FAITH IS A PRIVATE ISSUE
I gave the closing keynote at the Artivate Summit last Wednesday. It’s a wonderful conference on art and healing, hosted by the Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston Salem. Obviously the in-person conference was cancelled due to the shutdown but it happened online. So, I gave my keynote on zoom.
The keynote was what is also called a plenary--meaning attended by all participants. It was the final event of the conference and folks who had been taking part in all kinds of workshops and talks would be in attendance.
I didn’t know the word plenary before this summer so I learned something new.
The person who first approached me about taking part in the program was an old friend of mine from LA theater. She’s known my work for many years and followed me as I moved to New York. Then I started The Secret City and she’s watched as the organization has grown over the years.
The angle she was interested in was my work in building community.
So I wrote my talk. I called it: We Need Each Other--Community as Salvation. I added some sexy slides from past events. I talked about growing up in the Mojave desert, in a nuclear family. How I found theater and it saved my life.
I explained to them that several years before discovering theater--I was fifteen when that happened--I had started going to church. I was 12 and my best friend and his mother invited me to come with them one Sunday. They stopped going but I stayed--even getting myself baptized and confirmed at the age of 13.
But what happened for me there that day in the pews wasn’t a religious awakening. I didn’t feel god--I felt the people. The music, the ritual, the sitting together and kneeling together. The call and response. The outfits that the priest and the choir and altar boys wore. I felt the container, and I felt it containing me--and was deeply moved.
When theater came along I dove headlong into a new container. I didn’t quit church, not yet anyway--but I became more inspired and a deeper sense of belonging in performing and the life of the theater.
To me these things--theater and church--felt fairly compatible. A sort of braid of performance, ritual, gathering--both settings were ripe for a young person seeking connection, community.
But ironically, it was in the theater that I found faith. In practices that have been handed down from over centuries. I often say that I believe religion grew out of the theater. Walk into any house of worship and you’ll hear a script, with stories, characters and valuable lessons.
In my twenties I became a spiritual seeker--buddhism, paganism, the radical faeries, I got swept in several new age movements, I hung out with wiccans for a while. Before I moved to New York City I was attending a Congregational Church in Holywood.
The pastor was a gay man. He and his husband worked the services.The church had an extraordinary history of social activism. It was the first integrated congregation in Los Angeles and the congregation still reflected that--black and white families filled the pews. During WW 2, the congregation had bought up property of many Japanese American families and stored their furniture in the basement of the church so that when the Japanese American families were released from the internment camps, they would have homes to return to, businesses to run. Every week the church had a food drive so you’d arrive for Sunday service with a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna, these items were donated to the local food bank. It was a place of service and many of the aspects of that church have informed the community we have today.
It was what is called an open and affirming congregation, meaning I could walk in there and sit down and believe whatever I wanted and still feel welcome. And in that church I experienced service, silence, solace--and, yes, community.
Following the keynote, there was a q and a. One of the questions was from a self identified, “person of faith,” asking how I felt about making work that excluded people of faith.
I was baffled. At no time has my work with The Secret City ever excluded “people of faith.” One of the great things about The Secret City is that all kinds of folks take part--we’ve got jews, atheists, folks from the Ethical Culture Society, buddhists, yogis, tons of pagans, christians, agnostics; we get a lot of children of clergy who have told me they feel healed by our events. The thing that unites us all is art and our reliance upon it. The container of The Secret City holds them as I hope it holds everyone, without asking anyone to believe anything. Meaning, you can believe whatever you want with us. We’re not anti-religion, we’re just not religious. I’ve always loved this quote by the poet Muriel Rukeyser from her epic poem about visiting the ancient caves of Ajanta: ”Try to live as if there were a god.”
Nobody owns faith. As we heard in the etymology, the word faith doesn’t have anything to do with god or religion. It’s the ability to trust. To believe. And--as a side note--it’s not as if religious people are lacking in opportunities for places to gather. But the rest of us? I wanted to make a place for folks like me.
To me, faith is like sex--it’s private. I don’t know what people believe when they come here--and it’s none of my business. My job is to build the container, the thing that holds people together. To provide a period of connection. And I want as many people as possible to take part in that, whatever they believe. Or to believe nothing at all, but to gather with us.
I have found my faith in poems and pictures, songs and shows, dances and movies and photos--all of these things have given me strength. The ability to keep going when I didn’t know how. They’ve helped me trust that life is ok, or it will be ok again soon. It is art that has taught me, strengthened me, made me a better person.
