"...the highly structured format means that tons of writing gets done, so that when the workshop is over you can barely recognize your work, it's grown so much."
"...the highly structured format means that tons of writing gets done, so that when the workshop is over you can barely recognize your work, it's grown so much."
Hi, I’m Chris Wells and I’d like to share something with you. It’s a powerful new way of living. Like many new ideas, it may upset you at first. I guess you’d call it radical. And, let me say, before I go any further, I’m not being paid for this. The news I’m going to share with you can’t be bought, but the information is invaluable.
For the next several minutes, I’m going to ask you to just open your mind and heart, just listen. If there’s time at the end, I’ll take your questions.
Alright, let me get make sure my powerpoint and my clicker are working—I’m so bad at tech—check check. Ok. Great.
Slide one: The Religion of No, a society of people whose practice consists of saying NO.
I know what you’re thinking. When I was first exposed to these ancient teachings I thought, wait, religion? Isn’t that a bit much, off-putting even? Let me assure you, it’s for good reason, if you’re called to this work, and I hope you will be, it’s a practice that asks to be taken seriously. The effects of your dedication will be life changing.
Slide two: How did it begin?
Founded in 1995 in LA by Bridget Carpenter and Chris Wells, self-employed artists who were in desperate need of tools for managing their time and ways to stop doing things that they either didn’t want to do, couldn’t afford to do or they used to do but didn’t want to do any more, While talking on the phone one day, they stumbled upon the ancient power in the word NO. They discovered that it wasn’t just word; NO was a portal to a land they had only dreamed of before. The land of the life they wanted to be living. Since that day, their hope is that they can help others find this place in themselves.
Next slide: How Does it Work?
As you can see from the diagram, early instruction focuses on creating first the N sound, placing the tongue at the front of the palate, adding that nasal sound, followed by the rounding of the lips to create the O. N, oh. N, oh.
What follows are many awkward attempts. These early sessions are marked by embarassment but laughter, too. The elders are patient knowing that early NOs are rarely elegant.
Next slide: Implementing the NO. Role-play is crucial. The elder poses a series of questions drawn from the initiate’s life:
Hi, I see you do this thing for a living. But, would you do this for me, for free? The beginner then attempts to make their first NO sounds.
The feeling at the root of a real, solid NO, is rarely ever there at the start. Or if it is, the initiate has been so distanced from their own feelings and their own needs—hell, they might not even think they have any needs--that they can’t feel it. Thus beginners must approach their practice with trust, emulate experienced NO practitioners, and work from the outside in.
Following the initial instruction, newcomers are given at-home exercises—saying no in front of the mirror. Saying no to your pet. There are handy tips like post it notes with NO written in them, placed strategically throughout the house. When I first started practicing the Religion of No, I taped a post it with a big, fat NO written on it, to my phone—this was back when I still had a land line. Everytime that phone rang my entire body would tingle with fear, what will I be asked to say yes to today? But one day, with the support of the Religion of No, I was able to pick up the phone, and like a baby bird in its nest, my first little NO peeped out, so softly that the person on the other end couldn’t hear me. To my embarrassment, I had to repeat it but I did, just a little bit louder. No, I said, still slightly shaky but there it was, rather well placed, too, I might add. Beginner’s luck, I’m sure. But, I was on my way.
It’s important to know, this is not something you learn once and then expect your life to unfold with no problems. You’ll forget why you started saying no, you’ll be riding high, wow, look at me, aren’t I awesome? Then before you know it you’re having meetings with people you don’t really need to meet, taking gigs you wish you had turned down, engaging in behaviors and relationships that you know, deep down, aren’t good for you. Even after all these years, I still have moments when the phone, now it’s an Iphone, will buzz and I’ll think, oh, god, whatever it is, I can’t handle it. I don’t what to say. I take a deep breath and remember the sacred prayer of my teachers, No is a complete sentence.
The Religion of No is there for you, whenever you need it. Saying, Come back to the NO.
With our current crisis, these teachings are needed more than ever. I’ve created some easily accessible online tutorials including such topics as:
How to say no to a virus
Nos for germaphobes
Saying no to baked goods
And, How saying no can create boundaries for health and sanity as the country re-opens prematurely from a global pandemic for which there is no vaccine.
You can also download this handy wallet card, Saying no to stupid people.
Join the Religion of NO, celebrate your boundaries, state your needs, exercise your right to not do things that don’t serve you.
You guys know I’ve been writing a new short piece everyday inspired by a word—these words have been taken from this moment we’re in—masks and distance, solitude and patience. I fear today’s word might inspire a rant.
Dan is one of my best friends. He’s an actor and has worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years. This year he got cast to play Bottom in Midsummer, a highlight in any actor’s career. They had finished rehearsal and just begun previews when the show closed. What happens to a play that is put on hold? It doesn’t float in the air—for all of its strength, art is fragile. The live arts are particularly fragile, they rely on so many factors coming together to really work.
Reopening makes me think of wounds. A great word, wound. Out of context, you might think it’s wound, like a clock. To be wound tight. Like many of us, tense, waiting for something—for some of us this waiting is laced with dread, we fear the hastiness of our government, our fellow citizens—many of whom think that what we’ve been doing for the past eight weeks—staying in, keeping our distance--has been some kind of foolish exercise.
