Geography of Healing

Exploring the territories of healing

Clearing some cobwebs

I am thinking of Ferguson. I am thinking of St Paul, Los Angeles, Florida. I am thinking about how my social media worlds have shown me just how segregated my life has become, and not in the obvious ways. I am thinking of my friends scattered across the country posting faithfully and tirelessly injustice after injustice, insisting we all become witnesses; of their bravery and their hearts that often feel just out of my reach as I am tucked away in my Queens apartment, writing arts grants. I am thinking about how many well-intentioned people I know have cited #Ferguson but did not raise a hashtag for the Harlem raids just two months ago. How easy it is for all of us to point to outside, elsewhere, other places, people. I am thinking about silence. How I crave it, especially in the midst of a click-addiction, of needing more information, more bites, more evidence that somehow justifies my sadness and rage. How it comes when I need it least, when I am about to write, about to post, about to spend a precious hour in a studio, moving, processing, breathing. How it can be ice and a chokehold, or a tenderness and freedom.

I have been thinking about this piece. How can I make a piece about healing when I am questioning what it means, if it exists? What if all we have are good intentions?

It’s not just the macro that has me stopped in my tracks (why fight or flee when you can just freeze like a deer in headlights …) — Amidst a busy summer (festival) season, I asked myself repeatedly what was going on with this project. Why did it feel so alien and far away? It seemed that in the face of something personally meaningful, a project that was asking me to challenge myself and go somewhere I have never gone before, I had given it some best intentions, my old bag of tricks. Instead of asking myself what this piece was asking me to do, I tried to ask it to do something for me.

I have been thinking about the verse I chose, “(And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said,) Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters, there shall not be from thence any more death or barren (land)” – 2 Kings 2:21, and the story it comes from. Why was I drawn to this amongst so many other verses about healing?

While the ideas of feminized land (woman-as-country/homeland) and barrenness in women as an indicator of lost favor with a deity (here, G*d) interest me, surprisingly, they have not caught my heart. What grabs me about this verse is the performance or demonstration of the healing act, the concept that healing is a performance. And performance is a process.

As my understanding of the verse (and my process) became clearer, I had to acknowledge the uneasiness (to say the least) around the Elisha story that this verse comes from. Following the healing of Jericho’s water(s)/barrenness, Elisha travels to Bethel and is teased by a group of youths. He calls down a curse, two (female) bear come on to the scene, and maul/tear up the forty two boys/lads/children (there is discrepancy amongst the English translations; this passage is most likely talking about a group of young men).

I thought about Elisha’s curse as I grabbed my keffiyeh from a solidarity organization multiple days this summer. I thought about these forty two young men as video after video, status after status, came through to my Queens apartment documenting what my home press often refused to cover. I thought the size of full-grown bears, the David versus Goliath aspect of it (except this time, the giant won). I thought about how it was the deaths of three young men, and later four boys, that contributed to escalated violence in Gaza this summer. How bears are made of men.

Why does this curse directly follow the blessing and healing of the waters? Biblical scholarship seems to point out that Elisha is justified in his action because the youth were mocking G*d, not just Elisha. And because Elisha calls on the Lord for the curse, this seems to make it … okay? Right? At the very least, it is suggested that G*d is starting a new chapter in his dealings with his chosen people, and this is more or less making an example of these boys.

I am thinking about all of the excuses we apply to the misuse of power, especially our own. I am thinking of a young prophet, new to his position, who out of frustration and fear, made a call and had to witness the destruction he called for. Whereas in Jericho Elisha needed an audience to witness his act of transformation, on the road out of Bethel, he was made the witness to his own power. I am thinking of silence. I am thinking of the silence that accompanied Elisha as he continued his journey, suggested in the text by a lack of any action or prayer: “And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria”.

I am thinking about the silence we crave and the silence we let dominate, about our power to make witnesses of each other as we display our power, about making witnesses of ourselves.

