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…

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?

How did you memorize those lines?

“How did you memorize those lines?” I heard this question for the first time as an undergraduate sitting in the audience during a post-show conversation with the actors.

The “How did you memorize those lines?” question elicited eye-rolling, sneers, and ill-concealed laughter from my theatre-major friends and me. (We experimented with a lot of things back then, but compassion wasn’t really one of them.) Of all the questions in the world, that was the most boring, and even disrespectful. To us, asking an actor how she memorized her words was like asking a chef how she learned to boil water. Like, who cares? Ideally after all, by the time the play is performed, the actor has been wrestling with characterization, motivation, physicalization, concentration, comic timing, emotion, back-stage politics, the arc of the show and the journey of her character. Performing in a play is the most fun and wonderfully addictive experience ever, but it’s also an enormous amount of work, requiring the ability to take risks, manage fear, play well with others, jump into the unknown and surrender to the art. Memorizing the words is just the crappy scut work that you do to get to the good stuff. Put in the time, pound it out and memorize your stuff. It ain’t fun, it ain’t glamorous. And like,why would we want to spend time talking about it?

As a side note, I’ve heard the ‘memorize-lines question’ in post-show discussions many times since then. For plays with complex language sequences, that question can reveal interesting tidbits about how shows come together in rehearsal. However, I think it generally surfaces when audience members don’t know what else to say. If audience members don’t have something to say after 90-120 minutes of live theatre, then that’s very interesting, right? Perhaps they need guidance, guidelines, or a new configuration of people to dialogue with (content experts, designers, the playwright, the artistic director, etc.)? For a fantastic article about post-show discussions, check out Brant Russell’s article on HowlRound. Yes, I’d like to lead your next post-show conversation. Contact me and we’ll talk.

Back to the subject matter at hand….
So, friends, the karma-machine has struck again, kicking me well and fully in the butt. Because now I am asking that same question….of MYSELF.

I’ve been cast in Little Green Pig’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard II which will be performed this September. Hurrah! I’m extremely truly grateful for the opportunity. I’m super excited. I’m going to work my tail off. But holy cow, how am I going to memorize these lines? I am now fantasizing about a post-show discussion when someone will ask me, “Tamara, how did you memorize those lines?” and I can say, “Well, friend, this is how I did it…”. And I will have done it. Can we skip to that part?

The good news is Willie Shakes gave my character lots of rhymes and a fairly consistent iambic pentameter. So at this point, I know when I’m missing words, and I know the ending words for two sentences back-to-back. However, I don’t so much know the words in between. Hopefully, the audience won’t mind when I say, “Shall I da DUM da DUM da DUM da sight? Or with da DUM da DUM da DUM da height?” Impressive, yes?

The language is beautiful, lush, evocative, and in my character’s case, rather bloody. So inspiring. So damn tricky to memorize. Here’s an example:

O God defend my soul from such deep sin!
Shall I seem crest-fall’n in my mother’s sight?
Or with pale beggar-fear impeach my height
Before this out-dared dastard? Ere my tongue
Shall wound my honour with such feeble wrong,
Or sound so base a parle, my teeth shall tear
The slavish motive of recanting fear,
And spit it bleeding in her high disgrace,
Where shame doth harbour, even in Mowbray’s face.

What the what!? Are you feeling sorry for me or sneering like the 20 year-old undergraduate me? Regardless, the fact remains that I must memorize these lines or else. Fear = the best motivator!

So what’s the plan? It’s not complicated, but here it is:

  • Start now. Work everyday. Carry my script wherever I go in case of unexpected downtime.
  • Work with my eyes, ears, and mouth and mind. This means reading the words and picturing them on the page. Listening to myself saying them over and over. Feeling myself speaking the words so I get them in my mouth. Mapping the words in my mind thru various associations and word games. Eventually, I’ll get the body in on it when we’re in rehearsal and can connect the words to action and location.
  • Reconcile myself to the uncomfortableness of this process. Training for a marathon doesn’t feel like skipping-to-the-lou. It’s going to be hard, get over it.
  • Enlist the help of my sweet husband and any other person who will help me run lines. There is no app for this (well, there is, but not one exactly like what I need). For me, there’s no substitute for a live someone who will work patiently with me over and over again.
  • Indulge in a large quantity of profanity without judgement. I don’t swear much, but learning my lines gives me potty mouth. Not good creative swears either, but clumsy ugly strings of mumbled curses. It’s embarrassing, but it happens every time and I just can’t sweat it.
  • Use the power of positive thinking. Yes, I’m a gigantic super-dork! But seriously, if I can’t cheer-lead myself through this, then that’s just self-defeating, isn’t it? I’m going to be doing some powerful positive visualizing and self-talk.
  • And’s painful even to type this….I’m going to start running (um, jogging). The last time I performed Shakespeare (a long time ago), the rhythm of running helped me learn my lines and build the breath control to say them. I really hate running, but I’m going to try it. Please, wish me luck.

What works for you when you are facing a challenging task (memorization or otherwise)? How do you motivate yourself and organize your work on a specific project? Are you wondering why I spent time writing this post instead of working on my lines?