How do I do this?

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.

glass

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

 

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

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

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

I do not want to get angry

I do not want to get angry.

I’ve seen it happen before to those that work in this field. I watch the mentors of my early 20’s and notice that while they execute their work with skill and depth they increasingly carry around this place of anger.

Some days, when I feel tired and when it seems like it is such an absurd thing I am doing I start to get angry too. I can feel it rising from below and make its way up and through me. The anger comes in tiny commented sarcasms or critiques of the work of others. It is a critical voice, one that knows so much and in all that knowledge requires ever increasingly exacting standards. It looks at the works of my past, works that I loved when I made them, and only sees the flaws.

I wonder some days if this is inevitable, if the skill we possess is always just a bit behind what we are able to critique and examine. I think about how hard, how very hard, it is to make something and how easy, how incredibly easy, it is to dismiss or undercut or find fault. I think about the work it takes to shield ourselves from all those critical voices in our professional field. I wonder about the use of such voices in the pursuit of making something new.

My own mind counters with a thought: But without those critical voices how do we get better? If no one tells us what we’re doing wrong how do we refine and strive for more?

I think about this thought that my mind has offered me. I look at it like an object on a shelf and in response I think, “But who decides what’s ‘wrong?’ And what exactly is it I’m getting better at?”

I put this second thought on the shelf next to the first and stare at them side by side.

My earliest theatrical experiences were in “community” theater. As a shy teenager plays gave me a structured system to experience lives beyond my own and to examine a theme or idea not just by thinking about it but by physically embodying it day after day. Theater was the way I practiced a kind of empathic weightlifting. The stretch of pretending to be other people made me learn more about myself. I know it made me a braver and more compassionate person.

My friends and I did want to make something “good.” There was a sense of striving in these projects. We hoped our work would be seen as “well done.” But I can look back at those plays and see, of course, that in almost any objective sense of professional theater excellence they  were silly and small. Back then there was so much farther to go.

This is not to say that I want to make sloppy things. I like rigor. But I wonder if hard work is different than polished work. For though I know I will not likely find again the love I once had for Godspell or The Music Man, I do think it is useful to remember what is beautiful about such “community” theater. It allows us a system to join. It brings us together in shared purpose. It is a vehicle for vulnerability in our early learning before we have mastered something.

Most of the theater makers I know did not begin by aiming for “professional.” They began from community. They found love in a space of sharing.

So I wonder about a collective industry adoption of virtuosity and excellence as a sign of our professional status. I wonder if excellence, while understandably desirable, may lead us away from the thing that actually feeds us in being artists. I wonder if virtuosity of craft might slowly build up armor around our bodies and keep us impervious to the vulnerability that keeps us growing and open.

I wonder about other yardsticks with which to measure success:

Happiness?

Connection?

Authenticity?

I know some part of me fears that these seem too genuine, too fuzzy, too amateur. I worry that without Excellence I will be laughed at or pitied.

But I also wonder if maybe this is the feeling of that vulnerability I seem to have lost. And I know for sure that the pursuit of Excellence seems to keep making me angry. So perhaps it’s time to try something new.

 – A

This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

The Awesome Lady Coefficient

When I was growing up my mom, a family therapist, used to talk about the problematic representation of women in The Muppets.

I’ve felt a lot of ways about this at different points in my life. On the one hand, I totally get that it’s super crappy to have the extent of a gender be portrayed as mean/bossy, blonde/ditzy or chicken. This is why I advocate so hard for gender parity versus representation. Some women are blonde and ditzy or mean and bossy or chickens. But when you have so little room in our cultural narrative space, when this is the only version of women we see, these limited categories that appear again and again get really problematic. This “tokenism” and its cousin The Smurfette Principle are pernicious and pretty widespread in many parts of our cultural consciousness.  So in that sense I am one hundred percent with my mom.

On the other hand, The Muppets.

And this is the thing. It really sucks to be the person who has to fight the silly, sublime and nostalgic force that is this thing that Jim Henson made. It’s so freaking difficult, in the face of something that you agree is wonderful in some ways and that you see is wildly commercially successful and popular, to try and fight for conversation space about the other ways in which it’s hurtful and plays into larger forces that harm women and misrepresent them. (Shout out to Katherine Fritz who wrote a lovely essay about this.)

Harder still, is the moment you have to decide if you want to be the proverbial Smurfette. Or direct her in a show. Or sign on to light her. Or whatever your part in the larger creative system might be.

This is the sticky place where our theoretical desire to stick to our Awesome Lady principles is put into real conflict with our day to day artistic and professional goals.

