringing spirit and balance into art and life, and I’m proud to call her friend.

Erin Cressida Wilson – I am most grateful to Erin for her extraordinary support and encouragement at a pivotal moment of my life. It was she who encouraged me to start blogging when I was still in a fog, and she has been a great fan of my work even when I had no idea what I was doing. When I did not believe, it was her absolute conviction that I had a strong voice that kept me moving forward, one baby step at a time. I’m so lucky to know her, after all these years…

* * * * * * * * *

So happy new year to all of you, wild or not, women or not. I look forward to connecting more with each and every one of you in the coming year!

Photo by Crinity

December 8, 2011

Who is Elizabeth Streb, and why is she flinging bodies all over the place?

I visited renowned choreographer (aka action architect) Elizabeth Streb earlier this week at S.L.A.M. (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics), her Williamsburg, Brooklyn rehearsal, performance and open community space. It was Monday, the last day of rehearsal before the upcoming show at the Park Avenue Armory, “Kiss the Air!” and her company was running through several of their more complex pieces for the last time before the massive load in of equipment and set pieces scheduled for the end of the week.

If you’ve never seen the STREB dancers in action before, you are in for quite a treat. To call them dancers is really an understatement. More accurately, they are dancers/acrobats/athletes/stuntpeople. Elizabeth calls them heroes. I call them amazing. The women, in particular, appear to me as powerful, graceful amazons. For the type of movement they are tasked with enacting, they must be all of the above.

Over the last thirty years or so, Elizabeth Streb has been exploring the mechanics of pure action. She is less interested in dancers who spend the majority of their time on their feet, making pretty shapes with their bodies, than she is in what happens when she shoots them into the air from a stuntman’s air ram at 30 psi, or has them swan diving in sequence from different levels of a 30 foot scaffold onto thick cushions below. For her, the purity of movement is in the action itself. The beauty occurs in that magical space between a dancer’s exhilaration and the audience’s vicarious experience of their total freedom.

SLAM is an active, industrial looking space where her company rehearses and performs, and regular classes are held in PopAction technique (the fundamental form of movement on which her choreography is based), trapeze and trampoline skills. The space is always accessible to the public. In fact, I arrived to find a group of parents with strollers and young children observing the dancers, and a TV crew preparing to shoot an interview with Elizabeth in front of one of her massive sets, a combination of truss and ladders from which her dancers would no doubt be leaping at some point.

A compact figure dressed almost entirely in black, with matching spiky black hair, glasses and motorcycle boots, Elizabeth is direct and without pretense, combining a raw intensity and gleeful enthusiasm that is reflected all around her in the high tech playground she has conjured. Armed with schematic drawings and storyboards, she is part engineer and part storyteller, and exudes the same in-your-face power as her choreography.

Elizabeth Streb is an artist who appears unfazed by both the criticism and the praise that have alternately been directed at her over the years. Her work is at turns nervewracking, thrilling and exhilarating to watch, and she has been termed everything from daredevil to genius. After she burst on the scene to rave reviews in 1981, she was accused in some quarters of promoting a violent, sado-masochistic dance form. But while this summer’s premiere of the company’s piece “Human Fountain” at the World Financial Center Plaza may have disturbed some with its series of bodies diving through the air from three stories of scaffolding, it also symbolically baptized the haunted space by redefining that movement experience, as the dancers repeatedly got up after their euphoric falls and climbed the ladders again.

Streb’s movement theory has its roots in downhill skiing, with which she was obsessed until her mid twenties. She has been exploring ways to recreate that highly kinetic and mostly causal experience since then through dance, while pondering questions about time and space and how they relate to movement. She believes that movements should take only as much time as they take to do (an economy of physicality she surely learned from her beloved sport), depending on the skill of the dancer and the physical conditions in which they are placed. And with each show, she has invented increasingly ingenious and challenging settings to push the limits of her theories as well as her wonderful dancers.

Next week’s show at the Park Avenue Armory is allowing Elizabeth to go to scale in a way she’s never been able to do before. “I don’t think this could be a more impractical show,” she says. Audience members will be seated on either side of a 200 foot deep performance area beholding dances set on and off of giant ladders, scaffolding, bungee cords, with water, enormous video screens… Indeed, not many spaces in New York City could accommodate such a grand vision. Streb sees this increasing scale of containment as a pathway to what she terms the “miniaturization of the body.” As her work gets bigger and bigger, the dancers as individuals become less of an obvious focus, and the action itself takes center stage.

