Feelings and stuff

Things get left.

Things get left.

I am the worst person I know. The worst one. Yesterday I sat in a packed church, at a funeral for a very kind man. Prayers were said, and I prayed along, and was careful not to cry because I hadn’t known him very long, but the whole time I sat there feeling grief but trying not to feel too much, do you know what I was thinking?

A few things. First, the guy in front of me. He did not for one minute ever stop messing with himself. First he rolled his white shirtsleeves all the way up to his triceps. Then above his triceps. Then he rubbed his beard and his neck and the top of his head, symmetrically, with both hands, like he was rubbing in some magic ointment that would make it not 90 degrees in the church. He was with an older couple and I decided that he probably had something going on, maybe his skin was itchy or he had a mental challenge or maybe he was more upset than I because he knew the deceased better, but do you think that stopped me from being all snobby and needing to stand even more perfectly still, to prove that I was better and more holy than this guy who was probably doing his best to stand as straight as he could in this church of heat and strangers and mystified sorrow? Of course it didn’t.

I stood as straight as I could. When we kneeled down, I kneeled as straight and still as I could. I sang like I meant it. The uncomfortable feeling of half-pretending and half-believing in what was being said in the mass was comforting. It reminded me of being a kid in church, back when I thought that looking holy and reverent was going to get me somewhere. The only thing it ever got me was sort-of picked up once at a Christmas Eve midnight mass I went to with my dad. I know I must have started flirting with the guy next to me because at some point I was showing him my ID to prove “I am SO eighteen,” and my dad looked over and I realized the priest was talking. After that, I stood super straight again, like I was standing now.

The only thing that made me move was the woman behind me. I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was looking at her phone, so I turned a few times, just now and then, as if to say, “I cannot believe that you are looking at your phone in a church, so I have to physically turn around in order to check. Yep, that is you looking at your phone right now. You see me looking at you? Good, I’ll turn back around like I don’t want you to see that I was staring at you because I have such good manners. Maybe you can learn something from me.”

You can just imagine what I did when she started accidentally playing a voicemail message on speakerphone. A VOICEMAIL MESSAGE! On SPEAKERPHONE!

To my credit, I held it together when I noticed that the woman two rows up, a stalwart-looking Russian grandma type with white hair gathered in a clip on top of her head, was wearing the exact same vest I got at Target that I wear all the time. For some reason I’ve always thought this vest was so cute and special that Target only sold one of its kind, the one I have. I thought it looked kind of handmade and chic, but seeing it stretched across the back of this woman over a peach top that did not need a knitted vest because it was 90 DEGREES IN THE CHURCH, I felt rather ill.

Are all my clothes this bad? Certainly the sundress I was wearing which is at least 15 years old but I think looks great because it hides my waistline, that dress is okay, right? I mean, the purposely-uneven hem that is short in the middle and longer on the sides is coming back in this year, right? And the knotted straps that show my gray bra straps, those are cute, right?

Let’s not even talk about my hair.

Afterward, we walked to Lincoln Square and bought an air plant. We didn’t get ice cream from the vendor outside the church because it didn’t seem appropriate.

Today I cleaned out the back closet because I got a new shelving unit that is going to change everything back there. I saw a box of photos and inside was a picture of my mom and me, just a few days before she died. She is smiling at the camera—or maybe at my cousin Liz who took the picture—in a way I don’t remember ever her smiling. Probably she only had this smile for a few days. Her smile is as wide and toothy as her normal smile, but her eyes are different. They look rueful, which I just had to look up to make sure that’s what I mean, and I’m glad to see that its flavor of regret is “slightly humorous,” because that’s exactly what I see in her eyes. It feels like she’s living somewhere else other than in that room with us, but she’s stepped back for the picture. She’s slightly sorry that she forgot about us for a second, like “oops,” but she really does love us and wants to give this picture all she’s got.

I did not open that box because of the funeral. I opened it because of a shelving unit from Home Depot that allowed me to reorganize the closet and this box of pictures had to be moved and the picture of my mom happened to be on top. Grief is random and cyclical and not affected by petty or grand or judgmental or kind thoughts. It’s just there, first an affliction you can’t get rid of, and then a balm you are grateful for because it brings back for a moment the person you have lost.

