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 hastag, 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 sea water 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 began to dim as a storm had 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 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

Orthogonal to The End

Today, Sunday May 14th, marks the halfway point of The End. This month-long game about dying that I have spent the last two years of my life working on, is now equal parts gone and yet to come.

Strangely, perhaps, I mark this moment not in the midst of our secret clubhouse, dishing on the players with my collaborators, but sitting quietly at home, alone. Today, funnily enough, is the one day in the month of the project that I am taking off entirely from working the game.

~ ~ ~

Today, Sunday May 14th, is also Mother’s Day. Around 11am, I find myself speaking to my mother on the phone and she relates her present experience of packing the house she has lived in for the past three decades.

As she speaks about the process of transitioning, there is an understandable tinge of sadness on the edge of her voice. This home is the one I spent my childhood in. I remember its various stages of growth and change like sediments laying over top each other with the passage of time. I remember when the living room inside that house was covered with a wallpaper made of a straw-like material and our small cat Koko scaled it like a mount climber using her claws and we couldn’t get her down for hours. I remember the eclectic mural bearing The Beatles, Star Wars and David Duchovney that my Aunt Olivia painted with me on the wall of the room that I occupied as a teenager. I remember looking at the wall in my mother’s room and noticing how pink the paint was as we sat eating Chinese food from takeout containers while watching television with her and my sister on a Sunday evening during the school year.

I remember these things in flashes, and idly wonder why so many of my memories seem to involve walls. Meanwhile, my mom is telling me about closing down her family therapy practice and the strange sensation of saying goodbye to clients she has worked with for nearly 30 years.

~ ~ ~

Later in the day, I am talking to someone about The End and they tell me it is a beautiful thing. I reply that they have not played it so that cannot know for sure. I say that for all this person knows the game is horrible. They joke that something can be horrible and beautiful at the same time.

My very earnest answer to this is that, of course, I do not think the game is horrible, that I feel that it is indeed very beautiful but that sometimes it is also very sad. I try to explain that it is an experience that intentionally tries to allow for our understandings of life to be really sad and really beautiful at the same time.

The person says to me that these seem to be two orthogonal dimensions, the sadness and the beauty.

I think, but do not say, that I am not certain this is so. I begin to say that I think the sadness and the beauty might have a relationship that is not quite so independently variable-ed. But then the conversation shifts to the curiosity quotient of dolphins and it seems weird to bring it up again.

~ ~ ~

Still later in the day, I have finished making dinner and sit on my couch in the blissful haze that comes after productively cooking the new groceries that have been purchased this evening. It is the first time in weeks such a bounty has been brought into my home and it feels good to have these provisions at hand for the coming weeks. Cooking feels accomplished in an immediately gratifying way that I haven’t experienced for some time. The End in its sad beauty is such a slow burn of a process that sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what it is this piece does to those that participate in it. There are some days when a player pulls a card and comes back with an obvious cathartic experience, but just as often a player’s reflection on a card doesn’t obviously and immediately bear emotional fruit.

The arc of this experience is so unlike any theatrical project I’ve undertaken. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is the kind of piece where any one part of it must be structured so as not to burn out an audience member entirely lest they lose stamina for the days and weeks of work that lay ahead of them.

I was thinking about this as I ran the Broad Street Run the weekend before this one. As I was running alongside thousands of others, I was thinking that perhaps there are stories that cannot be told in the span of a few hours time. It was around mile 3 when I began musing that it might be that there are some experiences that are simply impossible to understand without real duration, without effort and time over time and effort. I started thinking that it’s so rare to experience yourself fully witnessed in your messy complicated and theatrically un-clean life. Over the course of that third mile this thought stayed with me. I imagined myself in the metaphor of the race I was running, this long shot from the very top of the city to its very bottom. As I ran it occurred to me, too, that I’d never considered that part of the power of this run was that those thousands of people along the sidelines were taking the time to watch all this effort. Without their presence, I doubted that the experience would feel the same.

Around mile 4 something about this thought hit me in a sad and beautiful way and I started crying. I ran and I cried and I noticed people notice me doing so until around City Hall and then a massive wave of euphoria took me over.

~ ~ ~

This evening, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to long for a person deeply missed or to be wistful about a place you have previously held dear. I have been thinking about how the experience of loneliness elucidates something in the relationship that sadness and beauty have to each other. I have been thinking about loss and about accrual and about sediment and about walls.

And then I notice a bit of that sadness bubbling in me and I notice the instinct to want to clean my kitchen or grab my phone and check facebook. Instead I sit on the edge of my bed and set a timer for five minutes.

And for those five minutes of time, I sit with myself and try to be present with the feelings that arise. I resist the temptation to write down my thoughts in a journalistic way or start working on a thesis to an essay I sense I might write in a bit of time after I am done.