The answer for them is reopening. I find this hasty.
We’ve been making a solution together, those of us who’ve been staying in, collaborating. And making things takes time—like with ceramics, the moment to reopen the oven must be right or the thing will collapse or shatter. Drastic changes in temperature can be fatal.
This morning I thought, really today’s word should be fear. But this is the problem—many people aren’t afraid, they’re only impatient for things to get back to normal.
Normal is a mirage.
Everything is singular—we might say, oh, it was just a normal day but really? Something unique happened, even if you didn’t notice it. Normal is about perspective, I guess.
When I was in art class, 8th grade, our teacher taught us how to do forced perspective. Pick a point on the paper where the line would begin, then pick a point off the paper where the line would end. We used rulers to draw the lines ending at the vanishing point. My drawing was a street in an old western town with a row of old style wooden storefronts on either side—a saloon, a blacksmith, a barber. The buildings at the front were bigger than the buildings beyond them and the last buildings in the row were small little triangles, the vastness of the American west stretched out beyond leading to low hills in the distance.
This is the America that haunts us—the frontier. Our notions of freedom and rights, our love of outlaws, our desire to be seen as rebels. “You’re not taking me alive, sheriff!”
Originally the word for today was going to be STUPIDITY, because it seems to be everywhere—remember the commercials for Palmolive dishwashing detergent? A woman in need of the manicure would rush in to see Madge, the manicurist, sitting there with a big green bottle of Palmolive on her small table. “Ooh, look at those hands,” Madge would say, putting the woman’s hands into a small bowl of sudsy water, “It’s all the dishwashing.” The woman said. Madge: “Try Palmolive.” “Palmolive?” “You’re soaking in it.” “Dishwashing liquid?” The woman would recoil, horrified, and begin to pull her hand out of the bowl but, oh no, Madge would grab it and force it back down. “It’s mild, it softens hands while you do the dishes.”
I’m like that woman realizing there’s stupid people everywhere. “Stupidity?” I cry out, and try to pull myself out of the murky water of our current situation but, no, not so fast, “Stupidity? You’re soaking in it.”
I used to have this friend who said about people he had a hard time with, “That person reveals my lack of humanity to me.” I guess that’s what this moment is doing for me.
A virus that has killed more American people than the Vietnam War is rolling across the land, creating hot spots in Nebraska and South Dakota, Kentucky and Florida. But those who’ve died from this plague have received much less honor than those who believe it’s all a hoax. A moment of silence for those who’ve died.
I have a theory, one of the reasons so many parts of the country are resisting the reality of this virus is because it really took off in New York, home to Jews and homos and artists and liberals and people of color and immigrants--folks who are somehow not considered American. Others. We don’t want to see your kind on the sidewalks of our nice old western town. Get on outta here, ya hear?
Here’s what all of this has reopened for me—my feelings of unsafety, that being an American makes me vulnerable. I’m a vessel made of clay in an oven that at any moment might be flung open by someone who has no understanding of what it takes to make a bowl or a vase.
Maybe today’s word should have been rage but I fear bringing out my anger, probably because I fear it. It’s like a wound I don’t want to reopen. Yes, it’s natural to want to protect our wounds, but wounds need air to heal. And cleaning.
I don’t know, maybe the word of the day should have been: resistance or unwilling or closing. I have loved this closing. It’s been like a long, beautiful Sunday that I don’t want to end. Or maybe the word should have been complicated, because I know reopening isn’t simple; but neither am I. Nor is my desire to stay in. It’s as complicated as everything I do and feel. It’s mine.
A few years ago I did this health re-set. It was January and I thought, that’s a good thing to do at the beginning of the year. A physical trainer named DeeDee would be leading it.
We met weekly and reported on our eating and our progress. How the various tools she was imparting were working or not working for us. We talked about the challenges in being healthy, losing weight—you know. One week toward the end of our meeting everyone was asked to share what they were doing the coming week and if there were things they were worried about. Someone had a birthday party to go to and was worried about there being cake. I said I was going to go the movies and, just for now, since I was doing the re-set, I wasn’t going to have popcorn.
“Popcorn!” DeeDee said, excitedly. Throwing up her hands. Like ah-ha!
“Yeah,” I said, “hard to go to the movies and not have popcorn.”
“But this is what I’ve been talking about.” DeeDee often talked about being mindfulness, to not eat on auto-pilot.
“Popcorn at the movies is a perfect example of something we just do, without thinking.”
And I said, “Oh, I think about it, believe me.”
“But it’s not a conscious decision.”
“Oh, it’s a conscious decision.”
I was not willing to demonize my movie popcorn. Ok, for one night I could go without but I had no plans to let it go entirely.
