I come from a long line of flower lovers. My grandmothers were both gardeners—Nana, who lived in Fresno, had a beautiful lilac bush in her yard, and hibiscus growing on the side of the duplex she moved into after she sold the small house where my dad was raised.
Gaga, my mom’s mom, always had a vegetable and flower garden. We visited her once in Colorado where she lived with her sister, my great aunt Ruby, this was before she moved to California to live near us—the entire back yard was a garden. Huge fat shining red tomatoes, rows of squash and peppers, cosmos and sunflowers.
My mom’s a great gardener, too, she has an array of roses that she planted over twenty, thirty years ago—with names such as Whiskey Mack, Bourbon and Chantilly Lace. She has climbing roses and miniature roses, all in her yard in the house where I grew up in the Antelope Valley, about an hour and twenty minutes north of LA.
The Antelope Valley is where those beautiful fields of poppies grow. The other day, a friend of mine, knowing my connection to the place, sent me a satellite photo taken this spring. Patches of bright orange could be seen from space, spreading over acres and miles of open desert.
I order my mom flowers pretty often—I live three thousand miles away from her so it’s good to find ways to be present in her life. Whenever I call the florist I ask them what they have in that’s fresh. They’re used to me now but at first they were exasperated. “I don’t want a plain mixed bouquet,” I’d say, “I want to pick the flowers and have you wrap and deliver them.”
I guess most men ordering flowers don’t know the difference between a chrysanthemum and a gerber daisy, but I want to know if they’ve got French tulips and what color roses, what do they have that’s scented—tuberose, maybe, or lilies? Thank you, and oh, please no baby’s breath.
Tropical flowers don’t grow in the desert, so I didn’t know about ginger and bromeliad, fuchsia and orchids until I moved to LA I came to discover those wild, exotic flowers, especially in gardens out by the sea.
Moving to the northeast, I discovered the flowers that don’t grow in the dry heat, they need a real cold snap, and lots of water. The first time I saw a peony I was visiting Vermont for my cousin’s wedding. Heading into town we drove through a neighborhood, it had recently rained, and the lawns had these massive clumps of huge flowering bushes. “What are those?” I asked. “Peonies.” My cousin was using them in her bouquet so a day later I got to smell one for the first time and felt a little bit like after downing a glass of champagne.
Here in Woodstock, forsythia grows in nearly every yard. And every April for two weeks the violent, electric yellow blooms line the road, screaming about the arrival of spring. Daffodils come up in our yard from old bulbs planted by someone years ago, croci, too.
My first boyfriend got me my first bouquet of flowers, I was in my early 20s, and back living at my parent’s house after being in LA for a few years then having my life fall apart. I had lost my job, lost my apartment. There I was back in my hometown trying to negotiate a life that was stretched bigger than it was before I left, but now crimped in certain ways upon my return. A halfway in the closet life.
I got a house sitting gig over Christmas, so I could spend holiday time with my boyfriend. He’d visit and spend the night, sometime two--and for a few days, it felt like a life that might someday happen. It would take me years to have that life for real and fulltime, but I had a taste of it that Christmas season.
I would be celebrating Christmas Day with my family, so he and I decided to have our own early Christmas. I made dinner, got him a few presents, set the table and lit candles. He arrived with a huge bouquet of flowers—massive, they towered over the place settings once I placed them in a vase at the center of the table. The smell of them filled the room.
I haven’t thought about that time in years. How young I was, how naïve and hungry, for a life, for freedom, for things I didn’t even know about. What would you call that, the longing for something you don’t even know is out there? To grow and, yes, blossom into life.
There’s a lone iris growing in a bed out behind our house, we don’t get enough sun for them to do well, but the other day one of the small buds bloomed, reminding me of the sweetness of our days, the tenderness we all desire, the smell and touch of a beautiful life.
When I was still living in Silverlake, there was a church I used to go to. Someone once said that telling people in LA that you go to church is far more dangerous than admitting you do hard drugs or any other shameful vices.
I was first exposed to this church by my neighbor Christine Berry, who made wonderful site-specific performances and she had found this church basement in Los Feliz, at the border between Hollywood and Silverlake. She asked if I wanted to see the space, it might be a good place to do something.
The congregation of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church was founded in 1904. The sanctuary, where the basement was, was built in the early 1920s. The basement was sweet: pale green linoleum floors, diffused light from the small windows up at the ceiling, a small stage at the far end of the room.
Christine and I decided to attend a service to see what the place was all about. This was not a simple decision—Christine had grown up in a difficult religious family and I was a certified and happy heathen, non-religious but seeking. But we got up on a Sunday morning and headed over.
The sanctuary was gracious but not formal, cream walls and tall stained glass windows. The pastor was a doughy-faced fellow who referred to his husband during his sermon, the choir was comprised of mostly old people. But it was the congregation, not very large, that struck me. The pews were filled pretty evenly with black and white people.
