Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lisa's wedding day was bright and glorious. She sparkled like the jewelled net of Indra, nothing left out, and Alan was radiant beside her. Two suns, you almost needed sunglasses to look at their smiles directly. So much love pouring out from eye to eye, from mouth to mouth.

Michael Mansfield and Carla co-officiated. I had been chupah holder for Michael and his husband Randy when they married three years ago, and I was chupah holder for Lisa and Alan. Their chupah was a brightly colored parachute; Michael and Randy's had been a quilt. Carla wore a cream-colored dress trimmed with gold and gold sandals. I told her she looked like a Roman gladiator.

"That's just the look I was going for," she dead-panned. She also said the secret to a happy till-death-do-you-part marriage was to marry later in life. It was a joke, but there's some truth to it. The phrase "till death do you part," has more meaning when you are over fifty. It's both more real and less scary than when you are twenty.

The whole day took on a flavor of Midsummer Night's Dream for me. Obviously, Lisa and Alan were the royal wedding couple, I forget their names, Hippolita and ...? The ones for whom the peasants prepare their play, the ones whose guests Helena and Lisander and the other two are. But there were also other lovers, like Oberon and Titania, courting, distancing, pursuing, embracing, quarreling, making up. A million little love story tributaries all feeding into the big river of love.

I'm beginning to see this as one good way to look at life; as if it is all a gigantic love story, replete with misunderstandings, vulnerabilities, separations, broken promises and renewed vows. As Michael said during the wedding ceremony, "When we contemplate Nature, we see what enormous love has been poured into every spot on the planet." That doesn't mean it's all sweet and easy. It just means, as Ginsberg says in my favorite poem, "the weight/the weight we all carry is love."

My own beloved, C, is not much for audience participation, and he kept trying to create a safe distance between himself and any threat of being called upon to share his innermost thoughts on marriage, or perhaps, nightmare of nightmares, do an interpretive dance under a Redwood tree. He kept fleeing down the rustic paths to the source of the stream, trying to get a moment alone to collect himself, poor man, and I kept pursuing him the way Helena pursues Demetrius in Midsummer. He was agile and elusive as a deer, and so on we went, a merry chase.

Meanwhile, other young lovers were making out in the dance area, while married couples contemplated their own vows, and other middle-aged couples compared notes on the logistical challenges of combining households and communities at an age when most of us become a little crusty and stubborn. And the sun shone, and there were many different kinds of cake, berry tarts, and coconut layer cakes, and chocolate, and amazing live music.

One of my most intimate moments of connection was helping Carla in the bathroom, which proves that Love really doesn't care where you call on it--it finds a toilet as good a meeting place as a sunset beach. It doesn't matter. And later that evening C and I got a chance to talk, honestly, about the differences between us. I value his deep introvert self, his ability to listen and hold, his quietness and steadfastness. And yes, the insecure teenage girl part of me wanted to make sure I had a partner on the dance floor--godammit, I was single for 14 years, now I don't have to be anymore, dance with me! I don't care who's watching.

And he did, a delicious slow dance, but I also have to accept that even now that I am coupled and not single anymore, it doesn't mean he will be automatically available to fill every social need or desire I have. I still have to be comfortable dancing by myself, or with whomever is there that wants to take a whirl. I have tor espect his right to be exactly who he is, both in the moments when it's conveneient for me, and especially in those times when it's not.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The day after I got back from Harbin, I picked up my Little Sister at her granny’s church and we went to the beach. She ran me all over the sand, up and down, in the water, out of the water. Marveled at everything; the seaweed, “How come it’s like that? Yuck!” asked a million unanswerable questions, and was very brave, I thought, in trusting big white strange me for a few hours.

She held my hand tight when the waves came crashing in (Alameda Beach is like a bathtub compared to Ocean Beach,) and cried, “Why do the ocean want to pull me in?” as the sand sucked under her toes. Every little thing was a wonder to her.

I bought her a happy meal—I know, I know, next time I will pack something healthier—and we went to a pet store and looked at every fish, turtle, gecko, hamster, bird and guinea pig in the place. Brought her home exclaiming, “We had so much fun!”

