A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

Flower in Fog

Lone Flower in Fog, Saddle Mountain, Oregon

“A Big Life” is a structured blog which consists of stories intended to encourage people in the arts and entertainment industry.

Most of the stories contain humorous life lessons meant to take the intimidation factor out of pursuing a career in the arts.  They are illustrated with photos.

Please become a subscriber by choosing “follow” and you will get emails when new stories are posted to A Big Life.  Also feel free to respond with your own comments, funny stories and experiences.  The writer would love to hear what you think.

 

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Uninvited

A Big Life – Encouragement for People in the Arts –

Doodle Life, San Diego Zoo

Lately I have been thinking about rape.

A tough subject, I know.

However, sometimes when people talk about the elephant on the table it helps the other baby elephants in the room.

Lots of us have been raped. Or almost raped. Or at least threatened with sexual attention we don’t want, directly or indirectly. Most of us are pretty literal when we say something like “could you give me a ride?” or “I only want to kiss” and yet many people we work with or have dated or are married to will  try to put their hand somewhere uninvited and say something that seems really weird to us along the lines of “I must have read you wrong”.

Remember, I’m talking about husbands and friends, not strangers.

How has this come to pass? I think the answer is easy. I have been reading a lot of church and theatre history lately, which means I’ve been reading about history, period. History is mostly about war and boundaries. Who the “other” is. Why it’s okay to kill the other. Or rape them.

Nothing alike

The “other” is someone who doesn’t think the way we do.  In ancient Greece, the attitude was simple. You were Greek or you were a barbarian. That went for men or women. But in Athenian culture, even a woman of the highest class was thought of as a kind of animal. Women were considered “wild” and in order to control them, they had to be caged up in their houses. They never even went out of the house unless there was a funeral.

They were rape captives.

Think about the fact for one brief second that most of what we have been taught is wonderful about Western Civilization: the philosophy, architecture, ideas that we have about the sexes, theatre, literature and art were created by one group of people.

No, I do not mean men.

If you are a man, chances are you were not among these people. Think of it like this. If you were a man then most likely you would have been a slave.

You would have been rape fodder.

Muses, Hearst Castle

The warrior class, the rich, the scholars, the artists who were savvy or financially supported, they were the ones who had leisure to write all the beautiful literature and design the beautiful buildings and paint all the naked ladies and men. It is true, of course, that they were also men. But the statistic likelihood is you would have not been one of the elite. If you can imagine that being castrated or having a life as some man’s sexual toy is normal then you can start to put yourself in the shoes of most people of the time.

Everyone had slaves prior to the Medieval Era. Greece eventually was enslaved by Rome along with much of the known world. The Greeks and everyone else who wasn’t a Roman citizen then became the “other”. That included in particular a new sect of people called Christians who were excessively tortured and butchered and raped. Over time, various emperors stopped the butchering, sanctioned it and then stopped it again. When an emperor named Constantine came along, the murder of Christians stopped for the final time. Then guess who became the “other”?

Anyone the emperors decided wasn’t a Christian.

Jelly Belly Stained Glass

Bear this in mind, until the 10th century Christianity was a peaceful sect. There were no Christian soldiers. It was forbidden by the faith to shed blood. But when Charlemagne came along, he wanted Germany (aka Saxony) for his own, so he rewrote the Eucharist. A little later, Pope Urban II became sick of all the medieval local people who were killing and raping each other and again rewrote Christianity. That meant that for the next two hundred years his soldiers were conscripted to try to force the apocalypse.

They called it the Crusades.

Not long after, a Spaniard named Cristoforo Colombo came along with a similar vision. When he wandered into the Bahamas he was so sure of his place in heaven that he believed he had been mentioned in the bible. Yet he and his people raped the native women over and over and eviscerated them along with their husbands and children. They cut off their hands and noses and laughed.  How could this explorer and his men think there was a place waiting for them in the afterlife which would reward them for such behavior?

Because, the Native people had become the “other”.

Lots of little Sallys, Knotts Berry Farm

We all know who the Nazis thought of as the “other”. We know 11 million people were killed in their Holocaust. But here’s an evil fact you probably did not know about the noble events of D Day. When our Russian Allies entered Germany at the end of World War II, they systematically raped two million little girls and their grandmothers and mothers. City by city they advanced, hunted them down, hauled them out of their hiding places, threw them in the public square and raped them over and over, sometimes up to 60 times each, sometimes with knives and swords.

They raped them to death. And the U.S. hushed it up. Why?

Because these little girls and women had now become “the other”.

Are you surprised that the Russians were not hauled up on war crimes along with the Nazis? I was. But then I realized that the Russians weren’t the only ones who did this during the war.

American GIs raped too.