This summer, the STREB company will be doubling in size and travelling to London for the Summer Olympics. For one of their pieces, the dancers will be bungee-ing off the side of the London Tower Bridge. Aided by high speed winches and outfitted with LED lights, they will create a moving kaleidoscope of patterned illuminations. In practical terms, they will exist only as dots of light, yet the fact that these patterns are comprised of actual humans, actually jumping from a bridge (!!) will inform the audience’s experience of the performance, amplifying the spectacle factor to dizzying levels. Other major pieces are also planned for the Millennium Bridge and the London Eye.

Clearly, Elizabeth Streb is not your average choreographer. Her explorations of bodies moving in space and time have their foundations in dance as much as they do in sports, martial arts, and gravity-defying stunts, as well as mathematics, physics and engineering. A MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Award recipient, she asks herself the kind of quantum questions that tread into that deliciously mysterious territory where science and philosophy meet: “Could you move so fast that you could disappear? Can you leave the building by any other way than the door? Can you fall up?”

And yet, it is critical to her that her cerebral explorations have a functional translation, and that the totality of her work “provides a service for what people want and need, and think they should have.” She may have some heady theories about dance and movement, but SLAM is a lively, inviting community space, and experiencing a performance by the STREB company is a wholly visceral experience. Her dancers are indeed heroes, embodying her action mechanics with the kind of grace and skill that elevate those theories to a fully satisfying reality.

Tickets for the December 14th-22nd performances of “Kiss the Air” are available now at the Park Avenue Armory website.

For a video clip of the company rehearsing Human Fountain and a short conversation with Elizabeth Streb in four tiny parts, visit my youtube page here.

Photo by Tom Caravaglia

December 8, 2011

I write fiction, too. And I’m entering a contest.

You may notice that I’m expanding my subject matter lately. I’ve added more pieces on the arts and culture, and you can look forward to a new series of interviews with notable creative and visionary people who inspire me.

And, I am working on my fiction. Yep.

I’ve entered a contest to see if my main character’s voice is strong enough that a panel of experts can guess his age. Today, I’m to post the first 250 words of the story on my blog for the other entrants to see, and submit a copy to the judges. This is actually the beginning of one of my favorite short stories, but I can’t tell you the name yet, or I’ll break the contest rules.

I figure it’s time to open up my work to more criticism, hopefully of the supportive type. I just know I can make it better. So if you’re one of my regular readers, please, send me your thoughts. I care what you think. And if you’re a new visitor, welcome. I’m happy to have you, and I welcome your feedback as well…

And now, here is the beginning of my story…

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Mr. Mooney was in a very bad mood.  Driving home from work on the crowded West Side Highway north towards the Henry Hudson Bridge, he heard a funny clacking sound coming from under the hood that sounded suspiciously like the sound he heard the last time he brought the car into the shop.  Damn that mechanic.  I know he’s ripping me off, he thought.  You just can’t trust anyone.

Alexander Mooney was never one to require reassurance or a softening of hard edges.  He liked his lights harsh, his desk clean, and his coffee on time.  So when his gal Rosemary hadn’t shown up that morning until nearly 9:20 with his morning brew, he knew this was going to be a particularly shitty day.

Rosemary was very efficient, pretty, and cheerful enough, but she had three children between the ages of 7 and 17, and something was always going wrong with one of them.  If she hadn’t been so good at typing and shorthand, or hadn’t been in the habit of wearing particularly tight blouses (with what must have been a brassiere made of gauze for all the good it did her), he would have given her the boot a long time ago.  The girl simply missed too many days of work.  It was always something – one kid with the chicken pox, the other one who cracked his front tooth during a sporting match, and then that oldest girl with her mysterious female troubles – infection, or some such thing…

Photo courtesy of sampsyo

November 20, 2011

Deb Margolin’s new solo piece about Anita Hill inspires troubling questions as it entertains… plus it really made me laugh

Last night, after seeing Deb Margolin‘s new one-woman show called, “Good Morning Anita Hill… ” at the All For One Theater Festival at Theatre 80 St. Marks, I had a disturbing dream. I dreamed that a man I hardly knew had latched onto me and grabbed my breast and would not let go. As much as I screamed and cursed and pounded on him and struggled, I could not break free of his grip. I woke up feeling exhausted and frustrated and helpless. It seems Deb’s play got under my skin.

