December 27, 2011

A Few More Thoughts for the Holiday Season, or, My Laundry’s Laughing at Me

Every year at this time, I feel a recurring urge to sum things up, make a grand gesture, sew up loose ends – something big to mark the passing of another year. When I was younger, I always used to get completely worked up about having a good time – no, the BEST TIME EVER on New Year’s Eve. Invariably, the night turned out to be a drunken argument between me and my date, because damn it, nobody can withstand that kind of pressure!

So I’m not trying to make any grand statements here, no major revelations, no deep wisdom… just point out a few things that seem like patterns to me, and see what type of connections we can make. After all, it is a reflective time of year.

I think one of the things that scares me most is beginnings. Sometimes when I have to head in a new direction or start a new project or even complete a simple task like doing the dishes, I am gripped with an overwhelming sense of… anxiety. At least that’s what us seasoned experts call it. But once the warm water is flowing over my hands, I’m good. In fact, I relish those sensations. I love the actual process of bringing the dishes and glasses and pots back to their original, smooth state. I love stacking everything just so in the drainer, in a particular pattern that I’ve developed over the years that maximizes its capacity. The sense of order I get seeing the empty sink, wiped clean of any remaining food particles or soapy residue, and the dish rack filled to capacity, is actually quite soothing.

But taking that first step can sometimes be so nerve wracking, that I’ve had to just walk away from the kitchen and come back later in the day, or the next morning. Other things around the house can induce that kind of inner paralysis – doing the laundry, for instance. Once I push myself to sort and wash it, I’m only halfway there. I’ve actually stepped over baskets of clean but increasingly wrinkled clothing for weeks at a time. Go figure.

This kind of avoidance behavior does nothing for one’s sense of confidence. You give a pile of wash or a stack of dishes that kind of power over you, and the next thing you know, you’re being bullied by unpaid bills. It’s a slippery slope, my friends. In fact, can’t you just imagine the pit of my stomach clenching right now, as we speak???

OK look, this post is not meant to be Things That… Freak Me Out Part 2, but I will say that I’m glad to be naming all of this fear and anxiety so close to the end of the year. I really need to get this shit out of my system before New Year’s Eve, or I’m bound to have a totally sucky night…

Have you noticed that many psychotherapists are kind of wacko? Don’t get me wrong! I love therapists, and believe me, I’ve seen my share. But seriously, they are one nutty bunch. Not that I’m making any kind of a generalization here… well, I kind of am, but in a good way… because it’s a natural tendency for people to want to heal the thing that troubles them most. Well, heal or destroy, I guess. Take for example homophobes, who definitely skew high in the category of repressed homosexuals, don’t you think? Kiss em or kill em or heal em, I guess…

There’s a theme here. We gravitate towards the thing that most holds our curiosity, our fear, our confusion, our anger. We keep on visiting old wounds again and again, often re-enacting a painful dance like a moth that burns itself repeatedly against a light bulb. The patterning of familiarity is deep, regardless if it works for us or not, and breaking free from that pattern can be just as frightening as the consequences of repeated injury from staying in it.

So despite any resolutions to the contrary, I am quite certain that I will be walking into this new year facing all of the same old bad habits and challenges with which I’ve been struggling all of this past year. My only hope is that perhaps I’ve learned a few things along the way, so all of that bashing my head against the wall will not have been completely in vain.

As a way of setting the correct tone, this year I am changing up my holidays a bit. I figured out from the last couple of Decembers that merely doing what I always did before, except with one key person missing, was way too sad and painful. (For anyone who has lost a member of your immediate circle, I would suggest a balanced blend of maintaining certain meaningful traditions along with starting new ones.)

Being that I’ve been part of a blended family for a couple of decades now, I’ve picked up a bunch of traditions along the way. This year I decided to share as many different religious and cultural traditions as I could with my son. So far, we’ve attended one Chanukah party and lit the candles in our home for each of the seven days (tonight will be the eighth). I’ve taught my son the accompanying prayers I’ve known since I was a little girl, and he has been singing them with me from memory each night. Christmas included not only our little family tradition of presents under the tree first thing in the morning, but an afternoon trip to a local church to help serve meals to homeless and hungry families.

