Sunday, October 29, 2006

October 29, 2006

Yesterday, G and I went to see the wild green parrots in San Francisco. These parrots, the subject of a documentary film called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, originally started out as a few dumped pets whose disillusioned owners found them too loud and squawky for apartment living. They were released, but instead of flying back to Costa Rica or getting eaten by predators, they got comfortable in the city, propagated, and now there are two hundred or so of them who get fed regularly by a smitten group of urban parrot aficionados.

They wheel and flock and scream, eat birdseed and bits of apples from people's hands, fight over the food in each others' mouths. The humans who serve them are "trained" by the parrots to come with food at a certain time. G took some great pictures, which I will put up here as soon as technology allows.

Last night, I went to see my friend Colleen ("Coke") Nakamoto, her husband, Bobby, and two other performers at Noh Theatre doing dances and dance-theatre pieces. mmm...the duet between Coke and Bobby was so vulnerable and strong as she danced while he played saxophone. About thirty of us packed into the tiny Noh theatre, sitting squished cheek to cheek. Coke's work was called "The Lamb" and dealt with love and sacrifice.

She interviewed a bunch of people, including me, for a video piece which accompanied the work. The video part malfunctioned, but the voices were heard on tape, which I liked just as well (although I never saw the video, and would like to eventually.)

Mostly I was ipressed with her courage and vulnerability--and Bobby's--knowing them, and seeing how vulnerable and honest and beautiful their connection is, and their willingness to share that in a performance which felt more like a sacred rite...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

October 26, 2006

Tuesday night Wing It! performed at a dinner for the U.N. Association of the East Bay. I improvised a poem at the round table in the hall of International House in Berkeley: "The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The blossoms of the tree are for the beauty of the people. The fruit of the tree is for the feeding of the hungry. etc"

Soyinka Rahim played her flute, Chinh Nguyen sang in Vietnamese, and Ook I don't know his last name recited a Korean blessing. Then everyone went in to eat and listen to speakers--Representative Barbara Lee on video, Dr. Larry Brilliant, also on video--he's the head of, the philanthropic arm of, and concerned with world health.

Local people and groups were honored for their contributions to world welfare--God, I'm a spaz, I didn't save my program...well, an Indian woman who lives around here has worked setting up orphanages in India, an African American doctor from Allen Temple Baptist church cares for AIDS patients in Africa, the local Rotary Club which has provided hundreds of non-polluting stoves to people in Latin America so that they don't have to cut down their forests to cook food, and on and on. Moving and inspiring. A consortium of high school groups had raised $47,000 to provide people with fresh drinking water in Africa.

In the middle of all this, Wing It! dressed in black, dancing, drumming, storytelling, was a weird venue in which to "perform"--not my first choice aesthetically or theatrically, frankly, but good in that we were participating in a much larger global conversation.

The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 39 years. Thirty nine years!! Someone dies every three seconds from poverty and hunger. Most of those people are children.

How to dance, make art, do anything in the face of that? And yet, art is necessary. Something is necessary, because without music, dance, poetry, what are we? What are we anyway?


Career News

An old friend from high school--actually I was too shy to be friends with her in high school, I thought she was way cooler than me--Adrienne Jones, has a small press called Talking River. She will be publishing a book called Raising Our Mothers,an anthology of women writing about our mothers, and reprinting my article "Drama Queen."

And I also just found out that a 2007 desk calendar called Poetry Calendar 2007, edited by Shafiq Naz who lives in Belgium, will be using one of my poems, "Consider the Generosity of the One-Year-Old."

Good, good, good. Meanwhile it's a gorgeous day outside, and I should be writing, but I just want to go for a walk and a swim...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Public Dance and a Sudoku Confession

Yesterday, I went into S.F. to watch Elizabeth (Mendana) perform in Trolley Dances, a public art performance. There were four site-specific dances at various trolley stops around the city of San Francisco. Three of them were outdoors, Elizabeth's among them. With several other dancers, Elizabeth performed on the pier, dancing, rolling, leaping, dashing, etc. on concrete, using pilings and industrial-looking thingys as props. It was glorious.

I happened to know that she was sick with a cold during the performance, but if I hadn't known, I never would have been able to tell. She was radiant as she rolled and sweated and made a physical offering of her body to the onlookers, to the city, to the discipline of dance itself. It was very moving.

Now the Sudoku confession. This is all my 11-year-old nephew Noah's fault. He introduced me to it when I stayed with him and my sister early in September. Then my father gave me a few pointers on strategy, and I was off to the races.

Since then my addiction has steadily progressed. I've found a web site where you can access billions of free sudoku puzzles daily--hourly--minutely. I've been spending hours a day doing them. I've progressed from "Easy" to "Medium." It's beginning to interfere with my life.

For the uninitiated, Sudoku is a nine by nine, process of elimination, problem-solving puzzle. It's tedious and fascinating, a lot like writing. There's always a point in the process of solving a puzzle where I feel completely blocked and frustrated. My eye has travelled over the same terrain a million times and I can't find anything new in it. At first I couldn't tolerate these places, believed I had truly hit the wall, and would crumple the puzzle and throw it away at that point.

