I’ve been cooking up this musical since 2012, and this Myers Briggs ENFP knows it’s finally time to start sharing some songs.
In 2012 I had a significant list of amends to make, and there were those whom I held inside the imaginary cage of my own contempt.
I’m still learning what forgiveness means. And since I’ve needed a lot of it since 2012, I’ve noticed that it is alive and moving, welcoming us to collaborate.
It’s like breathing and singing. We can’t hold a note, we can only watch as the breath moves through us and we open to receive the next one.
This is “The Treasures We Owned” from ACROSS.
A lil story background:
In 1985, Lynn Steeple is a retired opera singer who teaches at Armstrong College in her hometown of Mt. Airy, North Carolina.
When she learns that her ex-husband will be the college’s artist in residence, she finds her life hurtling down an emotional mountain road in a truck with tired breaks.
This song happens in Act 2 as Lynn weighs the years she’s spent rehearsing the deeds of those who’ve trespassed against her.
Jesus, I pictured you gathering your child
under your wings as he left his body
on rough grey asphalt.
The report said he was forty-six,
and I thought of my brother,
towering tall like George,
whose forty-sixth birthday is today.
I imagined a place where a big white man
with wavy brown hair like he
would be police-pinned bare-chest-down
eye-level with oil stains and cigarette butts,
his temple gravel-indented.
I have to imagine my gentle giant big brother
suffering a bony knee to his throat
and a hands-in-pockets “relax”
when he pleads for breath.
What’s make-believe for me
is you-better-believe for my human brothers
whose melanin riches make them poor
according to the story we’ve spun
based on our ability to see
.0035 percent of the light spectrum.
This tale gags
a hundreds-years nightmare scream
in the deaf presence of stopped ears.
Does your brown, scarred brow, Lord,
knit at our bleached, ignored grief
as you feel our refusal
to let through the howl for the things done
and those left undone?
Where do the pierced hands
that made spit-mud for the blind man
Today I ask for blessings for my brother’s
and I think of how my prayers depart
from the black mother
who pleads for anyone to guard her son
from those who obey inhuman agents
that insinuate that we are
May you smear the deep brown clay on our eyes,
the mud we’re all made from,
to see the moment when
met his mother when he called her
and, cradled beneath your wing
by your spear-stabbed side,
walked upright together into the place where
you hear their voice
and you will wipe every tear from their eyes.
I won’t bury the lead. I stopped drawing because my brothers were good at it.
I loved to draw, paint, color, all the things.
I didn’t win coloring contests. Ms. Tina chided me in nursery school for coloring an ostrich purple. (I think it was a solid choice.) I would look at my brothers’ sketches of trees and X-men and envy their superior technique and think, “I’m not that good.”
So, when I figured out I could sing, I had my thing.
Bye bye, visual arts, I will make my way on the staaaaage. Or with a poli sci degree. I didn’t know.
During these quarantine-y times, there’s been play-doh and paint time at the kitchen table with our two-year-old, and I’ve gotten out the watercolors.
What’s so interesting to me is that painting a cup or a vase of flowers or someone else’s painting of a house puts me into a story–I immerse the way I do when I craft a song or write a scene.
And I notice how a fragile child’s ego decision shaped the creative and career path I took.
Are you there? In you own experience when someone said or did something they don’t even remember, and it shaped the whole trajectory of your creative and life choices from that point?
I’m remembering pee-wee basketball.
The one time when our ringer Roy, 9-year-old layup master that he was, didn’t grab a rebound. Somehow the ball ricocheted into my eager eight-year-old hands, and I did what I knew I must:
I double-dribbled to the other side of the half-court and attempted my best underhand granny from around the free throw line.
I soon discovered that I had unsuccessfully attempted to score for the other team.
A bizarro version of the good-game-hand-slap line formed; the other team passed me single-file pointing and laughing in twangy tones. We had a lot of bright color going on in our vocal production back in 1986 Mt. Airy.
Basketball carried a face-flushing, hand-tingling story for me ever since. I would dread pickup or P.E. games. I would try to show up strong on defense or pass to someone I knew could shoot.
I missed the memo that my innocent attempt to play a game one winter Saturday in 1986 was over and that what happens at Reeve’s Community Center stays at Reeves Community Center.
What are the possibilities you tossed out because of a painful story?
Maybe it’s a good time to see if a little eight-year-old back there is raising their hand asking for you to listen and understand, and maybe for a hug.
