It’s hurting me too…

This post is a recreation of an opening thought I shared today with my students. It felt like one of the truest things I’ve said in a while, and so I’ve written a version of it down to share here.


Good afternoon, guys.

We have a bunch of things to get to today. There’s a whole plan I spent this morning creating, because everything is new and it’s all happening on the fly. You should have an email in your inbox with links to reference what I’ll be screen-sharing with you in a moment.

But before I begin, I wanted to take a little space here at the top of class.

It feels like I haven’t had any space these past few weeks. Not for myself, not in my creative work, and most definitely not with you.

I miss it, space.

I miss being together. Even now, as you’re with me, hearing my voice, I miss you. I feel so impossibly far away from those last few classes we had together before spring break and the entire world broke apart.

The past few weeks, I find myself weirdly rushing, behind all the time and on everything. I’m rushing to catch up to usefulness, to meaning, to things mattering as much. I’m rushing to catch my whole life up to the way it was before, despite knowing deep down that I can’t. I feel so forcibly that I am less connected to my purpose, creative work and to all of you, and I know that no amount of speed will catch us all up to what mattered that’s been lost, but until today I suppose I haven’t been brave enough to let that reality in.

I’m sorry about that.

This morning, I was thinking about this class and about all of you and it made me very sad.

A big part of me wants to give you a motivational speech about how lucky I am that I have you, remind you that before all this happened we forged something that matters. That you are special and capable and adaptable and that you will survive this. That you are the thing that makes me most excited to get up in the morning, even when so many things that used to matter do not.

All that is true. If all this had to happen, I’m glad it happened with a group so able to adapt, able to stay flexible in this weird and strange situation, able to find grace in the tragedy. I’m lucky to have a group of students that are such a pleasure to be with in this way.

But I’m also sad.

I’m sad and I’m angry, because our last few weeks together, the culminating the arc of two years of collaboration and learning was something that mattered to me. It was something that used to feel tectonic and inevitable. It’s something I’m now so starkly seeing the necessary of in my day-to-day. And though I am telling the truth when I say I am excited to see you here – for these weird/not-weird dumb/not-dumb Zoom classes have been one of a very few bright spots in the ongoing slog – as we head into what would have been (and still sort of is) our final moments together, I’m grieving.

And this morning that grief finally caught up with me.

So at the top of today I wanted to take a few extra seconds of space to grieve without rushing to cram something useful into every online second just to prove this isn’t hurting us.

It is.

I think there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

It’s hurting us.

It’s hurting me.

It hurts me not to be with you.

And I see you’re hurting too.

 

 

 

So, that’s it for housekeeping, I guess.

Just know that if there’s anything I can do to help you in the coming weeks, I’m open.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it now, I have office hours.

Just email me and we’ll find a time.

 

– A

The low humming ache

It is 9 am and I’m already tired.

Earlier in the quarantine, I developed a pattern of waking around 5 each morning, making coffee and an elaborate breakfast and then sitting down to work by 7am. The early rising was likely related to each night’s large dinner followed by wine, weed and Star Trek, the combined effects of which generally felled my consciousness by 9:30pm. But, too, I couldn’t help but notice a constant background worry that manifested in random mental puzzles about how one washes sheets in a bathtub or which produce to prioritize for a given meal. It was these musings that would rouse me from slumber each morning; suddenly and fully I would find myself awake and thinking through how many cans of cat food I had left.

A bit of preoccupied thought pattern is not unknown to me. I carry it regularly during heavy lifting phases of creative projects. I’ve been known to dream myself sleeping inside the sets of my plays or figure out the staging particulars of a scene during slumber. During THE END I often rose around 4 am to write, when the morning’s quiet felt like the only time I could fully spread out and map out scripts for the game. But this ankle-level anxiety is something different. It feels like walking through shallow water. An action annoyingly similar to life as I have previously known it, but just enough more effortful that I can never quite stop paying attention.

Trying to stay positive on the whole thing, I initially attempted to feel each pre-dawn as an opportunity to be productive, an unexpected bit of time for work when my mental prowess is at peak capacity. I wrote lesson plans for brand new classes I never expected to teach this semester. I blitzed through emails that continued to increase in volume as the days passed. I prepped plans for each day in detailed lists with allotted timeframes. I was hoping I could willfully organize my way through all this.

That worked for a couple days.

There is no reason, really, that I couldn’t stay on top of the deadlines I had tasked to myself before all this happened. I work remotely. I have always built my own schedule. Self-direction is my wheelhouse.

And yet.

Right now it all feels emptier. It’s not that I don’t care, I do, I guess, but the drive that once felt focused and clear is now clouded with a low humming ache. It’s the same signal but static-ed and fuzzed with too much white noise. The effort it takes to continue to tune in, of pretending like it’s all going on as usual, is a work that I cannot quite seem to master, a task that leaves me both weak and worn down. It’s a particular kind of cosmic cruelty to be spending more time doing what you’ve always cared about but in a hollowed out form that makes it seem too small.

I open messages, read them, know what must be done, feel myself too wholly incapable of anything, close them, feel guilty, open them again. Eighteen times an hour I can repeat this purgatory cycle, fully seeing its futility but not able to release myself from the vision of who I want myself to be.

Perhaps this is why I keep feeling it all as an absurdity. It’s mourning the loss of someone while speaking to them. It’s reaching out to the things I care for through a fun house mirror. It’s a logic puzzle that adds up to a conclusion that cannot be but has no other answer.

Here I am some uncountable days into it all and clear on only one thing: my systems are failing. I don’t think I’m able to work myself out of this pain.

