My heart is haunted: silent, spoken, sung

I’ve been haunted by a story all week.

The story sits in the room with me, trails behind me as I walk, hovers over my spooned-in oatmeal, perches on my nightstand as I sleep. When I wake in the night I see it gazing at me hazy and shimmering. Waiting. My neck-hair prickles. My fingers feel numb. It’s wonderful. Wonder-full.

This is a true story, heard on a recent NPR podcast, Krista Tippett’s On Being. Tippett interviewed Terry Tempest Williams, an author of creative nonfiction, activist and naturalist. Before this week, I’d never heard of Terry Tempest Williams. Now I am obsessively reading her book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Me, caught up in her writing and her stories, the way I was caught up in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on The Body (oh, so many years ago). I feel feverish, tasting words as I read like blood in my mouth or ash or tears.

In When Women Were Birds, Williams explores the gift of her mother’s journals. Here’s an excerpt of the podcast transcript from On Being:

Ms. Williams: When my mother was dying, I was in bed with her, rubbing her back and she said, “Terry, I’m leaving you my journals.” And I didn’t know she kept them. And she said, “But you must promise me one thing: that you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And I gave her my word. She passed. A month went by. My father was gone, my brothers were out of the house. I was cleaning and I thought, “Today. Today’s a good day to find my mother’s journals.” And I found them exactly where she had said they would be, hidden in the closet. Three shelves filled with journals, each one handpicked, each one bound in cloth, gingham, denim, flowered, so on and so forth. And I took a deep breath — my mother was such a private person — and I thought, “Finally, I will be able to know what she was thinking, where she was.” And I opened the first journal and it was blank. I opened the second journal; it was blank. As was the third. All of my mother’s journals were empty.

Ms. Tippett: How do you understand that?

Ms. Williams: I don’t. And that’s the mystery, that’s the, you know, I don’t know. And that’s what’s got me thinking about voice. You know, what is it? How do we find it? How do we keep it? How do we use it?

Does that blow your mind or what? Does that make you feel faint? Your imagination is off running and spinning in all directions, struggling to make meaning? Me too! Oh, me too! Less than half-way thru Williams’ slim book (on variation twenty-four), I already find her journey into voice to be broad and deep enough for diving, and refreshingly, without answers. We are left only with questions like the ones she mentioned in the transcript above. She doesn’t know the meaning behind her mother’s gift. No one living ever will. The beauty, the gift, is in the struggle to make meaning, to understand, to frame the concepts of voice and legacy and relationship – to find the meaning we make for ourselves and to position ourselves in relation to that.

We know her mother gave her a gift. The way you explain that can tell you a lot about yourself.

I think often about my voice in relation to my daughter — how I express myself to her and in her presence, how I define myself as her mother, as a woman, a person, an artist. What am I saying, why, and how? What do I share and what do I keep private? Do I need to document my life in order to make it real, to be remembered, or I can trust my friends and family to remember me as they will? How do I encourage, stifle, ‘manage’ my daughter’s own voice? What is she learning about speaking and about keeping silent? How do I make myself known to her — is that something I even need to do? Can I let my child make her own decisions about who I am? What legacy of self-expression am I leaving behind? Is this all-consuming effort to nail down and declare who we are really a worthwhile endeavor? Maybe the worthwhile endeavor is looking out rather than looking in – spending time in relationship and letting others define the edges of ourselves, and what’s ‘inside’ is simply a mystery? I don’t know. I really don’t know.

The not knowing feels heart-breaking and beautiful.

This book makes me dream of a series of short performance pieces – variations on voice – inspired by When Women Were Birds. Perhaps drawn from multiple performance mediums – visual art, dance, film, theatre, music. Perhaps as a result of collaborations between multiple artists. Perhaps framed as a festival. Perhaps an opportunity for a community to come together to explore voice and silence, legacy and relationship.  I’m dreaming about all of this accompanied by the haunting of Williams’ story. What does it mean? What will it mean?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions…

How to fall like a cat

I’m intensely afraid of falling. Roller coasters? Um, an emphatic NO THANK YOU. I don’t have that fun kind of titillating scary wheeeee! experience on the coasters. I despise them. I fear them. Even riding the Ferris wheel at the NC State Fair has me muttering protective spells under my breath and trying not to show my 3 year old that I’m on the verge of passing out from fear. It’s funny — I’m not afraid of heights (as long as I am firmly strapped in to something sturdy that will not allow me to fall and does not move), and I’m not afraid of being upside down (fun!), or going very fast (fun!), or spinning (fun!), but I am truly undone by the sensation of falling.

