Phoenix Rising

When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.

Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.

The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.

I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.

Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.

The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.

We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.

I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.

On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.

Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.

What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?

The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.

…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.

a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.

The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.

In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.

Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.

Early Christmas Present

This Christmas I’ve done better than last, when I had no heart for shopping, for thinking of others. Last year, I licked my widowly wounds, spending the holiday in Seattle with Chris and his family at her Dad’s place. I remember feeling both there, and not – feeling as my friend Bob recently called it, “ashy.” The state of knowing that you inhabit your body but don’t quite know how to make the limbs move, or how to move with intention because you’re without a partner to fuss over, to find the perfect present for, to strive to make the holiday special for. This year, I combined cleaning out the storage unit with bringing the tree supplies up really early – a week before Thanksgiving. I put the tree up, and turned it on, and it hasn’t been turned off yet. No worries – it’s rabidly artificial- not even attempting to look like a natural tree. Yes, it has the familiar conic shape, it’s green, but there the similarity ends. It has sixteen settings of LED lights, the last of which is the one I like – amber static lights. I think there’s probably a karaoke plug-in for the tree if I hadn’t thrown out the manual. Yesterday I mailed all the packages to my Tahoe family members so that I can breeze in Sunday with just my makeup kit like a glamorous Hollywood starlet from the 1950s.

Keeping a journal has been helpful in getting my feet back under me this year. My formerly tamed stationery fetish recently raised it’s ugly head, and as though on cue, my ex-neighbor, Chewy gifted me with a small bucketload of Paper Source journals, of many sizes, all entwined with flowers, a pack of floral pencils and a pen to match last week when we went to see Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. The journal entry from that night records the richness of our outing, from discovering we were sitting behind Al Pacino and in front of Stephen Tobolowski and wife, Anne Hearn. We ran into many SDA colleagues, and set designer Joe Celli and that was all in the front of house before the play began. On top of those happy reunions, seeing Ruben Santiago Hudson’s muscular production of Wilson’s 1970s Pittsburgh was so satisfying. I know the play well, but from behind the scenes. I ASMed the last time Jitney played at the Taper, directed by Marion McClinton and starring Carl Lumbly (Booster) Shabaka Henley (Doub), Russell Hornsby (Youngblood) and Willis Burks II (Shealy). One of my jobs off stage right was to apply a spot of blood on the cheek of Stephen Henderson’s Turnbo when he ran out the door after being slugged by Youngblood, and then returned with his gun waving it like a mad man. I was so pleased to see Anthony Chisholm reprising the role of Fielding – having his gravelly-throated way with the sartorial sot – the man’s a comic genius. When he tells Becker’s son, Booster, newly returned from twenty years in prison about his wife (22 years gone), he made me laugh and cry again within a span of two minutes.

FIELDING

You got to have somebody you can count on you know. Now my wife . . . we been separated for twenty-two years now . . . but I ain’t never loved nobody the way I loved that woman. You know what I mean?
BOOSTER
Yeah, I know.
FIELDING

She the only thing in the world that I got. I had a dream once. It just touched me so. I was climbing this ladder. It was a solid gold ladder and I was climbing up into heaven. I get to the top of the ladder and I can see all the saints sitting around . . . and I could see her too . . . sitting there in her place in glory. Just as I reached the top my hand started to slip and I called out for help. All them saints and angels . . . St. Peter and everybody . . . they just sat there and looked at me. She was the only one who left her seat in glory and tried to help me to keep from falling back down that ladder. I ain’t never forgot that. When I woke up . . . tears was all over my face, just running all down in my ears and I laid there and cried like a baby . . . cause that meant so much to me. To find out after all these years, that she still loved me.

