Crenelated Time

In the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on the events of my recent trip to Italy. There I stayed with friends I’ve known for almost forty years. In both cases- my visit to Umbria and that to Venice, it felt as though we were picking up where we left off, and yet, we’ve all had full and rich lives between meetings.

This week, out of the blue, I got hired to do a reading, a wonderful project with interesting people, from referrals by friends from completely different segments of my life. And so, (I have to laugh because it’s so Mrs. Malaprop of me) I started thinking of the image of time as crenelated.

I laugh because what I really was thinking about was the way an accordion fan is folded, which isn’t at all what crenelate means. Crenelate means to furnish with crenels, or battlements to a wall, to fortify it. Which, ironically, could also be a little accurate in this recovery time. I’m coming up on nine months since the loss of my husband, and while things are slightly less raw, I am startled occasionally at the depth and pitch of the forgive the metaphor, crenels of grief.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful weekend in Carlsbad with my son and his wife and their beautiful daughters. Saturday, I’d made a dinner reservation for an Italian restaurant and found it on the map about twenty minutes away. We started off for a brisk walk along the beach wall overlooking the beach, arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was the wrong restaurant (there was another one with the same name two blocks from our hotel.) Hangry and more than a little annoyed, we walked back and stopped at another restaurant halfway between the two, where we had quite a nice dinner. My food came last, so I was holding the baby while her parents ate, and I gazed out the window of the restaurant at a couple who were standing still, arms around each others’ waists, watching the sun as it sank into the Pacific. They looked intently at the sun dipping into the water, then equally intently and fondly at each other. That’s all it took. I completely lost it. Tears quietly cascaded down my cheeks. I tried to hide it but with my hands full of baby, I wasn’t able to wipe them away.

My daughter-in-law said, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I blubbered. “I’m fine. Just snuck up on me.”

I proceeded to try to explain the loss of one’s other, the feeling of yearning to share life’s simplest moments, in direct contrast with intractable solitude one faces with the loss of one’s life partner. It didn’t go well, particularly because she’d been quite moved that I was so emotional about holding their darling baby. Which was part of it, I want to assure her.

But back to this feeling about time and the connection between quite disparate points in my life, and how they have remained joined to others on the same continuum. The metronome of friendship tick-tocking up to tap you from behind. I’m moved by it.

Earlier this week I came home from work and went down to swim a little in the pool at our condo. Only a year ago, my husband would have come with me, rolling his scooter with aplomb to a shady corner of the pool, where he would have watched me swim, or dozed off in the late afternoon. We might have brought crackers and cheese and some sparkling water down, and after emerging from my minimal pool laps, I would have sat and joined him in companionable silence, munching our crackers and enjoying the diminishing sun that warmed the chaises on the north side of the pool before it slipped down behind a nearby building.

I pulled my head up out of the water and looked quickly to his corner, deliriously expecting him to be there, just as I had earlier in the week as I stretched on the floor of our apartment, looking up to his picture on the table.

Damnit. You’re not coming back, are you?

No, he’s not. Anger, worry, hollowness, impatience, weariness, wallowing self-pity are some of the feelings a person in grief slogs through every day. But as time passes, it’s not always terrible. There are also moments of hope, optimism, gratitude, self-discovery, pride of accomplishment, and even some joy, too. Those are the feelings I try to steer myself toward. I’ve always been a “there must be a pony here somewhere” type of person, and now is no exception.

I’m so grateful to my friends and colleagues for their support now. I’ve learned the power of making plans to look forward to, to experience, then look back on and enjoy remembering the events of those times you’ve planned. I guess that’s what makes a good life, you could say. Even if time isn’t actually crenelated at all.

Orvieto, I think…

Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

An American living in our times would be forgiven for diverting their gaze from narcissism as an odious and rampant practice of the higher reaches of our society. I remember one of my husband’s favorite stories was from when he’d shot the film Doc in Almeria, Spain back in 1971. He’d been on location for several weeks, and after recounting seeing someone kick a dog in the street, was told “It starts at the top with Franco.”

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat the Spaniards on this one. So clear is the directive sent from the upper reaches of our government that the expected trickle down effect has infiltrated every corner of our society, Ponzi schemes, to #MeToo to the latest scandal in college admissions. All are fundamentally based in the tenet that my needs/truth/reality overrides yours or anyone else’s.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes narcissism is healthy if exercised in a confined timeframe. I can’t yet tell you the acceptable outer boundaries of healthy narcissism, because I haven’t yet navigated them, but some examples are:

  • Around the birth of one’s child
  • Around the care of loved ones
  • Around the death of one’s partner

There may be other examples of appropriately prescriptive narcissism. My direct observations have to do with all three bullet points above. Not sure what our Franco-equivalent in the White House would say are the rationalizations for his extreme narcissism, but I’m pretty sure they are none of the above. But then, as a (hopefully temporary) narcissist, no one’s pain is worse than mine, right?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 24th Street Theatre, here in South Los Angeles. Running through May 19th, based on the young adult book by Kate DiCamillo, the play recounts the travails of a uniquely fashioned charmingly narcissistic china rabbit. Edward’s miraculous journey unfolds through his travels and travails, and his awakening from narcissist to empathetic being, able to learn to love again after his own loss. The 24th Street Theatre does consistently beautiful work with minimal and very theatrical elements, and again, here they don’t disappoint.

Director Debbie Devine has guided her cast of four, accompanied on a piano throughout by Bradley Brough through the intricacies of this rabbit’s tale (sorry, couldn’t resist). Funny, moving, tear jerking and ultimately satisfying, the afternoon unfolded with a welcoming curtain speech by Co-Artistic Director Jay McAdams, contextualizing this theatre’s imprimatur on the play (first production utilizing spanish supertitles, created for the production, as well as the consciously simple aesthetic which the theatre embraces). From the moment I entered the lobby of the theatre, I found my visit one of inclusion. Awkward in my singleness these days, I’m challenged in going out to see something on my own, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It was opening weekend of the play, and the lobby was filled with 24th Street Theatre family members, board members, critics, adults, children, neighborhood folks. The step and repeat with a stool and two bunches of carrots was heavily utilized. I enjoyed seeing families posing with the carrots and huge smiles on their faces.