Much easier for me to hang with a 7 year old rather than a 14-year-old who keeps texting boys she met on the bus yesterday while I’m trying to have a quality date with her.

I’m writing this as C plays piano downstairs. He’s working on some new compositions. The last week has been packed; yesterday we went to Ikea and bought furniture (including rug) for the whole guest room—bed/futon. Cushions, table, mirror. We worked efficiently as a team and got in and out of that cavernous suckhole of a mart in record time. It was kind of mind-boggling. Got everything loaded into the back of C’s car and drove off down the freeway with the trunk popping open and me twisting around in my seat eyeing all our loot anxiously to make sure it didn’t scatter all over 580.

Today I did the training to become a volunteer assistant at Impact Bay Area. S usual some of my resistance came up: “These will be long days! It will take time away from writing! I can’t handle all these details! It’s too hard!” I will be working some of the areas that are not, shall we say, my strongest suits: practical details. But I want to get better at that stuff. I already have leadership skills and teaching skills and group speaking skills. I need to get better at the physical world.

Speaking of which, tomorrow is Lisa’s wedding. I was honored to be asked to hold one of her chupah poles. Bring on the waterproof mascara!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harbin Hot Springs is a little outpost of hippiedom, nudity, and healing hot waters nestled just North of Napa County in a valley between mountains. It is hilly, rocky and rough, honeycombed with unpaved paths and hiking trails on which you can spot tall tanned men wearing skirts and floppy hats, or yoga goddess women, or white-bearded skinny refugees from the sixties who look as if they have been subsisting on nuts and berries for decades.

It is not ideal for someone with a disability. Carla and I knew this when we decided to go; fools rush in where angels fear to tread. We are both fools enough to say, "What the hell. We'll make it work."

And we did. We laughed a lot, cried a little, had to ask for help a handfull of times, got scared clinging to narrow rocky stairs, but we made it through without any broken bones. I'm calling that a roaring success.

For me, ironically, Harbin is a great place to work. In summer the sun is too fierce to use the pools at mid-day so I usually retreat to the library for hours and work on poems and essays while everyone else has blissful tantric experiences in the warm pool. Carla is similarly pale-skinned, so we both spent a lot of time just hanging out in our room or on the shady lawn. She worked on material for Lisa's upcoming wedding; I lounged and read poetry.

In the evenings we made perilous journeys up to the warm pool, where there was a sign that said, "No Sexual Activity in the Pools." "Sexual activity" was a phrase interpreted loosely by the twosomes and threesomes and foursomes who circled in each other's arms, legs around waists, whispering in ears, floating on backs with breasts bobbing skywards. You can't beat Harbin for people-watching--and you know that whatever scenario you're imagining for the folks you're observing, the real story is likely to be even more bizarre.

Carla and I talked and laughed and cried; we stumbled from place to place, relying, like Tennessee Williams heroines, on the kindness of strangers, i.e. any strapping young man I was able to commandeer to help us. The most vexing parts were the stone steps. There was a flight of about nine of them down to our room, a daily Everest for Carla, who scaled them with her usual pluck and some support from me. But it was harrowing. If someone with ALS falls and breaks a bone, they don't recover easily, and it can send them into a tailspin of life-shortening complications.

It will likely be Carla's last trip there--barring an ALS-reversing miracle. It's just too hard.

The staff and residents were friendly and helpful to us. They sent security guys in little golf cart thingies to pick us up from the warm pools and transport us back to the gazebo. Everyone was nice--well, one guy who helped us out of the pool at night also hit on us and was kind of sleazy, but he did make the scariest transition safer, so I forgive him. Everyone else was just purely nice. There was retail therapy to be had in the tents full of hand-dyed silk hippie clothing, there were lush trees and the black shoulers of the mountain rising around us, there was a full moon and beautiful stars.

