Thinking Heads and Voyeurs at The Venice Biennale

I’d be derelict if I didn’t share some of the photos from the two days we spent at the Biennale while I was in Venice. On the way there, though, Caro and I had a wonderful time exploring all the different countries’ pavilions. Here are some photos from our first day. If you get a chance to go to the Biennale, go. There’s a mind boggling amount of beautiful art and ideas. Beautiful for people watching. Take the largest frame below for example.

The Biennale is rife with colorful images, shapes and ideas, and could be represented by almost any of the pieces shown there. The Lara Favaretto room, in the main building of the Gardens felt like walking into a curated prop room, with shelves neatly decorated by groups of objects, identified with a descriptive word under each shelf. The most intriguing part of the exhibit was its reference to secret meetings of people in a bunker in Venice to discuss the objects. Wait, a bunker in Venice? The piece suddenly gelled as a metaphor for the whole Biennale.

I asked one of the docents who are there to help you understand what you’re looking at if there had been any meetings. An earnest young art student, he answered, “I believe that the first one was cancelled, but there may be more scheduled.” Given the top secret nature of Favaretto’s description, I figured if we went to any bar that afternoon, it would serve as the bunker for conceptual inquiry into the nature of not just these objects, but any in the various countries’ pavilions.

A wall decoration from within the Venice Arsenale

Our second day at the Biennale, Caro and I were joined by her husband, Alberto, and we explored the even more vast exhibits in the Arsenale. Here are some of the exhibits, including the studies by Lorenzo Quinn of sculptures that are currently able to be seen all over Venice, including in the Arsenale.

Earlier in the year, as I planned for my trip to Venice, I’d read about the Lithuanian Pavilion, and the first prize (Leone d’Or) they’d won for “Sun and Sea.” The exhibit was evocative and sensory, with the spectators looking down from above onto the denizens of a temporary indoor beach. Joshua Barone’s review in the New York Times, along with their photos captures the feeling of the experience. I thought it was a little critical, considering the accomplishment of this trio of artists. Try getting 30 people to commit to spending 8 hours on the sand in their bathing suits over a period of 8 months. Probably in June it’s pretty easy, but consider November, when the cold winds blow off the water whipping through the Military Arsenale into this warehouse with open windows. I have limited experience with wrangling volunteers for theatre projects with our production of “Don’t Go” a few years ago with Sojourn Theatre. It’s harder than it looks. An article in the ArtTribune.com shared the invitation they put out to get people to participate. https://www.artribune.com/arti-visive/arte-contemporanea/2019/05/biennale-di-venezia-2019-padiglione-lituania-cerca-volontari-vacanzieri-per-lopera-performance/

Seeing the performers in their swimsuits, digging in the sand with their children and dogs was pretty wild. Almost every exhibit in the Biennale this year examined in some way the impact of humans on the environment, and this one provided a chance for us to watch ourselves in microcosm. The opera itself, parts of which we saw in our thirty minute stay at the exhibit, had some both haunting and comedic, jaunty tunes. It was fun to identify which of the singers might sing next, the man with the gray chest hair, who scanned the balcony idly as his tween son ran off to play with some other children, or the woman who barked her little portion of the score, a tirade against people who bring their dogs to the beach. There were two visible at the time, well behaved little dogs who also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Periodically, cast members would sprinkle bottled water on the sand to keep the dust from kicking up into people’s faces. I was reminded of the Robert Wilson piece I stage managed in Sicily years ago, staged in a 13th Century Granary building. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they trucked in tons of sand and suddenly it became a different exercise entirely. Sun and Sea was pretty fascinating, though. I didn’t want to leave.

Some other stunning works from the two days at the Biennale.

From the Indian Pavilion (I think?) These were powerful as a group, but even more powerful specific objects.

