All posts by Ravenchild

Images That Find You

by Cynthia Wands

Image by Cynthia Wands
(A tarot card I created for my script in development: THE LOST AND FOUND OF 2020)

I sometimes wonder if my poor eyesight has something to do with my need for images. When I was around eleven years old, my twin sister and I were both diagnosed with very poor vision. As in we couldn’t see the chalkboard at school vision. (Yes, this is one of those back in the olden days stories.) There was a very real sense that we had failed at something (we had failed to see), and we were punished by given cats eye glasses that were both hideous and necessary. I remember when I first put on the glasses, thinking: Oh. So that’s what the floor looks like.

But I could see. I could see clouds. And the bark on trees. The ants on the ground. And these were images that had been blurred away from my consciousness, and I didn’t know it. So images were a form of relief and arrival. (“I can see that!” “I know what that is!”)

And in the time of seeing, my mother brought us to museums and let us wander the halls for hours where we would swallow up the images of paintings and stuffed buffaloes and antique clothing and medieval armour. I collected postcards of the museums and places of interest that we went to. I had postcards from The Beeswax Museum of Sioux City, Iowa. The Custer State Park Museum of Buffalo. The Lincoln Nebraska Frontier Museum.

I’m still somewhat perplexed at the appeal of these images: spinning wheels, fuzzy paintings, hairstyles from Marie Antoinette, bad examples of taxidermy, a display of lumpy looking baskets. Lots of animals. But I was the curator of my own limited world view, and I loved owning these images.

I kept the postcards in a box, and when we moved to Northern Maine, I memorized them. They became a talisman of other places and objects of wonder. And when I first saw theater productions, I was transfigured by the images on stage: characters moving in the light became dream like messengers. They were like my postcards.

I think my sister and I both wanted to create and manage the images that came to us. At one point, dissatisfied with the way we looked in the cats eye glasses, we melted them on the radiator in our bedroom. We managed to soften up the frames enough to sculpt them into bizarre free form eyeglasses that looked like something from a demented artist. Perfect. The only thing that was missing was a sprinkling of rhinestones or precious gems that we would have scattered on the frames, to give them that added precious weirdness. Our parents were exasperated by this display – the next pair of glasses were metal frames that couldn’t be easily melted.

Years later, I had the privilege of being directed by a woman director, who had a throaty laugh, and smoked menthol cigarettes, and she wore cats eye glasses that had rhinestones embedded all over them. From onstage, you could see her in the audience and the glimmer of her eyeglasses sparkled like a fountain of light. She was a marvelous spirit. And I loved seeing that image of her.

When Things Go Wrong

by Cynthia Wands

For some reason, this story has followed me around for the last few weeks:

Fake Rock Nearly Crushes Opera Star: Accident or Sabotage?

Feuding stagehands, falling props: It might sound like the plot of an opera, but in France it has been the subject of a court case.

From an Article in the New York Times written by Alex Marshall

It was the first line that really got my attention:

LONDON — The tenor Robert Dean Smith was lying onstage — eyes closed, pretending to be dead — when he felt something very close above him.

At this point, as I’m reading the story, I’m looking at the headline, and the picture, and I knew the something could go wrong here. Really wrong. So I kept reading:

Smith was appearing as Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse in France, and he assumed that what he sensed looming was his colleague, the soprano Elisabete Matos, who was singing Isolde. She’d probably decided to alter the choreography and had come to stand over him, he thought.

But when Smith opened his eyes, he saw a 467-pound fake rock hanging just inches from his face. “I panicked and just threw it out of the way,” he recalled of the 2015 incident in a telephone interview. He rolled out from underneath the object, and quickly got to his feet — which likely confused an audience that had watched Tristan die a short while before. (His co-star kept singing throughout.)

The cause of this dangerous mishap was at first a mystery. But the reality turns out to be so bizarre that it could be an opera itself.

And the rest of the story is really interesting, (more on that later) but it did occur to me that I could come up with similar headlines.

Invisible Virus Nearly Crushes Planet : Reality or Just a Bad Science Fiction Movie?

or here’s another one:

Wildfires Scorch California’s National Forests: Is That Okay or Just Another Nightmare?

You can see my headlines aren’t as punchy and powerful. But here’s the rest of the story from the New York Times:

Last week, a court in Toulouse found a stagehand at the theater guilty of tampering with the computer system that controlled the prop rock’s descent. The production, which was directed by Nicolas Joel, intended for the object to stop about 30 inches above the tenor, and its continued descent at the performance in question was only stopped when another member of the technical staff realized something had gone wrong, according to a report in La Dépêche du Midi, a local newspaper.