One of my favorite things to do with Bobby is to go to the movies—as in, leave the house and drive to a movie theater, remember that? We buy our tickets, purchase popcorn and if it’s the local arthouse, we’ll get the local brand, small batch, artisanal soda. We each take our own chocolate. The popcorn needs to be large because we’ll be sharing. It’s important that the butter be applied in stages—some in the middle—“Can I salt it there, too, please?” Bobby will ask and the popcorn jockey will swing the bucket over so he can shake the salt on the middle layer, then another dose of butter on the top with another layer of salt.
Once we’re at our seats, the popcorn eating begins—although not without controversy. Bobby used to not start eating the popcorn until the movie began. I like to start eating during the credits and then stop when the movie begins. But, out of fear of not getting any popcorn by the time the movie starts, he now starts eating it when I do, as soon as we’re seated.
I tried to explain the importance of the popcorn to DeeDee but instead I just let it go. But, for someone whose life’s work deals in rituals—the making of, enacting, conducting, dreaming up of rituals—it struck me.
What is the difference between a ritual and a routine? Between setting a rite with a desire to achieve a transcendent state, and going through the motions of something we’ve done many times before?
I’ve said before that this crisis is a magnifier—we see every aspect of our lives more clearly. Making pancakes on Sundays,
how I shake Sally’s collar at her before we leave for our walk and she explodes in excitement, visiting Provincetown the week before Memorial Day. All of these things are beloved acts. They are sacred to me.
So many of our rituals have been taken from us—drinks with friends, going to the theater, going out to live music, visiting that favorite little shop where you buy your stationary. New rituals have been created to adjust to these times—ordering food, wiping off the boxes that the postal service delivers, putting on a mask to go out.
These daily online gatherings are rituals. This happens then this happens, and once that happens, then that can happen. And when all of the things happen in the order and way they were designed, the result is a kind of magic. That’s the hope at least. But design is not all that goes into a ritual—intention matters. To imbue the acts with meaning. Why does this happen first and that happen next? Every element matters. To be awake to every aspect.
I made a bad dinner last night. I’ve been cooking a lot, as many of us have. I like cooking and I do an ok job—I’m no Julia Child but, whatever. My cooking is marked by a sort of concentrated rush. It all needs to come together right away. I’ve been trying to plan more but yesterday was rushed. I had made a marinade for the chicken I was going to bake but I didn’t look at the recipe for the marinade I had made the week before which had turned out so well. I just did what I thought I could remember. I also didn’t think clearly about what temperature and how long so I overcooked it, too.
The two participants sitting down to the ritual of dinner realized immediately that things were off. We proceeded in order, following the steps laid out before us, but there was no lift off, our actions were routine.
Occasionally the shaman messes up the offering, the performer has an off night, the captain has a rocky the landing. When that happens, they examine their missteps—where did it go wrong—and work to make it better the next time. Because all of us—participant and conductor, priestess and follower—we seek the transformation hidden in the rites.
Flannery O’Connor’s story, Everything that Rises Must Converge: the scene on the bus when the white woman condescendingly slips a penny to the young African American boy and his mother smacks the white woman across the face with her purse.
The Color Purple, when Celie has sex with Shug for the first time and experiences what it is to be made love to.
At the end of The Cathedral, a short story by Raymond Carver, when the blind man asks the narrator whose house he’s visiting, to draw a cathedral and the blind man places his hand on the drawing man’s hand as he tries to show him what a cathedral looks like.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is described for the first time as a young African American woman walking down a dirt road into town, wearing overalls, her long hair swinging like a rope down her back.
Anna Karenina’s opening line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Images from books I have loved. But there are so many more. A few weeks back I said I wished I’d kept a running tab of every movie I had ever seen, I wish I had done the same with books—I think the Glass brothers do this in one of Salinger’s 9 stories.
As you start to think back on books and authors, you begin to remember more.
Moving through one’s literary memory is like running through a towering mansion, past open doors of endless beautiful rooms. You want to stop and enter them all. And when I say beautiful, I don’t mean pretty—many of my favorite books are terrifying, tragic.
Hanna Yanagahira’s A Little Life kept me up nights for a week and when I finished the last line I exploded in tears. My first Thanksgiving in New York City I spent by myself except for Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. A book so enraging and sad, it sorta reminded me of holidays with the family.
I grew up in a reading family. Something that often happens when I talk to my mom, if I reference a book she’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I think I read that.” She loves fiction.
Non fiction was more my dad’s style. American History with a particular love of the Civil War. In their garage are shelves and shelves with hundreds of old books, on the battle of Gettysburg, the life of Ulysses S. Grant and several about my dad’s hero, Abraham Lincoln.
“I need to find someone to buy dad’s civil war books.” Mom will say. This always hangs in the air between us. I love books, I do, and reading has given my life one of its greatest pleasures, and such meaning. I just don’t think anyone wants my dad’s random collection of books on the civil war. No one wants old books it seems.
When we lived in Manhattan, Bobby and I had a rule. No books. We just didn’t have the space. A book brought into the apartment meant a loss of a fairly significant slice of real estate. This rule was a betrayal of a life spent collecting books. I always imagined someday I would have a library with books from all the different times of my life. A couple of years ago, I went through all of the boxes of books in my parent’s attic and I took them to a second hand bookstore in Hollywood and sold them all. There’s a slight ping of pain when I write this—why did I do that? But the greater sense is one of freedom. I hardly ever re-read books so what is their purpose? I still read a lot but now I read on a device, which scandalizes certain people. When the printing press was invented, were there people who insisted on sticking with illuminated manuscripts. And don’t get me wrong, I love books—my day job for 15 years was working in bookstore, I love the feel, the small, flipping through the pages. And yet, something has shifted.