The conclusion that I come to when the timer goes off is that when we miss something or someone we are actually just experiencing their beauty in an orthogonal dimension.

~ ~ ~

Today, Sunday May 14th, I have let myself sit and feel present in whatever sadness and beauty are with me tonight. I will not require myself to be happy. I will not require my emotions to make sense. I will simply be what I am in this moment, a cluster of experiences that are hurtling forward dimensionally, hopefully some roughly equal parts gone and yet to come towards the end.

– A

 

An Invitation to The End

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There’s a story I tell about myself as a child that goes like this: around 5th or 6th grade I learned about infinity and it gave me an existential crisis. Trying to wrap my middle school mind around a never-ending mathematical concept opened up a door to the idea that there were things vastly bigger than my own consciousness. Once that door was opened, once those interlocking curves of a sideways figure eight began unspooling, I couldn’t go back to a conceptual space where the world could be wholly known. Infinity showed me the universe was unending, while I on the other humble and human hand, was not.

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In the fall of 2008 while in France I took a trip to the Catacombs of Paris. I don’t know what exactly I thought I would be doing there. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that a massive shrine containing the skeletons of over 6 million bodies might not be the emotional equivalent of visiting the Monet museum, but I honestly went in thinking little more than that I was in for a light afternoon of cultural purveyance.

The worst part was the bones just sitting in massive piles. Somehow arranged in intricate designs the skeletons were abstracted in a way that was tolerable, but the piles, the vast and completely unremarkable piles of bones, and the sense that those inanimate objects used to be people and that it is likely no one alive remembers or cares about them… It left me with the intense and pressing desire to do something, to make my life mean something, to create a legacy that helped me feel alive in the face of those sad and lonely mounds of former humanity. That night I wrote for hours, trying to unpack the intensity of the feeling the experience had provoked.

While I couldn’t directly bring myself to think again about that trip to the Catacombs and the panic it produced for some number of months, I will say that within a year of going I made three original plays, quit my day job, and got engaged.

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On page 14 of psychotherapist Irving D. Yalom’s book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, he and a patient undertake a thought experiment grounded in Greek thinker Epicurus’ writings, imagining the oblivion after death as the same as oblivion before birth. In the book, he talks about this as a tool to find solace. We do not fear the time before we were born, he says, and so too, might we come to lose our fear of the time after we die.

The first time I read the book, I made the following note in the margins:

This thought is in NO WAY comforting to me

The thesis of Staring at the Sun is that death anxiety manifests from a fear of a life unlived. Yalom’s point, as I understand it, is that by acknowledging our current actions in the context of their inevitable end, we can gain perspective about what is important to us. Such “existential shock therapy” gives us a sense of whether the things we currently are preoccupied with will really matter to us in the long run and leaves us grappling with our need “to construct an authentic life of engagement, connectivity, meaning, and self-fulfillment.”

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Multiple times as I read this book I started to get the infinity feeling. But I also realized that the more I read, the more the reading got easier. The past year I’ve begun to talk about death and dying a lot, and the more I do so, the less weird and horrible the topic feels. These days, while I can’t say I never get that spinning unending queasiness, it definitely doesn’t have the same hold over me that it once did. And I’ve made a lot of changes that have moved me away from what I feel like I’m “supposed” to be doing and towards what feels authentically who I am.

It’s a strange thing to ask a person to think about dying. Not dying in the abstract or dying in the context of a gritty television drama or immersive video game but dying in the way that each one of us personally, inevitably, and unquestioningly will have to experience.

But then again… isn’t it equally strange to walk around as if such a thing doesn’t exist?

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The End isn’t a game, exactly. It isn’t theater, exactly, either.

It’s a month-long contemplation. It’s a structure designed to create a little existential shock. It’s room to step back and reflect on what it is you want your life to be.

And I’m inviting you to it, into what I hope will be an experience of bravery and questioning and meditation and fear and, yes, I hope, even fun.

Some basics:

  • The End will last from May 1 – 27, 2017 with a culminating event the evening of May 28, 2017
  • It will take, on average, 10 – 15 minutes a day
  • Each day you will choose a card from a deck that offers a different task aimed at examining your values, choices, and wishes for life.
  • It can be played on your own at home, on your lunch break, and even on your way to work
  • It will interact with you in all the ways you live – through text message, email and social media posting, phone and in-person experience – and the “playing” of the game can be tailored to suit the mode of communication that best suits you.

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If you’ve made it this far and you’re interested in being one of the first 50 players who take part in The End

 [Edit: Applications are now closed. Thanks to everyone who applied – stay tuned!]

Or write to SwimPonyPA@gmail.com to ask for more info.

Be well, dear ones.