According to the prosecutors, the stagehand, Nicholas S., whose surname has not been revealed by French newspapers out of respect for his privacy, had long been in conflict with a rival stagehand, Richard R., who he hoped would be blamed for the error. Two months before the incident, Nicholas S. had won a court case where he accused Richard R. of assault.

Nicholas S., who denied the allegations that he had tampered with the computer system, was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence and made to pay a symbolic one-euro fine to the Théâtre du Capitole. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith, the tenor, said he had never imagined someone had been trying to hurt him or had tampered with the equipment. “I’ve seen too many accidents onstage,” he said. “I’ve seen trapdoors open with people on them, and doors and walls fall down onto people.” Smith once cut his hand open while playing Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen,” because someone had forgotten to blunt the knife.

In 2008, Smith was actually the beneficiary of such a mishap — making his Metropolitan Opera debut, as Tristan, after the tenor Gary Lehman was injured during a prior performance because of a prop malfunction. Lehman had been lying on a pallet on a steeply raked section of the stage when the pallet broke loose from its moorings and plummeted into the prompter’s box. Lehman hit his head and could not take part in the next performance.

Given the frequency of accidents onstage, that the 2015 incident was the result of feuding stagehands was “just really bizarre and very unfortunate for the theater,” Smith said.

After the 2015 performance, the tenor apologized to Matos for his part in ruining the show. After that, he said, he had tried to ensure he died onstage in positions where he could keep his eyes open to see if anything was coming.

Constant Merheut contributed reporting from Paris.

I’ve seen onstage mishaps with trap doors and falling sets and lights; and at one explosive performance of The Rich Mans Frug in SWEET CHARITY, I saw a dancer’s lose fitting dentures go flying out into the audience. But now, I will remember that amongst the other things that can go wrong, you can also keep an eye out for that 467 pound fake rock.

Recognition

by Cynthia Wands

A view of a mannequin artwork done by me some years ago

Recently we had a dear friend stay for a few days in our home (vaccinated/tested/deemed safe and secure to visit) and what a joy it was – a friendship that has spanned 40 years and we were able to reconnect and talk for hours. We drank wine and talked about theater and art and performances we loved and celebrity. Later on we drank cocktails and talked about those we lost in the AIDS years, and directors we worked with, and scripts we loved.

The last night they were here, we also talked about ambition, and recalibrating our lives to our opportunities, and the specter of recognition in this culture of ours.

After these months and months of isolation and Zoom communication, it felt wildly alive to be able to have treasured talks like this.

By chance, another friend sent me this clip from a popular television show (another program that I haven’t watched and didn’t have much appreciation for.) It’s an episode of “Doctor Who”, where the artist Vincent Van Gogh visits the Musee d’Orsay and experiences his artwork being shown and shared by contemporary people.

I found it so moving – the fantasy of an artist experiencing his work through the eyes of future generations. It was a lovely and poignant reminder of the power of artwork, recognized or not.

I hope you enjoy this three minute clip as much as I did.

“The beginning of any writing adventure…pleasure and spaciousness”

by Cynthia Wands

The image of a blue door I saw in Paris some twenty years ago, still remains with me.

I have tested a myriad of different ways to work through blocks in my writing. “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. Great books. Great ideas.

I’ve been part of writing challenges. And prompts. And round robin writing forums.

And I still struggle with an occasional appearance with my writing…pause. It can be a blank or a wall or a subway car roaring by. Sometimes there is that missing beat.

Just recently I found an essay which included some thoughts by Your People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye, and one sentence flew out at me:

“Two helpful words to keep in mind at the beginning of any writing adventure are pleasure and spaciousness.”

I loved that phrase: two helpful words. Not an assignment. Not a system or a schedule. Just two helpful words. It just gave me a helping hand this past week. I hope you find something in this essay as well.

Here’s the rest of the article:

Skeletal Adjustments (to scripts and lives and legs)

by Cynthia Wands

A tree in Ojai that I photographed because I loved its structure

I’m in the final stages of finishing a script that has been part of my writing life for the last two years. This one. This one has been in my dreams, at my desk, in the car, at the doctors, while I’m eating. When I’m watching television. It’s there. I’m in a workshop (thank you Jennie Webb!) where I can sense the whole of it, the shape, the kinks, and the reach. It’s a lot like a chiropractic session for the writing soul.