In time, I've discovered that if I hang with it, I always see some avenue I haven't explored yet. There is always some tiny opening. If you maintain strict discipline of process of elimination, and have faith that there is indeed a solution, slowly, with patience, one thread unravels, then another, and the puzzle opens up like a flower.

Annie Dillard wrote that she would sit up with whatever book she was working on, not in a fever of artistic inspiration, but more like a nurse sitting by the bedside of a dying patient. The book would seem to be an impossible failure. Slowly, a line of words would emerge--the right words. And then, Dillard says, she would tap them into place "with a jeweller's hammer."

I have worked on some poems for months and months, often making them worse with too many fussy drafts, only laying a recalcitrant poem aside after countless revisions. Years later I'd revisit it and find the ending, or cut the beginning, or see the solution to whatever spot had not been working, staring me in the face. There'd be a satisfying mental ping when it fell into place, like a solved puzzle.

Maybe I am learning something with my current addiction to Sodoku. As an artist, I create "problems" or challenges or puzzles in every poem, play, or essay. (None of them are as neatly solved as a nine-by-nine graph!)

I often reach a point in each work where it seems impossible to resolve. If I hang with the process, giving it time and mental air, the unexpected solution emerges. This is a subtle form of pleasure which haunts me with its greater possibilities...

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Quilters of Gee's Bend

Yesterday, October 19th, was my 48th birthday. I woke feeling grateful. I did not expect it to turn out this way, my life; I thought I'd have kids, I thought, I don't know what I thought.

But I'm healthy, in body and spirit, healthier in spirit than I ever was in my thirties, when chronic depression was like having lead weights tied to my ankles. I'm grateful to the scientists who developed anti-depressants for taking the time to understand the delicate workings of the human brain and body. I'm grateful to Kathleen desMaisons for researching the connections between diet and mood. I'm grateful to my doctor for getting me on medication. And I'm grateful to my friends who've stuck by me through painful struggles, and now get to enjoy me being myself again.

I'm grateful to anyone who has the humility to be compassionate without judgement when it comes to depression, mental illness, and healing. No one who hasn't spent more than three decades constantly grappling with exhaustion, low self-esteem, physical and emotional overwhelm, and the constant chatter of vicious self-attacking voices could understand what it means to be finally free of those demons. I spent the summer of 2005 restoring my health through medication, diet, and exercise, and although my energy and mood have had some ups and downs since then, I've maintained a higher level of mental health than ever before in my life--and that has been the greatest gift of all.

So at forty-eight I don't feel scared or desperate at my advancing years. I do feel that I missed out on some things. In some ways I am in my late forties and in other ways I am a year and a half old, because I have been through a death and a rebirth. What if I'd had the right medication when I was married? Or just after I got divorced? Could I have risked children then? Could I have gotten to this serenity any sooner, by any less circuitous route? I don't know. All I know is that peace and happiness and HEALTH are worth everything to me now. I don't take them for granted. Just to be able to get out of bed, go to work, and enjoy it, is a great blessing. Everything else is frosting.

To celebrate my birthday, G. and I went to the deYoung Art Musueum in San Francisco to see an exhibit of quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama. Gee's Bend is an isolated poor hamlet, famous for the ingenuity and sense of color and composition of its quilters. It has always been populated by dirt-poor tenant farmers, descendants of saves, who worked dawn to dusk in the fields. The women quilted at night to keep their children warm. They used every scrap and bit and piece of fabric they could get their hands on: faded work shirts, stained overalls, fertilizer sacks, and completely worn-out dresses... You could still see scorch marks from the iron on some of the pieces of fabric. The color and compositions were bold and striking--sometimes the quilter only had two of three kinds of fabric to work with, but she utilized those creative limitations to make something extraordinarily beautiful within the boundaries of the form.

There was a video which accompanied the quilts where some of the women were interviewed. Old African American women with sun on their faces, their skin so soft and beautiful despite the hard lives they had led. The video showed them singing together as they quilted, spirituals and hymns. It reminded me of the great joy Ellen and Beth and I get from singing together; we love to sing everything, Motown, Janis Joplin, the soundtrack from various musicals, but nothing lifts us as much as sacred music. It is a bonding and a binding that can lift us up on angel's wings.

One of the women in the video talked about how little they had and how poor they were, coming up. She was one of 16 children. Her mother got them all clean and to church every Sunday, but they were always barefoot, "stump-bare" she said. There wasn't a single shoe in the whole household. "But it seemed like we were happier then than most folks is nowadays," she remarked.

G. poked me in the ribs. "It was a better country back then," he whispered. This is one of his favorite themes. In the next scene, the woman was talking about the bad old days, pre-Civil Rights era, when lynchings were common and the landowners could cheat them with impunity. Voter registration was a bloody violent struggle in Gee's Bend. Martin Luther King, Jr's hearse was pulled through the streets by a mule from Gee's Bend. I poked him back.

"All right, all right," he acknowledged.

It was wonderful going to the exhibit with G. because when he was growing up he spent summers out in the country with his grandparents in small poor Southern towns not unlike Gee's Bend. He remembers being bitten half to death by mosquitos; deadly boredom, long church services every night, no T.V., and quilts. His grandmother quilted, and he was put to bed wrapped in old quilts like the ones hanging on the walls in the museum, only no one thought of them as art back then. Still, he said, as a child he delighted in letting his eye travel from one piece of fabric to another. "Each piece would kind of take you somewhere," he said. "I can't really explain it."