The service was sweet, almost non religious, but so deep and meaningful. I sat there crying at the end, moved by the space, more than the content. I think Buddhists would call this equanimity.
The church was the first integrated church in Los Angeles, meaning it was ok for black and white people to worship together. Many of the people present were descended from those early members. In the 1940s, the congregation offered care for the property of Japanese Americans whose homes and businesses were being taken from them when they were being sent off to internment camps. When the war was over, their properties were returned to them. The cross above the altar was made from camphor wood taken from a tree in the yard of a church that had been bombed during Hiroshima. Every pastor the church has ever had has been a pacifist. I attended services there often until I moved away from LA and every month they had a food drive for a different food item—March was peanut butter, September was canned tuna—these foods were donated to the LA food pantry.
On top of all of the amazing social justice and the community history of the place, what struck me most is that I could sit there and think about anything I wanted. I’m not a Christian but I could sit in that Christian space and think about whatever is holy to me, I could look within for what I find sacred, without being told what that should be. This is what made me cry.
That church inspired much of what I wanted to achieve when I founded The Secret City, worship without dogma. Providing people, in our case, artists, art lovers, those who look to art for inspiration, a place to gather, providing solace, connection, community and inspiration.
Over the years of running The Secret City, I’ve never quite managed to successfully address social justice causes. We did do a food drive for several years and donated a lot of food to the food bank of New York City. Partly this is because I want to remember at all times that we are an arts organization, art is where we find meaning. And yet, in my experiences, art spaces have a tendency to be quite segregated. The theater companies I’ve belonged to always had one or two people of color in predominantly white companies. And The Secret City audience, in spite of good intentions and dedication to representation, our community has always been predominantly white.
The word of the day is RACE. Because even in the midst of a global pandemic and all that it has brought, some white cop has managed to murder a black man in broad daylight in view of bystanders. And three other cops stood there and helped it to happen. At this point it’s got to dawn on us that some part of our nation likes its racism.
We are capable of creating a new world and for those of us who are artists, or conscious, creative people—we have an even greater ability to influence the thing being made.
I’m scared of talking about race, afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, offend someone, turn someone off--but as the leader of this community, I invite us all to engage with this messy, scary challenge. I invite all of us, whatever your platform or influence, to address the racism at the heart of our country and, if you’re white, like me, at the heart of ourselves, too.
Race is a construct. Created by people to make distinctions between those who look different from one another usually for purposes of gaining or maintaining power. There is no biological basis for these differences. And yet, for something so shifting and changeable, race is not an illusion. It has a real impact on human bodies, especially those with less power than the dominant folks.
In all of my years of making things, books, plays, songs, dances, bands, communities, I have learned that there is nothing better than to just dive in. If we want to create a new idea of race, let us, the creators, dive in to the mess, begin. Scared of what we’re doing, at least we’ll be on our way
I’ve always loved music but my real musical education kicked in in my early thirties. Many of my greatest teachers were friends like Paul and Brian who turned me onto Carmen MacRae and Cesaria Evora. Sheila and Mario, who took me to see Jimmy Scott at Catelinas in Hollywood. I saw Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl. Nancy Wilson also at the bowl, Shirley Horn at Catalina Bar and Grill. Anita O’Day at the Atlas-- so many incredible singers and musicians.
I also got to see Abbey Lincoln at the Jazz Bakery in Venice, California. It had become a popular jazz spot and drawing big names and when Abbey Lincoln was announced it was an opportunity not to be missed.
The venue was inside the old Helm’s Bakery building on Venice boulevard, a block long building from the 1920s which used to house the company that made bread for much of Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century.
I knew the building from when it was called the Antique Guild. When I was a teenager, my mom would take me with her on antique finding missions. It was a massive, open space with endless rows of stuff from all over—and the best kind of antiquing, not all cleaned up, or well arranged, or presented, but clumped together for you to climb through and discover.
By the 90s the building had been cleaned up. Gentrification. The club was a small part of a large complex of offices and studios and showrooms.
I’d never been there before so was excited to see what the buzz was all about. It was surprisingly mundane inside. I was used to old-school clubs with dark corners and small tables squeezed in front of a small stage. A bar over to the side where regulars would nurse dark brown cocktails in tumblers.
This was more like a room where you’d see a powerpoint presentation. Sensible plastic chairs in rows, the walls covered by those heavy curtains that slide on a runner at the ceiling in an attempt to add warmth to a conference room. The place filled up. It wasn’t a big room, maybe 200 hundred seats, maybe? On the stage was a baby grand piano, drum kit and set up for several musicians. The lights dimmed and the band entered—young guys, in suits. Nice—serious like. They jammed for a bit and then over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jazz Bakery is proud to present, Abbey Lincoln.”
