Cosmic creativity — say what?

This post was written before Hurricane Sandy started her march toward the coast. Today, I’m sending hopes and prayers for the safety and welfare of everyone in the path of the storm.

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This is my 26th post. Hard to believe that this blog is almost seven months old! The more I write, the more I realize that I have a lot to figure out. I’m wandering around this blog, sprinkling words on a page, zeroing in on what I think and puzzling out my parenting, my creative work, and my life in general. Did I mention I’m still figuring stuff out? The practice of writing on a weekly basis has provided much needed accountability and discipline. I’m grateful for the folks who read these posts — I appreciate your support more than you might imagine — especially when I whip out my New Agey wandery thoughts like the ones in the post below. Ah, the discoveries we make about ourselves in the blogosphere…

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When I am floundering about for some inspiration, I like to imagine there is a giant invisible net that catches all of the creative imaginings of the world. It’s accessible to everyone. If we are wide wide open and a little lucky, each of us can key into that mix on any given day. We reach in and snag an idea that is new to us. Then we mix, shake and stir that ‘new’ idea in with the rest of the thoughts kicking around in our brains and voila! Creative magic!

I like to imagine the properties of the new ideas – some light and skittish like birds – we hold them gently, calmly, moving slowly to build trust. Some ideas are sharp rocks – heavy, solid, dangerous, serious, ancient, beautiful. Some ideas are water, fire or wind — we cannot hold them, but we react to the sensations they create. Characterizing ideas this way helps me befriend the ones I do snag and helps put some distance between myself (I come up with ideas! This has sprung from my gifted imagination! I own it and control it!) and the inspiration (I stuck my hand out and caught this – now let me examine it and see what it is.)

How would you characterize the ideas you are working with now? How about previous ideas? Do you prefer certain kinds of ideas (heavy, flexible, reptilian, teeny, gray, melodic, etc.)? Which are easiest for you to grab?

So, on some deep level, I believe my ideas aren’t really ‘my’ ideas, even though I hold them in my hand (I’ve been lucky enough to coax them into my hand) and even though they are mine (for the moment) to explore. Ideas are gifts — gifts from the great cumulative imagination in a world of creative people, and gifts from something I read or saw or a conversation with an interesting person. In some ways this makes it easier for me to release an idea – if it’s not working for me, then I can let it go back into the great collective imagination soup, and someone else can have it (yeah, I re-gift it!). When I consider the number of people who are contributing to the world of ideas, I am comforted knowing that we will never run out – the people of the earth are reforming and transforming ideas that will lead to ideas that all pile back into the big basket of imaginings. Reach out and catch one.

In all of my creative work, even the stuff that seems solo-like, I have more than just myself to thank (this is always the case in collective art-making) because my ideas are influenced and shaped by the people and the culture and the environment and the world that I live in. In my experience, lone genius is a myth. Lone artist is a myth. As a creative person, it does me good to look to the world for inspiration, rather than just ruminate on my inner thoughts, and it does me good to be thankful to the world around me for the inspiration that presses up against me with every step. Thank you, world. Thank you, inspiring friends and creative partners and family and co-workers and community for the endless inspiration that you provide.

I haven’t fully formed this… but really, I think it’s the working of the idea that allows us to put a more personal stamp on it. To use a silly metaphor, it’s like Iron Chef right? We can all have the same ingredients (in this case, an idea or inspiration), but it’s what we cook with them that helps to define us and our aesthetic. So I wonder… maybe laboring so hard to protect ideas doesn’t make a lot of sense? Maybe hoarding inspiration doesn’t make sense? Maybe that’s a waste of energy since the ideas are going to slip thru the cracks anyway, and it’s likely they were never entirely our ideas to begin with? I wonder about all of this. What do you think?

[To be clear… I do have a soft spot for the cosmic accessibility of all ideas, but I’m not advocating for stealing in the art community. Don’t be a poopy-head by co-opting an idea that someone has been working on for a long time or has publicly declared as their special thing. There’s a difference between being gratefully inspired by someone or the happy accident of a shared idea, and purposefully leeching. It makes sense to tread lightly and thoughtfully in these cases, right? Also, I totally understand the need to have a ‘quiet phase’ in your creative art-making campaign; in marketing our art, we often need to leverage the element of surprise and program an ‘unveiling’ into our publicity plan. And sometimes people need to percolate on their ideas before sharing them. So I’m not accusing people of hoarding an idea just because they want to keep it close for awhile.]