I’m not sure what happens next. I sense I will try to resist a bit longer. The part of me that needs to achieve is not quite ready to fully disappoint myself or others in the work I feel I should be doing.

But I also sense a reckoning is coming, a quieting, a shift into something other that I don’t yet know. Maybe I’ll find space to explore that here with you. Maybe I won’t. It’s hard to imagine anything quite that industrious right now.

For the moment, I wish you peace. I wish you comfort and quiet as best as you can muster.

Be well, dear ones.

A

Introducing the TRAILOFF Writers!

Swim Pony friends and family!

Adrienne here, writing today to bring you two exciting pieces of news about our latest creative undertaking. Back in January we shared updates on a project that was then called Story Trails, a mobile app we’ve been creating in partnership with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and app developer Toasterlab, to bring original and underrepresented stories to the trails of the Philadelphia region.

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Photo: John Hawthorne

First off, our project has a new name! While Story Trails was certainly descriptive, it lacked a certain… panache. It was a label that started as a working title, always with the assumption that at some point down the road we’d change it to something better. Until now! Over the past few weeks, the core creative team of the project undertook a #namestorm together and are super excited to announce our newly minted project moniker: TrailOff.

The new name says a lot about what I hope this project will be. It has allusions to writing, to thinking and meandering, to the promise of leaving the main road for the potential in trails less traveled. It’s about discovering something you never knew was hiding just beyond the obvious path. It makes me think of a favorite quote from Rebecca Solnit’s fantastic book Wanderlust: 

I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.

The second, even more exciting announcement is that we have selected 10 amazing writers, after nearly a year of outreach and connection to artists all across the region. This process was incredibly competitive and we could have chosen almost any one of the creators that submitted applications for the project. Our ten final authors are a blend of rigorous artistry, thoughtful connection to the project’s values, and communities that will connect to their works:

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afaq is a philly based daughter, with grandmother tendencies. assembled in yemen (from sudanese parts) afaq considers herself a  global citizen of her own country. this international award winning poet, museum exhibiting photographer, activist, and educator seeks to love the world until it loves her back. she has collaborated with Netflix, Pen America, Beautycon Media, Poetry Out Loud, the Barnes Foundation, and several universities including NYU, Columbia, and UPenn. Continuously targeted and previously arrested for her activism, afaq uses her art, experiences, and the violence she has witnessed to combat injustice while spreading messages of empathy and change. She’s writing for Camden’s Gateway Park.

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ari is a spoken word poet and educator based in north philly who began their career writing erotic fan fiction and large scale games of dungeons and dragons. Their work focuses on the Intersectionality of queer identity, trauma, and the latin experience as an outsider. ari is a member of Babel & deadname collectives and has been featured in Bedfellows and Paperback; and was featured on the philly poetry show, Drop The Mic. ari is currently looking to adopt a large cat whom they can name King Bastard. They are writing for the Chester Valley Trail.

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Carmen Maria Machado‘s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, Vogue, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife. She’s writing for the northern portion of the Schuylkill River Trail.

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Denise Valentine is a Master Storyteller, historical performer, consultant and founder of the Philadelphia Middle Passage Ceremony & Port Marker Project. Denise is a storyteller of forgotten and neglected histories of the African Diaspora with special emphasis on the early history of Pennsylvania. Her workshop, Historytelling, integrates archival research, folk heritage and oral history to demonstrate the role of the expressive cultural arts in creating sustainable communities. Currently, Denise works as a program facilitator for the Museum of the American Revolution and serves as advisor to the curatorial team of the new Early American Art Galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art opening in 2020. She’s writing for the Tacony Creek Trail.

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donia salem harhoor is an Egyptian-American co-conspirator with her 12-year-old cub. ED of The Outlet Dance Project, she is an alumnus of the Community of Writers, Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, Open Mouth Poetry Retreat, and several Winter Tangerine Review & Speakeasy Project workshops. A principal dancer and choreographer with Sakshi Productions, she is part of the Brown Girl in the Ring Collective. She was a 2016 artist-in-residence with Swim Pony. Her poetry has appeared in Anomaly, Ballet Review, and Sukoon magazines. donia believes fervently in game nights. She has her MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from Goddard College. She’s writing for the Perkiomen Trail. 

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Eppchez! (Ep-chez Yes) is a Quaker, gender expansive, Cuban & Jewish theater maker, musician, and designer. In 2012 Eppchez started up Alma’s Engine; a process focused production company/creative ministry developing eir new work across a variety of genera and medium; spreading whimsical and earnest dis-ease. Ey also collaborates with several other Philly theater companies as a performer deviser, choreographer and writer. Eppchez is also the founder of Darb Garb, making soft wearable sculptures for gender adventuring bodies in need of other lumps. Ey are writing for the southern section of the Delaware River Trail.

erin.png Erin T. McMillon is an urban horror and suspense author, blogger, and artist, from Trenton, N.J. Her work has been viewed and purchased by readers and curators from around the world. She is the author of several books (What’s Hiding in the Dark?: 10 Tales of Urban Lore, They Eat: An Episodic Zombie Thriller, and The Abducted), with a forthcoming release, Simone, to be released in the fourth quarter of 2019. Erin can be found on Facebook and Instagram @TheLadyWrites82 and on Amazon @erinmcmillon. She’s writing for the D & L Trail. 
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Jacob Camacho is a CHamoru writer, educator, and activist born and raised in Guåhan, Islan Marianas. He received his Creative Writing MFA from Rutgers University, Camden. He is an alumni of The University of Guam and UCLA’s Extension Writers Program. He’s a Lead Teacher at All Things Are Possible, Foundation in Willingboro New Jersey and Lead Educator for the Move Mountains Project 501 (c)(3) in San Luis, Colorado.  He’s a former English Teacher at Philadelphia’s alternative high school, CADI, and NJ’s YMCA of Burlington & Camden Counties’ Academic Coach. His short story, Proclamation, appears in University of Guam’s Storyboard 18. Half-Moon is featured in Philadelphia’s MadHouse Magazine Volume 4.  His poem, Kao siña hao fumino’ Chamoru?, is in University of Hawai’i Press’ Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia. He’s writing for the north Delaware River Trail. 