Just got off a zoom meeting with the Fellows from the Artivate program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a program designed to foster artistic leaders. I was asked last year to be an artist in residence and to take part in this year’s Artivate Summit, which is taking place right now. This morning’s zoom meeting was the first event of the conference.
There were 12 fellows on the call--most of them recent grads of the School of the Arts--a dancer, a couple of film students, a metal worker, a lighting designer, a stage manager, a singer and several more working in a variety of media.
I asked them to introduce themselves by telling us how they would have described themselves and their work a year ago versus how they would describe themselves and their work now.
Everyone’s life looks incredibly different.
Many of the fellows are in their twenties--they’ve just graduated from college after having their last semester online, no proper graduation ceremony, you know the deal.
When they first invited me to be the resident artist it was because I had started The Secret City thirteen years ago and I myself stepped into a position of leadership. Of course with the events of this year, my role as the leader of this organization and this community has called on me to change the nature of our work--you all know this because you’ve been instrumental in that. These daily shows have been the result of this change--to find a way to gather people, to provide connection--i believe so much that this is what we are called to do right now--especially artists and creative people.
Now the focus of my work--and my message--for the summit is: how do artists adapt to what we’re going through and respond. To lead.
There’s a podcast that coincides with the summit; the interviewer asked me about my thoughts around artists and leadership. For me, the phrase artistic leader is a redundancy. Artists are leaders. We are at the forefront of society. We lead people to see things that they may not have seen before or to engage in ways they may not have engaged before. Art educates, inspires, creates cultural change.
There was an actor named Sam on the call. He said that last year at this time, he was planning for his senior showcases. This is what his entire college acting program led up to--four years of learning and planning and preparing to get to these showcases where they perform scenes for industry professionals with the hopes of getting an agent and getting folks excited about them and their work.
In March he was with his class in Atlanta, preparing for their first showcase. They would then be going to New York, LA and Chicago. But, suddenly, this thing that Sam had been looking forward to for a really long time--both the culmination of a period of work and the beginning to a career--just ended.
He’s living back at his parents’ house in DC now.
Toward the end of the session I took questions. Sam spoke up:
“What would you say is the thing to do right now, in light of everything,” he didn’t seem hopeless, but definitely without direction.
My casual self who’d been holding space for these people suddenly became flushed. I sat up. I knew how to answer this.
“This is when we go to work,” I said, “especially creative people. This moment is a call to action. Anyone who has an idea, this is the moment to make it happen. Anyone who is in the theater, especially if you live in a climate conducive to this, should be putting on shows outside--in the woods, in parking lots. Invite your friends and make something new. Reinvent the form. Invite people to come watch--socially distanced, of course. Dancers could be dancing in outdoor pavilions. Installations in strange new places. Whatever you can do or have thought about doing, this is the time to do it. And it may seem impossible but that’s what art does, works through impossibilities. We are all desperate for leaders right now. You are the leaders. Lead.”
Sunny, the staff moderator on the zoom call said, “It’s funny you mention that, we talk with the fellows about artists as leaders. The thing is, so many artists struggle with that word. Leader. Why do you think that is?”
By this point I was on fire--
“I’ll tell you why it is. Because artists are infantilized. We are told that making art is a kind of foolishness. That spending time making things from the imagination is silly. Imagination itself is silly, except in service to making money. Art and artists aren’t valued in our country. But,” and this is important, “artists are the leaders. Artists lead. They don’t have to become leaders, they are leaders.”
But how? How do we proceed?.
Accept what has happened. Surrender to these times--don’t give up, but surrender, and then: say yes. Respond, make something new. Include others in your vision. They and you will be saved by your work. We need you.
It got cool this past weekend. And we’ve had cool days this summer but this was different. This was cool with the autumn in it. As if fall slips in a bit of flavor, like a drop or two of vanilla, making the recipe of late summer more complex.
It’s a strange time, yes, but summer has been so sweet here in this cottage. No travel, no big events, busy but not panicked, the chaos factor turned low, which it turns out, I like. The cool brings with it a slight, sweet, sadness. .
Friday afternoon I told Bobby I really needed to get away this coming weekend. It will be our last chance to get any taste of summer. So we decided to go to Provincetown. You all heard me talk about that last week. It’s an annual pilgrimage.
We’d leave Thursday after the show, drive to the Cape, stay in our usual motel, visit the beach, all the things. But on Saturday, I realized, I don’t know what I was thinking, I have a writing group on Thursday nights so we’d have to wait until after the show on Friday and then go.
Yesterday, Bobby said he had concerns--the drive to Provincetown is about 6-7 hours. So we’d get there late on Friday with a couple of hours driving in the dark. We’d have Saturday and Sunday and then have to drive another 6-7 hours back on Monday and then my week would be playing catch up.