Now we’re moving into Kwanzaa, preparing to learn about and celebrate its family and community building principles one evening this week with friends, and on New Year’s Eve we’ll be back at church for a Watch Night service. This is a tradition that dates back to the late 1700’s, with roots in a small Christian denomination called the Moravians, who used this practice to reflect on their readiness to meet their maker, should this be their last night on earth. The practice was picked up by Methodist founder John Wesley, who turned it into a monthly ritual.

Watch Night took on a particular significance on the night before January 1, 1863, the first day of the official end of American slavery. On that particular night, African Americans gathered in Black churches all across the south, awaiting their first moments of freedom as the Emancipation Proclamation would become law at midnight. Just imagine adding to the tradition of meditating on your state of grace the dimension of jubilation in learning that you are no longer a slave??? I would’ve been dropping to my knees in gratitude, too!! This tradition has been kept alive in parts of the African American community for nearly 150 years, and I will be proud to share it with my son this weekend.

In the meantime, there is work to be done. Work work, as in my job, domestic work, as in the various things that need cleaning, fixing, purging, and otherwise tending to in my home and family life, and creative work, as in the multitude of stories and essays that are pressing their way out of my subconscious daily with, it seems, a greater and greater sense of urgency. And the holidays, though they are giving me a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the joys and reflect on the sorrows in my life, have only created a backlog on the very mundane responsibilities that haunt me the most. I am struggling with the transition back to daily routine as we speak. And though I am encouraged by the fact that my kitchen sink is actually clean at the moment, there is a growing pile of dirty clothing in my hamper, and I swear I can hear it chuckling…

Photo courtesy of Nrico

December 20, 2011

ADD, End of the Year, and Revelations

It’s the end of the year, and in the best spirit of articles like Things I Promise to Do Better Next Year and Top 10 Holiday Party Ideas, I bring you, My Exploration of the Mechanics of ADD.

OK, back up for a minute. I have not actually been DIAGNOSED with ADD, but I really think the name applies here. Nor am I a mental health professional. So everything you are about to read is completely made up, subjective and far from technically correct or accurate.  For the purposes of this piece, I will use the term ADD to refer to what I think of as “challenges in staying focused.”

OK, so now I will give you my impressions of life with ADD, and how I think this underlying condition has contributed to my creative energy, my incredible sense of loyalty, and my issues with boundaries. You may notice that I jump around a bit. Of course I do.

Carpools may be inadvisable, as then you will drag unwitting victims (and possibly their children) into your web of creative timekeeping. There’s nothing worse than being the one that makes everyone in your little circle sigh and tap their feet about, while they roll their eyes upward. Being resented like this does not make you popular.

There is just so much amazing shit in the world to get excited about… truly! If I had actually lived during Renaissance times, perhaps I would have made a name for myself as a Now Woman. But alas, my predilections are a bit outdated. Or at least, referred to by evolving and various nomenclature:  confused, dilettante, experimenting, needs to settle down, self-involved, genius, iconoclast, not sure I get her, anti-establishment, multi-genre, entrepreneurial, impractical, unconventional, bohemian, radical, ridiculous, original, derivative, ADD or just plain weird. But really, everything is just SO COOL!

 

Here’s the thing about commitment. When you have ADD, you are just so glad when you can lock onto something, you just might never let go. I think it’s kind of an action/reaction sort of thing – like how we’re attracted to the things we fear the most. This of course is the most mysterious part of the whole syndrome for me – and the most fascinating. It’s the “Backwards World” section of the story – the part where hyperactive kids are given speed to calm them down.  So paradoxical in its truth.

So it makes sense that people with ADD might actually be very loyal and good at long term relationships, because a steady, committed partner is just the thing to help tether us to something resembling normal. I believe we also make good caregivers because we’re excellent in a crisis, and adrenaline is extraordinarily focusing. I’m talking about that heightened sense of knowing the correct thing to do during an emergency.

