Odds and ends 4

2020 Commencement Address by Marlon James (for Macalester U)

“So if it’s not about talent and it’s not about effort, what is it about? It’s hunger. How badly do you want it? It’s stakes. How high are yours? If your stakes aren’t high enough, fake it. It’s how hard are you prepared to work? That’s not the same as effort. Scratching a butt takes effort. Hard means the lasting systemic change, or even a paycheck.” (Worth watching the whole thing!)

Working on your relationship to work by Sarah Kosar (for Old Vic)

“I set out to critique a world where work is our entire being and identity. Then I started working on that play as though it was my entire being and identity.

I was pretty confident that I knew the game plan, the route, the way through. I approached writing my play like I was at my office job: project managing very practical moving parts. Doing and not feeling.

But plays are felt.

Of course there are practical elements and they need to hit a deadline. But if you offer no vulnerability or real self-reflection in the process of creating characters and worlds, nothing has been felt and art isn’t created.”

When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs by Tre Johnson (in Washington Post)

“The confusing, perhaps contradictory advice on what white people should do probably feels maddening. To be told to step up, no step back, read, no listen, protest, don’t protest, check on black friends, leave us alone, ask for help or do the work — it probably feels contradictory at times. And yet, you’ll figure it out. Black people have been similarly exhausted making the case for jobs, freedom, happiness, justice, equality and the like. It’s made us dizzy, but we’ve managed to find the means to walk straight.”

Roger Robinson: ‘Poets can translate trauma’ interviewed by Anita Sethi (in The Guardian)

“Poems are empathy machines.”

Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend Won’t Let Me Have Male Friends by Lori Gottlieb (from The Atlantic)

We all have unhealthy patterns we repeat – an interesting reminder of why.

“Sometimes people with trust issues choose untrustworthy people, because those people feel familiar to them. Similarly, people who have angry parents often end up choosing angry partners, those with alcoholic parents are frequently drawn to partners who drink quite a bit, and those who have withdrawn or critical parents find themselves married to spouses who are withdrawn or critical.

Why do people do this to themselves? It’s not that people want to get hurt again. It’s that they want to master a situation in which they felt helpless as children. Freud called this “repetition compulsion.” Maybe this time, the unconscious mind imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar—but new. The problem is, by choosing familiar partners, people guarantee the opposite result: They reopen wounds and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.”

Photo by James Zwadlo on Unsplash

Diving

For Zachary

I lost myself yesterday
Drowning in the ever-oncoming waves
My head slipping
Slowly but surely
Beneath the surface
Nothing but water
As far as the eye can see

When you appeared
I thought you would pull me to shore
But instead
You filled my mouth with breath
From the metal tank carried on your back
You took my hand
And said with a twinkle:
“Come on”.

We dove down into the ocean
To its dark and mysterious depths
We watched the strange fish
That circled around us
In a magical, slow-motion dance
The sea plants tickled our feet

Everything was possessed
Of a poignant magic
You placed a shell in my hand
Glimmering and sleek
A perfect tiny pattern
Beauty in the deep

I had been fighting so hard to swim
But I didn’t need an ever-shifting, sandy shore
I needed the cool certainty
Of standing on the sea floor

When we came back up
And our heads broke into the salty air
I was no longer afraid
Of the water
Of the waves
Of my own thrashing helplessness

I opened my hand
And watched the shell
Fall slowly back down
Into the darkness
Where I could not see it anymore

I smiled to know
It would be waiting for me
The next time I need
To turn away from the struggle

To rest on the seabed
Surrounded by treasures
Undreamed of by those
Floating in boats above

Photo by Mostafa Ashraf Mostafa on Unsplash

Odds and ends 3

Höchste Lust: music as the opposite of social distancing by Katharine Dain

“At some point I noticed a shift in the quality of attention between us—a marked preference for each other’s company, surreptitious glances of appraisal—but I didn’t worry about what felt like a little gig crush…

But it was more, and I knew it. I also knew that if this happened once, it could happen again, which was even more horrifying to realize. I wasn’t immune; a happy relationship didn’t protect me. It felt like a sudden collapse of long-held beliefs about who I was. I was deeply ashamed that I had let something get out of my control—I, the level-headed one, the one who could resist temptation!—and I feared for my marriage, even though I knew this had nothing to do with my partner, who I loved as much as ever and didn’t want to lose.