– Adrienne

Awesome Lady Superhero League

Following our first Brainstorming Town Hall, the Awesome Lady Squad (which we’ve starting likening to a real life “Justice League,” fighting against inequality in the world)  reconvened to dream up more concrete action plans and flesh out the specifics for a few of the ideas so we can get down to saving – or at least improving – the world, one mission at a time.

After reviewing the problems and hopeful visions the group had listed at the last meeting, we dove right into an idea generation exercise. We each took a stack of post-its and spent fifteen minutes dreaming up projects or creative solutions to tackle specific issues or problems relating to inequity we see in the world.

When we finished, all the ideas were briefly pitched and grouped into similar projects, eventually developing an inspiring web of proposals. Click here to download a list of all our ideas.

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Then, we all took another look at what we’d generated. Adrienne asked a few ladies to self-nominate as “mission leaders” to develop a project they were drawn to. These volunteers were joined by others interested in working on the same project. Thus divided into four groups, we set to work.

Each team received this Mission Task Sheet, which features a series of questions to guide each group in thinking about the practical requirements of implementing the project proposal and the “superpowers” required of team members to most successfully conquer a mission. You’re welcome to download a copy at that link and fill it out for any project you’ve been thinking about but aren’t quite sure how to begin working on.

Here are the ideas the teams fleshed out:

Family Communication Skills Workshop

  • Hosted by community hubs (libraries, YMCAs, etc.)
  • Theater/improv games for kids
  • Improv games for adults (of the sort taught to standardized patients helping to train new doctors)
  • Kids and adults reunite in family groups and share activities that each did, in hopes that the age-appropriate experiences of shared themes will give them the tools to start discussing their experiences
  • Perhaps end each session in a potluck without phones

Mystery Resistance Choir

  • “Bangin’ arrangements” of 4-5 songs created with new lyrics responding to issues like islamophobia, misogyny, climate change, LGBTQ, and immigration and spreading a message of love and positivity
  • Volunteer choir rehearses these songs and goes to malls, lobbies of corporations, and possibly neighborhoods for caroling-style impromptu performances of the songs
  • Potentially hand out flyers/calling cards
  • Party for people who participate

“Thanksgiving Dinner” Conversation Game

  • Inspired by My Gift of Grace, a card game designed to spur comfortable conversations around dying and living well – a conversation game that will guide people to openly consider and share where their values come from through entertaining thought experiments, ethical dilemmas, etc. – a step back from politics and into the morals that drive them
  • Collect questions/topics that people have trouble having with friends and family and develop ways to address them from a less political, more value-driven perspective
  • Play-test different versions and develop game that can be played with both family/friends of starkly different opinions and those you just want to get to know a little more specifically

State of Reunion (Civic Practice Fair)

  • A live event for civic organizations to come together in one place to pitch their mission to citizens and engage them in their practice
  • Each organization gets a booth and three minutes to pitch the state of the world and how their org can help to improv it
  • Listeners of each pitch can sign up to volunteer/donate/sign petitions for the orgs they’re interested in supporting
  • Food and drink vendors to make it a fun overall experience

These projects are in varying states of action/interest in further development, but if you’re interested in learning more and/or volunteering to lead/participate any of these missions, email swimponypa@gmail.com. Likewise, if you want to lead a different mission and are looking for volunteers to help, let us know and we’ll help you get the word out. Beyond that, the Awesome Lady Squad will be gathering again January 5, 7-9 PM at the front studio at Headlong, to continue this work. Join us!

The Undertow

Several months ago I sat staring down a mountain of work – meetings, grant deadlines, classes to plan, papers to grade, research for projects to be done – and I had an overwhelming desire to read a poem by Walt Whitman.

I didn’t need to read any one poem in particular, just the sense of Whitman and the spaciousness of his writerly vision. I felt so small and trapped and overwhelmed that I simply wanted to sit with words that invited me to spread myself back out, to imagine that there was something in the race I felt myself running that was not merely productive but also grand.

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Two days ago I sat in a circle with a room of friends at an Awesome Lady Squad meeting and shared my experience of sadness, of wondering, of questioning what it is that I am supposed to be doing with this life I am living. At the end of that meeting I shared a brief exchange with an artist some number of years ahead of me in which we both wondered if the kind of art that seems to be the predominant one being made is valuable in this moment, in this world, in the ways that a thing becomes meaningful to a life.

Today I sit in front of my computer, plenty of work waiting for me, but unable to splash the proverbial cold water on the face, brace up and get down to the business at hand. Instead I feel the need to write about the way my understanding is awash in questions about how to be useful to the people and places around me, about whether I can be honest in such questions, and how exactly to get started on the path that I sense lies ahead.