It sucks.

There’s misogyny for you. Pouring a big bucket of suck on everything.

And part of that bucket of suck, part of what sometimes happens, is that it’s super hard in the moment to figure out how to balance those two conflicting considerations.

Obviously, if there’s a project where you make a million dollars starring in the most artistically fulfilling role but there’s a tiny imbalance in the casting ratio (let’s say 5 dudes to 4 ladies), you might figure it’s still worth it. And just as obviously, if there’s a crap no-line female part with no pay and no audience and the play is about how stupid and terrible women are and the director likes to point out how much he thinks this is true, you might realize there’s really no reason to do this horrible thing.

Actresses out there, can you feel the tiny niggle inside of you that is still considering that second option?  Just sayin’…

I think this instinct to jump at any and all work is part of how a perceived lack of agency pressures us into doing things that are against our ethics, don’t give us artistic fulfillment, and don’t even pay us. It’s as if any work is better than nothing at all.

I don’t buy that.

I think there is a reasonable estimate we can make of the artistic and/or professional merit in a potential project. I also think that it is possible for the problematic ethics of something to outweigh that artistic and professional merit if the problematic nature is problematic enough. What we need then is a living artist’s guide to figuring out how to measure those relative merits and ethical levels of importance – within ourselves and for individual opportunities – and come up with a way to help us gauge the overall worth.

Which brings me to the most recent meetings of The Awesome Lady Squad.

We started with exactly this question. We have internal values we want to uphold. We have a lot of factors to consider – factors of age, demand, opportunity, etc. that all play into how we make choices.

So we began by trying to define a methodology for determining the merit of a project divorced from our Awesome Lady ethics. We looked at Neil Gaiman’s great speech that includes the metaphor of a “mountain” that artists are climbing. We tried to come up with concrete categories for this inner intuitive sense about whether a project is taking you “up the mountain” or down. We chatted about the ways that different things matter at different times in one’s career, how a solid day job may make the “money issue” shift, and how we each differently balance the relative weight of artistic merit versus professional development.

We came up with four factors that any opportunity can be evaluated under:

  • Professional Development (P) – i.e. street cred. Will this be a high profile gig that leads to more work? Is it with a big name company that will look good on the resume? Is it an internship that might not pay well but will give you access to a desirable new skill set?
  • Financial Compensation (F) – i.e. money. Does it pay well (especially when broken down by the amount of money for the total time you will work)? Is it a job that might bring in income over a longer time frame?
  • Artistic Merit (A) – i.e. art. How much do I respect and get behind the vision of this work? How much does it allow me personally to fulfill my artistic expression?
  • Interpersonal Dynamics (I) – i.e. people. Do I like my collaborators? Who is in charge and how much do I trust them? Is this company one that’s easy to get along with? Are there non-artistic partners I need to interact with and do like them?

We had everyone rate the relative importance of these areas for themselves at this moment using 20 “value” points to create relative weights for each aspect of influence. We each used 20 poker chips and had to divvy them into piles for each category. The total chips in each pile became coefficients (i.e. fixed numerical values) that were used later in our larger equation.IMG_5033

Even doing this caused some of us to rethink. I thought my artistic merit category would be far and away the highest. But when I really thought hard about choosing a project, I realized that personality and chemistry with my collaborators is nearly as important and that I feel like I can’t get to that artistry without an ability to groove and talk to the people I’m creating with. Either way, these numbers gave us constants that would stay the same, standing for our core values when it came to evaluating a project.

Armed with this info, we talked about people’s actual upcoming opportunities and tried rating them in each of the four categories. We used a scale from 1 (perfectly advantageous) to -1 (totally detrimental) with 0 being neutral. While it was easy to freak about what we didn’t know, we made our best guess with the info we had. In some cases it also spurred the person to see where they really needed to find out more (about fee or the company’s street cred) to be able to make a more informed choice. We found it helpful to start from the middle and move up or down based on subjective factors you consider.

And then we created an equation that uses these numbers and pops out a score. To do this yourself multiply your four personal value numbers for each area (each some portion of 20) with the specific project’s strength or weakness (from 1 to -1) and…

Voila! An objective measure of whether you should do this thing or not! Like a pro and con list on steroids. For you math heads, here’s how we wrote it as an equation:

(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) = Overall Project rating
NOTE: In the above P = Professional Development value to you generally and P’ is the value for the specific project.

