Monday, January 30, 2012

Why improv will be the death of me

When you have 24 minutes to kill, watch this video. My instructor's in there!

No sooner did I hit send on the improv tournament submission form than the heartburn started. It had asked for the group name (Dirty Harriet). It had asked for a contact person (me). And then it asked for combined years of performance experience. Which is zero.

Shame the form said that classes don't count as experience, because then at least I could put a combined .15 years. I just started classes at Washington Improv Theater (WIT) a few weeks ago, and in that time I have amassed a whopping 7.5 hours' worth of lessons learned. These include:

Listening requiring shutting up. Improv's basic rules are also the basic rules of human communication. Shut your mouth. Open your ears. Pay attention. Observe. Accept others' choices. Support those choices. React. Be confident. And did I mention listening? Are you listening right now? HEY. EYES HERE.

Check your coat and ego at the door. It appears that some bit of my gray matter believes 10 years of doing school or community theater makes me an improv expert, and that I am God's comedic gift to this ragtag class of Washingtonians who are simply trying to learn something new, meet people, or get over their fear of public speaking. This bit of gray matter is persistent and dangerous. It leads me to believe I am perfect and thus have no room to learn.

I am a Type A's Type A. I fight every bossy bone in my body during this class. "Speak up!" the big sister voice yells at the other classmates. "Listen to the teacher! Follow the rules! Wait your turn! Dammit, I paid a lot of money for this class and YOU ARE KILLING ME, PEOPLE!" Somewhere along the way my brain forgot that we're here to have fun! and make shit up! -- two highly unregulable activities that it's also forgetting to participate in.

"And what exactly do you mean by 'outrageous' ... ?" Anyone who knows me knows I am the opposite of outrageous. I follow rules. I avoid extremes. I don't even wear prints. But this class requires me to be as outrageous as I can possibly be. It asks me to stretch my body, test my range, and bury my insecurities and sense of propriety for the sake of storytelling. At times I would rather dive from a plane face-first into a sharpened fork. But then again, that's pretty outrageous, so maybe I'm picking it up.

Not surprisingly, many of these lessons give me heartburn too.

So why exactly did I and two classmates decide to enter a tournament in which we are likely to be eliminated quickly and with little fanfare? Because 2012 is the year I just do it. Enough excuses. Enough self-imposed barriers. Enough resistance and pride and brain noise. I'm here to have fun and make shit up. Even if it kills me.

Which it might.

Prayer #198: Yes, And ...

Every time I slam my door, plug my ears, and stick out my tongue at you, I lay down a brick. Over time the bricks build a wall. And eventually I'm standing behind that wall, celebrating to the neighbors that I've beat you at your own game yet straining to see you once they turn their heads.

The thing is, I also lay down a brick every time I shut my mouth, stop my complaints, and stick out my neck for you. But over time these bricks build many walls. Those walls build a home. And eventually I'm standing at an open door where I can walk in any time and find you sitting at the table, warm and cozy, ready to laugh.

Saying yes is the cornerstone. Saying yes is the blueprint. Saying yes is the start.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

The stubborn heart is a lonely one

Photo by Amelien (Fr)
Scene: The living room on a snow-quiet day. Life -- a tacked-together body of friends, family, lovers, God whispers, decisions, consequences, moments, and good meals -- is lounging on the sofa. Heart -- who is a heart -- curls up in the armchair. She is frowning. Both have tea.

Life: Oh come on. It's not that bad.

Heart: Yes it is. It's wracking and profound and worthy of endless, cyclical, non-conclusive thought.

Life: You are whacked. They love you. They ALL love you. In fact, you have more love than you know what to do with.

Heart: Then why doesn't he say what I want him to say? Why doesn't she support me like I support her? WHY IS NONE OF IT LIKE IT IS IN MY HEAD??

Life: Because you're nuts. Also -- who says they're not?

Heart: I say.

Life: Maybe that's it, then.

Heart: What are you insinuating?

Life: That it's you.

Heart: (gasp)

Life: Oh, get off it. All human relationships are tinged with sadness. It's the price we pay for acknowledging our own inadequacy and loving in spite of it.

Heart: I'm not comfortable with that.

Life: Yeah, I know. Hence our 67th cup of tea in a row.

Heart: But the sadness is winning! I see only the sadness! Where did the good go?