August Wilson, Jitney, Act I, Sc. 3

So, like I said, I’m filling my days with spectacular events rather than things. I visited at the Posthumous Party for Eddie Jones on Saturday, reconnecting with so many of our old friends from Interact Theatre Company. Tonight I participated in an active shooter drill at USC. My theatre training gets me all the plummy roles – I got to make the first call kicking off the drill, and the primo seat in front of the Campus Center to watch the drill unfold. Better than Christmas shopping, I quipped, down in the ballroom as we awaited instructions.

Busy is better than not busy. In moments like my bus ride home tonight, Carla Bonoff blasting in my ears, reading a book on Leadership, pausing to think about my upcoming Christmas travel, I recognize that I’m jamming it all in to a gaping hole of loss. As a friend recently posted “I need to slow down.” Just a few days until the Winter Recess begins for real and then we can all slow down.

Tonight, after coming home and making a quick dinner, I opened the mail. Not to get too revelatory, but the thing is that when one of two partners passes away, lets just say that the other one is sometimes left with the short end of the financial stick. So I’ve been focussing on events rather than things, too, because funds are more limited this year. In fact, as I sat there eating my dinner, I was strategizing about how to come up with the gift for our building staff at the my condo. I kept opening the mail, reading and enjoying cards from friends, then came upon the familiar SAG-AFTRA residuals envelope. I opened it and out fell a statement for Patch Adams and Seabiscuit and a check for $1,209.63. Gulp. Pause.

The thing about Seabiscuit is that Jimmie ended up on the cutting room floor. You millenials may not know that quaint expression but it harkens back to a time when films were shot on celluloid, which had to be physically cut during editing, and actors would bemoan the fact that their parts of the film would fall in thick tresses onto the floor of the editing room and they wouldn’t end up being in the movie. In fact, now I remember going to the screening of Seabiscuit, all dressed up, hanging like a starlet on Jimmie’s arm, only to realize as the final credits rolled (Jimmie’s amongst them) that we hadn’t seen him at all. We then skulked out of the theatre after we realized he hadn’t survived the editor’s shears. But, good news! I remember from Saturday’s reel of Eddie is that he had a big role in that one, so I hope his widow Anita gets a lovely check this week, too. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I burst into tears when I opened the check, my heart racing, “tears was all over my face, running all down in my ears…to find out after all these years that he still loved me.”

So that was my early Christmas present, and the proof that getting out and about is the best antidote to loss. Thanks, Jimmie, for looking out for me while I learn to look out for myself.

Oh, and I apologize for the tease of a photo. Maybe more on that another day.

Adding Laughter Back In

I yearn for the laughter of my previous life. Seven months ago, after watching my friend Susie’s show at the Geffen, we met for dinner between the two shows. In the theatre, these interstitial social moments are the ones you tend to remember, not the slog of the eight-show week, but the human interactions that the intimate theatre process allows. Nearly every project I’ve worked on in my life includes these memories. This time, Susie and I retired to CPK in Westwood to eat. Two rawly recent widows, finding our new way in the world. Somehow the conversation came around to David Sedaris – seeing him live has been on my bucket list for years. I knew he was coming to UC Irvine on Nov. 6th, and I offered to get tickets for us both to go.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go – I might be on a show,” Susie said.

“I know, but I’ll get the tickets and if you can’t go, I’ll find someone else to go with me.”

Little did either of us know that Susie would be unable to go for entirely different reasons. Later that summer, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The last time I sat with her at her hospice bedside, I said, “Well, I guess you won’t be up to going to UC Irvine next week to see David Sedaris.” This probably sounds like an incredibly callous thing to say and in fact, had I known she’d be gone by the following week, I probably wouldn’t have said it; but if you knew Susie, you’d know that that kind of sarcasm was right up her alley. “Sorry, don’t think I can make it.” We laughed easily, the way two old friends do, and the way in retrospect, I now know Susie did with all her old friends.