What had I actually done wrong, I began to wonder? I hadn’t been cruel or selfish or unreasonable. I had done my best, in a particularly vulnerable professional environment, to find satisfaction and meaning in my work, to be open and reactive, to protect what I love, to be kind. I hadn’t chosen what I felt; that had emerged naturally from the work, time spent together, a lovely friendship. Eventually I decided that my guilt, and my instinct to try to hide and squash a forbidden feeling, were rooted in toxic assumptions about partnership that I hadn’t ever truly questioned.”

How Vision Metaphors Exclude the Blind by Jo Livingstone (from Medium)

“Relying on perfect vision as a metaphor for perfect understanding leaves the ableist speaker with a limited concept of knowledge itself.”

7 Uncomfortable Rules of Life Everyone Knows, But Only a Few Follow by Thomas Oppong (from Medium)

Life is not a sprint or marathon, it’s a maze […] Real-life has no signs, and no straight lines. There’s just a maze of infinite options: Some paths, like some careers, take five times longer. Some paths, like some relationships, are dead ends.”

I Predict Your Predictions Are Wrong by Yascha Mounk (from The Atlantic)

“In 1974, the sociologist Jib Fowles coined the term chronocentrism, “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that other periods pale in comparison.” The past few weeks have, understandably, confronted us with an especially loud chorus of chronocentric voices claiming that we are on the cusp of unprecedented change.”

Why So Many People Are Unhappy in Retirement by Arthur C. Brooks (from The Atlantic)

“Too often, we imagine life to be like the hero’s journey, and leave out its crucial last step: letting go…

The hero’s journey is great when you’re in the middle of it. The trouble comes when your strengths start to wane, because now you’re off script. People rarely change the story they’ve constructed for their lives; they rage, instead, trying to pound their lives back into the story line, often with sad results.

But this rage is born from a misunderstanding of the hero’s journey. Defining it in terms of three phases, as I did above, makes the mistake of leaving out one last, critical phase. The literary scholar Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, notes that many great myths involve a subtle twist after the triumph in battle. He calls it “The Crossing of the Return Threshold.” “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world,” Campbell writes. “The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.””

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

At the end

Let my body loose its shape and slowly crumble into dust
Let my bones grow old and creaky, let my blood congeal to rust

Let my voice grow hoarse and tired, let my brain grow slow and dim
Let my breathing fade until it perches lightly on life’s rim

Let my image be forgotten, let my memory be lost
Let me be completely spent before I pay the final cost

Just don’t let me be cut down like a flower in my prime
Of all the earthly endings that would be the biggest crime

This spun out last night when I couldn’t sleep. There’s one line I’m not sure about, but I’m not saying what it is.

Photo by A.C. Smith

Odds and Ends 2

Guess who finally subscribed to The Atlantic? 🙂

Dear Therapist: The Pandemic Has Changed My Relationship With My Therapist by Lori Gottlieb (from The Atlantic)

“In other words, you say you’re trying to protect your therapist, but I have a feeling that the person you’re trying to protect is yourself. If you stop having sessions, you don’t have to examine your feelings and patterns and behaviors at a time when you may, like many people right now, feel most vulnerable. But this doesn’t really protect you—it just makes it harder to feel the full range of your emotions, which is ultimately what helps us connect authentically with both ourselves and others.”

I Thought Stage IV Cancer Was Bad Enough by Caitlin Flanagan (from The Atlantic)

“When I first learned I had cancer, a friend told me that even during chemo I would still have my life, that I would still go forward, still do the things I wanted to do. I didn’t believe her. I recently looked through all of our photo albums—something I never do, because I feel so sad about what happened—and I was stunned by what I saw. I didn’t see pictures of two sad boys. I saw picture after picture of two boys with huge smiles on their faces, pictures of vacations and soccer games and art classes and all the fun to be had on the big swing set I bought at Costco when I first got sick. In Costco, it had looked a reasonable size. In our small backyard, it looked like a condo building had gone up. It looked ridiculous. And the boys loved it. Looking at all of those pictures, I realized something: This was my life’s work. I gave the boys the best childhood I possibly could.”

My sister died of coronavirus. She needed care, but her life was not disposable by Rory Kinnear (from The Guardian)

“…our spirits exist far more tangibly than our abilities.”

People Are Remembering What Music Is Really For by Spencer Kornhaber (from The Atlantic)

““If you look at music around the world, every culture has music, and every culture makes music for each other,” Loui told me. “What we’re seeing right now, in a time of uncertainty and social isolation—people are really seeking out music as a way to still make that signal that we still care about each other. We still want to move together and sing together.””

The Silence of Witches by Sabrina Orah Mark (from The Paris Review)

““But shouldn’t certain things be left sacred?” she asks. “Like your children?” The word “children” floats above my head like a magnificent cloud about to burst. And when it bursts I will be drenched by them. All day I am drenched by them. A holy water. Why, I wonder, should the sacred be unsayable? How can I write about motherhood without writing about my children? Who would play their part? The birds in the trees? A stranger? The shadows?