“It’s too much.” He said.
I felt the beach slipping away from under me, the lobster roll being gently taken out of my hand, the light of the cape fading, fading.
We decided to go somewhere closer. A drive through the Berkshires, maybe Williamstown to visit the Clark, a beautiful museum we’ve been to once before. We settled on the town of Bennington, Vermont, just over the Masschussett’s border about an hour and forty five minutes from here.
I’ve been to Bennington before, the production of Midsummer that I was in when I met Bobby had a stop at Bennington College, fourteen years ago this coming weekend. We weren’t planning it that way but that’s how it happened.
I come from a nostalgic family. It’s dangerous, that legacy--always looking back toward some other time or place that maybe never existed. Nostalgia can be a fantasy for a past we never had. How do we stay in the present, especially as we get older? It’s been hard during the shutdown to not dwell on the way things used to be, the ways we used to live, the places we would go.
I called my mom last night. She’s on her own in her house and I’m still not sure how we’re going to get her out of there.
I can tell by her voice as soon as she picks up the phone what kind of state she’s in. Last night she was in a sort of drifty place. She said, “I just don’t understand what’s happening.”
She means in our country.
“The post office keeps emailing me telling me that they’re going to be closed down. I’ve never been through anything like this.”
I was cooking while we talked and mostly I listened. She talked about the fires, the heatwave, the post office, the election and how is she going to sell the house?
Toward the end of the conversation she said, “When you were born, I was put in a room on the ground floor of the hospital. They didn’t allow kids in the maternity ward back then, I think they probably do now. Anyway, dad brought your brothers and they all stood outside the window and waved at us, you were in my arms. They were so happy.”
She told me this around my birthday. And she has told me this before. How could she not want to visit that time? Such hope and joy, the fullness of life spreading out before her.
The place where Bobby and I booked our hotel room is called the Paradise Inn. Ever since we made the reservation he’s taken to saying, “We’re going to Paradise this weekend.”
There was a girl I went to school with the year I spent in Switzerland. It was an extraordinary time, we were teenagers. At some point that year someone asked Jill how it was going for her.
“I’m looking forward to the memories.” she said.
We made fun of her, what a kook. It was such a dumb way of talking about a time we were having, right then. But as I was telling you just now about visiting Paradise I thought, “I’m looking forward to the memories. Memories of Paradise.”
CREATING SPACE FOR NOTHING
Like many people I have a very clear memory of the morning of 9/11. I was asleep in my apartment in Silverlake when the phone rang pretty early, it was my friend Patti, very upset. “We’re being attacked.” I didn’t own a TV so I hopped in the car and drove over to her place in Beachwood Canyon and we sat and watched the smoke, the ash, the unimaginable wreckage.
I remember the terrifying unreality of that day. And, the immediate understanding that this was going to mean a lot of bad repercussions, more violence.
My shrink at the time was named Carolyn. She was my first real therapist-- and she really helped me. With her I began to untangle the grey, jumbled mass in my head, to separate out the strands and begin to understand myself, my behaviors. I first started seeing her in South Pasadena five years earlier but by this time she had moved out to Simi Valley where I drove to see her every Saturday.
The attacks were on a Tuesday. That Saturday I drove out and pulled into the empty parking lot of the Medical services building where Carolyn’s office was located. No one else was ever there on the weekends and it felt sort of eerie.
She opened her door as usual, standing with a warm smile. I entered, sat on the couch. I took one of the pillows and held it in my lap and began to cry.
We spoke for a few minutes about how awful it was. Then I said, “and the fact that this is really retaliation for so many of our own behaviors, our foreign policy…”
Carolyn was in her early 70s, tall and slender, what you’d call willowy. Whenever I had seen her she was beautifully dressed. That day she wore a calf length, mocha colored knit skirt and a matching top with gold buttons up the front. Tasteful gold jewelry, pearl earrings. A nice beige pump. Her short bob was dyed a dark red. She was composed and soft spoken. My favorite refrain of hers was, “I’m sure it will be great, you’ve got good judgment.”
This was a revelation. The first time she said that to me years before I thought, “I’ve got good judgment, really? Come on, lady, I might be in desperate need of therapy but I’m not an idiot.”
But over the years, the more she said it, it sank in and I began to see myself as someone who has good judgment.