I’ve been able to finish other projects while working on this – but this one has me in it’s orbit. I want it to be able to stand up on it’s own and fly and sing. Or run. Or get the kinks out.

And the kinks can hurt. Especially if I sense my comprehension and my grasp are not quite in alignment with my imagination.

I think about this when I’m in physical therapy for alignment issues ~ after a surgery some years ago, one leg is now longer than the other (hmm, I notice I didn’t say one leg is now shorter than the other….) andI’m working on balance and centering and core strength. The tune “Straighten Up and Fly Right” comes to mind here.

As I’m being twisted and tinked with there at physical therapy, lots of images come to mind. A tea party with lots of different tea cups, each character voice in the script presenting a different view/color/shape. And another image: when you let yeast rise, and add the flour, a bit of sugar, and shape it so it will rise. That’s a bit like writing. And when it rises – yeast willing – its part of the ingredients, and the heat of the water, and the particulars of that day’s weather. And that’s a part of writing. But it’s this last bit. Where you take the whole of it and shape it – and you form it into the final bread/play/idea. You can see that my mind flies to food and tea and writing when I’m going through the motions at physical therapy – it’s a kind of refuge when I’m being handled by strangers.

So I’m in this shaping phase. I see this play has a whole different intention than what I started out with – and that’s how much this script has taught me .

Here’s to the upcoming tea, when I can celebrate the end of play. The closing of this writing chapter. And letting these characters fly.

My collection of teacups – a reminder of the different voices and shapes in the world

A New Adaptation of Uncle Vanya

by Cynthia Wands

The PBS showing of the version adapted by Conor McPherson

I hope you get to see this PBS broadcast of UNCLE VANYA, it is truly stunning and I felt such a rush of gratitude and inspiration watching it.

Not at all Chekhov productions have thrilled me – having performed in and watched many versions of the scripts, I can vouch for their mind draining boredom if they go askew. The balance of what is said and what is felt is unique to this playwright’s light touch, and I loved this version.

The playwright is Conor McPherson, an Irish playwright, who has written other adaptations, and has had critical success with his plays on Broadway and on the West End. I liked his earlier play, THE WEIR, but hadn’t really tracked his other work. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conor_McPherson)

This adaptation of UNCLE VANYA had to be adapted for filming, after the production was shuttered because of the COVID pandemic. They picked up the production in the fall, and filmed it on the set at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it was supposed to play in March of 2020.

I wanted to include a review of the production, because it shows the great attachment that people can have towards Chekhov, on what is deemed acceptable in the staging of his works.

https://mdtheatreguide.com/2021/05/theatre-review-anton-chekhovs-uncle-vanya-at-the-harold-pinter-theatre-on-pbs-great-performances/

But mostly, I hope you get to see the work of these incredible actors, because their artistry helps inform us of what we can do as playwrights when they are as passionate and uninhibited and generous as these two artists:

https://www.pbs.org/video/richard-armitage-and-rosalind-eleazar-uncle-vanya-2rbqhx/

Rip Away This Mask

By Cynthia Wands

ANTIGONE

I wonder how the pandemic is going to affect how we experience being an audience again?

Even with the vaccines in place, and appropriate social distancing, what will the sound of someone coughing – long, difficult, raspy coughing – how will that sound effect an audience, a performance, a performer? What if some of the audience members continue to wear masks, and some don’t? What if we’re actually sitting right next to someone, in front of someone, in back of someone?

How will we see one another when we no longer wear masks in public? I know right now I’m resigned to this weird world of not seeing anyone’s nose or mouth or chin when we meet in public. It’s all eyes and eyebrows. Are they smiling? Am I smiling? Do I look like a worried hamster? I try to articulate, and choose words with a lot of force, but it’s seems like an underwater world of muffled talk.

Years ago, many years ago, I was in a production of ANTIGONE, where we all wore masks that might have looked like a great idea in the design phase of the production. The masks covered everything on our face, except our chin. This was not a great idea.

Here is a picture of me, strangely positioned as I look towards the heavens. I can’t remember how I got up from this posture. I do remember thinking during the run of this production, “At least I’ll never have to wear a mask in public again.”