It’s vital to make plans in your life to keep your family ties and friendships alive. Stage management is an incredibly grueling path. The marquee is always emblazoned with “The Show Must Go On.” And yes, the show will go on, and you need to find ways to jump out to experience your life. This is probably not what you might hear in your training program, but make the plans, buy the tickets, build the future into your current work. When the job comes up that won’t allow you to go see David Sedaris on a Wednesday night, talk with your producer and say, “I’m not available on Nov. 6th. That’s the only day. Do you think we can work around that one date?” Not surprisingly, they will find a way. Your assistant can cover the rehearsal, you may be able to have them hire someone to cover your calling the show. If not, perhaps you don’t take that job. The most important thing is that you communicate your needs. This is part of the negotiation part that stage managers, especially women, shy away from. And God help me, brace me for the onslaught of requests.

So, last night, I went to see David Sedaris perform at the Barclay Center in Irvine, CA. Leaving USC to drive down there with my friend and colleague, Melinda, at 6:00PM was insanity. The freeways were jammed, headlights blazing across the median strip, through the newly adjusted standard time darkness, which lowers the curtains now around 5:00PM. What I know almost a year after losing my foundation with the death of my husband is that my life is still as busy, but I now appreciate more the process of being present. Melinda and I chatted the entire way down, then stopped for some salads at a Chinese fast food place near the venue, risking missing the start of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately, “traffic is a thing” in Southern California. The show started about ten minutes after its published start time, and with the humorous and disarming grace I’ve always loved about David Sedaris, he emerged from the wings in the most amazing “costume” that we only got a brief glimpse of on his way to the podium. Was that a kilt? Arriving at the podium, he confessed that we were starting late because he’d been doing his laundry down in the basement. “It’s been a long tour,” he drolly intoned, instantly relaxing the audience and providing just what we’d come for, a deep, belly laugh of recognition of one aspect of our shared human condition – when will my event-filled life allow me to do my laundry?

The evening proceeded to deliver more of what I’d come for, deep guttural laughs, incredulous scoffs, gales of the easy kind of tears that swept through the hall from the twenty-somethings who sat to my right to the sea of NPR-loving-graying-wordsmith-appreciating sixty-somethings who made up the audience. Anyone who loves words and their sly misuse can appreciate someone like David Sedaris. He read several of his CBS Morning commentaries, including one which dissected the N-word and reeled through the alphabet, helping us to laugh about our political correctness by shredding it; the face of having the L-word be Love, and the C-word commitment.

His humor relies on the knowledge that we will head full tilt to what we assume he’s going to say, then roar with laughter as he pulls the rug out from underneath us, landing us on our butts. A lot of his material was about his childhood vacation home, in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. His writing is so dry as to almost ignite the pages he methodically pulled and unclipped from a manila folder on the lecturn. His delivery is so divorced from his own wit that sometimes you need to go back a sentence to catch up. There were several times I was puzzled for a good minute before I understood what he’d said.

At any rate, I could go on for days about David Sedaris. Suffice it to say, find the laughter in your life and routine, your own food for your imagination, that which nourishes your soul and consciously, actively build it into your life.

Sometime late in the program, he said something about friends which I can’t even remember specifically what it was, but it full-throttle invoked Susie for me, and I shut my eyes, (forgive me Melinda) imagining her beside me in the dark of the Barclay Center, sharing a moment of respite from the work and the world. Sharing a laugh with a friend.

R.I.P. Susie

We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.

I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.

Jimmie in his cap
Susie having a laugh at the closing night party with Jimmie and Charlotte Rae.

She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.

Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.

Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.

When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.

Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?

She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.

Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.

In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?

Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.

Meet Susie, who now lives on my balcony overlooking downtown LA.

Amsterdam and Venice – Canals, Water under the Bridges and Tiny Steps

I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.

Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.

And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.

Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.

The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.

It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdam just the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.

Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.

There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.

Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.

I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.