Process 3, Performance Anxiety

A little over a week ago, The Sands/Geology of a Stone was performed at a mixed bill of performance material at Two Moon Cafe in Brooklyn. The first performance of anything is always awful for me – not because I lack faith in my performers or designers, but because while its happening there is always, in my mind, the question of “What if its all sh*t?”.  I do know, intellectually that I am a capable artist. More than capable, most of the time. And I know that the more I work, the better I get. But wow, those first five minutes of a piece, whether its opening for a long a run of a big production, or a works in progress showing in a cafe, are sheer torture.

My belief that the work I do is necessary and worthwhile is a belief that transcends any belief I have in myself as person of ability.

Close up of Aristide Maillol's sculpture "Night"; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Close up of Aristide Maillol’s sculpture “Night”; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

This sounds a lot sadder than it is. I think a lot of directors/choreographers/writers/artists feel this way. One of my favorite stories of Martha Graham, matriarch of modern dance, is from Agnes de Mille’s Dance to the Piper. She writes of visiting Graham and Louis Horst, sometime around New Year’s, 1932 or so. Graham had spent most of the winter overworking herself and her dancers, creating in a cycle that often involved completely gutting a piece at midnight the night before it premiered. Sewing costumes in the theater during tech. Her dancers waited tables and taught ballet classes in between rehearsals to eke out a living. This particular night Graham collapses, sobbing under a blanket over the fate of her next piece: “The winter is lost. The whole winter’s work is lost. I’ve destroyed my year. This work is no good”. Horst and de Mille comfort Graham. When Horst’s wise observation that “The Sixth Symphony came after the Fifth … but without it we would not have the Seventh” fails to stir Graham out her misery, he tells her to get up and eat.

 

Martha Graham

I love this story because it is so ordinary to any of us who have worked right up until opening to make something perfect, or who have edited until deadline, who push until we have nothing but tears left to give something. It is not the great mother creating dance from dust, but a woman driven by her faith in what she is doing, someone who has not yet found faith in herself. This was the winter Graham was working under a Guggenheim Fellowship – the first given to a dancer. This was the fellowhship that Lamentation would be choreographed under (http://www.gf.org/fellows/5720-martha-graham). Whenever I feel like disappearing, pretending that I am not that person whose name is on all of the programs, sitting amongst an audience watching my/the work for the first time, I think of Martha Graham on that cold winter night. And I (try to) remember at that moment I am so deep into the abyss of process that I am misplacing my heartache, assuming the work is terrible because that is how I feel about myself. I also remember that I should eat. Seriously.

This brought me back to this project on two levels. Most healing processes involve some kind of public acknowledgement/engagement with the illness/issue. It is as small and simple as the moment a co-worker tells you that they are a cancer survivor, or your girlfriend tells you that she is a sexual violence survivor, when someone goes to group and takes the first step of admitting a problem. Public identification with our struggles is the moment the curtain is lifted. There is an initial reaction from the audience – an assumption of what will happen next, what the world encompasses. And for many survivors there is a painful moment, the identification with that thing combined with lacking control over the reactions of the audience. “The work is no good” – it is so easy to think as someone asks the onslaught of usual questions about your condition.

I thought too, of the verse that this project is springing from. The verse (“And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus says the LORD, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from there any more death or barren land.“, 2 King 2:21) is the moment the curtain is going up on Elisha. He is a new prophet, Jericho’s waters have been barren, no life has sprung from the ground or from the people. He has no proof that this will work, and has just come back from a journey where a bunch of kids mocked him. But at this moment, he believes in the process, in something bigger (G*d) and goes with it. Like the artist on opening night, and like the survivor coming forward, Elisha is depending on the good faith of his people (audience) to make this public proclamation worth its while. And it is. And most of the time, survivors find love and strength from others. And Martha Graham during that lost winter created one of her signature works, in addition to pieces that still stand in Graham rep.

Which brings to mind some of Graham’s most famous words, written to de Mille:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly to keep the channel open. You do not have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever, at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

 

Process, 2: Collaboration and Performance

This is of course, a performance piece. Which means there must be performers and a designated time and space where all of this happens. The first performance of this work is happening tomorrow night in Brooklyn. I am overwhelmed by the intelligences of my performers, Laura Hartle, Stephanie Willing, and Morgan Zipf-Meister, who have come on board this project. They have shown great patience as I play with this new way of working, and in the few rehearsals/meetings we have had, they have truly breathed life into this piece. Collaborating with each of them is something very special and dear to me, and I am very grateful that they are coming together and making this happen. I am less terrified having companions on this journey.