(I’m sorry, Jay and Debbie, issuing a spoiler alert.) If you are in the LA area, please come see this play. If you aren’t, you can benefit from a reading of this magical book.

Like Edward, I’ve been going through my own miraculous journey since my husband’s death in November. In the early phases of his rabbit destiny, Edward is cocooned in the loving embrace of his young girl owner Abilene Tulane. He wants for nothing, so embraced and supported is he. A bunny of privilege, his clothing is stylish, his position in the household secure. Then comes his loss, from which it appears he may never recover. His life pretty much goes to hell. I recognize, wear these phases of bunny privilege, then loss. The life going to hell part is less applicable, unless you describe sessions of unprovoked tears, increased impatience with things and people and a general weariness and disinterest in participating as hell. I don’t afford myself that luxury. I know that it is a process, and as hard processes go, they are not hell. They are opportunities for growth and improvement and learning.

The tears, weariness and disinterest describe the immediate aftermath of a loss, even if you are lucky as I have been, to have the consistent support of family and friends. Eventually, after the public grief cycle has “ended,” after the memorial, the funeral, the life celebration, the next phase begins. It is one of solitude with a lot of acting involved. To sustain the Edward Tulane metaphor, this might be construed as the “scarecrow” phase. Utilized as a deterrent to others, surrounded by shiny objects, the grieving widow/er is still out there in the field, showing themselves to be fierce, smiling, but feeling emotionally empty and suspended. This might be why I chose to purchase the bracelets and distribute them to my grieving friends. Upon receipt, their thank yous were heart-felt, but also tinged with a recognizable sadness and fraught with questions I don’t have the answers for.

How do you keep f&*king going?

I can keep f&*king going, but why should I?

And for me, the moment one night 34 years into my sobriety, five months into my solitude, this week, I stood in front of my cabinet in the kitchen and looked at a corked bottle of red wine left over from one of my recent visits by friends, thinking to myself, “well, no one would even know if I had a glass of red wine right now.” I promptly uncorked the bottle and poured the remaining wine down the sink. It really scared me.

The one reassuring element of this scarecrow phase is that I find myself surrounded by other scarecrows. I’m not alone in the field. Nor are any of us. I want you to hear that.

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

I’m reminded of that every day, yesterday in the hallway in the DRC as I greeted a colleague who has been on leave for several months. We clung to each other sobbing amidst the coming and going of our colleagues. In her I recognized her challenges and loss; in me, she recognized my loss and challenges.

If you were to read my bed-side table stack now, you’d be worried but really, I’m in a research phase, to prepare me for the work ahead. Because of my loss, my bunny tale, if you will, people have been reaching out for support during their own challenges. I want to say when they do, “I don’t know any more about this than you do!” And I’m certainly not an authority on caregiving, death, or anything related to human loss. And yet, I do have the capacity to listen and hear and try to help. In my own limited scarecrow capacity. As do you. And certainly my friends do.

Emotional Check in this morning with my Pals via Skype – three different time zones. So sustaining.

From now through May 19th, if you live in Los Angeles, you can and should see The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 23rd Street Theatre. It will help you in your recovery. Aren’t we all in recovery from Narcissism?

Getting Into College without the Strings and Tutorial 2.0

There are things that are predictable in the cycle of a university year, which is distinctly seasonal. In the late fall, High School seniors create their applications, visit the campus to see a production, determine whether they will throw their hat in the ring. Months pass, and with the advent of spring, the acceptance and rejection letters go out.

Today at the Open House, I had the privilege of meeting many prospective students, who have been accepted to USC School of Dramatic Arts where I work as Head of Production. They visited the campus to participate in workshops in acting and production, and to meet the faculty they may study with over the next four years. As I looked around the room this morning at my colleagues on the Production/Design Faculty, and at the freshly scrubbed faces of stage managers, technical directors, and scenic designers, I flashed on the hours of collaborative work we’ve engaged in this year with our current students. How quickly we traverse the distance from this pre-matriculation meeting to the next workshop I hosted, the portfolio presentations by the designers of the Spring Musical, all seniors this year. The years fly by.

Those of us who are involved even peripherally in college admissions these days are sensitive – one could say feeling bruised by the admissions scandal. As the miscreants parade across our news feeds, those of us who go through the sincere process of reviewing, assessing, encouraging applicants to our programs feel like we’ve been sucker punched. We forge ahead because we know the rewards at the end of the rainbow.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about the big tacky admissions scandal is the lack of faith in their children these parents demonstrated. It’s clear that not everyone is cut out for college or needs it to succeed. My son eschewed the college experience. When I began working at USC, he was fourteen, and I had high hopes of taking advantage of the tuition remission. While I was initially heartbroken that he wouldn’t follow in my footsteps by going to college, I knew that the route he’d chosen would be hard but that he’d be okay. He worked for several years as a commercial fisherman. The only strings I was able to pull there were asking my brother to help him get work in that field. He embraced the work. I was humbled by his commitment and hard work and what he learned during those years of backbreaking work.

The parents today at lunch bemoaned the entire process of the admissions process. How much more complicated the process seems than when I’d gone through it! I applied to two colleges, one early admissions, and one back up school. How different my life might have been had I ended up there. It’s not unusual for our current students to have applied to more than a dozen colleges, made multiple college visits with their beleaguered parents, who want the best for them.

We have some extraordinary senior designers and stage managers and technical directors who are exiting our programs with their degrees in about a month. They are scenic designers, sound designers, lighting and projection designers, stage managers, costume designers, and budding production managers/TDs, a self-proclaimed costume designer and sewist.