I remember the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. I remember watching Anita Hill’s testimony – her dignified presence, her calm demeanor. I remember her detailed descriptions of things Clarence Thomas had said to her, things of an explicitly sexual nature that no sane woman would 1) make up and then 2) articulate for a world audience, knowing what that type of exposure would do to her in the public eye. No woman living outside of upside-down backwards world would make that choice, unless she felt she absolutely had to do it. It was clear to me at the time that she had been telling the truth. I remember listening incredulously and with increasing anger to the pundits debating the veracity of her statements. I remember the sinking feeling when I watched helplessly as the white men of the senate made the decision that it was safer to appear sexist than racist and voted to confirm Clarence Thomas as a supreme court justice.

This is the stuff of Deb Margolin’s latest performance piece. The full title, “Good Morning Anita Hill It’s Ginni Thomas I Just Wanted To Reach Across the Airwaves and the Years and Ask You To Consider Something I Would Love You To Consider an Apology Sometime and Some Full Explanation of Why You Did What You Did With My Husband So Give It Some Thought and Certainly Pray About This and Come To Understand Why You Did What You Did Okay Have a Good Day,”  is taken verbatim from a phone message Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, recently left on Anita Hill’s voice mail. The surreality of that act is the perfect cap to the lingering insanity of having a man like Thomas, whose character is in such deep question, sitting in one of the most powerful positions in the country.

This is the jumping off point for the emotional terrain that Deb explores in her latest work-in-progress, a long awaited return to solo performance. She flows effortlessly through a stream of consciousness that journeys from a broad exploration of courage and tragedy to the everyday tasks of our lives. She juxtaposes the bittersweet experience of parenting children who need us less and less (“I’m not over their childhoods the way they are”), to the increasing challenge of making a difference in the world. What is left for us when we have given everything we can, taken back everything we can, reshaped, reclaimed and renounced, but resorting to a big Fuck You? An unsettling landing place, to say the least, for those of us who continue to believe that change is possible, without adopting the violence of our oppressors… and yet, what else are we to think when confronted with the likes of Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars?? The absurdity of it all…

What is happening to our world? What is happening to my spirit? What is happening to my children? What is happening to my life? Big questions, delivered with honesty and poetry and humor. What else could one ask for in a play?

I first met Deb Margolin over two decades ago when she and I enjoyed a brief stint together as part of the infamous Sister Theresa and the All Jew-Girl Band (we were two of the Jew-Girls). We haven’t seen each other in ages, and much has happened since then. But I am happy to say that despite raising two children into near adult-hood, battling cancer, becoming a renowned playwright and solo performer and joining the faculty of the Yale University Theater Department, Deb hasn’t changed a bit. She is still as open and brilliant and affectionate and funny and quirky and might I add, in terrific shape (work that black dress, girl) as ever. And though the play is still in need of honing for maximum dramatic impact, the material is all there.

And who else but Deb Margolin would have the courage to revisit this troubling chapter in our country’s history? In a tight black dress? With high heels? And dancing?

 

PS – A few months after this post, Deb performed her play live on the air on WBAI radio. An archived recording of the January 23, 2012 broadcast can be enjoyed here.

October 30, 2011

Something About the Darkness

There’s something about darkness that drives me to places I don’t expect. About twelve years ago, a friend invited me to stay in his cabin on Block Island. I drove up there alone. It was in early March. Cold, deserted. Not tourist season. One of the locals I met in a convenience store described it as The Shining.

I fancied myself on an artist’s retreat. During the day, I woke up at dawn, did yoga as the sun rose over the water, watched the snow fall out of the windows and wrote poetry. I bundled myself up and took my video camera outside to capture close-ups of frozen plants and wide shots of ships sailing on the horizon. I listened to music on my portable CD player and danced around the room. I played my flute, improvising harmonies to the melodies I heard. The quiet solitude drove me deep inside myself. I felt a trembling desire to derive meaning out of everything I saw and felt and heard and thought.