There was quite a bit of video and theatrical experiences aside from Sun and Sea. The Istralei Pavilion hosted “Field Hospital” where you entered the exhibit, which looked like the waiting room for an urgent care facility. There you were given a number, and you waitied approximately 10 minutes, while watching reassuringly placid videos about the type of care you would receie there. Everything felt very hospital-like. All the staff were wearing white coats, and were very gentle with the visitors. Once your number was called, you went to the registration table, where you were given a paper wrist band, and the opportunity to select which video you would see in the treatment area. The videos ranted in topics from transgender bullying to The Palestinian question. Up the stairs from registration, you were guided into one of three padded rooms where you were told to follow instructions. I did, but after emerging from the booth, I realized they were not soundproof, so everyone in the outside waiting area had heard my primal screams.

On we went into the treatment room, where a large array of reclining chairs held other patients who were watching videos, and then watching additional material (second opinions ) from experts with knowledge of the topics of the videos. Once you finished watching, the “nurse” came and freed you from the chair, giving you a rubber bracelet to replace the paper one, which said “Field Hospital” on it. It was an eerie experience, especially for Caro. whose video was a little more graphic than mine. (I won’t spoil the exhibit for those of you who are going by telling you which videos we watched.) Suffice it to say that once we emerged from the Field Hospital, we were ready to go home and also to get a cold drink before taking the Vaporetto back home.

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.

Be a Good Little Widow

Friday night’s adventure consisted of a theatre outing to the Odyssey Theatre on the Westside with my neighbor/griever-in-common, Marilyn, to see a play entitled Be a Good Little Widow. When I signed up for the tickets, I confess that I thought the title was How to… That sounded incredibly instructive. Then I discovered that two of our current stage management students were working on the show, and it was closing weekend, so I thought it’s now or never for me to get instruction on the new path my life has taken. On closer reflection, I don’t think I need instruction, and if I did, would I want to be a good little widow? Or a raging, bigger than life WIDOW! The latter seems more inviting.

Given the title, I expected that the Odyssey lobby would be filled with lonely hearted and unwilling singles. Partially accurate. What I did not expect was the full on life-force of current and former USC School of Dramatic Arts students clamoring at the gate. The show starred Adrienne Visnic, and was directed by Brendan Baer, both alumni. The lobby was filled with about a dozen young artists, skewing the average demographic by about forty years.

Kate Harrow (of Bow and Harrow ) and Christina Bryan (Stage Manager Extraordinaire)

Bekah Brunstetter’s play is technically well constructed, introducing us to the newlywed couple, Melody and Craig, in their first days living in their tidy, tiny new split story home, rendered effectively by Scenic Designer Pete Hickok. Brunstetter fakes us out, by introducing Craig’s mother, Hope, a widow, into thinking she might be the titular tutor. But any self-respecting playgoer knows that the adjectives good and little probably don’t refer to the mother of the young couple, however youthful she looks. It’s with a growing sense of dread that we hear about Craig’s frequent air travel for his work. In spite of their visible affection, we become aware of Melody’s honeymoon jitters about her marriage and her mother-in-law. Visnic aptly captures the shock and entropy of the newly widowed in the aftermath of the inevitable plane crash,. She succumbs to the planning expertise of Hope, who overtakes and executes the offstage funeral for her son, Craig. Melody soon exhibits the expected raw grief of a young and vibrant widow. Visnic excels in physical abandon, beginning with the ragged breathing of her anything-but-flowing yoga practice, to the uninhibited half-dressed dancing, vodka bottle vertically poised over her mouth. I was going to say it was the universal dread of every widow to lose oneself in numbing self-debasement, but I realize that without researching this further, I can only say I dread that image and path.

On the way home from the play, Marilyn and I talked non-stop. She’d joined some of the other audience members in the ladies room afterwards, where she reported the camaraderie of so many widows in seclusion bordered on an open therapy session. Fortified by the dramatization of loss we’d shared, she and I confided the origin stories of our widowhood. The comfort of sharing these intimate details is what happens between widows and widowers, but not generally with the public at large, who frankly, don’t particularly want to hear it.

