Sunday, March 30, 2008

I did go to Tirzah's memorial at Kehillah Synagogue, and was surprised and pleased to see many old friends and acquaintances from the East Bay Church of Religious Science there, including my old pastor, Reverend Elouise Oliver and my prayer practitioner and friend Sharon Cross, and my old friend Michelle Jordan, who sang "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills" as a pure divinely channel.

Tirzah sat on the border between a couple of different cultures, a richly alive and sometimes challenging place to sit. Ask me how I know. That was why I went to her memorial, even though we were only acquaintaces; as two of the dozen or so Jews at East Bay, we shared an intimate understanding of how both religions contrasted and complimented each other.

It was right and fitting that at her memorial both of those religions came together in love and respect--Reverend Elouise took turns with Rabbi Burt and Rabbi Diane in conducting the service, Jewish prayers sung in Hebrew alternated with "Wholly, Holy Love" sung by the East Bay Choir, and testimonials from different people in Tirzah's life. When her 80-year-old father, who had flown in from israel, led us in saying Kaddish was when my tears came. That prayer of praise, issuing from a broken heart.

That's what Judaism is for me. It's real; it's broken. The shattered covenant, the truth of our mortality and our suffering, the unknowability of God. All clothed in the most beautiful music and poetry, minor melodies so gorgeous they take my breath away.

Religious Science is the other side of that coin; joy and triumph. God is not unknowably distant, God dwells inside us, intimate as our own breath. The African American gospel songs, so direct, so confident in their knowing. Michelle's lovely voice swooping over and under, emphasizing, declaring, affirming truth.

I need them both. Tirzah did too, and I was happy for both of us, that they came together so beautifully at Kehillah the other day. Rabbi Diane told a story about her--on the day before she died, Tirzah struggled, in her bed, to describe the wonderful flavor of a certain kind of freshly-pressed juice. Rabbi Diane said she marvelled at a person so connected to life that she could recall and want to share this life-affirming experience even in her last hours.

Our party turned out small and intimate. There was an adorable baby who crawled around, giggling and clapping and just being gladness itself--we all kind of ate up her radiant baby aura. C made his peerless meatloaf, both with and without mushrooms, and I made my brussel sprouts with slivered almonds and lemon juice and Parmesan, which is awesome, and everyone ate a lot and drank some and sang some.

Then last night we went to see Stop-Loss, which was one of the strongest movies I've seen in a long time. It's about the war in Iraq and the position many veterans are finding themselves in--after coming back from a tour of duty in Hell, prepared for discharge, they are told they have to go back. We went to see it in part because of the play we had conceived together about military recruitment, but walking out of the theatre we both felt humbled.

"I'm not sure I should even try to tell a story like this," C said. "I don't think it's my story to tell."

"I know what you mean," I said. "I'm not from a military family. I've been spared this whole ordeal. How could I even talk about it." We walked a little further. "But we are Americans," I said weakly. "This war is happening to us too. Or people like us. Even if I can't relate to the soldiers' experiences, I can imagine what their parents are going through. I think I could say something about that."

"I'm sure you could," C said. "I just feel like it's not my place."

We left it like that, unresolved. I hate to abandon a project mid-stream, especially since I've got some good pages, and characters I like. The thing about war and violence is I believe it has infected every aspect of our culture--I am a violent person as well. Maybe I don't act it out physically--and I know that for people who come from homes where there is really full expression of violence it's another order of magnitude--but still.

Gertrude Stein said "Nothing human is alien to me." Was it Gerturde Stein? Whoopi Goldberg said, "I'm an actor. I can play a man, a woman, or a speck of dust." My favorite artists don't let themselves be limited by race or gender or class--or lack of experience. In fact, I was very proud that this movie about war, Stop-Loss, was made by a woman, Kimberly Pierce, who is not a combat veteran. She gets so deeply inside the minds and hearts of her male characters, and gets such fierce, physical performances from them, during an ambush and a firefight, that my credulity was not strained.

(I don't think it was a perfect movie. Some of the scenes seemed s bit cliched to me. But it was strong and imperfect and political and gutsy.)

I am mulling over this question of chutzpah and writing. How dare I? How dare anyone represent anyone else's experiences? I have a good friend who believes white people should never write black characters, men should never write women, etc. I challenged her, "Does that mean that Tolstoy shouldn't have written Anna Karenina? What about Shakespeare's Othello?"

"No. They shouldn't have. Black people need to write their own experiences. Women need to write their own experiences."

I understand her point. And yet, my experiences spill over into other people's experiences. Their experiences spill over into mine. I have been writing about Carla a lot of this blog. I don't, at present, have a physical disability. I'm not living with ALS. There is one level on which I can't know what she's going through until I go through it myself.

But on another level, I am connected to her, not just by friendship, but be enrgy, which knows no form or boundary. There is no Carla. there is no Alison. there is just this all this energy swirling through the masses we know as "our" bodies.