Well, as soon as I said the bit about America’s foreign policy, Carolyn erupted, I mean, exploded. “Don’t you say anything bad about our country. This has nothing to do with anything like that. These are terrible people and they have committed acts of terrorism.” I was hunched up in the corner of the couch, squeezing the hell out of that pillow now. She’d never raised her voice in the entire time I knew her. Her behavior shocked me. I felt shamed though not ashamed--her response didn’t shift my perspective--but it was imminently clear that what I was feeling and thinking weren’t acceptable in that office.
“Don’t,” she said, her voice softer now, “Don’t even say that.”
I left feeling rattled, that was messed up. Not because we disagreed but because she was my therapist and her job--for which I paid her--was to hold space for me.
Whenever this time of year comes around, I think of Carolyn, her inability to hear my thoughts around those terrible events. Life and history are on a continuum. This terrifying moment we’re in now is related to what happened 19 years ago and what happened 19 years before that and so on. Everything is connected. The raging fires in the west, the threats to our democracy, the protests and the violent response in the streets of Portland and elsewhere. Even the mishandling of this pandemic. The same number of people that died in 911 are dying every three days from the virus. There has been no public reflecting on that loss.
Reflection can be hard. To stop doing, stop struggling, and just reflect on what has happened. To create space for nothing. To just hold.
Ten years later I was living in New York. It was September 11th and I had put together another of our annual Wonderwalks, the day long walk of the island of manhattan with site specific performance and interaction along the way. The walk started at Fort Tryon Park at 10am and was scheduled to end in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight. We reached the site of the World Trade Center at 11pm. One of the artists whom I’d invited to participate had composed a piece of music he titled, Falling. Our group was about 125 people strong by that time and we all stopped at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. We handed out earbuds. Everyone had downloaded the song beforehand and we stood there looking at those two huge columns of light while listening to the beautiful, mournful music. Sharing the moment, honoring what had happened, saying nothing.
Art was leading to a shared reflection.
When I was 5 years old my family and I lived in Saratoga, California, a small wooded city in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, directly west of San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area. The neighborhood was nestled into the hills and scrubby woods, and at the end of a cul de sac was our house, the back of which opened onto a ravine of old oak trees.
One day a group of us--my brothers and their friends, kids bigger than me--were fooling around in the woods, throwing things, moving branches around, running around. What I recall is hazy at best but I imagine myself standing and watching, wishing I could take part but also not really wanting to do any of those boyish things.
One of the bigger boys said he had something to show us so we gathered in a circle. My back was to a big tree with lots of thick brush behind. The boy held a short branch with fat dry leaves at its tips and out of his pocket he drew a lighter. I remember feeling excited and scared, a state where I’ve spent so much of my life. We all leaned in.
My brothers and I had been warned about fires--Smokey the Bear was a well known figure in our house. We had visited Yosemite and been to see the redwoods; we had been taught that only we could prevent forest fires.
The boy flicked the lighter and a small flame erupted. He moved the flame slowly closer to the branch, like a magician about to attempt a magnificent trick. And we all knew what was about to happen but still we were tense, expectant.
One big dry leaf lit up, then another, soon the entire branch was burning, the sense of excitement moved more squarely into danger and some of the boys started barking, “put it out, put it out.”
Was it summer? Probably. The grass at our feet was dry and when the boy--the firestarter--finally dropped the burning branch into the center of the circle, the ground beneath us caught fire.
Shouting, screaming, boys running. I think I started crying.
But, was I also mesmerized, or just immobilized? In any event, I did not run, I stayed and watched the flames growing and by the time I wanted to run, everyone else had fled, the fire before me had grown and my back was to the big tree with the scrub behind it too thick to penetrate. I was trapped.
What’s scarier than fire? With such swift devastation.
Someone must have gotten a parent, soon sirens were wailing and the fire was doused and I was fine.
Once the ground was put out all of us boys were gathered again in a circle this time with several adults in the mix, including my mother. We were told what we did was really bad, punishment was doled out, my mother also scolded my brothers for getting me involved, leaving me there alone with the fire.
The west coast of our country is burning. California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, too. Friends in San Francisco shared pictures of the sky over the city yesterday: deep, dark orange at 10 oclock in the morning. Pamela shared photos of her kitchen, so dark from the smoky skies that she had the inside lights turned on. Diane in Ashland, Oregon wrote that she and her mom had to evacuate the day before yesterday and wanted me to know that they both realized they had on their Secret City tshirts when they left the house. Octavio shared pictures from his place outside of Phoenix, huge plumes of smoke rising up over the desert. He and his family were on evacuation alert. Helen shared that she and Gonzo were still at their place near Bass Lake, but they’d been put on evacuation warning, too; the car and the motorhome were already packed so if the call came, they could leave immediately. Eugenia in Marin texted yesterday to say, “it’s 9am and it’s dark outside from the smoke.” Even in LA, folks are feeling the smoke in the air, in their lungs.
