I’ve just finished reading the book “Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home” by Toko-pa Turner, and it’s a wonderful examination of attachment and identity. She’s an interesting writer, and really includes the reader in her journey to find her place in the world.
Belonging is such a loaded word for me right now, as I’m
looking at characters who suffer from hoarding, or from a detachment in
belonging to family.
I’m examining issues of belonging to friendships, memories, blogs, exile, debts, illness, cats, theatre companies, journeys, writing groups and teams.
I’m particularly interested right now in the sense of
belonging to a house, witnessing a sense of our personal history there, and the
attachment we feel when we find it as our “home”.
I found this quote from Toko-pa’s book just as I was thinking of the imprint of the place of home:
“It’s said that after arriving in a new place, we will have replaced the entirety of the water in our bodies with that of the local watershed in just a few days. Though these adaptations happen at a biological level, we are vastly unconscious of the implications a place has on our psyche. Just as humans carry an energetic signature, so too do geographies. However, like fish swimming in water, we are rarely aware of what energy a place holds until we leave it, or return to it after time away.”
I’m writing a play about hoarding. Ghosts. A truly evil
woman who might have been in my family history. Trees. Slaves that were bought
and sold by the Quaker families in Upstate New York. And the gravitational
weight of objects that define our place of belonging.
Yesterday I said goodbye to almost one hundred friends.
Enemies. Reminders. Nags. Planets that rotate around the center of my memories.
I gave myself the project of cleaning out my closets, where
I keep all my clothes from the last several years. Okay, the last dozen years. Okay, okay. The
last two or three decades. I tend to keep all my clothes. This includes the
denim jacket with the studded rhinestones, the embroidered black pants from
Chinatown in Manhattan, the fuzzy sweater that is the size of a refrigerator.
They’ve all been living in my closet. Taking up space.
Reminding me that I don’t use them, but they have a claim on the real estate in
our small house with the small closets.
When I started researching the pathology of hoarding, I was
horrified by the awful consequences of this difficult behavior. I know I’m not
a hoarder, I don’t have the space.
But I do tend to keep all my clothes. I’ve bought clothes in
thrift stores, online, at Nordstroms, Macys, designer outlets. Even though my
size has changed a lot in the last few years: cancer, chemo, hip replacement, plantar
fasciitis, getting older, gaining weight, getting less agile. I don’t fit into
most of these clothes anymore. So, I thought this was a simple challenge: get
rid of the clothes that I haven’t worn in a year. Or two. Or Five.
I had a kind of conversation with every item as I held it up
to review its life span and value.
Hello darling. The Evan Picon suit, silk and wool, with
beautiful trim. Last worn in 1992. I love you. But I can’t keep looking at you
if you’re not going to get out of the closet.
Baby: My vintage hippie denim jeans with the wonderful
patches all over them. Purchased in some thrift store in Hollywood. A size 8.
(My friends will know that I have not been a size 8 in a long time.) I
loved looking at these. That was the basis of our relationship.
An azure blue silk Henri Bendel tunic, tiny jewel like
buttons for trim. Worn once. Loved the idea of it. It didn’t love me as much.
So many jackets and blouses and pants and skirts. I’d
forgotten about most of these. We didn’t have much to say to one another.
White Victorian linen shirtwaists, high collared blouses.
Gorgeous. Not useful in my current lifetime. Maybe if I was going to do another
play on Emily Dickinson.
The black jet tulle dress I wore on the night we went to the
theatre in the West End in London and met Judi Dench backstage. We had
champagne in her dressing room. I have a picture of that night and that dress.
So I’ll keep the image and not the dress. I’ll always have London.
And so it went. I had to rally my flagging spirits and cart
all the bags of clothes out of the house before I could change my mind. I
really didn’t think it would be this difficult to let go of my stash, my
collection, my hoard, of clothing.
