Motivation

The low humming ache

It is 9 am and I’m already tired.

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

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

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

That worked for a couple days.

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well, dear ones.

A

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.

stankard 2

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.

stankard 1.png

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

Why I’m Walking Away

I’m giving you all fair warning.

In the next few weeks or months if you come up to me and start talking about how horridly busy your creative life is, how you’re overwhelmed and not totally committed to the work you’re doing…

If you open the conversation with how much you hate that you have no time for all the other parts of living but you seem to keep ending up in this situation and you’re scattered and can’t really feel yourself fully doing anything…

If you start talking to me about this quandary like it’s normal and something we all have to share as a natural given of our artistic existences and though you don’t really like it, it’s just this thing we all will agree to keep doing…

If you do that to me I’m going to walk away from you.

Maybe not right away. I’m probably going to nod with you for another minute and then make an excuse to go to the bathroom. Or grab another drink. Or to say hi to someone else that walked in the room. But make no mistake that I’m leaving because of what you’re saying, and I’m doing so because I’m trying to be done with it.

I would like to publicly declare a divorce from exhausted distraction as the expected baseline.

Look, I like working hard. If you’ve spent ten seconds with me ever this is obvious. But there is a difference between useful rigor and running in random circles. Lately, I feel myself stepping back and watching people I love – smart people who are thoughtful and intelligent makers – talk about projects in this way that makes clear they don’t really like them. I hear seemingly everyone around me detail work that drains their reserves of time and creativity and doesn’t pay enough.

This is the definition of absurd, no?

And yet it is the default operating mode of most of the artists I am surrounded by.

Here’s a question. Taking a long-term view, what’s going to be more fulfilling and useful to your creative practice: taking on that role you don’t much like with the company you feel ambivalent about for that tiny bit of money or spending that extra time at home reading? Or volunteering at a hospice center? Or taking a long walk and seeing what comes to mind?

These are actual questions I’m asking myself these days. Because I’ve really started to wonder what it means about all of us that we physically can’t stop ourselves from working. It makes me wonder if we’re laboring smart or just laboring hard so that we don’t have to get into stickier questions about meaning and value that are WAY more difficult to answer. It makes me wonder if at the end of all that frantic effort we’ll have given ourselves any room to actually be living the substantive lives from which we’ll want to draw meaningful creative source material from.

Not to be the kind of person who talks about this thing that happened a few weeks ago in a therapy session but, yeah, here’s a thing that happened to me a few weeks ago in my therapy session:

I finished talking about a ton of exciting new work projects on the horizon. I catalogued a bunch of stuff that I was wrapping up that I felt proud of. I talked about the effort of finishing the wedding planning and how great my classes were going. I spent 45 minutes talking and talking and talking about all the things I was doing and doing and doing.

And then, right near the end, I ran out of things to say and my therapist and I sat in silence for a minute. In that minute this feeling began to rise out of the center of me, like a steel weight but in reverse, a balloon of heavy emotion that needed to bubble out. And because it was quiet and because I was in a place where I didn’t need to do anything else and because I took a second and actually let it happen, it popped and I started to cry.

It was a combination of things: watching police shootings over the past few months and feeling guilty and helpless at our collective lack of compassion for those who experience racial prejudice in this country, the bile of Donald Trump and the way it has unleashed a whole new level of misogyny into the open American air, the hangover of sentiment in the days after a massive personal event and realizing I’ve made this huge step forward in my life, and a whole jumble of other influences that I’d accrued and had remained unexamined. In that moment of silence all the actual life that I’d been squeezing into the edges of my working existence came bursting up and out of me. And for once I gave myself room to sit for another few minutes in my tears and notice the need to process these reactions to the world.

We need to create room for these moments. We need to create room for such noticing.

Not because of some self-care “keep yourself sane” kind of way. (Though shouldn’t this be enough of a reason…?) We need to do it because without that space we are all action and no reflection. We are only functional systems without mission and ethics to evaluate the meaning of the products we produce. I wonder if doing less and doing it with more (to paraphrase an Artist U maxim) will mean that in the long run we’ll all be more genuinely productive in creating things that we value. Maybe rather than feeling constantly exhausted by having to generate new stuff, I’d be far better off creating work about the things that are already somewhere in me and needing to be expressed, if only I could give myself space to notice that they need to get out.