This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)

Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Lucky Koi

I loved the koi at the pond at the Actors Fund Home in Woodland Hills. I went out on Saturday with two colleagues from USC to visit a former colleague and also some former colleagues of my husband’s. We had lunch in “The Lodge” dining room. It was comfortable, restaurant-like, the only thing giving it away as not a typical restaurant was the high count of walkers and canes scattered around the edges of the room and the occasional interruptions by various very deferential staff members in scrubs.

I initially caused a kerfuffle as I’m wont to do when we arrived. Our host had very carefully ordered a table for four, but unbeknownst to him I’d invited two more people and a third arrived with them, so the Lead Waitress, Rosalinda, was initially displeased. But in the scheme of things, this was merely a one-ripple event, and soon, we were all seated, ordering our lunch. The food was great there, and the company even better.

During lunch we were visited by some Actors Fund Home luminaries, including a beautiful 97-year-old woman who looked better than me, and a friendly intern chaplain from UCLA who stopped by to greet the residents. We fake-sparred in the inevitable way that Bruins and Trojans do when they meet, just because we have to. It’s an exercise of saving face in these days when saving face has become increasingly important at USC. But I digress. As the chaplain-in-training walked away, our host quipped: “He’s an intern, so he can only send us to purgatory.” This caused the others at the table to roar (after it was repeated a few times for audibility). I was very impressed that the staff knew everyone’s names and addressed them respectfully and shared some laughs with them.

After lunch, we toured the grounds, seeing the cottages, the Louis B. Mayer movie theatre where first run movies are shown for the denizens (empty yesterday), the Roddy McDowell Rose Garden, replete with a larger than life-sized statue of Caesar, Roddy McDowell’s character from the Planet of the Apes Movies. This made me titter, the idea that this wonderful actor would be memorialized as his ape character. We sat on some benches in the shade – it was 107 degrees in the sun, or so the thermometer at the start had said it was. But if we stayed very still, we could imagine it was only 95 or so. Dry as it is in California, the redeeming thing about our weather.

Mary Joan points to the Lu Leonard bench plaque as our host, Michael, looks on indulgently.

The lucky koi, so diverse in their colorful array of smooth and textured skins, swam around in the large pond, bordered with tables with umbrellas, and a few chaises. We stood and watched them swim around in a frenzy for several minutes. We remarked on their beautiful colors. “That one looks like it’s wearing fishnet stockings.” Our host said it was one of his favorite places to go. The campus is 22 acres, and full of many really impressive things, including a cozy library lined with books about the business of show. I thought Jimmie would have been very comfortable in that library, and if I ever wanted to give away Jimmie’s biographies and autobiographies, that would be a good place to start.

At one point as we walked around, Mary Joan put her arm over my shoulder and said conspiratorially, “These are the important things.” I’ve been learning so much about what the important things are in recent weeks and months as I work on getting my footing back. Friends, family and self-reflection have fed me enormously, even if I don’t have enough time to do the latter very much.

I’ve begun working with a life-coach to see what the next chapter might bring. She’s someone I knew from college, so we are able to bypass a lot of the getting-to-know-you phase of our work, though after thirty-seven years apart, I look forward to getting to know her again. I can tell from our short interactions to date that she likes her work, and I trust her feedback. This week, we talked about catabolic and anabolic energies. Energy is constantly changing all day long. We have certain default tendencies. It was easy enough to come up with examples of tasks or stressors that deplete (catabolic) vs. those that energize and reinvigorate (anabolic). Picture your email inbox and imagine these various responses to the task of emptying the email.

