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.

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!

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.