Check out Austin Kleon’s great book, How to Steal like an Artist, for more about creativity and inspiration, most especially, Austin’s 25 Quotes to Help you Steal like an Artist. Fabulousness!

Anyway…here’s where I’m going with this, really…I think…

After we’ve caught an idea, perhaps our energy is best spent actually using the idea to create something. Instead of futzing around finding the ‘best’ idea, perhaps we should subscribe to the words of Nike, and “Just do it.” Don’t just think about running fast and dither about how everyone is running fast and you can’t run as fast as your neighbor and you had the idea to run fast FIRST and running fast isn’t really a GREAT idea….just run fast. You have the idea — you have an idea! — now put on your running shoes, and run with it. Explore. Run, in your way, in your body. Just do it. The doing is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where we can make our mark. That’s where the transformation, metamorphosing, and blooming occurs – that’s where you show what you’ve got and where you find yourself. Use the ingredients you’ve got to make something. For me, it’s even better when I make something in partnership with other people.

So if you find yourself thinking – “I can’t do X, someone’s already doing that” or “Does the world really need another X piece of art?” or anything else that shuts you down when you are only at the IDEA STAGE, then perhaps you can just start working with that idea in your own way and trust that no one will ever do things exactly like you. Make your worthy contribution to the creative world. Thank you.

If you have the same idea that someone else has, then perhaps you could work together — or — do your own thing and congratulate yourselves on how ‘great minds think alike’. Then, when you are finished creating, remember to send out literal or spiritual thanks to all of the contributors.

A rather cranky meditation on fear

I’ve done many things I regret*. (No, I’m not going to list them here. Hee.) A few very big things, many medium and small things, and hundreds of teeny thoughts or words or actions that pile up drop by drop over time. Here I am wading up to my knees in regrets – I wish I hadn’t ** I shouldn’t have ** I should have ** Why did I ** I wish I could GO BACK and do… ** How would things be now if I just did…?

Regrets swirling around me like Exxon Valdez-oil-spill water – chilly, thick, life-stealing. Mistakes and missteps. I am stained by them and stayed by them. Ruminating on the woulda, coulda, shouldas leads to regret-paralysis, and I am stuck – feeling  gross, ungrateful, angry, afraid, and deeply unattractive — unable to learn from the past, live in the present, or move freely into the future.

Here I am in this familiar territory (I must like it here, I go here a lot), soaked and cold like a stone, self-indulgent, whining, trying to make sense of the drop by drop by drop….

There are many strained metaphors we could employ at this point in the post to solve this ‘regret problem’ —  I could clean and wash away my regrets, I could pull the drain and let them go, I could just accept them and don a pair of stylish wading boots, I could turn up the compassion in my heart and let the regrets evaporate in that loving heat, or perhaps in some twist of fate, Deus Ex Machina style, someone could save me and haul me out of my regret soup and fly me off in a private helicopter to a paradise where regret couldn’t find me. I guess those are all possibilities or blog posts or whatever, but here’s the deal….here’s the damn discovery that I am working with and working with and working with and making frustratingly little progress….almost all (maybe ALL?) of the things that I regret doing were motivated by fear. Fear is my greatest regret. My greatest regrets are linked to the times I was most afraid. In my fear, I turn ungenerous, mean, angry, grasping and cold. I run run run. My thinking gets muddled, my heart is eclipsed – at best I am clumsy in thought and deed, at worst I am destructive – and these actions, no matter how compassionate I try to be toward myself after the fact – all translate to thorny sticking regret. Most of my bad decisions have been built on a foundation of fear.**

Once upon a time, during a therapy session, a woman wept about one of the BIG things she regretted doing and how disappointed she was to discover ‘she wasn’t the person she thought she was.’ Wise therapist responded, “Look, your fear kept you from being the person you are. Your fear obstructed your sight and restricted you from acting as your authentic self. Your mind created a vivid scary vision of the future that seemed real to you, so you freaked out. But fear isn’t reality, it’s just fear.”

Yeah, ‘just fear.’ Enlightening, sure (a life-changing conversation actually), but also a little overwhelming to someone who’s ‘just afraid’ of so many things, many of which she cannot even articulate. You might never guess this about her.