Maybe it was the stifling boredom and lack of stimulation that made the colors and designs on the quilt pieces so powerful for him. Maybe it was the darkness and heaviness of so many years of depression that makes my current state of health so miraculous to me. Who knows?

I went home and started searching through old clothes. I'm going to make a quilt. I'm not going to the fabric store to buy any ready made pieces. I'm going to cut up an old pair of ripped silk shorts that I bought at the flea market for a dollar and slept in for years. I'm going to cut up a few stained old T-shirts that aren't good enough to give away. I want to make a quilt entirely out of found materials. My housemate Cynthia has a sewing machine, and I'll machine-sew the top, but hand-quilt the whole thing. I used to have a quilting hoops somewhere...

I rushed home from the museum, went to the kitchen, and threw a quick dinner together for about ten friends. Chicken, salad, rice, and Indonesian squash soup. Some stir-fried tofu for the vegetarians. Ruth and her girlfriend Michelle came, and Beth and Ellen and Marci, and Cynthia and Steven, and Elizabeth and Jonathan. (G had to work at his night job.) My housemates Leyra and Cynthia joined us.

After dinner we sat around the living room and I assigned parts for my new play, Garlic; a metaphor. I needed to hear it out loud before I went on to a second draft. The reading was great! I could hear the places where the language popped, and the other places where it lagged. Unlike Saying Kaddish, which had strong focal points in the form of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and family relationships, this play was written more experimentally. It's really just about poetry and relationships, and the way ordinary life needs to be suffused by art in order to be bearable. How creativity is what makes life worth living, and without it we sink into despair. And how accessible and down to earth that creativity is, once we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear it.

Marci played jamie, the hairdresser/poet; Steven played Sam, her husband, Michelle played Vivian, Ellen was Joe, and Leyra played Cesar with an authentic Guatemalan accent. Cynthia read the stage directions. I learned a lot from the reading, and even more from the questions and comments afterwards. It was a pleasure to begin to feel the characters come alive, to see people laugh and lean forward in their seats when Jamie kissed Vivian for the first time, to hear the gasps of surprise, or even to feel the flat places.

It was important to me not to feel like I was carrying the piece all alone; I wanted to share what I had so far with the others, so that I could enter the revision process fortified by their voices and encouragement. Writing can be lonely as well as pwerful, God knows. The women of Gee's Bend pieced their unique tops each by herself, in her own house, usually working long into the night after the chores were done and children put to bed. Then, when it was time to quilt the thing, they gathered together around the frame and helped each other. I pieced my first draft alone--this was in its own way, a little quilting bee. My friends' voices and intelligence and love were the warp and the woof. Now I've got to gather more scraps up for another go-round.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Old Friends, Big Dreams, and a Synchronistic Hair Story

Last Thursday, October 12, I flew down to LA (doesn't that sound cosmopolitan and sophisticated? I flew down to LA. Actually, if you book two weeks ahead of time on Southwest Airlines online, it only costs $60.00,) to see my friend Carla Zilbersmith perform her hilarious, poignant one-woman show, Wedding Singer Blues, at the Hayworth Theatre.

I've known Carla for twenty years. She's one of the few friends I have now who remembers Alan, my ex-husband. She knew me in that other long-gone life when I drove cross-country with him in 1985 and '86 and '87 and '89. We listened to AM radio since it was all we could get, grilled toasted cheese sandwiches over campfires, and at night pulled the car off the road and slept on the seats. (It was a '66 Ford, which we called the Trashmobile, built like a tank. Long gone to rust now.)

I met her when when I slept on her floor--she had graciously opened up her tiny apartment to ALL the members of the Boston Village Gamelan, which had been invited to perform in the World Expo 1986, in Vancouver. Alan and I were in the early, blissful, wayfaring part of our relationship then, when we could be together day and night and never run out of things to talk about.

I remember we broke down in Blue Cloud, Minnesota, when the radiator exploded. We had to wait thirty-six hours for a part to get shipped in. I remember the pale pregnant girl who worked behind the counter at a bakery there, where we bought bread and cheese. I remember wondering what it would be like to live in a place like Blue Cloud, Minnesota, a place I never would have even heard of in my life before Alan. It was a voyage into the interior. Then the part we needed arrived and we left, driving around the clock to reach the West Coast in time for the opening ceremonies.

Those were the days when I could sleep in cars and on people's floors and didn't need much in the way of amenities to be cheerful; a bag of peanut M&Ms, a hot shower. Carla was tall, red-haired, funny, and generous. Both of us were fresh-faced babies, just starting out in life, not yet woken up to our own gifts. I liked her right off but of course I was a little in awe of her. She had so much charisma. I think she thought I had depth. Whatever. What we had then was potential.

We both got married and moved; me, Boston, California; her, New York, then California. I got divorced. She had a son. We lost touch and met each other again unexpectedly. She taught theatre at College of Marin, and performed locally; I taught wherever I could and published poems and stories. With two other women we formed a playwriting group in 2001; I wrote Saying Kaddish with My Sister; she worked on Wedding Singer Blues and another show.

