Out of the mouths of babes.

I am fortunate to teach a two-week long theater day-camp every summer for 9 to 13 year olds.  It’s a popular camp with many returning campers.  We teach the kids how to create original characters, how to create original scenes, how to create original theater.

We also teach so much more…

At the end of each day we have a closing ceremony.  Standing in a circle, each person shares something about their experience, based on what-ever prompt we give:  how we feel, what we discovered about ourselves, what the best part of the weekend was, etc….

On the final day of camp, I often ask everyone (campers and teachers alike) to think about something new they discovered about themselves during the two weeks of Camp.  Sometimes the things they say are great advertising for camp:  Camp was AWESOME!  There is the occasional teacher adoration: Mr. Kyle is AWESOME!; and the occasional tip-of-the-hat to something learned during the two weeks: Shakespeare is AWESOME.

And then there is, every so often, something spoken by a young person of age 10 or 11 that speaks a truth we all need to hear:

Life really only begins when you are willing to step out of your comfort zone.

Thank you Angelica.  You are right.  It’s good to be reminded.

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It’s not just the thought that counts…

There are times when we have the best of intentions and life jumps up and gets in the way. A flat tire.  A sick child.  An unexpected phone call that throws everything else you have planned out the window.

And then there are the times when we have the best of intentions and we simply don’t do what-ever it was.  For no good reason.  Maybe for no reason at all.  We simply don’t do it.  A small niggling feeling that there is something else that needs our attention; an inherent laziness that saps the will to do.  And we sigh and say to ourselves, “well….it’s the thought that counts.”

Sometimes that is true.  Most of the time?  Not so much.

The thought that I wish there was less suffering in the world doesn’t count if I do nothing to ease suffering around me.  The thought that people “ought” to be more considerate is as helpful as thinking that I “ought” to exercise while I sit on in my lazy chair.  This is pretending that I actually own a lazy chair.  So the real analogy is my sitting out on the deck on a clear and beautiful day and looking at the garden and thinking that I really should do some weeding.  The weeds don’t magically pull themselves.

Thinking that I “ought” to call my parents more often is just that … a thought.  It doesn’t actually do much good all on its lonesome.  I can wish I saw a friend more often … but if I only wish and don’t do something as simple as tell her then what good is it?

One place I know of where just the thought can actually count is when our thought is “stop.”  The simple act of thinking “stop” actually does add one millisecond to our natural forward thrust through life.  And sometimes a millisecond is all it takes to change our trajectory from disaster to less-possible disaster.  And less-possible disaster is not a bad thing, given the choices.

I should know.  I was about to write a whole lot more.  And then I said to myself, “stop.”

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Winnie the Pooh and ADD

A very dear friend has a stuffed Eeyore sitting on a bookshelf as a sort of mascot.  I love Eeyore.  I always have.  But I also realized that if I confine myself to Eeyore’s myopic world view, I miss a lot of things.

I recently saw a term that was new to me.  A.D.D.    No, not the kind on the spectrum of behavioral issues.   I’m well aware of it, having dealt with students and family members that may or may not have gone undiagnosed for too long.

I’m talking a much more subtle problem that goes undiagnosed by far too many of us:  Appreciation Deficit Disorder.  I suspect it may have side-issues that go untreated as well:  Color-blindness being one.  That color blindness that notices and fixates on the color red in the traffic lights as we sit waiting for them but fails to notice the color green in the ones we are driving through.  We fail to notice them, and therefore certainly fail to be grateful for the small favor.  Red lights are “the universe is out to get us”.  Green lights are “oh was that a green light?”

ADD is beating ourselves up for the slight burn at the edges of the cookies, and forgetting completely that so many batches turn out just fine; getting a lower grade on a test than we hoped and failing to notice the knowledge we’ve gained in the process of learning; wondering why our spouse,  or our children didn’t say “I love you” or “Nice dress” or what-ever compliment we are craving at the moment and hardly paying attention to the fact that the dishes were done without complaint.

ADD is being surprised and feeling bitter that is should snow in April when the tulips are about to open up and not noticing the fact that the tulips are still ready to bloom after the snow has melted.

There are far too many things in life that I fail at appreciating…all those countless little things that add up to being such a big thing.  If I allow one little thing like picking the wrong line in the grocery store to ruin an otherwise decent shopping excursion (and I even remembered the coupons!), then that dreaded Appreciation Deficit Disorder has reared its ugly head once again.

The things we focus on, give our attention to, choose to dwell on are the very things that will give shape and meaning to our existence.  I can choose to be Eeyore (who has a point, after all); but if I choose to view the world through Eeyore’d eyes all the time, I’m missing out on a lot of possible pots of honey and the beauty of rainclouds and the small friend that just put its paw into mine saying, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

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All Necessary Precautions.

After a long hard slog through winter it is a relief to have signs of spring in view.  The snow-drops peaked out from the receding snowbanks a week ago.  The crocuses are up, their purple petals just starting to unfurl. The rain is softly falling outside.  I sit at the dining room table, lights blazing in the midst of a grey morning, listening to music that cheers me.