I’m including this amusing graphic of “Reading Between the Lines”, as a warning that the “provocative” ( – irritating) story I’m about to tell, could be seen as something written “in the tradition of” (- shamelessly derivative) as multiple points of view. Like every story. Like every play.
In November I was invited to the opening night of “THE HARD
PROBLEM”, by Tom Stoppard at Lincoln Center.
(I know how posh that sounds – I loved writing it.) When I was a young
actor I performed in a couple of Tom Stoppard plays and I’ve always delighted
in his witty characters, the mental gymnastics, the world of words in his
My sister was taking me to this opening night performance,
and we went out to an early dinner, (yes, she got us a table at Joe Allen’s). Someone
I love very much was in the cast, and like a lot of writers, I tend to live
vicariously through the lives of others, this was a peak experience. Flowers
for opening night. Joe Allen’s. My sister. Lincoln Center. A star performer I
have always championed doing incredible work in the show.
That’s the top line of this story.
Other threads in the story: I’ve been in and been to dozens
of opening nights in my lifetime. This one was intense. This Lincoln Center opening
night had celebrities (Rosemary Harris – who I have always loved as an actress
– sat in front of us), a new play for New York, a famous playwright, a
glamorous setting. You could feel that live wire electricity in the audience.
I was sitting next to my sister on one side, and a very
elegant gentleman on my other side. I had a brief, theatrical conversation with
him. (He reminded me of Colonel Pickering in “MY FAIR LADY”; very cultured,
articulate, and handsome. Perfect casting.)
Another thread: I was feeling very protective about my
sister that night; she had recently sprained her ankle and was walking with a
cane. She fearlessly walked into the theatre. I was on high alert watching out
for her; something I have to try and hide from her as she hates to be fussed
over by me like that.
The connecting thread: when we entered the theatre, we saw
that a young man in the seat next to us had his large suitcases wedged in our
row. We hesitated – this seemed odd. But there were no ushers to be found to
sort this out, so we had to climb over his suitcases to get to our seats. We
eventually were able to sit down, and we waited for the play to begin. We were
in high spirits, and I suppose, rather nervous.
I love opening nights: the whispers in the lobby, the ebb
and flow as the audience comes in, the scuttle of the ushers up and down the
stairs. I know what it feels like to be backstage waiting in the wings before
the lights come up. Nowadays I see myself in the audience as a kind of
satellite receiver, boosting the transmissions being beamed across the theatre.
But on this night…
Yes, on this night, I had my first case of sudden and severe
gastric distress. It started as soon as
we sat down in the theatre and I started reading the program for the play. Like
the first scary music in a horror film, I heard this growling sound. And then
more noises, like a garbage disposal chewing up your forks from a dinner party.
But then I realized that these thumping noises were coming from me. I’d never
heard these sounds before. And then this wrenching bolt of intestinal pain shot
through me. It was a spontaneous gastrointestinal nightmare.
(Thinking back on the dinner at Joe Allen’s: it was a simple
supper of chicken and vegetables. And a glass of champagne. And then a cup of
coffee. And I seem to remember that we split a dessert of some kind. It all seemed
like an innocent menu at the time. Was it the chicken? The coffee? It couldn’t
possibly be the dessert, could it, the one I can’t remember?)
But back at the play: an announcement was made that all cell
phones should be turned off, the house lights changed, and the play started. I
seemed to be okay. I focused on the words from the actors. I used mindful
meditation breathing. The play was unfolding into twists and turns, I thought I
But during the play, the young man sitting next to my
sister, the man with the big suitcases, pulled out his cell phone, turned it
on, and started to watch a soccer game. On his phone, during the play. The
sound was off, but the flickering light from the phone lit up the entire row.
You could see the audience members turn around as they tried to gesture to him
to turn it off. He ignored them.
The people next to him asked him to turn off his phone. He
shrugged his shoulders. They left to find an usher. They returned, without an
usher. He continued to watch his soccer game on his phone. After a moment, my
sister turned to him and in a sotto voce tone like the serpent in the Garden of
Eden (after the fall), she told him to turn off his phone.