That was five years ago--this spring Saying Kaddish finally got a short little run at a NY theatre where it was seen by all 30 members of my immediate family, a couple of supportive friends, and a few stray people who walked off the street. This summer Carla took a risk and rented a theatre in LA, in order to gave her play the long run it deserves. I've seen Wedding Singer Blues at least ten times--it's bawdy, poignant, delicate, fierce, musical, surprising, witty, literate, and full of heart, just like Carla.

I saw it again Thursday night, watched my friend play her heart out for the heartbreakingly small audience that had showed up to see this gem. I was so proud of her, her huge talent and even huger courage, not afraid to put her heart on the line as she delivered song after song, character after character, with full, eloquent committment.

I stayed with Vicky, a friend from the SUN workshop, who generously slept on her own floor (on an air mattress) so that I could sleep in her bed. Mid-life women; the combination of grace, humor, wisdom and guts is hard to resist.

I flew back to Oakland with Carla, and we talked about what it's taken for both of us to hang in there making art for so long. The path of the artist is a spiritual battlefield designed for a full encounter with ego, illusion, and disappointment. There is the mirage of "making it," of "getting there." There are many false hopes along the way: this publication, that show, this review, an agent, a grant, a review, an audience. There are unexpected rewards and surprise betrayals. It never turns out the way you thought. But then something else happens.

There's the reality of just showing up and doing it, year in year out, whether you're playing to a mostly-empty house or revising and sending out a poetry manuscript for the fifth year in a row. There's faith, and self-doubt, questioning if you're being selfish to devote so much time, energy, and money to these chancy creative projects when there's so much other "real" work you need to do.

My mentor Bill Corbett said, "Anyone can be a poet at twenty. If you're still a poet at forty, you know you're committed." I like being over forty. The question of what am I going to do with my life has been not so much answered as just lived through. I'm doing it.

Like an idiot, I left my wallet on the plane. A few anxious and fruitless hours at the Lost Baggage claim area (what a job! A bunch of stressed-out pissed-off travellers taking out their frustrations about the new flying regulations on these poor employees.)

By 4:00, no wallet; I phoned Ellen, Ellen called Beth; Beth picked me up and loaned me a towel and we headed up to Harbin Hot Springs for our ritual Libra-girl love-fest. They would have to shoot me if I revealed the details of what goes on in our sacred rites, but I can safely say they involve a lot of singing, laughing, trash-talking, eating, soaking, talking, praying, teasing, hiking, dreaming out loud, and life review. The results are salutary.

On Sunday morning, my piece about having wild unruly "ethnic" hair came out in the magazine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Ellen was getting a massage, Beth was soaking in the warm pool, and I was drinking coffee in the dining room, looking like the love child of Bette Midler and Don King, my hair sticking up wildly in 10,000 directions. A woman approached me and said, "My boyfriend is a great hairstylist; he specializes in curly hair. I'm learning his techniques. Would you be open to...?"

"Receive a free haircut? HELL, yeah!"

I sat on Harbin's deck, gazing the at glorious fall mountainside, while he snipped and she watched. A big nest of my hair gathered in ringlets on the wood planks. Ellen and Beth found us and stood around kibbitzing. He told me how he used to cut hair in Beverly Hills for all the rich women, but the lifestyle had caught up with him. Too much money, too many drugs. His mother made him move back closer to the family, so she could keep an eye on him. Snip, snip.

Beth: I've been waiting for years for her to get a good haircut.

Me: What's wrong with the haircuts I always get?

Beth and Ellen together: Oh Ali!

Rafa: See how I'm cutting away her bulk, here? So it still stands up, but it's not quite so bushy...

Even though he was teaching his girlfriend, he did it in a gentle unassuming way. I thought of when I am teaching--am I this patient and quiet and humble? Kate, the girlfriend, watched him cut, read my article, and laughed with Beth and Ellen. We were having a party out there on the deck.

After he was done with me, he gave them primo haircuts too. He loved cutting hair; he said, "You gotta love it." Kate concurred. "If there's even one person in the shop who doesn't love what they're doing, you can feel it. It drags everyone's energy down."

Beth said my new haircut opened up my face more. Rafa cut seven people's hair that afternoon, one after the other, and never charged a dime, although he accepted offers of free massages.

I was a little blown away at the synchronicity of my article appearing on the very day I received my first grown-up outrageously luxurious salon haircut. Writing works in mysterious ways. It is a letter to the world, and then it's always a surprise when the world writes back.

After Rafa was finally done with us, we invited him and Kate to dinner, scooped up out hair, and went out to the woods to give it back to the earth. We found a blood-red manzanita tree with tiny scrolls of bark all over it, and hand-dug a shallow grave. Then we buried our hair, thanked the earth for being alive and in such a beautiful place and together. We sang a full prayer service for that manzanita tree who turned out to be Jewish: who knew?

I went to the warm pool and got hit on by so many men I needed a flyswatter. Either it was the haircut or all the PMS pheremones. Before dinner, I interviewed Rafa--we'd talked a little about me doing an article about him. He told me he was in the Mexican mafia from the time he was a boy. (I have changed his and his girlfriend's names here to protect their privacy.)

