[Boys Off Sobbing] Bouts of Sobbing –

Here in California, and at USC specifically, we recently practiced for “The Great ShakeOut,” a state-wide Earthquake Preparedness Drill. Under the guidance and leadership of the university’s Fire, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we performed the drill, each school setting up it’s Emergency Response Team and executing well-defined plans.

Thursday, October 17 2019 began with a triage drill at the Health Center. My overacting ended me up in a neck brace, but I was next to a guy who had “lost his hand”. We were sitting waiting for the “ambulance to pick us up to take us for further care,” he holding his hand in a bag, me wearing my brace. (Though his right arm had been treated, he carried a left hand in his left hand, which made us laugh for a minute. I had to be discharged early from the drill so I could join my team to set up our Departmental Operations Center to be ready for the 10:17 Earthquake. While the idea of a scheduled earthquake is absurd, the scheduling of practice for the inevitable earthquake is anything but. It offers us a way to get it into our bodies, so that when the real one happens, we are ready.

At 10:17, we dropped, covered and held under the flimsy table which was our Departmental Operations Center, where you can see me ready to enter the data collected from our Emergency Response Teams and our Building Emergency Response Teams on our Status board. We use WhatsApp for that communication.

Also on my WhatsApp chat list is the chat group composed of just myself and my two dear college friends, Susan and Bob. That Emergency Response Team is entitled “Loving Jimmie and Els” and was started by Susan about a year ago when my husband had a fall that ultimately quickly ended his life.

We started it in the days after we’d returned home for hospice, a brief three-day period that was insular and emotional, of course, as brief hospices are, and over those days, my friends sent me so much love via this emergency friendship group. Unlike messenger, WhatsApp allowed me this morning to roll back to the beginning of the chat quickly, and to see the real-in time responses to what we were going through right at the end of Jimmie’s life, including a photo of Jimmie in the hospice bed which I’d impulsively deleted from my photos because it wasn’t how I wanted to remember him.

Over the past year, Bob and Susan have supported me on every front, nearly every day via this Emergency Response Team message platform. My earthquake was personal, one that we’d prepared for through many many iterations of hospital care over the years. But critical to the success of surviving the actual incident was having people to share it with immediately and in the aftermath. Looking back on our messages, we shared pictures and memories and plans for future travels together and past travels. At one point, I referred to the chat as a “life feed for me.” We arranged Skype chats to check in and see how each other were doing. Like typical digital tourists, we spent a good five minutes at the beginning of each of our chats figuring out the technology. Honestly, it was ridiculous. But hey, that’s why we practice. To get it right when we need it.

On the other coast, Bob and his son just concluded a similarly quick hospice for his partner and his son’s father. We used the same Loving Jimmie and Els chat over the past ten months as he tended to his loving partner, Mitchell. In honor of Mitchell we need to change the name of our group to Loving Bob and Mitchell. Otherwise it’s hard to be helpful all the way from Los Angeles. I’ve been thinking about him and their son Nate, and also reflecting back on our own hospice with Jimmie as we approach the year mark.

The waiting is the easy part. That’s not to say it’s emotionally easy. Of course it’s not. But while you are in the cocoon with your loved one, you have supportive nursing staffing (if you’re privileged to have health care and resources) and most likely you have family visiting to pay their respects and to say goodbye. You have a solemn intimacy couched in the shared love of your partner/parent/child. I remember on Jimmie’s last day, one of Chris’ best childhood friends, now a cop, dropped by to pay his respects. The two of them laughed at the foot of Jimmie’s bed about all the trouble they’d gotten into when they were younger, and under his watch. Having him visit normalized the process of dying.

Those visits are so critical to the family as they grapple with their emotions. Tugged by the undertow of their loved one’s leaving, it is easy and normal to want to follow them into the afterlife. The visits by friends and family remind you that it isn’t time for you to die with your loved one even though you feel like you want to. There is more life to live and loving family and friends to support you on your first unsteady steps away from the tumultuous surf.

The end of life scene is different from other social settings where people come to visit. It’s purer, somehow. No one expects you to serve up food for them. The visitors do that for you. They are there because they want to be there. Why? To let the person who’s dying know that they love them, and care enough to come and sit facing their friend’s death, but also their own mortality. Because you can’t sit with someone who’s dying without thinking about your own exodus and the remaining purpose of your life were you to be in their position.

Sitting with your loving and dying friends where you all know that time is running out, frames everything in this context. I’m a pretty touchy feely person, but even with repeated experiences, I find my words choked and unavailable. How do you summarize a twenty-five year relationship in a fifteen to twenty-minute visit? This is part of the earthquake drill I still need to rehearse in order to be ready.