I first heard Abbey Lincoln on a CD that I stole from the Brand Library in Glendale. I’m not proud of this, the stealing, but I am glad that I got to know her music. It was a rough time for me. I was living in a small forest service cabin on the side of a hill in Echo Park. I was a terrible drunk and was having a lot of anonymous sex. I was a mess. Anyway, one day I drove out to the library for some music I was trying to find for my day job. The Brand library is an incredible place, the collection focuses on visual art and music. It’s in a former private home built in 1904 and resembling a combination of Indian Palace and Spanish Villa. My tale of stealing gets worse, I checked out 12 CDs that day and never took them back. It wasn’t my intention to keep them but somehow it was just too much for me to figure out how to drive the 25 minutes to another part of town and get them back to the library where they belonged.
I had a little boom box in my cabin and in the afternoon with the parrots of LA flying between palm trees, I’d open all the windows and the front door, put on a Betty Carter CD and transport myself to another place, a better version of the life I was living, a life rich with music. I’m telling you this to explain that the music, those singers and those songs, they’re a major part of what got me through.
Abbey Lincoln entered, all in black, characteristic black hat on her head. And she began to sing. The kind of singing that feels like dance, or love or a Sunday afternoon on a boat. Sometimes the singing felt scary like it might lose its way, but it was her playing with the melody, the phrasing, the song. At one point she said, “We’re now going do The Windmills of Your Mind.” A song I love, originally sung by Dusty Springfield for the film The Thomas Crown Affair, Ms. Lincoln was known for hiring your musicians, just out of school, giving them an incredible education in performance and the life of a jazz musician. They began to play.
“Stop, stop.” The band stopped and she had some words with them. They started up again. “Stop stop,” she said again, they stopped and more words, “Let’s take it from the top again.” She said. And the band started up again. This time she started slapping her open palm on the lid of the piano. Was it the rhythm? Was it anger? Was it both? “No, no, no.” she said as she slapped the lid, the band stopped once more.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Abbey Lincoln said, “It’s a very difficult song and we just don’t have it tonight, so we will move on to the next song.”
I’d never seen any performer take such control of a performance, of a room, of a stage full of musicians. I often say in my workshops that, when making something, the artist must think of themself as god. Responsible for the creation of a new world within their song or book or play. And, let’s face it, musicians are perhaps the greatest of all the art gods, creating the invisible, life sustaining magic of music. Imagine the past several months without it. Or, no, don’t. Life would be too terrible to imagine.
A short postscript to this story: I found some of the cds years later in storage and mailed them back to the library with a note of apology. It doesn’t make it right, but I wanted someone else to have the chance to hear what I heard. For someone else to have a chance to be pulled through
I take Sally for a walk most days, at the nature preserve which was a farm, the meadow has been returned to grassland with wide mown paths. Because there are no trees in the grassland, you can see where everybody is which makes walking and social distancing much easier.
One day last week, we pulled into the parking lot and I after getting everything together. Mask, poop bags, Sally on the leash, we got out.
From the small hill overlooking the entrance to the paths, you can go right or left. Below was an older couple, they must have gotten here just ahead of me. They had two large dogs, on leashes. The woman was having a terrible time with a chocolate standard poodle. Snapping at the dog, and yanking his leash; the dog lunged at something and nearly pulled her off balance. She snapped at him in a chirpy way, yanked him back on the path. “That lady does not know how to control her dog,” I thought and led Sally the other direction.
The day was glorious and once we were in the open, the big long path before us, I took Sally off her leash and she tore off.
You can take the walk as a loop. But several paths cut across the middle making it possible to turn off if you see someone coming, or walk around someone if they’re going slow, or lolling about. Standers, I call them. They only become a problem if they’re on the path ahead of you and you’ve got to negotiate how best to get past.
I had made my way half way around when I noticed a young girl squatting next to the path, looking at some bright yellow flowers. She was 3 or 4, just ahead were two young women walking slowly. From their posture they were clearly looking down at their phones.
I was barreling forward, Sally up ahead of me. You should know that the preserve asks dogs are to be kept on leash, which no one really observes. But if your dog needs to be on a leash, put him on a leash.
One of the young woman heard Sally’s collar and turned around, “Oh hi!” Sally stopped. “She’s skittish,” I said. Sally has the desire to connect, but she’s too afraid. One of the reasons I let her off leash is so she can skirt around everything and everyone. I like to say, “Speed is her superpower.”
Sally and I left the path and made our way around them. I saw then there were two young men a short distance ahead, waiting for the women and the girl to catch up. I took these men to be their husbands. They were wearing masks, as was I. “She’s skittish,” I said again, as Sally stopped to look at them. “She wants to be close to people but she’s not really able.”
“Just like us,” said one of the guys and we all laughed.
“Yes,” I said, “Just like all of us.” And, making our way past them two guys I hollered, “Enjoy your walk!” “You, too!”
And then, here they came: the older couple I had spotted at the start of our walk. The man was walking a sweet old lab. The woman, in her 70s and very slight of frame, was still being dragged by that poodle. Sally and I were in the grass about ten feet off the path and as we passed each other, the poodle lunged off the path and started to go for Sally who darted away. I stopped, the leash was stretched taut, right in front of me, my kneecaps right against it. Woman to my right, dog to my left, making a sort of trip way in front of me
I said, “Could you call your dog, please?”