But it’s irritating, right? My fear is so annoying. And boring. Boring and annoying and persistent.  And I know that I’m not the only one with a made-up-never-gonna-happen-and-who-cares-if-does fear. I mean, what the hell? As people who are so privileged and lucky, who have so very much, what are we afraid of exactly? Really, what is there to be afraid of in our wonderful lives? Shame on me, shame on us for being so fearful. (Not a compassionate response, I know).  It’s ridiculous and embarrassing and disappointing and deeply human. I don’t want to be deeply human. I’d rather be a movie star instead. Sigh.

So, in a somewhat reluctant effort to step in the direction of a happier, lighter, and more equanimous life, I am working on this.  All roads seem to lead back to mastering, befriending, or getting around my fears. I suppose I have to deal with that. Boo. Hiss. Damn. Boo and hiss and damn.

I’ll get back to you about how exactly I’m going to deal with it. Dude, I can’t figure it out today.

As Fran says in Strictly Ballroom, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived”. Right? [This is a fabulous movie directed by Baz Luhrman. I love Baz Lurhman. You should see it.] I’d like to do some whole-living,  please, as scary as that seems. I’d like to cha-cha down the yellow brick road and ask the Wizard of Oz for some courage, please, so that I can more fully realize the person I am.

Sorting out how to do this consistently  – to be brave or at ease or sit with my fear – this seems complicated and hard, and frankly, makes me feel all sorts of cranky. But geez, what is the alternative, really? A lifetime of regrets? A lifetime of having a heart that’s two sizes too small? A half-life?

*I’ve also done some things I definitely don’t regret like moving to NC, marrying my husband, becoming a mom, making theatre, and having some fabulous friends and family. So there’s that.

**It probably goes without saying, but I am not referring to legit fears about health, safety and well-being. Obviously, in those cases, it is wisest to listen to your body and your heart, take your fear seriously, and get help. It’s ok to ask for help when you are afraid. In this post, I’m referring to those gauzy ill-formed imagined fears that can make a person act unskillfully, such as fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking weak/stupid/ugly/dumb, fear of disappearing or being irrelevant, imposter syndrome, fear of being alone, fear of not having enough/being enough/doing enough, fear of missing out, fear of not leaving a legacy, etc….and of course those fears we can’t do anything about like the fear of getting older and of dying.

Beauty fail, beauty win

A few weeks ago, I freaked out and bought some cosmetic spackle to “fill + seal” my frown lines.

Yeah.

I was killing time in the Barnes and Noble, and I wandered across an article in a fashion magazine about my ‘elevens’. I didn’t know about these until I read this article — ‘elevens’ are the two frown lines between your eyebrows.Yes, ELEVENS.

Thank you, staff beauty writer, for pointing out this problem to me. Another potential flaw with a special name that I need to vigilantly guard against. I’ll just slot that into my lexicon next to muffin top, bat wings, bra rolls, cankles, and menopot. Fab.

I first noticed my lines in college – they were easy to smooth out then — but over the years I’ve done much concentrated thinking (and ok, some frowning), and they’ve become permanently etched in my brow even in my most serene moments.

I always kinda liked mine until I read an anxious reader begging for help, “Emergency! Please help! My frown lines are terrible. WHAT CAN I DO?”

“Oh,” replied the advice columnist (well, my interpretation of the advice columnist’s reply) “you mean your ELEVENS? Your horrible vertical stick-like elevenish frown lines? Holy crap! Go immediately to purchase this spackle and that illuminator and this concealer. The spackle will fill in your cavernous wrinkles with a paste-like substance, the illuminator will create a shimmering mirage of young skin while redirecting the eye, and the concealer will smooth everything over so your wrinkles blend in with the rest of your makeupped face. These three products together will cost you over $100, but you must stop the ELEVENS! No wrinkles no matter what the cost. And, always wear bangs to hide the evidence of your thinking and frowning so you never look OLD or MEAN or SEVERE or SERIOUS…. or OLD. Your goal for the rest of your life is to appear 30 years old. Color those grays poking out from the top of your head. Drink two Diet Cokes and call me in the morning.”

Wow, I fell for it. I took that bait. I don’t know if I was having particularly low-self-esteem that day, but I did not blink, I did not pass Go and I did not collect $200; I marched myself to the Target with my daughter in tow and grabbed that recommended spackle off the shelf. In fact, I seized the remaining two boxes in a scarcity induced mania fueled by beauty desperation. On sale! Hooray! Wait, the sticker says they are discontinuing it?! No no no this always happens I find something I like then it’s discontinued what am I going to do when I run out of these two boxes oh my god my wrinkles everyone will see that I am getting older…must. have. this. product….