As a child he ran messages, did pick-ups and drop-offs. When he was nine he saw his uncle shoot a man because there was a contract out on him. As he got older he began to rise through the ranks, until younger men were working for him. He sold drugs and did drugs, eventually becoming an addict. He went to prison where he was raped. His eyes were big and shiny as he told me all this.

When he finally turned his life around, it was through music. He played guitar in his brother-in-law's band, and began to write songs. He went to Beautician College. He likes to draw and paint. He's good with his hands. His father can heal people of serious illnesses like cancer just by laying hands on them and praying for them.

He looks like a round Teddy bear, eyes of a child, impish grin. Some of the stories he told me were too terrible to repeat. He's a master of his art, which he had given away freely all afternoon. With the same hands that had clipped my hair, titled my head and massaged my shoulders, he had killed a man.

We sat with them a long time over dinner, talking and laughing. When we finally parted it was dark and an hour later than we'd intended. We loaded up Beth's car sadly--none of us wanted to leave. On the way home, I told Beth and Ellen the stories. They were shocked. Then one of them said, when a man gets raped maybe it makes him understand what a woman goes through, and the other one agreed. I could not.

When I was attempted-raped thirty years ago, I was told afterward that it was good that I, as a privileged white woman, now understood something of what women of color go through every day. It was true; the whole experience was an incredible education for me. And I remember to this day, which of the Native Americans on that reservation were able to get over their own oppression enough to offer me genuine compassion, and which ones weren't.

A young man in one of my writing workshops wrote about a similar experience: he was walking home and cruised and sexually harrassed by a scary-looking man in a car. When he'd told his experience to the first female friend he encountered, she'd said something along the lines of, "Now you know what it feels like." The young man who wrote this story was slight, not much more than a boy.

I love my friends. But we have to get over ourselves. Don't we make art, tell stories, and perhaps hurt each other in an attempt to make someone else understand how it feels to be us? And is there an end to that, and a beginning of something else where we make art in order to understand how it feels to be the other?

We sang all the way home.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What I Always Wanted

A bare dance floor, with the light gleaming off the hardwood, so fresh, so empty, inviting movement; running and turning, swooping, and swinging; leaping, bending, rolling. No mirrors.

When I was little, I loved the school corridors when they were empty. Scarred, gleaming, they were an invitation to run. I remember being sent to the principal's office to show her a poem I had written. I was in second grade. The long empty hall with the light bouncing off the floor was irresistible. I ran like the wind, then stopped myself just before her office, and strolled in, clutching my little paper. She looked at me over her glasses.

"Were you just running in the halls?"

I stared at her, open-mouthed. How did she know?

I always wanted freedom. I just didn't know what it looked like. When I was younger, I could only articulate that desire in negative ways, "I don't want to go to school." "I don't want a 9-5 job." "I don't want to have to wake up to an alarm set for 6:30 a.m. and go out and spend my day workng for other people."

Negative energy became the dominant force in my life. "I don't wanna..." Even to my own ears I sounded like a whiny two-year-old. The older I got, the more embarrassing and self-destructive it became to hold onto this posture.

When I see the dance studio at Interplayce, I find a way to say I want. I want to fly. I want to learn how to fly higher, better, longer. I want to have other people's bodies pressed up close to mine. I want to be able to linger against them and release. I want to sing. I want to soar and laugh and weep and create. I want an empty space so that I can create into it. No emptiness, no creation. I want my life to have space in it, not to be filled to the brim with obligations and deadlines...

Yesterday, in Wing It! rehearsal, I was finally able to bring synagogue into practice by way of the music. For several years I've been kvetching: Why am I the only Jew in Wing It? Why do we almost always sing in major keys? Why is Interplay so full of ministers?? God, I can't stand how Christian culture just PERVADES the organization. Etc., etc.

Part of the problem was that I didn't feel I could bring my culture in fully because I didn't trust myself to carry a tune. Jewish songs are modal, and the ones I prefer have long languid swooping rhythms. When someone with a great sense of pitch and timing leads, it's all good, but on my own, my voice falters and slides off the song.

Synagogue last Saturday was ecstatic, full of singing and dancing which had gotten me high as a kite. I wanted to share it, to bring it in to my other tribal space. So when there was an opportunity, I stepped in and taught one of our chants: "Ahava. B'rachamim. Chesed. V'shalom." ("Love. Compassion. Kindness. And Peace.")

Cynthia, our director, helped me by making me establish a beat with my foot while I sang. It felt like rubbing my stomach and patting my head to have to focus on rhythm AND pitch AND Hebrew all at the same time, but I did it, and my voice got strong and everyone joined in and started adding their own harmonies, and the chant became a beautiful mishkan, a sacred tent, as it is meant to be.

Three years ago I couldn't have done this. Two years ago I couldn't have. Not until now could I do this. This very long slow road I've been on to learn how to fit the flying inside me into form.