He turned off his phone.
The audience’s attention returned to
the play. It was a Rubik’s cube of ideas, characters, and intentions. I’m still
thinking about it two months later. At one point there is a revelation
of betrayal in the play, underplayed so quietly, you might not be sure you heard
There was a moment of quiet in the
And then it started up again. My growling noises. It sounded
like the rumbling sounds coming from a brass cannon in a far away civil war. Or:
It sounded like a huge garbage truck digesting a weeks worth of garbage. Or: I
was the only person who could hear it and I was mistakenly afraid that others
were bothered by it.
I’m not sure which version is correct, but I tried to look
unfazed and focused on the play.
And while I tried to make it look like it wasn’t me making
that noise, inside, I was trying to scold my digestive system into silence.
Knock it off! You’re
as bad as the guy with phone watching the soccer game! Stop that! I mean, cut
I wrestled with the idea of getting up, climbing over my
sister and the man with iPhone and the large suitcases, scrabbling over the
other audience members, and taking my borborygmus with me.
(I found out later that what I experienced has the scientific name borborygmus,
which is related to the 16th-century French word borborygme, itself from
Latin, ultimately from Ancient Greek. It sounds better than the other available
diagnostic titles: bubble gut, bowel sound, or stomach rumble.)
But then. The play ended. The applause and the ovations were
over. And as we left, my sister turned to the young man and in a low voice,
gave him such a warning that I don’t think he’ll show up with his iPhone and
soccer games in an audience again.
We made our way to the opening night party, and eventually
my digestive system quieted down. Or it might have been that the music and the
noise from the party was so loud that no one could hear me and my personal
rumblings. I guess it all depends on what line reading you choose.
The night before the mid-term election, and my cat, Ted, is sensing some troubling words..
Yes. No. These are decisions I get to make tomorrow. I get to vote.
I’m particularly anxious about this election, (as many of us are), but I think Ted is picking up on a sense of helplessness, and pent up rage. And apparently he doesn’t like to hear me read the ballot out loud. I call this his “Fur Emotion Sponge” posture.
When I’m writing, and he’s sitting next to me, he likes me to play new age soundtracks so he can listen to the sound of rain, and frogs, and maybe some thunder. If it isn’t too ominous.
So, I’ll write more later. Right now, I have some cat paws I have to gently reposition on my political agenda. And I’ll get to vote tomorrow.
The last few days I’ve been hearing some wild stories, and revisiting memories that seem directly broadcasted to the rewrites I’m doing . Some of the stories and phrases stalk me and won’t leave me alone until I write them down. It’s like being followed by a twenty pound cat that just wants to escort you around the house and walk in between your legs.
(That would be Ted.)
And I’m hearing unexpected stories about ghosts and hoarding and old houses.
I know it’s because my antenna is on and I’m hearing the words I’m looking for. But it is a bit overwhelming: is my writer’s radar on and that’s why I’m hearing these things? or is a form of psychosis? previous lives manifesting themselves in voices?
It seems a bit mad, to be obsessed with sorting through imaginary conversations and places and things, and witnessing such electric connections. But that’s the assignment here in the rewriting. I have my work cut out for me.
I’ll just have to watch out for that cat walking next to me in the hallway.
On Sunday afternoon, I had a chance to listen to a reading of my new script.
Ouch. Opps. Really. What.
That voice! That actress! Love that guy who’s reading. Wow. Oh – I hadn’t thought of that line that way. What? These actors: wow.
Wait. Where’s that scene? Did I drop that scene? That’s right, I dropped that scene. Maybe I don’t need that scene. Do I need this scene? Where is that scene, the other one – did I even write that other scene?
It was, as is usual for me, an astonishing and brief and intense experience to hear imagined words read out loud. I was alternately delighted and horrified by what I’ve written, and what I heard. I’ve learned to expect to be overwhelmed by staged readings of my work – and I was.