Life: Stop being so bloody bleeding. Shut up and pay attention. That's all you have to do. The listening, the invitations, the time, the love -- all that you want, you already have. In spades. Right in front of you. Just CALM THE EFF DOWN. (pause) Also, remember -- you're not so perfect yourself.

Heart: ...

Life: There. That made you miss a beat.

End scene.

Prayer #197: Owner of a Lonely Heart

Every day You write. Every day You call. And every day I shrug You off, waiting for the better offer.

So I suppose I am lonely by my own design.

Lord, help me perceive the love before me. Help me receive it. Help me believe it. And then help me relieve myself -- and others -- of the pressure to be everything for always. It's a standard none can achieve, and none should hold to, except when it comes to You.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Against sanctifying Martin Luther King, Jr.

H/T to Alison McQuade for leading me to ill doctrine's awesome video blog

Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I have to remind myself that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a saint.

He was a complex, complicated man at the epicenter of one of American history's greatest arcs. He made difficult choices in a gray era. He couldn't and didn't please everyone all the time. He faced setbacks amid the steps forward. He was radical (adj. far-reaching) and a radical (n. an advocate for complete, thorough political and social reform).

Now 50-odd years removed from his work (with whole generations not even born at his time), much of our rhetoric and storytelling around the man has assumed mythical proportions. We're so drawn to the dramatic and moving moments that we push aside -- even ignore -- the heartache, struggle, and fear it took to reach them.

So when I say Martin Luther King, Jr. is not a saint, I mean to say he was human. And for me that is the more reverent thing to say, because it zeroes in on just how hard it must have been to do what he did. Amid his own turbulent humanity he led a movement that prompted us to rise above our baser instincts and fill our grace-filled potential. He and his compatriots didn't sugarcoat what they were about. They never said it was easy. They simply said it had to be so.

Of course, we're far from done, as Jay Smooth notes in this vlog (it's a few years old, but the truth is evergreen):

And yeah, it's tough as hell to live this out. But I can't be, won't be discouraged. Because if a fellow human being can put a statement like this into the world, the least I can do as an equally human being is help make it so.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Prayer #196: A Vein of Iron

Lord, give my love a vein of iron

so that my choices form open gates instead of darkening bars,

so that I can hold justice on my shoulders to peer over the seething morass,

so that I am heavy enough to push through,

weighted enough to bear wisdom,

and substantial enough to wield the full power

of love's transforming potential.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

How Jane Eyre saved my relationship

Do you think I am an automaton? ­a machine without feelings? ... Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart ... I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, — as we are ... -- Jane Eyre

Potential title of this post: How Jane Eyre ruined my relationship.

I never thought I'd say something like that. I've read the book at least 10 times and become an expert in all filmed representations of Mr. Rochester. (Best physical casting: Ciaran Hinds version. Best screenplay adaptation: Toby Stephens version. Best use of Michael Fassbender in tight white pants: Michael Fassbender version.)

Indeed, since my awkward teenage years, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester have been my shining beacon of hope from Relationship Hill. Whenever I feel romantically sentimental, despondent, or unmoored, I turn to them.

I love that Jane, despite her youth, balances vulnerability, self-knowledge, and conviction with poise and grace. And I love that Rochester, despite his inner demons, maintains a sense of humor, a wonder for love, and an intense desire to live with joy.

So how, you ask, could such beloved characters turn me against love? Well, they didn't really do anything -- I did. Namely, I got older and got into a real-life, adult relationship with plenty of ups and plenty of downs. And in one recent down -- a very down down, a down threatening not to return up -- I was asking myself a fundamental question: Do I love him enough to continue?

The severity of the situation demanded a dose of Jane, so I popped in the latest movie adaptation, settled on the couch, and instantly felt terrible.

There were Jane and Rochester, parading around on page and screen, full of love and intensity and witty repartee. There they were with pronouncements of affection and can't-live-without-yous. There they were kissing in the rain, stealing glances, running into each other's arms.

There they were, making me want to vomit, because I had ZERO of that going on in my life. I went to bed teary and hiccuping that night, convinced that true love was all raindrops and banter and declarations, and that I was doomed to never have it.

The good thing about going to bed, however, is that you wake up to a new day. And in the light of that day, I remembered that in addition to the romantic gestures, Rochester had also flat-out lied to Jane about his marital status. Jane was also naive and inexperienced with the wider world. They broke each other's hearts and miscommunicated and suffered a hard, jagged, abrupt split when Jane ran away to the moors, intending never to return.