We are presenting The Sands/Geology of a Stone as part of Concrete Timbre’s Elements series at Two Moons Cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Concrete Timbre/Nous Play are a company of artists I have so much respect for – they experiment and play with great passion. They have nurtured wonderful, crazy, experimental work and I am very proud and grateful to once again be working with them.

The Sands is the first stab at taking this from page to stage. The text is a monologue poem, and there is choreography for two performers. This was where I wanted to start. As an artist (and amateur social scientist), I am deeply intrigued about the relationship between bodies and text. My investigations have frequently begun with poetic text and (post)modern dance, which to me, often feel like the essences of language and movement, their abstract extremes where boundaries are fluid and the brain works hardest to make sense of what is happening. They activate our primal thinking, the need to make sense of the world around us.

If you are in NYC and available to come out tomorrow night, come check us out.

The Sands/Geology of a Stone, presented as part of

Elements 4

Element Themes: Fire, Desert, Sun, & Fear

Image

Info: http://www.concretetimbre.com/elements.html

Process 1: Externalization

My last post (written some time ago, admittedly; more on that later) talked a little bit about metaphoric thinking and its relationship to trauma and narrative. I included the following Lucille Clifton poem in which the speaker explains coming across a “monstrous, unnamed baby … History”, because to me, the poem is one of the strongest examples of powerful, metaphoric narrative. In a purposefully limited amount of space (literally and linguistically speaking), the poet gives us a very spacious nugget of narrative.

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
History.
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

This poem offers us multiple layers of externalization (bringing something internal beyond its borders), processed through metaphor. First, Clifton, as the poet, has created the narrative of meeting History, of, in many ways, reclaiming her. Secondly, the speaker has acknowledged History not as an innate, malleable object, but as a living entity. The acknowledgement that History is living and though mothered by, independent of the speaker is almost a third level of externalized. The poem (1) creates a narrative of the encounter with History (and narrative occurs outside a writer), (2) the speaker acknowledges History as separate from themselves and then (3) clarifies History’s identification as an independent agent. Metaphor is necessary to perform such an externalization, because metaphor enlarges a truth, it is a nature boundary breaker (or more positively stated, metaphor creates enough space to build bridges).

So, why all of this metaphoric externalization talk?

The Geography of Healing project had its first rehearsal this past week in preparation for a works-in-progress showing on May 1st. I had to begin to take this from the theoretical to the practical – I had to have a script and staging.

Creating never really goes quite as planned (Étienne Maurice Falconet’s Pygmalion et Galatée)

While devising the text (based on submitted responses to The Questions) we’ll be using, I found that many responders were aware of the translation between inner and outer worlds taking place in writing. Many of the responses contained a self-awareness of the tension between internal logic and external language, the tension of personal translation. I recognized this tension instantly. When I close my eyes, I can see my pain, I know it intimately. When I try to relate this experience to others, even those skilled in listening to these translations (doctors, therapists, etc), my internal world suddenly feels frozen in comatose. Language is slow, melting, I am unsure of the territory of each sentence. And in these responses, I was seeing this tension arise on multiple levels. There was recognition that these responses may not “make sense” to the outside reader, or that they were highly specific to each person. There was also recognition within the narratives themselves that contradictory and paradoxical states were present, that language did not always serve what was happening in these imaginative spaces.

To weave together a usable poetic text, I chose to navigate around this tension, which often read as doubt of one’s own experience or telling of that experience. I wanted at least to begin in a place that while unexplored, is undoubtedly real, with a speaker who reveals their truth. The external world can be exceptionally good at causing us to doubt our own experiences and truths, it felt important to begin this process with an imagined character who recorded their journey truthfully.

Eve’s account is still forthcoming. (Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve, Sistine Chapel)

I did not actually say this in rehearsal. Because it was a scary decision to make, somehow, it came very close to something very personal for me. It felt as if I was also deciding to do this as a director/choreographer, to take a very conscious step to go from starting a process with a lot of “Maybes” and “This may not make sense to you but …”  to walking into a room with a decent map, and the ability to develop it as we explore the world of the play together.