We are also very in touch with our potential as human beings, because we’re aware of every little molecule in our midst. We understand the power we’re sitting on with atomic energy, because you blow one of those suckers up, and you’ve got acres of possibilities. Well, mostly blown to bits, but you get where I’m coming from…

Here’s what the creative process is like. OMG, if I don’t get this (pick one) story/song/poem/dance/screenplay/painting/theory/video/sculpture out of me, I’m going to throw up. Either that or, I feel something, but I’m not sure what it is… maybe I need to do the dishes, no, cook some soup, but first I will just read this article, and I’ve been meaning to google that friend of mine from high school, what the hell is her name (I always forget when I’m in front of the computer), and then I will take a shower, and oh – don’t forget to buy milk, butter, olives, that bread with the parmesan cheese and tomatoes on it, what is it called again, it’s from that region in Southern Italy where what’s her name’s family is from – ooh, I have to call her about the tickets for Friday’s show, damn, I sure hope they haven’t sold out already, let me just check their website – yes. THAT is what I call a theater. I would definitely have my play performed there, and Oh My God, the character’s name is Darcy!! That’s her name, holy shit, I can’t believe it, I found my main character’s name, and oh… she’s definitely talking to me – QUICK! Grab some paper and get this down before it disappears…

And four hours later, a first draft is complete.

Now just imagine I am your friend, and we live in different countries. You may not hear from me for months, but when you finally do, I will have sent you a 20 page, handwritten letter, detailing in flowing prose every single one of my current obsessions, revelations and special moments that will seem more real just for the sharing of them, along with as many genuine questions about your life since the last time you wrote to me.

And I will revel in the backwards process of gathering up all of the exploded pieces and forming them into something new and beautiful, and quite meaningful for the sheer fact that it came from the splattered pieces of my mind all over the floor.

So the next time I am the last one to leave from one of your parties, just take me firmly by the shoulders, look me directly in the eyes, and gently but firmly tell me, Deborah. Focus. And go home.

PS – Forgive me, I might let the dishes pile up once in a while, but once I get to them, they will be spotless.

PSS – Forgive me also, old friends who hadn’t heard from me in over 20 years, for those really long messages I wrote to you describing every single detail of my life since then, during that time right after my husband died and I discovered the true networking capabilities of Facebook.  I got very excited, but it was harmless.

PSSS – Happy Holidays to everyone who is, loves, or fantasizes about being a person with ADD or who is too distracted to care!!

PSSSS – It might just be perimenopause, I’m not sure…

Photo courtesy of Plinkk

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 29, 2011

Five tips to not starting your day like an insane, lunatic parent

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I like to write about the arts and culture as well as more personal essays about life and love and loss and yes… parenting.
Because after all, I am a mom.
Here’s a little ditty I recently penned for my son’s elementary school magazine. Fortunately, I didn’t give them the copyright, so I can share it with you, too.
BRINGING CALM TO OUR STRESSFUL, BUSY LIVES
Are your days too short and your lists too long?
Do you have trouble keeping your focus?
Do your kids push your buttons?

Are mornings particularly stressful?

Welcome to parenting! If you’re like me, and you work a full time job, or if you have more than one child, or you are simply attempting to do at least one more thing besides being a mom or dad every day, then you know what if feels like to be a circus performer… that is, to be a juggler.

The idea of “multi-tasking,” as they like to call it nowadays, is not new. People have been managing multiple priorities for generations. In fact, modern living is much easier than in the olden days, what with technological advancements like the washing machine and the water pump. (Seriously, can you see yourself down at the well at dawn, or scrubbing clothes on rocks down by the creek?)

But I think that modern technology now offers us so many choices, that it makes it hard to concentrate our energies in one direction at a time. And our kids are feeling it too. Between input from television, the internet, video games, and DVD’s, they are on sensory overload. And that doesn’t even include the good old fashioned influence of things like books, music, arts & crafts, sports, games, playing outside and just plain old conversation.In order to maintain our own sanity, and simultaneously help our kids successfully navigate through their own world of personal development, school responsibilities and extra-curricular activities, it helps if we can maintain some measure of calm and focus through all of the seeming chaos of modern day life. If you’ve seen me running down the block into the schoolyard with my son on some mornings, you know that I haven’t gotten this down to a complete science yet… Although I do attempt to start our days with a sense of order, some mornings are better than others.

Here are a couple of tips for beginning the days that I find helpful. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, and I don’t imagine that any of us will be on top of every item on it, every single day. However, I think they are good reminders of what’s possible, and hopefully may come in handy if you glance at them once in a while…

1) Be realistic. The morning is only so long, and you only have so much energy. You’re probably not going to be up early enough to get extra loads of laundry done AND pay all your bills AND do the leftover dishes and still have time to get your kid up and ready for school. Perhaps you wouldn’t even consider trying to get extra things done in the morning. Good for you. Concentrate on getting your kids out the door.