What happens immediately after is a frenzy of arrangements, people coming in to what had been a few minutes or hours ago the hallowed ground of your loved one’s departure. Now, your home is the workspace for mortuary workers, hospice care personnel clearing out their equipment. Then there is the silence. The part where no amount of sobbing or screaming or pounding your fist into pillows or walls can bring your loved one back. After you’ve tired yourself out with expressions of anguish, there follows a cavernous silence, an emptiness of loss that feels insurmountable. Simply, what was is no more. The love you had for them is still there, but it echoes back at you in terrifying starkness. Thirty plus years of intimacy and friendship and love gone in an instant. When it happened to us, Chris and I had to get out of the house. We went for a bike ride, of all things, grabbing metro bikes and riding from our condo to Little Tokyo, where we ate sushi, then walked miles back to the empty apartment. And the feelings were epic – guilt (did I do enough? Why didn’t I spend more time at the end at home?), fear (how will I survive without him?) rage (against the disease, the loneliness which you already are beginning to feel, the pain), and eventually, exhaustion, as all the days or months or years of staying vigilant collapse onto you like weighted plates, threatening to crush you. And frankly, you sort of wish they would. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with all of the niggling details of death – the acquisition of dozens of death certificates, of stationery to respond to people who will write in sympathy, the faces of the people who come to see you expressing their love and sorrow for your loss. And may continue to do so far after you need or want them too. Bob expressed it well in one of the messages – Bouts of sobbing – which Siri had helpfully translated as Boys off sobbing. Equally appropriate.

This year, on the anniversary of our return home from the hospital to hospice, I have two tickets to see David Sedaris at UC Irvine. I can’t imagine a more comforting place to spend the evening. I’d booked the tickets a year ago intending to go with my dear friend. During my recent visit, we talked about the fact that she wouldn’t be going with me. It was a bittersweet moment to acknowledge the rapid change in our fortunes.

Not to sound like a modern Cassandra, but like the catastrophic earthquake in Southern California, loss is coming to all of us. How we prepare ourselves to weather those losses is a personal choice. I’ve preferred to suit up and practice going through the motions of it with others. My recommendation to you is that you create your Emergency Response Team now, utilize the tools of communication we are so lucky to have to do it.

Strong Solo Voices and On Being Carfree

Last week was an amazing theatre week. Wednesday night I attended “On Beckett” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, starring the incandescent Bill Irwin, sharing his life-long love of and relationship with Samuel Beckett’s texts. Sitting in the center of the Kirk Douglas Theatre before the show, uncannily close to where I sat for opening night of Endgame, I cracked open my program to discover the Dramaturgical pages filled with pictures of Beckett performers, including my darling Jimmie, in the ashcan next to Charlotte Rae’s, circa 2016. (Scroll through to page 4/8 to see the page of which I speak. ) I continued to think throughout the ensuing evening how much Jimmie would have enjoyed this production.

Irwin is a master, his affinity with the distinctly Irish voice of Samuel Beckett so clear; his training as a clown made Beckett’s humority (do you like my new word?) powerful and immediate. Irwin removes all distance between himself and us with his personal narrative through the work. The fact that he shared texts most of us probably weren’t familiar with was also a bonus. The not-so-nutty professor, complete with gag podium.

Thursday evening, Sarah Jones was in the house, performing Sell/Buy/Date at USC as part of Visions and Voices in the Bing Theatre, packed to the rafters with appreciative students and faculty. Her play, which had appeared a little over a year ago at the Geffen Playhouse, is a complex jewel. Avoiding spoiler alerts, let’s just say her framing device is brilliant; positioning herself in a time frame about thirty years hence allowed her to skewer our behaviors and sharply direct our attention to the topic of sexual exploitation. On Sunday, the front page of the New York Times was a chilling reminder of how this show, originally performed in 2016, is maybe even more relevant today. Framing is everything. I told my freshmen seminar students that this is why the theatre has the power to change society.

Last Friday, I took the Dash bus to USC from my DTLA home, went to the Transportation office to turn in my parking pass in exchange for the EZ-Metro Pass. The pass allows me to take the Bus, Metro and Dash to and from work, something that I’ve not done in recent years because of my caregiver need to be able to get home quickly. This is a big step, given the fact that we’re heading into “winter” and there are, God willing, bound to be rainy days and late nights after tech where I’d probably appreciate the comfort of my private car. But the $110 parking vs. the $40 EZ-Pass is compelling, as is the lightening of my carbon footprint. And I can still listen to my favorite podcasts and spend time thinking and decompressing from work before I get home, regardless of the hour. I spent the first few days feeling a little dependent on forces not aligned with my fervent desire to get home right after work, until last night, at 10:49PM, I walked up to the bus stop at Jefferson and Figueroa, under Felix’s watchful eye, pulled up the timetable for the 81 bus to discover it only runs one bus per hour… but due to arrive in about 1 minute! Which it did. I got onto the bus, found a seat, and was home by 11:05, feeling oddly privileged.

Under the watchful eye of Felix the Cat

You see, it’s all in the framing. I’ve decided this old house needs to be reframed, and I’ve begun the work. I still have the car sitting at home. If my legs give out from walking the 11,000 steps I’ve proclaimed I want to do each day then I can always get my parking pass back. But on the eve of Free Ride Day on LA Metro (Oct. 2), I’m happy it’s not just a one day choice, but feels like a shift in my lifestyle.

