Filtering by Category: Life etc

Notes from the Wardrobe: My Mother, My Closet

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One of the interesting things about working on a show that seems at first glance to be a collection of scenes and monologues is that when you look closely enough you find that there is, in the best of them, always a structure. This is absolutely the case with Love, Loss & What I Wore. As I have dissected the script I have discovered that the stories are divided into sections based on subjects. The first section is all about mothers and daughters. This makes sense to me.

Mothers and daughters and clothes are often the first battles in our war for independence. Deciding what we want to wear and how we want to look are the first steps we take away from our parents and into ourselves. It can be an acceptance of the roles and expectations laid out for us or it can be a rejection of them. These battles run deeper than fabric. They have everything to do with how we see ourselves, how we want to be seen, and our deep desire to claim a place for ourselves in the world.

When I think of my own mother and clothes the words that come to mind are impeccable and conservative. My mother loved beautiful clothes, something she definitely passed along to me. She loved nothing more than a beautifully cut suit, with a skirt not too short and a heel not too high. She never left the house without her lipstick on and perfectly placed accessories.

In her gentle way she encouraged her daughters to emulate her. Cheap fabrics, clothes from tacky teen stores, and anything too short, tight or garish was absolutely discouraged. Appropriate was the word when it came to clothes. You didn’t wear pants to church or a job interview and you never ever bragged about wearing a new outfit. Naked attention seeking was tacky and embarrassing. And always, always make sure your hair has some height to it. Having me for a daughter meant that there were more than a few skirmishes over clothes. From the three piece pantsuit she made me wear when I was five to the stiletto heeled sandals I insisted I wear to my sixth grade graduation (I won that one, thank you very much).

It’s taken me a long time to understand that my mother’s feelings about clothes, her desire for conformity and appropriateness were about a lot more than mere appearance. My mother grew up dirt poor in Mississippi. The kid of poor where you go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier. Where you live in a place with walls so thin that the wind blows right through them, and you hate it, but you realize that you’re lucky to have even that. On top of that she was born with Marfan’s Syndrome, a congenital birth defect. One of the main hallmarks of Marfan’s is elongated fingers and toes and a tall extremely lanky frame. (For reference both Abraham Lincoln and Jonathan Larson had Marfan’s.

Dire poverty and a disease so rare that most doctors can go an entire career without seeing a case of it made my mother a marked woman. She was treated as an oddity by doctors who would bring their colleagues around to examine her without a thought of asking her permission. Her peers mocked her and called her Olive Oyl. It was not a happy childhood.

For my mother to marry, have a house in the suburbs and a closet with lovely clothes was a triumph. Clothing was her armor. To conform, to be “properly” dressed was security. It meant that no one could make fun of her. It meant that she would be see as something other than an illness. If she did’t stand out in any way she would be safe. She didn’t want her daughters to suffer the way she had and so she tried to pass on these things to them.

What makes me sad is that it took me so long to understand this. In many ways my mother would be absolutely shocked by a lot of what I wear. I worry much less about attracting attention to myself and more about what pleases me on any given day. And as for my flat hair...well, the less said about that the better. But because of things she sacrificed for me I get to indulge in the privilege of being a non-conformist. And it is a privilege.

She also left me with valuable lessons. Appropriateness to the occasion is just good manners. LIfe is too short too wear bad fabric. Always look your best when leaving the house, it will make you feel better. And never underestimate the value of a well cut suit.  In these things I think she’d be proud.

  

Secrets

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Events of the past week have me thinking a lot about secrets. The pain they cause, the anxiety they feed, and what happens when they are left to fester. I have more than my fair share of secrets. I’ve kept them a long time because I thought that by staying silent they would not harm me. I was wrong.

Here is my biggest secret, the one that only my closest and most trusted friends know about. I was abused. First as child by my stepfather, and then during my first marriage by my husband. In fact, most people don’t even know that I was married very briefly at nineteen. My religious upbringing taught me that there was something shameful in this, and that in bringing it up I’m only showing that I am a broken unworthy person.

Please hear me when I tell you that I am not writing these things in anger, nor do I desire punishment or revenge. I only want to share my story in the hopes that in doing so maybe someone else who’s experienced these things may feel less alone. I have realized that as events have unfolded over the past few weeks, that the things that happened to me are still alive in me. They may not have the power to hurt me anymore, but they do have the power to wound.

My mother married my stepfather when I was nine years old. She was a divorced woman with two children in the late 1970s who belonged to a faith where (as one person in a position of authority in her congregation put it), “A woman without a husband is like a half a pair of scissors.” In marrying my stepfather she could regain some of the respectibility she lost by becoming a “divorcee”. In the eyes of our congregation my step father was a real catch. He was a college professor who would drop everything anytime anyone in church leadership crooked their finger.

By marrying my mother he became a hero. After all what man would be willing to marry a divorced women with two daughters and health problems that included (they soon learned) an inability to have more children?  He was a saint, and we were a project. 

Shorty after their marriage the abuse began. He would fly into rage with the slightest provocation.. A light left on, a spot on a dish, or for some minor trespass known only to him. He would scream and curse and call us bitches and shitheads and whores. He would slam doors and yank us out of bed so we could turn off the light or rewash the dish while the screaming, slamming and name calling continued. 