“Why,” asks my stepdaughter, “did you write about me?” Another cloud. I look up. It’s in the shape of a heart, no, a mouth. I want to say something about repair. About fixing us. About love, and fear, and hard work. About wanting to help her. But instead I say, “this is my life, too.” And the cloud thins.”

Photo by Brad Mills on Unsplash

When the light at the end of the tunnel comes sooner than you expect

I almost didn’t write this post. The information hasn’t really sunk in yet.

Today in my treatment session, I got an amazing surprise.

I was due to finish in mid-June, and had two more appointments booked.

But the wonderful nurse who was looking after me checked their system.

They had counted wrong. The next time I come is my last treatment session.

I almost started crying. I was so happy and excited, but also in shock.

It has been such a long road to make it to this point, and a bit of a surreal experience to be finished in the midst of a pandemic.

I had wanted to have a big party bringing together all the amazing people who have been part of this journey. Obviously that isn’t a possibility now. I’ll need to find another way to say thank you to the incredible people who loved and supported me – and another to create a real sense of celebration that I’m still here!

When my birthday came this year, it felt a bit in the shadow of this milestone. This was the moment I was waiting to celebrate. And now it’s almost here – sooner than I had expected.

I wanted to make big plans of elaborate thank you presents – none of that is probably reasonable with the time frame I’m working under, especially with how unbelievably full quarantine days are trying to work and look after a little one.

But oh my goodness, the gratitude just fills my heart.

I keep catching myself, giving reminders that there is still a road ahead. At least two more surgeries, increased hormone therapy that will span the next decade, and the strange process of putting together a ‘normal’ life in a world that has turned upside down.

The joy and relief is so profound, I almost can’t process it.

Maybe it will feel more real in the morning. Or maybe I’ll find myself thinking it through in the wee small hours when I should be sleeping. But at least this insomnia will be tinged with excitement – like a little kid waiting for Santa Claus to come.

Almost there.

Riding the wave of the ups and downs

When undergoing any intensive experience (like cancer treatment) there’s a decision to be made: are you going to fight the tides, or ride them?

I was reminded of this today. It was a treatment day. They have to give me a whole lot of premeds when I have Herceptin, because I had a reaction during my first infusion, so they pump me up with steroids and Piriton. I don’t feel bad afterwards – but I am pretty groggy and fuzzy for the rest of the day.

Normally, I come home and go to bed, but work time has been so scarce, I really wanted to push against this tendency.

More importantly, I know that when I sleep after treatment, I have a much harder time going to sleep that night.

But what is the cause and what is the effect?

Zach turned this on its head. He said, “you normally have insomnia on treatment days – you should rest up while you can.”

And he was right. Even though at the moment I could barely keep my eyes open, the combination of the medications (probably the steroids) or just the experience itself does tend to mean a lot of difficulty sleeping that night.

It was my tendency to push towards productivity and harsh scheduling.

Zach said ‘listen to your body.’

I took a nap, and I felt wonderfully refreshed afterwards.

I probably will have a hard time sleeping tonight, but that’s okay – the rest during the day helped shore up my reserves.

It’s so hard to remember to be kind to ourselves. We’re lucky if we have people around to remind us, during the times when we can’t locate the gentler path for ourselves.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Odds and Ends

How to Salvage a Disastrous Day in Your Covid-19 House Arrest by Aisha S. Ahmad (from chroniclevitae.com)

You are in “remedial” life class. For scholars and other high-achieving professionals, performance is an important part of our identities. We are used to tackling hard challenges, and we thrive on achievement and excellence. But that approach will not help you fix a hot mess of a day. This sort of day needs a different perspective.”

How to Write the Story of Your Life: Some advice from outside the white male literary canon by Terese Mailhot

“There were no Native women writers in our libraries. It was all too hard, and I eventually dropped out at thirteen. It took a lot of time to get back on track and become a professor of English and a published author. And I still have no desire to read certain canonized work — it’s just not good for my soul.

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t read the white literary canon; I’m saying that it doesn’t have to be our lodestar. I’m saying that a woman doesn’t have to read all the books deemed “necessary” by the white literary world to be a writer. If a classroom has made learning impossible or violent, she can still be a writer. That simple. Allowance is important. I did not feel much of it when I was coming up as a writer. So, I lied about what I read.”