There was everything and nothing to say. I mean I already know it, she already knows it. We know what we mean to each other. There are years of history to rehash of course, and there's always men, men, men to talk about, marriage and singlehood, dating and committment, sex and kids and parents and cities and friends and theatre and art and how amazing and strange and unexpected this road that has taken us from raw young women to here has been, expecially the heartbreaking twists of this last year. Our talk ranges from profound to the very mundane, from "Those pants look great on you!" to musings about karma, to tears of grief, and then in the next moment, laughter over how ridiculous we both can be. That's the poetry of it, more than I could ever fit into any one poem.

We did discover that the warm water lets Carla walk freely under her own steam; there's no fear of falling. She did some lovely independent graceful laps around the big warm pool, weaving in and out amongst the tantric couples. It seemed to help her leg cramps as well. The search is on for the DMC-ers to find her a good warm pool in the Bay Area that is handicapped accessible where she can continue to exercise her legs and enjoy the soft embrace of warm forgiving motherly water.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I met my new Little Sister today. She is not-quite seven, gorgeous little girl, who tied two jumpropes together for me to jump because, she said, "You're pretty tall." Then we played Monopoly, with the breathtaking surrealism of first grade.

"This property costs two hundred dollars," I report.

"Would you take a five?" she offers.


It is exactly the correct antidote to the general panic around bank failures, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and whatever else there is out there, to be playing Monopoly with a little girl who declares, "I am the bank and all the money is mine."

If she lands on Go To Jail and she doesn't want to go, she just skips over it. I don't contradict her. I want her to grow up to make her own rules.

When I was helping her ride her bike in their tiny backyard, she said, "I thought you was gonna be black."

"Did you want me to be black?" I asked. "Would that make you more comfortable?"

"Yeah," she said. It was one of the more honest conversations about race that I've had.

Later, as we were playing Monopoly, she said, "All of the Presidents were white."

"Until this year," I said. "But maybe this year we might bget a black President."

"I know," she said.

"Do you know what his name is?"

"Obama. My granny is going to vote for him."

"Me too."

I wonder if Barack obama could have any way of knpowing that his choice to run is impacting the world view of a first grader in Oakland with chipped purple nail polish and a pink bike with no training wheels.

"But how come...?" she asked, and then stopped. She likes me, for having only known me a little while, but trust takes a long time to build.

"What?" I ask.

She mumbles something that sounds like,"shot," and we keep on rolling the dice and moving our little figures around the Monopoly board. I wonder what she knows about Martin Luther King. Does her granny openly fear assassination for Obama, and does she talk about it? Do people at her granny's church pray for Obama's safety?

I can see that I will be learning as much from this little one as I will be teaching her. She wanted a date with me, "tomorrow," but tomorrow I go with Carla to Harbin Hot Springs, where we will loll around naked in the pools, eat great food, and DO NOTHING.

Carla is the busiest dying person there ever was. How many other people with fatal diseases are gigging, recording, performing weddings, writing, parenting, throwing bachelorette parties, composing, endorsing, befriending, and embarking on new adventures daily?

I got the bulk of Elizabeth's piece In remembrance Of written...six monologues so far. She may want me to write one or two more, but I've got material for each of her dancer-actors to work with, and I can go away with a clear conscience, knowing she will be doing wonderful things to shape and highlight and choreograph the material. the show will be the first two weekends in September at St. Gregory of Nyssa's Church in San Francisco, where See How We Almost Fly was produced in May of 2007. Tight turnaround!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Three beautiful days in Ashland, Oregon; we saw three plays and went river rafting--huge fun! The plays: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner by Luis Alfaro. Magical realism about an overweight woman who becomes morbidly obese during the course of the play, experiences a spiritual sea-change and floats away. I loved the poetry of the physical metaphors and the empathetic approach (the playwright himself is fat) to America's consumption disorder--but I felt like so much more could have been done with those strong themes and the actual plot did not fulfill the promise of its premise.

I loved the language in the play though, and the set was simple yet very inventive, with a huge walk-in refrigerator, which the main character seemed to live in, and a portable police cruiser with flashing lights, and a trap door in the ceiling with wires for flying people in the air. God, I would love to have a play produced in the New Theatre at Ashland!