Desolation at the Petrified Forest, Calistoga

Rape camps exist in America. Here and now. They are not officially sanctioned by the government but they are allowed and supported in every city and state. They aren’t just something that just existed in wartime Bosnia (50,000 women and little girls in three years) or Rwanda (half a million women and little girls in 100 days).  It would be nice to think that the environment which has allowed women’s stories about their sexual abuse in the entertainment world would have a trickle down effect and that the little girls and boys and women being held hostage in our country would be rescued. After all, Charlize Theron and Lady Gaga are the elite among women. When I heard them speak out I felt such a flood of relief. Finally, the stories we performers had told each other, told our agents and friends and boyfriends and the entertainment unions and police officers to no avail were now being heard!  We were so tired of the dance, so tired of trying to circumnavigate James Toback (I have three stories about him) and Warren Beatty (three) and Kevin Spacey (one) and Harvey Weinstein (two) and Matt Lauer (several) and the agent Lionel Larner (one) as well as  Mary Tyler Moore’s New York agent (two) in order to have careers. By now I have read lots of autobiographies by highly successful and respected actresses of the 60s, 70s and 80s. I am convinced in order to have much of a career during those years, you had to be a party girl.

And if you were, I respect you.

Sally, a prostitute survivor in Steinbeck’s sequel to “Cannery Row”, Monterey

And we should. We should respect our party girls. Sometimes you can only navigate change in the trenches.  Rape survivors do the same. They dissociate during the act(s), they forgive their rapists or they don’t forgive them, whatever works best. Sometimes they tell their stories. Some of my girlfriends who survived rape or prostitution have told their stories to me. The ones I know that have escaped with their sense of self intact have an inner light difficult to explain. They look like movie stars.

Sometimes they are.

However, I must confess that I think the primary reason for this media attention is not because we have become more evolved as a nation. I think it’s because of the bottom line. There used to be more money in hushing up all of this “sex” stuff that movie producers and directors and actors have been doing to us for years. But trafficking is big business. And trying war criminals is expensive. No wonder the women of Bosnia see their rapists in the neighborhood every day and no one does anything. No wonder the Russian soldiers have not been hauled up on their war crimes. As for our own backyard? Well, some of us love the boy who crossed the line. In America we often protect his life at the expense of the little girl whose life has been destroyed.

Couple at Sutro Baths, San Francisco

Perhaps if there is hope for an egalitarian future, it’s in those men who love women and respect them enough to understand that we ARE “other”, just not “other” in the way which has been determined for us by a history of warmongers.  Those men never asked women what sexuality meant for them. Instead, they took. It is they who defined sexuality long ago as the thing that most men want most: coitus. When we say we don’t want it we are called names. This has given us no chance to fight for what we really want any more than we can fight the idea that “The Hero’s Journey” is the best structure for writing a play.

Statues nuzzle at Hearst Castle

The truth is, the act of coitus has never been the safest or most logical thing to do. Until recently with the advances of birth control and medical care for mothers (not to mention raising the age of consent), one could argue that it is something that hasn’t made any sense to do except on rare occasions and only if a woman is willing to risk her life. Now it’s safer and things are a little different and yet they are still the same: If you want to know what women want, just ask. We will tell you. The answer is usually something like, “We just want a fellow, warm and snuggly, not presuming.” We’re pretty simple. I think that’s what men want too…no presumption. We are more alike than different. In fact, our primary source of pleasure is almost exactly the same. We have very similar anatomy to men in that regard. It just gets ignored.

In any case, all avenues of pleasure are fine for lovers who respect each other but “no” means “no”, whether you are single, married, a co-worker or a soldier.

Wait to be invited.
_________________

Click here for my sources.

#NotEveryMan #MeToo #Rape #TheHerosJourney #Actresses

 

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My One and Only

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

As I gazed into the face of my true love, my heart began to pound.

It was a crucial moment, yet neither of us spoke.   I glanced down at my chaste glass of cola-and-grenadine and turned longingly toward the bar.  A fire warmed the faces of late evening happy-hourers who flirted with Andrew, the handsome young bartender.  They sipped drinks with alluring names like Smoke on the Beach or Brandy Sea Foam.  Dare I indulge? No, I thought. I must be strong. I must let whatever emotion was there to come and not numb myself even if I was afraid.

As I turned back to face my lover, the anxiety once again overwhelmed me.  I took a deep breath and made myself take in all the rich beauty of this being in front of me to whom I had revealed so much.  It had been healing in so many ways to be in this relationship. So much shame had left me and so much doubt. The process had helped me get to know myself better and to know that I was indeed loved. It had opened me up and brought more people into my life and it had made me a better person. To spend so much time with my beloved had been nothing but joy and bliss.

Yet somehow it had become twisted.

Sometimes I wondered if it was all the counseling which we had received which was the problem. People had given us high praise but they also had given us many suggestions for change. Both fortunately and unfortunately, I had put into practice many of these suggestions.  Is this what had wrecked us? Had I picked this thing apart too much?

Maybe it was all this waiting around for the next step that was the trouble. They say if things don’t move to the next level of commitment after a couple of years, a relationship can start to eat itself into oblivion.  Perhaps I had become too invested without any hope of a return.

Either way, I had to end it.

As my tears began to fall, my lover offered me no comfort so I turned my attention outside. Torrential rain was gliding down the windows in sheets and in the distance the ocean was raging. I wondered, would I find another to love as much as I loved this one?

There was no way of knowing.  I turned back to my sweetheart and reached out for one last caress. We said our goodbyes and I closed the door.

Once alone, I stared at the solitary empty glass before me. After a moment, I called over to Andrew, the cute bartender. He brought me a huge glass of Syrah and I lifted the glass to toast the end of my anxiety. Then I looked around the cafe. All around me there were people I hadn’t even noticed. A hopeful-looking older guy tottered over to me and asked me if I was married to that laptop in front of me. It wasn’t far from the truth so I cocked my head at his grizzled face and teasingly told him yes. He asked me to guess his age and became flustered when my guess turned out to be correct.  He then sat down without any kind of invitation from me and began to tell me all about his life.

Then an even older fellow (I gauged him to be about seventy-two) made his way over to us announcing, “I’m here to rescue you.” He also proceeded to sit down uninvited and begin to talk to me about himself. Wrapped up in his history, I forgot about the first guy until he sidled off in resignation. When my septuagenarian finally realized he was not going to get my number, he ambled off as well.

At this point young Andrew returned and asked me, “Can I get you anything else?” I couldn’t help but laugh, “Yes, more men!” I told him I’d been in this café before many times without anyone hitting on me. He smiled and said, “Then you must not get out very much. You are a beautiful woman.”

I handed him back my check (with a very large tip) and watched him sway gracefully back to the bar.  His compliment raised my hopes and made me feel a bit better. I glanced back down at my computer and thought that it wasn’t the laptop to which I had been married, it was the screenplay which lay inside. For this was the lover to whom I had just said goodbye.   This script was the one I had decided was my greatest work, the beloved one I had worked on for so long, the one which had received so many compliments from colleagues and competitions. This was the one which would have brought me acclaim, the one which would have changed my world forever.

This was my one and only.

In that moment I realized that this was my problem.

When any relationship ends, it is painful.  However, they say the people with the most success at love are the ones who don’t believe in one-and-onlys. They don’t believe in destiny or fate and they don’t believe in soulmates. Believing there is only one person for you means we never grow and it means there will never be another chance at love.

It is the epitome of being stuck.

As I pondered my closed laptop, I had to remind myself that this work of mine over which I had toiled was not my one and only.  There had been a script before it and I had “cheated” on it with three scripts after it. They had all been produced and performed. If this script hadn’t been, maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

Or maybe it was never meant to be.

As I stared out of the window, I let go of my dream of fame and fortune which I had thought Liberty and Grace would bring me and thought, Now what? Maybe I’ll have more time to play the piano now. Maybe I’ll get back to a more rigorous exercise regime.

Instead, as I let go, a new idea hit me. It grew and flowered and the energy from it filled my body. It was huge in scope and story and I had never heard of anyone telling this tale at all, let alone anyone telling it this way. It was a good idea and as I saw it come to life behind my eyes I imagined it on the screen, the story of the century, an international sensation…

and I laughed.

This way I would never begin.

As the dangerous grandiosity washed through me, I watched it carefully until it dissipated.  There would be time enough to open my laptop and begin the research tomorrow. After all, a real relationship doesn’t start in fantasy, but in attraction and then hard work. As I picked up my glass of wine, I relaxed back to watch the waves.

Everybody needs a little time between breakups.

———————————-
Images include the Shiloh Inn in Seaside, Oregon and Ecola Point on the Oregon Coast. All photos by Katie Bennett

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Orphan Rituals

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

This morning I woke up out of breath.

It’s a usual thing…maybe it’s allergies, maybe I have emphysema.

Who knows?

These are the kinds of crazy thoughts I have.  Every day.

Thanksgiving and Christmas morning when you are by yourself can be difficult.

When I was a young artist living in New York it was a little different. There were lots of single, displaced career-minded actors without significant others. At Christmastime my Oregon friend Michael and I went out for Chinese food and then we would go to the movies. Sometimes we saw two. One of my favorite Thanksgivings was one I spent with my friend Jed, who is from Germany by way of Denmark. He bought a big chunk of pre-cooked turkey and I made Stovetop and sweet potatoes without any unhealthy toppings. At the party, we strung cranberries and popcorn for his Christmas tree and toasted each other with blackberry Manischewitz.

This is not the same thing as being an orphan at someone else’s party.  Last year at Christmastime in Portland, I realized that I had been attending other people’s rituals for quite some time.  So during the month of December, I began to create my own instead. I went to plays and concerts both by myself and with friends. I dressed the tree in red lights and put imitation birds on them like my mother did when I was small. On Christmas Eve I went to a high holiday candlelight service and when I got home, I made a trail of chocolate kisses and Hershey’s miniatures from my bedroom to the stocking under the tree the way my sister did when her children were young. In the morning I lit candles and put on the Hallmark Station’s Yule Log. I had already stuffed the things I had bought for myself earlier that month (things I needed which I was already using) into gift bags with tissue paper. When I woke up I cut open one of the Christmas cakes I had made the day before and toasted the morning with hot cocoa. Then I stuck the rest of the cake into the freezer.

Thanksgiving is not quite the same as Christmas. It’s a big social event which revolves around food preparation.  Even though I haven’t been feeling very social or brave lately, I determined to seek out a solitary adventure. Ha.  It didn’t take long to find out nothing was open. Not the ice skating rink, the community center or the museum. (Okay, the zoo was open but somehow that sounded cold and wet and lonely.)  What I did find that intrigued me was the West Linn Turkey Trot, a benefit for the local food bank. It’s an annual three mile run through a park filled with trees. By a river. Gorgeous. And very wet. I put on my rain coat and headed down the road to the sloshy parking lot.

As a solitary attendee, I had forgotten that when you go to events like this on your own, other people will talk to you. Especially if you talk to them. My shyness dissipated when I met the congenial Chris and Liz (from Texas), two cute policemen (from Oregon City), several sexy fire fighters (from Tualatin) and a bunch of flirty babies in backpacks. There were also about twenty galloping dogs and dozens of quick small children in running shoes. There were bottles of donated water and satsumas and Costco trail mix, a big digital clock so you could track your time and a little girl who sang the national anthem a capella. There were also lots of strollers and a whole lot of mud.

It was a blast.

Because of my breathiness this morning (the mugginess? ambient cat hair? nerves?), I thought that I would probably just walk and not run. But the exuberant planners had put up many handwritten signs of encouragement along the way including ones hanging overhead from the trees to jump up and “high five” which said things like, “You’re nearly there!”. A photo of a bikinied man from the television show Baywatch declared, “You have worked your Hassel hoff!” and another stated, “You’re doing so well that if you were in a documentary, Morgan Freeman would be narrating it!”  Caution tape kept us all from straying off the proscribed path. I realized suddenly that all of these messages were symbolic of how to live a good life.

Despite my derelict lung capacity, I ran nearly the entire three miles.  Afterward, I went home to get ready to go be a Thanksgiving orphan at someone else’s party. It’s not such a bad thing. After all, this way I don’t have to host the whole event myself. Right now I am now at home making deviled eggs and I’ve already laid out the Bailey’s on the counter.  I’m watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade live on YouTube. It’s a parade with a tradition which has special meaning to me because I used to go to watch it in person when I lived in New York.

The best thing about all of these explorations is that I now have some rituals I can share with friends…or with that special someone else whenever he comes my way.

But it also doesn’t matter. These are things I enjoy which I can do on my own.

And just knowing that is enough to make me breathe easier.

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Resurrection Girl

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

“Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of.” – Bethany Hamilton

“After the Rain” – photo by Katie Bennett

Last week I was nervous.

Some of the nerves were over good things. Everyone seemed to be emerging from the rains to frolic in the spring sun. Even better, these people wanted to have contemplative, meaningful conversations. 

Some of them even offered me jobs.

Being nervous is no fun. But as I examined the feeling which swept down my legs and up through my mid-region, I had to remind myself that I would much rather be anxious than depressed.

That gave me heart.

“Snowed In” – West Linn, Oregon (Jan ’17) – photo by Katie Bennett

Thinking of the dark winter when I holed up in my shell like the classic Portlander I’m becoming makes me think about the year cycle and how we equate winter with aging and death.  We want to hibernate like the seeds of the dying plants or like eggs buried deep in a feathery nest. It happens over and over in this town and this year is no exception.  

Lately I find that more and more I think about my past more than my present. Some people say you shouldn’t do that.

It is true that it is easy to idealize the past or kick myself in my own shin over things I did, telling myself I should have known better when the fact is I couldn’t have known at all unless I did them.

However, thinking about myself as the little girl I was helps me. She was sweet and flawed. She is me. If I think of the doddering aging fumbler who never got it right, how can I forgive myself?

“Persephone” – art by Rachel Walker

It takes courage to do things. It takes an openness of heart to change. Sometimes it’s as simple as one small change in thinking. One thought such as, “what would it mean if the problem weren’t me?” or “do I really have to decide if that person is “all good” or “all bad”? can soften all the muscles in my body. It’s a self-made massage done with thought.

Coming out of my winter shell I feel like Persephone rising from Hades to embrace the spring.

Arise, little girl!

__________________
In Greek mythology, Persephone was a maiden who was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld.
Every Spring she courageously emerges.

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The Art of the Day Job

Dealing at a Team Casino party last December

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

A couple of years ago when I was working as a featured actor on a commercial, a couple of extras waiting to go on asked me if performing was all I did. I thought about this. The answer at that moment was “yes” so I said that and their estimation of me clearly went up. It was obvious that in their minds this meant I had “made it” as a performing artist.

No one asked my reasons for “yes.”  Among them, I wasn’t teaching a college class that particular semester and I was on unemployment. I also had other resources and some money saved. These were the things that made it possible for me to be free to drive up to Washington at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday and be my best self in front of a camera.

We know the world needs temps and waiters and subs and baristas and bus tour guides and dealers working parties at Team Casino.  I have done all of these things and so have many of my friends. But are these jobs less important than other ones? Some jobs are more desirable, yes. But more important? Is being free to do what we want always a better use of our time than having a “day job”?  I would argue the opposite. How can we connect to people in the world who are working at other kinds of jobs than we are if we never do the same? Being an actor or writer means you must be a good observer of life. I would argue that if you can squeeze a day job in between your performance gigs you will become a better artist. 

My heroine played by Lexie Quandt in my short play “Heaven on Fire” at the Hipbone Studio. Directed by Julie Akers

After a flurry of recent projects which included directing  Almost, Maine at Portland Community College and writing two short plays which were produced at the PDX Playwrights Daisy/Crazy Dukes Festival in January, I once again found myself with a little down time. This time I decided to try substitute teaching in the public schools.* Right now there is a great need all over the state of Oregon for subs so in addition to the perks of flexibility and a $20+/hour paycheck, I knew I would be helping my neighborhood and my community. Never have I had so many thank yous as I have had in the past six weeks just entering and leaving a building.  However, I didn’t expect it to be fun and it wasn’t.  

Gary Corbin and Lauren Emery in my short play “The Egg” which I wrote and directed in 48 hours. Hipbone Studio, Portland, OR

My first month of subbing was fraught with exhaustion, students who challenged me every day and even danger. At one middle school where the rules on the wall declared, “Leave your smart phones in your locker” a disobedient 13-year old defied me. You would have thought I’d asked the student to hand over an arm instead of a tiny computer. Before I could walk the contraband down to the office, the kid got two buddies and cornered me in an empty classroom. The next time I stuck to 11-year olds, thinking younger children would be safer. Wrong. The instant I turned my back, one of them threw a pair of scissors at another student.  

Every time I sub I learn something about the human condition. Children aren’t really that much different in their temperament and concerns than we adults.  Kindergartners are a bunch of insecure gossips and tattletales who cry because “Billy was playing with Joe and not with me!” and most complaints like that come from the boys as well as half the tears.  It is an awakening to have the privilege of seeing boys at the stage of their development before they told to “shut up” by society and forced to pretend they are not just as emotional as girls. It is also nice to see the respect girls are given in school before they have to go out in the world and fight for it. Their confidence in themselves in that protected space reminds me that it is possible to be brave and bold even when the “real world” tries to tell me there is something wrong with me instead of something wrong with it.

My Substitute Teaching Badge

It is impossible to prevent people from having opinions about what we should or shouldn’t do. But the artist must be strong. Just know that the ills of the world do not reside in you if you do not participate in them.  The most difficult thing about this is letting go of the illusion that we have control. We get the idea that if we just shaped ourselves into somebody else’s vision of what we should be then we would fit into the world and everything would fall into place.  

We can’t. It wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t.  But we can create art about it.

And art can change the world.

_________
* It is possible to sub in Oregon without a teaching credential but since I had an expired one I did the renewal work. All it would have taken was 275 hours of professional development in the last three years. Between all my acting and writing classes I logged nearly 500 before I stopped counting!

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Choosing Chaos

As a child in the middle of the back row, creating order out of chaos in an early ballet class.

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being free. 

Free not to have to pretend to be happy or smart or foolish.  

Free to pursue my dreams of expressing my true self through acting or dancing or writing or paint.

Free to be me.  By myself.

But this desire for freedom warred with my desire for love.

Love that was gentle.

Love that respected my intelligence and my feelings.

Love that allowed me to pursue my dreams.

Love that allowed me to be me. With someone.

Growing up, my choices seemed to be that I could either be free and alone or to be controlled and with someone. At school I had to conform or I was an outsider. At home I had to do what my parents said or else there was hell to pay. As I’m a born career girl, I thought being in a marriage meant I would have to follow my partner’s life around if I wanted a husband warm and sweet in my bed. It seemed to me that there was no freedom in love.

I have since learned that this is a lie.

The truth is that relationships are either based on manipulation and control or they are based on equality and respect.  These two kinds of interactions are frequently discussed in psychology circles when discussing healthy and unhealthy relationships. They also show up in faith traditions when discussing Good and Evil. In Christian ideology, God is said to have the desire to be freely chosen while the Devil wants control.  Some people think it is possible to avoid the pain of being in relationship with people by choosing to be alone. But that isn’t true either.  We have to be with people every day whether we like it or not.

No, the pain of real love means the pain of letting go of control and allowing for a little chaos.

It’s the only way to allow people to be free.

Interestingly, the idea of Chaos also shows up in faith traditions. Associated with the dark side of creation, it is an unpredictable void that existed before the world. It also refers to “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions”.  This is why we don’t like chaos. 

Auditioning for a role in a film last month.

However, for the artist or the true lover, chaos is where we must always begin. We have to trust that it’s the first step on the way to creation.  

Being in relationship with people means joy but it also means being in pain. Not the pain of being with people who are rough, possessive, demeaning, insulting, angry and otherwise controlling in the name of love.  We don’t have to allow our relationships to be incidental and reactionary like that. We can choose to love with intention.

That means allowing for a little chaos.

Let’s choose it now.

 

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Piano Demon

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

Yearbook photo of me in a high school play

When I was seventeen, a cute singer from my peer group asked me to play the piano for him.  I had never accompanied anyone before but I wanted to please him so I said yes.  He handed me piles of Barry Manilow and other uplifting songs of the era and encouraged me, saying, “You can play the piano!” It was all a little beyond me.  By the time we were scheduled to perform at one of the clubs in our hometown I was a bundle of nerves. 

By “club” I mean of course the Elks Club. We were teenagers, after all. Our audience consisted of elderly people sitting around tables who wanted a bit of light entertainment at their monthly meeting. But in my state of mind we might as well have been on stage at the Met.  On our second song I flubbed the final key change and froze.  My singer friend tried to get me to continue but I would not, could not go on.  He finally had to boot me from the piano bench and sit down at the keys himself. I stood in the middle of the room staring wide-eyed at the audience while he did both our jobs. It was a while before I realized I could move my feet.  I slunk home and never told anyone the story.  My relationship with the piano was over.

Until last year. 

The old Weber

I happen to be living in a house with an old Weber upright piano. It’s a lovely walnutty thing with carved curlicue wood over the harp. One day last year its black and white keys started to call my name and even taunt me. Startled, I cried, “No! I will have nothing to do with you!” But the piano demon would not leave me alone. I realized not to answer this was to allow this evil thing from my past to defeat me. So I ran to the downtown Portland library and dug through the archives until I found the Manilow song I had blown so long ago. It was “I Write the Songs”. 

I came home and set it on the piano. Most of the notes looked completely foreign after so many years of resistance. But I found myself pounding away, screwing up horribly of course, but determined to play the stupid song all the way through without stopping even if every note I hit was wrong.  And most of them were. But not all.  And I didn’t stop.  

After some months of practicing I met up again with my old singer friend and told him how ashamed I had felt on that day.  Eventually he remembered the gig and asked, “Why didn’t you start playing again?”

I said, “Because, I already wrecked it. It wasn’t perfect.”

He thought about that and smiled. “I know a place where you can play,” he said. “You can make mistakes there and you can even stop. All the people there will still applaud.”

So I did.

Last summer I showed up on his church doorstep wearing my lucky tangerine dress and shaking with the old terror.  As I sat down at the keys and began to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for the elderly crowd, my friend sat down near me and started humming along.  At first I was thrown, then I was irritated, and finally I realized he was trying to encourage me.  He wasn’t listening for wrong notes.  He was listening for right ones.  

He had my back.

Sometime after this, I went to watch the auditions of Susan Boyle who blew everyone away in her Britain’s Got Talent performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”. Most people have watched the dramatic video where the judges discount her before she even opens her mouth. But this is the one where she wins the semifinals. Watch the beginning of her performance then skip to the end to hear the response of those same judges: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLSqUqmwvEE.

Me at Christmas Eve service last month

Her voice broke when she started the song but no one said a word about it. The difference was that this time they were rooting for her.  Susan Boyle won the competition and is now a world-wide name. Her elegance, talents and story were an inspiration in a world quick to embrace divisiveness. This shows that any situation can be turned around, any mistake you make can be redeemed. Not everyone out there is a critic.

Some people do have your back.

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Green Braided Beard

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts  –

west-linn-fog

The view from my window in West Linn, Oregon

Wind.

Snow.

Darkness.

Night.

Still and joyous.

Almost joyous.

This year has been one of pain and emotional strife but on this night the year all seems to be telescoping in to this one moment in time.

Overnight, a mood can change.

A thought or good news can change it.

Exercise can, a return to health or just a good quote for the day.

Even a quirky element in a dream.

The other morning was like that. I woke up with a heavy heart from a dream in which somebody I love shunned me.  In it was one odd element that the person doesn’t have in life.

He had a green braided beard.

bend-snow

Backyard view from a friend’s house in Bend, Oregon last Thanksgiving

Dreams like that are no surprise. Much of my loss of confidence this year has been due to strife over the illness of my aging mother and the drama, emotions and finger pointing that have gone on in my family as to how to care for her.  Harsh words have been spoken and so far there have been no apologies.  It’s hard not to feel pulled to pieces when people want more from you than you feel you have to give.  

How much is too much?

At this time of year people tend to think about giving and their thoughts often turn to people in need. Once of my nieces has had close dealings with the homeless community and she says the only way to help those people change is a one-on-one friendship. Sometimes even that doesn’t work. She told me a story about how she managed over time to befriend a homeless girl but that there came a day when she couldn’t be there when the girl wanted. That was that.  The homeless girl felt betrayed and left the friendship. My niece says people are great at providing clothes and blankets and meals and shelter in the winter cold but that won’t get the homeless out of their addictions or solve their mental illnesses.  Yet should we give up our whole lives to help one other person? Can we even do that?

How much is enough?

Christmas Tree, Pioneer Square, Portland, Oregon

Hearing this story and thinking about my mom made me consider myself and how I interact with people. Sometimes I want too much from my friends and family and sometimes I want to give more of myself than they want me to give. The same thing works in the opposite direction. Sometimes people act as though they are trying to give me something and tell me I should be grateful but in reality those people are only trying to push me around.  

What is true giving?

The morning of my dream was a planned day of leisure. I took a hike up a tree-lined road and I went to my favorite yoga class. I spent an hour talking to someone compassionate who told me I was worthy of love. Then I dressed to the nines and went to an afternoon Christmas party. It was a benefit for the Oregon Food Bank at Cast Iron, an agency which has cast many national films and shows.  I ate cookies and sang and played with the owners’ dogs.    In the evening, I went to my PDX Playwrights group and sat around a table to read and critique new plays. Afterward I went out for a hard cider with some of the playwrights including my friend Alan.  Alan had a stroke last year and I knew he’d had a hard time of it so I asked him how he was doing. He was a pianist and a composer who had lost the use of his left hand.

He looked at me like I was crazy.  “Why? Because of the stroke?” he asked. “No, no, don’t feel bad. I don’t. I have eight grandchildren and four lovely daughters-in-law and I don’t have to work anymore. I have worked with some of the best musicians in the world. I am lucky to live in America where everyone has enough—even the homeless have more than they would in other countries–and I have a new musical coming out next month. In fact it’s called Homeless. It’s about people less fortunate than we are. So no whining on the yacht.”

This expression was something I hadn’t heard before so I asked him to repeat it:

cruise-princess

Crown Princess…and some other tiny boat. I was fortunate to cruise the Baltic on this ship in 2009

“No whining on the yacht.”

I thought about my day and how it would seem to someone else like such a great day and I thought about how much I didn’t enjoy it. My whole life I have always been a bit entrepreneurial and inventive enough to work a flexible schedule so that I can pursue a creative career. I don’t have the money some people have but I have frequently sacrificed that for time. I also have sacrificed having children and intimate connection because I so wanted my freedom.  Yet despite all my efforts to create the life I wanted, I found myself struggling.  

Was I giving enough?

At the end of the day as I sit looking out at the cold dark frozen night, it occurs to me that the one gift I am giving the world is that I can take care of myself. I am not a burden to anyone yet and I am free to enjoy my life. It’s a life many other people would love to have and some day I may not have it.  There is a lot of talk about gratitude in this world and many admonitions against self pity but that was not the emotion I have been fighting.  

estonia-hat

In my Estonia Christmas hat in Ontario, Oregon

It was guilt.  

Survivor guilt.

It is so good to unbraid the twisted green thing that has been haunting me for so long.

May you exorcise all your demons too.  

 

Alan Alexander’s #HomelessTheMusical will be at the Clinton Street Theatre in Portland January 27, 28 and 29th at the Clinton Street Theatre. To purchase tickets, click: https://www.boxofficetickets.com/go/event?id=316913 Alan says the use of his left hand is slowly returning and he’s now playing a bit of piano and bass.

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Tennis Shoe Politics

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts  –

tennies

My old black and white Keds

I don’t believe in sides. I really don’t.

I am someone who is always looking for a third way of looking at things.

Politically I am a moderate. Yet this is what I got when I attempted to reach out on social media to engage in the recent post-election debate:

$$$$####!!!@@@@@!

A sweet friend did this to me. An old friend.  A friend I thought loved me. And this was over something I didn’t even think was particularly controversial. Just fact-checking stuff. Would she have done this to my face? I don’t think so.  It’s scary to talk about feelings face to face.  But it’s better. It’s important to say “I love you” in person even if you are not sure the sentiment is returned.  It’s generous.  It is also more daring to challenge each other’s convictions in person. It is less likely we will shout at each other.  It is far too easy to “hide behind the screen”.  So many things in life are unjustified and make us feel angry. Or do they?

Do they really? Do “causes” make us angry or does anger make us seek out causes? You know the old adage about the chicken and the egg?

I think the anger came first.

chicken

Here’s a link to the fun argument.

We have all been hurt by life and are driven by our emotions. Men and women are born packed with hormones which dip and peak at various times of the day and month. In the worst case scenarios, this has led young men to feel justified to pick up guns and shoot up schools, malls, and theatres and clubs. Some of them have gone down with causes on their lips, but I don’t believe the “causes” were the reason for their actions.

I think the raging came first.

Snowflakes we made at Christmas for my church

This makes me think back to when I was a kid in middle school. Talk about hormones. If you wore the wrong kind of jeans or tennis shoes, you were smack on the wrong “side” of everything. I really don’t think things have changed much.  Community can be awkward and uncomfortable but we all need each other. It is important not to remain isolated in our own little political bubbles. It’s vital to look into each other’s eyes. It’s essential not to get sucked into the rage.  We are individuals as unique as snowflakes and as multifaceted as gems.  We are not flat comic book characters with only two dimensions so how can there only be two answers to any question?  We are three dimensional beings. Some scientists believe there is even a fourth and a fifth dimension. I guess I do too, since I believe in a spiritual realm.

rose-gem

Faceter Gail Bumala’s unique spiral rose cut.

We all have the right to speak and the responsibility to listen. Trust me, being a know-it-all never changed anyone.  The only thing that ever changed anyone is compassion.

So blessed are the peacemakers.

May I become one too.

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The Me Season

shoes2

Self Portrait, Seaside, Oregon

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

Life this year has been hard.

Not because I am unloved or don’t have friends.

Not because I do not have family who will come and help me if I am ill or in trouble.

Not because of my career or my health or my financial situation.

Objectively speaking, all of these things are going well.

But none of these things look quite the same as they did at this time last year.

(It’s difficult to let go of the old and embrace the new.)

Lately I’ve been having scary conversations with people I love about how I really feel about them.  Worrying about people who don’t seem to want to stay in my life.  Wondering why the people who have known me the longest seem to understand me the least.  Maybe it’s because those people have too many memories of how I used to be. Or impressions which were false which became imbedded over time.

I wonder if it is because people sometimes become so close they can’t really see you?

Some people say that friendships come and go with the seasons. I hate that idea. It doesn’t seem fair when people go. I think friends should remain committed.  But it doesn’t really matter what I think.  It only matters what I am becoming.

Most people in my life think of me as a strong-willed person.  I am not.

I am a people pleaser.

Veteran performer Kevin Bacon says, “Most actors want to have the world look at us and love us, and those who say that that’s not really a driving force for them, I don’t believe.” I think this is accurate. Most of my life I have felt like if there is a problem, the problem must be me. This turns out to be a longstanding mistaken core belief of mine.  What I am now learning is that some people have limited capacities for handling things. This means that if someone criticizes my personality, the problem may well lie there. It doesn’t mean the problem is me.

nathan-bw-of-me

Photo by Nathan Nichols

At the moment my life seems to be a quiet time of self-reflection after many storms. Without the usual people bolstering me up, I have begun to feel the pain I had been avoiding due to years of relying on others to help me share the burden.  But after tears often comes euphoria. And after pain comes joy. That is something I haven’t felt in a while. Contentment, yes.  Anguish, certainly. But joy? That childlike delight I felt in my youth? I’d almost forgotten what that is like. And yet I feel its stirrings.

It will be worth the wait.

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