Now if you were me, you might mull on this fear of falling and engage in strange internet research about ‘how to survive falls from a great height’. You might consider whether you had a metaphorical fear of falling as well, and you might discover that indeed you are afraid of any kind of falling — the literal and the metaphorical. You might spend a lot of time staring at your cats and marveling at the feline ability to survive falls.* Then you might ask yourself the question, “How can I fall like a cat?”. [Wow, if you were me, then you’d do exactly what I did. Amazing!]

Of course, I’m not literally asking “How can I fall like a cat?” because I’m not a cat and I’m not actually going to cure myself of roller coaster fears. My band aid approach for that is simply not to ride them. Ever. But metaphorically speaking, I like the rush of spending time high up in the trees of art and ideas, cavorting and pouncing along with other folks, and once in awhile I miss the next branch or someone knocks me off. Knowing how to survive a fall is essential for creative, risk-taking, vulnerable lives.

Who am I? A cat reflects.

So, if you haven’t done your pre-reading on cat-falling, I recommend the great post on the blog Science-based Life titled “How do cats survive falls from great heights?”. Check it out for details and some good falling cat photos. There’s also a quote below from the Animal Planet site.

How do cats manage to take falling so easily? For one thing, in comparison to human beings, a cat is much smaller and lighter. Also, a cat has more body surface area in proportion to its weight than a human being has. This increase in surface area results in greater air resistance, which slows the fall. The important thing, however, is that a falling cat apparently positions itself to form a sort of parachute. Less than one second after it starts to fall, a cat quickly rights itself in midair with all four legs pointing downward. The cat’s inner ears act like an internal gyroscope, telling the cat which direction it is falling. With the legs pointed downward, the cat then spreads its legs so that its body forms a sort of parachute that increases air resistance. With its limbs flexed, the cat also cushions the force of impact by landing on all four legs. The force of the impact is distributed through the muscles and joints.

So, this is a little odd, but I’ve assembled a list of tips to help me ‘make like a falling cat’ when things go unexpectedly wrong in my life. You’ll see them below. Hopefully these will allow all of us to walk away from a fall relatively unscathed.

How to fall like a cat (not literally, just when things go wrong in your life and you feel like you are speeding toward the ground):

Tip 1: Stay light. Cats are smaller and lighter than humans. They don’t jump around in the trees with their baggage strapped to their backs. They don’t carry years of unresolved resentments, expectations, and therapy-worthy self-talk as they cavort among the branches. All of that junk just falls with you (and on you) when you hit the ground. If you don’t carry it, it can’t fall on you. So let it go before you go climbing up high. Stay light, step lightly, take things lightly.

Tip 2: Increase surface area. I don’t know about you, but when I feel things are ‘going south’, I want to roll up into myself like a human cannonball. However, when we feel the sensation of falling, let’s resist our hedgehog nature, ok? Cats don’t contract. Rather, they make like a parachute and stretch out their limbs, increasing surface area to slow the fall. Increase your surface area by breathing and creating space in your body. Stretch out limbs and hands and face, and then ease into something that resembles a physically relaxed state. Ask your mind and heart to stay open to the experience. Reach out to people — not to drag them down with you, but so they can help you remain open (and perhaps they can lend you a hand). Breathe and open, open like a parachute to slow the fall.

Tip 3: Orient yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the HOLY SH!T of falling and remain overwhelmed by it until you’ve hit the ground. However, if possible, and as soon as possible, orient yourself. Which way is up? Which way is down? What’s the landscape and where are you headed? What can you do? What resources are available to soften your landing? Understand what is happening in the moment. Orient yourself so you can land feet first.

Tip 4: Land on both feet. “Stick the landing” like the very best gymnast, and do your best not to land flat on your back, your head or your butt. A poor landing results in cats (and people) getting hurt and looking ridiculous. Landing on your feet requires orienting yourself (see tip above), an attitude of confidence and grace, acknowledging that you are falling, and the ability to respond to it. It also requires a lot of practice. Gulp.

How are you at falling? Do you have a literal fear that matches up nicely with a metaphorical fear? What are your ways of dealing with falling, with fear… with cats?

*P.S. No cats were harmed in the making of this blog post. Please respect and be kind to your cats.

Feeling the love -or- Still crazy after all these years

Over thirty years ago, I auditioned for my first play. My mom tells me that I asked her to audition (although I’m not sure how I knew about it in the first place since, as a five-year-old, I wasn’t reading the daily newspaper with my morning coffee. Um, Mom?). I sang my best version of Happy Birthday to You in front of a large group of kids and parents — an extra stressful experience because I was the very first auditionee (my dad asked if I could go first since we were on our way to the zoo). The big kids helped me navigate the script for a cold-reading. And, ta-da! I was cast in the chorus of The Littlest Angel. And ta-da! I became a theatre-kid and have been ever since.