Saturday, I attended the life celebration of one of the former deans of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC, Robert Scales. It was a moving tribute to a man who as many people noted, would have hated the attention. Speaker after speaker talked about what Bob had done for them, either through introducing them to someone who could help them, or by helping them himself. His acts of kindness or opportunity or financial support were laid bare for all of us to see, yet again, reinforcing his legacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about who memorials are for and they’re a chance for us to take notice of each other and the impact we can have on others’ lives.

I’d spent Thursday running around in our new van, picking up loaner ghost lights to decorate the Bing to celebrate Bob, who’d made the witty little lamps as a hobby. In my travels, I got to visit one of Bob’s Los Angeles homes, the 24th Street Theatre, where he had been a constant support to that theatre. You can read more about Bob here through the words of Jay McAdams, one of the theatre’s Artistic Directors. Jay handed me two boxes of the whimsical lamps to use at the Bing. Here are a few pictures of some of the celebrants at Saturday’s event. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the ghost lights.

I just want to take a moment to shout out to our amazing Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea, who gracefully shuffled the week’s events into an already loaded deck. At the time, we had Men on Boats in tech, and our upcoming productions of Amsterdam and Cider House Rules, Parts 1 and 2 waiting for their attentions for hangs and focuses. And yet they powered through, making the School look great as well as our guests, Sarah Jones and the spirit of Bob Scales.

It’s been a busy week and no signs of getting less so in the coming weeks. I feel lucky to have had such wonderful support in this difficult transitional year. Don’t know where I’m transitioning to, but I feel the psychic and emotional shift from looking backwards to looking forward. A few weeks ago, I removed the slim silver bracelet depicted below from my wrist because it no longer seemed a funny and encouraging exhortation but instead a petulant wail of sadness I like to think belies my natural optimism about the future.

Interesting I hadn’t noticed the timestamp in this picture, but six months later, the bracelet no longer feels encouraging.

It’s all about the framing.

Tunnel Vision, Scarcity and Balance

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you are a college professor. Your hours are filled with prepping for classes, grading assignments, reading to stay ahead of your students, planning how to engage them in the topics at hand. Then there are meetings, trainings, and the relentless onslaught of email, each one dripping into your inbox, requiring at least 30 seconds to 5 minutes to adequately respond with the information requested. Because there’s never just an email:

Hi! Loved seeing you the other day. You look tired. Are you eating enough spinach?”

“Thanks, it was great to see you, too! Nope, I’ll add some more spinach to my diet. Thanks!”

That only took about 15 seconds and left me feeling pleased that someone noticed how tired I was, and even more so since I just purchased some spinach at the store a little while ago. But it’s never that simple.

I was rushing around last week, on Monday, returning from one of our buildings flung up on the north end of campus to my office in the southwest what I call “idyllic corner.” I was trucking along, at a pace my Dad trained me early to master; in order to keep up with him, it required one practically to skip. I wasn’t skipping back to my office, exactly, but I was powering along when my boot landed on a little perfectly round 2″ long stick, and suddenly I was going down and going down hard, my right hand outstretched to break my fall, my left hand holding my cell phone, grimace on my face, the whole thing, I’m sure in slo mo. My phone and I slammed hard onto the asphalt driveway between the shop and the theatre where my office is.

Oofa.

All I could think of as I picked myself up and dusted off my ego, pride and jeans, was “That would have been a disaster if I’d broken something. Time to slow down.”

Earlier, I’d been listening to this amazing series on one of my favorite podcasts, “Hidden Brain” with host Shankar Vendantam. A summer series, under the umbrella of “You, 2.0,” the episode, entitled “Deep Work,” guest, computer scientist Cal Newport, discussing his disciplined approach to work without interruption. It was tantalizing and extremely helpful. The idea of having large blocks of time where you allow yourself not to be interrupted by every incoming email or phone call in order to focus on the development of writing, or research, or even working on class prep sounds impossible to schedule in the fray of the semester. How do you do that?

I suppose it’s like training a pet. Which is to say it is really more about training the owner of the pet to be consistent and focussed on breaking the behaviors that you are trying to correct. About fifteen years ago, my husband and I had a series of extremely….er… hospitable dogs. They’d “welcome” our guests for about 20 minutes of enthusiastic barking, for which we rewarded/stuffed them with dog biscuits. This made hosting a large party a hellish venture for both us and the guests, but not, I must say, for the dogs, who proceeded to quiet down in the middle of the party and then ramp it up at the end to say “goodbye” to our guests with the same rewards coming. We hired a dog trainer, to the tune of $700.00, but unfortunately we weren’t able to break ourselves of the bad habits that fed our dogs’ bad behaviors. Not even for that grotesque financial incentive to succeed.

And so it is with distractions at work. We don’t block out work sessions four months in advance (Cal Newport does); nor do we currently adhere to the deep work time like he’s scheduled, and end the day with check of the weekly plan, a visit to his task list and a mantra where he basically checks out of work so that it doesn’t bleed into his evening or family life. That would be amazing, though, right? If we could do that?