Listening to them recount their design and stage manager processes to the incoming students today made me feel as proud as the parents who’d accompanied our guests to campus today. These students have worked hard to earn their degrees and build professional portfolios. Through their diligence they have also assumed the roles of ambassadors to our next freshman production/design cohort.

USC School of Dramatic Arts performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Mar. 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)

Recently when I posted the picture of the bracelet I bought to keep f***ing going, Chris reminded me of my “warm and fuzzy” response to him when he called me once during his fishing days.

13 stitches in my leg, in the middle of the ocean complaining about shushing 2 tons of ice to you (to which you said) “You’re either a winner or a whiner? Which one are you?”

We hung up shortly after and I didn’t go to bed until the job was done.

While there was a time when we lost a lot of sleep about how our son would turn out and considered concerted intervention in the trajectory of his life, I no longer worry about the choices he makes. He’s the head coach of a prestigious elite hockey prep team and demonstrates daily to his players about the importance of life choices and the skills and practice they continue to refine under his and his colleagues coaching. He utilizes discoveries he’s made finding his path as a powerful teaching tool. Just as our college designers do. Strengthening their practice through self-examination, sometime failure and recovery and building collaborative relationships.

As I make my way in this new single life I’ve been thinking a lot about the closed circle that is a marriage. Often to the withering of long standing friendships. Add to that working in the theatre where the hours are already a severe deterrent to having a social life. Married couples tend to socialize with other married couples who are similarly distanced by their own bubbles of connubial bliss. What happens when a marriage ends, either through divorce, or the death of one’s partner? How do you re-enter the world? Re-activate relationships that were important to you? How do those people respond to your attempts to re-activate? Is this a healthy exercise? Too nostalgic? Should one be looking forward to forming new relationships instead? Is it fair to expect that people will be willing to re-activate long dormant relationships?

These are some of the topics I’m considering. They coincide with my increasing nausea about social media. This week I’m convinced it’s a matter of days before I unplug. I’ve already removed the book of Face from my phone as an initial step.

Then, there’s the Tutorial reboot.

I had what I thought was the brilliant idea to reach out to reconnect with a group of my high school friends, who shared a very special moment in time and mentorship with our Theatre Professor from 1977 – more than forty years ago. We called them our Tutorials, weekly gatherings where we sipped our tea, listened to the radio and talked about the problems of the world before trundling off to chapel.

Utilizing the old fashioned medium of email, some internet sleuthing and the promise of revisiting a special and formative time in our young lives, I invited the group to have a zoom tutorial. Scheduling this online group chat was one of the more challenging scheduling problems I’ve tackled (even as a life-long stage manager). All was set for tomorrow morning at 6:10AM PDT, 9:10AM EST when the participants started dropping like flies. The excuses were among the more creative ones I’ve ever encountered.

The yoga class that I teach with incarcerated men has been changed to Sunday morning.

And I’m thinking I can’t even bend at the waist any more….

I’ll be in the Louvre at the time of our call and will try to make it work.

Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa to prove this outrageous claim?

I’ll be in Sydney and it will be 11:10PM and I may need to get to sleep.

For crying out loud! We have four time zones to coordinate here.

Clearly these are interesting and worthwhile connections to resuscitate; it may take olympic level scheduling skills work out the next chat. That and the willingness of the others to re-boot these friendships.

Hats and Passports and Moving On

On Monday, my son and his wife ushered a beautiful second daughter into the world, a process comparable in many ways, he noted, to helping his father/my husband out of life last November. Sitting bedside, hearing the breathing patterns, feeding encouragement, at one end breath expunged, followed by a terrible stillness and the onset of grief; at the other, an energetic intake of breath, a hearty kicking cry of life followed by rejoicing. Both amazing and frightening and life altering experiences for the privileged witness participants.

I wasn’t able to be there for the in-person rejoicing, as we’re in the full press of tech for two spring productions at USC. Someone, however, took a photo of Chris, holding the newly arrived baby, swaddled in her iconic blue and pink baby blanket, eyes closed. In the photo, Chris looks at the camera. Over his left shoulder on the sill of the hospital window sits his Dad’s blue Boston Red Sox baseball cap. In his eyes, the warmth of a life remembered and one anticipated.

Chris had brought his Dad along for the birth. Three years ago, Jimmie and I’d arrived from the airport about an hour after their first daughter was born. We’d all sat on that same purple couch, marveling at her perfection and the miracle of new life, then watched as she had her first bath.

Early days of Granddaughter 1’s life with Grandpa Jimmie.

Last weekend, we had tech rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Bing Theatre, and Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody in the Scene Dock Theatre. Spring beckoned from outside, beautiful lush flowering bushes surrounding the Technical Theatre Lab. Periodically, I would roust myself from the hip-wrenching theatre chairs to walk the exterior perimeter of the lab, beginning appropriately on Bloom Walk, savoring the sunlight on my head, and watching the hummingbirds dart through the blue and pink flowers. Very restorative.

Last night, I sat and watched the second dress rehearsal of Sunday in the Park with George, house left in the Bing, our 551 seat proscenium theatre. It felt good to sit down because it had been a day. I came in and tossed down my backpack, falling into the comfort of the seat.

I’d started the day assisting the new Campus Emergency Response Team in their final training exercise, playing a victim in the Search and Rescue drill. There were nine of us, all but one of us CERT members from previous trainings: staff, faculty, even a local untethered middle schooler. We arrived at 7:30AM to get made up, bloodied, ready to play our roles and ready to do some serious schmacting, the kind of overwrought performances only non-actors can give. I eschewed facial blood because I had to run from the drill to film the welcome greetings for our incoming class of Production/Design students. I figured seeing the Head of Production bloodied or just looking dirty might not be a good message of welcome for them. Good call?

I’d been feeling particularly sad that I wasn’t at the birth of my second granddaughter the day before, so during the drill, I adopted two rescued CPR baby dolls with enthusiasm and purpose. Another participant, Michael, from the USC Hotel, embraced them, too, so while I came into the drill a widow, within a few hours, had two babies and a husband. Pretty quick work, my fellow victims laughed. I’m sure there is some embarrassing video and stills out there of our schmacting. Stay tuned.