Seven people have now died. Hundreds maybe thousands of homes have been lost. According to the New York Times, “In California, fires have now charred some 2.5 million acres — a modern record and nearly 20 times what had burned at this time last year.” Entire towns in Washington are now ash.
What’s scarier than fire? The sudden leap from spark to flame and then ferocity of flame. Air gets added and then it grows. The roar. We are left with ash, smoke.
The world is elemental. We forget that, we build, we grow, we play as if we live in some kind of future-time but the rules of nature are ancient, eternal. There’s truth in fire. And we are mortal..
The Eyes of Laura Mars is a movie from 1978. Faye Dunaway stars as a highly successful fashion photographer in gritty New York City. She’s a sort of female Helmut Newton, her pictures are highly sexual using violent imagery, models in couture standing at a murder scene.
At the start of the film, in the middle of a photo shoot with tons of skinny models in 70s fashion assembled around a burning car wreck at Columbus Circle, Laura suddenly can’t see what’s in front of her. Instead she sees through the eyes of a predator who is following someone and she continues to see this until the person who is being followed is killed by the person whose sight she sees.
Laura Mars has developed an uncanny and disturbing ability to see through the eyes of a killer. Presumably it’s because she’s been glorifying violence in her work. You could also say the message of the film is women shouldn’t be successful or interested in sex.
Tommy Lee Jones plays the detective assigned to the case. Tommy and Faye are gorgeous and thin and sexy in that late 70s way, New York City is an urban wasteland of greys and browns.
The script was based on a pitch by John Carpenter, it was his first major studio film. He went on to make The Thing and tons of other horror classics.
Rene Aubejunois plays Faye Dunaway’s best friend and stylist. He’s gay and flamboyant so of course, he has to get killed.
The theme song from the film--actually it’s called The Love Theme, which is something they started doing in the 70s. It wasn’t enough to have a theme song, you needed a love theme song. Anyway, the song is entitled Prisoner and it was sung by none other than Barbra Streisand. It won the academy award for best song.
Here’s how it starts:
I've never been wrong, but you're the only one I trust to show me the way.
I always hear your voice. And in my dreams I hear you calling my name.
What is it about you? Some kind of light shines from your face. And I can't turn away.
I used to sing it in my early club act--I covered a few Barbra songs back then. I enjoyed performing the high drama of her 70s catalog.
This is the chorus:
I'm like a prisoner, captured by your eyes.
I've been taken and I've been hypnotized.
The movie wasn’t a big hit. Faye Dunaway--who until then had had such an incredible run of roles in great films, beginning with Bonnie and Clyde, where she played a Southern girl, desperate to escape her small town only to realize she was going nowhere, also the Thomas Crown Affair, Chinatown and of course, Network, which won her the academy award--saw her star begin to wane. Eyes of Laura Mars was the film Faye made right after Network and it began the dimming of her star.
The lyric continues:
And your eyes say everything.
You want to keep me here forever. I can't escape.
One minute sincere, then you completely turn against me.
And I'm afraid.
I started thinking of this song this morning. I don’t know about you but one of the sensations of the past six months has been one of entrapment. It’s been great, yes, to be home and together with Bobby and I haven’t felt anxious about it. The truth is I’ve felt safe. I know a lot of folks have been a lot more trapped than I. But here’s what worries me--once Labor Day ends the countdown to chilly weather and dark afternoons begins. And, in my experience, if you haven’t gotten away, even for a weekend, winter can be really dark, and I don’t mean just in terms of sunlight, I mean like The Shining, Overlook Hotel, smashing through bathroom doors with an axe, that kind of dark.
Usually at this time of year, we try to get away to Provincetown. After Labor Day the crowds have thinned out. It’s a magical place, there on the very tip of Cape Cod. Talk about light--it’s no wonder artists have flocked there for over a century. And of course it’s been a gay mecca for over a century.
I want my lobster roll. I want my nap on the beach. I want to walk arm and arm on the pier at sundown. We need to discuss this idea more. I’ll keep you posted.
It’s one of the times of the year where something is ending and something is beginning but the thing that is ending hasn’t ended yet and the thing that is beginning hasn’t fully arrived.
A liminal state.
I also think of this as being in the hallway. You’ve left one room and you’re on your way to the next but you haven’t gotten there yet.
I’m not good at transitions. The jostling that comes with moving oneself from one place or one reality or one job or one relationship or one season to the next.