Some cultural shifts are subtle, some are sudden, dramatic. Surely the one we’re experiencing right now is the latter—entire ways of life will be lost in the aftermath of this crisis, things that used to matter won’t anymore, or won’t be able to matter. Already people are moving to different states, getting rid of their houses, selling old china.
I read every night before I go to sleep. I have done this for as long as I can remember. Right now I’m reading the Mirror and the Light, the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.
One of the remarkable about these books is that when they take place, the plague was ever present. It would go away in this town and then spring up over there, it would leave for a year then return for three more. And this went on for hundreds of years.
The ability to enter another time and place, to step into someone else’s story. This isn’t escaping, it’s moving through the pages, with the burning quest for answers. Looking for perspective, which now more than ever is the thing I want most.
Our little dog Sally is a rescue—she’s rat terrier, mostly, although there may be some other things in there. Little bit of dachshund, maybe some Chihuahua. She was in a shelter in Venice, CA when our friend Jessica, great friend and animal rescuer, saw her, trembling at the back of her cage, Jessica knew that no one was going to adopt this little black trauma dog outside of Petco on a Saturday morning. So, she fostered her and posted her picture on Facebook.
Our dog Ruby had died several months before and Bobby and I had started talking about getting another. I had a trip to LA planned so when I saw the picture of Sally on Jessica’s feed, I showed it to Bobby.
“I think I should just go meet her while I’m out there.”
“Yes, of course, just go meet her.”
We all knew how that was going to go. I flew her back with me and brought her home where she now lives with her two doting dads. Rat Terriers are highly responsive to training and we often joke that she’d make a great competition dog except that she’d be freaked out by all the people and would either stop and tremble or just run off in the midst of the obstacle course.
Here in Woodstock, life is filled with animals. Yesterday I did some yard work and thought about all of the things I might plant and how they would get eaten by the deer.
One time I was letting Sally out in for a pee and I was standing in the door way, looking down at my phone when I got a message, it was my neighbor Ida texting. “Dude,” it read. “bear headed your way.” I looked up and yep, there he was just moseying up the driveway, over the little bridge headed toward our cottage.
“Sally!” I screamed because I didn’t know where she was. The bear stopped and stood up. He was about 4-5 feet tall. He looked at me, and appeared to have his hands out like, “Hey, cool it.”
Sally ran into the house. I closed the door, heart pounding, and watched through the glass as he walked past the front door into the yard and then gone. It’s a contradictory experience, seeing the bears—happiness that they’re around mixed with the knowledge that when they’re here, among people, they’re highly vulnerable.
Foxes scream in the woods at night. Coyotes lope up the roads. Mink live in the ravines and streams, there’s a chunky badger living in the barn next door, and a fisher king, which can be deadly, has been spotted out by the mailbox. There’ve been small snakes on the trail when I go walk with Sally and bright orange newts, with four limbs angling out from their body and a little tail trailing behind.
With all of the quiet around the world, the animals are coming back. Coyotes on the streets of Chicago, Turkeys on golf courses, wild boar in the streets of Barcelona, turtles returning to beaches in Brazil where they haven’t been in decades. It’s sort of heartbreaking, isn’t it? They’re like, wait, are they gone? Those strange two legged creatures who ride in metal machines that take so many of us down, their tractors that mow down fields, saws that level forests.
I wonder if we are more in touch with our animal nature right now? More sleeping, more staying in, more screwing, more fighting—or maybe we’re more peaceful.
Why do we treat some animals with such love and devotion and some we treat horribly, they spend their lives in factories if they get to live at all. Squeezed into cages far too small, tormented for their fur, their meat, their milk or eggs.
I don’t know—this contradictions are too big for me. Like how I think I’d like to live without so many of the modern conveniences of my daily life—and yet, I can barely get it together to rake the leaves off the patio. How would I survive, without my entertainment devices, my store bought clothes, my coconut milk being fedexed to my front door. And yet, I sometimes think of vegans, if the world really did stop functioning, how would they survive with no processed foods? If you’re starving and its winter and after days of trying, you finally trap a squirrel—wouldn’t you eat it?
Even if you’re dedicated to the ending of suffering for all creatures? I guess this is moral relativism I’m talking about.
I hope that this moment is a turning point in our consumption, that we awaken to our impact on all forms of life, that we continue to wrestle with our conscience about how to treat the creatures with whom we share the planet.
We’re the mightiest of animals but we’ve been stopped by a virus, a submicroscopic agent that has impacted every human on the planet to some degree, and stopped our progress.
We seem to be learning the commands of sit and stay. But, for all of our intelligence, are we trainable? Humility, which shares the same root as the word human, can we learn that? And, if so, who will teach us?
