A discussion about death over orange juice

“You’ll die first.”

My five year old daughter said that to me about two weeks ago. It was 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I was leaning into the fridge reaching for some orange juice. She was between bites of her cereal, sounding chirpy and chipmunky as she usually does.

“You’ll die first.”

Do not underestimate the creepiness of hearing your kid say that to you. Even on a bright Saturday morning while you are in your bathrobe and she is in her snowman pjs and all is right with the world — it was super creepy**. I admit I laughed, snorted and gulped at the same time wondering if I was about to have a kindergartener-exorcist-experience and marveling at how unexpected this parenting stuff is.

I aimed for an attitude of nonchalant curiosity as I emerged from the fridge with the oj. “What do you mean, honey? Can you tell me more? Do you have a question?”

Turns out that she was just confirming a logical sequence that she’d worked out in her head….it goes a little like this:

When people get really old, they die. Mom is older than me. Mom will get really old before I get really old. Therefore, Mom will die before I will die.

Mom will die first (before me). Right, Mom?

Yeah, and it was only 8:00 a.m. 

I agreed that she was right, that I would die first. Yep, yep, you bet, don’t worry about that. Knowing my kid as I do, I know she was looking for comfort and the standard assurance that if I did something first than it wouldn’t be so scary for her. That is her clear preference for how things work in our little family world — her dad and I pave the way, act things out, model behaviors, act as examples, then she feels safe enough to try for herself. On that Saturday morning, her little brain whispered something unsettling about her own mortality; she wanted to make sure that someone else was on the hook to figure that out first. That would be me….on the hook.

It is a sobering thought that your kid is looking to you to model how to approach death — even in the simplest-five-year-old understanding of that concept — yes, that is a sobering thought over Cheerios and coffee and orange juice and slippers and snowman pjs. I didn’t know I was signing up for that when I saw the double pink line on the pregnancy test, you know?

It’s not surprising though, when I consider that this kid is watching me all the time for clues about how to live in this world and how to interpret the events and the people in it. She is all the time looking for indications about what is frightening and what is not, what is safe and what is not, how to treat people/guests/family/friends/neighbors/strangers, how to express herself, the rules of society, the rules of being female, the rules of being a child, and more…She is looking to me and the other adults in her life to model very complicated ways of operating in the world — so she knows how to be and, more importantly, what to expect.

What can she expect? What should she expect? She wants to know. Geez, so do I.

So, death. It comes up from time to time. We see dead birds or dead animals in the woods – we attended my grandmother’s funeral – her grandparents’ dog died – she hears some snippet of news or adults talking or conversation at school about people dying or getting killed. Fairly often, she comes to me with questions about people who died and what that means for them and for us and for her.

I don’t know the answers to any of this. I don’t know what it all means. Once she learns how to read my blog, she’ll know that.

So, we talk about death. We talk about how the body stops working when you die — no more breathing, playing, moving, eating, sleeping, etc. We talk about the permanence of that bodily change (she doesn’t believe in the permanence — not one bit — that’s ok). We talk about our souls and what a soul might be and where it goes after death. Once we get beyond what happens to the body, I answer almost all of her questions about death with my own question “What do you think happens?” Because I’m curious. Because I want her to think it through in a way that makes sense to her five-year-old-mind. Because I don’t know. Currently, she is certain that all souls go directly to Mars to hang out after death. Alright by me. Alright for now.

Mostly, when she comes to me with questions, she’s really asking if she’s safe, if we are going to leave her, and if anything bad is going to happen in the immediate future. I have spent a great deal of time googling ‘age-appropriate conversations about death and dying’ — what the hell, I don’t know how to talk about this — and I’m doing my best to comfort her without feeding her misinformation. I’m doing my best not to make it all sound scary (like how much it scares me) and instead to frame death as a transition, as a mystery, as an aspect of life that we all have in common. I’m doing my best to make sure that she understands that no discussion topic is taboo whether it’s dying or sex or bodies or whatever, and that emotion-laded topics are not to be feared.  In this family, emotions are not to be feared, they are to be shared…even grief, even fear, even confusion, even courage, even love.

Even as I try to comfort her and remind her that she is safe, I know that life and death cannot be controlled. Bad, sad shit happens — wrong and out of order and out of tune and way too soon. I know this. I can’t control it. I can’t anticipate it. One day, she’ll come to me with more questions that I cannot answer about life, death, meaning, fairness, fate, and the f-ed up turning-wheel-of-fortune. In those moments, I will try like hell to hold space for her and her questions, and trust that she will find her own answers over time, as we all must. (Deep breath, deep breath)

In the meantime, I guess I’m showing her how to approach life as well as death (even as I’m figuring that out for myself in real time). I’m engaging what is frightening and what is not, what is safe and what is not; I’m considering how to treat people/guests/family/friends/neighbors/strangers, how to express myself, the rules of society, the rules of being female, the rules of being a child, and more…I am wrestling with the very complicated ways of operating in the world in the presence of my daughter knowing that she can see me and she is watching me live my life. 

We talk about living during this living-alive-portion-of-my-life. Daughter, let’s talk about life! I do my best to comfort her without feeding her misinformation. I do my best not to make it all sound scary (like how much life scares me) and instead to frame life as a series of transitions, as a mystery, as something else that we all have in common.

Like death, life still happens, even if we ignore it. I don’t want to ignore either one.

Yes.

Yes, I want her to be right about me ‘dying first’ (there’s something I never expected I would say).

Yes, that is ok with me.

I plan to live to hit the triple digits. If my soul goes to Mars when I’m 100, she’ll still be a spritely 65. As far as I’m concerned, ‘first’ doesn’t mean anytime soon.

Triple digits, baby.

** Unless you are a five-year-old innocent, please be cool and refrain from repeating this statement to me.

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?

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?

“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.