She yanked, the dog gagged. She was more like someone who couldn’t get a lid off a jar rather than someone who was inconveniencing someone else. The dog kept gagging. Finally she managed to pull the dog back. But nothing was said, not an I’m sorry, or he just wants to play, none of that. Sally and I called back to her, “Curb your dog.”
The woman yelled out to me over her shoulder, “Go home!”
Here in Woodstock that means: I live here and you need to go back to the city with your city ways.
“I live here,” I yelled back.
“So do I,” she yelled. Which seemed like an old comedy routine.
“Well, my dog didn’t go after your dog,” We were having a proper yelling volley now.
“Stop yelling at me,” she yelled back at me. “It’s making me upset.”
If I weren’t upset myself, I would have laughed at this. I stopped and turned back, “Did you not yell at me first?”
“I did not,” she yelled, a bit softer now.
Sally and I went on our way. Was I fuming? Hm, maybe. In my world, the way to respond to your dog lunging at my dog would be to acknowledge your part and apologize. She probably didn’t like me pointing out her inability to control her dog. People don’t like to have their weaknesses pointed out. I know I don’t.
This event with the dogs was a blip. But it made me think about how differently people think about what is proper behavior. And what if your idea of etiquette is based on feeling scared? “Wear your mask!” People are screaming at people in public. Or, “You can’t come in here with a mask!” Maybe we were raised differently. Or, our values are different. Proper etiquette dictates not drawing attention to someone’s poor etiquette. But what if someone not following protocol puts other people’s lives in danger? After writing all this, I realize it’s not a matter of etiquette at all. Maybe the word of the day should be compassion. Or maybe it should be care, as in caring for others, maybe the word should be love, or mutual respect—maybe we can look underneath the manners and behaviors in search for a better way to live together.
Several years ago when I was still living in New York City, a writer named Jeff Wise got in touch with me, I can’t remember how he got my name but he was writing a book about fear and wanted to talk to me. We set a time to speak on the phone. He called and I began telling him about my terrible stage fright. In the midst of our conversation, I remembered playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde’s comedy masterpiece. Lady Bracknell is often played by a man but in our production, every role was played by a gender for which it wasn’t originally intended.
Lady Bracknell is considered one of the great comedic roles in the English canon. With lines such as:
“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”
“Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”
Our production was performed at a small space on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake, on the east side of Hollywood. Last time I was in the neighborhood, it was a fancy Indian restaurant. The entire neighborhood has changed dramatically since I lived there.
Our director was a bit of a mad genius, and was also the set designer and costumer. From the moment our show opened, it was a smash hit, packed houses, extensions, etc etc.
The theater finally had to close the run because they had another show scheduled so we moved the production to a theater on the West side of town called the Evidence Room. We put the show back up a month or so after our closing and our successful run continued.
As Lady Bracknell, I was a towering figure. I’m 6’2, and depending on the time, weigh in at 250 or more. Imagine me in full Victorian drag topped with a huge hat and large plumed feathers coming out the top.
Lady Bracknell has two major scenes, with some smaller business in a group scene. Her scene in the first act is the legendary interview where she asks Jack Worthing—who is interested in marrying her daughter Cecily—if he is in fact worthy of her. She asks everyone except for Jack to leave the room and the interview begins.
I was seated on a velvet settee at center stage, Cynthia Orthal, the actor playing Jack Worthing, was standing and we launched into the scene we had done hundreds of times.
I gravitated toward the theater when I was a kid for the structure it gave me and my life—walk over here, say these words, take these actions, enter now. Of course, flubbed a word here or there as actors will, and even occasionally dropped a line and had to cover for it somehow. But I was quick on my feet, able to be in the present and cover for those common errors.
In the theater, when an actor forgets a line, this is commonly called, “going up.” The origination of the phrase is believed to be because when you forget something you often look up, as if the thing you’ve forgotten is floating just above your head.
But there in the middle of the scene, I suddenly blanked. I was sitting there but entered a completely different reality. Some small part of my min knew I was onstage and that it was my turn to say something. But the larger part of me was elsewhere, or maybe it wasn’t elsewhere, maybe it was right there, next to the regular reality that we know.
I looked up at the stage lights, small dust mites floated there, a dim grey mist hung over the audience. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was as if I had been walking along the street and suddenly was transported into space where I was floating.
Cynthia finally fed me my line and brought me back. How long was I gone? A few seconds? More? A minute?
This morning I woke up I was backstage in a large theater, in the green room. I was in costume, dressed sort of like a ghost in white shredded cotton. Intermission had just ended and the second act had just begun. I heard the performance through the monitor backstage and knew I had an entrance pretty soon but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
You could say this was the classic actors’ nightmare, only it wasn’t exactly scary, more like a great unknowing. What will the second act require of me? What will my role be? What will I say or do?