Here’s an index cards I painted this week. It’s a detail of a Jim Shore sculpture my mom gave us for our anniversary. Great to let the kid come out and enjoy some time in an imaginary watercolor world.
We’ve been using some of this quarantine time for coloring, paining, and play-doh with our two-year-old, so I joined the fun with my watercolors and an index card.
P.S. Trader Joe paper bags make really good dining room table artist blotters for toddlers.
From Tuesday, the coffee cup from a set my mom gave us for our anniversary:
And Wednesday, the peonies I got last Friday at Trader Joe’s:
The woman said, “Now sing something funny.”
“What’s funny?” I asked,
and started singing “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,”
Except the rhythm was wrong.
Is that funny?
Not to most. Gershwin is serious, y’all.
Or that time I tried to host a party,
But the toast fell flat,
And so did the Prosecco.
All the guests said,
“Maybe you shouldn’t try so hard,”
As they gathered their coats from the bed
and gathered the unopened bottles of cabernet.
I understand–wine’s not cheap.
So, how can I sing funny songs
When I can’t count Gershwin
and people abscond from my parties?
I’ll stick with slow, brooding ballads.
I have read articles recently about how Shakespeare wrote sonnets and King Lear during the plagues when the theaters were shuttered.
I applaud Mr. Shakespeare and thank him for his significant contributions to the canon.
When you hear these things in the midst of worldwide lockdown, does it inspire you to grasp pen and paper and set to work?
I feel uncomfortable pressure in the face of such encouragement. I’d better use this time wisely. After all, King Lear, ya know?
These last five days after Elon shut ‘er down for a good while, I’ve been celebrating the fact that my wife is awesome and makes it possible for me to take a nap in the afternoons.
After the first half of the spring semester my body is like, whaaaat?
This is a pattern—burst of academic energy and overwork followed by a break period in which my body understands there is an imminent series of dark days, my physiology turns on the ghost light.
I ask Melissa, “Why am I so tired?”
She answers, “This is what usually happens on your breaks.”
“Oh, yeah.” I forgot the last time.
We’ve done things like watch the Spenser movie on Netflix, make corned beef and cabbage for St. Patty’s, ask my Mama if she could procure some TP somewhere in Mt. Airy, NC. Thanks, Mama, and thank you Galaxy Grocery Store on Highway 89. What you gotta do these days for a roll.
While many of us need this body rest desperately, I’d venture to say that in these peculiar times many more of us need mind rest.
How many of us have sat in our residences still sporting hot and cold running water, electricity, and some kind of telephonic device that could be used to call someone we know for help if worse came to worse?
Yet we scroll headlines on same said telephonic devices crafted to get our fighty-flighty fingers to click to read how we are headed into cataclysmic Mad-Max-topia where all the TP and hand sanitizer has been hoarded in a Tennessee garage for sale only on the dark web.
Yesterday at dinner (corned beef leftovers :)), Melissa said, “This is like a bad movie.”
And I said, “Exactly, and we are all screening our own mental movies when we see all the Netflix-style mandatory trailers on our news feeds. (Netflix, still not a fan of the automatic, enforced preview. And music theatre nerds, insert your own joke or reference to the Miss Saigon tune here.)
If you are reading this on the interwebs, it is likely you have access to a living space where you are relatively safe and can hunker down and ride this thing out.
You may be in doubt about whether you can continue to pay for said living space or the commensurate utilities. I hear you. I have been there, and it was a product of my own choices, not a microbe-induced global shutdown.
I mean it, I’ve been there. As in…outside the check cashing store in North Hollywood where I had been denied a usurious loan, unsuccessfully holding back tears as I called my friend to please lend me $500 so I could pay bills. I know what skint feels like as my friends in the UK like to say. Bless you all. Stay inside.
Whatever your what-if scenarios may be, I invite you to let the thoughts come. Play them out to the very end.
In that movie’s ending, are you absolutely sure you won’t be all right if everything shakes down the way you fear? Even life and death–can you be certain that in the middle of the circumstance you fear the most you won’t look up and say, “You know what? I’m okay.”?
Reminds me of something I heard career coach and men(sch)tor Barbara Deutsch say to me back in LA–“It’s not fear. It’s discomfort. You can handle discomfort.”
Seriously, how much discomfort have you handled in your life? List it. See? You’ve got this.