And, to be a bit less woo-woo about it, there is, was, and has always been imagination. Shakespeare was neither a beggar nor a king, yet he wrote both of them--and queens and fools, and witches, and soldiers too. Some of the most satisfying, fresh, surprising writing I have ever done has been when I took on a male point of view. One of my favorite playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, an African American woman, wrote beautifully and movingly about a Jewish man in "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window."

Kimberly Pierce did a phenomenal amount of research for this movie--research that is available to anyone with Internet access. There's lots of blogs and Youtube clips about soldiers' experiences during this war. I'm glad I'm intimidated by the movie--I should be intimidated. The topic should not be undertaken lightly.

If C decides not to go ahead with this project, we can find another one to do together; I'm not worried on that score. But for myself, I'm thinking I'm still in. Humbled, yes, intimidated, yes, thinking this may never see the light of day--yes. But in. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. If I fail, I fail, and if I make an ass of myself, so be it. It won't be the first time.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

And today, we went to the dump. Yep. Got up at a reasonable time, drove to Berkeley, rented a U-Haul, drove it back, and filled said U-Haul to the brim with crap.

Remember the Y2K hysteria that some people went through in the final months of 1999? My old co-owner and housemate was one of those people. She bought pounds and pounds of lentils, sea salt, tahini, brown rice and other foodstuffs that no one has eaten lo these past eight years. I'd managed to give away the closet full of canned goods she had hoarded years ago, but we found more...and more...white plastic buckets full of moldy buckwheat, fermented Tamari, and spoiled there no end to this?

Old coils of chicken wire, old appliances, two old mattresses and their box springs, an exerciser bought by my housemate Danny years and years ago which has been rusting out in the backyard since at least the last century. More boxes. Boxes of every shape, size, weight and color, from dozens of people moving in and out. A big plastic mystery dollhouse, all broken down and grimy.

We got rid of pieces of wood, old broken plastic chairs, the old toilet,(C installed a new water-saving comfortable-for-tall-people one yesterday--all by himself!) metal doo-dads, bits and pieces of old windows, trash, trash, trash. Drove it all to the Berkeley dump.

The dump is basically Hell. Here is where capitalism and consumerism come to die. The great happy hunting grounds for scavengers and vermin. Seagulls circle, squawking, over mountains of garbage. We opened the back of the van, put on nose-and-mouth masks, and stood there pitching stuff onto the trash heap that was about three stories high. The noise from nearby bull-dozers was deafening. Every once in a while, the great dripping maw of the yellow dozer ground next to us, scraping and pushing the garbage up higher. The smell was intense. I was glad C had had the foresight to buy masks.

The dump is Hell on two counts. One, the obvious: every single sense is assaulted with ugliness. It looks hideous, it smells terrible, the sounds are harsh. You want to get away but you can't. The second way it is hell is psychological. You are looking directly at the results and consequences of all our heedless acquiring. Here it is, folks. The bubble-wrap. The exerciser you thought you'd use but never did. The bad ideas, the expensive whims, the greed, the waste.

Standing there, sunglasses covering the top half of my face to protect eyes from flying bits of dust and splinters, mask over everything else, I thought of several things:

* Poor people who have to live near dumps and scavenge through them looking for food and clothes and shelter in the Phillipines, in Brazil, elsewhere.

*Ghandi, who died owning only his loincloth, his glasses, his food bowl and a copy of Scriptures.

*Death. I don't know how anyone can visit the dump and not think of death. In my case, I hope I get enough advance warning before my death that I can give everything away. I don't want to die with a house full of junk that someone else has to cart off to the dump.

We ground our way out of there, returned the van, then collapsed at a pizza place. Ate two slices each--C had a couple of beers as well--then crawled back home and into bed. Flop. Nap. We were completely done in.

I confess: I've never before been jealous of C's previous wives or girlfriends. I know he lived with several women before me, and I know some of them had fine qualities. But I was so proud of myself for being such a rugged stud-muffin, able to haul and tote and stand the dump, that when I asked him "Did you ever do this with any of your other women?" and he said "All of them," I felt crest-fallen. I wanted to be the spunkiest bad-ass he had ever partnered with.

Tomorrow's the party. We've still got plenty of cleaning of the home space to accomplish, plus shopping for food and booze and cooking. I was shocked to receive a notice from my synagogue that Tirzah Aggasi had died. She was Martin Buber's granddaughter, a peace activist working towards better Israeli-Palestinian relations, and an acquaintance. I liked her. She was spiritually eclectic, an artist, a filmmaker who nused the medium to promote dialogue and understanding. I believe she had something to do with the film Paradise Now. She looked like she was about my age. Her memorial is tomorrow and I want to take time out from the party prep and go to it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Having the house to ourselves these past three days has been a miracle. Space. Time. Drinking coffee in the morning, looking at the paper, knowing no one else is going to come barging through. Hearing C play piano fully and joyously, without fear of being overheard. Sun coming in the window, or cool gray fog. No one else using our bathroom. Going to Goodwill and getting rid of a carload full of the detritus left by ten years' worth of housemates (there is still more to go!)