2) Be calm. Seriously. If you want your children to have a calm day, show them how it’s done. This one may take some extra doing, especially if you have developed some habitual morning conflicts with one another. But this one is worth it, particularly if you’re in a bad rut. You might need to take an extra five minutes before your children wake up to do a little deep breathing, or some light meditation. Don’t dismiss this one out of hand. You’d be surprised how much it helps to just slow down your thoughts and clear your mind, even for only a few minutes. It’s like hitting a reset button. Remind yourself just how much you love your children and try to keep the little annoyances in perspective.

3) Have some fun. I like to sing a song to my son when I first wake him up. It’s one I’ve been singing to him since he was a baby. Sometimes if he is particularly sleepy, I tickle him awake. I talk in funny voices. We crack jokes about silly things that happened the night before. It helps to lighten things up…

4) Stick to a routine. This may be the most important tip of all. For kids, routines provide a sense of order, structure and safety. For adults, they help us make sure we haven’t forgotten anything important. If you have to, make a checklist, and look at it every single day. It helps to prepare things the night before. Make sure all the homework is packed into the knapsack. Prepare a lunch. Set out the clothes. Whatever you can do to streamline the activity of your morning, do it. Involve your kids – they love to contribute to something that feels like a project or a challenge, and it helps them to feel responsible for their own behavior. Note: there will be the inevitable unexpected glitches, like a bowl of cereal spilled all over clean clothes, or a favorite barrette that just can’t be found. Build in a little extra time for mishaps. If everything goes smoothly, then consider it a bonus. Woo hoo!

5) Forgive yourself for not doing it right. You will have bad days. Your child will have bad days. You will lose your temper. He or she will start crying. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up. Go easy on your child. There’s a lot of pressure to perform at our peak levels all the time. Sometimes things just don’t go right for any of us. Try and remember that we all want the same thing, and we are, in fact, on the same team. If something goes wrong, you and your child can comfort and reassure one another and move on. There is always another opportunity to do better next time.

One final note. In the evenings, when we are ending our days, it helps to make some quiet time with our children to just talk, read or even be together in the same space doing separate activities with one another. I felt the value of this one acutely during the recent snowstorm when we lost our electricity (fortunately, only for one day). Without the ability to watch anything on TV (in our case, Netflix) or turn on the computer, we were left with the option of just hanging out with one another. We were able to use our gas oven and stove to bake and cook and warm up the kitchen. While I prepared homemade soup by candlelight, my son sat on the floor near me playing with his Pokemon cards. It was one of the most peaceful and intimate evenings we shared together in a long time.

Of course we don’t need a natural calamity to make us enjoy some quiet time with one another. It’s truly gratifying, and reminds us of why we became parents in the first place! Even if your life is so busy that you only get that opportunity once or twice a week, do what you can to make it happen! The chaos will be there waiting for you, and the juggling will continue, so you might as well take a “time out” once in a while. You’ll all be glad you did!

Photo courtesy of Denise Carbonell

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

October 8, 2011

Yom Kippur, A Day of Reflection

Inexplicable waves of irritability sometimes make it hard to tap into the patience that I value so highly. Then there are the washes of images from my life – faces of people come and gone that haunt me with possibilities lost… connections that were never made, potential for harmony never reached. The melancholy I feel is not from regret really, because all the mistakes brought with them great lessons. But I sometimes wish that things would have worked out better than they did.

I suppose this is a great place to be in for Yom Kippur. I don’t observe the holiday in the traditional sense. I don’t go to temple, I don’t fast, and I pray in my own way. And I think about how I’d like to forgive myself, and what things I’d like to change in my life, and how I could do better this year.

Religious holidays and rituals are, for me, not explicit instructions. They’re more like markers, indicating places and times where I could strive for a deeper connection with life’s mysteries. I prefer to craft them to my own needs and the current circumstances in the lives of my loved ones. If they’re not significant to us, then what purpose do they serve, really? Mere tradition as a rationale is no longer enough for me. Too many things have been done ad nauseum out of a sense of tradition, and they haven’t all worked out so great.