With the exception of family members I’ve known since birth, I have known theatre longer than almost anything in my life. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Despite the fits and starts, the bumbling about, and the long long time it’s taken me to realize and commit to it…I’m a theatre-person. That’s what I do. The few years in my late 20’s when I was totally estranged from the theatre were some crappy disorienting times — like my internal compass was smashed and I couldn’t find true North.

Loving theatre is a tricky thing with sticky, complicated and mixed emotions. My theatre commitments have been challenging for my personal life. I’ve missed things. I’ve dropped out of real life. I’ve been unavailable to people — like that t-shirt that says “I can’t. I have rehearsal.”

I missed saying a final good-bye to my Grandparents because I was in a show.

My commitment to my personal life has challenged, and in some cases, de-railed my theatre work and the work of others.

Having a baby = surprisingly massive derailment

I don’t know about theatre-life on Broadway. I don’t know about what it’s like to make your living in the theatre biz (well, not yet anyway) or even to do theatre that’s different than what I’ve done. Maybe it’s all similar to the spectrum of experiences I’ve had while theatre-making — mopping the stage, plunging the toilets (while being grateful the performance space has toilets), getting paid well, getting paid last, not getting paid at all, 12 hour tech rehearsals, fabulous reviews, not-fabulous reviews, amazing talent, amazing people, an amazing partner, an amazing amount of hard work, dozens of re-writes, untold late nights, much ‘why am I doing this? what are we doing? what’s going on?’, hilarity, adrenaline, schlepping, frustration, unexpected expenses, story-telling magic, buying toilet paper and glue sticks and 50 fake tulips, setting out buckets to catch the rain from a leaky roof, and being grateful-unhappy-happy-grateful to do it.

Yet and still, I love it. I love making theatre and all of its wonderful tendrils — creativity, collaboration, teamwork, communication, making change, inspiration, perspiration, entertainment, community-building, discovery, connection, story-making, etc. It’s important work for me; it’s an important gift we give to our community. Theatre stimulates our emotions and takes us on wonderful, meaningful journeys, but more importantly, theatre, done well, stimulates community. Live performance has the capability to expose, ignite and reconnect our shared humanity — quite literally bringing people together shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors and fellow citizens on planet earth. Scary and vulnerable and wonderful.

Besides parenting, theatre-making is my work. Creativity is my work. It’s what I offer to the world.

I’m so glad and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in the theatre, especially in thriving, art-making Durham. I’m so excited to see what’s coming next for me here. See some info on my work.

Last week, I taught at a theatre camp, and it rocked my world. Those theatre-kids loved story-telling and playing. They loved flexing their imaginative, creative minds. They loved the high-wire feeling of participating in a live performance. And they loved the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a successful show. It was beautiful, live-wire, joyful, exhausting. Their budding relationship with theatre was shaping them before my very eyes.

Last week, I also participated in a panel discussion about the female theatre artists in the Triangle area. That discussion was invigorating and fascinating for lots of reasons, including our different perspectives about available opportunities for women in the Triangle theatre community and about the competitive vs. collaborative mindsets at work. There’s so much still to be examined and questioned and clarified and discussed and solved, but one of the things that stood out to me was how passionate all of these women are about theatre-making. If we didn’t love it, then we wouldn’t care enough to have the conversation. The willingness to engage in conversations for art’s sake, for artists’ sake, is something to celebrate and to continue.

The tasks I have before me are to remain open and to remember that my connection to my creative-work is fluid and can be flexible. Like my life, my relationship to theatre is always unfolding. I may need to rejigger my theatre life to accommodate my personal life — perhaps creating new models, new approaches and new ways of working. I may need to rejigger my personal life to accommodate my theatre life — and who knows what that will look like. For me, the important thing to remember is that the love for theatre-making is still there. I’m still crazy for it after 30-plus years.

What are you still crazy for after all these years? How has your relationship to that changed over time?

Press fresh

Recently, my husband did something unexpectedly old-fashioned and sentimental – he pressed a rose for my daughter. He slid the rose we gave her for her first dance recital between the pages of an enormous volume of William Shakespeare’s unabridged works, stacked a dozen heavy books on top of that and let it sit in a warm dry closet for two weeks. The rose emerged dime-thin and lovely. It’s framed in my daughter’s room with a little note that says, “Your first performance. June 2012.”