Today I feel small and tired. I want to protect this space, this time, our home, but in a week and a half the real crunch of teaching work hits, and the housemates who are now on vacation will be coming back. The thought of it makes me want to cry.

This house was always too big for me to hold alone. I bought it with someone else. Many many other people have lived here with me--too many to count. I get exhausted just thinking about it. Their rents helped pay the mortgage. Some of them improved the space and were a joy to live with (that would be you, John and Val!) Some of them were a pain in the ass. Several drank too much; one was polyamorous and had NO boundaries and way too many lovers who would drape themselves all over the kitchen and talk about different kinds of orgasms while I tried to make tea. For some I was a counselor, or a surrogate big sister, for some a friend. For some I became The Enemy.

It's hard living with people when you are not related to them. (It's hard when you are related to them.) It's not like I didn't get something out of the deal--I was able to afford to stay in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive places in the country, while essentially working part-time as a teacher and part-time as a writer. That's a lot.

But this space and this privacy we're experiencing right now are precious beyond compare. There is a level of relaxation we can touch as a couple, knowing we can kiss or argue or talk about intimate things anywhere we want without fear of someone walking in or overhearing us. It's a luxury we haven't had as a couple, a luxury I discounted because I didn't realize how great it was.

I was always scared to be "just" a couple. It reminded me too much of the nuclear family I came from, an arrangement that seemed isolating and stressful, especially for the mother. When I lived with my ex-husband, our first four years were spent in a communal house--we had great rent and were a five-minute walk to Harvard Square. It wasn't worth it. The stress it put on our relationship was damaging. You would think I'd learn.

I've learned that luxury resorts doesn't do that much for me. I've been in fancy hotels and eaten in great restaurants and seen Europe and it's fine, but if I never see it again, I won't be sad. I like just being in my own home, dancing with my honey in the kitchen.

The truth is, I am feeling spoiled and happy and guilty and scared wallowing in the simple pleasure of just being alone with C. Being two selfish artists, making as much of a racket or demanding as much silence as we need. The guilt is that the paradigm of the couple in their castle doesn't serve the world. We have more space than most people and we still want more, more more of it--all to ourselves.

The fear is that C will die and then I'll be all alone in this big house. Who will be there for me then? Will I drown in the silence and the space? Will I be punished for putting up some boundaries? Will the punishment be isolation?

Monday, March 24, 2008

We are reveling in having the house to ourselves; the whole house!! All roommates are gone, and we have gloriously spread out--art supplies, Sunday Times. We've been lounging around indulging ourselves with the simple pleasures of privacy and quiet--it doesn't take much more than that.

I have signed up for two challenges--one, a self-defense class that involves getting attacked by and having to beat up a guy in a fully padded suit. Women are encouraged to kick and strike as hard as they possibly can, to learn how that feels so they will have muscle memory to call upon should they ever be attacked. It's a group called IMPACT Bay Area which sponsors and teaches the classes, held in an undisclosed Oakland location.

I was attacked years ago and still wake up with screaming nightmares every once in a while. I'm hoping this will help lay some of those ghosts to rest, and more importantly, make me able to walk through the world--wherever in the world I want to walk--without fear. I hope there is travel in my future, to places like Mexico, maybe India, maybe back to Haiti, or Europe again. I want to be able to work in an orphanage and go to out of the way places and be able to take care of myself.

The other challenge is a conference of the Association for Jewish Theatre which will be held in Detroit at the end of May. Conferences can be bigger challenges for me than having to fight hand to hand. I get easily overwhelmed by logistics, airports, hotels, and lots of new people. I'm not shy exactly, just easily overwhelmed. At heart I'd rather stay home cuddling on the couch with C and watching videos, but that's not the road for optimum growth. I think it will be challenging and incredibly educational to learn about Jewish Theatre, both in the past and now, and of course I'll be able to network my play.

I'm trying to push myself to do one scary thing a month. In April, the self-defense class, in May the conference, and in June I think I'll get up on a bicycle again, maybe a tandem. Approaching fifty, I've got to keep stepping outside my comfort zone, just as a matter of principle. When I was young I used to do crazy scary things like hitch-hike across Canada, but I was afraid to take small sober steps towards developing a life for myself. It was more like I would throw myself off of cliffs in an effort not to be stuck. I survived each time, and got some great stories out of it, but I was still basically stuck. Now I'm looking for challenges that make more sense, that build upon themselves, and open up and flower into big projects.

On the work front, I completed revisions to the essay I intend for Modern love and sent it off--I hope not prematurely. And I spent the weekend making revisions to the Hot Tub play and sent them to Tim and am waiting to hear from him. If he okays them, then I will do one more comb-through, print it out, and send it to twenty different theatres--that's what I did a few years ago with Kaddish. And then wait. that's the rhythm--work, send out, wait to hear back. Turn attention to a new project, work, send out, wait to hear back. Repeat as before.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Carla called and we had a great conversation this morning about a lot of things; among them the issue of giving vs. "taking." A big giver all her life, now she's in the awkward position of needing help from others. It's so much more comfortable for most of us to be in the role of the helper rather than the helpee.