I participated in an exercise years back when I was visiting the University of Texas at Austin. I had been hired to direct one of the MFA plays and was there for couple of weeks. Several other guest artists were there at the same time and we were each asked to lead an exercise during our tenure.
Entering the classroom studio that morning, large pieces of what we used to call butcher paper were laid on the floor around the room. We were a small group, 8 or 9 people.
The person leading the exercise explained that we were going to make maps of our bodies.
I’ve thought of my body as many things over the course of my life—a battlefield, a bus stop, a canvas, a hanger, a thing to be used, a thing to be cherished and yes, I’ve thought of my body as a place where things happened, visible in scars and stretchmarks, tan lines and flab--but also things unseen, the mesh in my groin from hernia surgey. Lungs that used to be grey from years of smoking, with new cilla, like a forest coming back. But I had never thought to map all of that out.
“I want you to lie on your back on the pieces of paper.” She said. It was a bright Texas spring day, sunlight poured in the large windows, the floor was painted a glossy gray, the walls of the studio were flat white. The atmosphere wasn’t clinical but there was a seriousness to the space, it was well-ordered, as if the things that would be made in that room mattered. Like a laboratory.
For the sake of the exercise, the heavy blonde wood tables and matching chairs had been pushed to the sides of the room.
Half of us lay on the floor. Instantly there was the slight discomfort that comes from being asked to pair up with strangers. Bodies suddenly shy, each of us figuring out how we might fit together, would we fit together. A smattering of laughter—it was awkward.
Awk. Ward. I love that word, I like to think it means to move like an awk. Then I imagine the awk, a large, gangly bird I just made up—now extinct, its skeleton grew in an illogical and inefficient way. To see an awk move was to marvel at how it could keep moving, the strange lope, the tilted limp of its carriage. Not that any humans ever witnessed an awk, our only knowledge comes from discovered bones, recreated by anthropologiests. The first scientist to discover an awk bone thought, what? This is nuts! Beginning to reassemble the body of the awk was an experience of such illogic. Our best guess shows the awk in textbooks on prehistoric times, and museum dioramas—here’s what an awk might have looked like, but the models of the ancient birds standing still, wearing their extravagant plumage, couldn’t show the very thing that made them special, their ungainly movement. Awkward—to move without grace, discomfort.
I’ve known awkwardness. But I’ve known grace, too. A dancer floats across the stage, a pale green forest of bamboo bends in the wind. The most graceful part of me has always been my imagination, which must be housed somewhere in the body, also unseen.
Once half of us were on the floor, our partners used black markers to outline each of us onto the paper. I felt self conscious, the way I used to feel when I spent time in the hospital as a kid, the doctor came into the room whenever he wanted and asked me to sit up. He lifted my gown, lay his hand gently on my neck and belly. His touch delicate, my skin shivered. My partner traced my body on the floor, I was almost afraid to see it, splayed out that way. I stood. And there I was, a shape on paper.
We switched and I outlined my partner. Once we had outlined we were given colored markers and tape and asked to fill in the maps—where on your body did things happen, where was your center of town, what was the topography, were there bodies of water, trails? Or was it wilderness?
These days of self-isolation, awareness of my body is keen. I rub my legs at night before sleep and feel the small bumps on my skin, hm, where did these come from? Going for my walk, I feel the fresh air entering my lungs: ooh, I like that. My hands kneading dough are strong.
The slowing down, the paring away affects our. Some of us are struggling to hold onto some kind of routine in terms of our eating; without structure, our bodies slump, lose their tautness. I’ve always loved that expression: to let one’s self go, like an empty lot gone to seed. Not for those who have a strong need for exercise—don’t let go, never let go.
We’ve all seen joggers and runners and bikers, their sweaty outings and maskless sprints, microbes flying, lungs exploding. They seem dangerous.
Because bodies can be dangerous, others, our own—we slap, hit, kick. We infect each other, too. And, we become infected. That’s what this is all about, right? How to keep one’s body safe. We don’t live in museums, we are not imaginary creatures, crouching in dioramas; we are flesh and blood, as the saying goes, breathing, pulsing, sweating, living, dying bodies. Eventual corpses, laid to rest—then burned or buried, in dirt or at sea, boxed or bagged.
Our bones will probably never be found, nor reassembled; our skeletons and movements will be lost when we’re gone.
Awkward or graceful—moving or still, our bodies are fleeting.
The first of May always brings joy. Spring begins to really deliver and the earth is at her best. Even the word, May—may I?—is gracious. As if the year is asking if it may proceed, into June, and then into fruitful summer.
May 1st is Beltane, rooted in the early earth religions of the British Isles, Beltane celebrates the earth coming into her fullest power, fertility. It’s lusty, sexual—when human, animal and planetary potential come into conception. Bel was the word for good, and tane meant fire, so to wish someone a good Beltane is to say, ‘ave a good fire.’ Bonfires were lit to honor the sun and barely clothed people danced around them. Dancing around the maypole is descended from those pagan celebrations.
May 1st is also International Workers Day which many of us think of as a day celebrated in places like Cuba or Soviet Russia. But May 1st as a day to celebrate workers was born here in the US and dates back to the 1880s.