I crave definition. Look, it's summer. Well here in the northeast, the unofficial end of summer is Labor Day, and yet it’s still warm. But, the light has changed, trees have begun to turn and there’s the slightest chill in the air. But it’s still summer. So confusing.
Transitions can cause feelings of betrayal--how dare you stop being the thing I was used to? How dare you change! And of course, there’s always nostalgia.I really don’t want this summer to end.
Living in this small town, in the cottage in the woods has been an ideal place to spend the shutdown and, not having to or not being able to travel, more accurately, I have really been able to settle into life at home.
For the past however many years, whenever I would fly back from LA, it took me at least a week to recover. I’d experience it as my body being back but myself---the complicated thing that inhabits my body---would be slowly moving through the skies, like a Macy’s parade float, floating somewhere over Nebraska, delayed in its arrival, longing to be reunited with its container.
I shared this quote by Amber Sparks with my writers groups the other day, “When you write a book there’s always a point where it feels so incredibly dumb and embarrassing to be writing the book you’re writing.”
One of the reasons so many people don’t do the things they long to is the terrifying middle area between their current reality and the one they dream of. It’’s the conundrum of being a human--our need for constancy within the reality of constant change. How to respond sanely to what is in many ways, the test of a successful life? But I don’t want to change!
Spending so many years in LA might have complicated this condition for me. The changes of season there are subtle, things slide into one another, winter slides into spring and so on. The differences are not dramatic.
Here, Bobby actually does one of those clothes switches--he brings out sweaters that have been in storage since March, puts away shorts and tshirts. These sorts of plans and practicalities are beyond me.
We are steeped in uncertainty. The fall brings the election, what is going to happen? And then the cold--what will this mean for the virus? Will it come raging back once everyone has to be indoors again? And what about the fires? And all the other ways the environment is changing?
How to stay in the day? Gratitude, yes, meditation, focusing on the task at hand, remaining engaged in good work, mindfulness, which for some might look like increasing out attention toward everyday activities--focus on the salad you’re making, count your breaths as you walk, listen for how many different sounds you can hear in the woods.
It’s hard to fully accept that we have a choice about how to experience our days, especially when we are distressed.
I am someone who can focus very concentratedly on my work or a creative project, the problem comes when something else wants my attention. I have to wrench myself away, this brings up irritation and resentment--why do I have to deal with this?? But those things asking for my attention are often good and necessary things: make lunch. Go for a walk. Take a nap.
Is there somewhere between an on/off switch? Can it be set to medium? In a time of such extremes, how do we live in the middle?
My first job--not counting mowing lawns or having a paper route--was working in my parent’s liquor store. I was 10. My dad had a full time job at Lockheed so that meant it fell to my mom to run the place.
I hated restocking the shelves. I loved working the register—dealing with customers, handling the money.
My next job was at Carvel Ice Cream--the first franchise in California. I was a senior in high school. Pamela and I worked there together. We ate a lot of ice cream working there. By this time I was doing a lot of theater; I didn’t so much dream of being an actor when I grew up, I just was an actor and dedicated myself to it fully.
Next I worked at B. Dalton Bookseller. Mine was a book loving family so it was a good fit.
This led to more bookstore jobs. My first job in LA was at Samuel French Bookstore in Hollywood, selling scripts and mugs that said No Dogs or Actors Allowed. Working there was like being on a sitcom: the cranky screenwriter who worked in billing, the struggling actress who typed up invoices all day, the aging rock and roller who restocked the shelves, the stand up comedian who worked at the register. And, the never ending cast of shoppers—from the famous to the desperate-to-be-famous.
I learned the snark of the book clerk. We laughed at the naivete of the ingenue in search of the perfect monolog, we made fun of the delusional young writer looking for books on screenplays.
Service industry jobs can make you resent the people you serve. And, if you don’t do well with authority, well, it’s a narrow canyon—you hate the people you work for and you hate the people you serve. All that’s left I guess is to hope that you like the people you work with.
Camaraderie—that’s a great word. Comes from the word comrade; the root is Latin, camera, meaning chamber. The word comrade has negative connotations for many Americans, they associate it with communism. It’s one of the reasons unions are looked down upon—workers being organized scares people, it’s perceived as a threat. For being a nation built on ambition, we hold workers in low esteem. For a nation built on rebellion, we dislike protest.
So many workers are invisible—in factories and sweatshops, cleaning houses and emptying trash, driving trucks or buses or uber. The covid crisis has made us all much more aware of the folks who keep the country together--maintenance workers, hospital workers, transportation workers.