Keeping these stories contained on a “need to know basis” is part of how our society defines “being a good little widow.” I reject this model. It’s something we all eventually experience and there’s nothing to be ashamed about learning how to grieve. And here’s the thing. As in anything in life, death isn’t only sad. The moments around a loved one’s death can be full of love and laughter, profound feelings, expressions of fear, superficial worries, triumphs of resilience, gestures of trust and faith. I remember the night after my grandmother’s death, my brothers and I were bunked in our childhood beds in the bedroom above the kitchen in our grandparent’s home. In the dark, we lay there exchanging our best recipes, my brother Larry sharing his recipe for macaroni and cheese in minute detail. For a reason I can’t even remember now, though it may have been his serious tone about building the mac and cheese, but we couldn’t stop laughing. We giggled into the middle of the night, relieved from the events of the day by the instantaneous melting away of twenty years – by becoming children again in the dark under the duvets on those big wooden beds up in the attic bedroom. A moment I still remember another twenty-five years later.

Since discovering it, I’ve immersed myself in each episode of the podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking. They can’t come fast enough. I’m obsessed with Nora McInerny’s communal platform for not just looking back at grief and its origins, but looking forward to forging new lives.

My new strategy is to “Say yes to everything” but now manifest it in buying airplane tickets. Obviously I won’t be able to go everywhere, given my professorial constraints, both in free time and finances. Last week I booked a trip to the Fall Production Managers’ Forum conference hosted by The American Players’ Theatre in mid-September. Privileged to have been in the Forum for several years I’ve been constrained from traveling to the annual conferences. I’m now actively pursuing professional curiosities and deepening my work in my chosen field of Stage and Production Management.

Today was the day when I was supposed to get everything done for my trip to Italy. On the advise of another widow pal, I went to Michael’s to pick up the tiniest little jar you’ve ever seen so that a little bit of Jimmie can go with me to Italy and ride a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice, or climb a hill with me in Umbria. Nails done, haircut, dinner with friends two nights in a row. I’m making room for life to find its way back in.

Latest Artwork from my granddaughter: L to R. Pink (Cupid the Dog), Green (sassy self-portrait of the artist), light green (Mom), Teal (Nana with seaweed in her hair), little teal blob with two arms (artist’s little sister) being held by Dad (extremely active and apparently hard to render).

Life is good. Be in nature as frequently as you can, see the art, laugh and be as irreverent as you can be serious. Know your foibles. Keep perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. Let those whom you love know it often.

My beautiful tribe.

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.

Ecdysis of Grief- Life Goes Forward

I’m assembling one of my emeals tonight, an orange rosemary pork loin, with gluten-free spaghetti and broccoli on the side. While the pork was reaching room temp, after marinading for a whole day in it’s delicious garlicky dressing, I had thirty minutes to go try on the dress I’m wearing tomorrow to probably the fanciest wedding I’ve ever been to. (No offense meant to the scores of beautiful weddings I’ve attended in lavish settings – this is just a hunch.)

Slithering in a reverse ecdysis into the satiny foundation garment, yes, the one with teutonic cups, (I choose that one over the other that has no escape hatch; ladies you know what I mean, right?), even though the other girdle is softer and a little less confining, there would be nothing worse than having to completely disrobe at the Jonathan Club, to the mortification of the bride’s family and friends.

Next comes the heavily beaded Mother of the Groom dress, which I step my sausage-link-like torso into, raising the beaded sleeves up and over my shoulders. I reach back and start to zip up the dress. Oops. Can’t get there from here.

The last time I wore the dress was, obviously, for our son’s wedding. The last time I wore the dress, I had a husband to zip me up. I say this as much for dramatic effect as for truth. Surprisingly, I’m not emotional about this right now. We widows have discoveries like this all the time, at the most ridiculous moments, while attempting to sheath the body deemed 10 pounds too heavy by the doctor earlier in the week. In fumbling for the zipper, I’m brought back to ground zero. The source of my tsuris. The reason I need to lose 10 pounds, because grief is assuaged by late night snacking while watching the umpteen different series about grief that are we can now stream and binge watch. It’s a classic Catch-22.