I can visualize myself at my desk on a Friday afternoon at 6:00PM saying “There is nothing more here to be done this week. I’ll see you on Monday, dear little desk.” And standing up, gathering my things and walking out of the office. Uh. Nope. Not so fast!

Working in the theatre, both professionally and educationally bleeds a lot into your life. Many of the conversations I’ve had with students over the past fifteen years have been to listen to their fears about this idea of work/life balance. Can I have a family? I did. I have a wonderful family who supported my professional and creative work. I wonder if my son understands why I’d made some of those sacrifices, now that he is a working man with deep responsibilities and a young family? I hope he has more success in pulling the plug at the end of the day than I did.

Tunnel vision creates feelings of scarcity and the inability to manage things in our lives. This was illuminated in another episode entitled “Tunnel Vision.” It covered hunger, financial scarcity and loneliness, all of which can become crippling to your normal standard operating procedures. I guess grief probably falls in there, too, as it reflects a scarcity of your recently lost loved one, with resulting loneliness.

A question that my coach asked me recently has stuck with me.

What are you tolerating in your life right now?

Examples she gave were, clutter, poor lighting, broken car. This is an activating question to ask yourself. Last week, after asking myself, I:

  • Fixed the motor shield under my car that had been kissing the road for months. And by kissing, I mean sloppy, slovenly, snogging.
    • I decided to just remove it ($30) rather than replace it ($465), so also a prudent financial move.
  • Cleaned off my desk so that I had some space to think.
  • Went to the movies on a weeknight with friends and laughed a lot. (not just tolerating loneliness)

I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but actually, when you are pulling yourself out of grief, it is quite a lot. Ask any of my BIGs (Buddies in Grief). They’ll tell you I had an amazing week.

The last thing I’m aware is of these days is my physical balance or lack thereof. At the end of each morning’s workout, we have 20-25 minutes of yoga. I’m aware of the difference from day to day or even side to side of my balance. It isn’t physical, but mental, I think. Breathe. Be present. Catch yourself and try again. It’ll come back.

Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

Thirty-six Years Later

I visited Venice after a 36-year hiatus and expected to remember my way around that complicated jewel box of a city. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Venice is a walking city and the routines of daily life had enabled me to learn about five ways to get home, how to walk in a narrow street in the rain with an umbrella, and how to choose an alternate route when there was someone too slow in your way. Guess what. I’m the slow one now. Continue reading “Thirty-six Years Later”

Chi Tocca Il Bambino Diventa Padrino

Saturday, June 22nd in Civitella was the Feast of Corpus Domine, and our hostess, Marina has a tradition of hanging banners from the windows of the Apti Palazzo, to greet the procession as it passes through the arch on its tour of the town. In previous years, the festive gold and red banners (if I squinted, they looked cardinal and gold to me ala USC) which she’d had made for this occasion were hung with ribbons from four windows on the south side and three on the north, and one in the main entryway of the Palazzo.

Bob and Sally had also traditionally helped with hanging the banners as you need one person on the ground to adjudicate what their level was, as well as the lay of the cloth against the rough stone. This year I was indoctrinated in the hanging of the banners. Here Bob invoked the powers of my stage management training, but the truth of the matter was that Sally’s mathematical orderliness came much more handily into play.

Our meeting time was scheduled for 10:30, so when we arrived, Marina had the main entry gate open, and gave me a complete tour of the Palazzo, which is stunning. Again, the temperature of these interiors is a good twenty degrees cooler than that outside, all managed by the shutters and windows. Generally, when a room isn’t being used, it is dark keeping the rooms cool. The standards of housekeeping in Italy always take me by surprise, from the first night I arrived at the Casalone in Scoppieto and slipped my tired feet between the crisp ironed sheets, to this tour of Marina’s Palazzo, where nary a dust mite appeared, the dark wooden doors gleaming with their polish. Honestly it puts most Americans to shame. Certainly myself.

We quickly determined that Bob and Marina would go below while Sally and I tied the ribbons on the banners and hoisted them out the windows. Stakes were high, but with guidance from below, we placed the banners. The biggest unknown was the strength of the wind, which tends to pick up in the afternoon and early evening.

After completing the task, Marina graciously complimented me on my stewardship of this process. And here again is the other reason you need to come to Civitella. I’m not sure if it’s something in the air, a generosity of spirit that heroicizes the visitor, but I am sure that my twenty minutes of participation has secured a lifelong invitation to Civitella. As we left to go get lunch, Marina taught us the saying with which I’ve entitled this post.

Chi tocca il bambino diventa padrino. Or, he who touches the baby becomes its Godfather.

In other words, this job was mine for life. Done deal. Similarly, on my last day at Scoppieta, I participated in the harvest of the walnuts for making Nocchino, a strong liquor made with forty walnuts quartered and put into a bottle with 180 proof alcohol and left to percolate until it becomes a deep dark headache-inducing beverage. Standing under the walnut tree counting the nuts garnered me an invitation for the olive harvest in October. Believe me I am sorely tempted!

