Our Heroes, Ourselves

“This will be the making of you.” That’s what I said to myself the day I got laid off. I repeated it over and over, quietly, in rhythm with my steps as I walked away from the meeting in which I was abruptly cut loose after 10 years. I put one foot in front of the other as I shook with anger, fear, and adrenaline. In the weeks that followed, the phrase kept coming back to me, streaming across my thoughts like sky-writing, until it became a mantra. When I said it out loud, always under my breath, I felt my nostrils flare slightly, my jaw set into a determined posture, my gaze become steady and sure. I had nothing to lose. The worst had happened, and all that was left was to sift through its ruins and rebuild myself in the image of whatever was buried underneath, waiting.

I didn’t know it was waiting. Before I was laid off, I didn’t know that I had been enduring a version of the “boiling frog” syndrome, in which my work environment became more demanding and less hospitable with every passing day. Dreading my morning commute was the norm, followed by long days spent feeling like a failure despite my efforts to work both hard and smart. Little did I know that none of that mattered, as a plan had been in place for months to eliminate my position, and in the process erase any trace of my contributions and goodwill, without so much as a conversation, a request for my input, or a warning. In the end, it was not about me; it was about them – those who engineered my departure – and they had made it clear they did not value my accomplishments any more than my humanity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that period in my life lately, because there’s something eerily similar to the way I’ve felt since the election: shocked, vulnerable, and angry. Though I’ve certainly moved beyond the initial paralysis into engagement and resistance, an undercurrent of powerlessness remains. It surges to the surface every time our new President flouts protocol or sidesteps the checks and balances that are supposed to ensure that governing our country is at least a collaborative effort, if not always an equitable one.

For the record, I know that we are not powerless. I see evidence of our collective influence every time a predictable outcome proves suddenly unpredictable, an elected official stands firm in the face of intimidation, or a firestorm of hatred flares for those who refuse to apologize for being their full selves. I know we are not powerless, but our humanity – the humanity of those the Administration abhors – is dismissed, ignored, and actively suppressed at every turn. And most days I feel nothing but disheartened for the future. I fully realize this is a burden that People of Color, American Muslims, and LGBTQ folks have carried – and continue to carry – with grace and resolve. As a woman I have also felt it, in ways both subtle and jaw-droppingly overt, but never before have I feared for the safety of so many who I consider my community. I am struggling to find a way to walk through the world with my sense of wonder and joy intact. I am looking for the right armor, for a sword made of gleaming words or razor-edged ideas that fits in my palm and cuts through the seemingly endless onslaught of malevolence that rains sideways at us every. damn. day.

In this struggle I’m returning to art. I used to be a passionate amateur artist, with boxes of oils, watercolors, and pastels to prove it, but I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in probably twelve years until the week before the Women’s March. My travel plans were locked; my bag was stuffed with cold-weather layers and supplies; only then did I consider what I wanted my sign to say. What I wanted to say. At first, I drew a blank – confounded by the vast significance of the event as well as the universe of possibilities for how precisely to capture my rage and alienation. I mean, where to begin, amirite ladies?? I googled for images of protest signs and slogans; I brainstormed punny versions of popular phrases; I considered symbols that represented strength, resilience, and power. I eventually landed on a simple statement paired with well-worn iconography that seemed to reflect where I was at: not particularly clever or Instagram-worthy, but mine.

It wasn’t until I got to the March in DC that I realized that the search for a slogan, for an image that resonated, had actually been more valuable than the ‘aha’ moment when I chose one, because it had reintroduced me to our history. Standing in a tide of marchers, all of us buzzing with hope and fire, I saw the faces of our heroes pasted boldly on signs and bobbing above the crowd: Shirley Chisolm, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, and – yes, more than once, Princess Leia. It may seem laughable, insulting even, to include her in that list of Feminist icons, but fictional heroes can be just as powerful in lending courage and self-determination to the work of resistance. When we feel hopeless, we borrow their optimism. When we feel vulnerable, we channel their steel. When we feel beaten, we rely on their strength to help us rise. We wear talismans, or mimic the way they dress because it helps us believe that we too might be more than just blips on the relentless heartbeat of history. We need our heroes, whether living, ancestral, or fictional. They walk beside us, among us, as we march. They lean over to whisper in our ears:

“This will be the making of you.”