One dis-ease that we can be vigilant about containing is the one we spread to ourselves by believing all the Chicken Little pronouncements our precious minds deliver to us in the hope of keeping the sky from falling on our brains.
Our minds are truly trying to be helpful–much like twenty-two-month-old Noah is trying to be helpful when he throws his used diaper into the dirty clothes hamper.
I invite us all to tread gently in these days with ourselves and therefore with each other. If I’m not kind with you, then I’m not kind with me in the same moment.
Our brains will want to throw a few wet diapers in the dirty clothes. So, what if we take that diaper out and put it where it goes with a smile on our face thanking our super cute brain for pitching in?
And speaking of super cute, I leave you with this sweet moment in case you just need some unfiltered love, joy, and connection today.
After dinner hugs, or as Noah likes to say, “Hooolld it.”
It’s all good until 0:53 when I block Noah’s intense tickle game.
They didn’t text you back, and it’s been three days.
You just texted him, and you see the three dots appearing and disappearing.
You read that text, and she used a period. A period!
This missive is brought to you by text, and the requisite stories that surround.
Brené Brown wrote in her book Rising Strong one of the most helpful phrases to ever enter my life: “The story I’m making up.”
The other day at the kitchen sink I got real hurt and pissy about something Melissa said.
Noticing the atmospheric shift, she inquired into my state.
My ego wanted to say, “You said this this way, and it meant that.”
But I remembered Dr. Brené’s words, and I said, “The story I just made up is….”
Inside of a second, I felt my ego experience this semi-dramatic micro-death–Wicked Witch of the West melting in fast-forward–and the next second, the the air opened right up, and Melissa said with a very open heart, “I’m sorry, sweetie, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
And the thing I understood in that moment is that Melissa did not, in fact, hurt my feelings. I hurt my feelings with the story I told myself.
Once my story dissolved like frost on a confused February day, I was sunny as a daffodil asking, “Is it okay for me to be out now? It’s February.”
Stories, y’all. They’re great. We know this. Until they’re terrible.
Our brains–capable survivalists that they are–make up a story inside of a nanosecond, and we don’t even know a story has been told to us until we’re filled with anxiety, fear, resentment, envy, and a side of outrage and indignation.
That asshole drives way too fast through the parking lot.
They stopped talking when you walked in the room.
An authority person asks to speak to you.
I watch this in my boys all the time. Last Monday morning the older schmoopie pie, or Nugget Number One as we like to say, was looking out the front window at one of his latest obsessions: the garbage truck.
He pulled at the blinds to get a better view, and when I gently moved his hand away to pull up said window treatments, well you know what happened. He cried.
I held him up so he could see better out the window and pay proper homage to the truck collecting our trash–such a luxury, right?–and I could see the “oh-this-is-better-than-what-I-thought-was-happening” expression soften on his face.
I then queried God in my heart, “How often are you just pulling up the blinds for me so’s I can view the rubbish vehicle and I’m all like, ‘No! Hoooollllldd iiiitt!’?”
Now let’s transfer this storytelling mayhem over into the biz.
The casting director moves your resume to the side of the table while you sing.
The accompanist doesn’t respond when you smile and say hello. Nor when you collect your book and say, “thank you.”
The table people don’t give you an adjustment or ask for anything else.
Yeah, there’s a small chance the CD is bored at a required call, the accompanist hates you, and the table people are indifferent about your work, but so are many other less jaw-clinching possibilities in the multiverse.
But you know where stories come in real handy for you?
In that song you were just singing when you were worrying about your surly piano collaborator and the table-folk who might have just received a snippy email from a boss or producer that they’re currently making up a story about.
But in your song. That’s where your magical mind can have free rein and create something beautiful and captivating that might just bless that table-ninja.
It’s pretty nuts, right? The narratives our brains spin and we believe that cause us all kinds of suffering, and then when that very practice would serve us and the work we love, we shut it down.
“But there isn’t an imaginary person in the studio with me. Referring to that point on the wall is stupid.”
Guess what. That casting director you decided was bored with you? She isn’t real either. You made her up, too.
So what would happen if we took all that natural imagination energy and directed it toward specific, artful, spontaneous work? Would that feel something akin to satisfying? Sounds good to me.
Yep, sometimes Dad is just pulling up the blinds so you can see the garbage truck.
You know what it’s like to emerge from a massive undertaking that requires ongoing focus and repetitive actions.
That was last semester’s end-of-term grading load when I got to teach one of my favorite courses: Music Theatre Literature.