Workers were fighting to improve conditions in factories, mills and machine shops, where 16 hour days were not uncommon. The fight was for an 8 hour workday. At a labor convention, a proclamation was declared that, and I quote: “eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886. And, on that day in Chicago, Illinois, over 400,000 workers walked out and thus the 8 hour workday was born.
Many of us have been self-quarantined or sheltering in place. Quarantine, from the Italian, quaranta, meaning 40, because the first instance of quarantine lasted 40 days. We’ve just passed that milestone, what happens when quarantine goes past the 40 day mark?
It hasn’t been a quarantine for all of us. There’s a strike today, workers from Amazon, Target, Whole Foods, Instacart, Trader Joe’s—who’ve been asked to work through all of this--are walking off the job. I’m sure folks are happy to have a job but they’ve also been put in a really difficult position.
This morning on Twitter I saw a photo that was captioned, ‘here is a picture of America today.’ Taken from behind one of those platformed pedicure chairs, the picture captured the arm and hand of a woman sitting in the chair and the manicurist squatting before her, covered in plastic, with a shower cap, mask, goggles and plastic over her head. However, both of their hands were uncovered, and the manicurist had a small buffer she was using to work on the clients’ nails.
Our economy cries out to be restarted, we’re told we can’t afford to keep this shutdown going on for much longer—and yet, who will pay for reopening? Workers.
This week marked the point in all this that the other shoe dropped for me. I was talking to my mom who’s out in California. I’ve been ordering groceries for her from Instacart, which has been really helpful. She’s alone in a house she needs to sell, and she’s impatient to get it on the market, to downsize, which always makes me think someone is going to be shrunk.
“I really need to sell it,” she said, “but I guess I can’t do anything about that now,”
There was a pause, and the reality of her situation came into focus. I’m the person who was sort of driving this move, to get her out of her house.
“Mom, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get back there again.”
“Yes,” she said, “I was thinking that.”
Another pause, and then the reality of my situation came into focus. I’m not getting on a plane anytime soon. I’m not even getting on a bus to the city. I’m not going anywhere.
“Well, will you be coming out here to do Secret City?” she asked.
“I don’t know, mom.”
For 40 years, my life’s work has been to make live performance. But, who’s going to want to sit in a theater once we start venturing out of the house? What do you do when your work can’t be done? Create different work, I guess, if you’re able. Harder to be done for people who rely on factories, offices, companies they work for.
These daily shows aren’t so much escapes from the horrors of the daily news, as much as they are a place to step aside for a moment, see if we can find inspiration, meaning, even, in this crisis.
For those of us who are in quarantine, whatever that looks like for you and to whatever degree, I’d like to inspire you to not shop online today, to not order from Amazon, to not go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, to wait to make that instacart order. Whatever our work may be, let’s help other workers live better lives. Let’s all give them the gift of inspiration, to step aside for a moment, to feel a creative spark, to see their own lives and this situation from a different angle.
I hope you’ll join me in what I’m going to consider the making of a massive piece of celebratory theater. Collaborators in making a collective performance about May 1st, 2020, and workers, where we’re all playing our part.
Bread. It’s so primal, deep. Crusty on the outside, airy and soft on the inside. Bread: The staff of life.
This phrase confused me when I was younger. I always thought, wait, staff, like a crew of employees?
Staff means support. In Asia, rice is the staff of life. In Iceland, maybe it’s shark meat. If you break it down, we probably all have different staffs of life—yoga, eggs, pancakes, meditation, liquor, writing, theater, love.
I don’t know about you but I am being bombarded with images of bread right now—Sarah in Kingston with her gorgeous sourdough rounds, David in Virginia with his beautifully marked crusty wheat, Eve in Philly shared an 18th century bread with cornmeal and molasses. These images appear daily.
Our daily bread. Which has religious connotations. I’m not a religious person so I believe daily acts and things—whether bread or water, music or books—these things can sustain us the way religion is meant to. Feed us.
Confession, I think people with bread machines are cheaters. I mean, isn’t part of the entire purpose of bread to work with the dough? To knead and flour, put your shoulders into it? Bread making is a physical act. But here’s the thing: I’m not making bread now, am I? No. Don’t you hate a complainer? Step out of the way and let those who are actually doing the work do it—I’m like an armchair bread maker referee, calling out fouls from the comfort of my living room.
We were a whole wheat bread family. White bread was thought to be not just unhealthy but also somehow vulgar. Even today I’d be hard pressed to order a sandwich on white bread, I certainly don’t buy loaves of white bread. And yet, what is a baguette but white bread? I’ll eat a sandwhich on a Kaiser roll, a burger on a white bun. Bagels are typically white unless you get pumpernickel. When it comes to bread, I’ll take all comers: thin dark German bread, rice bread, almond bread, rye, English muffins, cinnamon raisin bread. I love croutons and stuffing, dinner rolls and focaccia. Such a great word.
Bread is, hands down, my favorite food. And I’ve given it up so many times, I can’t even guess how many—sometimes for years, sometimes for a day. But how can I live without buttered toast?