Never mind that the spackle comes in a toothpaste-sized tube, and you need apply only two centimeters of it to your frown lines. My two tubes will last at least a decade. And never mind that the company was probably discontinuing this particular product because IT DIDN’T WORK. Excuse me while I wipe the word ‘sucker’ off my forehead.

So, I raced home and spackled myself. Yes, very nice. Oh, yes, much younger now! My elevens are fully camouflaged.

That evening, a propro of nothing, my daughter reached up and traced my frown lines with her lovely little index finger. Then she traced each of my eyebrows and rested her hand on my forehead like she was checking for fever.

“What are you doing, honey?” I asked.

“Tracing lines,” she said. Then she skipped away.

She didn’t seem to have a particular point of view about my lines. To her, they’ve been part of my face since the day she was born. Just lines. Completely unremarkable, really. And good for tracing. Apparently, despite my best efforts, they were still in plain view. Huh.

Shortly after my daughter was born, I stopped buying all of those fashion/women/beauty mags. I didn’t want them around the house for her to see and for me to try to explain. I’m a feminist, ok? I’m trying to raise a four-year-old feminist. Victoria Secret ads on the coffee table muddle things up. Even still, I’d eagerly look for opportunities to thumb thru magazines in the grocery store or bookstore. Furtively, joyfully, gluttonously. However, since the Spackle Incident, I don’t read them at all anymore – Mademoiselle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Vogue, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, O: Oprah Magazine, etc. — despite how much I LOVE them. Because I love them so much – so glossy and gorgeous and fantastical and young and sleek and inspirational and full of promises and comparisons and gossip and full of answers and possibilities and the BEST stuff I NEED to make myself HAPPY. I love those magazines like I love a hot fudge sundae, but they make me crazy.

I don’t need any more crazy.

I need to be myself — which is plenty hard enough, right?  I’ll trace my lines, get over them, and then spend my time, my money and my life on something that really matters. At this point in my life, as I march toward 40, I am finally waking up — waking up to my voice and my body and my self in this world. Finally, at long last, the picture of ‘what really matters’ is coming into focus. I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste my life f-ing around with my wrinkles.

Because also, this happened…

During a peaceful car ride last week, my daughter chirped from the backseat, “When I grow up, I’m going to be beautiful.” [My internal monologue = I failed to protect her from our culture’s obsession with physical attractiveness as the ultimate achievement. She is four years old and thinking about being beautiful already. Is that all she wants to be? Wait, does she have low self-esteem? Does she think she’s ugly?]

“I think you are beautiful now,” I said.

“No, mom,” she laughed, “I’m just a kid. Kids can’t be beautiful. Womans are beautiful.”

“Oh. Who’s a woman you think is beautiful?” I ask. [My internal monologue = She’s going to say one of the princesses.  Oh, here we go with the princesses. Now I’m going to have to deconstruct the Disney Princess.]

“You, Mom,” she said.

[Internal monologue = silence]

“Thank you,” I said, “Who else is beautiful?”

She listed all of the women we know — all of our friends, her teachers, babysitters, grandmothers, and the moms of her friends.  No ‘womans’ from books or DVDs or pictures. None of her favorite fantasty-play-acting characters like mermaids, princesses, fairies, ballerinas. Just real live women in her world.

My daughter’s simple formula was WOMAN = BEAUTIFUL. She didn’t rule anyone out. She didn’t mention clothing, shoes, size, shape, skin, hair, job, money, age. She believes that when she is woman, she’ll be beautiful too. Just like all the rest of us.

My heart leaps at this thought.  A reminder of the beauty in all people, not just women, but everyone. A generous application of beauty, a blanket and universal acceptance — yes, we all can be that. We are all beautiful. All of us in our different ways. Beauty-full.

What or who is beautiful to you?

I want pizza: Losing ourselves in the Atlanta airport

The mother of all tantrums. You know, the one when you and your kid totally lose it? The one that you fear as a parent?