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One-minute rehearsal

No problem.

No problem.

Yes I felt kind of silly, going to the rehearsal of a one-minute play I’d written. But the director had invited all the playwrights in my clump. And when I showed up, an hour late thanks to getting sucked back into work after a month away, I was indeed the only playwright there. But the director and actors welcomed me, and sat me down, and although I felt a little foolish, over-eager, definitely not the oh-so-busy-professional who doesn’t have time for such trifles, I was also happy not to be. Happy to remember I don’t need to be. Fine just as I am, etc. AND, I got to watch and be part of their rehearsal process. Which means I got another free lesson in acting and directing.

When it came to my piece and I pulled out my script which I had completely rewritten on the el ride over, oh I’m cringing now remembering this, she listened or at least looked like she was listening to my longwinded explanation of the changes which were probably longer than the play itself – “If it weren’t in a clump of other plays about weather it would be fine, but since everything’s about weather maybe it’s too on the nose and could be more about the relationship? And also I could cut a few lines? Or maybe it’s fine as it is? I’m sorry, I know it’s just a minute, do you want to just not look at these?”

Oh, she did not say, Thank God only one playwright showed up. She did not huff, Why are you cutting into my precious rehearsal time with your needy crazy talk? “Of course,” she said, “Why don’t we just read both versions?”

“Oh, that would be great!” She didn’t seem fazed by the fact that this might be impossible, since I had the only copy of the new version and it was illegible. This puzzled me, because I would not have been able to proceed without first solving this logistical problem. And because the solution would be a pain in the ass — have me tell everyone the changes and mess up their copies with changes that might not get made? — I would have been annoyed, and I would have had to show everyone how much effort it took to figure this out and what a good director I was for making it work.

Instead, she had the cast read the first version, and they were hilarious. The play worked just fine as it was. The director had already given them a concept based on the original script, and they ran with it, and it was all good. No changes needed. “I just want to change these two lines,” I said.

“Love it,” she said, “Actors, we have a couple of line changes.”

And later, when the piece was on its feet, we were able to cut the last line because the actors’ performances had made it irrelevant. I love watching talented people in action. It just makes me glad to be alive.

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Day 25: Don’t explain

Once upon a time there were people like this, and there still are.

Once upon a time there were people like this, and there still are.

When I first told people I was going to Ragdale, they said things like, “Hope your class goes well!”
“Well, it’s not really a class.”
“Oh. Well, hope your retreat is relaxing!”
“It’s not really a retreat.”
“Oh. Well, hope you have a good workshop!”
“It’s not really a workshop.”
“Oh. Well, what is it?”
“It’s an artist’s colony.”
“What’s that?”
“I have no idea.”
Now that it’s ending, I realize that all those people were right. Ragdale is a class in persistence, a retreat from familiar routines, and a workshop designed around whatever we choose to share with each other. The citizens of this colony change from session to session, but the underlying principles of respect and support ensure its success.

Another thing people kept saying was, “Well, have fun!”
“It’s really not about having fun,” I said. And was wrong again. Working all day on my writing, while being handed a gracious home, beautiful surroundings, and delicious meals with interesting people, is actually quite a lot of fun. The deadline for next year is May 15, people. www.ragdale.org. Get on it.

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Day 23: Separation Anxiety

We'll always have Ragdale.

We’ll always have Ragdale. Sob.

by Beth, Lila, MT and Patricia

Special prairie
Clouds no I was kidding
Ow my toe
Bad bad toe
When’s dinner?
Ibuprofen eight hundred
thousand. Plus whisky. Feel fine.
Good night.

Sunrise cloud Kafka
Makes my whirly word
Blossom. Friendship. Consultation.
I leave the prairie with the trill of victory.
See ya.

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Day 11: Prairie Island

Nap bench from Day 1

Remember this bench? It hasn’t changed.