Directors/choreographers are tasked with externalizing the world of performance – its why we use visual collages (or Pinterest, since its 2014), journal obsessively, read obsessively, and spend time laying in the middle of a studio or stage staring into the grid. Our job is to know every inch of this world and to guide a team through it. In order to know it, we have to explore it first, often on a solo expedition. It’s personal, its heart-wrenching and beautiful. Sharing these worlds with others who will impact the environment is the necessary gamble we take. And as someone who spends a lot of time in her head with her pain, and her research, communicating one can often feel like communicating the other. Externalizing is grueling, and getting ready for last week’s rehearsal was a clear reminder of that.

So, in choosing to create this narrative, I found myself also choosing how to start the rehearsal process. And what I am finding in preparing for tonight’s rehearsal is the space created by this narrative, that place where my performers and I both access the world, is also space that allows me to translate the internal logic to an external language.

All of this is to say that consciously creating a narrative about process made room for me to also consciously sculpt my own process. It is my hope too that by putting their own narratives down on paper/screens, responders are able to benefit from the distance created by the act of externalizing. That the doubt of “this may not make sense …” leads to an empowered certainty that something was created and shared.

 

 

Necessary Metaphor, 1

In the wake of two recent celebrity events that have set-off large numbers of media bombs (op-ed pieces, Twitter discussions, Facebook threads, etc etc etc) that can be triggering to anyone who is healing from the hurt caused by addiction and/or sexual abuse (their own or of someone they love/have loved), it felt important to address how these stories are told and discussed. Of course, it is important to openly discuss these things. And while the atmosphere often feels tense, as all of the self-proclaimed culture prophets and critics wait to wage their opinions, there are pockets of kindness, small refuges where survivors of similar anguish are finding each other. They hunker down together. They defend each other. They know this has happened before. They wait for the calm. And perhaps, the upside of these debates over an actor’s addiction and a filmmaker’s sexual conduct is that disparate individuals are finding new communities. Are making them.

I have found myself trying to rapidly process all of the information flying across the internet, and it is overwhelming. And I have thought about this project, and about the intersection of our psychological lives and needs, and the process of creating a work that exists for others, outside of yourself, but reflecting wholly yourself (inverting the old “Art is the mirror of society”).

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet is is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped”. It may be true that metaphors do not help us normalize the experience of being a person with cancer (which was Sontag’s focus in the essay) or with mental illness or with any kind of illness – that which is abnormal, decayed, unseemly. But the metaphoric thinking that is the creation process, the ability to step away from ourselves and see an entire environment, and to decide what terms to use to describe that environment, can be a way to build a bridge from the kingdom of our illness into a wider world.

Charring London Bridge, Claude Monet

As the information continues to rapid fire across the internet, as more op-eds are published, and the comment threads grow longer with more and more links, it feels imperative for me to create something, to make meaning. One of the scarier parts of these debates has been the almost instant polarization, as if we were all asked to be part of the very imaginative jury that is tasked with weighing in on the fate of an actor’s legacy or a filmmaker’s future. Many are arguing that as consumers of art, we are tasked with this. Sure. But this argument feels smoke-screeny at best – where is the rage against Chinese imports full of lead paint or pesticides? The passion to boycott the companies sponsoring the Sochi Olympics, as Pussy Riot, activist artists themselves, are asking us to? Could it be that it is easier to judge a single person and feel righteous than it is to recognize that most tragedies are born of systemic illnesses?

This is exactly why metaphoric thinking is sometimes necessary. It may be that we cannot handle thinking about our individual selves and stake in the midst of great machines of culture and society. It is overwhelming. It is dividing. It is inexplicably lonely. Healing in a world of twenty-four conversations is strangely lonely. The creative process, which relies on metaphor, can help us come out of our hiding places, and at the same time create room for others.

Right now, the goal of this project is engage with as many narratives as possible. To encourage individuals to share their stories, and introduce those stories to each other. By intentionally creating space to tell our stories we begin to build bridges, we encounter others, we realize we are not alone.