THE GIANT LENGTHY EXTENDED RE-MIX OF ALL THE PREVIOUS TANTRUMS TURNED UP TO ELEVEN ON THE VOLUME KNOB — THE MOST PUBLICLY HUMILIATING SCREAMFEST COMPLETE WITH VIOLENT FLAILING TO HIGHLIGHT AND UNDERLINE YOUR INEPT PARENTING – IN THE AIRPORT AND THEN ON THE AIRPLANE WHERE YOU CANNOT ESCAPE – DURING WHICH YOUR USUALLY LOVELY CHILD GIVES HER BEST IMPRESSION OF THAT KID FROM THE EXORCIST WHILE SCREAMING “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME. DON’T TOUCH ME. I WANT TO GET AWAY FROM YOU. I DON’T WANT AIRPLANE. NO NO NOOOOOO AIRPLANE” – AND YOU TRY ALL SORTS OF CALM AND LOVING SOOTHING MOM-TRICKS BUT NOTHING THAT YOU TRY WORKS TO CALM YOUR CHILD AND STOP HER SCREAMING —  PEOPLE STOP AND STARE AND WONDER IF YOU ARE KIDNAPPING OR HURTING THE KID AND THEN THEY WONDER WHY YOUR FOUR-YEAR OLD CHILD WHO IS NOT A BABY ANYMORE IS COMPLETELY LOSING IT AND THEN PEOPLE GET OUT OF YOUR WAY AND LET YOU CUT IN LINE SO YOU CAN HAUL YOUR CHILD (WHO IS KICKING AND HITTING YOU) INTO HER SEAT AND YOU HOLD HER DOWN AND BUCKLE HER IN. AND SHE KEEPS KICKING YOU AND SCREAMING UNTIL YOU GRAB HER LEGS AND ARMS AND SAY IN YOUR SCARIEST MEANEST TEETH-BARED SQUINTY-EYED MOM WHISPER, “STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. STOP IT.” And then your kid stops screaming because you scared her speechless with your violent-sounding whisper. Then she starts quietly crying with very sad eyes. She says, “Mom, you scared me. I didn’t like it when you said bad words to me. You hurt my feelings, Mom. You broke my heart, Mom.” You unbuckle her seatbelt and she climbs into your lap for a hug. And everyone feels like crap.

You know that tantrum? Yeah, that was last Saturday. Apologies to the people in Terminal A of the Atlanta airport and to my fellow passengers on the flight from Atlanta to Raleigh-Durham. I would have beamed us the hell out of there if I could have. And I tried everything I could think of to stem, re-direct, or wrap up our mutual misery, but this tantrum was a boulder rolling down hill — it kept picking up speed until it hit the bottom.

Upon reflection, on the scale of No-Big-Deal to Completely-Awful, I’d say that experience was 100% Completely Awful. Yes, she’s had tantrums before. God knows, ‘the year of living with a two-year old’ was full of fits, but this was definitely the biggest. And it was the second part of a horrible tantrum double-feature because the night before she had a massive meltdown during bath time. So, on airport-day we were starting with a rather depleted emotional reserve.

Next time we are in the airport, I will miss our connecting flight so that we can buy pizza for lunch instead of opting for the snacks in my back-pack. The decision to get out of the Pizza Hut line (which wasn’t moving at all and they didn’t even have the pizza that we wanted in the express area so they were going to have to cook a fresh pizza just for us and our flight was boarding!)…um, the decision to leave the Pizza Hut line was the precipitating and unacceptable incident that set us on the wild ride to Crazy Tantrum Town. Thanks for nothing and screw you, Pizza Hut.

Right, it wasn’t Pizza Hut’s fault. We’d just had a wonderful and exciting trip out West to see cousins with lots of fun activities and little sleep. We were both off our routine, tired and sad to leave family. We’re both introverts who’d engaged in a lot of extroverted behavior, and we both have some challenges transitioning from one thing to the next. Can you see what this adds up to in the Atlanta airport when we were starving for pizza but we didn’t have time for pizza because our flight was boarding and one of us is a four-year old who doesn’t understand the concept of time but does understand the concept of not having food? Yeah. I totally botched the transition from pizza line to airplane and then botched trying to explain it in a way she could understand and then it was too late so I had to drag her onto the airplane and scare her into silence. Bad bad Mommy.

My experience of parenting = one humbling experience after another.