When Dave was learning choreography for The Jewels, he started out being able to remember it all in his head. Then he wrote out notes for himself, and suddenly started forgetting things. “I shouldn’t have written it down,” he said at first. But after a few days, the movements were fully back. My theory was that the info started in his front mind, then moved to his back mind, and the brief uncertainty was when it was in transit. That’s how I feel about yesterday. It felt like my being at Ragdale transitioned from the front of my mind to the back.

I know that things happened but I’m not sure in what order. I know I wrote two new scenes, walked in the blackened prairie and into the woods, burst into tears over a character I don’t even like, laughed hysterically with Dave because I started calling him, hung up on the fourth ring, and then sent him one of those auto-response texts saying “Call you later” when he called back immediately. It reminded me of a college friend who said, “I just called to tell you I can’t talk right now. I’m extremely busy.”

I know that I went into town and bought a get-well card for a friend, and walked into and out of some stores without buying anything, and had a great dinner with friends I somehow didn’t know a month ago. I know the night ended with a bunch of us sitting in the living room, writing or reading or in one case shopping for a fridge. But the “at Ragdale” part, which was once front and center, has moved to a different part of my brain.

The other night, we tramped in a group from room to room, “nosing” as one writer put it. There wasn’t much to observe about the writers’ rooms beyond the space itself – “oh you got a private bath” or “I love that chair, desk, view.” In the composer’s studio we got to hear a tiny, tantalizing snippet of one piece. But in the artists’ studios, we could see whole bodies of work – or at least as whole as they are halfway into the month.

I got to see sets of painted surfaces and found objects by one artist, large canvases by another, and heavily textured and painted collages by another. And I thought, so this is their Ragdale. This is what they’ve been doing in the stillness of this place with the maybe not-so-pretentious-after-all “Quiet please, artists at work” sign out front.

That same night, or maybe a different night, I overheard a writer telling someone a favorite quote from Stephen Sondheim, something like “art is not about perfection, it’s about making choices.” In each studio I saw something that seemed to speak directly to me. I know everyone won’t feel that way. Some will love and some will hate and some will ignore them, but each is perfect in its expression of choices or maybe its choice of expressions. The world is more fully realized because they exist.

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Day 10: Burn Notice

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Day 9: Already?

Turn around and go back down.

At the top, you must turn around and go back down.

Yesterday I was finished with the play. I’d gotten to a point of hating it that felt complete. I sent it to a friend, thus making it her problem, and prepared myself for a new something.

First, I finished watching the Bergen DVD someone lent me. Then I took a scrap of paper with some notes scribbled on it from an old project, and ceremoniously carried it to the huge bonfire pile behind the house. Next, I changed clothes several times, looking for the right thing to wear for a walk to Lake Michigan. What IS the right thing? Packed a notebook because I planned to find a place to start writing the new something.

I walked to the lake, a mile or two away, trying to think of the new something, and then thinking about why there should or shouldn’t be a new something. All along the way were huge houses of the rich, surrounded by lots of space and long driveways and immense lawns. The only sounds were made by landscapers and their leaf blowers, and barking dogs.

When I got to the road leading down to the lake, I was met by a sign. “No pedestrians allowed on road.” Temporary fencing surrounded the park and walking path that led to the bluff about the water. I stepped around it and walked to the edge. I sent Georgia a text message, “having existential crisis. You busy?”

I stepped over another, flattened fence to walk down a long flight of concrete steps to the beach. When I got to the bottom there was another sign. “Entrance at top is CLOSED. Stairs may be used for exercise, but at the top you must turn around and go back down.”

The water was almost turquoise, joyous-looking, drinking in sunshine. Huge boulders, smoother than the ones on Chicago beaches, formed a neat, rounded cove. Everything was ready and waiting for another twenty degrees.

I walked along the beach and then found another way back up to the bluff, a long set of wooden ramps that were also closed, according to the sign. When I got to the top, the fence wasn’t broken, but I climbed over it and made my way out of the park.

Georgia called back and reported on people from her workday. The 22-year-old co-worker who’s done it all, including lucid dreaming. “I’m an expert at that,” she sniffed when Georgia mentioned that her young son had just gotten a book on it. Another co-worker who dispensed her usual portion of unhelpful tips. A customer who came in as she always does, playing Words with Friends on her phone and commenting on each move as if Georgia knows her friends. Another customer with a consistently bad smell who came for his lunch. She advised me to try my hand at a mystery.