jacob w.png  Jacob Winterstein is an artist, event producer and educator from Philadelphia. Through performance art, poetry and events, Jacob’s work explores how we have been separated from and how we can joyfully connect with each other and our environments. Jacob is the co-founder of The Philly Pigeon collective which organizes, poetry slams, multi-media productions, workshops and artists retreats. Jacob is currently attempting a pilgrimage down every block in Philadelphia, asking people “when life is difficult, how do you feel better?” and towing their answers on a mobile altar. He’s writing for the Heinz Wildlife Refuge.
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Li Sumpter, is a mythologist and multidisciplinary Philly-based artist. She uses world-building, D.I.Y media, afrofuturism and gameplay strategies to cultivate eco-awareness and community action around the “art of survival”. Li’s artistic practice and collaborative design initiatives address existential threats to mind, body and spirit through speculative tools and sustainability projects that illuminate symbols and patterns of change. She was the 2017 Artist-in-Residence for Haverford College’s Urban Ecology Arts Exchange and the 2018-2019 Leeway x NextFab Art and Technology Artist-in-Residence. Li strongly believes in hope and the power of myth as a catalyst of personal and collective transformation. She’s writing for the Schuylkill River Trail at Bartram’s Mile.

At the end of March we held a workshop to bring these ten amazing humans into the TrailOff fold and, wow, they did not disappoint. Swim Pony fans, you are in for what I know will be our most intimate and heart-filled project yet. This group is awe-inspiring in their sensitivity, capacity, and thoughtfulness. They are a group of deep and challenging makers that are more than I ever could have imagined when we began to dream of this project years ago.

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Photo: John Hawthorne

More to come in the coming months as their work begins to take form!

Be well. Be kind. Be curious.

Adrienne

A Peek Into TrailOff

Intrepid fans of Swim Pony, founder Adrienne Mackey here with some exciting updates!

You might have heard that we here at Swim Pony HQ have been busy with research for our newest project TrailOff, created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to bring original audio stories to nature trails throughout the Philadelphia region.

Since getting the funding go ahead earlier this year (Thanks NET, William Penn and Barra Foundations!) we’ve been delving deep into that funky space between digital and analog, between the mind’s imaginary space and the natural world. Some of the goals behind TrailOff are practical: for example, how we might offer experiences akin to immersive and site based theater to a wider network of audiences. However, on the macro-level we’re also looking at creative and philosophical questions that reimagine how we experience what form stories can take and who gets to tell them.

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

Before we get into all that, let’s start with a few quick words we’ve been using to explain what the heck this thing will be:

TrailOff is a brand new mobile app, designed to re-imagine how people interact with recreational trails and, by extension, expand the diversity of users that seek them out. The core of this work lies in the creation of 10 unique narrative walks: intimate journeys that use GPS to link audio storytelling to physical attributes along a mapped route. Each selected path will feature text from a local writer along with underscored music and sound design, all tailored to sync to the movement of a listener as they travel along a trail.

TrailOff grows out of two lines of inquiry that have been simmering in Swim Pony’s pot over the past several years. If you’re even peripherally aware of what the company has been up, you know that we’ve been keen to explore how the design of games and other interactive media might teach theater makers something about how to structure immersive works. The lessons learned in works like WAR OF THE WORLDS have spurred us to dig deeper about what it means to place an audience in the center of an experience. Similarly, projects like WALK AROUND PHILADELPHIA  have spurred a curiosity about what it means to curiously explore the tangible world in relationship to one’s own personal narratives and experiences, with the moving body as the medium through which these two collide. In THE END we got a first chance at blending these impulses, and with TrailOff, we’re also aiming for the process and product to create space for a wider variety of Philadelphia’s voices. In short, this new work is a creative process that will examine the narratives of place – who dominates the meaning we make about the natural world and how we might re-imagining those stories from new perspectives – while simultaneously giving its eventual audiences a visceral experience of literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

While we can’t yet share the actual stories that will be part of the project but we can share some creative insight we’ve gained in exploring what aspects of a story best suit this particular format.

In July, Swim Pony and Toasterlab, our tech partners in the TrailOff app creation, undertook a narrative workshop, visiting potential trail sites across the area to explore writing specific to trails. In the same way a novel, screenplay, or standup comedy set all include language but utilize hugely different techniques to best serve their medium, we wanted to learn what kind of story is uniquely heard best while walking and listening through headphones.

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Swim Pony & Toasterlab near Bartram’s Garden,  Photo: John Hawthorne

We took away a LOT from that workshop but a few things stood out. The first lesson seems obvious in retrospect: when writing to place you have to spend LOTS of time there doing the same thing you expect the audience to do. When writing for a form that will eventually require you to move as you listen, it’s best to write in motion and on your feet as well. We spent tons of time walking trails and noticing the stories that made sense there and what we found is that there’s a balance between density of language and the ability to stay connected to what you see. Useful silence is key.