I get all my ideas for blog posts in the shower because it’s one of the few places there’s silence and room to wander.

These days I’m dreaming about what a life of mostly shower-sized room might look like.

And that’s why if I feel like we’re normalizing the opposite in out conversations together, I’m going to find a way to walk away, walk off into the silence, so I can see what bubbles out.

 – A

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.”

Week 1: The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?

 

 
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

 

 

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

 

 

 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next for you?

A totally blank canvas

blank

White. Open. Unknown.

This is the feeling I had this morning. This is the premise of this project: Starting from a totally blank canvas.

Not even a canvas. The idea that something has to be painted on. The idea of paint. The idea of having an idea to paint something at all.

Because really, where do a visual artist, a theater maker and writer and harpist logically begin if they want to try and make something together?

foot

This morning I walked into a room with two creators I’d met only once before. I had butterflies in my stomach, big fat ones, like first day of school jitters. We started, carefully, delicately, hesitantly to… What? Carefully try to suss out exactly who the other is and what exactly we might find in this insane thing we’ll be doing.

I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I thought, “I have literally no idea what is going to happen.”

I thought, “Do your best not to fall into things you already know how to do because they are easy, or familiar, or you know how to make them work.”

I thought, “This is terrifying.”

I thought, “It is really tough to know where to begin.”

I thought, “Listen.”

I thought, “Try and stay open to something you’ve never imagined before.”

NickIt is a pace I am so thoroughly uneasy with because it is so thoroughly rare in my regular artistic life. So rare that I allow myself permission not to be in charge, not to have the active working idea, not to try and keep the energy of the room moving forward and productive. As a director, I feel myself wanting to know the answer, wanting to show people their faith in me as leader is secure, wanting to get us on track already towards where we are going.

But all this well-intentioned Midwestern productive attitude-ery also means that you can slip into taking yourself where it’s easiest to lead, rather than really waiting until the very new, very strange, very uncertain thing emerges.

And despite my fear, despite my worry that it feels like nothing is happening, after 8 hours I can see there are some things emerging.

I have put my hands on an instrument I have never touched before. I have watched an artist demonstrate his iterative process – one that normally takes acetate and photoshop and a vinyl cutting machine – on a sideways laptop screen with a piece of tracing paper, some scissors and tape. I’ve enjoyed seeing an actor confront a harpist on stage and I’ve seen that interaction photographed and then turned into a looping gif on a computer screen with a different selection of the musician’s playing as it repeats again and again and again and again and again. I’ve talked about why a video on Vine might be a meditative experience and what it would mean to create audience customize-able art.

I’ve shared a vision for a super strange, exciting and foreign line of inquiry. And despite my fears, I think it’s pretty interesting. Even if I have no idea of how to evaluate it yet. Maybe especially because of that.

I think I also had a moment where I realized that contrary to how I feel on almost every other artistic project I work on, in trying strange, potentially crazy ideas with these two I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I also ate a lunch of donuts and fried chicken. That was pretty good too.

At the end of the day I am tired. It is work, searching so hard across the ocean of discipline to find some common ground. But tired in a good way. In a way that makes me excited to get up tomorrow and try again.

Thanks Nick and Liz. I’m excited about more to come…

A

Singing

Close truthLast night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.

It is a funny thing, this.

Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”

This strikes me as so impossibly strange.

How can I explain why?

Well…

It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.

I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.

In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.

Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.

This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.

If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.

On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.

Not so with singing.

I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.

And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.

My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.

What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.

What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.

So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.

But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.

I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.

The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:

  • Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
  • Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
  • Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital

So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.

I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.

I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.

So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?

I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.

The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.

Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.

With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.

I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.

And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.

– A

Everything old is new again

everything_old_is_new_again_by_ekzotik-d4cdlz3The process of change is so slow we barely see it.

This is how it is possible that I am sitting with a dear friend and fellow creator on Friday and realize in the midst of our conversation that I am… happy. That I am open and new. That in front of me lays fields of possibility. That the anger and confusion and pain that I felt not so long ago is actually melted and revealed something quite unexpected and different.

Do you ever wish you could sit down and check in with a version of yourself from the past?

I can.

“I need to know it’s worth doing this art, in this way, at this time,” says Adrienne in December of 2012.

The truth of the matter is that the works I’ve made are things I’m proud of.