Ah, the moors. When I was younger, this was my least favorite part of the story -- slow, tedious, and preachy. But now that I'm older, I grasp just how much happens with Jane while she's there. For example, she:
  • Contributes to her little community by starting a girls' school.
  • Makes friends for the first time since childhood.
  • Discovers relatives she never knew she had and always wanted.
  • Rejects a marriage proposal because she's not in love with the man (a risky proposition for a woman in her era).
  • Comes into some money, guaranteeing her freedom.
So, when Jane returns to Rochester after her moor adventure, it's as a well-rounded woman who tested her principles and convictions in the real world and found them up to the task. She comes back to Rochester because she forgives him, because she knows what they are capable of together, because she chooses to.

Meanwhile, Rochester -- whose estate fire has stripped his wealth, taken his sight, and removed his wife from the scene -- welcomes her back as an unfettered man. He responds not to her looks, but to her spirit. He acts with more honesty and humility. He chooses to move forward with her.

That's when I saw it: This was our relationship's moment on the moors. Our moment to examine if the foundation was strong, even if the house was ablaze. Our moment to accept that love is not perfect roses and sunshine, but an active choice -- one we both must make.

Jane and Rochester are adults. They acknowledge their flaws, ask forgiveness, and strive to improve. They are perfect together in their imperfection -- each fully drawn, heightened together. We root for them not because they mystically hear each other's voices in the wind, but because for 99% of the time they are struggling, making mistakes, and trying their best to follow their hearts.

At this point, I put down the book, ejected the DVD, and called Fella to talk. We took some time to think. We talked again. We felt better. The once irreversible down looked up again, .

When it comes to relationships, we don't need Gothic narratives; life is dramatic enough. Jane and Rochester are once again my standard bearers -- proof that for the right people, moors are not a death knell, but an opportunity.

Prayer #195: "We Stood At God's Feet, Equal"

When the daydream to sleepless night ratio tilts right,
When inside jokes drop off and outside fears creep in,
When ears no longer hear over din of heart and mind,

Restore the balance between us, reveal what we are made of, and remind us we're not alone on this quest to love.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Why I will never achieve my resolutions

Taken in Spain, Sept. 2011.

Way back on January 1, 2009, I wrote a post about the one resolution you can't live without -- not my own, but rather the overarching truths and lessons of goal-setting, what it means to truly resolve.

Each year since, I have written a litany of earnest resolutions and attendant goals in my journal, and they're often the same items. Every year I tell myself to make more time for writing. Every year I say I will travel to new places. Every year I vow to be a more loving person.

And every year I think I have failed.

But the march of time -- in this case, at least -- has been kind. The wise idea I presented in 2009 came from a place of intellectual understanding, and now, finally, after three years of the DC circuit and friends' deaths and interrupted sleep and tiny victories only I can see, I understand the concept emotionally too.

You see, I haven't failed. In fact, in many of my goals I've made significant progress. I write the same things each year because those things -- creating, exploring, relating -- make up who I am. So I'm never going to 'finish' or 'accomplish' them because I live them. They will always be part of what moves me across this earth.

This year, I identified my 2012 resolution three months early in the midst of a punishing travel schedule. "Stay put," I said to myself. "Go away less, leave more time for writing, and don't burn yourself out. That's it. Let everything flow from that."

I felt smug about my proactivity at the time, but now I think I spoke too soon. My beautifully still December -- spent in my own home in my own routine -- gave me ample time to examine where I stand, and it boiled down to a few themes:
So my resolution has shifted to 'just do it.' It's not even a resolution at this point, more of a mantra. Because why wait? Why stall? Why miss out? Make the planets align where you can, and move on when they don't, or won't, or shouldn't.

2012 is my year to keep plugging away at ever-moving external targets and ever-evolving internal ones. My success is assured for next year, because the goal is to live. That much I know I can do.

Prayer #194: What's New is Old

I pretend I am the first
to see the visions
hear the voices
ask the questions
But I know I'm far
from the last
And I know I'm far
from the answers.

I think, though, I've arrived
at a rest stop where others
have paused
because I see their scrawls
on the bathroom walls
and they all say
"keep going"
"you'll learn"
"we promise"

so I will.