We also found that simple details that connect the listener to the world they are surrounded by are hugely powerful. One of the most effect pieces of language was also the most humble: standing in Heinz Wildlife refuge hearing someone talk about wind washing over reeds.

Our last big summer takeaway was that while this form is tricky on plot-heavy stories – relatively little happens or changes on a trail – it is uniquely well suited to putting you in another’s state of mind. We found language that traversed that space of internal thought or invited us as users into contemplative spaces of our own super exciting.

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Jenna Horton on the Delaware River Trail,  Photo: John Hawthorne

In November, we brought sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman into the mix to delve deeper into the aesthetics of sound as well as an overarching narrative structure for the app . We brainstormed and begin to define how sound will influence the user experience. We also strategized questions about how audio triggering might work. We shared research on other projects that felt inspirational to this one and finally started trying out ideas again in real space.

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

A few key takeaways from this workshop centered on the interface experience the user will have. We began wondering narratively who it is that the user is interacting with when they first download TrailOff. Some questions that guided that process:

  • Is there a guide that has put together the overall experience?
  • What is the aesthetic that one encounters as they interact with the app?
  • What is the journey from the first story to the last? What is gained? What is the narrative connection, if any, between each trail?

We began developing a character we’re currently calling The Ranger, a mysterious curator and guide who will over see the experience that each user will have. In tandem with this development we started thinking about the difference between a piece of immersive theater and a pre-recorded audio tour. What is it that makes “liveness” so palpable and special? Why does the story “being there” with the audience matter?

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

Finally, we began very functionally playing with ways that sound might overlay story content and actually began testing sound scores underneath previously generated text from our summer workshops. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you might even like to experience it yourself.

Below are three pieces of audio we experimented with. Stream or download one of files above and play it while you take a walk. Each of these files are an little tests in pairing different kinds of language, music and soundscape. To assess what “works” and doesn’t think about the following:

  • Is the experience you connect most to located in your ears, in the world, or somewhere in between?
  • Are there places where your thoughts are in conversation with what you hear?
  • How much (or little) does the language feel connected to the place you are in?
  • What about this experience feels uniquely suited to this format?
  • Is this even a “story” at all?

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

If you give it a try, we’d love, love, love to add your creative thoughts to our own. Just throw a few thoughts quickly into the box below!

 

An essay on the emergence, at long last, of spring

I’ve been musing this morning on divining rods.

I’ve never actually used one, but the idea of this object – a stick that subtly helps point one to something desired – is one I love. I invoke the divining rod all the time in my teaching as a metaphor for thinking about creative impulse like water that hides under the surface, a flowing material that needs a bit of focused attention in order to be found. I like that using a divining rod is a tactile endeavor, an action-based object held in the hands rather than examined in the mind. I like its connotation to something spiritual, a channel to something just a little bit mystical and beyond the natural realm. And too, I like that the tool is one that requires the body to listen to a pulsing current already existing in the world. A divining rod insinuates that creative spirit requires one to get outside and muck around a bit in order to be found.

The past months have felt a lot like interminable winter. There is, of course, that literal season which I’m sure we can all agree outstayed its welcome far beyond what was appropriate and polite. But too, it’s felt a bit like the space between last year and this one has been a creative freezing that is frustratingly resistant to a thaw. In the din of the daily artistic grind there are so many forces that pull towards themselves – funders with ever so slightly magnetic needs to fulfill their board’s directives, students with aims that require an ever so mild adjustment to the inner compass, collaborators that exert subtle forces on the instincts of the work. In the midst of this one can lose that inner flow of water, that first thirst that drew the body to drink. None of this is to say that I feel I’ve been creatively unproductive. In some ways one could look at the last year in Swim Pony’s work as a time of far greater produce than any in the past decade. But, to take this metaphor to its fullest, it’s also felt in some way like ground that has been over-planted. The nutrients that allowed the soil to yield such fruits feel depleted, as if there is simply not much left from which to grow.

What is that thing that I sense myself seeking?

Heart?

Impulse?

Maybe it’s easiest to just call it water. At this moment the current feels slack and the tide feels low and while I know I’m a savvy sailor who can ride the ups and downs, I fear without finding a source of liquid force, the boat is going to get stuck. As the weather warms, and the ice begins to melt, it seems imperative to get outside with that stick and figure out where all the water has gone.

A few weeks ago the husband and I undertook an adventure to the Wheaton Arts Center in Millville, NJ. I found an exhibit listed on a “Things To Do” website: something to do with biology and the intersection of science and art in the form of glass. It seemed promising enough that we set out on a 45 minutes drive to a small museum devoted to the roots of American glass manufacture in the local area.

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Much of the museum was chintzy in a charming kind of way. Not terribly interesting, I’ll be honest, but relaxed enough that our general lack of said interest didn’t interrupt an enjoyable walk through a faux-Victorian-styled home filled with fragility. We wandered through the exhibits on the origins of American Revolution-era glass blowing, the  catalogue of a building up and then eroding away of an industry throughout the area. We saw shelves of Tiffany and mass-produced Depression glass. We learned that creation of a “Millville Rose” paperweight was a sign of a high level skill for those craftspeople that managed to master it.

cactiAnd then, at the very end of the circle through the museum, we came upon an exhibit cataloguing the work of an artist named Paul Stankard. His form: nature-inspired themes encased to form paperweights. Collected in this area were hundreds of small round objects taking nearly identical form in perfect rows. His early stuff felt about the same to me as much of what we’d already encountered – pretty but a bit too delicate and girly for my tastes. These first works were thing I would never buy for my home because a) where would I put them, b) fancy glass makes me nervous, and c) the only thing they do is gather dust on some shelf where they never get looked at.