Masks, not like what we’re wearing today, in ANTIGONE

The masks made you feel like you were a chess piece moved around on an ancient Greek chess board. Wearing the mask, you could only see straight ahead, with no peripheral vision. And the structure of the mask placed a lot of pressure on your nose and cheekbones, so everyone had a distinctly nasal voice. Plus you couldn’t open your mouth very wide.

Even standing right next to another actor, you could have a hard time understanding what they were saying.

“Wolf sinks tweed suffers – something something – pink weave suffered nuff for the cursive edible purse.”

Yes. That is what it sounded like. And the text itself was straight forward:

“You would think that we had already suffered enough for the curse on Oedipus.”

That’s what masks can do to you with Greek tragedy.

So here we are years later, and we are wearing masks in public. They aren’t as bad as the ANTIGONE masks.

Another ANTIGONE

I look forward to the day when we won’t have to wear masks because of this pandemic. I want to be able to appreciate the days when we can laugh, and sing and cry and shout in public because we can.

I wonder how that will inform our writing, how free we’ll be to write characters that have faces that are uncovered and voices unrestrained. I look forward to what other women will write about in the days ahead. I’ll see you in the future.

Writing for Invisible Characters : And I mean women of a certain age

by Cynthia Wands

My scripts includes writing about women of a certain age. And depending on who is looking at these characters, this certain age could be middle aged. (You just need to determine the death date so the character lives exactly in the middle of their life span.) (Okay, I’m kidding.) This certain age could also be post menopausal, so this female character could resemble a screaming banshee, hysterical about night sweats and lost youth. This certain age could also be allocated to a dreaded certain descriptor: a crone.

Yes. Other words to indicate a woman of a certain (older) age might also include: hellcat, trot, witch, shrew, harpy, virago (isn’t that a car?), beldam, biddy and matriarch.

What I see is a real hunger and appreciation for old women. What we call old. And there’s an interesting phenomenon where some older women are seen as valuable and accomplished. And confident and experienced with something to offer.

The fabulous Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey

And a personal favorite:

Judi Dench, not afraid of looking her age

Now, granted, these are deliberate and stunning examples of a celebrity willing to be portrayed as women of a certain age. Mostly these celebrities have been photographed and filmed as ideal versions of their age and station in life.

Judi Dench appearing as the character “M” in a James Bond Film

But to my point, we don’t often get to witness older women in leading roles in our film and stage work, in our arts, and in our leadership. We don’t get to see them because they are seen as being invisible.

Here is a fascinating article by Vanessa Williamson:

by Vanessa Williamson

‘The Dig’ – Hiding Sutton Hoo’s women.

With my archaeologist hat on I review the new film The Dig.

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo archive. 

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo archive. 

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo archive. 

Miss Lack and Wagstaff photographed in 1938 as they recorded the Sutton Hoo ship excavation. 

Mercie Lack & BarbaraWagstaff’s work in documenting the excavation was vitally important. The archive of 447 photographs taken on Leica cameras, 72 Agfa 35mm colour slides and film of Basil Brown excavating captured on a 16mm cine-camera, today forms a critical component of the excavation record. Their work at Sutton Hoo included some of the first colour images in British archaeology. What happened to their story in the film? An important part of my enjoyment of British TV and films has been the balance of gender and diverse inclusive ensemble casts. This film is a standout for stripping the female and some male characters of their character & achievements.

The films fictional account is based on the novel ‘The Dig’ by John Preston, yet I argue the filmmaker’s decision to follow a storyline to re gender two women to a male is problematic and flawed. It throws a troubling light in 2021 on the overt sexism that I see permeating the female roles in the film. Lack and Wagstaff were important members of the archaeological ensemble closely associated with the excavation. I can’t imagine what could possibly motivate a screenwriter or author to turn two women into a male character. My immediate conclusion was middle-aged ordinary women with cameras are not good enough for a feature film in 2021. Age, gender, and sex appeal of a romance are more important to this film’s maker. What the hell is wrong with middle-aged women I protest out loud, as I now surprisingly find myself in that category. Or god forbid there would be too many women in the film! The argument the plotline of the photographer is true to the novel is a valid, adaption of novels to film is just about always made by filmmakers and in this instance, the failure to swap empty fiction for the real story has undermined the integrity of the film. 