Another aspect of this holiday is to honor the dead. Kol nidre. We pray for their souls and remember them. This week brought the death of several greats – tech visionary Steve Jobs, civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, and two years ago on the same day, my husband Ivor Balin Pannell. All great men, all visionaries in their own right. I am thinking about them and the way they lived their lives, the gifts they left to us in the form of their work, their words, their example. We honor them by letting them inspire us to do our best going forward.

This morning I’m listening to music. Moody, evocative songs being offered to me by my Pandora channel, mysteriously on target with my mood. Beth Orton, Eva Cassidy, Ray LaMontagne, Alison Krauss, Massive Attack, Coldplay… you get the picture. These muses channel the melancholy of bittersweet loving and yearning and feeling the prickly, sad dimensions of our happiness.

But this mood, like all, will soon shift. I won’t be sitting here in front of the computer all day. We’re preparing for a drive north, to visit an old friend, heading for a couple of days of joyful sharing and reminiscing and appreciating the beauty of the season. Time to turn this mood around!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Today I ask for forgiveness for all the times I have lost my temper, reacted out of anger, fear or frustration. I pray for more patience, and an ability to live in greater harmony with the nuances of the moment.

Ivor Balin Pannell 1964-2009 RIP Sweetheart…

September 30, 2011

The Sweet Double Life of a Widow

We move on. We must. Our partners would want us to keep living, loving, enjoying all that life has to offer. Some of us are mothers. Our kids need us. Some of us get new partners. We have new relationships – passionate, exciting, fulfilling.

And yet, we still carry the unfinished business of a life cut short – stopped in mid-term. So many loose ends to contend with, incomplete thoughts, plans that never materialized, conversations that were never completed, or maybe never even started…

Surviving the loss of a life partner can be a devastating blow. Much has been written about the pain of grief, and the long road to recovery. But even those of us who feel we are on top of our new lives, thriving and functioning well, still have to contend with those familiar waves of unexplained sadness, the strange echoes of past experience that can suddenly permeate present moments.

I love my life. I’ll say that outright. I have lived more intensely, more fully than I could ever have imagined. I’ve seen many sorrowful and harrowing moments, but I have also tapped into deep wells of joy and ecstasy far beyond my craziest dreams. I’m pretty sure the challenges and  hardships I’ve faced have been essential to the development of who I am today.

My current lesson is all about embracing the sensations of my past without fearing them. Rather than characterize them as haunting memories, I prefer to think of them as gifts of remembrance. They really do flavor my days with a kind of shadowy edge that gives distinction and dimension to the shape of my current experience. Similar to the way certain songs just pull at my gut with a kind of energetic drive flavored by deep longing, simple everyday joys are often tinged by nostalgia, regret, or out and out sadness. And honestly, I don’t mind.

The greatest challenge is in not allowing the patterns of my past to define my path forward. I sometimes feel as though the walls are closing in, trapped by a sense that history is repeating itself, and I am powerless to prevent it. Until I’m reminded that I can choose differently now. I can move forward in any direction I want. Nothing is stopping me except my own inertia, my own fear, my own allegiance to my past.

 

Two quick anecdotes:

This week I drove to visit friends in Long Island, a trip I’ve taken many times. Faced with terrible traffic jams, on a whim, I decided to follow a different route suggested by my GPS. At first it made me feel a bit anxious, off-balance. But it turns out that we got there just fine, and I saw a whole other part of my friend’s neighborhood that I’d never seen before, and it was really beautiful. On the return trip, I did a similar thing, explored a highway I’d never even been on before, and learned a whole new way home.

Back in the day when my husband used to endure three or four harrowing hospitalizations each year, sometimes up to a month in duration, there was this one moment I always used to love. On the day of his discharge, he – weak and a little unsteady from the weeks of terrible pain, infections or other complications he had survived, me – relieved at the coming respite from daily visits to this place, we would walk together slowly through the hospital corridor, hand in hand, taking in the sights and sounds of life all around us. Our breathing was always calm, we were quiet, and the joy flowed silently between us as we reflected on where we had been and prepared to take in our first breaths of renewed freedom together.

Photo courtesy of criswatk