Chris and I texted throughout the day, first in the morning, about his eldest daughter’s dour demeanor at breakfast. She had some particularly colorful words for her other Nana as she gruffly eschewed toast. I took the opportunity of being surrounded by the zombie apocalypse to film a little PSA instructing her to eat her toast, and what might happen if she didn’t, but Chris hadn’t shared it with her. She was busy coloring.

As I watched the start of Sondheim’s masterful treatment of art and love last night at the second dress, I thought of Jimmie, not just because Chris had texted me moving messages about the power of helping loved ones across the border from life to death and from birth to life, but because the actor playing George was wearing Jimmie’s straw hat. We’d found the hat on one of our vacations to Cape Cod, a straw panama hat with a black ribbon around the outside, with the prophetic brand “Sunday Afternoon” inside the sweat brim. I’d brought the hat in earlier this year, rescuing it from its ignominious resting place in a wooden magazine holder at home, hoping that the hat (and Jimmie) might have another go on stage, and sure enough, the costume designer designated it the place of honor. I watched the hat come to life again as George sketched studies of the characters on the banks of the river for his seminal work of Act I, Un Dimanche Apres midi a L’Ille de La Grande Jatte.

L. to R. Tyler Joseph Ellis (George), Luke Matthew Simon (Boatman), Liz Buzbee (Dot), Diego Dela Rosa(Baker), Shelby Corley (Nurse), Piper Kingston (Old Lady). Scenic Design by Mallory Gabbard, Lighting by Pablo Santiago-Brandwein, Costume Design by Edina Hiser, Projections by Derek Christiansen, Sound Design by Dom Torquato

Sondheim’s Act II meeting of 19th Century Dot with 20th Century George had me sobbing. Sometimes the confluence of art and love and life and events of life feels almost too strong to bear. But it wasn’t until after the dress rehearsal ended that I realized I’d been sitting in “Jimmie’s chair” all night. 551 seats in the Bing, and I’d plopped down my backpack in pure exhaustion settling into his seat to watch the rehearsal. Who says our loved ones are gone when they are gone?

Sheathed in it’s sleek red white and blue certified envelope, my new passport arrived earlier this week. I could barely wait to open it when I got home, backpack still on my back, ripping the top of the envelope to extract the smooth, navy booklet emblazoned with the gold eagle, turning quickly to the glossy photo page to see what this world traveler looked like.

Note to self: don’t take the photo immediately after a haircut lest you look like a newly shorn Maltipoo. While cute, remember that this image will follow you on your travels for ten years. But then, we’ve previously acknowledged my history of poor pre-Passport acquisition hairstyles. A few days later, the old passport arrived, retired by virtue of its expired date, and more evidently by its hole-pierced cover, now a testament of travel gone by, an archive of trips untaken.

The new passport, a beckoning scorecard for future adventures, a challenge to stretch from the safe commute of home to work to home. What if work can span the globe as it does for grandson George?

I’m sporting a new piece of jewelry acquired this week as well. Not quite the same message as Stephen Sondheim’s inspiring Act II number, but this, for the moment, is my new mantra. I’ve bought a dozen of these for dissemination to my “widow’s club.” Because while it’s not a club one willingly seeks membership in, it’s sure nice to have the support of others on the same journey.

Please join us this weekend and next at USC School of Dramatic Arts to see what our two current productions promise in the way of emotional border-crossing. Hope to see you there!

Between the Bubble Machine and the Sobbing

The other morning I dashed from the gym to my eye doctor’s office to pick up my new glasses, you remember, the Gwen Stefani frames? This pickup happened to coincide with the arrival the night before of some new togs I’d ordered on sale at Macy’s. As I drove home in the gestating traffic from Burbank to DTLA at about 9:00AM, I pictured my stylish new self cutting quite the swath through the morning air as I strode into my office.

I arrived home, pretty rank by this time, having gone sweaty into the car in my down jacket. Due to the atypical inclement weather in L.A., I’ve had it on for almost three weeks without respite or laundering. Ew, you’re saying. Peeling off the offending jacket, I greeted my cleaning lady, who was off in the bedroom busily stripping the bed of it’s sheets. As I called her name, I saw her coming toward me, face splotchy, guiltily swiping the tears from her cheeks. We embraced; I tried to console her, she tried to recover, but we both knew I’d caught her grieving. And me, temporarily dry-eyed, looking toward my day clad in my new persona, the classic “growth vs. grieving” moment.

I went off to work and I guess the glasses were a lot more stylish in my mind than they are in person – no one noticed them. Granted, the decor is on the inside of the frames, with only a glint of red visible at the temples.

Do you like my Gwen Stefani glasses?

To which the universal response was ‘meh.’

Wednesday, I attended a Visions and Voices event, Enchanting Aging: Inspiring Awe and Meaning in Late Life. Writer and MacArthur Award honoree, Anne Basting, came to share her research about the intersection of health care and culture in an appropriately fashioned joint event between the School of Dramatic Arts and Gerontology. She began her lecture by defining Awe and Wonder, and asking us all to turn on our cell phones and text someone the following question:

What gives you a feeling of awe and wonder?

She instructed us to text the question to someone we knew well and then mute our phones. She promised that later we’d be able to share the responses.

Predictably, Chris’ response was not “a walk in the woods or the snow carpeting the woods” but merely, “What?” And then a rude quip about something completely unrelated to awe or wonder followed by a smiley emoticon, tears pouring down its face. What can I say? Maybe we didn’t raise an awe-er, but he does have a fair amount of wonder-ing going on most of the time. And a great sense of humor.

