Lifespan of a Mask

How long will we need these masks? What will they become – the standard contents of purses and backpacks, a selection kept on hooks by the front door to grab in haste or routine as we briskly attend our days? All this indulgence in personalization – choosing prints, the softness of the fabric, elastic or ties – will it seem absurd, embarrassing once history etches the final toll?

When masks drop away and the veil of fear is lifted from the everyday, what world will we emerge to, blinking and soft-skinned? Will we prove able to claw out from inside ourselves, scratching away the cocoons we wove so carefully from strands of new self-knowledge?

Already I have to clear the cobwebs, push myself to exit the apartment; it takes some convincing. Once over the threshold I remember the world, its heat and infinite atmosphere unspooling above me and I want never to go back inside. But arriving at the threshold means stumbling over a tangle of considerations: so many choices, outcomes snarled together; each requiring thought. Over-thought. Think again. Contingency. Supplies. A packed bag. Every day a Go Bag.

Consider the architecture that connects you to me: filaments, sticky and fine, reaching from my body to yours, to his and theirs, until we’re suspended in a net of words and deeds and shared experience, ricocheting through time like a spider riding an air hockey puck – it leaves a thread but is far too quick to track with the eye. We’re mounted in a constellation, a web made of time and assumption, with fibers that stretch, retract, break open in spots like hosiery.

Sometimes we need it to break: snip the cord to a familiar face, let it fade from view, and watch an entire life drift beyond reach. What if I unfriended you, deleted you from all my devices? Would it erase the past, destroy the web with spiteful childish hands, unconcerned that what’s gone might never be restored?

Right now we all want to blow things up. The fireworks tell us that. From rooftops and open streets, covert bands of my neighbors launch nightly displays of glitter and spark from contraband tubes of paper and gunpowder. Paper from the chopping and mashing of trees; gunpowder from potassium nitrate distilled from crystals formed of bat guano which is mainly fruit; sulfur from the hot center of the earth; and charcoal, a gritty fossil. Mingled together, it’s a bonfire of a bonfire. Burning what is already burnt. To purify? To destroy the structures that bind us but no longer serve? We’ve been stripped of so many familiar channels that kept us connected and found we can survive anyway. Why not incinerate what we don’t need? Pile it between us; turn it to ash.

The Fabric of Us

I am writing. I keep writing. But only in bits. Snippets. Short spurts.

I read over what I’ve written. I exhale. Is this something? Is it anything? How would I know?

My hands are busy, my body always active, anxious, and my mind? Adrift, staring up at the sky on a raft far from land. Sounds, images, scents, sift up:

A sigh – our radiator stirring like a great beast in its sleep: first a wheezing inhale then the repetitive clang announcing heat.

Constant sirens – soft then strong, insistent. Receding to the back of consciousness, but still present. My ears track their progress on a Doppler arc – is it our block? No, not tonight; sleep. Or try to.

The daily ritual of Vitamin C on our tongues – a sacrament, a talisman against infection, a comfort.

The endless ritual of washing – masks, hands, everything that comes through the door. Fascinating how vulnerable the print on food packaging is to rubbing alcohol. Ink staining the palms of my hands.

Rubbing alcohol – once the childhood smell of fear (a shot!), now the smell of safety, reassurance.

The first thing I notice about anyone on the street is whether or not they’re wearing a mask. For many in the West, a mask has not quite shifted from the look of threat (what are you hiding?) to the look of protection. Jokes about bank heists.

Avoidance, physical distance, as a mark of courtesy, deference, care.

Every day an exhausting tunnel of work. The guilt of having work.

In the city we are suffocatingly close to our neighbors but somehow more visible to each other now, our daily routines exposed through windows because we’re Always Home. I’m wearing shorts, a tank with no bra, and the curtains are open. Normally I would shy from the frame, but these days I think “Let in the light. Let them see.” We are all seeing more of each other, though our faces are masked. Also less, as struggles are kept from the phone camera lens and anguish vows to be silent, stoic.

Sitting in front of my laptop I can’t help but think of a cockpit. I plug in, all wires and earbuds. I curl into the cramped space to pilot around a world that feels entirely virtual. The physical world drops away. The virtual is where the ‘real’, the in-person happens – it’s the only place we connect without barriers, protocols. It’s escape, touch where there is no touching, emotion, sharing, checking on each other. We have dance parties here and it feels like we’re dancing together. We’re in the same room because there is the same music and we can play – share moves and expressions – and in this landscape of distant islands, that feels like a miracle: There you are! Here I am! It’s signal flares and messages in bottles; it’s Griffin & Sabine; it’s letters by carrier pigeon; it’s smoke signals; it’s semaphores; it’s Morse Code. Let’s return to the old forms, old before any of us were born: the ticker tape, the telegraph, the phone. Let’s have a parade where we all send messages at once and they cascade down around us like waterfalls of code: 0s and 1s blinking on and off, black and white like the opening to The Matrix. Maybe this is looking behind the veil, seeing what’s (in here) instead of out there, finding out what we’re made of, what our relationships are made of: Poly-cotton? Viscose? Taffeta, Darling? A 1970’s flammable blend?