Monday, October 09, 2006


I fly a lot in my dreams. When I was younger, I'd fly really high--too high--and get scared that I couldn't get back to earth. It's ironic for a person with a mild fear of heights (me) to fly so much. Lately, the flying has been especially delicious, more like swimming through air. I push off with my foot, going down a huge flight of stairs for example. I find it easy to float and move my body along on the air currents. I glide all the way to the bottom without touching the ground. It's a moment-by-moment sensation, of feeling the air currents beneath my feet, feeling that I can "swim" my way farther, no strain, no fear, no struggle for control.

I dreamed like that the other night, Friday night, or more accurately Saturday morning, then went to synagogue for my friend Amy Bat-Zipporah's adult Bat Mitzvah. She was brilliant and beautiful and eloquent, and afterwards there was a huge spread of food, and a little mid-Eastern combo. We danced and danced and danced and DANCED, whirling, spinning, holding onto each other, letting go. I dance a lot normally, with Wing It!, but this was even more intense, perhaps because of the three hours of chanting and praying which had preceeded it.

At one point I locked onto a rhythm with my partner in spinning--I think it was my friend Beth, it might have been Chinabear--and all of a sudden I was flying again, just like in the dream! My feet were on earth, spinning me around, but I wasn't worrying about them--I was being spun, being lifted out of myself. Exquisite ecstasy I have only felt a few times, during sex, when the enrgy was extraordinary.

I danced until I was covered with sweat, heaving and panting. I danced with Susan Felix, who is the arts ambassador of Berkeley, and who used to dance with Anna Halpern. She must be around sixty and she outlasted everyone else on the floor.

Two days later, my calves are still sore. I have to go to Interplayce to lead the women's group before Wing It! rehearsal.

Elizabeth came to synagogue with me Saturday, which felt so precious and important to me. She had to leave the party before the dancing got really wild, in order to edit three minutes of videotaped exploration of my poem Mediating a Discussion of the Words Gay and Retarded in the Fourth Grade, as part of a grant application to the Zellerbach Foundation for our show.

I tried to get some writing done this weekend, but couldn't do much. A theatre director friend in Seattle responded to the first draft of the new play ("Garlic: A Metaphor" but she says she likes the original title "That Greeny Flower" better. What do you think?)

She likes the second act, but thought I should cut the first. It's good to get a response, even if I think some of the material in the first act might be necessary. Now I have to print the play out in its entirety and figure out how to do that, and if and how the story should go on...

It was my father's birthday yesterday. At 72, he is having the time of his life, kids, grandchildren, still writing, still giving workshops all over the world, going to bridge tournaments, traveling with my stepmother to Europe...I know very few people who have managed to get through ife mostly loving their work and being happier at 70 than they were at 35. He's one of them.

Friday, October 06, 2006


I have none. Okay, a little. It's the challenge of the Libras. Today I spent hours reworking a couple of old poems. I got 'em. I mean, finally, the right last lines came. I think of a line from Annie Dillard. "I tap it into place with a jeweller's hammer." I've nearly made myself blind staring at this screen. A whole day on 3 poems--not even new work. It isn't that I write slowly--in fact, I write pretty fast, in the moment. But it sometimes takes years before I can see a poem I've revised to within an inch of its life, and remember what I was actually trying to say.

Finally at 3:30 I went over to the gym and had a good long hard swim. Now all my muscles are deliciously tired, and I can feel the endorphin drowse beginning to creep over my eyelids. Time to go over G's house and watch a movie.

This is the time of year when I can feel the ancient melancholy creeping up. I'm trying to be pre-emptive: medication? Check. Gym membership? Check. High protein diet? Check. How about some ballroom dancing lessons? A getaway to Harbin with girlfriends?

G. kindly points out that it's environmental--not as in The Environment, but as in m room. I suck at the Martha Stewart thing. I moved into this room nine months ago and pictures are still not hung on the wall.

"I can't do it by myself," I whined, hoping to guilt-trip him into spending a spare afternoon babysitting me at IKEA. (He said he would.) I feel embarrassed that I still can't do this on my own. I think a liberated woman should be able to pound a nail and hang her own damn pictures. To say nothing of find new floor lamps, or sort through the piles of papers and books on the floor.

(By my bedside: There is No Me Without You, by Melissa Fay Greene, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, Best American Poetry 2005, edited by Paul Muldoon, How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, Breath by Phillip Levine, Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye, and last but not least, Exploring the Tarot by Carl Japiske. Oh, and some "clothing porn" to pore over.)

Okay, I made the bed and stacked the books neatly. Now I'm going to go watch The Sopranos.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

October 5, 2006

Yesterday I gave my presentation "Love and War: Jewish Women Struggle to Hold Onto Each Other" as part of the Davies Lecture series at USF, "Camouflage and Representation:Jewish Women in the Arts." (What is it with these colons and semi-colons in every title? It seems academia can't get along without them; personal reflections of a blogger.)

It was great! I asked Storm and Marisa Eggerstrom from New College, and Dietlind Van der Sklaaf, to come play the other roles in the family for the Passover scene from my play Saying Kaddish With My Sister. I played the mother.

We had a blast doing a staged reading of that scene. Surprisingly powerful for me to "act" the part of the mother. In saying her lines I got a visceral hit of what it felt like to have that kind of desperate false chatter come out of one's own mouth. I got it in my gut how scared and cut off she felt, not ever being able to say what was happening inside her.