After lunch and a nap, we returned to unfurl the banners just as Marina and Carlo went to Mass. While they were there, we took advantage of taking another walk around Civitella, and ending at the Museo Ova Pinto. Each year they have a town wide competition for who can decorate an egg most creatively. This year the theme was Leonardo’s five hundredth birthday. Here were some of the eggs we saw in the museum. My favorite was the children’s contribution in ho or of Leonardo, which put the whole angry birds thing in perspective. My plane neighbor would have really appreciated it, I think.

After the mass, the procession began, with the small group of local worshippers and us following through the town. There were portable speakers for everyone to hear the prayers and be able to sing.

The town had been decorated with flower petals by some young teens along the processional route. After the procession, all the flowers that hadn’t blown away had been swept up. We didn’t see it because we were busy striking our banners and planning how we would improve the hanging next year. Because, as we now know,

Chi tocca Il bambino diventa padrino.

Languorous Days, Illuminated Nights

The mornings shape up with a singular clarity of no mornings since my childhood. First my feet emerge from the heavy Italian cotton sheets, dropping onto the warm terra-cotta tiles of the bedroom, windows agape, and I peer out onto the sun dappled lawn. Two plump gray and white pigeons, (palome) , peck around in the grass, their gossipy calls sounding like “Chi a detto? Chi a detto?”

Breakfast consists of tea with milk, a bowl of granola with fruit and yogurt, or on the occasional morning, a special French toast with maple syrup. We aren’t rushed, but have a healthy itinerary ahead of us.

Friday we visited Todi, a town just northeast of Civitella, guided by charming Marina, the impressively bi-lingual landlord to the farmhouse where my friends have stayed for many years (8).

She took us first to the Church of San Fortunato, a church constructed in the 13th century. There was a music festival in Todi, so at the end of our tour (Giro) we stopped by the Palazzo of Tio Carlo, where in the grand salon, there were two music performances: a couple of guitarists singing autobiographical songs about Ireland, followed by a chorus of two dozen high school students from the local high school, singing a mix of music across the ages from an English fifteenth century song to a Beatles encore number. Dressed in black, they were conducted by a sophomore college student, passion writ large on his face. I sat in a chair along the windows separating us from another concert (Benny Goodman) outside, and marveled at his ability to keep the students focused and in tune.

We wondered why they had scheduled competing concerts so close together and decided that the outdoor concert that was supposed to be in the main piazza had been displaced by the youth soccer field which was installed there.

The competition outside was some line dancers, wearing bilious lime green dresses, hence, “lime dancers.”

Arriving a half hour before the concerts, we had been ushered into the gracious 16th Century Palazzo by our hosts, the sprightly 84-year-old Tio Carlo and his wife Tita, who gave us a tour of the Palazzo, Tio Carlo first rushing ahead to fling open the windows. It called into mind the Dutch paintings of women opening their windows to throw out the slops. Not because of a lack of grace by Tio Carlo, but due to the physicality of the action of opening the windows. What I’d never considered was how architecture informs the body mechanics of daily life until I reached into the dark bathroom the other evening to turn on the light switch and laughed as my hand butted up against the wall about a third of the depth of the wall. The activity of living in an Umbrian Palazzo would be time consuming but would keep you fit. The stairs alone, with their 10-12 rises challenge your stride. The first day I arrived and mounted the steps of the Apti Palazzo in Civitella Del Lago where Marina and her husband Carlo live, I panted like a trout flung on the shore. In the subsequent days, I’m happy to say I gained power in my legs. What would have been an impossible flight of stairs we conquered yesterday easily in Montefiascone to see the Cattedrale de Santa Marguerita by dint of our post prandial chant of “One Carbonara, two, Carbonara….on the way down I silently chanted mascarpone uno, moscarpone due…You get the idea.

In short, every day a destination or three. Hill town, Chiesa, home, pranzo (lunch) under the pergola, nap, then dinner (cena).

Over the past four days, we’ve visited Todi, Perugia, Assisi (more on that in another post), Orvieto, and Montefiascone. The latter was less impressive than any of the former, however, from where we sit at Casalone, if you gaze across the valley on a clear morning, you can see in the far distance the bump which is Santa Marguerita. Yesterday afternoon, as we stood in the courtyard outside the crypt of Santa Lucia, quite gaudily reconstructed with the stations of the cross around the place of worship, Sally took a moment with her GPS to make sure we could spot Civitella.

I’m so glad she did because now, in my mind I can see the three of us panting atop the wall. Our initial enthusiasm about the elevator waned when we realized that we were dropped at the base of the aforementioned carbonara steps.

Each day I feel stronger, physically and my grief subsides more with each Umbrian vista. Last night at 3:00 AM, as I slept in the monastic comfort of my suite in Casalone, I heard a voice sharply call “Els!”