One of the reasons I stopped acting was the inconsistency of the work. I didn’t want to work in a law firm while going out on auditions. I didn’t want to learn how to do other things to support my life in the theater. I also resented auditioning and could often be difficult in situations where I felt the people in charge were less intelligent than I.
My vision was that I would start this organization that would employ me, using all of my skills and that it would provide me security. The real surprise of the past six months is that The Secret City is thriving. We just hired two more staff people and are in the midst of hiring a strategic consultant to help us grow into next year and beyond.
A lot of people think I work alone but The Secret City is a real honest to god not for profit organization. We’ve got executive meetings and financial reports and a ton of volunteers past and present making the organization move forward.
I wonder sometimes when I’m talking about membership and donations, if folks think that this money just comes to me but it doesn’t. There’s a ton of overhead, payroll, insurance, accountants, unemployment. Our general manager handles the books and I’m paid a salary. I’m very grateful to do this work I love and get a salary. Next year we’re going to start a retirement fund for Secret City employees.
There’s a common refrain in many art circles it has to do with European countries and how artists are supported there—dancers get a government stipend, painters get studio subsidies, there’s support for artists, acknowledgement that what they do is important to the well being of the nation. For a nation known for its creativity and self-expression, we don’t really respect artists.
So many people are out of work right now. Artists in particular. On this Labor Day, if you’re able, I encourage you to buy something from an artist you know. An album or a print or a piece of jewelry or a piece of pottery or a chapbook. Venmo $20 to someone you know who works behind the scenes. Pay for the content you’re enjoying right now. Let’s not just celebrate artists, let’s pay them.
WE ARE THE LIGHT, WE ARE THE DARK
It’s that time of the year when the light changes, of course it’s been changing all along but then one day it’s as if it all catches up and suddenly you realize, it got dark so early and then, oh, right, summer is ending.
It’s hard for me to write those words. I resist the ending of summer, I’m a summer baby and growing up my entire year revolved around summer. School would start in early September and I would count the days until summer break which back then was three glorious months long; it culminated in the month of August and my birthday, which I count as the beginning of the year. Such a leo.
The trees start to turn here around the first of August. It’s slight but if you look you can see it. I have denied this ever since we’ve moved here—no, no, summer isn’t ending yet, it’s only the beginning of August, there’s still a month and a half to go. Bobby likes to point out where the trees are changing—“oh, look, here comes fall.” For our first several years here I would resist, verging on anger at my precious summer being taken from me. “maybe there’s some strange blight,” I’d suggest and I got him to play along so that now he says, “I saw a tree today, so strange, it appeared to be dying,” and I know he’s telling me, gently, darling, summer is coming to an end.
Sitting on the couch in our living room, I face two large windows that look out across the yard to the tall trees at its edge. The view is always changing. During the summer, the play of light through the leaves is magical. I always want there to be a word for that but we don’t have one. Dappled gets used a lot—the leaves were dappled with sunlight, but it’s the quality of being filtered through the leaves that I want to capture. The Japanese have a word for it--komorebi, which roughly translates as “the scattered light that filters through when sunlight shines through trees.” The Japanese get so many things right.
Growing up in Southern California we didn’t have that summer light stretching late into the night. But when I began to visit the northeast in the summer—visiting friends in Canada, my cousins in Vermont—I got to experience nights where the light stretched past eight, then nine; even at 10pm there were wisps of subtle orange and pink over on the horizon.
We talk about light as if it’s better than dark—I’ve been guilty of this myself. In poetic terms we look for the light, something illuminated that can lead us through times of uncertainty and fear. The light at the end of the tunnel.
My friend Nick Gillie talks about light and darkness in a new and remarkable way—Nick is black and he’s studied blackness and the African American experience for many years. He’s starting a new organization called Black University. Nick has come to reframe darkness as a place where the soul resides, believing that there is power in the dark and it is a feminine power. Creativity resides in darkness, as does inspiration. In Nick’s paradigm, the darkness is ruled over by Dionysius. It’s a chaotic place. Light then is a place of dominance and masculine power. Rational thought, self discipline—neither of which I’m terribly familiar with. Apollo rules the light, where laws are made and right angles appear. It’s tidier in the light, well ordered, chaos has been tamed.
When I used to teach acting I developed an oppositional approach. To help someone become their biggest self—work toward their weakness. I do this with writers now, too--someone is great with detail so you want them to think about themes. If a person knows how to write action, ask them to work on setting, detail, character, mood.
Not to diminish what is strong in them but to trust it, and then hang on it, then reach across to the other side of their talent. People grow this way, they stretch. The scope of their creativity swells.