Coronavirus: Irish donate to hard-hit Native Americans to repay famine aid from the Irish Times (via word of mouth)

“In 1847, members of the Choctaw tribe raised $170 in famine relief for Ireland, a huge sum for a time when they had very little, as it came after they had been driven from their land in the devastating so-called Trail of Tears.

Many comments on the GoFundMe page referenced the Choctaw donation. Some read “Ní neart go cur le chéile” and others simply “Ireland remembers”.”

Nadiya’s Time To Eat (iPlayer in UK, Netflix in US)

Haven’t watched this yet, but LOVED her on bakeoff! How am I just now finding out this show exists!?

Turn Your Demanding Child Into a Productive Co-Worker by Michaeleen Doucleff (from NYT)

Honestly, I feel like this must depend at least some on the kid you have – but very intriguing for all of us trying to work with little ones at home!

“For the past three years, I have been reporting for NPR on cultures around the world that raise remarkably cooperative and generous children — children who voluntarily hop up from the dinner table and start doing the dishes. Children who want to share their candy bar with a younger sibling.

In these cultures, you find a striking commonality: Mothers and fathers do not feel the need to constantly entertain and play with children. Parents don’t see it as their job to tell the child what to learn, how to learn and when to learn. Instead parents give children an opportunity that many American kids do not have — to participate in adult work. Parents welcome children into the grown-up world and then have confidence that children will learn and grow, at their own pace, by watching adults, helping adults and helping other children.”

Photo by Terri Bleeker on Unsplash

Some thoughts on interviewing in the arts

Yesterday I had a great interview for a wonderful opportunity.

It surprised me that I was able to think this. Because the ultimate deciding factor is whether you get selected.

Right?

Well, I’m not necessarily sure this is true in the arts.

It made me think a bit about this experience, and what I’ve learned from doing it over the years.

‘Normal’ vs ‘artistic’ job interviews

Not too long ago, I went on an interview for a job opportunity in an admin role. And it was startling to be reminded how different these processes are.

The kind of prep you do for a standard job interview isn’t necessarily going to help you in an interview for an artistic opportunity. In fact, it might even hold you back.

In a ‘normal’ job they are looking to assess your skills and experience. I have never had this happen in an artistic job. They are not looking for you to tell them why you are qualified and capable by listing out what you’ve done. They want to understand what drives you as an artist and makes you feel passionate about your work.

In a ‘normal’ job they are looking for culture fit. The goal is to seem enough like the other people in the company that you will fit in seamlessly. In an artistic job role, they are looking for what makes you stand out or different.

In a ‘normal’ job there is usually, well, a ‘job’. For artistic interviews, often it’s a little more amorphous. There are lots of times I’ve been invited for a vague coffee – but this is really important relationship building and the opportunity to meet some pretty cool people. If you go in with too strong of an agenda of wanting to get something, it’s really easy to sour this connection. Better to go in with an open mind, just keeping your eyes peeled for what you can take away to enrich your practice even if nothing further comes of it.

How to prep

For a theatre interview or chat, it’s good to walk in having thought through what to talk about in the following areas:

  1. Tell me about yourself. This is deceptively hard. You might want to practice this so you don’t wind up waffling on about stuff that has nothing to do with where you’re at in your practice now.
  2. What story does your work tell? You probably won’t be asked this question directly, but this is what you want to get across if you talk about your work. What is the through line that has gathered your work? Or if things have taken a sharp turn, why? You aren’t looking to show them lots of different things, you are looking for continuity and connection, creating a cohesive story.
  3. Why are you the person you are / how do you see your identity? You art comes from who you are – so who are you? What identities or experiences have shaped you? I understand worries about discrimination – there have been times I don’t want to talk about being disabled. But if you are making work with your whole self, you can’t hide – better to be open about this.
  4. What have you seen? I have been asked this question in interview and felt my mind go blank, to the point where it feels like I have never seen a theatre show ever. Think in advance about two or three things you have seen recently that might be useful to talk about. Bonus points if this is work at their theatre. It’s a pretty good idea to find a way to keep a list of what you’ve seen so this is easy to do!
  5. How do you think your work fits into what we do? You really want to familiarise yourself with their previous work – even if that just means a quick look over their website. This shows you’re informed, but more importantly it shows you care.
  6. Which artists inspire you? Be prepared to say why. Be honest, but it’s alright to have an unconventional answer. Try to make sure you don’t just pick dead white men. Speaking from personal experience, it’s amazing what an automatic default this is even if you yourself are not white or male!
  7. Why do you want this now? ‘Why now’ is the question you will get with every commission or funding opportunity. Get comfortable talking about why the work you’re interested in is important or speaks to the present moment.