By the way, Dr. S., I’m well on my way to fitting into that dress, because just between you and me, the gluten-free pasta was completely inedible. Gluten-free pasta is like near beer. Too close and yet too far away. What’s the point?

Seriously. Have you noticed? It started last November with The Kominsky Method, featuring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas as two best friends dealing with the death of Alan Arkin’s wife among other things. I found the show sometime in late November, literally right after Jimmie went to the great casting office in the sky. The first episode featured the definitely first-world problem of what to do with Arkin’s dead wife’s Beverly Hills closet full of purses valued way higher than the salary of any random Associate Professor. I’m just saying. I binge watched all of those, laughing through my tears.

Being human and being hurt are the same damn thing.

Alan Arkin The Kominsky Method

I moved on to Dead to Me, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and the latest, After Life, starting Ricky Gervais, who is prone to considerably worse decisions than snacking at night. Somewhere along the way, a friend told me about the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Nora McInerny’s compassionate, funny and personal answer to life’s challenges. I find myself soaking up these comic voices of doom hungrily – the one thing they all have in common is that everyone speaks the truth with gusto and no small amount of panache, and it’s funny, as the truth often is. It’s healing, too. So now I’m reading Lori Gottlieb’s latest book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone because I heard her speaking on the TTfA podcast mentioned above. I wish I could say I was taking a scholarly approach to my choices of viewing and reading, but if I’m honest, and have we learned nothing but how important that is?My approach is more like watching the slinky on the steps Christmas morning. Each discovery cascading into the next.

I’ve always found solace in books, and find reading especially grounding lately. Tonight, I came home from work, dropped my bag at the apartment, picked up my kindle, and strode out the door to the park to our bench, where I read for a while until it got too cold, then did about five laps around the park, reading, while competitively counting my steps for the end of the workweek challenge. Nevertheless, Christopher won. Oh well, there’s always next week. And wait till I get to Italy!

There are only about three weeks until I leave for my Italian adventure, and the plans have come together. In between now and then, I’ve planned a weekend jaunt to the mountains to practice my grandparenting skills which are just adequate if my three-year-old granddaughter is any judge. And she is, by the way. I loved the Grandmother’s Mother’s Day card which I received after my Easter visit. Chosen with love by my daughter-in-law, and annotated with three-year-old love.

I’m keeping busy, hosted the first Survivor’s Supper last night, with two of my friends recently bereft of their spouses. After dinner, two of us headed over to see the latest work by director Nancy Keystone, entitled A Jordan Downs Illumination. You should check it out; this is the last weekend it’s running. An amazing evening of immersive theatre in R & D over the past two years and presented by The Cornerstone Theatre and members of Jordan Downs, shares the history of Watts and the Jordan Downs Housing Projects now undergoing a massive redevelopment. The work, which strove to retain and share the history even as the construction advances, was personal, fascinating, and also hands on. The audience gets to be actively involved in being witness to history happening. I highly recommend it.

What is Easter?

Ask a three-year-old raised in a non-religious household “What is Easter?” and you get pretty much what you’d expect, especially if she’s clutching the headless 12″ chocolate rabbit Nana brought her, methodically munching her way down his torso.

It’s Easter egg hunts…..(chomp) and candy….(thoughtful chewing) And the Easter Bunny. Where is the Easter Bunny?

Easter embodied in the Chocolate Bunny.

More than that, my granddaughter will likely think of Easter when she hears the fire truck go by, and may, through the slip of the tongue, refer to the Fire Bunny rather than the Easter Bunny. All of this is to be expected, when the fire department hosts the annual Easter Egg hunt at the local park and the sound that heralds the beginning of the egg hunt is a protracted blast of the firetruck’s siren.