And Storm and Marisa and Dietlind were all wonderful and jumped right in to their parts--we had a great dysfunctional family dynamic going in no time! Afterwards, the USF students asked all kinds of questions and seemed really engaged. We did a writing exercise about family rituals, what does (did) your family celebrate or worship? (Could be religious holidays such as Christmas, but also football games, or Labor Day beach picnics, or the worship of food, or money, or suffering, or TV, or music...surprisingly, some of the students said their parents worshipped Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. Made me realize their parents must be my age...)

I asked them to include where and how the rites take place, what kinds of foods, traditional conversations or arguments, clothing, settings, etc. Good things came out in their writing.

In all: exhilarating, exhausting. In the Q & A after the reading, I had never before been asked so many questions about how my ethnicity shapes my work. It was interesting to think about. Certainly not all of my work is identifiably Jewish--in fact, most of it isn't. But for better or for worse, I do seem to be engaged in describing a certain California type of spirituality, a blend of Judaism, pagan rituals, deep intimacy, Buddhism, art and music and Interplay that kind of keeps my world together.

And just as I was decrying the over-busyness of my life in this blog, a friend invited me to a one-day meditation check-in later this month. Ask and you shall receive.

Last evening: rain. It made a clatter on the roof. I woke at four to the sounds of it and couldn't get back to sleep. Mind buzzing with the stimulation of teaching, thoughts and questions and words, word, words from the day, and from this intense month. Definitely keeping this blog is heightening things, or speeding me up or something. First time in a long time I've had insomnia. When I managed to fall back asleep, around 6 or so, I dreamed I got several speeding tickets. In France.

I guess I need to slow the mental traffic down. And NO MORE COFFEE! Switch to green tea. And just because chocolate is 99% cacao doesn't mean you can eat tons of it right before bed. Clearly the French cops are onto something.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Little Rant About Human Sacrifice and Christianity

Colleen "Coke" Nakamoto's questions about sacrifice stirred up a lot of dust for me. (Her performance piece will be part of a three-woman, Asian American triptych, called "Incarnate" that will show at the Noh theatre space in San Francisco, 2840 Mariposa, on October 28 at 8 p.m.)

Or rather, her question about "sacrificial love," combined with another Wing It! friend who is becoming ordained as a minister writing to ask my help in editing her sermon on women giving Communion, and my responses to Theresa's writing as artist-as-mystic, are all whirring around inside me.

Theresa first. Because a lot of the creative work I do is communal, I experience conflict when everything--almost everything, it feels like, happens on a Friday night or a Saturday. I do not even make half-assed attempts to celebrate Shabbat. Once in a blue moon it happens because a jewish friend has me over for dinner and we "do Shabbat"; i.e. candles and wine and singing and praying, but as for devoting the next day to God alone? Forget it.

To participate in every important organization in my life: California poets in the schools, SUN workshops, Interplay, New College, Writing Salon, and on and on and on, means that I violate observance of the Sabbath, not just once in a while, but every week. It would be very difficult to participate fully as a writer, a teacher, and a player in the communities in which I am a member and also to follow Jewish laws. And personally, I doubt very much that I would have the self-discipline (or the will, or the desire,) to refrain from writing, handling money, or driving on Saturday. I know I wouldn't. So my spiritual life is definitely affected by the busy and hectic pace of my "other" life, the life of activity with others.

Now to rant about sacrificial love; sacrifice is a beautiful and necessary thing. Imagine how horrible the world would be if no one made any sacrifices on behalf of anyone else. But I view the Christian theology of "Jesus died to save the world from sin" as a giant step backwards.

It seems to me that in the Old Testament, "God" stepped in to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. This is a primal story for us; the moral of the story is God doesn't want you to kill your children anymore. Stop. Historically, maybe it's the move away from worship based on violent bloody human sacrifice to a more agrarian worship of sacrificing measures of grain, or farm animals.

Then Christianity comes along with "This is my body you eat, this is my blood you drink," and we're back to worshipping human sacrifice again. Back to the blood and guts and scapegoating.

Not that Jews don't have our own mishegas. God knows we do. But the idea that there's virtue in being tortured and executed is not a precept I can get behind. Bring back the corn-god, who sacrificed himself at the height of summer so the community could eat! That was literal, that had meaning, that was free of political motives. Take and eat. The woman gives her breast to the child, the child literally feeds off her flesh and blood and the human race continues. But she doesn't have to die to do it, and her body isn't hung up on a bloody cross somewhere.

Okay, I'm done ranting for now. Now I've got to get myself together to give a presentation on Jewish Women in the Arts; Camoflage and Representation at University of San Francisco tomorrow.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Explorations, Yom Kippor, etc.

Whew, this has been an intense two days! Sunday, we (Elizabeth, Theron, Coke, my friend Beth, a wonderful dancer-masseuse named India, and three or four other dancer-musicians) did another dive into a few of the poems. We worked with one called "Reasons to Live" and another one called "4th of July, Jack London Square, Oakland."

I continue to be impressed with Elizabeth's leadership; she always comes to rehearsal with organized ideas about what she wants, but remains open and flexible to other people's input. We went through each poem several times. I was afraid that after an awkward first go-through people would want to take their ball and go home, but no one did. Instead they reported back thoughtfully and honestly that "that felt awkward," talked about it for a few moments, and then went forward again.