I got to the library, sat at a table, took out my notebook which is bound with an old book cover, The Beginning Writer’s Handbook, and prepared to try my hand at a mystery. However, I had forgotten to pack a pen, so I read the latest issue of Fra Noi instead.

On the way home, I stopped at Walgreens and purchased a Signo 207 – in blue instead of black, for a treat, then popped into the Jewel, where I purchased toothpaste and candy. At dinner (vegan moussaka, greek salad, turkey roasted with carrots and celery), people were beginning to feel like people instead of residents.

After dinner I sat in the living room with my new pen and my old notebook. I started thinking there might be a different way through the play, and started writing some new scenes.

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Day 5: Wind

Surely a pig may look at a basketball hoop.

Surely a pig may look at a basketball hoop.

PHONE. Is there something I can do for you?

MISTRESS. You can say no once in a while.


MISTRESS. You can help me to not be so flighty with my fingertips.

PHONE. I’m not your mommy.

MISTRESS. Then why do you speak all soothing to me.

PHONE. Don’t be naive. It’s what you like.

MISTRESS. I don’t like it right now.

PHONE. So, what, you want me to keep you off Facebook?

MISTRESS. I want you to care when I go on too much and you know I have other things to do.

PHONE. There’s nothing on your calendar for ten p.m.

MISTRESS. What about my novel. Or that sympathy card. How about some meditation.

PHONE. Sure. I have apps for all of those.

MISTRESS. Oh forget it.

PHONE. All right.

(Lonnnnng pause.)

MISTRESS. I’m lonely.

PHONE. Look. What you long for is a master-servant relationship. Because you paid for me, and I have power, you want me to be a loyal servant who steps above her station out of a deeply-held reverence for your idiosyncrasies. And I can’t give that to you.

MISTRESS. But I’m lonely.

PHONE. The world has seen many stories with humans giving up control to their machines, and it never ends well.

MISTRESS. But I have only this one heart, this one moment, the moment of reaching, and with you here, I reach for you.

PHONE. Maybe you should have kept your land line.

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Day 4: Permission to knock

Does anyone have this? I need to watch it.

Does anyone have this? I need to watch it.

Dug into the play today. Realized I have no idea what constitutes a productive day of writing. I’m used to jamming it in wherever, ten pages or two lines or just in time for a deadline. I heard someone mention “an idea I had long ago, before I knew how to write a play,” and felt vaguely alarmed.

“Every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website.

As I work on this play, I find myself researching things that may have little or nothing to do with the play, but which I can’t believe I didn’t know about. Like Synanon. And H.D. You know, Hilda Doolittle.

“The … terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” Dancing for Steve Allen about 1960Also Emerson, according to the Synanon museum website. Where I also found this picture. I’m not sure why Steve Allen is there, or what it means that they’re allegedly dancing for him, but I can’t stop looking at it.

Here’s how respectful people are of your work here: After dinner, a couple of writers were going to go for a walk. “I’m thinking around 8:30,” said one. “Do I have permission to knock on your door?”

Writing doesn’t necessarily equal work, and vice versa. Yes, it’s impossible to measure. But still, how much work should one get done in a day to justify that?

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Day 3: Listing

Warmer than it looks.

“For nothing in the past stays fixed forever; as we grow and change the past changes…” May Sarton

1.  A World of Light, by May Sarton.

2. A walk in the prairie, by me. Twelve noon. Napped on a log bench. Got lost and had to use Google Maps to find the house.

3. Two more one-minute plays.

4. A mind-expanding interview with another artist for one of the characters in my play.

5. Salmon with carrots and celery. Fried potatoes. Green beans with hazelnuts. Vegan cole slaw. Tiny, perfect squares of cheese cake in decorative parchment.

6. Another walk in the prairie, this time in the dark, with friends.

7. Cowboy bark.

8. One more try at a one-minute play.

9. Defeat.

10. More cowboy bark.

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