Dr. Basting’s recounted her work (her website is www.timeslips.org) in an illustrated presentation, the bold splashes of colorful humanity on Gerontology’s fancy LED display. She brings the rigor of her scientific exploration into fierce and joyous communion with her artistic practice, much of it with the Sojourn Theatre Company. There were more than a few moments of awe and wonder experienced by Wednesday’s audience. She asks compelling questions: How can we deepen the cultural and human experience of people in long term care (both residents and providers) by creating collaborative and creative spaces to share that humanity? It can be done, and the results are inspiring.

Her talk described how awe can minimize our egos and wonder can maximize our search for meaning. She had a dandy diagram which I unfortunately didn’t capture to illustrate this. I bought both her books and look forward to learning more.

One of the stories she shared grabbed my attention. She detailed a pre-production walk-through of one of the nursing homes with the director and production designer for their upcoming production of the I Won’t Grow Up project in three care facilities in Kentucky. As they walked they indicated where they would place the bubble machine, then came around the corner to discover a couple in their 60’s sobbing in each others arms. Forgive me while I mangle exactly what she said, but what I heard was that in these creative care settings, where we seek to buoy people’s emotions with a shared uplifting experience (metaphorically the bubble machine), we also need to remember and respect the underlying grief and profound loss that also resides here. Don’t all of us reside squarely between the bubble machine and the sobbing?

In the Q & A period following Dr. Basting’s talk, a student behind me raised her hand and shared that she’d recently lost her grandmother. She became emotional, and in the way that we recent grievers tend to do, laughed through her tears and apologized that she “wasn’t over it yet.” Her admission made me tear up more from the obvious expectation she was inadequate in her grieving, the idea that she should be over it. I wanted to reach back and tap her hand and let her know we were with her and didn’t expect that she recover on some societal timeline.

My dear friend Susan sent me the most beautiful and apt poem that I’ve shared with some profligacy already via text message to my Widow(er) Club. Delivered within a Sermon written in 1910 by Henry Scott Holland on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII, it is entitled Death Is Nothing At All.

Death is nothing at all. 
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 
I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!


Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

What the poem gives us permission to do is carry on with the current life, secure in the knowledge that our loved ones are all around us. This is profoundly comforting.

And so I’m bubbling on with my new life. This week was full of contrasts. I shared an intimate dinner at the Pacific Dining Car with Hal Holbrook and his companions, Joyce and Juan. Hal is such a national treasure, such a passionate practitioner of the theatre, and I feel so fortunate to spend time with him, much of which is spent reflecting on the past and our Jimmie.

The next night, I had my first solo dining out experience at Fred 62, a diner on Vermont. Thursday, I’d witnessed the beautiful and collaborative care that Hal cherishes while enjoying a beautiful piece of halibut on a succotash of delicate vegetables. Last night, I felt my own strength and fearlessness in my new solo role while eating a crunchy grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of warm tomato soup. Then I wandered down the street to the Skylight Theatre to see Boni Alvarez’ America Adjacent. The on stage scenario he reveals is not illustrative of any outlined by Dr. Anne Basting, but Boni’s play is a full throated celebration of his heritage, and all of our yearning for the elusive American Dream.

Somewhere between the bubble machine and the sobbing, perhaps we’ll find it.

The Here After/Il Futuro

here·af·terDictionary result for hereafter
/hirˈaftər/
adverbFORMAL

1.
from now on.
“nothing I say hereafter is intended to relate to the second decision”synonyms:
from now on, after this, as of now, from this day on, from this time on, from this moment forth, from this day forth, from this day forward, subsequently, in future, in the future, hence, henceforth, henceforward; formalhereinafter
“nothing I say hereafter is intended to relate to the second decision”
noun
1.
life after death.
“suffering is part of our preparation for the hereafter”synonyms:
life after death, the afterlife, the life to come, the afterworld, the next world, the beyond; 

Shortly after my husband died, being a stage manager, I constructed what I entitled my hereafter list. Hopelessly pragmatic, my hereafter was not thinking about where Jimmie was in the spirit world, but how I could cope with the logistics of my life here, after his death. All the things that I had to do to notify various people and companies of his passing. Pretty much all of them required the death certificate and none of them was a simple one-step process.

Here’s what I mean. I cancelled his subscription to The New Yorker Magazine. As much as I loved the magazine, the arrival of a new issue each week was too much of a commitment, and combined with the daily arrival of two newspapers I was mentally unable to absorb, seemed wasteful and a poor use of resources. Everyone’s, not just mine. The cancellation itself was easy, but the result was a check, which I received about two weeks later, for $23.00 for the remainder of this year’s subscription. Great. However, it was made out to Jimmie. When I took it to the bank to deposit it, of course, I’d removed him from the accounts, so could no longer deposit it in the checking account. You get the picture. Cut to three months later, when I finally had a minute to call the New Yorker back and request a new check in my name, which I should have in…4-6 weeks. Done?

Now, I’m pretty plucky, if I do say so myself, so waiting 4-6 weeks is nothing. Like batting an eye. I know it will pass quickly. But imagine the list of tasks that every remaining spouse/partner faces:

Cancel credit cards, notify insurance company; write and place obituaries, notify doctors, pensions, mortgage company, suspend automatic-refills of medications, plan memorial, rejigger finances, go back to work, remain engaged in the world, redefine yourself in your singularity. It becomes a huge list of stultifying administrative and psychological tasks which can wear down even the pluckiest among us.

I thought about people who in addition to losing their spouse, become single parents charged with the 24-7 care of their children while rocking in the cradle of their own grief. I felt lucky to have a grown child with whom I can share grown grief. Through writing about my own grieving process, I discovered a wonderful blog about just such a father who lost his partner and remains the sole parent to an extraordinary child whose adventures he shares on a daily basis. Not sure how bloggers manage to meet a daily commitment to their readers, but I’m particularly impressed with this writer’s ability to share his circumstances with good humor and grace.

But I digress. Yesterday, I managed to accomplish one of the longer lasting administrative slogs from my hereafter list as well as a new, futuro-directed-this-is-for-you-Els one.