All of our attempts at remembrance keep us from floating away, into that twilight place that might be right beside us, all the time. What we remember—what came before, the people who’ve left, the ways of life that are no more—and trying to hold onto these things, anchors us. Staying just a bit in the past helps us live in the here and now.
In my late twenties I had my first band. I had been connected to a piano player, Fred Cassidy, if you’re here today, Hi Fred! We were asked to provide live music for a fundraiser for a theater company we were both working with.
The theme of the fundraiser was James Bond so we put together a set of covers from the 60s and 70s, Fred got a drummer and a bass player. I found a white dinner coat and an eye patch. Right before the gig I asked two of my girlfriends if they would be gogo dancers. The whole thing was thrown together but Fred and the band were electric, everyone there people danced for hours, the girls shook their money makers all night long and I found I had a front man inside of me, roaring to get out. Except for losing my balance from wearing an eye patch, and nearly falling off the stage, it was an excellent night.
Chris Wells and the Highballs, Featuring the International Kittens, was born.
We became the best party band of all time—our gigs were legendary. We got a monthly residency at The Atlas, a really swank nightclub inside the same deco building as the Wiltern Theater at Wilshire and Western, with the big gold sun on the wall behind the stage, and large gold sculptures of Atlas suspended from the ceiling.
From the James Bond look I moved onto wearing my dad’s pilot uniform, the dancers dressed like stewardesses. The gigs were more ecstatic rites than shows…one of things I’ve always wanted to bring people in my performances, ecstasy. A feeling of overwhelming happiness.
But while I was making these high octane performances my personal life was highly dysfunctional. I didn’t have my own place, I house sat for friends, a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there. Kept my clothes and possessions in the trunk of my car.
My friend Bridget connected me to some friends of hers in Santa Monica. They were going out of town for a week and needed someone to dogsit.
One sunny weekday afternoon I visited them in their airy apartment on a shady side-street, Sarah made tea, Matt was funny in a pointy-headed way. They were smart and kind but reserved, not like theater people, more like academics.
While we talked, their bulldog sat on the couch like a chunky old man, trying to catch his breath. I wish I could remember his name—Mr. Pickles or Chauncy or Bill. Anyway, we agreed I would stay there while they went to visit Sarah’s mom back east.
The week was sweet, I dragged the dog around the block once or twice a day and enjoyed the peace and quiet of Santa Monica, happy for a respite from the drama of living out of the back of my car.
They came back and we had a little meeting where I gave back their keys, as well as their dog, their plants, their kitchen—everything that had been mine for one week, returned to the people they really belonged to.
“Thank you so much,” Sarah said, handing me a tissue wrapped package. A gift, for being able to stay in their home. So gracious.
I took the softly crinkly package, heavier than it appeared but limp, its edges flopped over the sides of my hands.
“My mother runs a fabric import business,” Sarah said, “specializing in Chinese silk.”
I slipped my hand under the scotch-taped flap and inside the tissue. My fingers met the smoothest, softest secret. Had I ever touched anything so soft?
Inside were two pairs of silk pajamas. One pair was deep purple with a subtle pattern of dark red watercolor smudges. The other was cheetah print. Even now, after decades of incredible costumes and outfits, beautiful things custom made for me, sequined capes and kimonos, rompers, jand dresses, these pajamas remain among the finest things I’ve ever worn.
I couldn’t tell if Sarah realized the magical power of her gift. She gave it so easily, no build up or fanfare. If I were giving someone a life-changing gift, I imagine I’d draw some attention to it.
I drove away, to my next house sitting gig, or rehearsal or whatever day job I had at the time. But as soon as I could, I stripped and tried on the pajamas. In many myths, the hero becomes the recipient of a transformative garment, so were these pajamas. They became my pre-show outfit for our nightclub shows, and I would mingle with the crowd before the show began, wearing them, exuding an air of cool control and swagger. Feeling ownership over something I didn’t yet possess.
It is said that only someone who hasn’t had a home can truly know what a home can mean. Only those who’ve felt the hardness of life—not just in its difficulty but its surfaces: plastic, glass, cement, the earth, tough against your bodies—can know what softness means. May you have ease today, may you slide our way through the hours, may the edges you meet feel soft to the touch.
We were not a puzzle family. My folks preferred cards. I loved those nights sitting around our dining room table, mom having cleared everything off in preparation for a few hands of gin rummy.
But, what do I remember of puzzles? Missing pieces, mostly. What a disappointment to spend all that time getting everything in place only to realize there were little creature shaped holes in the picture. That happened with cards, too, you’d pull out an old deck and toward the end of a game you’d realize that fourth queen you were waiting for no longer existed or if she did she was hiding in the junk drawer of the kitchen with old rubber bands, extra scissors and coupons that would never be used.
I like the puzzle-making part where you get the border all figured out, and you have a frame with all the other random pieces in a messy spread in the middle, but that’s where it ends for me.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy a challenge—my life has been a series of preposterous feats I put before me and then attempted to conquer, or at least survive.