Because we aren’t in the habit of pressing flowers (or making potpourri sachets or needle-point for that matter), he fired up ye olde internet to research the DIY of smushing petals.  As you can imagine, there are many variations and dos and don’ts associated with the art of the flower press.

For example…Tight buds don’t work as well as opened blooms. The flowers must be dry (picking them in the afternoon is better than the dewy early morning). And, most importantly and interestingly to me….flowers should be pressed when they are fresh.

Make sure you press flowers when they are fresh, and preferably without moisture.

For us, that meant my daughter’s rose resided in a vase for a day or two and then disappeared into the homemade book-press. Honestly, I was surprised to see the rose reappear preserved and framed in her bedroom; I thought my husband had thrown it away.

Since then, my imagination has been captured by the ideas of preserving mementos when they are freshest, and pressing memories at their peak before they lose their bloom. Switches and levers are being pulled in my imagination about… The physicality around pressing a moment in time, pressing it into my body, my heart, my mind. Pressing a memory by breathing it in, stamping it on, layering it fresh between the pages of my conscious mind and squeezing so the color remains.  Intentional snapshot-taking. Recognizing that something wonderful is happening in the moment and fully taking it in. Leaning into life, pressing into life, being present to life, remembering life….as it’s happening.

Generally, I am a future-oriented person. I don’t pay attention to the present and can’t remember the past. There are some great upsides to being future-oriented – planning ahead, being ahead, moving ahead and thinking strategically; seeing new possibilities on the horizon; getting excited about what’s coming; etc. However, there are days – whole days – when I’m simply not present in my life. I turn out the light at bedtime and think, “What did I do today?” and I won’t be able to remember. Or I feel like it happened at a distance to someone else.  Often I’m in such a rush to get thru one day so I can get to the next day, to get thru with that day to get on to the next thing. I hear myself saying, even about experiences that I really like and look forward to —  “I’m gonna do it, get thru it, and then it will be over.”  Cross it off the list, onto the next task/moment/experience/commitment. Sure, this can be a result of over-scheduling and having tough, challenging or unpleasant tasks to slog thru. But for me, pushing hard thru life with blinders on is often about self-protection (if you can’t catch me, you can’t hurt me), maintaining iron control, and the desire to ignore what’s really bubbling under the surface of my mind (doubt, confusion, guilt, regret). And there’s the very real and secret fear that I am too small – too small to survive a full-on embrace with the beauty, awesomeness and awfulness of life.  But none of us is too small, right? We are all just the right size. And our spirits, our selves are enormous.

I want to change the way I experience my life. It’s not a race to the finish. I don’t want to spend all of my time in some detached head-space of ideas, future occurrences, phantom anxieties, and hyper plan-making. Life is too short not to live it, right? It’s time to acknowledge that life is happening…right…now.

Especially now that I have a wee one who’s changing before my eyes.  She will never be 2 days old again, 76 days old, 365 days old, or 1446 days old again. The size of her hand in my hand will change; the way she sings to herself, holds her pencil, jumps into my arms, uses my shoulder as a napkin, asks me for help – all will change. Her childhood will bloom and fade naturally, like mine did, like all adults.  Do I really want to miss that? Or can I make the decision to press all of those memories into my body, heart, and mind, as they are happening? Can I pause, take a mental snapshot and savor the essence of that time? When those moments are freshest, will I recognize them, breathe them in and press, press, press into life?

How are you at pressing moments?  How do you press into life?

Beauteous silliness: 10 moments of fun and liberation

This is my tenth blog post! Hurrah! To celebrate TEN (and then the next ten and next ten, etc.), I thought I’d do a list of ten with a twist. The twist is that I start the list, and you finish it. In this case, I provide items 1-8, and you make suggestions for the remaining two. That’s fair, right?

My list this week consists of TEN things to do when you need an infusion of silliness, light-heartedness and laughter.

My husband’s face-paint artistry.
Silly fun for the whole family on a Saturday afternoon.

I have play-tested all of the items on the list below (and I do them often). I guarantee that they will crack you up if you embrace them and engage fully. I’m curious to hear what you experience, but for me, stepping into fun, ridiculous behaviors makes me feel free and light and open. This shakes me out of navel-gazing, pessimism, tunnel-vision, and faux high-stakes thinking. When I open to the silly, I feel more creative, and I’m a nicer person to be around. Taking a silly break is like putting credits in the sanity bank for me. Even better, all of the items below are most fabulous when you do them with another person. Being silly with others is a wonderful way to connect and to grow the love. Be free! Be silly! Be together! Laugh! (And make suggestions so I can complete the list!) Happy 10th blogiversary!