  • Level 1 (Catabolic) -Victim of email. Avoidance of email.
  • Level 2 (Catabolic)- Mad about email. Blaming all those people for sending email. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
  • Level 3 (Anabolic)- Coping with email. Thinking about it as an opportunity to remain connected with others. Thinking of it as a necessary tool.
  • Level 4 (Anabolic) Concern for Others – Taking on the burdens of others. Helping others succeed by answering their questions.
  • Level 5 (Anabolic) -Perhaps email is a chance to build relationships or discover opportunities?
  • Level 6 (Anabolic) – Email is a writing exercise that helps me polish my craft. Email is a free writing opportunity.
  • Level 7 (Anabolic) Level of pure creation. Tap into joy while answering email. (Frankly, this is currently inconceivable, but then, I’ve just begun…)

My homework – to look at events and things that happen and try to filter more than one purely catabolic reaction to an event. I shared with her that I’d had a wonderful therapist who showed me that feelings were just feelings. In the same vein, there are many different ways to react to events. I’m practicing this week, so if I see you and it takes me longer than normal to respond to a question, I may be working on it from the inside out.

But any way you look at it, these koi are lucky. Lucky to be in a big well-aerated pond, guarded from predators by a plucky concrete owl, visited by the denizens of a beautiful residence for Show-biz types.

“And the seasons they go round and round….”

This is the first week of classes, and my Freshman Seminar “Theatre Scene” is all the way across the campus from my office in the Scene Dock Theatre. It’s a joy, walking across the campus, in my brightly colored silk blouse, taking my steps to share knowledge and passion for my topic with my inquisitive students. Today, I plugged in my earplugs and let my music boost me across campus. Truly great songwriters tell stories and it’s been so long since I heard music through an optimistic filter. There’s something stunning about listening to the lyrics that I know by heart, but instead of from my single just-north-of-twenty-year old self, listening from the other side, single and just-south-of-sixty.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts 2019 Move in Day event on August 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

I don’t know when exactly it was that I reached out to Karla Bonoff recently, but I am relishing the reconnection. Full disclosure, I don’t know Karla Bonoff, but I’ve got her as my current station on Pandora. No, thank you for thinking so, but it’s the free Pandora, the one with the irritating ads. “….spa inspired bathtub….” Yeah, yeah.

Baby Don’t Go (Karla Bonoff)

Taking all I’ve got and now you’re leaving….

Karla Bonoff

Been to Canaan and I won’t rest until I go back again.

Carole King

After work today, I jumped in my car to pick up a brown tiger’s eye bead necklace from the repair place over on Sunset. I’m in that sort of mood these days. Clearing off desks, putting TVs up on the wall to free up table space for my puzzles. My TV now hangs out on an arm that tilts it towards the kitchen so I can watch while I cook. I know I sound like I’m well on my way to being a cat lady. But what you may not know is that I’ve been there, done that. With five cats at one time. So I swear I don’t have a cat. I don’t need a cat. I don’t want a cat. I am doing what I want right now. Planning the next phase of my life. Consulting with professionals. Asking embarrassing and probing questions of myself and only myself. A bit of good old navel gazing, I think we used to call it.

Anyway, today in the car as I toodled up Vermont Avenue, I belted along listened to some of my old faves:
Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)

…Moons and Junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really…

The copyright police will come after me, but I just wanted to drive home the point that we’ve come a long way since our feckless twenties. Life looks quite different from this angle. But the music is still so great. Joni Mitchell was 25 when she wrote that song in 1968.

If you are of the vintage when Karla Bonoff’s, Jackson Browne’s, James Taylor’s, Linda Rondstadt’s, Joni Mitchell’s, Carly Simon’s and The Eagles’ songs spoke loudly to you, do yourself a favor – give another listen.

My listening tonight:

  • Blackbird (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
  • After The Thrill is Gone (Eagles)
  • Carry Me Home (Karla Bonoff)
  • When Will I Be Loved (Linda Rondstadt)
  • Rock Me on the Water (Jackson Browne)
  • Angel (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Blue Bayou (Linda Rondstadt)

After I shared this post, my colleague Luis Alfaro guided me to this astonishing rendition of Both Sides Now. Thank you, Luis!