The telegraph machine taps out: What. Are. We. Made. Of.

We may not want to know but we’re going to find out.

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn NY

Found (in) space

Space is precious: the expanses of breath around us and between us, the places we hold sacred, the space we take up and that others afford us. Among defined physical spaces – a room, a church, a clearing – the ones we treat with the most hushed reverence are either endowed with a specific, bold purpose or exist free from any expectation. Creative spaces are both – they’re intended explicitly for making things happen: collisions, new growth, reflection, refinement, but also need to be approached without too many obligations. Without that formula? Nothing happens.

When I’m navigating the daily responsibilities of my life – dodging, pivoting, prioritizing – any space I can carve out for creative work feels like a tiny miracle. If I am awarded a space to be creative, I am grateful. Whether there for a week or an hour, I make myself at home. I move into it. I move in it. I take ownership. I make it sacred, make it safe, but give myself permission to expand into every inch, to squeeze out the time spent there until its last second. In other words, I get comfortable. Then I work.

I always take a picture or two, to capture the feeling of possibility and keep it with me as a reminder when I’m stuck. Taken as a set, these images ground me, bring me joy, award me a sense of legitimacy when I’m seized by doubt: “Where the hell is this going?”, “Where did it begin?”, “I don’t even remember why I started this.”

When in doubt, I retrace my steps. The pictures help.

These are a few of my favorite work spaces from recent (and not so recent) years. Steeped in stillness or pummeled by ambient noise, squinting at shadows or flashes of bright sun, I wrote play scripts, essays, poetry, and volumes upon volumes of speculative, expository blather. The physical spaces held me and underpinned every word with layers of dust, piles of leaves, curious artifacts, and the inevitable thrum of humanity nearby, whether on the other side of a wall or a wide, wild field.

The spaces range from industrial rooms with little light and the least ergonomic seat-to-writing-table setups imaginable, to expansive outdoor spaces with luxurious vistas and unexpected dogs. However a work space may appear in pictures, it is never nondescript and always precious, because for the time I am there it is mine, and I never quite feel I deserve it.

Something to work on.

Backstage piano-as-writing-desk.
Visceral shush of dry Fall leaves.
So. Many. Magical. Objects.
Two stories up, I could dangle my legs out the barn door.
The view came with a pack of guard dogs that I could hear barking from the 34th floor.
Speaking of dogs, these ones came out of nowhere and demanded FETCH.
A perfect nook must be Instagramm’d.

Transfiguration

On this day for the last twenty or so years I have lit my mother a birthday candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Today the spires were looking especially beautiful – glowing against the morning sky.

My mother was raised Catholic in an era when Mass was still conducted in Latin. A veteran of years of regimented religious schooling, she harbored a deep skepticism of faith that often lurched into malevolence after (her words) “being beaten by too many nuns”. This morning I wondered what she would think of my strange annual pilgrimage, and I tried to remember why I started doing it – why this ritual? Why here? Especially considering I was raised without the context of any religion: no baptism, no commandments, no catechism. The answer is simple, and sits apart from any doctrine. In the first years following her death, I was a ghost: ambulatory and ostensibly functional, but lost to myself. My daily commute from Jackson Heights to the South Bronx took me through Rockefeller Center, where I pit-stopped at the 53rd Street Library to work on lesson plans. One morning, this ghost was drawn into St. Patrick’s, where the smells of musty wood and incense patted the pew and invited me to sit. Lighting my mother a candle felt proper and right in a way that only cellular memory can explain. I had never done it before, but I had heard family members on her side talk of doing so my entire life: for the dead, the infirm, the hopeful.

My mother was staunch in her disavowal of Catholicism, having absorbed more than her share of its cruelty and hypocrisy, but she was a lover of beauty and a hunter of quiet. In the echoey hush of Saint Patrick’s, I sit with her and imagine where I would take her for her birthday, what we would talk about. I become a bit that ghost who glided through the cathedral’s doors twenty-odd years ago, restless and adrift. My mother, once flesh but who, for so many blank, bitter, unforgiving years has seemed more and more a ghost, existing somewhere apart, beyond my reach or the company of my heart, returns to me. She pats the pew and I sit and reflect and remember how lucky I am.