I finalized my divorce from B of A. As you may remember, this is something which I’ve been working on for some time. Well, as the post would indicate, a year ago today. And yesterday, I closed my accounts, canceled my credit card and walked away, feeling completely accomplished. I bought muffins to take to the office to celebrate. I was giddy with freedom as I shredded my debit card and remaining checks, while jamming the sticky sweet “breakfast cake” into my mouth.

The futuro task I accomplished yesterday was the purchase of a round trip ticket to Rome this summer. Yesterday, when the phrase Hereafter planted itself in my brain sometime in the middle of the afternoon, I googled “Hereafter in Italian” and discovered that sensibly, the phrase is “Il Futuro.” No shadowing of spirituality or afterlife, just a solid unwavering gaze into the future. And yet, this trip to Italy is layered with so much more that I relish the opportunity to explore and share. It’s both a look forward, and a peering backward to revisit my youthful strides into adulthood.

Vulnerable Adult

When I see it in writing, and in light of this afternoon’s events, it doesn’t seem nearly as amusing as it did this morning on the WhatsApp chat with my friend Susan, freshly returned to her home in South Africa after what could only be called an appalling return trip.

She had come all the way from Cape Town for my husband’s life celebration. We’d had a wonderful weekend of visiting with family and other friends, and on Monday evening, somewhere between the plane’s arrival at Heathrow and her return to her flat in London, she realized she’d lost her passport. Or it had been pickpocketed. After doing what most of us would do in that situation, freak out, she searched the American Embassy website, found the earliest appointment available, (Friday at 7:45AM). She clearly wouldn’t make the flight to Cape Town scheduled to leave on Wednesday evening.

Susan is one of the most capable women I know, and by the time she had regaled my friend Bob and me with her story, she was well on the way to solving the problem. She described it as a generational problem which a quick call to her father in Florida straightened out.

His phrase “You’re an American” ringing in her ears, she walked into the American Embassy at 8:00AM the next morning, and out at 9:07AM with her replacement passport. Made the flight that evening, and “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Thanks, Dad!

Chuckling, she described herself as what some would call a “Vulnerable Adult” – further defined as the guy who leaves his car doors open, or his front door open, or his car keys in his car with the car doors open. When she used this term, I laughed in recognition.

I didn’t know it was an actual sociological term in the UK. “A person who is 18 years of age or over, and who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness and who is or may be unable to take care of him/herself, or unable to protect him/herself against significant harm or serious exploitation.”

I laughed not because I recognize the description. Lately it describes me (in need of community care) but prior to that, our son. My husband and I raised him. He’s much better now than he was at 18. But I did just have to overnight his car keys to him that had been left in a bag left behind after his Dad’s life celebration last weekend.

First, I went to the UPS store, and as we prepared the package, the clerk looked skeptically at me and asked me a question.

Does this key fob have a lithium battery in it?

Umm, I don’t know.

Then I googled it.

Yes, it does have a lithium battery.

Then we can’t ship it from here. You’ll have to take this to the main UPS office tomorrow so that it can be sent certified mail. It might bring the plane down if it explodes.

What?

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was standing in the main UPS terminal that I realized if Chris hadn’t left the keys in his jacket pocket in the toy bag on the floor of my apartment, he’d have carried them onto the plane with 300 other people carrying lithium batteries in car key fobs in their jacket pockets. After pointing this out to the clerk, I got ridiculously peeved then when she still made a phone call to make sure I could ship the keys. $69.28 later, I left the UPS store, having successfully shipped the overnight package to my vulnerable adult and very much feeling like a vulnerable adult myself.

This afternoon I returned to my apartment between shows, and was walking through the lobby when I ran into one of my neighbors, Marilyn. Marilyn and her husband, Jerry are one of the nicest couples in the building. Jerry, who walked with a pronounced limp, instantly endeared himself to me about ten years ago, when we first moved into the building. Every morning, when I would walk our dog, he would double over and fuss over Lizzie, making her tail wag madly. He and Marilyn were always together – they were poll workers together at every election. She’s an audiologist, and drove what looked like a former police cruiser, and I would frequently see them early in the morning doing a car shuffle because they only had one parking space in the building. I think Jerry’s a teacher.

In fact, today may have been the first time I’d ever seen them apart. At this year’s Christmas party, I had been greeted by the two of them heartily and Marilyn had given me a big, reassuring hug and encouraged Jerry to do so, as well. (You may recall I left that party quickly, after losing it at a kindness uttered by another neighbor.) Now I saw Marilyn walking toward me in the lobby.

You and I have something in common.

I stopped walking, chilled, because I realized instantly what she was saying.

My husband died on Thursday. (two days ago) He was at work and they called me to say he was unconscious. Then they called again to say he was at the morgue.

What is going on in the world right now? I stopped and clung to Marilyn with a ferocity she certainly didn’t want. She wanted to keep moving. Looking over her shoulder, she almost accusingly said,

You threw yourself back into your work, didn’t you?

No, Marilyn, I took some time before going back to work. Please be kind to yourself. Take a little time off before you go back.

But I was talking to her back as she moved quickly toward the garage. I heard her muttering about losing it, needing to get back to work so she wouldn’t lose it. I recognized first hand her abrupt departure, her anxious gait, her restlessness, the vacancy of her missing companion. Reminded me of the forlorn looking pigeon on my porch this afternoon, huddled in the rainy downpour. It may not be technically accurate, but the term vulnerable adult suits many of us right now.

Wedding without the Groom

This week I’m producing a life celebration for my husband. It’s a wedding without the groom. But I know how to do this. I’ve stage managed countless other events, even memorials before.

When you lose your spouse (every time I say that phrase I think back to Lady Bracknell’s line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”) This, in turn, makes me think of Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell which transports me to the pre-Els portion of Jimmie’s life.

(Readers are thinking, How can she have already digressed in the first paragraph? I invite you to peer inside the mind of the recently grieved person. There is no digression too unappealing to explore. In depth.)