Second time around was more integrated. It takes a lot of courage to just show up for a project like this one, where everything is so up for grabs, and no one can tell you that you're "doing it right." Everyone, even the most talented artists who come to these open rehearsals, carries their own stuff about doing well, their own inner critic, and yet everyone was willing to deal with it and keep playing.

There is so much here that is a metaphor for life--not even a metaphor, but a one-to-one correspondance. if we can stay "in"--if we have the courage to keep playing and creating, despite all the voices telling us we are doing it wrong, then something beautiful emerges. It's a law of nature.

This next week, Elizabeth will be writing grant applications, and she and I will decide on some dates to do explorations that will involve creating new poems. Yikes! Now I'll be on the spot.

Meanwhile, I have two unwritten poems clamoring in the pipeline, plus the final scene in my new play to write.

I'm enjoying the fact that Elizabeth leads on this thing; reminds me of one of my favorite lines in a Sweet Honey in the Rock song, something like "The older I get the more I realize that the secret to my going on/Is when the reins are in the hands of the young as they carry us against the storm." She is only thirty, but so much more self-assured and focused than I remember being at her age. Hopefully, there will be more and more collaborations with women (and men) of different ages, and backgrounds in my future.

These past few days I alternated between my two spiritual practices--Interplay and Judaism, with something that looked suspiciously like grace. Rehearsal/exploration time at Inteprlayce Sunday afternoon, then a nap, then Kol Nidre service (the evening before Yom Kippor), a profound and moving communal evening deepened by the singing of our cantor, Shulamite Wise Fairman, another blooming young woman leader with the voice of an angel and the spiritual depth of a very old soul.

Lots and lots of singing, meditation, communal and personal reflection, and prayer. I love to pray in the Kehillah community! I get so deep--deeper than I can get on my own. The group energy carries me. The haunting melodies and harmonies, the sight of the familiar faces gathered together, fall of another year, the raw honesty of the Yom Kippor service, which is all about acknowledging our errors and misdeeds, facing them squarely, cleansing, and going on--is so vital to me.

Today, (Monday) I went to services in the morning, then over to Interplayce for a Wing It! rehearsal from 1-3. At rehearsal we spent a long time just moving to music together, and then when the music stopped, we took it up ourselves, with voice and percussion; we went on for quite a while, I have no idea how long, since I was lost in dream-time. It felt like moving from one kind of prayer-space to another. the dance studio is no less sacred to me than the ark and the Torah; and the synagogue service no less joyous than the space of improvisation.

The two are so well-mixed inside me, what I yearn for now is to mingle the people. I want to bring more of my Wing It! friends to synagogue so that they can hear and see and experience the ecstacy of the music and dance there, the sound of the Hebrew, the abandon of the singing.

And I want to bring more of my Jewish friends into Wing It!, to bring more minor melodies, and rueful irony into the mix.

I have to say that the ne thing I couldn't do in all this shape-shifting spiritual/physical/creative activity was fast. It always just gives me a massive headache and makes me cranky, and I don't see how that contributes to anything. I did make a concession to the holiday by not ordering a BLT for lunch, even though that is my favorite.

After rehearsal my friend Colleen "Coke" Nakamoto, a dancer/poet/performance artist interviewed me on video for a project she is doing on sacrificial love. She was raised Christian, of Japanese heritage and culture, with the idea that women must sacrifice themselves constantly for other people--their comfort, health, and self-expression. Doing so has literally made her sick, so she's doing a performance project, involving dance, spoken word, and these video pieces, to wrestle with the concept on her own terms. (If you are in S.F. go see it at the Noh Theatre space at 2840 Mariposa St., SF, on October 28th, 8 p.m.)

We had an interesting conversation. Maybe it's cultural, but I seem to have missed some of the female socialization about self-sacrifice--although God knows my mother tried to get it into me, but something about it just didn't take. I remember my mother saying, "You only want to do what you want to do!" and I thought, "Well--yeah-doesn't everyone?"

I knew from a very young age that I loved doing this weird and wonderful improvisational art-making with friends, from the time four girlfriends and I formed a modern dance troupe in 9th grade, up through Drama Club, and later, with the Boston Theatre Group, riffing on Shakespeare's sonnets. I always, always wanted to be engaged with the deep and sacred play of making things, and here I am, decades later, still doing it. So much else I let go of, or it fell by the wayside, or, let's face it, I failed at, but this thing, this evanescent, elusive, oddball, joyous, raw, risky, openhearted thing is still with me.

Back to synagogue for the late afternoon and evening service. I feel full up with music, just brimming over. And wiped out.

My Yom Kippor resolution was simple--for the last few years I've been writing, "Make a volunteer committment and stick to it" on my to-do list, and finally the woman from the Big Brother/Big Sister organization called me back, so now I need to call her and get matched up with a little sister and do that weekly. Balance. I told Coke that since I'm single with no children, I need to build in more opportunities to sacrifice my time and energy towards the welfare of others. People in families do that naturally. (Although actually being a big sister to my grown siblings and their spouses does take up some of my time, trying to support people long-distance, and be a good auntie.)

And now to find the time for all of it...