What I’m saying is that Stankard’s early works provoked little of the spirit of water in me. They were decently photorealistic depictions of flowers that seemed nice enough to spend, say, a few seconds on noting that it probably was really hard to make a cactus flower out of glass. They were objects that offered an “Oh… Huh.” level of artistic response. Then we turned a corner into another room, one filled with Stankard’s later phases of work. From the very first approach, they literally took the breath right out of my body.

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The images I took will not do them justice, these intricate tiny creations of flowers and roots and bees. They were small dioramas of surrealism, of ritual, of things sprung from supernatural purpose. They were absolutely transcendent tiny worlds encased in crystal, suspended in motion so perfect it’s hard to believe they are not alive.

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Some minutes after first encountering at these objects, I stood in front of a video playing an interview with the artist in which he articulated a turning point in his creative practice from mimicry and re-creation into something more metaphoric and representational. I walked back inside to look again at the tiny bodies hidden in the roots of flowers made of glass and heard Stankard’s echoing voice explaining something about metaphors of life and death and giving oneself leeway to let go of what a flower literally is and instead dive into what it might have the capacity to reveal.

These art works are deeply comforting to me, not only in their intense and vivid beauty but in the way they underscore the long arc of creative trajectory for the maker. They hold in their perfect suspension the promise of something unseen to break through. In the midst of what has felt like the unending cold and gray sterility of long winter, it was a reminder of future warmth and growth much needed, that perhaps every mundane step can be a tiny pull towards an inner stream of something downright divine.

Right now, the best I can think to do is to take time each day to try and feel the pull of water, even when all that seems to be present is its absence.

To take small steps, in whatever direction a bit of wood demands.

To read, if only as a practice of feeding the soil.

To write, regardless of whether or not the work finds its feet.

To whittle away at the dam, without worrying too much about what’s released.

So here’s a letter of well wishes to you all, written in the hopes you are finding the emerging spring.

– A

 

Are you bored of this shit? #MeToo

I am SO tired of shitty stories about women.

I am tired of shitty stupid, how-many-times-do-I-have-to-watch-this-same-old-ass-trope, kinds of narratives about ladies.

I am quite tired of listening to the same supposed allies defend the same small NOT reprehensible parts of a female character that makes her, um, remotely a baseline human as clear evidence of a writer or director’s progressive ability to write women.

I am tired and, frankly, completely BORED of boring, boring, BORING stories that are so impossibly predictable in the way they dehumanize female characters that it has essentially become a farce.

I am tired of only seeing stories that have more women then men in them.

I am tired of every show set in a past period in history requiring women to be introduced in their roles as wives and daughters.

I am tired of women roles in which their romantic potential is ALWAYS the key factor of their plot line.

I am tired that there is never, ever, EVER just a rando female scientist or doctor or computer programmer or lawyer or ANYTHING with an actual substantive character underneath her dialogue who contributes to the larger plot scheme who is not also a lover to another character, (unless of course she’s just there to add some forwarding exposition and will never be seen again).

Here is a thing I do now on the regular: every time I am taking in a story in which women are outnumbered by men, in particular when female roles are essentially decoration or only defined in service by their desirability I just say out loud that this is happening.

And you know what, it gets to the point sometimes with articulating outrage that it gets  BORING HOW OFTEN I DO HAVE TO DO THIS.

But do you know what’s more boring than pointing out places we should be annoyed and frustrating with diminutive places for women in the arts? HOW BORING IT IS TO KEEP WATCHING THESE STORIES.

Here’s a boring thing that happened to me yesterday that also made me tired:

I turned on Netflix to put on a little background noise while cooking. I searched for any random movie that popped up. The first one Netflix recommended me was something called Sleeping With Other People. It had been a long day and wasn’t in the mood to think hard and the two main actors are people I usually find funny I didn’t FEEL like doing a lot of work to figure out if this movie would be BORING in the way that almost all stories are, and so in this moment of fatigue and weakness I just turned on the movie.

In the first scene a woman is scorned by a nerd and sleeps with some other dude  because he’s there. Then both she and the dude flash forward in time to when they are caught cheating on other people.

In the male character’s scene his girlfriend is RUNNING AWAY FROM HIM until he PHYSICALLY STOPS her in order to mainsplains that she needs to apologize for reacting to his serial lying about non-monogamy with dozens of people. His vehement tirade ends with him demeaning her single objection to a pointed targeting of her best friend as actually being her fault for not expecting that ANYTHING he EVERY wanted to do to her was on the table unless she actively received explicit agreement from him not to be a terrible human. That and she’s being emotional and irrational.

Male character leaves unrepentant and intact. He is personally unaffected by his behavior or the feelings of those around him. No one around even seems to notice him screaming at the female he ostensibly has feelings for.

In the female character’s scene she is quiet and repentant and demure to her boyfriend who talks loudly and at length seemingly unconcerned for anything she has to say until she throws herself on the table to tell him how she and her therapist have realized that she needs to come clean about the single other person she has been with since they started dating. He proceeds to scream about how she is a slut in front of an entire restaurant. He yells without being checked by anyone as she receives a myriad of blows hypothesizing an irrational and untrue litany of insults and screams as he storms out while she is left standing there in red like a scarlet indecency.

