Process

Introducing the TRAILOFF Writers!

Swim Pony friends and family!

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

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Photo: John Hawthorne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: John Hawthorne

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

Be well. Be kind. Be curious.

Adrienne

A Peek Into TrailOff

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

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

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

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Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Photo: John Hawthorne

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

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

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

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Schuylkill Banks, Photo: John Hawthorne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brainstorming notes, Photo: John Hawthorne

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

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

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

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Adrienne walking Gateway Park,  Photo: John Hawthorne

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

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

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

 

A Horror Inspired Creature Story

A Banal Convo About Appliances and the Future 

A Nostalgic Tale of Cicada Pee 

 

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

 

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

I’ve been musing this morning on divining rods.

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

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

What is that thing that I sense myself seeking?

Heart?

Impulse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– A

 

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

Orthogonal to The End

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

– A

 

The Undertow

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

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

oh me.jpeg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– A

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