When you lose your spouse, precisely at your rawest, most inconsolable moment, well-meaning family and friends ask about whether there will be a funeral. I know that funerals are the norm, but I can’t imagine how people pull them together at that moment. It was only about a month after my husband died that I was able to even imagine how to commemorate his life in a ritual we’ve come to call a “Life Celebration.”

Date. Venue. Guests. Speakers. Outfit. Music. Food. Flowers. Stage Manager. Program. Hotel. Transportation. Video.

This initial list can start the average stage manager panting with anticipation of things to order and to put in order. The list unfurls its own subset of questions that are more or less easy to answer once you’ve established the date, and the venue and have the Production Manager in your communication loop.

But this grieving stage manager had some additional hurdles to overcome. First, there is the sheer entropy of grief, that warm, swaddled state of incredulity; you are actually planning such an important event without the advice and counsel of your best friend. No one to bounce ideas off of, to run things by, to giggle with about what isn’t going to plan.

We pull on experience. Back in December, I began to pull together a guest list, determining that there would be 150 people who might want to come to celebrate Jimmie’s life. By the end of the month, I’d determined the venue, with a capacity of 74. Oops.

This first hiccough added a major need to the main list – web streaming.

So here’s the FB page where the event will be web streamed.

Date: Saturday, January 26, 2019 4PM

Venue: Web-streamed and some live participants

Speakers: There will be speakers!

Music: There will be some music!

Food: There will be some promised-to-be delish food from niece Niki.

Flowers: There will be flowers!

Stage Manager: I’ve hired a former student, Jennifer, to be professional me on the day when I can’t necessarily be counted on to be professional.

Program: There is a beautiful program thanks to my colleague and graphic designer, Chris.

Outfit: I went shopping with my friend and colleague, Tina, an accomplished costume designer. I knew what I wanted – a purple duster to wear over black pants and a gray top (which I already had). We went to Koi in Pasadena, parked in the 20 minute spot in front of the store, went in, bought the purple duster (believe it or not there was one), then retired to a nearby pub for a true English breakfast, complete with sausage and a eggs and a roasted tomato and a pot of tea. Success!

Hotel: Family and friends are starting to arrive today and tomorrow. There will be many opportunities to eat and talk about life and the wonderful man we’ve been so fortunate to spend my life with.

Transportation: Van to take family from hotel to venue. Organized.

Video: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with my great niece-by-marriage, Alisa Bargeski, on a video to celebrate Jimmie’s life and work and family. Putting that together has probably been the most satisfactory thing about the process and very healing.

With all these elements in place, the profoundly unsettling fact remains. The groom is gone.

I sat on the couch last night and the stillness of the interior apartment settled around me, wintry wind whistling just outside the glass patio door. I wasn’t weepy, just alone and somehow finally aware of my solitude in that moment. As I said to my dear friend Susan this afternoon, after all those years of knowing that I would be alone, I never visualized exactly what that would feel or be like. Isn’t that strange? But I know I am not alone in my life, that I’m surrounded with the life force of friends and colleagues and family. And I know I’m excited to see them at the “wedding without the groom” this Saturday.

I’d prefer a puppy, thanks.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not misconstrue this as a secret request for a dog. I acknowledge my luck in having many caring people in my life who would jump at providing me with a new puppy. Please do not.

Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? When you are in the market for a new vehicle, or house, or dog even, you find yourself surrounded by dozens of the brand/style/breed that you’ve been thinking about? It’s been a while since I was in the market for any of those things, but lately I’ve noticed more people around me who have experienced significant loss. I am swimming in grievers.

Obviously, being surrounded by grievers is far less appealing than swimming in eager, face-licking puppies, but no less visceral. When we choose to notice our fellow humans and the all-too human experiences we share, they mirror our own frame of reference. Naturally. Narcissistic, yes, extremely, but also it can be comforting and reassuring.

We’re not alone. There are others who are facing or have faced the exact same thing we are going through. The predecessors can provide spiritual guidance. The successors give us a sense of utility when we are floundering with what we will do next. Each of us copes in our own intensely personal way. It gets better for a while, then we hit a huge grief pothole or icy patch and spin out. No matter how good our emotional snow tires are.

Due to circumstances I’ve begun to feel a bit like a grief vampire. They say that death comes in threes, and she has circled closely to my orbit and plucked away three important people to close friends in a very short time. The rest of my constellation is surely holding their loved ones close and struggling to maintain the apogee of orbit from those of us with loss.

And yet, they’re not. I’m stunned on a daily basis by people’s thoughtfulness, and consideration of what I’m going through. Earlier this week a colleague made me a quiche and dropped it off at work. Last night I took a bath in the light from a candle given to me by a neighbor. One of these days, I will finish the 1500 piece puzzle given to me by a colleague. I will either complete it, or in a fit of pique, will attempt the magician’s tablecloth trick which will end the puzzling for the season.

When comparing notes with my close circle of Widow/er/s, I’ve discovered that it’s acceptable to have begun talking to myself. Mind you, I’m not talking to Jimmie (most of the time), but talking myself through the steps of a given task.

Yesterday, in a moment of self-care, I signed up for a new app called emeals, which was recommended to me by my office-mate, Hannah. Check it out. Despite the cozy picture of the couple cooking together and the fact that it doesn’t cater to singles, it’s amazing. You pick your menus for the week, it downloads a shopping list, and even links to Instacart or other delivery services. I got very excited, picking four things – beef barley soup (slow cooking), grits with eggs and arugula (breakfast for dinner), and a few others. The shopping list was full of arcane items like fig preserves and frozen cheese biscuits that would challenge any half-hearted shopper so I linked to Instacart for delivery between 8-9pm last night.

Then I promptly forgot, realizing at 7:50 as I sorted crew participants for the class that I teach that I needed to be home to receive delivery. I bolted from my office and when I walked into my building at 8:08 I received the shattering news that my 32 arcane-Els-you-will-never-find-this-on-your-own items had been canceled from my cart. I imagined the beleaguered Instacart shopper stomping their feet, then having to return the items to the shelves in a pique of anger.