Female character is completely destroyed emotionally and publicly shamed for a fractional amount of equivalent behavior to dude in previous scene. Mostly she stands still making small mouse-like sounds to indicate her complete lack of worth in any capacity whatsoever.

This is FIVE MINUTES into a movie I turned on because Netflix RECOMMENDED it to me.

OH MY GOD I AM SO BORED OF THIS!!!!

I will not mention that the 15 minutes of the following show that I tried putting in which I realized that the licensed therapist was hiding a secret identity of an irresponsible nympho (despite clearly doing the vast majority of child-rearing duties even though she and her husband are both working professionals) because it is TOO INSANELY BORING to talk about!!!

And I will not speak at length about the comedy set in the early 80’s that I watched a bit of after that in which the main female computer programmer sleeps with some guy she’s known for 10 seconds without protection cause she’s CRAZY and her CRAZY is apparently the thing that makes her the only girl who can do computer-based things and after he says sleeping with him won’t get her the job she looks hurt and tells him not to worry because she’s not one of those girls who gets her feelings hurt, which is why we understand that he CAN hire her because she is willing to put up with tough emotional situations like this one without displaying any girly feelings because if I were to talk about the first 10 minutes of that show I would be SO BORED OUT OF MY MIND THAT I MIGHT DIE!!!!

Want to know part of the reason why men think it’s ok to harass women? Because the stories they grow up with tell them that this is how the world is supposed to work. From the moment one is born they are indoctrinated with narratives that normalize and reinforce abuse of women and the subjugation of their identities in service of the narratives of males. We shove the stories of “don’t worry your abuser is actually a prince underneath” of Sleeping Beauty and the “it’s totally not a biggie if you are forced to spend a substantive portion of your life inactively passive progressing to the point in which you are literally asleep, so long as a prince wakes you up with a non-consensual physical act” of Snow White down their throats until they are so populace and so commonplace it never even occurs to imagine otherwise.

And seeing the vast number of #MeToo’s that filled my Facebook wall yesterday I was made tired but I was also so freaking BORED.

Not because these women are boring. Not because their experiences are not real and emotionally charged.

But because it is so IMPOSSIBLY BORING AND TIRING AND INSANE to have to experience these stories over and over and OVER in an omnipresence that is narratively PLAYED-FUCKING-OUT.

Maybe all the #MeToo creators on my Facebook feed need to start moaning in pain the next time someone hands them a script with a cardboard deep female character or overtly yawning in the face of a director who is telling them to play something “sexier” or bend forward and start lightly hitting their forehead on a table during a male-dominated season planning meeting. Maybe we should all go to the movies and just start loudly stating that we are BORED of what we are seeing because misogyny is SO IMPOSSIBLY BORING and we are tired of watching this BORING PROBLEM CONTINUE TO BORE US.

So here’s a thought for those that want to do something to counteract the displays of BORING, SHITTY and emotionally EXHAUSTING stories you’ve recently seen:

If you produce, if you write, if you direct, if you defend stories and plotlines and characters that do these tiring and damaging things in relationship to women, if you don’t acknowledge that these tropes and limitations are also part of the violence that perpetuates the behaviors, if you cannot see how it is just one more boring kind of control, if you cannot think of women as something that does not require them to inhabit the roles of victim or princess or witch or old hilarious hag or nympho or life changing manic pixie dream girl, if you are silent and standing by to the constant assault of intelligence capability and capacity and depth and potential of women…

If you see this and you don’t SAY something, if you create this and find it too tough to figure out how to DO something else, if you participate in things like this without BOTHERING to notice or comment, you are not simply observing the problem.

You PART of the problem. And a BORING one at that.

Because until we ALL are BORED of having to deal with this, nothing will get fixed.

– A

I Loved My Friend

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began-
I loved my friend.

– Langston Hughes

~ ~ ~

Why am I awake at 3am in the morning?

I could answer that question by saying that though it is 3 am in Philadelphia, it is 3 pm in Singapore and Malaysia and despite general advice for traveling such distances telling me that I shouldn’t be up and writing this right now, the desires of my body for wakefulness are apparently stronger than my wish to acclimate to my current circadian surroundings.

But if I’m being honest, I must also admit that I am not just awake, but awake and looking at a picture on facebook that I definitively know I should stay away from.

So I perhaps it might be more accurate to say that I am awake because without daylight as guidance, all my usual techniques to ride out loss are temporarily adrift at sea.

~ ~ ~

During Swim Pony’s recent game/theater project The End I spent a lot of time coming to understand what it means to grieve.

One way that I explored this concept was through research. I listened to Pauline Boss talk about the myth of closure and the particular pain of what she calls “ambiguous loss.” I interviewed experts on the subject of mortality that told me how catastrophic life events like divorce or immigration can trigger a process we normally associate only with death.

I also came across an interview with neuroscientist David Eagleman in which he explained that our memories of other people are like little algorithms in the hardware of the brain, a catalogue of experience and observation that create tiny simulations of the people we know. When we lose someone, part of the jarring dissonance we experience is that they are not truly “dead” to us. The fact of our capacity to mentally simulate keeps them with us in the present, bringing the old adage that “those we love live on in our memory” into a rather more literal truth.

Hearing this, it struck me what an awful lot of effort it is to keep the system running when the assumed equation for another human suddenly shifts. This effort was starkly illustrated to me because I was at the time in the process of losing someone dear to me and feeling most intensely the strain that dealing with their undesired vacancy required. And because of my former friend’s decision to concertedly absent himself from our previous exchange, I found myself taking up this second avenue of exploration and learning the grieving process in a rather more intimate way than I had intended.