I am interested in the internal gesture of becoming receptive. Receiving is the feminine principle and doesn't come naturally to us in this culture. We are so oriented towards "doing" and as women towards "doing for someone (else.)"

I think all of America needs to learn to receive.

Not to take--we take enough, God knows, from the earth and from the labor of others. But to truly receive what we have, to open to it, to make a space around it, to welcome it in, to appreciate it, to savor it--we could use more of that. Without that receiving quality we're all just a bunch of hungry ghosts, clamoring for "more, more, more" while piles of unopened gifts lie scattered at our feet.

I talk as if I knew how to do this. I don't. It hasn't been until C that certain kinds of intimate receiving have become comfortable--or even possible--for me. It's because in receiving we become vulnerable and I trust my absolute safety with him.

I know that if there's no receiving, there can be no relationship (perhaps this is why we are so lonely.) It's like what Alice Walker wrote in The Color Purple (I'm paraphrasing here.) "I think God gets pissed off if we walk by the color purple and don't even notice."

Carla, you notice. Artists always notice, but now you notice more than ever. Now I see you opening up and receiving. Not just the colors of flowers, but the colors of the souls of the people who surround you. May you continue to receive that more and more and more. May you be blessed to receive all the colors of the subtle vibrations of this world, the intentions, questions, love and heartbreak as well as the amazing natural phenomena that surround us. And when you receive us, you gift us. You give us back to ourselves. It's what we always wanted.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Today is my mother's Yahrzeit. She's been dead for seven years. My sister called me early this morning and we said Kaddish together as we have for the past seven years.

I was thinking about Mom yesterday, the fifth anniversary of the current Gulf War. If she were alive, she would have been standing out in the rain protesting the war, as my sister did yesterday. She was ferociously anti-war her whole life, and a poster hung on our front door stating "War is not healthy for Children and other living things" for many years after the conflict in Vietnam was officially declared over.

My mother was fierce and at the same time very vulnerable. She is like a glowing wound inside me.

C and I watched Jarhead last night, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx. Wonderful acting, great script. It showed things about the hell in Iraq that I never wanted to see, but need to.

We'd struggled for a couple of days with continuing adjustment and adaptations--I don't blog much about that part of things, but of course it's there. Two middle-aged people finding each other and moving in together quickly--it's been wonderful but not without its challenges.

Sometimes he calls this place Ma Luterman's Boarding House Shtetl. "Come to me ye huddled masses, pull up a chair and have a chocolate chip cookie, a glass of wine. What, you want to move in? Fine!"

He needs space, order, some degree of predictability and quiet so that he can play and compose music and recover from his intense job. I need community, kids, dinner guests, and yes, a certain amount of chaos sometimes in order to feel fully alive and flowing.

Those needs aren't as totally contradictory as they might seem at first glance because neither of us is 100% stuck on them. I need quiet too; he loves being hospitable and opening our house up for parties (after he's made sure it's sparkling clean and we are well-prepared.)

But sometimes we come up against the differences in our temperaments, cultural backgrounds, and assumptions and it's rough. Our negotiations over the last few days felt akin to the work of Inuit women chewing on a tough piece of buffalo hide. We softened it with our saliva, chewed and gummed and chewed and gummed until our love was a supple garment once more.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My Writing Salon Personal Essay class this session has been particularly stimulating--thoughtful people raising wonderful questions. The other night one of the students in that class talked about not wanting to write her experiences so that they could be "consumed" the way Americans consume everything; memoirs by third world people; photographs of exotic foreign beauties, or suffering children; women with bundles on their heads; works of art; cheap labor, etc.

Since I work at shaping my experiences into a form that can be sold in the marketplace of publishing, I was intrigued and a bit chagrined to reflect on the ways I might be whoring out my personal experiences. The question is relevant.

It's true we live in a consumer culture, a capitalist economy in which everything is bought and sold, and advertized and "spun." It's hard for things to be just what they are: a rock, a tree, a baby, a face. That's not glamorous enough. As a poet, I can take that rock, that tree, that face, and spin words around it, make it special, and sell it. The selling it part comes from the economy we live in. If I were in an African village, I would just tell the story as part of my social currency and go on hunter-gathering or midwifing babies or whatever else it is I would do. But since I'm a cultural worker in a capitalist economy, my job has become trying to spin gold out of the straw of everyday experience, and sell it to the highest bidder.

One of my students in the Writing Salon class is a historian; another is an anthropologist. What these disciplines have in common with journalism is the pretense of objectivity: there is a truth and I am going to find it, interpret it, and hand it over to you, Dear Reader.

In truth, there is no one Truth. But how do you spin and sell that?