I sat bolt upright in the darkness, then settled to listen to the rest of my instructions. The crickets outside continued but the voice was gone. I got up to use the bathroom, and returning to bed, I happened to glance out the casement into the night. I stopped abruptly, seeing the bright stars directly beyond the tree line. I leaned out the window, moved beyond my sudden awareness of the lack of the light pollution I’ve grown to accept, but more importantly that I was called to witness the glory of the Scoppieto night sky by whom? I stood there for a good five minutes, identifying the Big Dipper. I mourned my having missed this nightly show, and vowed to see it in my one remaining night at Casalone.

I the morning, I scattered some of Jimmie’s ashes in the lavendar overlooking Civitella because I figured his instructions were at least clear in that regard.

Old Friends, New Memories

I am in the Umbrian hillside town of Civitella Del Lago, a fifteenth century enmured town, the guest of dear friends and my former drama teacher and his wife. The trip to get here was crowded on the plane, a non-stop twelve hour flight from Los Angeles to Rome. I was wedged between two men, the man on my left declaring in the first five minutes a long terror of flying. The man on my right declared very little beyond his inexperience with flying, when he queried about the blanket and pillow combo, are you supposed to take the plastic off this to use it?

I figured that if you were going to spend twelve hours with someone in such close proximity you should at least know their names, but having set that laudable goal, only came away with knowing Terrified Jim’s name to my left. The gentleman to my right I will call Angry Bird because he spent at least 8 hours of the 12 playing Angry Birds on the games available on the seat screen.

Otherwise the flight was uneventful, occasionally freezing, and Terrified Jim, whom I complemented at the end of the flight, confessed that he thought he was going to have a heart attack, he was so scared. And this, my friends, is why we don’t introduce ourselves on long plane rides. Because what would you say to the self-professing pedophile or the binger/purger who lets you-know-that at the start of the journey?

Hi, I’m the world champion of spelling bees. (Actually, that would have been very helpful because I was having some trouble with the crossword puzzles so they might have been an asset.)

Anyway, I was able to see a few movies I’d missed in the movie theatre, in modified wide screen format, all 4×8 inches of it. And I really think there could have been fewer uses of the word freaking in the lastest remake of The Star is Born.

Aside from that, the flight was as one always wishes, uneventful, and the plane touched down at exactly the appropriate time, 12:15 in Rome. My Fitbit watch, I was upset to find, spent about a day to get acclimated. I needed to tell my phone that I was in Witaly, at which point Siri changed her attitude and at once became Italian, which was very welcome. Instead of receiving the hourly reminders to do my 250 steps, she speaks invece di I piedi riposte.

Everything is disorienting when you arrive at a foreign destination. I always marvel, though, how iconic signage and a big fat green arrow on the floor can get you everywhere you need to go. The Rome airport has a train right there that will take you to the center of Rome. After fumbling momentarily at the ticket machine, I purchased my ticket, first class for 14 euros, then proceeded to the train platform with my luggage. The train was full but I found a seat easily, next to a young couple who were speaking French, but for the young man, this was clearly his second or third or fourth language, in the charming adaptive European way, languages have a fluidity which serves the user. Living on a continent which affords cross country passage within one to two hours fosters this facility.

I tried to be respectful of their privacy while I leered hungrily through the window for a sight of the Roman countryside.

Arriving in Rome, I followed the signage to the train tunnel where I was only an hour or more early for the intercity 592 Trieste Centrale, the train which I’d booked to Orvieto. There at the tunnel, there was a board for departures (Partenze) around which were clustered a group of travelers, varied in origin, but most colorfully featuring a vociferous Italian on the phone who paced up and down bemoaning the cancellation of several eastern bound trains due to an electrical power outrage.

I waited and waited, perched on a small ledge of marble, watching the passing parade and trying to calculate between my phone and Fitbit, exactly what time of day it was. Suddenly, my daily morning 5:30 alarm went off, notifying me it was time to go to cardio spin with my friends, and it occurred to me that I had been up way more than 24 hours, and I was thirsty, thirstier than if I’d been dropped in the Gobi Desert. After a quick time calculation, I grabbed my suitcase and went up to the main level of the train station to buy some water.

Soon, I was on the train. The European trains are so beautiful and clean, sporting large picture windows, and comfortable seats. I imagined what the passengers around me were doing, heading home on their daily commutes, or off on adventures like mine. At this point, I was in serious danger of falling asleep, but I knew that the train would stop quickly, and I would have only about a minute or two to descend, so after the first stop at Orte, I pulled my heavy bag down and waited, excitement at seeing my friends at the train station mounting.

And then suddenly, after the mellifluous chime and the announcement that we were arriving in Orvieto, I grabbed my bag and lumbered down the aisle, dismounting to find Bob and Sally at the side of the train. Easy as pie. And we were off, in their rental car, who, of course, charmingly spoke Italian, and helpfully directed us forward, though they both knew well where they were going and were desperate to defang her.

Soon we arrived at the beautiful farmhouse where I’d be staying for a week with them. I was flabbergasted by the elegance and beauty of the building but more so by the generosity of their invitation, and recognizing instantly the healing properties of this spot.