As someone who was first diagnosed with mild, chronic depression more than twenty years ago, I keep my fingers crossed all the long January/February/March months that the grey clouds that hover on the horizon of my psyche stay put.  And so….comes April showers.  And with them, the relief that one more winter is down.  But I wasn’t.

I’ve learned over the years that accepting the fact of my psyche is part of my ability to deal with it.  And I no longer keep it secret.  I don’t normally go around broadcasting it either, but recently I was talking with a young woman who is struggling and I found myself telling her that I knew only too well what she was going through.  I too had struggled mightily and then a day dawned over twenty years ago that I didn’t enjoy going through life the way I was and that maybe there was another way to deal.  Sometimes we just need someone else to tell us that it’s okay.  It can all be okay.

“Mental illness” sounds so threatening.  But the brain is a part of the body.  Sometimes we forget that.  Chemical imbalances in the brain are just as valid as chemical imbalances in the rest of our bodies.  We don’t tend to blame those who suffer from hypoglycemia.  Why do those of us who struggle with depression blame ourselves?  It dawned on me that if I saw someone with a broken leg struggling to get around without a cast, or crutches, or any aide I’d think, “what the hell are you trying to prove?”  I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “yeah Mary….what the hell  are you trying to prove?”

I’ve actually proved it.  I’ve proved that I can manage just fine, thank you very much.  I can manage thanks to the medication I take;  thanks to the counseling and helpful advice I’ve gotten over the years; thanks to a loving family who understands.  I manage thanks to perky music on the radio and bright lights turned on around me.  I manage by buying myself flowers in the dead of winter.  I manage thanks to signs of spring that come after long hard winters.  I get through thanks to love and light and laughter and prayer and meditation.  I get through by taking the necessary precautions.

I think that is the secret to life.  We take the necessary precautions for the things we can predict so that we have the wherewithal to deal with the things that come along that we can’t possibly predict.

What are your necessary precautions?

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O the weather outside…

On this frigid night in early January, I am blessed to sit by a roaring fire, encased in a warm blanket, nestled near my husband.  As I sit gazing into the coals that are building up I am reminded of my childhood.

Believe it or not, when I lived in the southern most section of India, we had a Ben Franklin pot-bellied stove to warm our house.  We lived high in the mountains.  The house was built of heavy stone — and stayed blessedly cool in the hot summers.  But it was also extra cool in the cool winters.  Thus, the stove.  And some of my earliest memories of gathering in the living room (complete with a home-made patchwork rug) snuggling in as close to the fire as I was allowed, listening to my parents talk, or read aloud.

We didn’t have television.  We didn’t even have radio.  We had each other, and our stories. Especially we had stories.  And story-books.  I realize now that my parents gave us all a great gift.  We couldn’t afford expensive anything.  But we spent time together as a family.  And we were given one of the rarest of commodities — listening and being listened to.

Tonight I watch the snow fall, as well as the temperatures, and my hope for all of us:   the chance to warm up and be warmed by the act of listening.

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My life is like the candy aisle…

155463_559451871994_1078217_nAgnes ChundlebatchJust like the candy aisle at your local CVS or grocery store, it’s not even Halloween and I’m in the thick of thinking about Christmas.

This will be the 8th year that I’ve helped create, develop and perform in Touchstone Theatre’s annual Christmas City Follies (opens December 5th). Because we create original material each and every year we start early.  Earlier than most.  Earlier than normal.

On Monday we will enter the rehearsal room and begin throwing ideas around — beloved characters that “have” to be in the show require all new adventures.  New characters have to be developed.  Situations, sketches, songs, themes, sayings, memories, “wouldn’t it be funny if…” all get bandied about.

That first rehearsal everything is hilarious.  Then the serious work sets in.  And you realize that the trick-or-treaters are at your door and you are humming “Oh There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and they are looking at you oddly.

Being in a Christmasy frame of mind for more than two whole months is both exhilarating and exhausting.  There are times when (horrors of horrors) you actually get tired of thinking Christmas kind of thoughts.  When you go to the store you hear some new jingly jingle that sounds remarkably like something you are writing yourself and want to scream.

It’s a bit like Ground-hogs Day, the movie.  Every other day you wake up and head into the rehearsal room.  Outside the leaves are falling.  Outside it’s early November.  Inside it’s holiday fun and festivities — trying to create material that is fun, funny, poignant, meaningful and artful all at the same time.

After awhile it all stops being funny at all because you’ve heard it so many times.

But then opening night rolls around and you are sharing material with an audience for the very first time and they laugh — they actually laugh.  And there’s a moment when you notice that the audience has gone strangely silent during a scene and then they let out a large sigh of grateful recognition of a truth being told.  And you sing a song and get tingles because there is something magical happening right then, right there.

It is holiday magic all over again.  For me, it is the magic of theater – no matter the season.

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all hallo-weeny

Halloween is fast approaching.  It used to be, when my own children were young,  that I spent hours preparing my house for the little ghosts, goblins, princesses, expensively bought and home-made fantasy creatures that would dutifully toil up my sidewalk.  Those brave souls were confronted by a wicker table with a LARGE bowl of candy and a stuffed-witch on a rocking chair.  As they would reach greedy little hands into the depths of the candy the stuffed witch (stuffed from dinner that is) would suddenly spring to life, cackling wickedly, and say in her witchiest voice,

“not so fast my sweet!”