The Littlest Theatre in the World and Gratitude to the Madonna Dei Bagni

One of the last days I was in Umbria, we visited the Umbrian hilltown of Monte Castello di Vibio, another spot of unspeakable beauty. Our destination was to see Il Teatro Piu Piccolo Del Mondo. As the sign below promises, Civilization isn’t measured in square meters and volume. Built by a consortium of nine families (I’ll spare you the poor historical recall and defer to Wikipedia). But when we visited, the lobby had a fascinating exhibit by a local man who had documented his family’s history in a series of scrapbooks, only seven out of thirty-three of which were on display. There were photos, paintings of weddings on the stage, and other news clippings detailing the historic events that had taken place in the theatre. The frescoes by Luigi Agretti in the second floor lobby were really wonderful, considering he was 14 when he painted them in 1892. Yes, 14!

After relishing the tiny space, complete with playback of a recording of a musical concert so that we could experience the acoustics in the all-wooden theatre, we retired from Monte Castello di Vibio, and made our way to the Madonna Dei Bagni, a church near Deruta, which features approximately 700 votive tiles from the 17th century to the 20th century, all presented in gratitude for acts of salvation by the Madonna. Each tile has the initials P.G.R., which stands for Per Grazie Ricevuto, or For Graces Received.

The Sanctuary itself is not notable, except for these tiles, almost totemic in their iconography. Four Hundred years ago, according to the history, a man found a piece of pottery with the Madonna on it and he nailed it to an oak tree, and prayed for his ill wife’s recovery. When he returned to his home, she had recovered, and thus began the practice of these votive tiles. They represent graces received from the Madonna after accidents throughout the centuries. Did you know that the most perilous thing in Umbria is the tree and the ladder? So many people fell from trees and lived to represent it that there developed an iconography of falling out of the tree.

That and getting trompled by horses.

Or struck by lightning.

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that just like the tree plates, there were several of the lightning and later, dozens of gnarly car and motorcycle accidents as well as war survivors and leaky rain gutters. I just didn’t take photos of them all. It’s worth going to verify my account.

But my favorite was the tile that told the story about the recovery of 140 of the tiles which had at one time been stolen (rubata) from the sanctuary. Thanks to our guide, Marina, who was able to read the tile to us and translate, we understood that an off-duty cop (Carabinieri) born in Deruta, but assigned to Perugia, had come across one of these plates at a swap meet or whatever the Italian equivalent is. He bought it, then launched an investigation and was able to recover all 140 of the stolen plates. I think the guy carrying the tile is the same one lying down in his carabinieri uniform (Art History 101).

After that, we were exhausted and of course, it was time to go get some lunch. We were very happy there as well for the graces received.

Resilience and Absence

I’m reading Tara Westover’s riveting and horrifying memoir, Educated currently. Meanwhile, I’m watching friends go through struggles and losses more profound than Job’s. I’m in awe of the some people’s ability to withstand inhuman struggle, fear and grief. Their resilience is stunning. And yes, I get that these roles are unwanted, but have been assumed with grace and integrity and more than a modicum of optimism.

There seems to be no reason or equity in the weight or loss some humans bear. Earlier this week, in the twilight residual of my decennial colonoscopy, I welcomed the mental euphoria, the permission to return home and sleep until I woke, refreshed and hungry for the post Tony-Party bounty of my refrigerator. Seven months after my loss, some people still tilt their heads in concern before asking me “How are you doing?” The owner of the dry cleaners assumes that expression even as I’m mounting the stairs to her shop, my steps responding with an exaggerated collegiate spring, my lips turning up in a furious smile. I know that she lost her husband several years ago, and yet I resist the boggy company of her grief.

Yes, I had a terrible loss when my husband died, but I’ve always been an optimist, facing forward, and I know how blessed I am. Blessed to have a meaningful job that I love, supportive friends, many of whom are also my colleagues; a body that is surprisingly healthy considering the mileage I’ve put on. Like Peter Pan, I’m perched on the ledge of a new life of travel and friendship. The uncertainty of all the details makes me nervous, of course; I experienced more than a frisson about my rusty Italian, causing me to resume study via Duolingo today. I couldn’t remember the word for book or apple (Libro and Mela).