What I noticed first in the personal experience of loss is how impossibly frustrating it is to watch a person you long for go out like the tide. To feel so much and be able to do so little about it is a most definitive computational drain. The absence of my friend did not suspend my previous simulation of him but paradoxically sent it into overdrive as it strove to create a reconciliation of the current state with my previous points of research. I could not find contentment in simply cutting the graph of experience in two: living, moving data on one side and flat lines of zeros on the other. No, the dissonance between the before and after instead required exponential levels of complexity as I tried to find some earthly way to fold the numbers in on themselves and expose an underlying principle that made sense.

Quickly that effort felt foolish, like watching the spinning pinwheel icon pop up on a computer program. Some part of me wanted to believe that perhaps with patience the system might finally right itself. But the longer I waited, the deeper into the void I dove in search of answers, growing an ocean’s expanse of unmet seeking inside. When finally the bounds of my body proved too small to hold it all, my sadness began to spill over the edges, often without warning and in the most inconvenient of places.

And still the little algorithm calculated on.

~ ~ ~

During the run of The End, a player spoke this way about her experience with the feeling of grief:

They want you to be done. They want it to be over with and finished. They want you to have had your sadness and come cleanly out to the other side. But it doesn’t work that way, even if you successfully pretend that it does.

I remember the discussion in the room as we read this. We decided that the character of “The End” should ask her if she found reward in the effort of spending a bit of time each day coming to terms with her experiences. Most players when prompted with this question came back with resounding yeses. But this one, still so clearly running answers to her equations of loss, was much more uncertain. The game was some part a relief, she told us, and gave space to name a thing that others so often required she keep hidden. But it also allowed the feelings she had previously felt in check to run amok and take residence in her in a way they had not been allowed to before.

For myself, during that period of rawest loss, I was lucky to have the game, lucky it required of me 12 plus hours a days to keep me doing something, and lucky to feel a sense of real creative purpose and impact when I needed it. I was lucky, too, to have a husband who often snuck behind me for a hug, told me I was working too hard and bade me to come and watch stupid television once in a while.

Looking back I see how I used my constant occupation as a way to try and delete the file in order to move on. I told myself daily that one cannot require another’s affection any more than it is possible to quiet a stormy sea by wishing it still. I gave myself the gift of one last good cry before scrubbing all the archival records from my phone and computer. I fixed my eye on an impending honeymoon to Singapore and Malaysia and told myself that I was lucky, lucky, lucky to have this exciting experience to look forward to.

~ ~ ~

On facebook one can see the massive catalogue of photos I have posted from my travels to Southeast Asia. I love to look at them, partly because I am so horrible at remembering my own experiences, but perhaps more so because it makes those experience seem more real. I know it was grand and beautiful to visit places a world away from my own day to day but my memories are so swiss-cheesey that I like the reminder that it all actually happened. I look at myself sitting on those splendid beaches and hiking under dense jungle canopy. I look at Singapore’s futuristic cityscapes filled with an eclectic mix of people, cultures and food. I remark how the days seem packed, knowing that my husband and I had a hard time sitting still.

While staying on an island called Sibu in Malaysia, we often spotted a young Singaporian boy on vacation with his family. This bespectacled youth was at that age just before puberty when boys are still soft and sweet in a way that almost seems precarious. We deemed him Pudge and fell in love with his propensity to wear the same daily uniform of too tight white shorts and soccer jersey. We adored him for mixing way too much ovaltine into milk at breakfast. Most of all I swooned at the way his floppy arms flailed as he followed his sister’s choreography to the bad pop music that played at the bar. Brad and I talked about Pudge like a celebrity, wordlessly observing him across the beach and then quietly cheering on his choice to gleefully perch himself at the front of a kayak or spend an inordinate amount of time digging holes in the sand.

At the airport on the way home I asked Brad if a day would ever come when we would think of our vacation and no longer remember that Pudge was there. He said, sure, barring active remembrance it was possible, maybe even probable. I said we needed to start a hashtag, something like #Pudge4Eva or #AlwaysRememberthePudge.

The photos of my vacation contain no images of Pudge. They also do not capture the small fight about boarding passes my husband and I had just before leaving. Nor do they note the occasion an hour after said fight, when my thorny anger dissolved and we quietly sat at the gate, explaining carefully why it was that we were both triggered by the others’ reaction. The photos don’t capture my awareness in that moment of how Brad and I have grown together over the past ten years, how solving this fight felt emblematic of the way we have learned to make room for each other as we make our way together across the world.

Perhaps it is unfair to look at a picture and expect it to do the work of containing such things. Perhaps it is unfair to expect these remnants to be an accurate recounting of who we have been.

~ ~ ~

If there is one major takeaway from the experience of sitting up late at night half a world away from home it is this: it is highly inconvenient to be sad.

Just before leaving for vacation I began a new brand of birth control. When I started having strange spells that were some combination of dizzy and feeling like the entire world wasn’t real, I assumed it was just the lingering effects of the travel and time change. I also didn’t feel like eating and lost my taste for alcohol but perhaps most treacherous was the way that, at random, a tide of tears would rise up and attack me like an invading army. Brad kept asking me what was up and I kept saying that I felt “weird” in a way that I couldn’t explain. I would watch the emotional responses of my body at this strange distance, wondering why on earth it was that I was crying in such a beautiful place. The sadness felt effort-full and expansive in a way that was frustratingly familiar. It was as if I’d spent months actively walking away from an ocean only to end up half a world away staring at the shore of its other side.