Growing up the seventies, we had some great expressions for things. Some of them were holdovers from the sixties. Old lady meant girlfriend or wife. You called your car wheels or your ride, your house your and money was called bread.
I like that—bread as currency. Going to the store and paying with a loaf of bread you made. Bartering for wool, or for car repairs, IT support.
All of the baking that’s happening now, makes us feel like we’re returning to simple times, doesn’t it? It warms us. Because in addition to flour and yeast and whatever else you’re using to make it, we all understand that baking requires love. Like anything made by hand, making bread is a meditation, as is making cookies, baking a cake, rolling out piecrust. Our minds may drift during these activities, but they come back to thoughts of the person whose birthday it is or the friends who are coming over for dinner, the beautiful summer peaches we’re going to use in the pie.
I don’t recommend distracted baking—the cake I made yesterday, Lemon Cream Cheese Coffee Cake, I’d never made it before and I was doing a bunch of things at the same time— preparing for my online writers group, getting dinner ready— Ok, I may have messed up some of the steps. The cake looks wonderful and smells amazing but—what will happen when she cuts into it? That’s part of the thrill of baking, isn’t it? How will it turn out?
People having birthdays right now—ooh, I feel codependent, I want them all to have a good day. For our friend Kelley, a small group of us are caravanning over to her house this afternoon. We’re going to sing her Happy Birthday from our cars in her driveway. I’ll run out at one point and leave the cake on her porch. And once the coast has cleared, she’ll come out and get it. But what then?
I have so many questions.
Will the cake be ok? Will she like it? I asked her earlier this week if she likes lemon flavor and she said yes, so that’s good. But will I have made it well enough for it to have worked? Is it a bad idea to give an entire cake to someone who’s stuck at home by themselves? Is this act of baking kind or cruel?
Will I bake bread at some point during all this? Will I get drawn into the yeast finding frenzy? Maybe I’ll buy a bread machine. Will we all keep baking this much once this is over? When will this be over? What will it mean, to be over? What will our lives look like then? Will I eat in restaurants again? How will we sustain ourselves moving forward? Will there be new staffs of life? And what—somebody tell me, please—what will they be?
I’m impatient by nature. Like Carrie Fisher said in her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge: “Instant gratification takes too long.”
Living in New York City didn’t suit me in many ways, having grown up in Southern California, by the time I moved there at age 38, I was pretty steeped in California casual. New York’s lack of ease was difficult, how every daily task required extensive suiting up, negotiating the many sharp angles and hard surfaces. One thing, however, suited me well. I am a very fast walker. Through neighborhoods, subways stations, town squares—I am swift.
What comes with this trait is an almost ever-present sense of frustration. Stay on task and deal with any obstacles with quick dispatch.
I have been known to sigh heavily—I mean HEAVILY—when stuck behind a couple strolling romantically down 5th street on a narrow sidewalk in the East Village.
I have perfected the art of approaching a street corner filled with pedestrians waiting to cross: move to the side of the crowd then step off the curb at the very first opportunity, get ahead of the pack and away.
I zig when zigging is called for, zag when it’s the better option. I have approached a wall of friends 5 people wide walking toward me and split them in half without touching a one.
I have snipped loudly--and often--at families of tourists just standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, “it’s called a side-walk, people, not a side-stand.”
I learned to never, ever, unless absolutely unavoidable, visit Times Square, that hideous hive of slow moving Midwesterners, of school groups and church clubs, busloads of foreigners and gaggles of old ladies from the suburbs headed to a matinee.
One of my mottos could be: MOVE OUT OF MY WAY. I’m possessed of a frontal lobe more like a coal miner’s headlamp, leading me into the dark, through what at first seemed impenetrable but after moving through it became just a thing of the past.
And yet. There’s not a ton of grace in impatience.
Lao Tzu, great mystic philosopher of China, author of the Tao te Ching and founder of Taoism, wrote: “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
In which case, I am a poor, poor man. I am definitely complicated, always impatient and often unkind. And here’s the funny part, I have at times in my life considered myself to be a Taoist. Maybe I should write a book called The Terrible Taost, how to fail at simplicity, patience and compassion but still call yourself a Taoist, by Chris Wells.
There are reasons why many people can’t slow down. Moving is a means of survival. It’s the flight of fight or flight. For some of us, we may have learned, before we could even speak, to move and keep moving, that being still could lead to harm.
Sometimes my shrink asks me to explore different shapes with my body, to try on different gestures. The idea is to rewire our biological patterns, right? So instead of being hunched over with shoulders curled forward, eyes looking down, brow furrowed, she asks me to sit back, to lift my shoulders, open the chest, tilt the head back slightly so it’s sort of floating at the top of the spine. How does it feel to look at the world from this vantage, instead of from this one?
Suddenly everything opens up, I can see things that are right there, but I haven’t even noticed them. My surroundings.
I worry that my writing practice might reinforce my obsession to just get things done. Over the years, I have trained my mind to open and to just follow it, recording where it goes without stopping, without worrying if it’s good or bad, rather to capture an experience of movement. I teach this, too—try to get your first draft out—a story, a chapter, a scene-- in one fluid take. Once you’ve reached an ending, see what you captured, like night fishing.