The greatest puzzle at the moment, of course, is how will this moment play forward. Here in my office as I write this, it’s a beautiful spring morning: Bobby’s upstairs painting, Sally’s dozing in her third bed upstairs, I move toward noon with clarity and purpose, after the show the day has an order that I can easily follow. Beyond that, problems arise: what about tomorrow and the next day and will our town be overrun with city folks and will the reopening lead to disaster, will there be a second wave, worse than what we’ve already seen? How do the impacts of a virus suddenly just get better just because people want them to?
With so much uncertainty, it’s important to nail down whatever we can—this is this and that is that and this is not that, to name things.
And yet, we swim in mystery, the world isn’t solid, it’s liquid, in motion, atoms swirling. Matter becoming gas, liquid becoming solid. I remember when I first learned that glass was made from sand.
My great Aunt Ruby had an irrational fear of sitting with her back to a window, until she had someone tell her that in her previous life she was a pioneer women and had been killed when an arrow flew through her window and into the back of her head.
“The windows were just open?” I asked my grandmother when she told me this.
“There was no glass at the time, the windows were just openings in the walls of a house, shutters were used to close up the house at night or during cold weather.”
How comfortable are you with the unknown, that’s what we’re being asked, can you live with not knowing how things are going to end, the way the story is going to go, who’s going to live, who’s going to die? When you’re going to travel again?
Our human brains have been wired for millennia to find solutions. We read mysteries, we follow stories, we devour horror movies—all of it touches the delicious sensation of not knowing. But what we really want is to find the killer.
How do we become comfortable with no satisfying outcome? Even the word satisfaction implies the receipt of something. But what if what you receive at the end of the mystery is a batch of not-knowing? If what you’re left with in the end is more uncertainty? Can you live with that prize?
We like to hang a picture on the emptiness before us and look at that instead of the darkness beyond. The nature of the picture, what we each choose to look at, matters: some lead to more darkness, some lead to delusion. The best pictures comfort, us—not with simple answers but the solace that no one really knows what’s out there. The maker of the picture serves as a sort of guide.
Art, music, poetry—these things point at the mystery all around us, they sometime manage to capture it and make it easier to live in a world where the days stretch out, unmapped, unknown.
Joni Mitchell, in her great song, Both Sides Now, wrote this:
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
Here’s a mystery, how did a twenty year old write that song?
It occurs to me that instead of being bad at it, I might have mastered puzzling—leave the picture undone, the pieces unfitted, without their proper place. Maybe puzzles are there to teach us to let them be, unsolved, unanswered, unknown. You might have a different idea about that, but really, in the end, who knows?
I was 25 and working at Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, I had recently moved out of Lancaster and gotten my own apartment in the San Fernando Valley, a bungalow from the 1930s, built for agricultural workers when the valley was all orchards and fields.
I was an actor, working in a store for actors and I was on my way to making a life for myself.
Samuel French was ripe for a workplace sitcom—like Cheers or Taxi. But maybe too niche?
The employees were aspiring screenwriters and stand up comics, fresh faced actors and old timers who once dreamed of making their mark but now worked in a bookstore and cracked jokes about the kids who’d come in, stars in their eyes, saying, “I’m looking for a monolog,” which sent the entire back office into gales of laughter.
“I’m looking for a monolog.” It was a constant refrain—for auditions and acting class, they all needed someone to be. Some of us handled it than others, “What kind of monolog?” “Oh, you know, something interesting?”
The walls of the store were lined with plays: Albee to Wasserstein, and shelves of screenplays: All Bout Eve to Xanadu. Sections of monolog collections—Monologs for Men, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or Make ‘Em Laugh, monologs for funny ladies. And so on.
So to ask a staff member, “I need a monolog,” was akin to someone standing in the middle of Times Square and asking for directions to New York City.
The thing is, no one wanted to be pointed the way to the monologs, they wanted insider knowledge—what I really want is for you to to show me the way, for you tell me what monolog I should do.
I was at the grocery store recently--all masked up, wearing blue latex free gloves--checking out, the plexiglass between the cashier and me. While waiting for my debit card to clear I asked her, “How has it been, being here?” “Oh, fine,” she seemed bored, not concerned at all.
“How’s it been for you?” she asked me.
“I’m lucky in that I live here and work at home.”
“Oh, what do you do?”
It’s still sometimes a feat to say succinctly what I do—what I do? I make magic! I provide transformative performance experiences to my community. I build art rituals that unite people. My friend Celeste, whenever she was out at a bar or a party, used to just tell people she was a nurse. I didn’t feel like I could get away with that, conditions being what they are right now.
“I run a non profit arts organization and I write.” I said.
“Oh, you’re a writer.”
“Yes,” I said, sort of reluctantly. I don’t consider myself a writer, which is strange because it’s what I do.
And then she said the sentence that no artist ever wants to be asked—“What have you written?”
I may have looked at her witheringly. She then made it worse by saying, “Anything I might have read?”