I grew up in a fairly religious family. I now like to think of us as Public Presbyterians, our family’s worship having been more community-based rather than faith-based, though I’m pretty sure my Mom was more spiritual than the other four of us put together. We spent a lot of our youth in Sunday School in the basement of the large First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, PA, learning about Jesus, of course, but more importantly, painting small shards of glass with window paint to reassemble them into little stained glass sculptures. I also “assisted” my mother when she chaired the church fair, with little tables in the basement filled with home made crafts like these that were sold to raise money. I attended Brownies, and Girl Scouts in the same church basement. I have a faint recollection of the youth paster calling me “BeElzebub” which was only a short distance from the usual bastardization of my name by people, Elsbeth not being a common name. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s why I now call myself “Els.” Be Elz a Bub.

I associate Easter with my vestments of Easter, one year the pretty light-weight aquamarine wool coat with silky frog closures that I wore to the Easter service when I was about eight. I remember the Easter Bunny coming to deliver a basket of candy to me when I went to Florida with my Mom to stay with her parents in their condo when I was about six. I remember being very impressed that he was able to find me all the way down there. I also associate it with community, as the entire congregation was invited to Mrs. Boetticher’s house for brunch following the service on Easter Sunday. Gazelle Boetticher was a lovely Methodist minister’s widow, who, in addition to hosting this chaotic lunch, also baked birthday cakes throughout the year for all the children who attended. I don’t remember a lot about her, other than her extensive spoon and plate collection, which decorated the walls of her dining room, and the warm circle of church members who celebrated this holiday with her.

Easter was tangible for me in a way that it is for most small children, I imagine. The anticipation of the hunt, the glory of the prize of finding eggs stuffed with candy. Dyeing the eggs is a ritual I feel lucky to have learned. There is always at least the one lost egg which turns up with a spectacular reek a week or so after Easter. My daughter-in-law is smart about this, and has her daughter hide the eggs outside, where any lost eggs will merely feed the many members of the animal kingdom.

The thing about three year olds (as well as fifty-nine-year-olds), is they aren’t very clever about hiding Easter eggs. This is probably just as well, because they also aren’t very good at remembering where they hid the eggs. And when the game is both hide and seek, this is a useful shortcoming. Makes it more fun.

Aside from any religious aspect, Easter is fun. It’s especially fun if you have a brand new grand baby to meet over Easter weekend, which I did. Talk about a boost! Babies are redemptive.

First photo of Nana with Gdaughter 2.

Babies provide us with the lens to see the good, the vulnerable, to bring out the kindness and compassion that our modern society seems so desperately to want to squash. Traveling to the mountains, separated from the internet, nothing but family to focus on is centering and quelling of the worldly chaos I know I’ve physically internalized. Even when the exercise occasionally turns to the quelling of three-year-old tantrums, it is still soul-refilling.

Easter means redemption to many of a more Christian stripe than I. And there is no greater season of hopeful redemption than the first months of widowhood. Even the atheistic griever must confess to the willing suspension of disbelief that our partner or spouse will rise again from the dead, push aside the rock separating them from us, and reunite with us. Lingering on this path, however, is the way to insanity, I’ve come to realize.

Not surprisingly, I find myself thinking a lot about death lately. I’ve removed the WeCroak App from my phone after a particularly graphic quote startled me away. I guess my loss is recent enough that five daily reminders that we will die isn’t yet restorative or comforting. I’ve gravitated to dinners and theatre outings with my also-recent widows and widowers, but recognize that this desire to be helpful in others’ healing ironically may be holding me back from my own. As the semester ended yesterday, I realized I would no longer have the artificial buzz of the work hive to sustain my attentions, and that I would need to dig deeper to discover and re-discover what it is that I want to spend my time on. Just as the mountain snows’ melting reveal summer’s tools left behind, the passing days of solitude reveal the work still to be done.

Time to heft the Collins axe once again.

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!