Then you can begin the real writing: rewrite, revise, edit, and finally polish. Those steps take patience.
But we must be patient with ourselves, too, right? Find the very particular ways that we function and behave and work toward compassion. You’ll recall that compassion is the third of Lao Tzu’s ridiculously impossible qualities. I mean, why did he even write that? Hand me your ancient manuscript, Lao Tzu, your Tao te Ching, Let’s see, yes, cut the part about simplicity—I mean, that’s just dumb. Then, Mr. Tzu, I see here you put patience, no, that’s not going to work either. And, I hate to break it to you, but you’re looking at a full rewrite here because compassion just isn’t realistic.
This global crisis is like one of those make-up mirrors, the magnifying kind: round, concave with the light up ring around it. Flip the switch and all of your flaws are revealed.
When exploring the pose of shoulders back, chest open, chin up, the next step is to turn the hands palm up, then tilt the head back. Take a deep breath; feel—instead of grasping, chasing, in hot pursuit—just feel what happens. Every cell in the body stops buzzing. For a moment the body says, “Ah.”
It is the arrival of acceptance.
I want to tell you about the place where I live. Built in 1902 as part of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, the cottage has two bedrooms, a walk in closet, a large living room, loft, kitchen, two bathrooms. A huge upgrade from the 440 sq ft apartment in the city.
Designed and built by artists, hand stenciled peaches trail along the wooden beams up at the ceiling.
The walls are painted white except in the living room where there’s a kind of wainscoting, and the bottom half of the walls are painted teal, not as bright as the blue of the trim on the outside windows—that color is called Byrdcliffe Blue, and many of the cottages have this detail, from years back, maybe since the founding of the place.
The colony was founded as a place where craftspeople and artists could come, leave the city, live and work in the woods. And come they did—furniture makers, ceramic artists, weavers, painters.
It’s funny how art thrives in cities—that is where culture is thought to reach its highest level. Moving here has softened my ambitions—the art I make now is simpler, folksier, less elevated, is that the right word? Maybe not. I’ve always been a populist, I guess. One of the reasons I stopped doing traditional theater—where I made my home for most of my life--is I wanted to step off the stage, to connect directly with the community.
For the first many years of adulthood, having a stable home was something I struggled with. I spent my twenties spent couch surfing, dog watching, house sitting—I didn’t rely on the kindness of strangers, I relied on the kindness of friends.
One day in the summer of 2012, Bobby and I drove out of the city to Woodsdtock, just to check out the cottage We had put our name on a waiting list but who knew if we would get it. My niece Elizabeth was visiting from California and was with us.
We pulled into Woodstock--cute shops, tourists crowding the sidewalks, tie dye tshirt shops, a produce stand. Then, continuing on the main road through town, we came to Ricks Road, and turned. Woodstock is in a valley—but you wouldn’t have known it that day--lush trees and foliage crowded the road, making a cover we drove under, meadows opened up with deer eating grass, old fence posts lined the road; houses could be seen tucked into the woods.
We’ve lived here nearly seven years now, and sometimes in the winter as we’re driving on our way somewhere, Bobby will ask, “Where do the animals go in the winter?”
I answer as if I know. “Well, the bears are hibernating, of course.”
“But what about the deer?”
“Well, they’re all tucked in.”
“Tucked in? Where?”
“They have burrows and hidden spaces.”
“Hm.” He sounds dubious.
But they must, right? Everything has somewhere to stay, to live. Even if that place is outdoors. Whenever I stay at my friend Celeste’s in Venice Beach, there are so many homeless people: sidewalks like living rooms with tents, remnants of stained carpets laid out, music playing from a small tinny machine. These gatherings are scary—but, why? Without a place to stay, an indoor place, a place we recognize as a home, whether it’s an apartment or a shack or a palace—we’re all aware that our humanness can slip, we are closer to the wild than we know, or care to.
I didn’t know until this morning that the world shelter comes from the word shield, like what a soldier would have carried into battle, wearing chain mail and visor. Some of the recent pictures of people working in hospitals resemble those of soldiers. One picture I saw showed a doctor who had fashioned a protective head gear out of a welders helmet, another was wearing ski goggles.
What shields us? What protects us? Especially when we can’t see the threat— When the threat is microbiotic? The strongest shelter, after physical safety, is trust. We want to be able to trust the people around us to not do anything that might compromise our safety or the safety of our family.
Those years ago, approaching this cottage for the first time, we turned off Ricks Road and soon came to Upper Byrdcliffe Road. At a row of old mailboxes we turned onto a dirt road. This ersatz driveway took us past two small wooden shacks and a long two story wooden building, and then, we saw it: the cottage.
“That must be it, huh?” I asked.
“Yes,” Bobby said, “that’s it.”
We didn’t live here yet, it was still only a possibility. But, like remembering the first day of a beautiful relationship, that was the moment we first met this place, this cottage. I’m good with directions but getting out of the car and looking around at the woods, hearing the rushing the stream, the birds singing--I thought, how did we get here?
It’s almost as if it called to us.