I spent about 5-8 minutes huffing around the store, looking for someone to complain to (they were all gone) before grabbing a cart, unchecking all the items on the shopping list, and beginning to fill my cart myself. Mindful self care. I calmed myself with the task at hand (filling the empty refrigerator at 8:45PM so I could feed myself). Checking out the other people who did their shopping that late and thinking I spotted a few other grievers in the store. But it could have just been projection on my part.

One day at a time. One meal at a time. Using the tools and technology to ease the process of rebuilding.

Nana on the Train

I’d boarded the train, and was seated in my roomette, Car 1433, Room 8. Though Wifi was advertised, please note that this was the suggestion of wifi, proving to be extremely spotty (hence the delay in this post). I had an idea that I’d listen to Pandora, but it quickly became clear that wouldn’t be happening. Hmmm. let’s see if I can save my drafts….

Saturday morning, I arrived early at Union Station with my new suitcase and backpack, enough time to get a cup of tea before boarding the train. When in Union Station I always feel like I’ve stepped back to the 40s, with the Deco chandeliers gleaming overhead, and the solid wooden upholstered benches corralled by brass stanchions burnished by time and heavy use.

I’m brandishing a new do, having gone to the Barber Punk’s, a loft salon that Chris turned me onto the day we walked around DTLA, and tried to take care of our own needs. I teased the Barber when I got my latest haircut that she’d cut my hair to Chris’ specs. She went in quick with the #2, before I could say, “Wait! I think I’m a #3!” As a result I look a little like “an escapee from Synanon” which was my Dad’s phrase when I did the #2 over my entire head one summer before I headed off to college. My niece, Niki, encouraged me to not ever forget my lipstick and earrings…. At Barber Punk’s, appropriate notes have been made to avoid this result next time, and since hair always grows back I’m not concerned.

The roomette was smaller than expected, based on my virtual tour of the Amtrak website, but of course, doh!, one only needs to imagine two roomettes that are the width of a train to realize what the reality would be. Spacious for one, I can imagine with two people and luggage it would be a challenge. The conductor was a little heavy on the horn, as we breezed through Simi Valley on our way north. The train was remarkably quiet, the ride smooth and soothing, the sun beaming in on the opposite seat, lighting up my bag of Christmas presents. Lighting up my anticipation of the next few days of travel and arrival.

Here’s the good news. Everything’s included in the ticket price for a Superliner roomette – all food, including dining car reservations made by the train attendant, who sported a shiny metallic Michael Kors purse when she came by to take the reservations for lunch and dinner. 12:15 and 6:30 were my choices, and I remain pleased with them. Especially in retrospect, when the full holiday capacity of the train delayed the later diners by hours. Some didn’t get fed. The dining car was behind me about six cars. Ricocheting off the walls as I walked through the cars, several of them festooned with Christmas lights, took me back to my train trips in Italy in my early twenties, and the disastrous and comic timing of our arrival in Pisa (our destination) when I was about four cars away from my luggage.

The view outside changed from urban industrial, outside Union Station, to Valley industrial (just a bit less graffiti), to the rocky outcroppings of Simi Valley, before we attained the ocean vistas near Santa Barbara. Nothing between us and the water but rolling banks of ice plants. (Forgive my horticultural inaccuracy – but it looked like ice plant to me….)

Traveling solo can be daunting. But on a train, it’s easier because you need to eat and eating is a community table activity. As they noted frequently over the loudspeaker, “if you are a party of under four you will be making a new friend.” At Day One lunch I sat with a young couple on their way to Portland for the holidays, and a woman about my age, on her way to Seattle, her son joining her on the train in San Francisco.

At the end of dessert, the awkwardness started to wear away and I introduced myself by name. Once I shared that I taught production in theatre at USC, the young man across from me, knuckles tatted and a trademark logo (R) behind his right ear, eagerly disclosed that he was a production manager for rock tours like Metallica and we discussed the complexities of the automation involved in these tours. Rather, he discussed them and I listened with interest.

Back in my roomette, with the darkness came the sense of isolation and loneliness that Elizabeth Harper Neeld addresses in her book on grieving. The emotional loneliness of missing the person you’ve shared everything with for fill-in-the-blank-years, and the societal loneliness of finding your place as a soloist in the world. as the light faded from behind the hills, I found myself dreading the trip to the dining room.

In fact, recently, I didn’t attend a party to which I had been invited and had accepted. I realized that it was the flying solo part that was too tough.

My grandfather once told us a self-deprecating story about how he’d wanted to learn how to fly and took lessons in a small single engine plane. The way I remember the story was that he was returning from his solo flight, and after landed the plane successfully, he stepped out of the cockpit, and right through the wing of the plane. That was the end of his flying career.

I didn’t want to do that at the party – step through the wing of the plane on my first solo flight. And so I didn’t go. On the train, my re-integration into the world was necessitated by my neatly planned appointments to eat. I met some fascinating people, two young animators (WB and Disney), a Metro LA employee and ferroequinologist (my word, not his). It was simple. We were defined by our destinations.

I’m getting off in Portland.

I’m going all the way to Seattle.

Our destinations precluded ever having to talk about my new status as a solo traveler, recent widow, griever, etc. No one on the train ever knew I was going through anything until I slipped with a kind woman traveling with her two sons, by mentioning I’d been reading a lot on the train, and she asked me what I was reading. Uh oh.

A book on grieving.

Fortunately, she didn’t follow up. I appreciated that.

This is where I’m at at seven weeks. Fear of the future, fear of the past, fear of facing the necessary steps to make myself whole again. Excitement about learning to fly solo.

The train trip was a chance to reflect. In between naps. After lunch Day 2, when I woke up from a nap, the rain which had earlier tear-streaked the windows outside had changed to snow, and the deep accumulation chilled the windows to my left. I felt snug inside, listening to classical music and typing furiously.