We Are Here.

I saw you on the subway this morning, eyes shining, a shy smile playing at the corners of your mouth, walking with a joyful swagger, a defiant bounce that spoke volumes. I saw you on my way out of the local high school where I voted, civic duty done, with relief and anxiety written on your face. I saw you in my social media feeds early in the day: grinning widely in your suffragette white or dark pant suit, as I scrolled cloudy-eyed before fully grasping that today – TODAY – is here. That no matter the outcome, today we are voting to put a woman in the White House.

Sometimes it’s hard to feel the weight of history. It’s difficult to absorb the breadth and depth, the volume of tears and blood and time that have contributed to the fleeting moment we’re standing in. But this morning I felt it. I got very quiet. I dressed deliberately, with care, as if every item of clothing mattered. The pearls from my Grandmother, the black boots that help me feel strong and fearless, the suit jacket that is foreign to my body but somehow *right* – as if I’m dressing for a job interview, my Mum’s green card nestled in my back pocket. I felt the weight of history today, the lives that were dedicated, laid down for this. This is not legend; those lives were real. They were here.

And now we are here, striding into our polling places unchallenged, taking our children by the hand, eyes meeting over the rim of the voting booth, sharing jokes underpinned with tension. I see you, all of you, and today I am bubbling over with excitement and fear and pride.

I see you. And I’m with you. I’m with us. I’m with her.

im-with-her

‘Photo Play’ at the IRT Theater

A very belated post of some images from the maiden voyage of ‘Photo Play’, an original performance piece I wrote and developed in September of 2015 with a stellar cast of theater artists. ‘Photo Play’ asks questions about our human preoccupation with photographs – how the experience of being photographed and seeing images of ourselves shapes our identities, and – especially since the advent of digital photography and social media – how we use images to shape our identities in the eyes of others. In 2016 I’m hoping to develop the piece further, whether into an evening-length performance, an immersive performance/ exhibit, an interactive installation, or some combination of the three. Stay tuned!

"Chin down, eyes up, hips at an angle."

“Chin down, eyes up, hips at an angle.”

"Top five answers on the board..."

“Top five answers on the board…”

"I wanted to surprise him."

“I wanted to surprise him.”

"The photographer said 'Kiss!' so we did."

“The photographer said ‘Kiss!’ so we did.”

"This is one of my favorite photos of all time."

“This is one of my favorite photos of all time.”

In the photo booth

In the photo booth

Changes One

Turn and face the strange.

Although I can’t claim to be a superfan by any stretch – I’m not the type to memorize track lists or trivia or argue the merits of one album over the other – I loved David Bowie. For his bewitching voice that could brood – sexy, deep, and foreboding – explode with cut-glass urgency, or shimmer in the ear like a secret stage whisper. For his relentless weirdness, which sprang not from a desire to stand out (“weird for weird’s sake”) but from the jumpy mercurial muse that lived in him – the one he never ignored. And for his courage, to be a long-haired bisexual musician in a dress long before it was remotely acceptable or sexy, and without any bad-ass posse to back him up.

A few weeks ago on Patti Smith’s 69th birthday – the same age Bowie turned just a few days before his death – I declared that “Fuck The Clock” was going to be my motto for 2016. It reflects the effort I’m trying to make in my creative work these days (which might be called anti-effort) to stop trying to force a practice, and just…listen. To be patient. To allow my impulses to lead me, both in terms of the desired product or end-goal and in how I get there. Instead of insisting that I spend a certain amount of time per day doing a series of tasks or following a particular process to begin producing something specific, I’m trying instead to make space and just do what interests me. That might be listening to music or watching ridiculous videos or reading a graphic novel or taking a walk. Whatever it is, I trust that it will lead me somewhere useful. Fertile. And ultimately somewhere that’s engaging to an audience.

FTC

It’s not an easy thing to do, this letting go of methodical process, and I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with it in practice. So I keep repeating “fuck the clock”, to remind me that there is no time-frame to produce anything – at least not yet – and by slowing down and listening to my impulses I am bound to arrive somewhere that’s far more nuanced, intriguing, and true – both to me and anyone who witnesses my work – than if I forced a regimented development schedule on myself. I believe this.