The obvious and bitchy response is, “I don’t know, what have you read?” I resisted saying this and moved on.
Dan Peace was one of the people who worked at Sam French, a really sweet gay guy from small town Kansas. Dan was a sort of stock gay character, popping in with a funny quip, a touch of the downhome, “Mm Hm, that’s right,” or, “You betcha, mister.” I feel Dad would have been really close to his grandmother.
And, Dan was a Cher fanatic. Every album, every tour, every outfit, every film, every episode of her TV shows, every bit of trivia. Now, I loved Cher when I was a kid, watched her TV show, even owned the 45 of Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. But, by my 20s, I was beyond Cher. “Really,” I’d think, whenever Dan would start talking about Cher, “isn’t she kind of a joke?”
One day I had to go over to Dan’s place to pick up something for the store, he lived in a classic Hollywood apartment complex, two rows of apartments facing in on a central grass courtyard. Dan met me on the small stoop out front of his place, the door was open and Cher’s voice wafted out from inside. Behind him I saw Cher posters on the wall. He handed me the stuff I needed and we chatted for a second. Dan was so sunny, with a bucktooth smile. As I turned to leave, he put his hand on my arm, like a friend. “You take care,” he said. I liked Dan but maybe I thought he was lacking in substance. Maybe he was kind of a joke, too.
Sometime after, I quit Samuel French and went to Europe in search of a life I never found. I heard that Dan had died from AIDS, a much different virus than the one we have now, it still has no cure and still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. Cher lives on, of course, she’s appeared on Broadway, films, won an academy award, a Kennedy Center Honor. Her work for HIV/AIDS has helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Turns out she’s not a joke at all.
I lost my interest in the movies. But the creative spark prodded me on and I dove into the wilderness with curiosity to guide me. Whenever I got lost, which was a lot, I just kept going.
My work now is to find meaning in the artist’s life. I do this by writing about it, in words, like these here. If anything I’ve ever made endures, it will be my writing.
I had a friend in my 20s, her name was Susannah and I met her while working at the Bodhi Tree. Susannah was one of those preternaturally creative people. For her, everything was an art project and everyday was filled with making.
One day at her apartment in Beachwood Canyon, Susannah agreed to give me a haircut—just a trim, my hair was long back then. As we were finishing up she pulled the bed sheet off my shoulders and lay her scissors down, saying, “Man, you’ve got a beautiful head of hair.
It’s true; I had been blessed with a gorgeous head of thick golden curls down to my shoulders, giving me a Byronic air.
“Let’s go to the park and take pictures.” Susannah said.
“I really want to photograph your hair.”
When I was 12, my pencil straight hair began to change. Every morning and every night, I would stare into the bathroom mirror, leaning in. My hair was beginning to curl, within six months my head would be an explosion of curls.
I spent so much time back then, wondering about hair, when would it come? My best friend Cam was a year younger than me but one day when we were swimming in his backyard, I spotted a brown smudge when he raised his arms in preparation of diving. “What?!”
Later in that same bathroom, I held my arms up, one at a time, leaning into the mirror. Nothing. That age is so precarious, isn’t it? Wondering if you’ll get what the other kids have already got? Or maybe you were given more than anyone else. In my Junior HIgh locker room, changing out of our sweaty clothes, in the midst of our sea of pubescent bodies, there was my classmate Jimmy Holmsy, like a miniature man, his arms legs and bush dark with thick hair. He chuckled when anyone made anything of it—but was he tormented by his otherness, I wonder?
In the park with Susannah, she asked me to pose in all sort of ways, always featuring the hair, then she asked me to take my shirt off and she shot my profile against a white pillar.
A couple of days later I was working the register at the bookstore when Susannah began her shift.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said, with a wink.
“Ooh,” I was intrigued.
“Come find me on your break.”
Break time came and I followed Susannah out the back of the store, we lit up our cigarettes and made our way to her car.
“I got so inspired by our photo shoot.”
She opened the back door of her car and pulled out a small box, like something you’d keep stationary in, with a lid and deep sides. She removed the lid and reached into the box and brought out what looked to be a baby food jar. She handed it to me.
The jar had a lid, on its side was a small picture of me from our photo shoot, shirtless in the bright sun, big smile on my face, the picture was outlined with copper puffpaint.
“Look inside,” she said.
And I began to open the lid.
“No, no, don’t open it.” She placed her hand on mine. “Just peer in.”
I held the small jar up to my face, inside was a sort of brown mass.
“It’s your hair.” She said.
Did I handle this moment well? I hope so. I hope I was kind and generous and supportive of my friend’s creative output. But I remember feeling kind of creeped out.
She reached into the box and took out another one and handed it to me.
“I made a whole bunch,”
And she handed me the box of little baby food jars with my hair in them and photos of me glued to the side.
Humans are amazing, the things they make. We’re like bodies that keep producing hair—it just keeps coming and coming. Even when it stops coming in certain places it pops up in others. I don’t have much hair on my head anymore, it’s migrated my ears, my eyebrows, my back. Even after death, the hair keeps coming.