The truth of the matter is that I increasingly lost an internal sense of why I needed to make them.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t really care what anyone else thinks “theater” is or if I’m “good” at it.

The truth of the matter is that my “theater” is simply a means to a deeper question about connection and understanding and thoughtfulness and desire and finding a way to make sense of what I’m doing here.

The truth is that for a while I got a fair bit better at making “theater” as other people define it and a bit worse and making sure it was still answering the deeper questions I wanted to be asking.

The last year and a half has been a concerted and nearly constant effort to realize this and get myself in a place where that was no longer the case.

It has been hard.

I have felt like a failure often.

Most of the time progress was slow to the point of imperceptibility.

But today, for whatever reason, it has hit me: the work I’m in the midst of making now is worth doing. This work. In this way. At this time. And for the first time in a long time, I feel really really free.

Today it seems I’ve gotten far enough from there to really see the distance.

Random snapshots from recent life:

Friday: I am randomly invited to a conference on game design in Boston the next day. I drive 6 hours the same day to get there. The next day I have conversations about ethics and narrative structure and audience agency. I feel like I am talking about my theater.

Two weeks ago: I hand in the first draft of a study plan that predicts the next two and a half years of reading and artistic practice which will make up my self-directed graduate degree in interdisciplinary arts. I know almost nothing about anything on my reading list. I am ecstatic. I wish there was more time I could add to the universe because the list is already too large for the time I have to tackle it.

One month ago: I decide that I need to do something creative that requires my hands. I decide I need to learn to play the piano. I start downloading beginner’s sheet music. I spend 30, 40, sometimes 60 minutes a day with Für Elise and simple chord progressions. I love being a beginner.

This week: I chat back and forth with a painter and novelist about the possibilities of a week’s worth of collaboration and experimentation for Cross Pollination. There is a little trepidation about what exactly we will do. I do not know. I do not care that I do not know. I do not, as I normally would, make a bunch of plans of things I do know how to do so that the trepidation subsides. I decide to wait until I genuinely think of something I want to do.

Today: I watch a video by game designer Brenda Romero about her “The Mechanic is the Message” series. I hear her talk about her love/hate relationship with her ascension into the ranks of “professional” creator. I hear her speak about a nascent need to remove herself from the industry of her craft, to make things by hand. I hear her explain how she took time, extensive time, away from digital design to play board games. I hear how she begins to make games about things she never imagined possible, games explore deep and vast tragedies. Games that challenge the player to examine their own agency and choice in participating. Her elements are handmade, deeply personal, unreproduce-able. This is the point, it seems to me. It also seems to me that in the end, the rewards her games reap are equally unique, meaningful and rich. They fill the creator’s soul rather than the professional’s resume.

Thursday: I have two conversations in the same day about ideas for new projects. One is a piece for only two people at a time and the other for a potential 2,000. One takes place almost entirely inside the mind of the viewer, the other could cover most of the city of Philadelphia. They feel like the same kind of inquiry. I feel like I can start working on both of them tomorrow, by myself, if I wanted to. Not researching, not imaging, literally, making stuff that will go in them. I like not having to wait to get started.

Six months ago: I decide I want to write. I decide I want to write fiction. I decide I want to write a novel. Every few weeks I pull up the document and write furiously for a few days. At last count I am up to 170 pages and 39,949 words. I also decide I can show it to people someday or not. Either way it won’t matter. I just need to write it.

And so it is that I find myself at this moment feeling the most vibrant and true expression of my theater-related creative impulses into forms that look almost nothing like what “Theater” would typically be defined as.

And so it is that I find myself confronting new projects that are amazing and daunting and unknown in almost every way.

And so it is that I have met more people and had more new conversations about creativity in the last few weeks than in the last few years.

And so it is that I have stopped feeling so crushed and frustrated.

And so it is that I don’t worry about whether what I’m doing is right.

And so it is that I know the only thing that matters is if it’s what I feel myself needing to be doing.

And so it is that finally finally finally… it seems I’ve found what that is.

And so it is that I stand in the shower today thinking about my conversation on Friday and realize that it feels like something I have to share and so I write this, hastily, before I run out the door because it is also clear that it has to be done today, right now, before I lose understanding of it in just this particular shower-inspired way.

And so it is I share it with you.

And run.

To be late.

To the next amazing thing.

– A