Arrivederci, Los Angeles!

It’s hard to believe that today has arrived. I’ve packed my bags over the course of the past four days. Back in the days when I was married and we traveled, I packed for both of us, resentment curling the edges of my feminist robes. But only briefly. Because the person I was packing was such a delight and I would have sewn the clothes for him and then jammed them in the suitcase. God knows he did his own packing earlier in our marriage. Later mobility issues prevented him from standing a long time, so I took over. I had to laugh the other night when in the play, the mother in law advised the wife of her son, ”when you pack him tonight”… I laughed not because it was so grossly inappropriate, but completely in recognition. What’s funny was that after spending half an hour packing Jimmie’s things, I’d frequently rush to pack my own, forgetting critical things like a bathing suit, or a toothbrush, or once, a comb. By shearing my hair so short, that would be less of a problem now. So I had four days to get my proverbial shit together, and I must say (preening a bit), I did a damn fine job packing this time.

So, how does a stage manager travel?

    She arrives at the airport 2-3 hours early (so early, in fact that her flight isn’t on the list yet and she experiences a frisson of panic)
    Types her itinerary with every bit of information she’s acquired
    Brings snacks
    Filled her water bottle
    Has the Merrimack-Webster English/Italian dictionary downloaded to her kindle and has already looked up dozens of words and looks like a crazy person on headset talking with a disgruntled lighting designer.
    She buys the neck pillow and practices using it on herself in the gate area.

We will be boarding now, so I’m going to try to post this. Warning gentle readers. I have acquired a new iPad to use on the trip instead of my computer, so I’ll be learning how to do this. I’ve already failed in loading a picture. Hopefully this will improve in the coming days. But because I don’t have a wifi package on the plane, I’m posting this now.

Places, please! Andiamo!

What is Heaven but the Here and Now?

Yesterday, I reaped the benefits of AI as my photo albums coalesced into one giant photo album celebrating all of our summer trips to Chatham, Mass. The timing made sense, being about a month from the date when we usually headed out there. Our annual pilgrimage to Chatham was a usually routine, non-stop flight to Boston, quick overnight in Somerville with Liam and Elliott and now dearly-departed Rex. Early morning departure after a quick stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for sustenance in the form of chocolate donuts and coffee, wending our way down to the Cape, sandy berms rolling by, avoiding most of the stand-still traffic that would have clogged our way by our early departure. We had several lovely cottage rentals over the years, visiting with Jimmie’s sister Kate and many other family who stopped in to take advantage of our extra bedrooms. We’d spend about two weeks there, and this morning’s photo and video montage provided a refresher course in the rituals in which we partook. Fried clams, sitting outside in the Adirondack chairs to feel the cooling evenings filled with familiar crickets, and winking fireflies as the light became dark and our shoulders lowered by many degrees of relaxation.

This morning’s video was shot in just such a moment, cub reporter interviewing distinguished actor after our first seasonal sampling of fried clams- said distinguished actor hamming it up, (only ever seen in my videos, by the way – he was the epitome of professionalism on others’ cameras) recounting the moments with an almost sexual satiation. You can hear me giggling as I record. Then comes the aha moment.

Cub: How’s your first day at the Cape been?
Actor: I think I’m in heaven.

Cub: It’s pretty nice isn’t it?
(Beat) Actor: I think if I had my choice of what heaven should be like, it would be Chatham. (shaking his head) Just marvelous. I’m at peace.

Cub: Yay.

Aside from suddenly rocking me to attention, rousing my napping grief into a bolt upright position, covers off, the video was a bittersweet reminder of perhaps the most important thing we should all know. Life is meant to be enjoyed, savored, made special and ultimately memorable during those inconspicuous moments of friendship and quietude. What I learned from spending long years with Jimmie is probably obvious to anyone over 60. Age forces you to slow down, settle, take those moments for what they can be. It allows you to take stock of all of your blessings, and to work through the other mental detritus, old resentments, regrets, sadnesses. Hopefully the blessings work outweighs the other, though both are important to process as we live.

From one of our impromptu Chatham reunions.

This year, in the middle of June, our usual departure time for Chatham, I am instead heading for two weeks to my favorite place on earth, Italy. Invited to share a summer farmhouse experience in Umbria by my high school theatre mentor and his wife, I will first fly to Rome, then train to their oasis in Umbria. After my stay with them, which I am anticipating like a puppy in front of a puddle, I’m taking the train to Venice, for four days there. I spent the year after college living in Venice, and have always wanted to return. The brilliance of this return is that two of my friends from 1982-83 are still in the area and I’ll be staying with them while there. I’ve been brushing up on my Venice by reading the wonderful book by Jan Morris.

I’ve been avidly reading the New York Times in recent weeks about the Venice Biennale, which will be taking place while I’m there, staking out the pavillions that I intend to see. I just purchased my “Plus” tickets because if one day at the Biennale is fantastic, wouldn’t three be even better?

I keep receiving pointed instructions from the Universe….