For now it’s the thing.

Space→ Trust → Action

Turn and face the strange.

Seasonality!

So I just spent money renewing the domain hosting on this damned site and I feel like I need to POST SOMETHING ALREADY. There are a couple of ideas in the can but while they’re being uh…developed (? my metaphor game isn’t strong), here are some idiotic seasonal photos.

First pie of the season

First sweet potato of the season!

My feelings on seasonally-dyed candy items.

My feelings on seasonally-dyed candy items.

North America’s largest pumpkin. CONGRATULATIONS GUYS YOU DID IT!

News soon. Promise.

Discipline and Discomfort

Still firmly infirm and formidably un-formed, in this NPR interview with Louis C.K. there are two ideas pushing their way to the surface that may define my focus in 2015. I don’t do resolutions as a general rule, but I do reflect. I revisit. I dismantle and re-assemble. All the time.

“I thought, ‘I want to do something that’s compelling and really a good monologue, but the crowd might not be there for it.’ It may not be their thing, so I trained for that monologue. I did a lot of sets in town and I did a lot of clubs where there was no audience really, or places where I knew I would do poorly because I wanted to be sure that the monologue would go well whether the audience likes me or not.”

So smart. That’s true dedication, skill, talent, even. It’s knowing yourself: your abilities, your limitations, your appeal, well enough that you see clearly the gap between where you are and where you want to be, then you span it by working hard and working smart.

“I was in trouble a lot when I was a kid, so I got used to it. Like, when you’re never in trouble, you can never go to places like that. But if you’re in trouble all the time, it’s like, why not? I mean, I know what this feels like. I know I can survive everybody being pissed off at me.”

This has always been difficult for me. I was not in trouble a lot as a kid (I still fucked up but was good at hiding it), so disrupting the status quo, risking disapproval or the possibility that I might not be sufficiently armed to respond to criticism, feels scary, out of my depth. I am no pushover, but left to my own devices I would just as soon sit and watch others tell their stories, speak uncomfortable truths, than tell my own. If I am to feel any kind of satisfaction in my creative accomplishments, that needs to end.

Superheroism Is

Playing a superhero in The Astonishing Adventures of All-American Girl and the Scarlet Skunk has been…a trip, and for the most part a good one. Lots of lessons, many of them personal and therefore too tedious to disclose here. But the most surprising discovery so far is that superheroism, at its essence, means:

  • Good posture
  • Earnest delivery of catchphrases
  • Frequent hand-washing of delicates

TIGHTS

Perpetual Motion

Though I’ve basically abandoned my “20 Years 20 Stories” writing prompt, it still feels like a very New York-y year. I find myself thinking about the-City-with-a-capital-C a lot as I move through it: how it shapes its citizens, cultivates habits, and never, ever stops changing.

Thanks to The Hairpin, I discovered The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker, by Maeve Brennan. It’s a collection of observational essays about New York City that appeared regularly in The New Yorker from 1954 to 1981. Though the pieces vary in length from a few paragraphs to several pages each, they’re somehow exactly the right length to read in bed before falling asleep with a cat nestled in my hair. (Coincidentally, Brennan did own a cat who makes cameo appearances in a few of the essays, but for once this is not a post about cats.)

Brennan’s writing about New York City is disarmingly simple – it can feel like a stream-of-consciousness on paper, a trail of notes dashed off without much considered thought. A closer read reveals precisely-cut gems made up of intimate yet impersonal observations that – here’s the thing – ring as true today as they must have when first published. Part of that is due to Brennan’s keen observational sense: she is direct and unsentimental, but also clever and occasionally wry. Her vignettes don’t follow any scripted form and end suddenly, without resolution, which makes them a perfect expression of New York City. The way she documents lives (including her own) as if jotting down thoughts on a cocktail napkin captures the way every New Yorker’s life bumps into countless others as we engage in our everyday routines.