Drop the Map

If 2016 was the year of process: head-down, deep in the trenches, dump-out-your-purse, can’t-see-the-forest, who-knows-how-this-ends, let’s-see-what-sticks, 2017 was a year of unfolding. Making space. Trusting. Following through on promises I made to myself and my work. Not finishing things per se, but putting in the time and energy for underlying ideas to truly manifest. I realized that if I was going to figure out the best structure, the best ‘world’ for Photo Play to inhabit, I had to devote the time and focus to bringing each possibility to some level of fruition. I couldn’t just judge the options conceptually. I had to see them made manifest, then wade into each, try them on for size, choose your clunky metaphor.

Back field – Holes in the Wall Residency

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. I wasn’t sure I had the patience or the confidence to see any of the ideas through to even a third draft. There were so many possibilities crowding my head that I was afraid if I delved into any of them too deeply I’d get lost and not be able to find my way out. And guess what? That happened several times. More than several. I would be seized by an impulse that could carry me to the next scene or the next draft, and then…a moment of blankness, when I lost the thread of the story or the direction it was headed, and I had to stop, take a breath, and sometimes even speak the story beats out loud to remind myself of its shape. But having the experience of getting lost and having to pull myself together, pull the story back together, was useful. It diffused the fear, even the times I got lost and stayed lost and had to just walk away from the screen for a while. The scary thing happened; I allowed it to move through me – through the work – and afterwards there was a new draft. Or just a bunch of fragments, which was ok too.

This is the work of drafting: weathering waves of impulse and doubt, frustration and satisfaction. I should know this by now but I keep learning it, over and over.

Self-portrait with smudgy laptop screen.

2018 will usher in the next phase of Photo Play: a workshop presentation at Dixon Place on March 21st. This is something I have wanted and worked toward for more than two years, and again I find myself unsure I’m up to the task. But if I approach it as drafting, accept the inevitable doubt, fear, and new insight, I can find the way through by trusting that a path is there, even if I can’t see it.

One of the core ideas in Photo Play is that snapshots are like maps. We keep them safe in albums, spend time gazing at them, through them like doorways into particular moments the past. We trace our lives from there to here, and look deeply into the images for clues about who we used to be, and how we arrived in the present moment. I would love for there to be a clear map for this next phase of Photo Play’s creative development, but there isn’t. I can set goals, assemble a timeline and to-do lists, sketch an outline for the final script to follow, but the process will be collaborative and therefore impossible to predict. Though it makes me nervous, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Learning to trust myself is only meaningful if I can do it when the path ahead is muddy and steep, when the itinerary leaves room for the unexpected.

Unexpected duck!

Packing List

Space and time. Earlier this year I decided that’s what I wanted for Photo Play. In pursuit of my goal to develop it into an evening-length work, I thought about what I would need. Money is nice – and necessary in the production phase – but for right now, what I really want is dedicated physical work space, and the time to create. Beautiful luxuries for any artist. Either of them by itself is rarely enough: a room of one’s own is no use unless ‘One’ has the time to use it, and time is useless without a place to go, to escape from everyday obligations.

So I tossed out some nets, and the first opportunity has been caught: a writing residency at Holes in the Wall Collective in the first week of May. Though brief (4 days!), it will be just the thing to jump-start the next phase of my work on Photo Play: a place to focus sustained attention on its architecture and narrative through-line – something that has been sorely missing from the process so far.

I am both excited and terrified of this gift. I think every artist with a support job is always holding a little of herself back, in the struggle to locate the energy it takes to keep the mechanics of life humming along. But this will be a chance to see what happens when every bit of energy is aimed at creativity. What a leap of faith, and again, what a luxury.

For now, I prepare. In the interest of coming to work “with my pockets full”, as a teacher of mine once advised, I’m plotting like a squirrel before winter about what to bring to the residency and how to spend my time there.

In addition to physical necessities, I will bring:
– An openness to impulse
– A dedication to the value of structured time
– A willingness to let go of what does not seem to be working

I will leave behind:
– The need to know about every breaking news item as it breaks
– The obligation to loved ones and how they will fare without me
– The worry of “what if…this doesn’t turn out like I hope/ the work has no merit/ the narrative architecture I identify isn’t compelling”.

Better get packing

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 image-making. I used to be a passionate amateur painter, with boxes of oils, watercolors, and pastels to prove it, but I hadn’t picked up a brush 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