1. Draw faces on your body. Using a pen or washable maker, create a little character-face on your body. Give your character a name and a voice; then have a conversation.  It’s most fun to draw the face on a body part that you can open and close (for the ‘mouth’) like your hand, belly button, chin, the crook of your elbow, etc. Or just draw smiley faces on the pads of your toes or fingers and wiggle them as they ‘talk’.  Who needs a sock puppet when you can draw a puppet on your hand? Side note: In addition to making me laugh, this is also a useful strategy when faced with a stubborn child. My daughter is much more likely comply with the wishes of my hand puppet, Matilda.

2. Create ridiculous endearments or curses. Using your most syrupy sweet voice, say “I love you my [insert endearment].” So, “I luuuhhhve you, my little pumpkin nugget.” “I love you, my baby squid bottom.” “I love you, my darling fried worm.” Or, using your most melodramatic cursing voice, say “When the [insert something happening], your [insert something bad]” Examples: “When the geese return to roost, your cider will turn sour.” “When the baby crawls, your toes will fall off.” “When the sea turns black, your eight sons will ask for money.”

3. Dance like a robot, Irish clogger or ballerina. (This is assuming you are not a robot, Irish clogger or ballerina. If you are, then dance like someone else.) I highly recommend Herbie Hancock’s Rockit for the robot dance. Take a fun, over-the-top, performative approach to it. So instead of thinking, “Oh, I’m a crappy ballerina,” you could think “This is hilarious. I’ve never moved like this before.”

4. Have a silly face making contest. If you don’t have a person to join you, then make faces at yourself in the mirror. Very helpful when you are taking yourself too seriously. Count 1, 2, 3 — then make a face. Push yourself beyond the three faces you usually make, and try to use all of the 43 muscles in your face. Tip: The ugliest silly faces are usually the best and funniest, so don’t be afraid to go for the gargolye-look. Perhaps it’s best not to do this on a first date.

5. Change the words to a song or make up a song. Occasionally, to jolly myself out of a grumpy mood, I’ll sing a made-up song about whatever is making me grumpy; the tune is usually meandering and tone-deaf-sounding, but it makes me laugh. “I hate doing dishes. I sure doooooo hate themmmm, ohhh yeah, etc.” Or you can insert new lyrics — “Old MacDonald had a junky car. EE-I, EE-I, O. And on that junky car, he had a flat tire. EE-I, EE-I, O. With a psst, psst, here and a psst, psst, there, etc.” I know a couple who re-routes arguments by singing to each other opera-style. Singing “You are driving me craaaazzzy!” as Pavarotti can lighten the mood and still get the message across.

6. Do something wrong. For this one, you really need another person to witness (and inadvertently play along). Make sure it’s someone who’ll appreciate the humor afterwards. The idea is to do something embarrassing and pretend not to notice. Your face is a good place to start. Get some food or a pen mark on your face; smear your makeup; have your hair stick up oddly; cover your front tooth with a spinach leaf. And then talk with someone as though you have no awareness of your ‘look.’ The fun is seeing the other person’s reaction and (in)ability to deal with the situation. Other ideas: leave your zipper undone, wear two different shoes, mis-button your shirt, fall down and then hop back up like nothing happened, call the person the wrong name, refer to an object with the wrong word or a made-up word.  My husband recently tricked me this way by substituting William Shakeman for William Shakespeare; I got totally flustered as I tried to determine whether I should correct him. He has a Masters degree in Literature so I should have known he was pulling my leg, but his straight-faced delivery totally fooled me.

7. Talk like Yoda. Use Yoda voice and sentence structure to share your wisdom. Beautiful, life is, hmmmm?

8. Play the Up My Bum game. (You can substitute other words for bum, like butt or nose, depending on your audience and comfort level with crassness.) It’s a rhythmic rhyming game. I wish I could voice it for you instead of trying to type it, but it goes like this…”I’ve got a [insert something] up my bum, I’ve got a [insert something else] up my bum.” It doesn’t need to make sense, it just needs to rhyme. If you are playing with someone else, then you say the first sentence and the other person completes your rhyme. Examples: “I’ve got a picture FRAME up my bum. I’ve got a typhoon RAIN up my bum.” “I’ve got a green baNANa up my bum. I’ve got a Hawaiian caBANa up my bum.” “I’ve got a foot PRINT up my bum. I’ve got a 5K SPRINT up my bum.” You get the idea.

9. How about you? What do you suggest as a moment of silly fun and liberation?

10. And what else?

Did you try any of the items on the list? Did they make you feel silly and free?