Throughout this shutdown, everyone’s relationship with their hair has shifted. Some are just letting it go, some are having couple of glasses of wine and waking up the next morning with a really awful haircut. Women are letting the legs grow in, the pits fill up, men are letting the beards come in…maybe I’ll keep it that way, they might think. Some people are just horrified at their hairy selves—they spend hours wandering around the house wondering, who am I if I can’t keep up my grooming habits?
I was cleaning out my mom’s garage a couple of month’s ago when I found one of Susannah’s little hair jars in a box of stuff from my 20s. I don’t really miss my hair, I loved it while I had it and then it left.
Now, in a storage unit three thousand miles away from here, there’s a baby food jar with my hair in it. When will I be back there? Is that life just over, the one where I visit California and can drive to the desert to continue emptying out my mom’s house, getting my stuff out of storage, driving it across the country back here to where I now live?
And, if that life has just disappeared, will it, like hair, spring up elsewhere, will it require a different kind of care?
Opening my calendar this morning I read: Provincetown, with the same thing written for the next five days. Bobby and I have been going to Provincetown for vacation for the past 4 years, at least once a year, twice if we can swing it. It’s a magical place. The farthest tip of Cape Cod where the pilgrims first landed and spent a winter before moving to the mainland. Those people who instilled in all of us the need to move elsewhere.
Obviously, we’re not going to Provincetown this week. We’re not going anywhere. Well, I went to the dentist this morning, had a pressing issue and decided it was more important to brave the potential dangers of the dentist’s office than to brave the potential dangers of not getting my teeth taken care of.
The technician said she had to ask me a bunch of questions before the dentist could look in my mouth. Have you had a cough? No. Have you had a fever? No. Any flu like symptoms? No—I finally said, “I’ve been nowhere for the past 10 weeks. Housebound.”
I’m not a person who’s comfortable being still. All of my mechanisms for survival depend on moving forward. Low to the ground, always spreading out, on alert, onto the next and the next. These shows have been great for having a place to put my energy. I don’t think people should feel they have to accomplish anything right now but for me, and maybe others like me, to do nothing would lead to insanity.
I admire people whose homes are sparsely furnished, the walls clear except for one perfect object or image. Streamlined rooms, with beautiful, simple pieces. Our rooms are filled with objects, color, images, things—not cluttered but full.
I imagine people in those clean spaces as having the ability to be still—like people in Edward Hopper’s paintings but not as sad. Perhaps that’s part of my issue with stillness, the potential for sadness. If I stop moving, will I be inundated with all the things undone, unsaid, never were, never to be?
Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite writers—his most well known novel is Angle of Repose. The title comes from physics—it describes the degree at which an object placed on an incline will remain stationary. Like the point at which a rock will remain stopped on the side of a mountain, for example. Repose is the more sophisticated cousin to stillness, alluding to parlors with women in white dresses laying about reading, summer sunlight pouring in through gauzy curtains at tall windows. It’s a slippery slope from repose to ennui.
I have attempted a meditation practice for many years. I end up using guided meditations because the silence is impossible for me to bear. There are things that we try and try that lead to breakthroughs, and there are things that, no matter how much we try, will never change. I’m not sure but for me, silent meditation might be one of the former. One of the reasons I turn to art and performance, I am forced to stop, to take it in.
A few weeks ago an acquaintance of mine returned from India where she had gone to study Vedic Meditation. She wrote a post about it on facebook. Flush with the experience she was now trained to give these lessons to others. “Message me if you’re interested in learning more.”
I messaged her. We made a time to speak. I was looking forward to connecting.
She’s a wonderful person, an artist whose work we’ve shown at The Secret City. But as I said, I don’t know her well.
These past two months, my days have taken on a structure I like. I have begun implementing some new boundaries to take better care of myself. One of them is to limit phone calls to one per day, if possible. Her call was the call for that day.
The appointed time arrived, no call.
10 minutes after, a text saying she was on another call, she’d call shortly.
25 minutes later—a text saying, I’m so sorry, I need a few more minutes.
I wrote back, “It’s no problem, let’s reschedule, I’ve got stuff I have to get to.”
She texted with apologies, asking if we could reschedule. She followed up again. I’ve been unable to reply. Something fragile had been broken. Stillness makes us vulnerable, The skeleton teeters, bones gently knocking against each other, like a bamboo windchime.
Stillness is not simple—there is momentary stillness; external stillness and internal. We say our heart stood still when we see something beautiful, or the person we decide we’re going to marry some day. We’re so overcome by emotion that the heart stops beating. Stillness isn’t empty—but when we stop moving. there is so much to notice right now, look, listen, take it in. This global shutdown.
The best gift is something you’ve really wanted but haven’t been able to give yourself. Like this gift of stillness: everyday I unwrap it and peer inside, and even if I can’t use it yet, I dream of the day I’ll be able to put it on.