And then, out of nowhere, the absence comes. Standing in the hot shower, water streaming over my body, I suddenly realized (again) that my husband, once so physically present in my life, was just gone. Like he’d never been there. Hot tears joined the water streaming down my cheeks as I sobbed convulsively in the shower. And then it passed, I toweled my body and my spirit off and stepped into my clothes.

Yesterday I’d run into a colleague on campus whom I hadn’t seen since November, and when he asked what was new, I told him the only thing that a newly grieving person feels is new, which is about my loss. He gave me a hug, and we shared some thoughts about the process of loss, including the fear of forgetting and losing the physicality of the other. After dealing with the disposal of clothing, all the physical manifestations of the person we’ve lost, there’s a sense that they are irretrievably lost, and one worries that as time passes, the important moments shared will also be lost. He reassuringly said, they come back. He can’t know how meaningful that statement was to me. I have daily reminders around the apartment of my husband, old photos, recent photos, but his physical presence is gone. Always a vivid dreamer, I’ve only recently returned to an active dream life, but my dreams aren’t populated by the person I hunger for most. I guess that means he was ready to go and has gone to the happy casting waiting room in the sky, but for me, bereft of his physical presence, it is a cold reminder of his absence.

Resilience is a bitch. Absence is an affront. Back to the Duo Lingo. Stay tuned.

Finding Joy

Time is diminishing until I take off on my summer vacay, two weeks in Italy and half a week visiting my Dad in Washington, D.C., over the 4th of July weekend. Something about knowing that I’ve got only another week at work to get things done is making me feel particularly stressed while I’m at work. My desk sports a messy mantle of papers; I was in someone’s office last week and she had a standing desk which I immediately desired and admired, but more notably, she had not a scrap of paper on her desk. How do people do that? I know she is an incredibly organized and productive person. I said to a co-worker who dropped by for lunch on Friday,

Sorry, but I have to dine al desco today.

And that’s kind of how it’s been going.

Remember the tutorials I spoke of recently? Well, two months have passed and I’m pretty sure I missed one; maybe the others feel relieved that I haven’t poked, them. I’ve been experiencing that deja vu feeling of missing a social engagement; deja vu because it used to happen with alarming regularity in the pre-sobriety-pre-cell-phone-as-extra-brain days. You left a bar late Thursday night blithely tossing over your shoulder, Sure! I’ll see you at brunch on Sunday.” Then you got a call on Sunday saying “Hey, Els, where are you?” Yes, that’s the feeling I’ve got about my missed Tutorials. A soupcon of guilt along with a pinch of “who cares? – only you, Els.”

Good thing I’m going to be with the Tutor Supreme in just a short while. Tutor Supreme and Spouse Supreme. I fly on 6/19 to Rome. Yesterday in a day of extreme productivity and relaxation, I purchased a new suitcase, which had an appropriate sticker on with the name of my building. Also, don’t we all aspire to lightweight and durable Abs, which it also promises?

Ironically, and I know this is seasonal selective panic setting in, I’ve been finding a lot of joy in my off work hours. Last weekend I spent with my son and his family in Tahoe, hiking, eating, and absorbing the grandchildren’s energy which was an enormous boost.

This weekend, I invited my niece Martha to come down and do some fun things with me this weekend. Martha has become like a sister to me; never having had one, is a great addition to my immediate family. She drove down from the central coast where she lives, and Friday night, we made dinner which we shared with gourmet chef niece Niki. It’s intimidating to cook for a gourmet chef, but Niki is always extremely gracious and complimentary. And who doesn’t like a sweet potato black bean taco with tri-color slaw peppered with pineapple? We ate, then retired to the living room where we talked about sundry life topics until nearly midnight. Lots of joy.