I have been working these past months on an art project about dying called The End. It has, in so many ways, become a provocation to me about what it means to truly live. To wholly accept that the time I will exist as finite, to understand that in truth I can only contribute a single verse or two to the larger song, that the song itself in is much larger than I can possibly be, if I am to honestly do that it feels like I might need to do something different. What that different thing is… well…

The near daily contact with such a fundamental fact does not make me sad, exactly. Rather it stirs up something I am still trying to give name to, something that has been in progress and process for a rather reasonable amount of time. I’ve written before about tectonic shifts, stepping back and walking around and away. And those are all some way of trying to name what’s emerging, a thing that feels like an undertow.

It’s a pull away from the shores of “excellence” and towards something more genuinely communal. It’s a drift from the need to control and hold those things I define as dear to me. It’s a willingness to allow what comes to unfold.

A little over a week ago I wrote a letter to my friend jesikah in California and thanked her for sending me a poem by Neruda in commemoration of my wedding. In the letter I tell her that the poem makes me think of a Georgian chant titled Shen Xar that was used in a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (directed by my collaborator Catharine Slusar) that I worked on at Bryn Mawr College. An ancient Georgian wedding hymn, the song survived the cultural purge of the Communists due to a notable lack of traditional religious imagery in its lyrics. This recording by an all male Georgian trio is a wonderful version I’ve listened to often these past few months.

I tell her that “I love this song and the way it cycles through the same quiet melody over and over again like a string of rosary beads, a slow working of its message that washes over you like waves.”

I tell her that I had some feminist qualms about the particular language of the letter in the scene the song was used, but that in the moment of performance, “one where an impossibly young college student stands on a rock amidst a pool of water holding a piece of paper in a quiet blue light, trying to give back to the world the love she know she holds, [the song] was so beautiful it didn’t matter.”

I send her the Neruda poem (left) written out next to the lyrics of the chant translated (right): neruda-shen-xar

The following week I teach the song to a group of my students at Pig Iron’s School for Advanced Performance Training and it feels like the right thing to be doing in the first moment I see them after the national election.

I notice as I near the end of this writing that it feels unfinished, that the thesis seems still not to have emerged. I see that I am caught holding myself up in this moment, feeling the unrest between wanting to do something helpful, to be on the side of righteousness, and to simultaneously wrap a life’s meaning in something impossibly beautiful and grand and sad.

Today I know that I really want to live my life before I die; I want to know I have spent my time in this world like the Georgian sun – shining, brilliantly, myself.

And today, too, I can accept the heavy pull of towards the knowledge that says I am still trying to understand what that means.

– A

Awesome Lady Squad Town Hall Dispatch

Awesome Lady Squad is back with a vengeance: a huge thanks to the 20+ ladies who joined us at last night’s meeting. Here’s a dispatch on what we got up to and what’s next:

First, the TL; DR version:img_0026

  • Made a list of the specific fears, dreads, and causes for concern that we see
    and feel in the current political and cultural landscape
  • Made a list of concrete hopes and dreams we seek instead
  • In small groups, brainstormed tangible action plans the Awesome Lady Squad might take in response to the above

In more nitty-gritty terms…

After realigning ourselves with the values set forth in the Awesome Lady Squad Ladyfesto, we each had five minutes to individually answer each of the following questions to develop a sense of the landscape: 

What is it specifically that you see and feel? What are the manifestations that create your cause for concern?

Given these negative outcomes you anticipate, what would you hope for instead, as concretely as possible?

We came back together and shared our individual thoughts to collaboratively compile a list of responses for each question. Thoughts for the first question came fast and furious, ranging from “visible apathy towards hate speech on social media” to “lack of accessibility to support systems for people who are poor or don’t speak English as a first language” to “Where does art fit now? Does it still matter with all this?”

Then, we switched to our hopes, sharing ideas and challenging each other to spin negatives into positives towards a visionary response to the challenges at hand. Here, ideas ranged from “develop language or a cheat sheet for talking about our issues/concerns” to “volunteer with non-artistic organizations to share art with kids” to “tap into the bridge-makers to disconnected communities.”

For a full listing of all our brainstorms, click HERE.  If you weren’t there, we encourage you to take a moment to write down your own responses.

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After putting these lists together, we switched to small groups for a Project Brainstorm, in response to the following question:

Knowing the problematic issue or outcome, and knowing what we might want to have in its place, what are projects or creative solutions that we could manifest? Assume that money is no option for now. What are tangible actions to take?

We shared the initial action plans folks dreamed up, including a Family Communication Skills workshop and making protests inherently theatrical.

On Saturday, December 10 from 2-4, we’ll continue that conversation. Newcomers should come having thought through their own sense of the artistic landscape and be prepared to dive into brainstorming projects, while returners will have a chance to flesh out their ideas even more. Then, we’ll move forward in concretely planning ways the Awesome Lady Squad can move forward with some or all of the projects.

Hope to see you there! We’ll be meeting in the rear studio at Headlong (1170 S Broad St).

An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne