Monday, December 16, 2013

Resilience - Twenty Tips

1. Grieve your losses. Otherwise they will haunt you.
2. Stay close to friends, family, and community. Don't isolate yourself.
3. Go to bed for a while. Then get up,
4. Go to the ocean. Sit a while at its edge. It has something to say to you. Listen.
5. Find a creative outlet. Write. Paint. Journal. Draw. Make a collage. Garden.
    It will transform the pain into something beautiful.
6. Seek support when you need it.  There is no shame in asking for help.
7. Cuddle with something little and cute. A puppy. A kitty.  A baby.
8. Get a massage.
9. Read Rilke.
10. Work at something you love.
11. Be open to the gift.
12. Walk.
13. Until you have the energy, only surround yourself with people who understand.
14. Light candles. Soak in the tub with lavender  or  rosemary salts.
15. Cry when you need to.  Eventually you will stop.
16. Become comfortable with solitude.
17. Be in the moment.
18. Sunflowers are happy. Get some.
19. Don't judge yourself. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.
20. Give Thanks.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Can't Go Home Again

I look at the devastation in the Philippines- the anguish on the faces of mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children as they sift through the rubble, barefoot,  in contaminated water, searching to salvage...anything.  The typhoon's horrific violence, unleashed on these tiny island villages leaving a smiling people, bereft and homeless.

I see the tornado that swept through Illinois. Random selection. Implosion. Obliteration. Unrecognizable terrain.  Any sense of direction, lost in the ruin.

I think of  the Syrians in exile. Families relocated to refugee camps across boarders.  Makeshift shelters. Escaping man's inhumanity to man. Even their own beds not safe as they breathed lethal chemicals while they slept.

History's human story is filled with chapters of people struggling to survive,  seeking new beginnings, risking everything to escape oppression, famine,  starvation, annihilation.  Ellis Island. "Next year in Jerusalem." The Mayflower. Immigrants. Refugees. Boat People. Tribes.

Each story filled with one common theme - hope that they will find home.

I have, over the course of nearly a year and a half, been thinking a lot about home. I have been home sick.  And I've been sick of home.  While my plight pales in comparison to the catastrophic experiences of families whose very lives are at risk merely from having been born in a war-torn region of the world, the question of what home means has been forced upon me by circumstances entirely out of my control.

As I look back on my life, I am aware that home was a place of deep rootedness. Long before I was
born, my father was a traveling salesman.  He and my mother, lived in apartment hotels throughout the southeast while my father sold for RL Polk and Company City Directories. Eventually, they bought a trailer and towed it from town to town, like tortoises with their shell, home came with them wherever they went. It wasn't until they arrived in Anaheim, California, in 1949, that they finally bought their first home, famously, on Flower Street where they lived next door to the family who would become their best friends.  The migration began. My father and his brother opened their own business. The promise of opportunity beckoned to other family members. Letters and urging from my father to travel west lured my aunts, uncles, grandmother, cousins. They all relocated to Southern California. On Flower Street alone, my Aunt Betty and Uncle Larry lived at one end of the block, and my mother's mother, Mema, lived next door to my parents. My father's sisters and brothers all moved from Ohio and Kentucky, to the post war suburbs, holding on to the hope and dream of a more promising future.

While I came into the story ten years later, in 1959, the successful rise of my father from his poor Kentucky roots to business owner, home owner, and independent publisher, is everything that the American dream promised. No myth at work here. With no privileges of class or education, equipped only with an ethic of  hard work and know-how, and blessed with a dashingly handsome face and charismatic personality, my father was a self-made man with a high school education and determined
spirit. The luck of timing in a post World War II economy, provided fertile soil to put down the roots from which my childhood would grow. A childhood of privilege. Not great wealth or connection but an easy life in a suburban neighborhood. A house that to my parents must have seemed a palace as they earned their way to the life-style of pool parties and sipping scotch around the bar in a den added on for entertainment.  My father's dream of success matched with my mother's frugality and common sense, provided me with a security that was certain. Clothes. Toys. Trips. Most importantly, education.  My father took his greatest pride in providing my brother and myself with the best private school education available. My brother attended St. Catherine's Military Academy, then, no doubt, a sign of prosperity. We both attended St. Boniface Catholic School, parochial high schools and ultimately, the greatest achievement of my father's life, he sent us both to the University of Southern California.

The trajectory of my life was tied to the coat tails of my father's success and his beaming optimism and belief
that if you didn't "make it by thirty" there was something wrong. With no perspective of my own and only my father's example from which to imagine my future, my expectations were cemented into what certainly became the myth of my generation: that children would always do better than their parents.  What happened to the publishing industry is something my father could not have foreseen. Ink dried up and paper went up in flames, along with the independent publisher, the local bookstore, and the dial phone. While the new generation of digital media, spurred by the rapid growth of the internet, created new opportunities, those of us caught in between have been forced to adapt and seek very different paths than those carved by our parents.Making it by thirty became the impossible dream. Thirty came and went with the ups and downs of a business landscape that brought boom and bust.

 The complete reset of our economy brought on by greedy banks, bloated egos and Wall Street hubris brought an end to any notion that my future would be as bright as the one my father experienced for himself or imagined for me. My story is littered with worthless stock, meaningless stock options, empty promises of liquidity events, and the ravages of public offerings and unmet bottom lines.  Mergers and Mayhem as far as the eye can see from Chicago to LA. From family business, to corporate giants, bankruptcies that make Miller's character Biff in Death of a Salesman, seem more like a prophet than a lost soul. I understand the earthquake of when they "stop smiling back."  The ash heap has piled up and so, unfortunately, has my bitterness. Willy Loman's got nothin' on me.

The Great Recession may not rival the dramatic images of breadlines and dust-bowl migration, but the loss of dreams, homes, and financial security have altered people's lives and dashed the hopes of the promise of a comfortable retirement. Savings accounts tapped to put food on the table. IRA's cashed in to pay the mortgage. Short sales. Foreclosures. Rooms for rent. The  divide between the haves and have not's has less to do with  level of education and more to do with luck and the winds of fortune shifting.

The depth of my disillusion may be irreversible. I have been lied to. Not intentionally.  The lie of our times is woven into the fabric of my being and into the collective psyche of American society. That lie promised that reward is inevitable after sacrifice. I have perpetuated that lie with our children by sending them to prestigious universities and going into debt to give them an education that will hopefully launch them into a bright future. And indeed perhaps this one sacrifice will pay off.  As luck would have it, they are still young enough to be on the cutting edge of the new technology and may pick up where my father left off with a new generation of entrepreneurial spirit.

 Not so for me. Instead, I am forced into exile. To rent my home, a home that represents my lost dream. Much like my parent's vision of pool parties and fun - I dreamed of a life at the beach. Sailing and kayaking. Yearning to be a member of "the club", like Sabrina crooning her neck from a tree over the wall of the Larabie mansion on Long Island. Fueled by an imagined fantasy life that seemed possible at one time, now has, as Blanche says in " A Streetcar Named Desire," "slipped through my fingers."

Home has been torn from me. And I have clung. Stubbornly. Voraciously like a lioness roaring down a predator, I have fought to hold on to what I believed I deserved.  How wrong I have been.

And what of the family in the Philippines clinging to a tree for survival as everything they own is swept away in the typhoon's gale?
There is no comparison to our situations.
 My shame and guilt for my longing to live in my dream house tempers my grief and gives me perspective.

 But it is grief none the less. I pack up the rooms of my home just as I've packed up my family business, forty-nine years of telephone directories, my father's legacy, and my brother's life. I am no stranger to boxes.

 The family who will be renting our home for two years plans for the birth of their baby and what color to re-paint my daughter's room. The Paris decor will come down, holes will be plugged, and our memories and dreams will be boxed up.  My would-be studio, decorated in Mary Engelbreit yellow, will be transformed into his office. The yellow has to go. Of course it does.  Bold in its choice, its merriment now seems naive and stupid. I am embarrassed by it because the history of upside down cherries is a story from our home on  Pine Street that he can't possibly know and so the room seems ridiculous.

 I've fought not to have to do this for a year and a half. But now there is no choice. When you reach the end of the rope, it's the end of the rope. At least we can rent and aren't forced to sell. And who knows, just like the "L Box" in London, there may indeed be a happy ending to this story.
And so I hold on to that hope.
The hope that we will go home again.  But I cannot cling to that hope. Expectations have been dashed too many times for me to be that foolish.
For now will mourn the death of this dream and heal this wound of uprootedness.
I will bow my head in shame for my yearning for a materialistic lifestyle of boating and beach and seek higher ground in the heights in the spiritual lessons of this exile. I will process my guilt, and reflect on the sins of my father, seeking to forgive him for planting in me the seeds of a dream that my life would be better than his. An innocent enough dream -  reality is what I've had to face over and over again. He died too early to give me the necessary tools to deal with adversity.  I've had to learn that all by myself.

I know it is all in how you look at it. I've always been a home body. I lived two blocks from my mother for twenty years of my marriage. Eight houses away from my extended family for my entire childhood. Maybe it was my Mother's need to stop rolling along in a trailer that got imprinted on my psyche.  She stayed put for over fifty years on Resh Place.  My idea of home is roots.  I have idealized the notion of the family home, filled with memories, laughter, tears, and moments.  It is not easy for me to let go of that and turn my home over to another family to fill that space with theirs, while erasing mine.The hole in my heart is gaping.

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz says over and over "There's no place like home.
We all say, "Home is where the heart is."

My problem is, I left my heart on Savona Walk. 
I hope Thomas Wolf was wrong when he said, "You can't go home again."
But if he is, I will have to redefine what home means to me.
I will have to find a new dream.

Will the phoenix rise...again?
There's always hope.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When I Die I Want God There

I remember the day I drove to the crematorium.
I knew I had to be there with my mother even though I knew she was already gone.
Have I told this story?
Have I written it?
But I'm remembering it now.
So I'm re-telling it.

I'd awakened  that morning knowing it was the day.
I'd arranged with the mortuary to be there, though they'd advised against it.
I was having a hard time letting go of that body.
That body had given me life. Had held me and hugged me and tickled my arm and patted me.
And for the past few years, I'd cared for it in ways I'd never imagined. Mother and I had traded places.
On that morning, I was having a hard time with the idea of that body being incinerated.

So I looked for a sign.
The first was a camellia in full bloom in our yard.
Mother's favorite.
I carefully snipped it and wrapped it in a wet paper towel and foil to take with me.

As I drove down the winding road to the crematorium
there were two birds - with a wide wing spread - soaring ahead of me.
They were the only two birds in the sky that I could see.
They flew ahead of me the whole way to the crematorium - as if leading me.
Soaring, dancing in the sky.

And I thought
There they are - Mom and Dad.
Dancing again at last.

I knew that they were together. That they had sent a sign to me
that they were dancing in the heavens and that it was alright.

When I arrived at the crematorium,
They pulled the casket out and asked if I wanted to see Mother one last time.
I said I did.

I placed the camellia on her chest. Kissed her cheek for the last time -
and gave the okay to roll her body into the oven.

Whether those birds were a sign
or whether they were just two birds swooping in the wind
whether a camellia in bloom was a sign
or whether it was just the start of spring
whether there is a heaven
and eternity
or whether there isn't
doesn't matter.

This is what I know.

Believing it
is comforting.
Believing in something eternal
makes the living more meaningful.
It is all a mystery.

I just know that when it's my time,
I want God there.
Because believing it
makes it so.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Golden Ticket

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Hamlet Act II Scene ii
I recently returned from a ten-day trip chaperoning a group of students in England.  The trip had may artistic and professional dimensions to it which will no doubt be inspiration for future blog posts.  However, the story I wish to tell is about an experience I had that has reconnected me with myself and changed my outlook on life.

I got a call at 1:30 a.m. on August 10th, that our flight back to the states had been canceled and there were no flights available until the next afternoon.  This was a lousy wake up call portending a long, dreary day filled with hassles, vouchers, airport hotel rooms, and the domino effect of arriving home a full day later than planned. At 5:00 a.m., with students in tow, we drove two hours from Warwick, where we had been staying, back to Heathrow to take care of rebooking our flight and dealing with the details of the delay.  By 9:00 a.m. we were eating breakfast and I was faced with the decision of what to do with the rest of what was already a very long day.   Fighting the urge to crawl into bed under the covers until it was time to begin the trek back to the airport the next day, I announced to the wilted group that we would go back into London for a "bonus" day.
I directed everyone to meet back in the lobby in twenty minutes, giving me time to go back to the privacy of my room, have a quick cry, splash water on my face, change my clothes, and most importantly, adjust my attitude!

After an hour's ride into London on the tube, we arrived in Covent Garden, where the Saturday afternoon scene was festive and lively.
The students and other chaperones set off to explore, leaving me free and strangely solitary for the first time in ten days. Alone, my thoughts drifted to my childhood.
London held many memories for me, particularly with my father. From the time I was eleven-years-old, I grew up traveling to Europe most summers with my parents, always ending our six-week ventures in London. 
My father and I shared a love of theatre. He was my first acting coach. Hard to sum it up, but suffice it to say, everything I am today can be traced to my father.  He dropped dead of a heart attack when I was twenty-two-years old. His death changed the course of my life.  

As I stood there at the edge of Covent Garden, I was overcome with a strong sense of connection to him. I was compelled, utterly propelled, to turn around. As I did, my eyes fell on the three hundred and fifty-year-old Royal Drury Lane Theatre.  It was the first theatre in which I had seen a live musical with my father when I was eleven-years-old. The theatre seemed to call out to me, beckoning me to walk down the street toward it. Mesmerized, I couldn't take my eyes off of it - the marquee advertising the brand new musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the hottest ticket in town.
As I arrived at the grand entrance, I noticed a crowd gathering and realized they were going in to see a matinee.  It was 2:15 pm and the curtain was at 2:30.  In a foggy, dream-like state, I walked up to the box office and asked "Do you happen to have any singles?" The woman smiled and with a beautiful British accent replied, "We have one seat left in the house." "Really....," I replied. And then after a brief inner dialogue of "Should I or shouldn't I?"
 impulsively I said, "I'll take it."

I didn't pay any attention to where the seat was, I simply handed it to the usher who directed me through an open door to a center box seat.  I sat myself down on a velvet chair with three strangers, and shook my head in disbelief.  Center Box.  The show began and I was transported to the land of Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the delightful Oompa Loompas during Act One.  During the intermission, I made a quick call to my group saying I'd be 30 minutes later than I'd planned to meet them.  Joyously liberated, I wandered around the grand lobby and staircase marveling at where I was.  As the bells chimed indicating the end of the interval, I moved back up the steps to where I had been seated.  As I approached the box, this time, the door I'd entered was closed.  As I stepped up to the beautiful shiny, Mahogany door I came face to face with the letter "L".  I had been seated in the "L" box.  Stunned, I laughed and then burst into tears.  I knew in that moment, that something truly remarkable was taking place. My father's name was Lee. Overwhelmed, I thought of how my day had begun and where it had ended up.  I got the last seat in the house in the L Box for the hottest show in town.  I knew instantly why I'd been compelled to turn around! My father was waiting for me at the Royal Drury Lane Theatre in London where he had taken me to see my very first musical forty-three years earlier.

The theme of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is you have to believe it to see it.
The message came through loud and clear.  I wept with joy as I sat in my seat, feeling surrounded in love, embraced by my father. 
In the play, Charlie magically wins the "golden ticket."

 So had I.

When I left the Royal Drury Lane Theatre, I felt transformed.  I'd had a mystical experience reminding me that we live a mystery.  There is no death - only a passing from one dimension to another.  I have too much evidence in my life experience to doubt this.

I know there are those who will say it was all coincidence. But I know it was more than that.
What started out as a terrible day, ended up giving me one of the greatest gifts imaginable. Had my flight not been canceled,  I would have missed it. Had I crawled back into bed at the hotel, I would have missed it.
Since that day, I've been filled with joy and a sense that everything is as it should be.  I have felt at peace, happy, connected to myself, and absent of anxiety  and worry.
I truly believe my father sent me a message.
Trust that where you are is where you are meant to be.

You have to believe it to see it.


Sent from my iPad

Friday, July 26, 2013

Birth Days

Today is my son's twenty-sixth birthday.  He came into this world fast.  I knew he was a he before he was born.  It was his kick.  It was more like a punch. Given I only had my first born to compare him to, her movement was more fluid, almost ballerina like.  He seemed anxious to get going from the outset. His legs, strong and solid to this day, gave my insides quite a work out.  A harbinger of  things to come - those legs would come in handy for Little League, Karate, Waterpolo, and Surfing.

From beginning to end, my son's birth took 45 minutes.  I barely broke a sweat. My hair remained neat and in place and given it was the middle of summer, my skin was suntanned.
My water broke and my labor came on hard.  My mother was summoned to sit with our daughter who slept in her new big girl bed happily oblivious to the fact that her life was about to change upon her awakening. So fast was he coming we had to hurry Mother up - fifteen minutes was going to be too long.  Mother made it and then she herself summoned my nephew to take her place, anxious to get to the hospital to see her new grandchild.
Two pushes and boom. There he was.  Our family was complete. A girl and a boy.

I've always said the two happiest days of my life were the days our children were born.  I feel enormously blessed to have had the privilege of being a mother. I think of my own mother, who always made a big deal out of my birthday - understandable because my birth brought my parents enormous joy given I was a replacement for a three-year-old child they'd lost.

Sometimes we take for granted this thing called birth. Not today.
Today, I am remembering twenty-six years ago like it was yesterday and I am grateful.
 Grateful to have experienced the miracle of birth!
Grateful for the gift of my children.
Grateful for this blessed day.
Happy Birthday, Son.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dear Diary

One of my favorite songs from long ago began, "Well hello there, dear old friend of mine. You've been reaching for yourself for such a long time. There's so much to say. No need to explain. Just an open door for you to come in from the rain."
That's how I feel about my writing.  I've been away for a long time.
When I was a girl, I kept a diary.  It had a lock. In the early days of my journaling, I wrote in what was called a 5 Year Diary - with space for about an inch of writing per day per year.  I soon moved beyond those limited margins and disregarded the lines converting five years into one day per page. I sometimes wonder what it is that draws us to this self-reflection process. As a young girl I poured out my feelings to my diary always with the opening "Dear Diary" as if it were a trusted friend.
Uncensored and emotionally raw,  my diary contained my secrets, my loves, my heartbreaks, my fury, my thoughts, my fears. It was a conversation with myself or perhaps more to the point, with my psyche. The compunction to keep a diary had less to do with self-importance or that I was recording anything remarkable.  It was a simple chronicle of my day to day experience as an adolescent coming of age in the 1970's.  Even that makes the process sound too lofty and purpose- driven.
Whatever the drive to write, it stayed with me. The little paisley books were replaced with various journals. Some with lines. Others blank. Some spiral-bound. Others with colorful covers and quotes.  Shelves full of them. My life is an open book.
Blogging, while not as uncensored as the pages of my personal journals, is an extension of that process. The pen, replaced by the keyboard, still unlocks insights, ideas, and feelings undiscovered, unexpressed - leading to a deeper understanding of myself.
It is a familiar act that brings with it a sense of well being.
So why have I stayed away from it recently?
Well for one thing, my computer blew up.
Fortunately, my trusty pen and newest journal (a gift from my sister-in-law) served as an outlet for my venting and spewing  just like in the days of my adolescence.
But in truth, sometimes our day in and day out experiences are so overwhelming that writing about them is the last thing you want to do.
Now that there is a light at the end of the tunnel I have emotional space to process my experience and to reflect on it.  When you are in the thick of it, sometimes it takes too much energy to even turn on the computer or to pick up the pen.
The fact that I've figured out how to write on my blog using an iPad instead of a computer is a sign of my recovery.  This hasn't been an easy task.  The touch pad drove me crazy until I discovered a little keyboard that can be attached to the iPad making it a mini-computer-like experience. I still have to point at the screen when I make a mistake which is annoying.   I find myself pointing to the monitor attached to my desk-top computer at school trying to get it to do something until I remember to use the mouse.  Such is the new technology.  At least I'm back to the page!
Writing is like an old friend.  I've missed it and it feels good to be back.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Cuckoo's Nest

If a house breathes with the life of its inhabitants then mine just exhaled.  The occupation is over.  My exile has come to an end.

For six months, my house was rented to a woman whose pent up nesting urges filled my home with so much stuff that not a single surface was visible in any room of the house.
She invaded my cupboards, cabinets, and closets and co-mingled our belongings into a jumble of treasure and junk that looked like a packrat's paradise. Christmas decorations, religious shrines, seashells, and candles everywhere.  An air of lunacy and woo woo hung throughout the house. She violated boundaries that any reasonable short term renter would find irrational.  She replaced shelves of my books with her own. She moved or  re- hung pictures and artwork on the walls,  moved furniture into the garage, and lined the threshold of the front door with dead flowers.

In the front of our house, red, white, and blue bunting hung from the windows along with a Christmas flag. The yard was cluttered with angels, a gazing ball, and sea glass. Holiday confusion in the month of April. The neighbors were happy to see us.

I might have found within me the slightest bit of compassion had it not been for the fact that she had so violated my privacy.  Now I realize that renting a house furnished leaves one vulnerable and I should have locked away every personal belonging - lesson learned. However, I had rented the house for months without incident. When I confronted her she responded quite matter of factly,
"I told you I was a decorator."
Silly me.
So this gave her the license to pull out my personal possessions and re-purpose them in unimaginable ways? In her mind it did.

It was both fascinating and disturbing - like looking into one of those warped mirrors in the fun house.
A wacky way of seeing the world.

It was my housekeeper, though, who said it best in a text message to me:
"Your house need you."

I realized it really wasn't the things that bothered me. It was her presumption and invasion of my space that got to me. When I suggested I go through the house to separate my things from hers so as not to have my things unintentionally packed up with hers when she moved out, she said she did not want her house dismantled.

Her house?
She, who had already dismantled my house?

Wars are fought over territory.  These were fighting words and any shred of compassion on my part went out the  bunting-draped window.  I had reached my limit. I was at the end of my patience.

All of a sudden, the crystal heart given to me by a friend, that had been carried from the dining room side-board drawer up the stairs to the back of the house and placed in the little marble box from a bookshelf in the office and then moved into the back bedroom to be displayed on a dresser with her rosary beads became a symbol for the whole mess.
She had touched, searched, foraged, and moved nearly every single item in my house and it flat out made me mad.
She had to go.
And I needed to come home.

All's well that ends well.  I have reclaimed my house and my table tops.  My rooms have been put back in order. The bunting is down and probably won't see the light of day for another year.  The neighbors have seen enough of it.
As for the crystal heart -
it will always be a  reminder that
Home is where the heart is!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Poetry and Passion Keep Him Young

To All of My Devoted Readers -

This link will take you to an LA Times feature story on one of my beloved writing "students"  85-year-old poet, Jim Haddad, whose other passions are his wife of over 60 years and a Japanese garden in Pasadena.  I will be following up with a post on this prolific memoirist and poet at a later time.  For now, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Jim Haddad and his remarkable garden.  Note there is an open house on April 28th.  It's worth the trip.

Monday, April 1, 2013

My Dramatic Life

Some years ago, my picture appeared on bus shelters throughout the city of Fullerton as part of an advertising campaign for a summer theatre program for a local church. The campaign featured a giant version of my head shot with the caption: Amy - Drama.

A friend called me after driving past one of the bus shelters and said, "Either you are doing something big or you're wanted."
I joked that I'd finally made it on to a marquee.

I've thought about the visual irony of those pictures plastered on bus shelters and how apropos the caption Amy - Drama really was.  Someday, perhaps, it will be the  title of my memoir!

Through the years I have come to recognize a pattern. The shows I direct often reflect some aspect of my life circumstances. Whether in thematic through lines, dramatic metaphors, subtext, or the lyrics of songs, my shows almost always take on a deeply personal meaning for me.  Perhaps subconsciously, I am drawn to material that resonates.  Perhaps it is simply coincidence. Perhaps, like poetry,  plays and musicals are just open to interpretation.
For example, Into the Woods provided a rich context for the parallel real-life drama I was living as my brother was dying from AIDS in 1994.  Sondheim's lyrics and the show's theme that "Into the woods and through the fear you have to take the journey" seemed written for me.
"No More questions. Please. No more tests. Comes the day you say what for? Please No more. No more riddles. No more jests. No more curses you can't undo left by fathers you never knew. No more quests. No more feelings. Time to shut the door. Just no more."                                  
"Sometimes people leave you - half way through the wood. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good. No one is alone. Truly. No one is alone. People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. Holding to their own. Thinking they're alone. Honor their mistakes. Everybody makes. One another's terrible mistakes. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what's right. You decide what's good. " 

 I have frequently been able to connect the drama of my life with the drama playing out on the stage in front of me. Directing musicals has been an extremely soulful and sometimes healing experience. Like Shakespeare's "mirror up to nature," I am able to see my own life reflected in  my artistic projects, choices, and material. I cannot say these are conscious choices. In fact I see the reflection only after I am well into the process. Once again this has happened with my most recent production.

Right now I am directing Beauty and the Beast. As I sit and listen to the character of Belle sing songs with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice about her journey that takes her away from her home, I can't help but be startled by how closely her sentiments express my own.
"Is this home? Am I here for a day or forever? What I'd give to return to the life that I knew lately... My heart's far,  far away. Home is too."
Belle's separation from home teaches her important life lessons.
One of the things that has changed in me since this period of exile began is my need to plan and to have  loose ends neatly tied up.  It has changed my very approach to life.  Essentially the need to plan is a need for control.  I have come to understand that the illusion of control offers a false sense of security about the future.  Instead, I've had to work on trust and faith - believing that it will all work out as it is meant to. 
"There's been a change in me.  A kind of moving on.  Though what I used to be, I still depend upon. For now I realize that good can come from bad. That may not make me wise but oh it makes me glad. And I never thought I'd leave behind my childhood dreams but I don't mind. I'm where and who I want to be. No change of heart a change in me."
Art imitates imitates art...and so it goes. This is one of the great gifts that comes from working in the theatre.
Shakespeare was right. "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players."
And so the innocent caption on the bus shelter summed it up. Amy-Drama.
On with the play....

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Musical Memories

Whenever My Fair Lady plays on my stereo (or now on my ipod) I am always taken back to being six-years- old and going to see the movie version of the Lerner and Loewe musical with my father.  He took me because I was infuriated that Audrey Hepburn had beaten Julie Andrews out for the Academy Award that year. I could not imagine how Eliza Doolittle could possibly have been better than Mary Poppins!  Daddy took me to the movie because he wanted me to see what was so special about My Fair Lady. 

 I had seen Mary Poppins for my 6th birthday. It was a memorable birthday all round. After attending Mary Poppins,  I came down with a case of lice - much to my mother's horror.  I remember sitting in the living room of our home, Mother picking through my hair with some ghastly medicine burning my scalp - the both of us crying all the while.  But I digress.

I recall sitting transfixed through My Fair Lady and can say that it was quite possibly the moment I fell in love with musical theatre.  I remember bounding through the front door of our house on Resh Place and reciting Henry Higgins' famous "Damn, damn, damn, damn" to my mother and not getting in trouble for cursing -  "I've grown accustomed to her face..." what a line! What a moment.  My heart was utterly captured and the course of my life was set.

The role of Eliza eluded me as a performer, but I still have every word of the score memorized as if I'd played her. In fact, it will always be the role that got away.

Funny how those roles stay with us.  Last night I saw the movie Quartet.  It is a charming film about a group of aging singers and musicians who live together in a retirement home for musicians in England. As I sat in the audience, I couldn't help thinking of how I'd fallen in love with  My Fair Lady at six  and   how I was sitting in another movie theatre forty-seven years later, gray and vocally out of shape, watching these grand thespians, opera singers, and musicians still clinging to their favorite roles,  reciting the number of curtain calls they'd taken. Roles that last a life time.

It is touching and life affirming.  I fell in love with the theatre all over again. The passion, the eccentricity, the ego, the pride, and the poignancy of the  inevitable passage of time reflected in dressing room mirrors and shaky soprano voices.
I adore the bigness of personality and the joy that comes from a line, verse, or chorus belted out by a group of performers gathered around a piano.

To this day, I hear the swelling of those strings at the end of "I Could Have Danced All Night,"  and my heart soars, my throat tightens and my eyes brim  with tears. Sitting in that movie theatre last night, watching Quartet,  I was grateful that Daddy had taken me to see My Fair Lady when I was six- years -old.  

 I am grateful that I have spent my life loving musical theatre.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Amour Up Close and Personal

I recently saw the film, Amour directed by Michael Haneke. This exquisitely crafted, unsentimental, and honest look at caregiving and the end of life made me nod my head more than it made me wipe a tear. In fact, I didn't shed one.  I found myself more often thinking, "Yes, that's right. That's the way it is." I would upon occasion grimace at a scene remembering my own experience as a caregiver. The story of Amour is direct and accurate. Hearing the character Anne's cry from the shower "hurts" made me shudder recalling standing outside of my mother's door hearing her cry out "cold"  as the nurse struggled with nozzle in hand.  Watching the nurse give the character Georges, instructions on turning and sheet pulling brought me back to my brother's bedside as he lay helpless, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the love of family.
The serious and at times empty look in the  husband's eyes - whose days had become about diapers and feedings - eyes behind which conflicted, unimaginable thoughts dwell in hopeless resignation.  "Yes," I nodded. Those were my eyes. My thoughts.

The pacing of the spoon to the mouth. The slow, labored swallow. The boredom of the fixation on how many spoonfuls went down. The fumbled aim. The tight lips refusing another bite. The impatient jamming of just one more. "Yes," I nodded. I, too, pushed the spoon just that way and felt the frustration of the turned head and the terror of the anger that bubbled up within me.   Complete control and complete lack of control collide in those tiny moments bringing life into focus in a frame so small it is no wonder it was so readily captured in the film, Amour.  At the bedside, life becomes a series of close ups.

The tenderness, the humility, the dependence, the humanity, the exhaustion, the struggle - it is all there to see - raw and true through the camera's lens and in the hands of a masterful, courageous storyteller.
The bedside is its own world.  It can be a lonely place.

 Even the cruelty of indifference and the insensitivity of a callous caregiver is captured. I recalled my own vigilance and authority as I monitored the actions of hired help.  The bed must be supervised, dignity protected, and personhood preserved no matter how diminished it may appear. Caring for the dying is not a job.  It is a calling.  And not all are called to do the job.

Upon occasion, the window opens allowing mystery and mysticism to bring a renewed sense of awe when the meaning of life and the journey to death all seem sacred  and where birds lead the way to a crematorium or bring a message of comfort. Yes, that too, I experienced. Again, I nodded.  This is a film for anyone who has been there.  This is a film that will open the eyes of anyone who hasn't.
It is not a good time.
It is a good film.

 I emerged from the theatre, dry eyed, somber, and grateful.  While the bedside has brought me to my knees in anguish it has also taught me the greatest lessons in life.  We don't talk about it over dinner or polite conversation but my experience with death has made me the person I am today.  To understand me is to understand that I have pulled the dentures out of my mother's mouth to brush them and have wiped my brother's bottom and held both of their hands as they drew their last breath.  This is not a badge of honor. This is life in close up.  I am grateful to have been able to identify with this film so personally. It reminded me of where I have been. It reminded me that we are much stronger than we ever imagine ourselves to be.  It reminded me of the hospice workers who face this story every day.
It reminded me that at the end of life, compassion, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, patience, humility, and gratitude are essential compass points.

 But the one true guide is amour.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Did You Hear the People Sing? Another Critique of Les Miserables the Movie

What choice do I have?  Everyone's a critic, right? So can you blame me for weighing in on the most anticipated movie event of the season?  Especially when the movie is a musical? The  musical I just directed last spring? Indulge me.

The movie version of Les Miserables is a cinematic masterpiece. Director Tom Hooper gives the viewer the panoramic scope of revolution and the close up brutality of its effects on Victor Hugo's iconic characters.  The movie drags you along through the dank, dreary, and desperate time through streets, sewers, and along the Seine with tight frames and sweeping cinematic shots. Les Miserables the movie does what a movie can and should do as a visual medium. Naturalism and realism are expected in film and Hooper delivers.

Which is why Les Miserables the cinematic masterpiece made me appreciate Les Miserables the theatrical masterpiece even more.

There have been other non-musical movie versions of Les Miserables, the most notable being the one with Liam Neeson as Valjean.  Hugo's story is epic and requires epic  story-telling one way or the other.  It's a great story.

What makes Les Mis the musical singular in the history of musical  theatre is its score! Boublil and Schoenberg wrote and composed a score as powerful and soaring as the story. It is in the best sense, an opera.   Schoenberg's music serves the story note by note, measure by measure from crescendo to crescendo - from recitative to soaring ballad - forte to pianissimo - the music is what makes the musical.

And the music is what was missing in the movie.  Oh sure it was there - kind of.  Boublil and Schoenberg both are credited as part of the screen writing team.  Somehow, in the mix, Boublil  forgot about his partner. In a musical that makes my insides explode with emotion with the thunderous and brilliantly woven  four- part barricade sequence, I was caught up in the realistic slaughter of idealistic students without the accompanying musical underscore.  It was there, buried beneath the rubble - barely audible most of the time.  There were selected moments when the music did what it is capable of doing - the heart breaking strings swelling  as we take in the deadly toll of the battle but the music was secondary to the visually graphic cinematography.

Don't get me wrong - I know that movies are a visual genre.  But oh how I missed Fantine's powerful belt in I Dreamed a Dream and the stillness of Valjean's Bring Him Home. Taking nothing away from Ann Hathaway's cheek bones, which we saw aplenty - or Hugh Jackman's mop of curly hair that barely grayed over the decades - both of whose performances I thought were credible with an abundance of tears in close ups that made the songs intimate at best and unmoving at worst...and so let's talk about Russell Crowe.
What were they thinking? Two of the best songs in the musical reduced to a semi-spoken, choked performance by a non-singer is perhaps the most grievous offense of all to the score.

In terms of storytelling, I thought the placement of I Dreamed a Dream was a startlingly good choice and the addition of the song Suddenly that Valjean sings about Cosette helped fill out a weak plot point in the musical.
Master of the House lost its charm although it had more than capable performances by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers.  Directorially, the much needed comic relief descended into the dark abyss with the rest of the story.

They might have shaved thirty minutes off the movie had they simply picked up the tempos which were at times dirge-like serving the close up naturalistic approach to the songs.
This worked best as Marius (Eddie Redmayne) sang Empty Chairs at Empty Tables - though "the grief that can't be spoken"was there in abundance as the tears poured down the young man's face. His voice still soared where it needed to. Hooper left most of the Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius songs alone and that was a good choice.
But what happened to Eponine (Samantha Barks)? Somehow, her character felt diminished - albeit rain drenched for A Little Fall of Rain - she disappeared at the end - a love story lost in the shadows.

So what does this all prove?  As a theatre director and advocate, it reminded me that plays and movies are completely different genres. The theatre by its very nature is larger than life and an epic story like Les Mis can be told simply, representationally, and effectively with the creative expanse that can happen only on the stage and in the imagination of the audience.

And a great score like Les Miserables should be sung.