My immediate impression after watching the film was to question why the three female leads were presented as a vulnerable, passive, with a dull ongoing focus on their fictional problems, not their achievements. I had a bad taste of the filmmaker misogyny, outdated even in 1938. The women as we met them in the film are Dorothy May Brown (Centre) presented as neglected lonely wife; this was not so, Mrs Edith Pretty (right) spends the film fighting Illness. She was a fascinating well-educated woman, who travelled the world and visited her own fathers Abbey archaeological excavations. The Peggie Piggott, (left) we meet is naive, inexperienced, and in every way a slip of a girl. In fact, she was a highly qualified and experienced field Archaeologist. The absence of character development of the women sent me straight to the internet to learn more about them

What I discovered shocked me. The women’s true drive, skills, and successes were not only ignored but deliberately covered up. Wasted opportunities in scene after scene focused on vulnerability, weakness, in empty scenes, where were their triumphs? After all the triumph for all concerned is the central theme of this story. Peggie Piggott when she arrived on site had a 1934 diploma (equivalent to a degree, which women were excluded from at the time) from the University of Cambridge and a 1936 Institute of Archaeology postgraduate diploma. She had been Archaeology project leader and lead archaeologist on an excavation of an Iron Age barrow. The real fantastic lives of the women are revealed in an expose article by the National Trust on the Sutton Hoo web site- ‘The True Story’ behind the ‘The Dig’. The National Trust I see were highly motivated to have ready, by the day the film was released, corrections with a suite of bios for the people misrepresented in the film. 

My other frustration was wasted screen time on the novel’s subplot of archaeologists Stuart Piggott’sfictional preference for a fellow male chum over his new wife! A back story, echoing the film the Imitation Game in which the plotline was a fact. The dominance of screen time allocated to this relationship and Edith Pretty’s illness resulted in dull screen time, and neglect of ‘The Dig’s- archaeology, the finds, excavation, British archaeology politics. The film was called The Dig! The film marketing established an expectation as a story of the greatest archaeological find in Britain in 20thc. The expectation is everything in marketing and hitting the right note is important to audience satisfaction. Audiences have been naturally confused in thinking the film followed history and the true-life experiences of the individuals portrayed. Yet the novel was followed create a romantic storyline. So unlike film the ‘The Imitation Game’ which tells a true story of its characters in the film. The Dig replaced fact with fiction and has done a great disservice to the individuals portrayed. The true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation and its team is fantastic, the vision and drive of Edith Pretty, and Basil Brown a wonderful inspiration achieved in spite of the 1930s British academic establishment. 

The film The Dig has many merits; beautiful cinematography, great sets and locations, talented cast. Where it disappoints is the poor choices of plot resulting in the weak screenplay, standout misogynist treatment of all female characters, and poor storyline editing. It was the story of the ‘The Dig’ that suffered, a missed opportunity by the producers who failed to understand the significance of women’s stories, the recent history, and the importance of the Sutton Hoo archaeology. Audiences have a nice film, rather than a film classic of the future. 

https://www.lhoteldeherce.fr/post/the-dig-hiding-sutton-hoo-s-women?fbclid=IwAR1IBpDsM5Jt_A4Ah_UBCLaPR6R6nlIwP69JxbKQ1kO6PLL9Cy5W1ZCogT8

An interesting article about missed opportunities for seeing our accomplished, older, fascinating female characters on film. We don’t see enough of older women in our stories.

Updated: A reader shared a link with an overview of the Sutton Hoo Dig, and I thought I would share it here: https://www.kellycodetectors.com/pages/sutton-hoo-treasure/

I’m looking to write and to read and to witness the stories that include and focus on older women. Along with those other members of society as well.

I also want to see their faces.

A visit with a ghost and then, sometime later, rebuilding from ruins

The ruins of our garden shed

by Cynthia Wands

This year we lost our garden shed. We didn’t misplace it, but the loss was complete and unmistakeable. From years of slow moving soil erosion, and a rotting roof, the entire structure fell in on itself. And on it’s side. And down the hillside.

And yes, this does remind me of some of the scripts I’ve worked on. Initial promise. Lots of adjustment. Then total ruin. At least that was the worst case scenario I had in my head.

But back to our shed. The original owner of our little cottage built the garden shed, some eighty years ago. We found out that he was quite a character, even if we never met him in the flesh. Early on, we did have a visit from him as a ghost. But I’ll get to that in just a minute.