As sunset approached, my anxiety grew. I cooked pasta, drank wine, and watched as the windows darkened all around me. What had been, during the day, a symphony of soft light playing across the bare wood and woven fabrics of the cabin’s modest interior, became at night an increasingly frightening experience that threatened to overwhelm me. I felt trapped in a spartan cubicle of rustic solitude. The darkness was filled with shadows that flitted just outside of my line of sight. The wind whistled with a sinister mystery. Cell phone service – none. TV – nope. A couple of random movies that I played on my laptop helped to pass the time and tire me out. My night time poems took on a desperate and slovenly appearance as I drank more wine.

I cut my trip short after four days. I couldn’t take it anymore. On the ferry ride back, the waters were so rough that I spent the entire trip throwing up. The drive back to NYC barely settled me down, and by the time I arrived home to my husband and cat, I could only meet their enthusiastic welcome with a queasy half smile.

Much has happened since then. I have endured great losses, and my fear threshold has risen dramatically (that is, it takes a lot more to scare me). What I fear now has less to do with the cycles of light and day, and more to do with the internal spaces that I strive to fill with significance. I still yearn for that satisfying experience of self-expression, but I am not as drawn to the heroic gestures of creativity that characterized my youth. My aspirations are broader, the projects more long-term. I recognize the work will be only about one part inspiration to nine parts diligence and hard work.

It takes more of an effort to focus these days. I’m sure part of it has to do with the sheer volume of responsibilities that fall under my domain – parenting, home-owning, working a full time job, not to mention the stuff of everyday living – taking care of myself, paying my bills, maintaining relationships with my family and friends… I also know that the nature of my work lends itself to a consciousness pulled in a myriad of different directions at any given time. Managing communications for a small start-up company, I wear a lot of hats, and I spend a good deal of my time engaged in social media marketing and networking. Plus, I still work on my own creative projects that fuel my spirit and fire up my imagination. They feed back into my ability to do everything else.

When we lost our electricity yesterday in the surprisingly severe snowstorm, I was surprised at how I embraced the opportunity to be home with my son and enjoy the simplicity of the evening. Sure, I had work I was supposed to be doing, and I regretted that I would lose time on a number of key projects. But as night approached, I decided to hunker down and enjoy the moment.

To combat the increasing cold, I turned on the oven and baked a kabocha squash. By candlelight, I cut and peeled vegetables for soup while my son sat on the kitchen floor organizing his Pokemon cards. We talked quietly. We laughed. I drank wine. He added orange seltzer to my glass, and I discovered a new, refreshing kind of wine cooler. We ate soup and squash together on the couch, cuddled under a warm shawl. He fell asleep before his usual bed time. We moved into my bedroom and hunkered down together in our clothes, under layers of blankets. We slept for almost 11 hours, hibernating like bears, hoping to wake up to warmth and light.

I didn’t write anything last night. No flood of creative inspiration in the midst of a liminal experience. But I did touch a quiet place inside myself that I rarely encounter. I thought about the different people in my life. Some happy, some sad. Some  in passionate, satisfying relationships, others lonely, searching. Most of them having moments of each, since life and love are rarely if ever only one thing.

Do you get scared and lonely in the dark? We all do. Once in a while. But darkness is also a place of great magic. Memories, fantasies, dreams and desires blend and mingle into a soup of possibility cooked from the simple ingredients of our experience. It’s all material. I try to remind myself of that. All those awful moments, the mistakes, the regrets… they’re material. I’m grateful for having all this stuff to work with… I hope to create something very special.

October 17, 2011

A Master of Documentary Photography Celebrates His Legacy

Earlier this week I took my son to the opening night of a photography exhibit called Mel Rosenthal: 40 Years in Pictures. The evening celebrated Mel’s retirement from teaching at Empire State College, where he was hired in 1975 to  to build a photography program in the South Bronx, alongside teaching American Studies and Media. He subsequently founded the Photojournalism Program at the school’s Manhattan location, and has since nurtured and mentored countless photographers.

Mel Rosenthal has spent the last four decades traveling the globe from Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and VietNam back to his native South Bronx. A strong believer in the connection of art to activism, he has made it a point to chronicle the lives of people who have been marginalized, misunderstood, or simply overlooked. Venturing into communities outside the mainstream, Mel has also focused on immigrant and refugee communities, exploring their uniqueness in a way that often underscores the universality of human experience.