On Saturday, Martha and I took a long passeggiatta (I’m going to become very annoying in the coming weeks as I pepper my writing with Italian phrases, so I’ll provide a little translation as I go). A passeggiatta is an Italian family stroll usually after dinner. I remember when I was working in Gibbelina, Sicily umpteen years ago on a project directed by Robert Wilson, there was a lovely campo (open plaza) where families with their children walked around greeting each other and shared the night air. Martha’s and my passeggiatta was during full daylight and measured about 4.5 miles at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. It was lovely, and we didn’t greet anyone. However, we ventured inside the Huntington Mansion Museum where I was temporarily stumped by the Roman numerals on this massive stained glass piece. Quick, no cheating, now. What’s the date? As I was trying to suss it out, I couldn’t help practicing the date in Italian: Milleottocentonovantotto. There, that’s your hint.

Look for the answer at the end of the blog.

We’d packed a picnic so that we after our Huntington Gardens walk we could go and join some Sanctuary Fitness pals at Victory Park for the Street Food Cinema to watch The Greatest Showman, a movie which had eluded me until last night. On the way, we stopped at Target so I could get the suitcase, some pajamas that I wouldn’t be mortified to be seen in by the Tutors Supremes and my other friends I hadn’t seen since 1983 in Venice. I know, you’re saying, it doesn’t matter, they’ll be horrified anyway, never mind the PJs, but a girl’s gotta maintain her dignity. So off to Target we went. Having had a workout early morning, plus the long walk, both Martha and I were going to be very happy to sit down on the grass in Victory Park, food trucks ringing the large lawn, and a general atmosphere of excitement to see a movie for the gazillionth time. Or the first in both Martha’s and my case.

They also had amazing chairs which we were able to rent which made it possible for us to stay to the end of the movie. No way I could have done it without the chair, in spite of my awesome core and glutes. (Irony)

The simplicity of sitting and eating on a lawn at dusk was so peaceful. It made me ponder the difference between happiness and joy. When you are surrounded by experiencing and witnessing others’ profound pain, it is important to be able to identify moments of joy and contentment. On the lawn at Victory Park was one such moment. And that was even before the crazy extrovert people started getting up dancing and lip synching.

Hugh Jackman Impersonator at right.

I didn’t get a picture of the Mother/Son duo dressed as the Bearded Lady and PT Barnum. For a minute I thought the movie was going to be like the showing of The Rocky Horror Picture show that I went to during a Christmas vacation in Wilkes-Barre, PA, with my Mom. When the locals got up in front of the screen before the movie and proceeded to do what they do in that situation, my mother gasped, Oh, Elsbeth! with a mixture of admiration, horror and incredulity that has always stayed with me. Later when she was hit in the back of her head with a hurled roll of toilet paper and doused with a squirt gun, she was delighted, and laughed and laughed. That’s where I went in my memories when I saw those folks standing in front of us. I had a moment with Shirley, which filled me with joy, too.

Last night, as we drove back from Pasadena, we witnessed the splendor of DTLA lit up for Gay Pride Month. I couldn’t take a picture from the best view because I was driving, but when I got home, I captured this picture.

Can’t see the US Bank building’s prideful colors from here. Also, the intensity of the Intercontinental Hotel’s splendor is dimmed on this side.

This morning, on the recommendation of one of my Sanctuary pals, Lynn (Hey, Lynn! you made it again!) I went to do the Showtunes Spin with Rick at Hype Silverlake. It was amazing to spin again, and to all show tunes. What could be better on Tony Award Sunday? Rick heightened the fun by asking several questions – what show is this from? Which version is this from? It was almost diverting enough to make me stop panting. Almost.

Had a great lunch at Pitchoun! on Pershing Square, and tonight we’ll celebrate the Tony’s around the TV with yummy food. A joy-filled weekend before heading into the last week before vacay. The answer above was 1898.