The next play we saw was The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler by Jeff Whitty, the young writer whose first show was Avenue Q. This play was brilliant--it dealt with archetypes of the theatre wo can never die. Hedda gabler is condemned to shoot herself endlessly on the cul-de-sac of tragic heroines where her neighbors are Medea and Tosca. Determined to change her fate, she takes off in the company of Mammy from Gone With The Wind. Hedda wants to be happy and Mammy wants to rid herself of her slave mentality and be free. They travel together to The Furnace, which is a fearsome place inside the writer's mind where new creations are smelted down and reformed on a daily basis. Most of them have a short life-span, living only for a season or two; some, like Hedda, endure, whether they want to or not.

It's such a clever idea, and Whitty milks it for everything it's worth, exploring issues of free will, destiny, theatre, stereotype, and audience participation along the way. The metaphor of The Furnace felt particularly apt to me, coming off of the finish of Shame Circus--it did feel burning hot and uncomfortable and frightening and ecstatic to be in the heart of the flame, making that play.

The hot seat, literally. Sometimes I can't concentrate here for more than a few minutes at a time.

We also saw a very good production of Othello, which was enhanced for us by having read the play together beforehand and watched the Kenneth Branagh, Lawrence Fishbourne movie of it. C commented that he enjoyed Shakespeare much more when he knew what was going on, and he wouldn't mind studying another play with me. I want to do either Hamlet or Antony and Cleopatra (my favorite play) although I also wouldn't mind doing one I've never read before, like Coriolanus, or King John. Also, I want to rent that documentary that Al Pacino made called Looking for Richard, where he plays King Richard the evil hunchback, and researches him.

I used to think Othello was about jealousy; now I se it as being about vulnerability. Othello and Desdemona have it all, as long as they have confidence, but confidence, which feels so strong when you are sitting in its embrace, turns out to be flimsy after all; it is just a state of mind. It unravels like all other states of mind, it is composed entirely of thoughts. (I love how Shakespeare is really a Buddhist!) I see othello as a sobering reminder of how vulnerable even the happiest marriage is, how frail even the strngest-seeming man or woman. Perhaps the stronger-seeming people are the most vulnerable.

Thursday we went river rafting which was a new adventure for both of us--this trip took us over rapids which were rated 4+--5+ is the highest they go to. It wasn't really a trip for rank beginners, but we had a fantastic guide, who knew every rock in the river--literally--and skillfully piloted us around all the danger spots. Both of us managed to stay on the raft, by wedging our feet and keeping our butts firmly planted even when the rocking and rolling and splashing began in earnest. The water foamed and boiled like a vat of Coca Cola on the Klamath Falls; we saw a bald eagle, osprey, and herons.

On the way home we talked about other adventures we'd like to take--Outward Bound, Habitat for Humanity. I said I'd like adventure trips that would combine physical challenges with being helpful in some way. if we get good at the tandem, maybe we'll do the AIDS ride. To that end, and because the work on the in-law is still ongoing, C tried to teach me to use more power tools today--the nailer, which I've already had some experience on, and a compound mitre saw. Since I have small hands, achey wrists, no sense of balance and zero talent for geometry I am not a natural for home construction projects. But I was the lead teacher on learning Othello and he's the lead teacher on this. It will come in handy if we do ever do a Habitat project together--I want to be able to at least hold my own.

I do have some aptitude for caulking, which is what I'm going to do as soon as I'm done typing this. Tonight a performance with Wing It! at Interplayce, 2273 Telegraph Ave. 7:30 p.m.: Playing with politics. Don't know what I'll have to say as I have paid no attention to politics for the past three days and the world seems to have gone on turning without me following the news. Driving home we passed the fire areaqs. While we didn't see actual burned areas, we saw and smelled the smoke hanging in the air. I don't know if that's political or not, but it's the public thing I am thinking about; fire, and water, the overabundance of one and shortage of the other. The furnace.