I first met Mel back in the late 90’s during my erstwhile foray into documentary filmmaking, at a time when he was preparing to publish his book, In the South Bronx of America. We quickly bonded on the topic of our respective creative work. At the time, I was working on a project I had undertaken to examine the lives of Iraqi citizens who had been negatively impacted by American-led sanctions aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. As my exploration took me in the direction of meeting Iraqi refugees who had resettled in the United States, I suppose it was no coincidence that Mel and I found a common bond in our pursuit of giving voice to the voiceless.

Mel Rosenthal’s work has a way of evoking the simple beauty in the humanity of people. He sees them as they are and communicates his appreciation for them to others by quietly observing them and reporting back on their moments in time. It is obvious that his is a loving eye – not sentimental or cloying, just coming from the heart, and not afraid to accept life as it is.

And indeed, his philosophy on photography as an art form also embodies an elegant simplicity. I overheard one of his former students declaring to him, “You said, a camera’s just a box with a hole,” with the conviction of someone for whom this basic truth had become a foundational support. When another photographer, who had only corresponded with Mel via e-mail prior to this first meeting, asked him, “What do you shoot with these days?” he replied, “I don’t know, whatever I have that’s around.”

A humble, unassuming man, Mel does what he does because it’s work he believes in. He has repeatedly stepped into war torn or otherwise less than cushy environments, to document the reality he finds there, captured in the eyes of the human beings with whom he always finds some common ground. He just knows how to relate to other people.

Although he walks and speaks a bit slower than he did several years ago, Mel has not lost that sparkle of life that infuses his every communication. In this photo, he is telling my son, whom he was meeting for the first time, how lucky he was to have me for a mommy. A short while later, I listened to the two of them trading renditions of radio sound effects they had each learned how to imitate vocally, impressing each other…

You can always tell when someone of significance is in the room. People hover about, waiting to get close, planning what they want to say. Some share inordinate amounts of information about themselves in rushed introductions, others work to be impressive about their accomplishments, to communicate their worthiness to someone whom they admire so much, while all are just so glad to be connected to him in some way. Mel, who has both the toughened exterior of a war correspondent and the soft heart of a child, regards each person he encounters with the same clear gaze of appreciation for their particular connection, listening patiently as he engages with him or her.

Although I never did finish that film, he and his girlfriend Bobbe have never ceased to express their support for me as an artist, and as a human being. Just as all of my unfinished projects have been a necessary part of my own development, I wonder how many projects Mel has in some stage of (in)completion, waiting for him to devote more time to them. Now that he’s retiring from teaching, who knows where his energies will be directed?

One thing is for certain, Mel has inspired countless photographers and other creative individuals to pursue their art in service of humanity. Re-invigorating my contact with him and Bobbe has already got me wondering about new ways I can make myself useful…

This exhibit will be up and running until February 3, 2012 at the Hudson Gallery, SUNY Empire State College, Metropolitan Center, 325 Hudson St., 3rd Floor, NY, NY

Photo courtesy of Ricky Flores

July 8, 2011

That Perfect Moment

I heard a new song yesterday. Trailer Park Boneyard, by The Coathangers. I’m not even sure how I found it. I think YouTube just threw it at me randomly after I watched something else. I checked it out. It hit me like a ton of bricks. This song is raw and inspired, and has one of the best guitar hooks I’ve heard in the longest time. I think I’ve listened to it about ten times since last night. I can’t stop. It’s stirring up something old and familiar in me that I recognize from back in the day.

These Atlanta girls scare and delight me. They don’t give a rat’s ass about being nice. Ha! I’m pretty sure in some folks eyes they are going straight to hell. This song, Hurricane is so eerily hot and sexy, I almost feel like I’m sinning just watching the video. When was the last time you let yourself go all out like this?

I remember this feeling. It’s powerful, anarchic, the kind of thing that could distract me from regular responsibilities and make me do very bad things. I thought it was the coffee I drank last night that made me so excited (been trying to quit, had a slip last night, might need an intervention), but I put Trailer Park Boneyard on again this morning and it made me cry. Remember the Sex Pistols? The Ramones? Blondie? The Slits? Remember 1979, 1980 when London and NYC were exploding with this new music that told the rest of the world where to go? These were not necessarily productive times. People got about as fucked up as they could on whatever they could find. Things got destroyed, broken, and many boundaries were shattered. Some stuff got rebuilt, some did not.