My relationship to the light is changing, I can see that now. I notice the slight bits of color In the woods and it doesn’t hurt me. Yes, I feel nostalgia for these beautiful days where we’ve been able to leave the doors and windows all day and night, the summer sounds coming alive as it gets dark—whirring, growls and chirps. Eating outside on the patio. Oh, summer, don’t go!
But I see now that I’m actually a creature of the dark. My world bubbles up with murky ideas and irrational visions. I deal in dreams and fantasy. Where I live there are strange harmonies that come in and out and ribbons of soul trail through the skies, faintly sparkling.
It’s not because I am the light that I love the light but because I am also of the dark. A part of me stretches toward the sun, because it hopes to grow, to learn balance. I visit the rational world so that I can order what I’ve made in the shadows. And, the light in me stretches toward the dark and I'm not afraid.
The trees aren’t dying, they’re preparing to make something new.
THE TURNING OF THE YEAR
I don’t know about you but I can be pedantic. Overly concerned with minute details. One of the things that drives me nuts is when people misuse the word anniversary. For example: if someone says, this is Helen’s and my ten year anniversary. No. One ought to say, this is Helen’s and my tenth anniversary.
Anniversary contains the word year within it—annus meaning year. To say one year anniversary is redundant. Now, if you’re going to use anniversary in the less literal sense and as a marker of a different kind of time—this is my six month anniversary of quitting smoking—that’s a different issue.
I really have worked hard over the years to not be a corrector, one of those people who always points out when someone is doing something wrong. You know what nobody wants? Unsolicited advice.
Thankfully and miraculously, three years ago today I married someone who is not a corrector. I believe it’s one of the keys to our so far happy marriage.
Notice how I felt the need to qualify that?
In addition to being pedantic I’m also a skeptic. All of my attempts at focusing on what is working and what is good and how to stay engaged are because there’s a healthy—or maybe not so healthy—part of me that doesn’t believe that things will work out.
It will all work out. It’s a phrase that grew out of our monthly services. I had written it in the text after I introduced the mingle, early in each service everyone is asked to say hi to someone sitting next to them and to seek out someone they haven’t met before. Partly it’s to acknowledge who is in the room before the ritual of the service can really begin and to say, we are here together in this room at the same time sharing this event.
Years ago when my friend Lauren lived with her sister, I was invited to participate in several Wiccan circles—before the ritual can begin, the circle is drawn, it’s for protection. This practice is ancient and comes from the pagans. When I visited the radical faeries I noticed that they, too, drew the circle close before beginning a ritual. It protects those who are present but also protects whatever is about to occur.
Ritual. Our days are marked by all types of ritual—an honoring of time, a marking of something you’ve done before many times, over and over again.
An anniversary is a ritual. A marking of time. I love how Jews mark the anniversary of someone’s death—yahrzeit. Which means anniversary time in Yiddish. It’s most commonly practiced around the death of one’s parents.
Are some cultures better at marking time than others? Seems like it. The United Statesvies with Switzerland and Japan for being the fastest moving country—all three nations have what social anthropologists call a deficit of time. For the other two countries it is due to the precision of their time keeping. For the US it has more to do with our penchant for always looking to the future.
There are still some cultures that don’t really have a functioning concept of time. A tribe in the amazon that has no past or future tense in its language. Certain Hopi indian tribes have a similar relationship to time.
Our relationship to time and how we mark it is relatively recent. The clock is not a terribly old invention. And it is due to the invention of trains that we started to keep time together—in order for trains to run on time and for people to know when their train was coming or when a delivery would arrive time had to be systematized.
One of the most marked aspects of this shutdown, of living through this powerfully strange extended chapter of life—is how our relationship to time has changed. Something that took place a couple of days ago can seem like it was months in the past. People have lost track of the days of the week. It’s as if our collective clock has come undone.
I wonder if there will be markers for this time? In the future, will there be an anniversary of the pandemic? Probably not officially because that would involve a public acknowledgment of the virus and we know this has not happened.
I never imagined I would ever get married. Up until just a few years ago, I couldn’t have, not legally anyway. Growing up in the 70s, there wasn’t a hint of marriage equality talk. So look, we can change, we can progress, we can continue to increase civil liberties for all people. Of course a huge number of folks in our country think the opposite, that things like gay marriage aren’t advances but regressions. But we who are active participants in building the new society—and I count all of us here among those people—we know better.
Happy anniversary, Bobby Lucy. Thanks for loving me so generously for not pointing out my faults even if they’re glaring. And thanks for coming to find me so we could begin to build The Secret City.
Look at how beautiful it is.