And then we came up with a scoring system:

  • Negative: Don’t do it unless you can adjust something to bump the result positive
  • 0 – 5: Only nominally worth it. Might be worth considering saying no if you’ve got a lot of these on your plate so you don’t end up at burn out.
  • 5 – 10: Decent. Barring another great project this is likely worth your time, so long as it’s in balance with other stuff and your life.
  • 10 – 15: A pretty sweet spot. This is where the work is satisfying and sustainable.
  • 15 – 20: A mountain-climbing fast track. Chase this stuff as fast as you can.

“But, wait!” you might be saying. What about all that Muppet and Smurf stuff from the start of this blog post? Where’s that factor for Awesome Lady ethics? How do we include the value of projects that advance or detract from our Awesome Lady principles?

I thought about one project in particular, the statistic project I did a while back analyzing data on female creative professionals in the Philadelphia theater community. This project, if looked at only in terms of the equation, would be massively negative, a definite no-go. It made me no money and took time away from finding projects that might. It offered no professional advancement because if anything I was a little nervous it might put people off of working with me if I’d criticized them. It had no interpersonal reward because I was all alone and had no obvious artistic merit because it was all admin.

Using my value numbers and the equation I came up with a -5.  A total no, right?

Well obviously (Awesomely) not. I loved this project. I talk about it all the time. It is still super meaningful to me as a female creator, even if some part of me saw that it took time away from all those other things. At the moment I did it, advancing the Awesome Lady cause was front and center in my mind. I was doing a lot of writing. I was feeling really frustrated. I felt a strong need to make a dent in the artistic world for Awesome Ladies.

ALS 07.21Clearly there’s something else bumping my equation into strongly positive territory.

And what about companies where the people are nice, the money and professional advancement is good, and the shows have lots of artistic merit in most respects but you just can’t help noticing that all the folks running things and all the writers being produced are male, most of the designers and actors are guys and the voice of women in the artistic process feels shut out? Clearly, even though there’s lots going right in a situation like that, there’s something else that needs to weigh in to reflect this complicated picture.

How do we rate such a thing?

By using the Awesome Lady Coefficient!

Without it, a max score for an opportunity is 20. This is a project where everything is perfect. So let’s say you are in a theoretical world where you rate the project a 20 in the money, professional development, artistic merit, and interpersonal categories, but the project is undeniably misogynist. If you could shut your eyes to that one aspect, you’d love doing this, but the message, the gender makeup of the cast/crew/production team, the way that females are paid compared to men, and/or all the little ways we subtly make female creators feel less than their male counterparts is glaring to the maximal degree.

The way we’ve defined the Awesome Lady Coefficient (ALC) is to say that at its maximal level, a project at a perfect 20 when confronted with the maximal frustration of gender inequity and discrimination becomes neutral. In other words, the max of the ALC is 20. And you can rate a given project or opportunity on that same 1 to -1 scale. When you add it into the equation it looks like this:

(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) + (ALC * ALC’) = Overall Project rating including assessment of project’s gender equity ideals.

Knowing how to factor in your desire to make that ALC value something specific and as quantifiable as money is important. It allows you a chance to look clearly at the hidden cost of projects that make you feel like you’re compromising your ethics. You may not rate the coefficient at 20. For a lot of people they might want to but find that doing so is just too tough right now. We’re not here to judge, but we do think it’s useful to note that if a project doesn’t come up positive unless that coefficient comes down near 0, there’s some thinking to do. And if you are consistently in a place where you never raise that ALC number into positive territory but say that you’re an Awesome Lady ally then there’s some thinking to do there as well…

It also means that if you REALLY want to say yes for the other reasons, maybe you might have a conversation that shifts the project or your role in it in a way that helps raise up the ALC factor so it’s more agreeable. That might be requiring conversations around problematic stereotypes in rehearsals or with audiences, asking to audition for a part that doesn’t include a rape scene, requiring a female AD or dramaturg to be a part of the show’s development so there are non-performer female perspectives in the room.

And maybe, sometimes, it’s a way to help justify the saying no to something that seems so logical but for the fact that it really messes with your internal sense of ethics. It’s a way to validate that inner voice that often gets sidelined with other people’s “rational” choices.

It’s a way to help yourself clean off that bucket of suck and grab back your own agency.

Even in the face of powerful forces like Muppets.

Or Shakespeare.

Or artistically stellar companies that overwhelmingly produce male playwrights.

It’s a way for you to own your own values and figure out what part of these complicated legacies you want to be a part of.

Just another day’s work for the Awesome Lady Squad…

– A
PS – We’re thinking about expanding this into an interactive app that will let people adjust these numbers and calculate the math automatically. If you know of someone that might be interested in designing such a thing, hit us up at swimponypa@gmail.com