In the last several decades, there has been a movement afoot in academia as well as in journalism to acknowledge that absolute objectivity does not exist, that everything is filtered through the lense of the person who views it. It's the Heisenberg principle; observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon, and so you have to factor that in, and while you're at it, what about the observer. Who is s/he and what brought them there?

As soon as I could get away from "straight journalism" (I published human interest stories in The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald back in the 80s,) and into personal essay, I went for that form with great relief. Whereas grinding out "objective" stories in which I erased my presence, my tape recorder, and all the relevant, colorful, real information of the encounter between myself and the subject felt false, being able to use "I" and own my own responses felt more honest.

Of course with personal essay, you run the risk of seeming--or being--self-indulgent. In many ways it is a self-indulgent form, just as confessional poetry can be. But whether a pice is self-indulgent or good art depends on a subtle adjustment of weight on the part of the writer. If you have an axe to grind, are just confessing your personal failings or desires, then it's like writing a diary--a great exercise in self-expression maybe, but what use is it to the outside world? But if are seeking a larger truth (without being grandiose) then real value is created.

The ethics of selling that value to glossy magazines with corpoorate sposors--or even selling it to The Sun, which is not glossy or corporate, but which does serve a particular viewpoint and a set of individuals--are debatable. My only defense is that I need to make a living, and that, for better or for worse, this is my best skill. I'm a mediocre waitress, I can't work in an office, and although I'm a good teacher, I lack the stamina to do it full-time. What I can do is be a conduit and a commentator for these stories which seem to seek me out.

I'm speaking about all this as if it were just an interesting intellectual dilemna, but it hits me where I live, in my most intimate relationships, in the things I am at liberty to write about and those things which I should and do keep private. I'm speaking as if that disctinction were always clear. It is not always clear to me.

My student was reluctant to write about her personal experiences because she feared being self-indulgent, and more than that, she did not want to just create another pleasing product--"Oh, that's a good story! You should send it to The Times!" that could be consumed in our common marketplace. She did not want to objectify herself or her experiences.

But these twin reservations are inhibiting her from writing the piece for the audience who most needs to hear it--herself. And perhaps, someday, others like her, who have gone through similar difficulties, and who would be comforted or illuminated to hear about her experiences.

I was thinking the other night, just as I was falling asleep, that we should do our work, our writing, our whatever, like children building sand castles on the edge of the shore. Knowing they will be washed away, yet completely absorbed in the process, enjoying the sun and the squeals and shouts of our friends, and our own creativity as we line the castle wall with pebbles, or stick a big stick in the center of the turrets where a bird's feather flag may be flown.

The tide comes in; our work is washed away, made irrelevant. Shakespeare stays, impervious to time, and a few others. Most of the rest of us disappear. When I was a teenager, this idea devastated me. Whjy create anything if we only die in the end, and if our creations die too?

Now that I'm older, I am more at peace with it. We go home after an absorbing day of playing all-out, we're in our beds, sunburned, tired, and dreaming. The purpose of the work was to grow ourselves up. Maybe the real work comes afterward, in the dreaming.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I finally saw Carla last night, first time after her return from Mexico. She looked gorgeous and glowing despite having spent all week in the studio laying down vocal tracks for her next album. She told me it was a hard day--a hard week. Even though she still has amazing technique, a gorgous tone, and a style nobody and nothing can take away from her, she noticed that her diaphragm is not as strong as it used to be, making it harder to control the intonation. Big leaps and little glissandos of notes no longer come easily on the first take. Some of her upper range is not as powerful as it used to be.

She can still sing the hell out of the songs, with a greater depth of feeling than before, and a richer sense of the story she wants to convey. But the technique she used to have at her fingertips is no longer so accessible and it was hard for her to be with that, to be in that, day after day, in the studio.

She told me, and her eyes filled for just a moment, and I felt a surge of fear in my gut that I'm sure she had experienced also; what does this diaphragm weakness mean? is it just fatigue and stress and medication, or is the ALS advancing more quickly?

I felt so honored just to witness the bare reality of the moment. I know what an artist she is, how more than anything else, singing comes right from her soul, and what a perfectionist she can be.

"I don't know how much longer I'll be able to sing the way I want to," she said bravely, looking right at it.

I said, "It's like you're freezing your embryos now." She nodded.

When I went home, C asked me, "How's Carla?"

"She's okay," I said. "She's freezing her embryos."

His face registered shock.

"Not those embryos. I mean her songs. She's laying down as many songs as she can while she still can. It's hard."

And it is. Life is hard but beautiful.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

C and I went out for an expensive and luxurious dinner last night to celebrate that I won the Kalliope poetry contest, and got a poem accepted into the Syracuse Cultural Workers Calendar for 2009, and that MORE magazine took the latest essay I sent them. A triple header, all the good news coming in one week. We drank half a bottle of champagne between us, and the waitress let us take the rest of it home.

Meanwhile, I keep plugging away at revsing the hot tub play--I got the idea for the title of the play this morning as I was rushing around getting ready for school: The Hot Tub Defense. That's it--that's the right title. I also scribbled down some additional dialogue that will make it work. That play has been pure pleasure. I feel like I know the characters inside out, and am thinking about maybe writing a novella based on the play--a la Shopgirl by Steve Martin.

I'm still reading the second part of Neil Simon's memoirs. How incredibly prolific he was! It sounds like he was just chanelling the plays--like they were pouring through him so fast he was just taking dictation. He says that afterwards he couldn't even believe he had written them.

I had to say good-bye to my third graders today as I'm moving on down into the second grade next week. It's always poignant with the little ones, who throw their arms around my waist and say "Don't go!" Trust me, that never happens in high school where I will begin my residency in one more week. I'm trying not to dread it. Sometimes you encounter really sensitive smart kids in high school. It's just that the ones who don't want to be studying poetry know for a fact that they don't want to. I wish it were an elective at that age, and that I had only students who wanted to be in class. But I'm thinking of trying out some rap lyrics with them this year; that might yield more fun for all of us.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Friday night I went to a production of Corpus Christi (sp?) the Jesus play by Terrance McNally, which was in town briefly. It was at Grace Cathedral; Diana, Phil, Jonathan, Scott, and Leo all came too. The acting was strong, especially Jesus, who was tall, thin, with a heart-shaped face and a sweetness that shone through every moment--he really moved me.

In the production I saw of this play in Edinborough eight years ago, the cast was all-male, and I think the script was slightly different. In this show there were five or six women now playing male apostles. A lot of gender-mixing. The actors were all incredibly sincere, and as we were in the front row, I saw many real tears being wept onstage.

The problem was their tears shut down my own.

After the Edinborough production I remember being hit with so much emotion I couldn't move. I was weeping and shaken to my core.

This time it was the actors who were having the experience, and the audience was witnessing it. Diana stayed with us all weekend so we had a chance to discuss it. Apparantly, this is a well-known fact among theatre directors (I just am only now discovering it.) If the cast is sobbing and crying, then the audience doesn't get a chance to. In the stage directions for Rabbit Hole, for instance, the actors are instructed not to cry except in certain very specific places--just once or twice. The tears belong to audence.

The next day, Saturday, Diana went off to interview the actor who played Jesus as research for a book she's writing on the effect playing these roles has on the actors.

It is an interesting question, how an emotion can be shared, or not, how it can be passed around or "put on" someone else. Not only in theatre, but in life off-stage as well. I remember several difficult relationships where I felt like I was "carrying" the depression for the other person.

What makes the difference between sharing an emotion or putting it on the other person? In close relationships, why does one person often assume the mantle of the strong together character while the other partner acts out the fear and vulnerability and grief?

In my relationship with C now, it feels like we take turns being strong or being vulnerable. We have both been both. In my first marriage I was the identified patient. When things got rough--abortion, suicide, chronic illness--I collapsed in grief. My husband buried hikmself in work and didn't cop to his darker emotions much; and when he did, he didn't do it in "my" language, so I wasn't as open to hearing them as I should have been.

I've learned that I can't share vulnerability and strength equally with everyone, in every relationship. Some people resist switching roles--they cling to their fallback identity, whether it is victim or tyrant, superwoman or injured child. Some people really are too fragile or too occupied working out what they need to work out in one aspect of themselves to be able to play with wholeness.

I know a woman who denies every bit of her own aggression. She won't use swear words and she winces when other people do. She can't stand being teased and she never teases anyone. I described playing tennis to her, how satisfying it is for me to thwack the ball really hard, how healthy I feel afterward, all my frustrations discharged on the court. Limp with health. She shuddered.

"I couldn't do that."

I told her how C and I trash talk each other: "Prepare to meet your Maker. I am the Merchant of Death." "I am the Dominatrix of Doom and I am going to grind your ego underfoot."

She winced. "I could never do that."

I am so grateful to have a companion who will play with the shadow. Who will tease me about mine, who will acknowledge his own, who will bat it back to me, fiercely or gently, but always with honesty. When there is no room for shadow play the relationship dies.

This blog was supposed to be about art and life, but lately it always comes back to love. I feel a little embarrassed about that--I do want to debate important questions relating to Art and life and playwriting--but I can't keep from singing about what is uppermost.

Most of Saturday I sat in bed and worked on the first draft of an essay I want to send to Modern Love, about C and his cat, and love in middle age, and fear and committment. I sent it out to my dad and sister and a bunch of my friends. Of course dad loved it. Some friends liked it too. C had the thankless job of pointing out places where I could have gone deeper. (Another friend, via email did the same.)

It's hard to be the partner of a writer--well, I should say, it's hard to be the partner of me. When I write something, a poem, an essay, and it's hot off the press I can't keep it to myself--I have to share it. I want immediate feedback. When it's fresh and new and still dripping with vaginal juices from the birth canal though, I am not always the most receptive audience for criticism, however gentle and correct. I argued with C at the kitchen table about his thoughtful comments. A short time later I came around.

Sunday, we cleaned out the laundry room, where David has been storing his tools, bike, a playhouse he's building for his daughter, and other items. I had to negotiate fiercely for the space. My space. Our space--space for C to set up a workshop to make more ladders and work on house projects. Once David had moved some of his things, I threw away a bunch of stuff. Old identities, the struggles of the last fifteen years. I feel like I'm dumping my old life, at least the worn-out no longer useful parts of it. It feels great. There is so much that I am ready to leave behind.

Friday, March 07, 2008

C and I walk to the tennis courts in our neighborhood. It's early dusk, the sky is pink. The tennis courts are at Brookdale Park, where a large crowd of Latino men are playing soccer on the adjoining field. There's a basketball court too, and a baseball diamond. Kids on bikes, kids shooting hoops, kids standing on the sidelines watching the men play soccer. I don't know how they can tell who is on whose team. They don't seem to be wearing any identifying shirts.

The tennis courts are empty. They're fringed with pine trees which hide the glare of the setting sun. As the shadows deepen, the sky goes from light pink, to deep peach, to purple, and the trees go from green to black. Swedish ivy in banks alongside gets darker and glossier. All the leaves are new.

There's a spent condom on the court, and the night lights don't work, which is a shame, because if they did we could play night tennis. As it is we volley until it gets too dark to see the ball. Playing in the half-light I sense rather than see the ball. My arm moves automatically in its direction, I hear the thwack and catch a glimmer of flourescent chartreuse whirring over the net like a small fast planet.

Walking home, we stop because fragrance is pouring out of a camellia bush. "Is that lilac?" C asks confused. There's a profusion of sweet smells; everything is blooming. A few minutes later we are walking under a tree with white blossoms when sweetness assails us again. Orange blossom or honeysuckle? There's no moon but plenty of stars. At home C improvises something lyrical and sweet on the piano while I put a salad together; new spring peas and goat cheese and avocado and small heirloom tomatoes, yellow and purple and red.

I feel full and voluptuous--hormonal. Teaching, I had the third graders use their five senses to describe a memory of the first time they did something--first time riding a bike, first time swimming. One child remembered leaving his orphanage in Cambodia--he was two. He saw dancing monkeys. His new American sister hugged him so hard he fell down.

Another boy writes about the first time he went bowling. He reads in front of the class, "I smell balls." His friends giggle. He frowns. "Not those kind of balls." I interject. "Maybe you could say 'I smell bowling balls.'"

I still have to rewrite the very end of the hot tub play, and tweak a few things here and there. I work on one of the poems The Sun came close to accepting. I wish I could write more like Jorie Graham. Wish I weren't so wedded to narrative and prose. But my mind feels very earthbound. I keep making the same signature moves. For better and for worse. C comes up and puts his arms around me as I stand at the sink, washing lettuce.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Tim and I auditioned an actress for the role of Olivia yesterday. She was good--I thought--passionate--but a little young for the part. It's audio, so looks won't matter, but Tim said there's an accent thing. He said accents drift, over time, a Boston accent in 2008 doesn't sound like a Boston Accent in 1908 or one in 1808--and there are micro-changes that occur every decade.

I feel like it's more a question of inflection--younger people tend to end sentences on a more rising note, as if asking if the listener really understands them. This young woman had a deep enough voice, so it wasn't like she sounded like a little girl or anything. And she was smart, and likeable, and related well to the character's struggles.

I'd be okay to go with her, but there are also possibilities for other actresses. Carla would be great, if she has time, which is a big if, and there's also my friend Diana, who is the right age, and teaches drama and voice in Spokane, and loves the play. The only drawback to Diana is that she lives in Spokane and we'd need time for rehearsals.

We have a couple of possibilities for Jack--one Jewish guy with a slight NY accent, whose voice I like very much. It's important to me that the actor playing Jack sound Jewish and lawyerly, but subtly so--there are a lot of tiny things in timbre and inflection that inform that without going into a full Fiddler on the Roof impression.

I got a note back from The Sun, rejecting all the poems I sent them, but saying that three of them came close, so it's back to the revision board again. I hadn't been satisfied with the way those particular poems ended anyway. Sometimes I have the body of a poem and then it takes years--literally--for me to find the right ending.

I read the latest Poets & Writers and was knocked out by the poem of Jorie Graham's that was in there--alright, she is a genius, I admit it, even if I can't understand half of her work. Also, they advertized this cool new thing called a NEMO or something--a portable word-processing machine, like a laptop, but lighter and sturdier, capable of running for 700 hours on a couple of triple A batteries, with no Internet distractions!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

G and I watched a Sopranos episode last night for the first time in ages and I regret to inform you all that Adrianna finally got whacked. This news will probably not come as a shock to anyone because it happened way back in Season 5, but some of us are slow in making our way through the series.

I really was sorry, because of all the characters, in some ways she grabbed me the most. She was so trapped, in her crazy relationship with christopher, in her drug habit, and by the FBI--she was like a little trapped animal. In the end she was shot in the woods.