The stories are striking, in spite of their plainspokenness or – I suspect – because of it. Our modern multi-tasking fog means that we’re not used to reading anything that isn’t engineered to manipulate our attention to a calculated end. Brennan simply writes what she sees, without comment or agenda. And what she sees much of the time is change. Churn. Turnover. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Long-Winded Lady is that Brennan was every bit as rueful about the destruction of her “true” New York as we are about ours today. There are frequent mentions of favorite restaurants closing, buildings being razed, and entire neighborhoods losing their character when particular trades became obsolete. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that, but I am. I like to think there was a time when popular opinion favored maintaining the status quo (in terms of beautiful architecture or culture) over erasing it in the name of whatever’s new and lucrative. But New York has never stood still, for better or worse. I’m not opposed to change, just to change for its own sake, or for profit over community value. And despite its sprawl and mottled appearance, New York City is a community; one that remains in perpetual motion, perpetually pursuing the next, new, lucrative thing.

Image of 5Pointz by Laura Itzkowitz for untappedcities.com

Image of 5Pointz by Laura Itzkowitz for untappedcities.com

 

Little box

Every September 11th, I imagine the little box where I sat on the 51st floor of the South Tower. I remember the hallway, the break room, and the perpetual white noise of the HVAC system. Sometimes I think of the other reception desk I worked on the 54th floor, or the 100th floor of the North Tower, where I was also occasionally assigned, but mostly I think of 51 South. Glass on one side, door adjacent, wall behind me, fax machine to my right. There was a phone, a buzzer to let people in, and a rule against doing anything except staring through the glass into the lobby. My job was to greet, to answer calls, to be a human body so visitors getting off the elevator weren’t confused. It was a temporary job but I had a permanent ID with a picture. Every morning for six months I joined the throng of people in the elevator banks, traveling first to a floor somewhere in the 30s, and then taking another elevator to wherever I was working that day.

I sat in the box until about 10:30, when I got a 20 minute break – almost exactly the amount of time it took to take the elevators to the underground mall and make a quick circuit before heading back up. I did a lot of power walking at the time; I was very conscious of the dangers of a sedentary desk job: specifically, that I would gain weight. I developed a taste for the Jenny Craig energy bars they sold at the Duane Reade below Tower 2.

By lunchtime I was desperate to be outside, striding up Church Street or over to the water outside the Winter Garden. In the colder months I ate lunch inside, sitting a vacant cubicle next to a window so I could enjoy the view that was a privilege of working in the Towers. In high winds the walls creaked loudly like a pirate ship, which my coworkers assured me was normal. We joked that it was better that the buildings bend than break and crumble.

There were frequent fire drills, when we crowded the narrow stairwells linking each floor and listened to the fire marshal. He gave the usual warnings against taking elevators in cases of emergency, and we sighed and rolled our eyes the way anyone who works in an office tower might. And the way anyone might, we all imagined in vivid detail what a real emergency would look like, including the desperate unlikelihood of so many people evacuating quickly from buildings that high through the stairs.

My job at the World Trade Center ended in the Spring of 2001. It was only a temp job. But every year I remember.

Floral WTC Mural, January, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Floral WTC Mural, January, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Small Change

Constant talk about how New York City has changed. Listen to it: “This isn’t the city I grew up in”, “It’s not what it used to be”, “The chain stores have drained all its character”.

All of those things are true. I know it’s different from when I first came here. Do I miss how it used to be – 20 years ago, or even 10? Moments stick out, stay sticky, won’t let go. They imbue buildings, cross-streets with emotion, nostalgia, unspeakable attachment. But when someone says “New York has changed so much” I can’t feel it – I stretch out my arms, reach my fingers wide, try to receive it on my skin. Nothing.

Still, I agree. I say, “New York has changed.” But seen through the lenses of 16 million eyes, New York has changed us too. In increments it changed and we adjusted, without ever noticing. Suddenly these arms I stretch out, these eyes I squeeze closed, aren’t the same ones I had then. My body has forgotten how to thrill at the constellation of possibilities the city lays out before me. More than anything, I want to remember.

So when I say “New York has changed” and shake my head, and sigh, what I really mean is, “I have changed.” Isn’t that why I came here? To jump into the fray and be transfigured?

We are the sentient infrastructure, not the concrete or the taxi tires grinding through potholes. We shift the painted firmament, tug at the traffic tides, influence subway karma. It comes with the territory.