We also came home to find Carla's gig at Anna's Jazz Island was sold out. There was a wonderful piece about her in the paper--I can't do links on this thing, but if you go to and type "Carla Zilbersmith" into the search box it will pop right up.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Shame Circus is out in the world, red and squalling and dripping and howling. Lots of pushing and a little assist from C, some good comments from Ruth and Bethie and my Dad, and ouf! I'm done. For now.

I am such a super-sensitive (not in a good way) dweeb around my own creative process. On my computer I have taped a quote from the Tao: "Do your work and step back. The only path to serenity." I am trying to practice that. In a few more decades I should have it down.

In the meantime, i go through my manic-depressive cycle every time I finsih something new. It's great, it's wonderful, I want everyone to read it, send it to berkeley Rep, send it to Yale Rep, send it out! Then cold reality sets in and the opposite voice says, It sucks, don't read it, it's terrible, shit, what possessed me to spend so much time and effort on something no one in their right mind would ever want to produce?

reality lies somewhere in-between. In the meantime: back away from the computer. Back away from the computer. Step away...

I've got to water all the plants now and the garden and finish packing. We leave for Ashland bright and early for a few days vacation--have reservations booked for three plays and a river rafting trip. C developed the pictures we took on his camera and they are beautiful. As soon as he sends them to me I will post one.

We spent the 4th with Carla and her Dad--a lovely lunch and lively conversation. then Carla went in for a nap, and we went on to party with C-R and friends, old-timey folkie singers and players. lots of mandolins and lutes. then watched the fireworks from our window while Othellow with Kenneth Branaugh and Lawrence Fishbourne played. It's amazingly quiet and peaceful, lots of time and space to write and goof around. We've slowed the frantic pace of in-law renovation for a moment in order to savor the summer. Okay, packing...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Making this play, Shame Circus, has been such a delicate, difficult, and uphill process. My characters are still somewhat mysterious to me. That’s okay, I tell myself. They’re alive. I don’t always know the right thing for them to say, but when I type the wrong one, then I know it. So I hit the wrong notes and erase them until I find the right one. It’s a slow process.

Iit’s like assembling an airplane in the dark, entirely by feel, hoping it will fly. But I can only see one line ahead of me as I write and sometimes not even that. I write a line, delete it, write another one, sit and stare at it awhile, chew my fingernail, go back. Refill my water glass, fetch some iced coffee.

Dede, who has been diagnosed with failing kidneys and anemia, lies languidly on the bed. What’s she thinking about? The bed is a boat. We’re floating away on an evening of music. I’m here, next to the light, tapping away at my laptop. C is playing piano downstairs, switching back and forth between piano and his new bass, the one he built himself, from a kit, and wired up. It sounds like a real bass!

I hear him fingering through a passage, hesitating, trying it slightly differently, switching instruments. I like this dual process, parallel play, both of us I n the house together, wrestling with our own alligators.

I liked playwriting class, hearing everyone else’s projects, knowing that they are going through the same sweet agony as I am. The ironic thing is that I want to finish this play so that I can start on my next one. How crazy is that? I want to finish edging across this precipice so that I can find myself on another one, clinging to a little fingerfull of rock. It never stops. “Behind Mountains there are mountains,” as the Haitian proverb says.

One way or another I will always be visiting this dar place, the unconscious, place where I know very little and am constantly humbled by the process. Writing fiction or a play— inventing the world--is a lonely manic-depressive business. When friends ask how I am I say I’m happy, and I am. Very happy. But preoccupied, all the time, a little worried, working something out in a part of my brain I can’t reach. I hope I can get this last bit done before we leave for Ashland. I’m at the transition stage of labor right now, so close to the end I’m feeling the urge to push, but not wanting to push too fast or too hard, for fear of damaging the baby getting it out.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I’m writing this with my leg propped up on the coffee table and an ice pack wrapped around my ankle. Must have hurt something doing those front snap kicks. If I’m going to really go for this self-defense thing I have to remember to take my glucosamine. chondroitin. I was up and down the stepladder for hours today, helping C paint the in-law and now my joints are all mad at me.