I had dinner with a friend, this week, who, at 94, is slowing down, but whose heart and mind are filled with the loyalties and memories of one who has worked tirelessly in his art, for those who both appreciated and early on, reviled his efforts. Our conversation, stilted as hearing loss mandates, ricocheted from my telling him about my upcoming trip to troublesome memories of his last trip to Italy. But the important thing was that we were there, breaking bread, basking in our mutual respect for my recently departed husband, and of each other. I watched his tender appreciation of his caring assistant, Joyce, who has become his bridge to the world, repeating what I said with patience and affection so that he could hear.

Today the rain sheets down outside my window, a surprising development for Los Angeles. Always welcome to our parched corner of the country, rain makes me want to cuddle up with a blanket on the chaise, but today’s events will beckon me out into the mists instead. Last night I pulled my balcony chairs back to the window so they wouldn’t get wet but can see the rain moving sideways across the dark expanse of the parking garage across the way. The sound of the traffic sluicing through the water eleven stories down cues me to get up and warm my tea at the stove, cozy in my urban aerie and thinking about my new definition of Heaven.

Happy Mother’s Day

Twenty two years after losing my Mom to cancer, she remains a powerful force in my life and in my actions as an adult woman and mother.

From happy times at the opening party for La Bete on Broadway in NYC 1991. L. to R. Me, Mom, my brother Don, and Jimmie, our reason for being there

I was struck this Mother’s Day morning as I texted feverishly with son Chris, he in Las Vegas at a Hockey Player Development event, me surrounded by my newspapers at the dining room table. What makes us mothers is a complicated algorithm of events, choices, mistakes and fortuitous synchronicities that have very little to do with our abilities as parents.

There’s nothing more uplifting for a mother than hearing/reading the excitement in her child’s words about something that is going well. Chris’ hockey went well this weekend as he attended with many of his players, the USA Hockey Pacific District Player Development event in Las Vegas. His hard work in skills development and player development over the last four years as an assistant coach shone in his players and their ability to be recruited to the next levels of the game. As one of his moms, I can claim responsibility for starting him on the path to hockey. But it was he who first expressed interest, his five-year-old face pressed up to the base of the glass at Iceland in Van Nuys, a tiny rink run by Russian players, his breath steaming the plastic, as he watched, his mouth agape, as the five-year-old Mini-Mites skated as fast as they could, flinging themselves down onto their bellies before pulling themselves up to continue skating.

I wanna do that!

Without rehashing the hockey history, suffice it to say that as a parent, we need to listen for our cues. I had a long chat with some of my colleagues recently about the difficulties of doing just that.

In light of the recent college admission scandals, which I managed to avoid as a parent by A) not having the funds or moral ineptitude to invest in such chicanery, and B) by listening to the cues about where Chris should be or not be at that time in his life, I’m feeling quite pleased with how he’s evolved. His path was not explicitly academic, though I suspect he will never give up the love of teaching that he brings to his hockey endeavors.

The hardest thing about parenting well is that our children are their own, unique individuals, and often quite different from us. It’s so tempting to try to mold them into little mini-mes, but that can be like trying to shove a round peg into a square hole and serves nothing but friction in the doing. I can attest to that.

My parents succeeded with my two brothers and me by:

  1. Instilling a strong work ethic – our Dad after working long hours during the week, on the weekends had us plant the entire back yard per a horticultural ground plan that would have made Frederick Law Olmstead proud.
  2. Grounding in us an appreciation of family and family bonds through Sunday dinners with our grandparents who were local, and long trips to Wilkes-Barre to spend time with the non-local grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.
  3. Developing a love and appreciation of the Arts. Believe me when I tell you that I didn’t ever want to go to a museum, nor would I have done so willingly, but because we were tromped off to various arts institutions by Mom, I became so imbued in them that I eventually became an art history major in college, and a theatre practitioner for the rest of my life.
  4. Training us in the prudent use of our resources and generosity to one’s children and others. As a young adult, I watched mom pay her bills each month, knowing that she was being stretched by expenses on her journalist’s salary. Still she managed to send me $100 every month for years, beginning with the year I spent in Italy, and continuing even after I was married and we were financially secure.
  5. Providing us the models of physical exercise and mental stimulation. I remember as a child at the public tennis courts watching our parents play tennis, and later, learning the game ourselves. We swam, ran and generally exercised. Of course, we were fortunate not to be digital natives, so had to keep our minds and bodies active.
  6. Telling us that we could do anything we set our minds to doing. This was an extremely powerful message for a young girl in the 1960s. Not only did they say it, but they backed it up by supporting my education at top notch schools that fortified that message.
  7. Finally, they reveled in our successes, and listened, but didn’t coddle us when we failed. This last one I may have taken too far with Chris but when I see him parenting his three-year-old, I think he’s on the right track. She’s a tough little girl, and fearless, as comfortable on the ice in her hockey gear as she is in her tutu, while coloring at the table.

Those are just a few of the things that Moms and Dads do for their children. So thank you! Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!