And the comments afterwards – I wrote them down in snippets so I can remember them, as I tend to rephrase them in my own memory. And it really helps to have a gifted moderator manage the conversation, – Jennie Webb helped guide the talk so I could hear/rather than react to the thoughts about the script.
And the best part about hearing really gifted actors read your script out loud:
They bring their feelings about lost love and attachment and isolation and they’re able to articulate what that sounds like. They can make a phrase really zing. And if it doesn’t, and you hear that it doesn’t, you hear that too.
I love seeing actors create characters out of memories and hopes and sadness. I’m grateful to hear the voices of longing and anger and jealousy and vulnerability.
At the end of the day, I felt a bit pixie mazed. But that’s a good thing. It’ll help with this next rewrite. My cat, Ted, will be in his chair next to me listening to his rain song.
I finished a rough (very rough) first draft of my next play two weeks ago. I feel like I opened the door to a new room in my house.
I’d been writing on different versions of this script – it seems like forever – and I just stalled out. I had written around the edges, came up with long memory scenes, and did a lot of visual research. Oh did I do research.
(This meant I spent a lot of time with art books, historical documents, auction manifests, and real estate listings for large estates. I especially loved looking at old auction lists: the descriptions!)
And it seemed – no – it was – I somehow got lost in my research: there were so many stories I wanted to tell about taxidermy. And antique crystal. Parrots that sing Mozart. Historical estates with ghosts. Timber frame barns.
I’ve taken a lot of workshops, classes and I’ve been part of several writing groups over the years, but I just had this “want” : I needed to write this story by myself. I wanted to feel that it came out of my own authentic voice, without any influence or commentary. I just didn’t expect the authentic gridlock that came with it.
Earlier this summer, I just had to end this checkmate. I took a dive into joining the recent Seedlings Dramaturgy Workshop, and for most of the writing sessions, I hedged and hawed and couldn’t seem to go forward. I brought just a few pages in, and heard them read out loud, and it just seemed this time – this is so much harder than working on my other scripts. The other playwrights shared great comments, and I had some really poignant feedback. But when the workshop was winding up, I still hadn’t made much progress.
And then. The teacher of the workshop, Jennie Webb, asked me a series of “what if” questions. Somehow she was able to ask me questions that helped me see what I wanted to do with the script. I still don’t know how she did it. She’s really a great teacher / dramaturg / word artist. Thank you Jen.
And so, after those “what if” questions, for several horrid hot summer nights, I spent hours writing until after midnight, wondering how I was going to wake up in the morning. I kept the air conditioning on. I drank a lot of ginger beer. I tried out my new “progressive” glasses, took them off, put them back on. But there I was, deep in the script, finding my way through it.
My grey cat, Ted curled up in the chair next to me, every night, and I would play a soundtrack of rain (with birds) and thunder and the wind in the trees. Especially during these hot summer nights, the sound of that rain, and the rumble of thunder made me feel like I was writing in another world.
Recently I’ve been looking through family photographs, and I’m astounded what powerful reminders they are. They seem to tell just a momentary fraction of all the worlds that collide in a photograph. There’s an element of disbelief in them (“Did she look like that?” “Wait – wasn’t that in Idaho?” “Who is that person?”).
Very much like the scripts we write and watch and remember, there’s an invisible world that also inhabits those images.
I’m writing something now that could be called “magical realism”. Or, as I also call it, “real magicalism”. I’m drawn to those memories in theatre where magic happened, whether it was a beautiful light cue, or an unexpected vision. Or an actor who found a moment of surprising vulnerability.
So now, in my writing, I’m looking to find the magical elements – in life – and onstage.
In my life at home I can find a brief moment of the supremely unexpected, the whimsical, the forcefully alien ideas. There’s also horror, and dark surprises, and a refrigerator that makes sounds at night that makes you think an axe murderer is at the door. (The refrigerator only does this at night.) (That must be it’s magic.)