Elizabeth Mendana, who set my poems to dance and song and theatre last year in See How We Almost Fly, asked me to write the text for her next show, In Remembrance Of…Women in World War 2. She was inspired by the story of a great aunt who served as a WAC to research women’s experiences during the war. When the WAC began in 1942, 35,000 women applied for 1,000 officer positions. It was a unique opportunity for women who would otherwise be relegated to farmwork, housework, and factory jobs.

She’s amassed a fair amount of research, oral histories, letters, but couldn’t figure out how to hone the words. We agreed I’d come aboard as the writer and write seven or eight dramatic monologues.

I went to a rehearsal today, to watch what she’s doing, meet her six dancers, and to explore the topic with them. It was an interesting crew; one German woman, a Swiss woman, two Latinas, an African American woman, another Euro-American woman whose two grandfathers had both served, and Elizabeth.

The women were very vocal and passionate about being sick of all the World War 2 cliches and not wanting to reproduce them, not wanting to glorify it as “the good war,” not wanting to glorify war at all. I tried to reassure them as best I could that neither Elizabeth nor I would do that. I feel absolute trust and confidence working with E. Having improvised together for five years means we share an intimate aesthetic vocabulary. I know that I can throw the ball in her general direction and she will swoop in and pick it up and do something beautiful with it, and she knows the same thing about me. We don’t step on each other’s toes and trust the process.

This piece is going to be a challenge—I would ideally like to make poems that are good enough to stand on their own as well as fitting together into a whole. Some little ideas are beginning to come to me, but they are fighting for space with the remnants of the last act of Shame Circus which still lies in scribbled pages in my notebook, waiting to be pulled together, and the hal-finished essay I’d like to get done and in the mail before we leave for Ashland.

There’s a temptation to surrender to the pleasure of collaboration rather than forge ahead on completing my own projects, many of which have reached sticky places of impasse. It is a rare privilege to be able to trust a creative collaborator the way you learn to trust in Wing It! Sometimes I forget that.

I can hear C drilling holes in the house to install burglar bars right now. The light is fading and he’s been working on house stuff all day—painting, going to Home Depot, and now doing this frustrating job on stucco so old and hard it has the consistency of concrete. Last night I was privileged to attend a meeting of the wedding consiglieri, a subset of the Driving Miss Craisy group who are helping Lisa with last-minute details for her wedding. I learned many valuable things about white tablecloths with colorful iridescent overlays, (just made the Freudian typo “loverlays,”) about candles floating in tiny colored glasses of water, and boxes with a dozen live butterflies inside them (only ninety dollars!) I’m sure all this knowledge will come in handy someday, but for right now it’s making me want to run away to Vegas and get married by an Elvis impersonator.

One last rant and then I’m done: I got an email today telling me my manuscript See How We Almost Fly is a finalist in The Marsh Hawk contest. There are thirty-five of us and the Grand Prize winner and finalists will be culled from this pool. See How We Almost Fly has been a finalist and a first runner-up in half a dozen contests. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, shows I’m on the right track. On the other hand, I’m so sick or sending it out, sending it out, sending it out, and second or third place is useless because you don’t get the book publication.

I noticed that on the same list was Chana Bloch. I’m very flattered to be a finalist alongside her; she’s an accomplished poet with several books. She was the head of the Poetry department at Mills College for years. But I’m also outraged on her account that a poet of her stature should have to keep competing in these penny ante contests, sending in her twenty-five bucks and hoping along with the rest of us. In a sane artistic society, she would have a long-term relationship with a publisher by now. But since poetry sells so poorly compared with blockbuster thrillers, small presses resort to these contests and everyone is competing, jumping through the same slippery hoops for the same pathetic prizes.

I just want a sustainable relationship with a press that will publish, promote and distribute my books. I want to build a body of work, book after book, and not waste my energy sending my manuscript out to dozens of contests. I’d prefer this dream press to be mid-size rather than small, but vigor and commitment are more important than size. I’m so sick of this poetry-go-round, everyone grasping for the same brass ring..