But you know… matter & energy – they might transform, but they do not go away. I may not be clubbing like I used to, and if coffee is my worst drug, well that should tell you what you need to know there… but I know these girls. Like I know myself. I still have these feelings, and they’re not all locked away. Now I watch my 8-yr-old son fling his body around the house when he hears music he likes, and yeah, he’s playing the drums a bit. And I like it.

Photo ripped from this review on idsnews.com

May 8, 2011

Let’s Consider Our Humanity for a Minute…

Hi Everyone, it’s me again.

In honor of Mother’s Day and my maternal instincts that extend well beyond my own child, I want to present you with this thought. If we can get ourselves to think about at least one other person in the world outside our immediate circle and do something to more fully understand them and their suffering, their humanity, then we will be taking a significant step towards making the world a better place. For once we make that type of emotional connection to another human being, it’s hard to not consider following up with some action. We just have to take it one step at a time.

It almost doesn’t matter which person or people you choose. There are plenty of options of people in need. Just pick one and go from there. But in case you need an idea, here’s one: Iraqi refugees.

Many of us are living fairly comfortable lives. Even though we all have our share of problems and struggles, in general, the situation here in the US is qualitatively different from that of any people who are living in a war torn region where car bombings and other random attacks are a daily occurrence, and the very fabric of normal existence has been ripped apart by drastic deficits created in the basic infrastructure. Such is the case in Iraq. It has been like this for the vast majority of Iraqi citizens for over 20 years, largely due to the impact of US policy towards that country. The level of suffering of the Iraqi people has been well documented, and it’s pretty damn staggering. Currently there are over 4 million displaced Iraqis, many of whom are now living in a virtual state of limbo in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

After 9/11, Iraqis were unfortunately (and, as there is much evidence to prove, mistakenly) associated with those who would do harm to the US. With that kind of negative legacy, inspiring support for Iraqis among Americans continues to be a daunting task. Several artists I am proud to know have undertaken projects that provide a way to help American people to grasp the very basic human aspects of the situation and relate to Iraqis as fellow world citizens, not too different from ourselves. I truly believe that making this connection is our only hope. When people hear their stories, they are moved. It’s that simple.

Check out the following creative endeavors which I believe go a long way towards evoking appropriate understanding of and sympathy for Iraqi refugees and will hopefully inspire concrete action on their behalf:

No Place Called Home – A one-woman show written and performed by Kim Schultz, commissioned by Intersections International, based on her experiences hearing the stories of Iraqi refugees she met in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, performed in NYC, Washington, DC and South Bend, Indiana, and now launching a national tour.

The Unreturned – A documentary film chronicling the plight of five displaced middle-class Iraqis, living in Syria and Jordan, by filmmaker Nathan Fisher, seen at festivals in the US, Europe, Canada, Syria and Japan.

Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage – A comprehensive book chronicling the last twenty years of the near destruction of Iraqi society, featuring searing historical documentation and in-depth interviews of Iraqi refugees living in Syria and Jordan, as well as western countries, written by Michael Otterman and Richard Hill with Paul Wilson.

These artists, who are each committed to making a difference in the lives of our Iraqi brothers and sisters, have my complete admiration, as I, too have worked on a creative project illuminating the plight of Iraqi civilians, but unlike each of them, I was unable to complete my own project.

My film, “Christmas in Baghad,” which I worked on from 1999-2001, looked at the impact of sanctions after the first Gulf War on the lives of Iraqi citizens and their family members living here in the US. I never forgot the quiet dignity and generosity of spirit I encountered in the families I met and grew to care about during production. I, too, had a similar experience of hearing the stories of brave and sad human beings who had endured incomprehensible suffering for reasons that were beyond logic. These stories also burned a place in my soul.

And that’s why I’m sharing this information with all of you. Read Mike’s book. Check out Nate’s film. See Kim’s show. Better yet, arrange for a reading, a screening, a performance. Maybe even a panel discussion with all three of them! Contact me, I know them all. I’ll hook you up.

I’m not trying to overwhelm you. This is just me introducing the topic. Take in what you can right now, I just wanted you to know there are options moving forward. But we can take it one step at a time. For now, just consider the fact that it could be important to all of us. To our humanity. Think about it. I’ll get back to you…

With gratitude,

Deborah