At the moment I’m watching our tribe of hummingbirds duel over the seven feeders that they visit dozens of times during the day. They glitter like jewels in the full sun, then vanish with a zip toward the next feeder. They squeak and chirp and sound like a squeaky bicycle. But their magic, (flying backwards!), their fierce swashbuckler posturing (“This is mine! All mine!”) and their greedy gusto, is so unexpected and comic. We have names for the some of them: Me Too, Achilles, Tuffie Five, Tuffie Six, Merlin, Big Boy.
So there’s a bit of magic that I’m watching tonight. I haven’t figured out how I could cast a hummingbird in my play. But maybe there’s some kind of magic in thinking about it.
Recently, a good friend challenged me to come up with a list of those things that made me happy.
I was vexed.
I was annoyed.
And I thought this was a stupid waste of time idea. One of those “The Artist’s Way” self help kind of indulgent crap ideas. (You can probably tell I’m going through some stressful times here. Hence the negativity.)
But I also know that when I’ve written for my characters in plays, I’ve made lists of what they loved, liked, hated, wanted, and actually, what made them happy.
Part of that research fantasy.
So here is this damn list:
Build a fire in the fireplace
Make home made ice cream
Plant two trees
Visit Huntington Gardens and have Tea in the Tea Room
Make glass art
Read the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall
Host a Pinot tasting party
Go to The Edison in downtown LA
Listen to more music
Go to the beach and watch the sunset
Feed the hummingbirds
Go back to the Sequoia forest
Go see an opera
Put together an irrigation system
Have lunch with Friends
This list was written on February 22nd.
Since February 22nd:
A good friend paid for a cord of firewood to be delivered to our house.
I’m slowly reading the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall – I don’t want it to end.
I started wearing perfume again. Including a new rose perfume from Istanbul, thanks to a friend.
I bought another hummingbird feeder, and now there are six feeders. Many hummingbirds.
We went to see the opera – “Orpeus & Eurydice” at the Dorothy Chandler. It was strange, wonderful, good, bad, compelling and produced with dream like theatricality.
We’re now putting together an irrigation system for the house, hundreds and hundreds of dollars later, after the toilet blew up and the water regulator bit the dust. I didn’t think that would make me happy and it didn’t.
And we burned some incense.
I didn’t think that “things” could make me happy right now.
But on the other side of this damn list, I gave myself the assignment of finding something that I look at, every day, that makes me happy.
Cat paws, chocolate cake, hummingbirds, morning dew on grass, homemade soup, a full moon.
I’m seeing it more as “character development”, than an “artist’s date”. And that seems to be real progress for me.
Witnessing the Light, artwork by Cynthia Wands, 2018
Just recently, (and I mean just in the last few weeks), I began to feel hopeful about the changes in store for this year.
I started listening to the NPR news on the radio on my drive home from work, after swearing off from it last year.
After a year long quarantine (Eric has been going through a tough chemotherapy schedule), we started going out in the world again. We’ve seen two movies, and went for a long hike. It felt like waking up in daylight after being in the dark last year.
I’m seeing women reach for political office, and stand up with persistence and courage to change our leadership.
And reading the messages about the #MeToo movement, and the illumination of how women have been treated, gives me hope that the world will be seen through different eyes. (“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I don’t know who said that it – but I love that idea.) I can see that audiences and directors and theaters will be changing in the way women are portrayed, and directed and who the leaders are.
So I have to be hopeful. I know that history and health issues can change in a moment, but I’m reaching out in my world to belong to more of the present moment.
(It took me several hours to come up with that last sentence, I kept changing it, so I can see there will be some balancing to be done with that assignment…)
I’m making a plan to see more plays, more readings, more artwork, more friends this year.
I hope this next year finds new adventures for all of you, and I look forward to seeing your work, and watching this year unfold.