This owner, we’ll call him Mister Cottage, was a caretaker for the golf course across the way. He was staff, maintaining the grounds and the buildings, and when they rebuilt the main clubhouse, he reused many of the discarded bits to make our house. This included the old wood frame windows, which shimmer, and tink with cracking sounds when it gets cold. The welded together metals cans that served as an exhaust vent in the attic. And the Buick hand brake that continues its use as a door handle to the deck. He was inventive and determined, and he was successful in building this little cottage with a massive fireplace and a wonky kitchen. The story goes that he died in this house. We should have paid more attention to that part of the story.

But Mister Cottage loved his shed. It housed his giant table saws, and tools and lumber. It didn’t see much use for tending a garden, but it was the engine of his industry at the cottage. And this year, after eighty years of rain, the occasional earthquake, and raccoons, the shed had enough.

The garden shed waits for it’s reincarnation

So, for my playwright friends. You know the part in the process, where we look at the arc of the play, how does it move along, what actually happens, and how does it get there? This is the beginning of all that. It is the beginning of all that hard work.

During this pandemic solitude, Eric and I spent several months rebuilding the little shed. It was a slow, labor intensive process, pieced out by how much we could afford to buy things, and manage the work. Like in writing: IT WAS SO MUCH WORK. Everything took longer, and was harder, more complicated than it seemed.

And there was a strange sense of rewriting history as we worked on it. The table saw had been given away, the cement floor broken up, the roof rebuilt. But the painting part. Yes the painting. That’s when the odd things began to happen.

I wanted to paint the entire shed white. A very nice paint. All white everywhere. Eric helped me set up all the painting props: the tarps, the brushes, the rags. And it took weeks. I would spend hours painting the walls, the sides, the ceiling. And the paint would disappear. As in not show up on the walls, sides or ceiling. I would paint it again. Same thing. I went through 5 gallons of white paint. I had the feeling that Mister Cottage did not approve. Because we had been through this issue of interior decoration years ago.

When we first moved into the house, it was – spartan. We repainted walls, filled it with paintings and mismatched furniture and cooked smelly curry dishes, and listened to loud jazz, and played charades with friends where there was lots of yelling and laughing and banging about.

We started to notice that sometimes, overnight, things were moved around the house. Certain paintings on the walls (and only the paintings with naked people) were always tipped to one side. Things left on the counter appeared on the table. Things on the table appeared on the counter. You could hear the floorboards in the hallway creak, as if someone were walking away from you. You could hear things go bump in the night. Lights suddenly turned on in a room when no one was there.

And sometimes Thaitu, the Abyssinian cat, would jolt up and watch something move across a room, eyes bugged out, and then she would look at us as if we were idiots for not seeing it. Whatever it was. And then one night. I heard bumping and scraping in the kitchen, and got up, and turned on the lights. They flickered for a moment, and Thaitu appeared next to my ankles, fluffed up like a porcupine. The room was cold, really weirdly cold. And I knew he was there, and he was making it known that he was not happy.

Thaitu let me scoop her up, and I held her as I realized I had to be the one to do this. So I told him. I let him know that we loved his little house, and appreciated everything he did to build a home that was lovely and we would always take care of it. And we were going to hang the artwork with the naked people on the walls. And we would have parties and loud music and smelly food. But he had to go now. Because it was our house now.

And he left. The noises stopped. The artwork was left alone. And we thought we were done. Until I started in on the garden shed. And the paint wouldn’t show up.

I would paint a coat of paint and it would vanish. As in not appear. After three coats of paint it finally started to show up.

Three coats of paint. No really. This is what three coats of paint looked like.

After five coats of this damn white paint – it started to appear. We hung new lights. We put up shelves. And hooks and things.

This did remind me, again, of writing plays. Sometimes you write for a character to appear. You write and write and still, they don’t seem to have a form, a color, a point of view. And then, after a lot of rewrites and hearing them talk out loud, they start to show up.

The garden shed starts to show its color. White.

So, here’s where the playwright’s metaphor gets stretched a little thin. The tools had to audition for their place in the shed. No, seriously. My thought was, we only had so much space in the shed. Only so many tools could be included.

Auditions held for The Garden Shed

But much to my surprise, and perhaps related to my hotly contested abandonment issues, every tool was included in the final organization.

All tools are included.
The beginnings of the shed

So. There we are. The Garden Shed of Mister Cottage has begun a new life.

Very much like a new chapter. A new scene. A new act.

It means my garden can be supported with the tools, and the space and intention to do better work.

Just like a playwright.