Tension Tamer

In the recent MFA Year 3 Rep production of Swimmers, by Rachel Bonds, within her architecturally clear human rabbit-warren-of-an-office building, Dennis, offers the new intern, Vivian, the opportunity to sit for a minute and have a cup of tea. Overweight, unhappy in his work, Dennis resorts to 20-minute naps in the bathroom every afternoon to kill time within the boredom of his day. As played by Gabriel Leyva Lezcano, Dennis gets mixed results with his sanity siesta, but nevertheless has time over tea to reassure Vivian that her workplace humiliations are minuscule next to his own.

His desk sports a huge display of Celestial Season teas, each one which he tantalizes her with good humored description. Half of us in the audience want to pull up a chair when he intones sibilantly, seductively:

Tension Tamer. Tension Tamer. Tension Tamer.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with significant pain in my back. It is physically real, but also exacerbated by tension and being sedentary. The pain has dug in its little claws throughout the first quarter of 2019. I’m seeing the chiro and this week, had a massage which zapped the pain completely for almost two days. Dennis’ invitation – “Tension Tamer, Tension Tamer, Tension Tamer” calls fiercely to me. Give me a cup, no, make that a whole pot.

Yesterday, the final day of Spring Break, happened this year to coincide with the worst week of scandal at USC (speaking of Workplace Humiliations), found me sobbing in my office after my office mate Hannah went off to a staff St. Patty’s Day pot luck. It was the first time since Jimmie died that I cried, ugly wrenching sobs with no way of stopping them. I was happy it coincided with lunch, so my misery was private. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t actually make myself a cup of Tension Tamer, the left over bags sitting in our tea shelf. It might have helped, but also, a good cry was probably long overdue. I don’t tell you this to evoke sympathy – oh, poor Els, but to let you know that grief is hard-heartedly autonomous in its course. There’s really no way to predict when you will be damp-eyed, or reduced to a full throated blubbering. Friday I was definitely “under the boat” to quote my niece, Martha’s analogy about grief.

Perhaps, too, I was mourning that last weekend’s pleasures were through, in spite of the fact this weekend was also jammed with fun things to do; Friday I found myself mentally distancing myself from all of them.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my dear friends and a fellow alumna from St. Paul’s School, Nora, who flew west to spend the weekend, and check in on me. In addition to doing some of the closer to home tourist things you can do in DTLA: dinner at the Original Pantry Cafe, riding the sleek elevator with no buttons to the Sky Lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, walking to the Grand Central Market, Nora and I sat for hours, often in our jammies, sipping our tea and coffee and solving the problems of the world. Before her arrival, Nora had conspired with our LA based SPS classmates to have dinner in one of their beautiful homes on Friday night.

Playing tourists in DTLA. Clockwise from Top L: Original Pantry Restaurant, in the lobby at the Intercontinental Hotel, and at Grand Central Market

Given the plaudits of some of our classmates, (many of us bear the same educational pedigree of Robert Mueller) that initially was fairly tension-inducing, but after settling in to chat about past and present realities, it ended up being the perfect antidote to stress and grief.

This weekend, I’d scheduled a phone call with my dear friends who I’m visiting in Italy. Our chat was something I was really looking forward to. I’ve booked the tickets, but still need to solidify the time/place within that two week span.

A walk in Descanso Gardens, again, something I’ve been looking forward to all week, but when I woke, pain tugging at my back like an impatient two-year-old whose parent is on the phone, I questioned whether I’d have time to sandwich it in.

The gym, I’d scheduled at 9:30 but was an event my back seemed to have other feelings about. Beginning with the decision to go to the gym right after my chat with my pals about Italy made the day turn around. Later, still sweaty from my workout, I met my Merry Widow Master Gardener friend Jennifer at Descanso Gardens to see the tulips which are in bloom.

Tonight I’m off to the theatre with another friend to compare notes on the world and enjoy the remaining hours before Spring Break is over. I think Jimmie would approve of my current philosophy: say yes to everything. Even if it means having a good cry now and again, followed by a cup of Tension Tamer tea.

Jimmie watches calmly in a playground in Santa Barbara last summer.

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.