I was thinking about the discussion we had in class Sunday night about redemption. Adrianna died "unredeemed"--that is, she never got a chance to set her messed-up life straight. Even if she and Christopher had entered the witness protection program and relocated to Utah, one can't imagine them being happy or staying out of trouble for long. She was doomed from the beginning, and she died a very sad and ignoble death.

The reason I think her story is worth watching is because she's real--at least her character's feelings, thoughts, hopes and dreams are real representations of a lot of people. She doesn't end up going to rehab, kicking Christopher out, getting her life together. She can't. Some people do transcend their circumstances, and many don't. It's fine to focus on the heros who do--they shine the light for the rest of us. But I think it's also fine to show those who don't or can't--they evoke our compassion, for them, for each other and even for ourselves. When I watch Adrianna getting beat up and still clinging to her abuser, or trying to lie and cover-up things because she knows she'll get slammed if they are discovered, I think "There but for fortune go I." If I were in her shoes, raised in her environment, would I have been able to make better choices? I doubt it.

Elsewhere in theatrical news, my nephew Eli, age 8, who has no front teeth, due to a combination of growing up and roughhousing with his older brother, called me last night, seeking sponsorship for a play he is in, about loggers and panda bears. He plays a logger. He has four lines of which three go, "We're not! We're not! We're not!" which he recited for me over the phone. He knows I can't make the show but could I please send a check because his class is going to adopt a Chinese panda bear.

I love this very small little world we live in now, where kids adopt bears half a world away (and probably track their bears' progress over the Internet.) I wrote the check and now it's today. I'm still working on cleaning our room, getting rid of debris and paperwork. Why is it so hard? At least I feel a lifting of the fog that surrounded me for the last few weeks. Tomorrow Tim and I are going to start reading actors for the radio drama based on my hot tub play.

Monday, March 03, 2008

We had such an interesting Personal Essay class last night. Among other topics, we talked about redemption. Some of the students look for redemption when they read, or go to the movies. Many of my friends feel the same way. A bleak movie, like Leaving Las Vegas, leaves them feeling depleted and angry because after all that suffering, there's no redemption in the end.

I argued that perhaps the redemption takes place off the page, or after the credits have rolled. Maybe the redemption is in the discussion we are having now, I suggested; maybe it happens later, in the consciousness of the audinece, who know, at least, that no matter how dark or horrifying their circumstances, someone has been there before and written about it.

Afterwards I regretted not having asked this question: given the inevitability of the story this essayist has to tell (it was Cheryl Strayed's essay "The Love of My life," about how her grief for her mother led to a long binge of self-destructive behavior,)-given that this is the story the essaysit has to tell, how could she have worded it so that you felt closer to the experience and more satisfied at the end?

I find this essay to get mixed reactions: some people passionately love it; others react strongly against it. That's fine by me: it's provocative. What I'm interested in is how the style of the storytelling either works or doesn't work to make the essay alive and memorable.

I came home very high and excited. Those experiences of an engaged group discussion are beautiful to me;lots of different minds exploring an idea from all angles, coming up with a richness and diversity of response impossible alone. It's such a smart, engaged group of students!

I didn't blog here about how Thursday night and Friday night I performed with Wing It! Thursday evening was just the women--we performed at a women's health conference. Had fun dancing and doing spoken word about mammograms and pap smears. Megan did a mesmerizing poignant piece about swimming.

Then Friday night I read some of my poems at Interplayce. I read Half-Remembered Fragments of Song Lyrics, and Letter from Southern Africa and Sustain. It all worked out well, except I definitely need reading glasses now, even with 12 point type. C and I went to Target Saturday and picked up a pair for me. Now I just have to remember to bring them along.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

About a week ago, I went on a hike in the hills with Ruth. We were driving back, in my car, talking, and at the exact same moment that she said, "Look at that beautiful pink tree with all its petals," I found myself saying, "Look at that young man being arrested."

I was looking at her, and behind her, through the passenger side window, I saw a young black man being handcuffed and pushed into the back of a police cruiser. She had turned to face me, and through my window she could see a gorgeous cherry tree shedding its blossoms in the wind.

Both sights were true; they were both on the same street. As Carla would say, "Bittersweet."

That's what my life is now--if I look out one window, I see the fragile sweetness of Spring (yes, sorry, East Coast readers--we are playing tennis, and gardening, and hiking, it is in the 60s, beautiful warm sunshine, and the acacia trees are all yellow and the cherry trees are all pink and white, and everything smells good.)

On the other side of the window, Carla's ALS diagnosis, fears for the health of other people close to me, the economy going down the toilet (I dreamed about this last night,) war, and the kids everywhere who are not getting even the basics of what they need--a sustainable world. I can look in either direction. I think I have to look in both. To turn a blind eye to the half that is painful is to deny the whole picture. But last night, after a beautiful day of tennis and lovemaking and a good movie, a delicious dinner, phone conversations with my dad and my sister, I cried as I went to bed. I know all these things are fleeting. I fear losing the world.