And with that, I will go pour a glass of wine and celebrate.

The front walkway of the cottage.

Sometimes an image can help you breathe…

by Cynthia Wands

Was it just yesterday – really – yesterday. Saturday, November 7. I felt like I had this heavy pressure on my heart for weeks. But on that day, starting at 8:36 in the morning ~ we had phone calls, and messages, and tweets, and emails and Zoom sessions with family and friends. And that’s when I realized I had been holding my breath.

The 2020 Election had been “called”. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had been declared the President-Elect and the Vice President-Elect.

I watched television from Tuesday, November 3 through Friday, November 6, waiting for the results. It was excruciating. I went to bed, then woke up, then slept on the lumpy couch to watch exhausted newscasters play with projected numbers and revised projected numbers. Could Biden’s numbers go up? Were all the votes counted?

It felt hard to take a deep breath. It was hard to look away, but it was also hard to keep watching. I felt like I had been here before, waiting, for a long time, for something catastrophic or incredibly wonderful to happen. Either or. It felt like four years ago.

Four years ago, Eric, my husband went through a stem cell transplant at the City of Hope hospital. We’d been watching his cancer numbers climb (70% of his bone marrow had multiple myeloma cancer cells) and after a lot of research and soul searching, decided a stem cell transplant was his best choice. That’s when I noticed I was holding my breath. A lot.

During the weeks of preparation for the stem cell transplant (pre-meds, an implanted Hickman port , dozens of blood draws) I learned that all this work they were doing was to get him ready, was to help him survive the days after the transplant.

All his white blood cells would be affected (okay, killed off) by the chemotherapy/transplant procedure, and then, afterwards, the white cells would start to build up again. That was the plan. There would be a countdown of how his body would recover from the transplant, how his white blood cells would come back. According to the treatment plan, 7-10 days after the transplant, we would see his numbers go up.

So he had the transplant. He seemed to do well. But after nine days in recovery at the City of Hope hospital, his white blood count was still 0 -.1 (A normal white blood count is 4.5 – 10)

This was not good. He had several blood transfusions. My twin sister was staying with me and everyday we kept watching his numbers, worried that his recovery wasn’t kicking in. If his white blood count was still 0 after ten days, he would have to be transferred to another hospital setting, and another treatment plan would be suggested.

That’s when I noticed that I was holding my breath a lot. Waiting. Waiting for the numbers to go up. Waiting for the white blood cells to kick in. Waiting for him to survive this stem cell transplant.

And on the tenth day after his transplant, his white blood count rose to .7 – not even 1.

And yes, it was not 1 or 2 or 4.5 – but it rose more than it had in the entire ten day recovery period. So he was allowed to go to the next stage of treatment. I was still holding my breath. After 14 days, he was allowed to go home. Where he has continued to survive, and to go on to different drugs and treatment plans.

But I remember holding my breath. Waiting for numbers. And this election felt like that.

So I followed twitter feeds, and the television, and my phone. We were watching the numbers go up. In Nevada. Arizona. Georgia. Pennsylvania. And this damn Electoral College voting.

On Saturday morning, November 7, at 1:35am I saw this on the television screen:

I decided that I better stop watching the television. I left the lumpy sofa and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up, turned on the television, made some coffee, and then looked at Twitter on my phone. That’s when I saw this:

It was 8:36am in the morning.

I wanted to take a deep breath, but I was afraid my lungs would burst.

I was afraid that I would blink, the moment would pass, and it wouldn’t be true. Or that it would be true, but that it would turn out to be corrupted, and then become sadly untrue .

It was a moment that I had thought would change everything. It was a moment that I thought would feel like relief and validation and a sense of accomplishment. But it didn’t feel that way. I just felt scared to breathe.

As the day went by, it seemed more real. It almost seemed true. I heard from family and friends, and saw dancing in the streets, and heard church bells ringing in Paris in celebration, and saw fireworks in London to cheer the election results. I was able to join the Zoom meeting of the playwrights workshop that I love, and we read scripts where we forgot about an election, and projected votes. And little by little, I felt better.

But truly, it wasn’t until I saw this, on Saturday night, that I was able to really breathe. And cry. And laugh.

The first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States: Kamala Harris

And then there was this image:

The first speeches from President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamal Harris

Here they are. Both of them wearing masks. At a historic moment in history, they are showing up, making the best of it, and trying to breathe.

A good example of what we need to do, to get by in this present moment.