During the interview

These are the things I’ve found make a difference for me in having a good experience:

  1. Try to have a good time. If you can find a way to have fun, it’s more likely your interviewers will as well. This is the kind of attitude that brings out the best in collaborators, so tap into this whenever possible.
  2. Be present. It’s a good idea to do a bit of prep, but sometimes these interviews take weird and wacky turns. If you go in with expectations, it’s easy to be thrown. In my experience, arts interviewers tend to have a kneejerk reaction against trying to take control of the interview. Allow room for the unexpected.
  3. Expect nothing. We’re all hungry for opportunities to make work, and want to make a good impression on people who can help us. I find it helpful to remind myself that most of these will not turn into anything other than an interesting conversation. It helps take the pressure off, and can help you lose that desperate edge that programmers can smell a mile away.
  4. Look for what you can learn. I’ve always come away from these conversations with something rewarding – even if it isn’t what I had in mind. These are usually interesting and connected people, and you will find something enriching from the conversation, whether it’s experiencing a different perspective on making work, or learning about a new artist to check out.
  5. Keep a sense of humour. It is inevitable you will end up in a conversation with someone who is a bad match, or where you just crash and burn. Humour will help you handle this with grace instead of panic.
  6. Remember: you don’t ‘need’ these people. There have been opportunities I thought I would die if I didn’t get, I wanted them so badly. You know what? In the long run, it didn’t matter. Would it be nice to make the connection or get the opportunity? Yes of course! But you were making art before the conversation. You’ll be making art afterwards. You are there as an equal and an artist, so remember your worth, and that this is just one job or opportunity in what will be a lifetime of practicing your craft.

After the interview

Arts interviews are a popularity contest even more than normal jobs. It can feel really personal to be judged on these qualities – and therefore even more devastating when you don’t get it.

With yesterday’s interview, I came out feeling really inspired and good – to the point where even if I don’t get picked, I still feel really happy about the interview.

Why? Because it was fun!

I really enjoyed the connection. I liked these people. I felt inspired by what they were trying to create and pretty darn honoured to have made it to the stage of an interview.

The more of these interviews I do, the more useful I feel they are – for me and my artistic practice.

Why?

Talking to people in your field, making work is an amazing opportunity to take stock of your own process.

It’s all very well and good to write in your journal or prepare questions in advance. But there is something about being face to face with another human being and having to talk about what you do that can actually help you learn about yourself. When you are under that spotlight, what does feel important? Who are you right now as an artist? Which ways are you growing?

Sometimes we don’t really know these things until we are in a live environment, so this is an amazing opportunity to get to know yourself better. And chances are you’ll come out feeling a lot better going in with this attitude than trying to impress people.

A final thought

Lastly, say thank you. Do it in the interview, and send a note.

Most of the people doing this interviews are working incredibly long hours for very little pay with a lot of artists who want things from them all the time.

These folks keep the arts world running, so reminding them their work is seen and appreciated is just the right thing to do.

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

A helpful question for when all the days feel the same

The days keep going by. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to self-quarantine are have spent weeks inside.

It’s a strange sort of life. Every day starts to feel the same. There’s some interesting research on this – talking about how new experiences make time expand, or conversely how repetition can make time seem to drag.

We’ve found that keeping to a routine feels important, especially for Rosie, to help the days keep some sort of shape. But the consequence is that they all start to feel the same.

We’ve had some lovely times – with laughter and time together – and also some stress with work and other projects. But not being able to go anywhere or see people has made time feel static.

Today, I found myself dreading the thought of the chain of days that lay ahead. I imagined these carrying on exactly the same, particularly not knowing when this period of time will come to an end.

I thought, there must be some way to add a bit of sparkle back in.

This question popped to mind:

“What makes today special?”

I’ve held this in my thoughts all day. It’s been lovely.

It’s a helpful reminder look out for the moments where something lovely happened – and to let that moment’s magic colour the rest of the day.

Even little things – cooking a meal or watching a show – seem to take on a new significance where we try to savour and emphasise the ‘specialness’ of the events within a given day.

Today actually is a special today – I’ve got a song appearing in an online concert organised by some truly wonderful people. I realised that I was looking at this as a single bright spot in a day that was otherwise the same as any other, thinking of this as a bit ‘blah’ instead of using this as a focal point to help the whole day feel special.

We have to find our own ways to mark time during this period where the weeks pass, but life remains strangely frozen. Focusing on the sensation of novelty or differentiation is so important – this mindset shift helped change how the whole day felt.

Every day can have something special if we’re willing to look for it.

Photo by Skyler Gerald on Unsplash