Imagine show tunes and plots interleaved with discussions of societal issues, musical motifs, and chromaticism. Party.
So, I’m trucking along. Everyone’s doing solid work. They learned the things, and I’m really happy to see they’re using the tools. Check.
My eyes begin to cross; diminished chords, foreshadowing, and internal rhyme all start to sound like choruses of Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on that radio station that plays holiday music on the same day in October that Target decks the aisles with wreathes and tinsel.
Then, y’all. I get to one project. I’m three-quarters through all this grading.
I start reading, and suddenly I am a thirteen-year-old girl circa 2006 with my copy of Twilight reading through the night because I don’t care if I have to be alert for pre-algebra at 7:55. Jacob!
Hand on my heart, this final project was nuts. Nuts.
I will leave out details to protect the brilliant, but this analysis of an oft-discounted Sondheim musical was a page turner.
The author integrated deep research, passion for the piece, compelling argument for its place in the canon, and colorful visual aids.
Nothing makes my professorial heart palpitate like an excavated motif in a neat, blue PDF-editor box.
Y’all. This. Was. Outstanding. I get chills when I remember this student’s work.
When I finished reading it, I cried. (Hello Enneagram 4.)
Then I emailed this student with the subject, “Your Final”
The commitment, passion, excellence, and heart that went into this final project impacted me on a deep level.
Move this experience into the audition room.
Put yourself in the shoes of any table-person who sees capable auditioner after capable auditioner come in the room, sing their song, read their sides, and leave.
Enter the artist who brings deep work, preparation, authentic point of view, and an open heart into the room, and there is a change.
When we prepare for an audition, we prepare for ourselves as artists. We prepare for our own satisfaction. We prepare so that we know that when we leave the room, we have done our best work for that moment.
The outcome of that is, has been, and always will be out of our hands.
Insert here every story of the actor who did excellent work in a room, didn’t book the job, but the table person remembered them for a later project that was perfect for them.
If you bring your kind, open, listening, adjustable, prepared body into the room, take it from where you are, and share the excellent work for that day, you can go about your day with a full, satisfied coziness in your guts.
You will also have given a fellow human something beautiful to carry with them that day.
It’s never a guaranteed job, but I can guarantee you that if you stay the course with excellent work, the jobs will come.
Table-people will talk to other table-people, and enthusiastic momentum will build around your contribution as a storyteller.
What can you go do right now to prepare to give your excellent, satisfying gift? You got five minutes? That’s enough to personalize one line of text.
Go! Do it! 🙂
Footnote: I’ll write another missive soon about what prepared means to me.
Now go! 🙂
On January 14, I told you how life (and death) was showing me that life is too precious–too precious to waste on not enjoying breathing, eating, laughing, seeing, walking, smelling, thinking, feeling, loving.
Why do we waste our precious moments getting pissed off, taking things personally, worrying about someone’s perception of us? (They ain’t thinking about us.)
But there’s also this–getting pissed this morning at the asshole Camaro weaving through pokey Greensboro traffic is precious.
Getting equally pissed later at the blue Camry (do the cars have to start with C-A-M?) who diligently drove one tick under the speed limit through my favorite country roads (can’t we just drive a civilized 50?), and made me two minutes late for my morning meeting (I made me two minutes late)–also a privilege.
“Again! Again!” That’s what Noah says after I read “Clifford and His Pals” at bedtime.
I say, “Okay,” and I read the story again.
I tell myself I’m doing a long run of a show, and this time I’m going to find something new in the Big Red Dog’s tale.
Sure enough, there’s a different illustration or a story point the next time as I read and smell the top of our 21-month-old’s sweet head.
And that’s what the planet says every morning at different sunrise hours all the time–again!
Again! I’m being told again. Life is so precious, and the seconds hurtle by us like racehorses. Not to be reined or held, but for us to gasp at their power, speed, and beauty.
Since that January 14 post, so many souls in my immediate circle have left.
Life is saying this to me again, and so I say it to you again. “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
In the same poem, Mary Oliver writes
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Yes it does, Mary.
Maybe for you today there is something you want to step toward but for some reason you stop yourself–feeling like an imposter, fearing a life on the streets, admitting you love musicals.
Let my nudges be your nudges. Take one step in that direction today. I will bet you a fro yo that it will reveal another step you can take, and things will start to get clearer.
Thank you for reading this, and thank you for letting me share with you. It makes my hurtling seconds precious.