——————————————————————————————————————-

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
History.
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

Lucille Clifton

Crowd Sourcing Story

Maybe it is the recent presence of conversations around economics in theater/the arts cycling again as these things do, but it seems important that the first aspect of this process I disclose is the choice to crowd-source text/the story. I am calling it crowd-sourcing because the data is being given freely for the sake of the project, and the call is open to all who wish to participate. I am not interviewing people the way an oral historian would (though I am interested in the intersection of oral history and theater). The set of questions offered to participants may make an oral historian cringe, and I am not choosing the participants based on any set of data or an historical happening, I am letting participants choose the project. There is no promise that any text used will be used, or will be used in its entirety.

The main reason I am doing this is because I believe the story I am trying to tell requires many voices. The story of God’s people – any of people, of any god, at any time – is the story of community*. Staying true to my source, I would like to invite as many voices and stories of healing as possible to the metaphorical drafting table. I also wish to acknowledge that the telling of story almost always requires witnesses, and that the act of sharing our journeys is a powerful and validating one. By submitting our observations, however we wish to state them, to a larger conversation we are bearing witness to ourselves and to others.

I am also very interested in finding new points of collaboration and sourcing, for artistic reasons as well as economic ones. Recently my boyfriend and I got to talking about the commodification of art and the big questions of paying artists for art – if art is part of culture, and a right for everyone, how can we assure that artists produce it, get paid for that production, but that the cost of that production (i.e. the price of the art) isn’t an economic barrier to those whose right it is to experience said art? I caught myself saying “Maybe artists should be paid in materials – in food, housing, and clothes, and materials for their work. This would allow artists to create regardless of inflation, and would ensure culture production”. Let’s just chalk that up to an adolescent fixation on socialist and communist structures, that’s just always hovering around. However, that did lead to me thinking about other forms of currency, and I began to think about this project in the context of story-raising. (Even just typing this, I can feel some of the slipperiness, some of the possible creepiness of this. I am not interested in co-opting anyone’s story and I am not looking for an easy way out to create something; there are far easier/lazier ways to create). As I stated above, I believe this project calls for a chorus of voices. And I think that there can be something powerful about thinking about our stories as currency, and storytelling is a system of exchange, where we give what others may need and receive what we may need as well.**

What it boils down to, ultimately, is that I want to hear what you have to say. And I want to draw something from that story, marry it to others, and create something that celebrates what we have done. I believe that sharing stories is sacred, and I wish to honor that by creating a piece that combines multiple journeys.

Provisions, Margaret Atwood

What should we have taken
with us? We never could decide
on that; or what to wear,
or at what time of
year we should make the journey

So here we are in thin
raincoats and rubber boots

On the disastrous ice, the wind rising

Nothing in our pockets

But a pencil stub, two oranges
Four Toronto streetcar tickets

and an elastic band holding a bundle
of small white filing cards
printed with important facts.

*This project is not a religious project, but part of a larger project of work based on Biblical verses. This is in no way about any god healing you/me/us/them literally. Please see the About page for context.

** Currency does not automatically mean hierarchy. I’m sure you could go to town on making stories currency in a capitalist (American capitalist) sense, inflating and degrading value, and creating new classes, new isms … This is not what I am implying. Though I guess there is a whole new stock exchange in that system*** … Heh.

***Like stock character. It’s a joke. About stories.

Intro/Homebase

Hello blogosphere. I am creating this space as a virtual home-base for a project I am working on, which at the moment I’m calling the Geography of Healing project. That’s it’s working title/umbrella name, it will eventually be a performance piece examining healing in relationship to space and time.  The project is part of Spark and Echo Arts awesomely ambitious mission to create a multi-disciplinary illuminated Bible. No, it is not religious. This is not a religious piece of art. And there are some beautiful pieces being created for this. Check it out here: http://www.sparkandecho.org/Image

From here on out, I hope to document my process, as that is something I am recommitting to in general as an artist. Because I am hoping to crowd-source material for this, and this is a commissioned project, it seemed appropriate to create a virtual home base, and publicly share my progress. 

Thanks for stopping by. 

 

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