Ah, I miss those days.

I have loved Halloween as an adult because I loved trick-or-treating as a kid.  We had to make our own costumes in my house.  Nothing bought.  No thank you.  Half the fun of Halloween was deciding what you wanted to be — the more creative the better — and then ransacking the attic and basement for costume possibilities.  My mom wasn’t always thrilled with my early costume design choices.

There was the year I wanted to be a ghost bride.  I happened to find a box full of frothy frilly sheer curtains.  Voilá!  My 6 foot train was soon in tatters as I walked the miles around our country hamlet, up rocky driveways.  I thought it added to the “look.”  My mom thought it added to the destruction of yet another “saved-for-something-special” thing.  And yet she let me go back into the attic, year after year.

Today, as I watch children preparing for their own trick-or-treat nights and I long to see the cardboard boxes with head and arms cut out turned into trains, or computers, or robots.  I long to see the children who are clearly extremely proud of their original creations and who can’t believe that you can’t tell instantly who/what they are because they aren’t one of the umpteenth Party City costumes that you’ve seen.

And when I do?  The witch on the porch will let them dip their hands deep into the candy bowl without a twitch.

And then, they turn to leave she’ll raise her head and cackle softly and say,

“All the more for you, my sweet.”


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Chaos and creativity

Last night we had company for dinner.  Not just company…colleagues of my husband.  Both highly trained and highly educated.  Often when upon first introduction colleagues of my husband ask me, being polite, what it is that I do? it goes like this:

Mary:  I’m a storyteller and a theatre artist.

Them:  Oh.  Really?  That’s interesting.

… and the conversation then moves back to their own fields of expertise.

Last night was different.  Apparently what I do (the story-gathering, the focus on the power of listening to other people for the kernels and nuggets of truth they drop) was fascinating to them.  They asked lots of questions.  They wanted to hear more.  And more.

They were actually jealous – that as an artist I am able to work in a bit of chaos that allows for room for creative latitude.  As scholars they often find that they are so constricted by the confines of the argument they are trying to prove that there isn’t room for the kind of open ended discovery that artists rather routinely make.

There is need and room in this world for both kinds of inquiry.  I wouldn’t be able to so freely pursue my own artistic pursuits if my husband wasn’t toiling away on his own scholarly ones.  After listening to his colleagues, and our new friends,  I’m just glad that I get to work in the chaos side of the aisle.

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of sparkles and emergency rooms

This was my day today:

12:08am.  Husband wakes me up to ask, “does my lip look swollen to you?”

3:30am.  Take husband to ER because not only is his lip swollen, so is his lower face.

Between 5am and 1pm there is a round-robin of heading home, heading back to the ER, heading home, heading back to the ER.

Finally reassured that he will be fine, eventually (maybe even tonight), I am convinced by husband that I HAVE to go teach my class about playwriting to elementary school students.

3:00 Arrive, feeling exhausted, at the elementary school to think about curriculum with my lovely co-teacher.

3:45 Gather up the students who will be learning about being Young Playwrights [Lab] and head upstairs for the class, wondering if I can fake my way through.

3:47  Hear a student announce, “I want to play that sparkly game again. Can we please?”

And I am reminded that THIS is why I do what I do, no matter the personal exhaustion.  Students are learning about being sparkly in their creativity.  What does that mean?  It means being bold and brave and making bigger choices.  It means not caring so much what people think but doing what you love to do and what you discover you are good at doing.  It means creative thinking and a willingness to try things.

8:28pm  Sit at home with my husband who has been released.  Appreciate the fact that days that start with emergency rooms can include sparkly games.  Especially appreciate the sparkle of doctors and children.

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The power of listening

I am involved in a theater project (with Touchstone Theatre)that is utilizing a process of “story gathering” for the base material from which I will write a play. That play is scheduled to be produced in April, 2014 (no pressure or anything).  

Today I headed out to Bethlehem’s lovely new “Greenway” with a group of nervous Chinese speaking university students.  They were nervous because it was their first foray into the world of engaging total strangers in meaningful conversation.  I think they thought it was going to be hard.  Sometimes it is.  Normally it is not, because most human beings are longing for someone to show an interest in listening to them.

One of the reasons I love storytelling is that it engages us in an ancient art form – listening to one another.  In this day and age there simply isn’t enough of that going around anymore.

Watching the changes in body language of the students as well as those they approached was beautiful.  The nervous college students began to relax when they realized that the older Chinese tourists along the Greenway were willing to engage in conversation.  The tourists relaxed when we showed an interest in them.  Watching the exchanges, and not understanding a word of what was being said, I noticed something.

The act of listening and responding brings about a delight in both parties.  They found commonalities which brought smiles to their faces.  They showed mutual concern for things that were being discussed.

And afterward, the tourists smiled and waved and thanked us.  We smiled and waved and thanked them.  And the students, those very students who weren’t sure about this whole project said to me, “Well that was fun.  When do we go out again?”

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