On the airplane, in a calmer state of mind and firmly buckled in once more, my daughter began to repeat, “But if I got lost, then I’d miss my mommy,” and she’d cry a little. I couldn’t figure out what getting lost in the airport had to do with the hell we’d just gone through, so I asked her about it, and she’d cry and repeat again, “But if I got lost, then I’d miss my mommy.” [One handy thing about my kid is that she just keeps repeating herself until I figure out what’s going on. She gives me lots of chances.] Finally, I got it. “Oh, you were so mad at me in the airport that you wanted to run away, but you didn’t because you were afraid that you’d get lost.” She nodded.

Oh wow, even four-year olds want to run away and get lost…and are afraid that getting lost means they will not be found.

“Honey,” I said, “if you get lost, I will miss you right away and then I will find you. Don’t worry about that. It’s ok to be angry at me sometimes. And if you get mad or if you get lost, I will find you.” The the airplane took off, and we were on our way home.

Sigh. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

I get lost a lot and it’s scary. I don’t know if I find myself or she finds me or if I just wander around until things start looking familiar again.

My experience of parenting = losing and finding myself, my kid, my mind….over and over and over again.

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.

“Our youth is the very oldest part of us”

When you have a moment, check out this fantastic article about creating theatre for young people: Theater of the Young, For the Young by Steven Dietz. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. In particular, the quotes below captured my imagination in a big way.

Age is not a horizontal marker, but a vertical one. Our youth is never behind us, it is beneath us; it is never surrendered, only sublimated or surmounted.

All of our ages conspire within us and continue to underscore our days. We are all the young.

And what’s more: our youth is the very oldest part of us. We have carried it longer, had the chance to know it more fully, than any self we have concocted in the interim.

Yes! “We are all the young!” Ok, so this appeals to my vanity — I like the idea of being young — but it also speaks to something that I’ve always felt but could never quite articulate. That is, the idea that we carry our youth along with everything else that we accumulate in this life. There it is, packed in all of our little life-suitcases available for taking out and putting on whenever we need it. There’s our youth as a resource, a tool, a fuzzy old sweater that somehow still fits, something familiar, something neglected at the bottom of the suitcase, something that’s still shiny and fragile and resilient and prickly and fun and portable and us. Rather than being replaced, the young us lives alongside (underneath? in front of?) the old us.

Now that I think about it, in my experience leading workshops with adults it’s that sublimated youth that I’m aiming for. Sometimes subtle and sometimes direct, my questions are variations on “Will you play? Can you play? What’s in your imagination?” I know that youth is in there somewhere, right? “Our youth is never behind us…it is never surrendered.”

Some people seem to carry their youth with them in their pockets — easy to access, they know right where it is. And some people have shoved it to the bottom of a big steamer trunk underneath a lot of other baggage — inaccessible, lost — and then they have to dig deep to find it. Happily, even the deep excavations seem to be worth it. Seeing youth play is a beautiful thing, especially when the youth are not young.

Like my glasses and my keys, I lose track of my youth on a fairly regular basis, and then wander around frustrated and confused. But unlike my glasses and keys, which I consider to be necessities, I’m often willing to give up seeking out my youth when I can’t locate it immediately.

Does having a young child make it easiest to locate my youth? Sure, sometimes having a little one gives easy access to stereotypical features of the young — the wonder, openness to experience, easy love, raw emotion, quickness, creativity….and um, selfishness, rash impulsiveness, tantrums, etc. Sometimes parenting a child makes me feel old in the best ways (wise, knowledgeable, compassionate, calm) and the worst ways (exhausted, crotchety, pained, jaded). I’ve noticed that when I feel particularly crappy it’s because I’m acting out some toxic cocktail of the worst features of young and old. Then I don’t know who I am. I feel not only like I’ve misplaced my youth, I feel like I’ve misplaced my self.

Anyhoo, as a person prone to tangents and free-association-rabbit-holes-of ideas, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot with bubbling up images of ‘concocting our selves,’ ‘our ages conspiring within us,’ ‘age as vertical or horizontal,’ ‘youth being the oldest part of us’….etc. Can’t you see this stuff unfolding and wrapping around a short story or a play or a painting? Quick, someone make some art about this and let me know!

Or perhaps, just think along with me about these questions…So, where is your youth? Can you find it when you need to? Do you want to? What makes you feel young?

Also, if you are a theatre-type, I highly recommend signing up for a daily email from the website Howl Round: A Journal of the Theater Commons. Consistently great content.