Along with the physical symptoms, I established a pattern of waking around 3 am. At the same time every evening my eyes would open and I’d know with certainty that there was no point in trying to sleep. And in this way I found myself with consistent time in the dark with nothing to do but catalogue the bits of data that rose to the surface of my consciousness. My late night wakefulness stayed with me through Singapore’s ultramodern computer-rendered buildings and on towards Malaysia’s tropic coasts. In additional to the hormonal imbalance I added to the mix a head cold, a solid sunburn and what one website breezily called “traveler’s diarrhea.” As a childhood migraine sufferer I have a pain tolerance not insubstantial, but this physical onslaught was of an entirely different order. I could not just wait it out until the sensation subsided. No, I constantly had to deal with my body, with the fatigue of sickness and the strange swells of melancholy. It was like surfing on waves that stubbornly refused to break onto land.

During the daylight my determination was strong enough to overcome it. I hiked and snorkeled with earnest ease and general aplomb. I boated to nearby islands and skittered craggy shores exploring tide pools surrounding the water’s edge. My gleeful facebook photos are not social media half-truths. They are genuine records of joyful experience that I worked incredibly hard to ensure I was giving myself. But each night I once again found myself awake at 3am, feeling the deep and tectonic ache in my hip joints brought on by the intestinal battle and that erstwhile loss that had drifted up to the surface from where it had lain below. It floated with me there in bed, gnawing at the edges of my resolute happiness, knowing I no longer had anemone or puffer fish to keep me company in its wake.

When I look at the pictures of myself during this point in my vacation – walking past kampongs and pointing at speckled crabs – I know those experiences were genuinely contented ones. But they also do not mark the increasing rise of emotional tide. They do not acknowledge the accumulated weight of late night calculation over one who is deeply missed.

~ ~ ~

Near the end of the first round of development on The End, I asked my collaborators for their favorite writings on grief. One of them passed along a piece by Langston Hughes called “I loved my friend.”

It’s one of those poems that so perfectly names something you’ve experienced that it’s hard to believe you have not always known it. I made it one of the very last things that players of the game would see.

~ ~ ~

Midway through our time in Malaysia the ocean’s asynchronous tide went all the way out, leaving a mucky landscape of dying fish and sea cucumbers that Brad and I explored in the early morning hours. Later that afternoon we snorkeled and saw a hermit crab the size of a grapefruit.

The next day we tried scuba diving and I had trouble adjusting the weight belt. Hanging out a few meters below the surface, I was capable at demonstrating how to clear the mask of seawater by blowing air out of my nose. I was also fine at taking the regulator from my mouth and showing the teacher how I would reach back and recover my air source if it was knocked away. But when she signaled something we hadn’t planned ahead of time, an instruction to demonstrate something I didn’t understand how to do, I started to feel the panic rise.

The water had begun to dim as a storm gathered in the clouds above. The instructor gestured and I shrugged as the uneven weights pulled my body asymmetrically towards the bottom. I tried to right myself as she pointed to the belt and gave me the hand sign for “Ok?” The plastic-y air in my mouth suddenly seemed far too little to sustain me and the whole strange apparatus I was covered in felt impossibly flimsy and un-real. I gave her the “Not so much” gesture in return.

I vaguely knew that what I was supposed to was breathe, vaguely remembered that the one rule to retain from my 40 minute crash course was not to give over to the body’s natural instinct to hold in and tighten one’s lungs around the breath. I understood that this rising panic was natural and common and that if I could just keep the air moving in and out of my body, I’d likely be fine. But the thought of sinking deeper, being even farther from that fading light, alone with myself, abandoned without words or explanation and denied a chance to understand or make meaningful sense of all this sudden loneliness and longing… It felt like a benthic pull I could not give over to without wholly losing myself to the darkness that lay in wait.

When I burst into tears over chicken satay at our tiki-torched table that night on Sibu, I had to admit that I could no longer chalk all this up to the virus and humidity. As much as I disliked admitting that my resolve was weaker than the side effects of the pills I was taking, it seemed clear this was no way to be experiencing Paradise.

~ ~ ~

Five days later, finally feeling free of the effects of the hormones and back to normal in my intestines, Brad and I sat quietly watching manta rays float by scuba divers as they cleaned edges of the viewing panel on the largest aquarium tank in the world. At some point we realized that the divers were nearly twice as far down as we had been intended to go on our own excursion, before I’d made us exit mid-dive and head back up to the surface.

“That’s it?” I said, looking at the distance a little astonished. “That isn’t very deep at all.”

“She told us we would stay pretty shallow,” Brad answered. “How far did you think we would go down?”

“I guess I didn’t really have a sense of what that depth would look like. It doesn’t seem so bad from here, but at the time it felt like we’d just keep going down and down until I could no longer see the surface.”

~ ~ ~

At the party for The End, I kept waiting for the finality of the project’s completion to hit me. Intellectually, I could concretely feel its success. I could see it in the laughter and tears that bubbled up between those who played the game. I could intellectually mark the way all my hard work and efforts had genuinely paid dividends in my audience’s lives. Still, something in me couldn’t quite let go enough to float in enjoyment the way I wanted to.

This is what I am thinking about in the wee hours of the night, as I sit looking at a picture of my friend on facebook that makes me so terribly sad: how do I find a way to let go?

And, perhaps, this thought is also how such a late night musing ends, soft as it began.

With an understanding that sometimes we cannot force ourselves loosen the weight of loss.

With a dawning awareness that when your grief and your body are not done with you, you must let them have their stubborn place.

And with the knowledge that I loved my friend, even if there’s nothing more to say.

– A