Generally, he wasn’t physically abusive, only verbally. Fear of his rage was enough to make us all tread softly in order to avoid it. This tactic rarely worked as the things that set him off were not predictable. What amped him up one night might be laughed off the next, while on the following night something entirely new would set things in motion.

There was one night though his temper took physical form. I don’t remember what I had done exactly to spark his anger. We were in the kitchen so most likely I hadn’t cleaned something properly or had put something away wrong, as nine year olds are wont to do. A tirade was in the cards, only this time he did not stop at yelling. He put his hands around my neck and began to throttle me.  

I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know what I said to “make” him do it. Maybe nothing, or maybe I made a smart remark. I was a little kid who tried to pretend sometimes that she was gutsy enough to stand up to her tormentor. Maybe this was one of those occasions, maybe not. I don’t remember.

What I do remember is the floor. It was this awful faux brick sheet linoleum in a red that can best be described as blood clot colored. I remember being on that floor with his hands around my neck. I remember the feel of my body as it thrashed against it. I don’t remember what made him stop but he did. I do not remember the aftermath. Did I tell my mother? I can’t tell you with any certainty. Did she come onto the room and stop it? I have no clue. I only remember what it was like to be on that floor with his hands around my throat. 

Maybe my mother did stop it, maybe this is what finally sent her to our bishop who told her that if she were a better wife he wouldn’t behave this way. This was the begining of ten years of my mother going to her church leaders who would not help her. Most refused to even believe her. How could this man who was in church every Sunday with his arm around her do something like that? It’s impossible. He was always there when the missionaries needed a ride, or someone needed help moving, or the Sunday School teacher needed a substitute . He was so soft spoken and they’d never heard him raise his voice so there was no way this could be true.

Some of those leaders betrayed my mother’s confidences, and people began to gossip. They said we had to be lying. I was a child when this started but I remember the feeling of people knowing and not believing. The condescension and attitude that we were not sufficiently grateful to the man kind enough to take us in. They were certain my mother was doing this for the attention. Even now, I am sure that there are people who will read this, who will claim they were there and none of this ever happened.

But they weren’t there. They weren’t there behind the locked door when it was just my mother, my sister, me and my stepfather’s rage. They didn’t hear him calling us names and threatening our lives. Let me say this again, loud and clear...THEY. WERE. NOT. THERE. I was.

Eventually they divorced, shortly after I left home for Manhattan. There is more to that story, as there always is, but even on a blog I only have so much space. I left home thinking I was leaving this behind, but the twin damages of abuse and being branded a liar for trying to speak of the abuse had done it’s job. On the outside, I was a blithe independent smart ass who could take care of herself, but beneath that I was a terrified kid with no way of processing what had happened to her. I was a prime candidate for an abusive relationship. It is no wonder that I found one and three weeks before my twentieth birthday married a man fifteen years my senior.

He was, I reasoned and he assured me, the best I was ever going to get. I was irretrievably broken. I knew it, he knew it, and he was going to remind me of it every chance he got. I told him about my past and he told me it was no wonder those things happened to me because I was so very difficult to live with. He confirmed what I knew deep down to be true, it was my fault. I was unloveable and difficult and I had caused (and deserved) everything that happened to me. I was nothing, and if I didn’t watch my step with him he’d send me back to nothing. He told me this often.

Other familiar patterns began to emerge including an attempt to go to my bishop for help. There I was asked “Well, what was your part in this”, which is an urbane educated man’s way of saying “what did you do to deserve it?” It slowly began to dawn on me that if I wanted a chance at a real life I had to take matters into my own hands and leave. Which I did, and which is why at the ripe old age of 21 I became a divorcee like my mother before me, and her mother before that.

My story does have a better ending than most. I’ve been married for over two decades to a man who loves me unconditionally and would be mortified at the thought of doing something that would harm me physically or psychically. But the scars are still there. They are the tripwires under my skin waiting to react to a threat. They’re there in my hyper vigilance and the constant thrum of anxiety that never fully goes away. It can be tricked into submission, but it always comes roaring back.

As I’ve watched women come forward this week to tell their stories it has brought all my experiences back to the surface. I know what it’s like to be called a liar and to watch the people you are supposed to trust  take your abuser’s side. I know what it’s Iike to feel broken and afraid and to spend your life trying to appear not so. I know what it’s like to feel like somehow I must have brought this upon my self. I know what it’s like to keep secrets because secrets are safer.

But I also know now that there are some secrets not worth keeping. I used to tell myself I didn’t share my story because I didn’t want people to see me as a “victim”, an abused child or wife. I know I am no one’s victim.  And honestly, I am never going to be in control of how people truly see me. I can only control what I put out into the world. If by telling my secret I can reach someone’s heart it has been worth it.

This is my truth. It has made me who I am. It is forever a part of me. I will not be ashamed. 

Who Am I, Anyway?

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Photo by Denise Medve Penguinmoon Studios  


I had a moment of absolute clarity during a rehearsal for Women’s Work last week. I was singing away and I heard the words in my head as clearly as if someone were standing next to me whispering in my ear, “THIS is who you are”. I am good at many things but nowhere am I as much myself, my absolute truest and best self, as when I’m standing in front of a microphone singing and telling my stories.  

I have neglected that particular self during the past few years. I had to. There were things I needed to learn to become better at doing what I do. I spent three years working on my writing, learning to dance, and returning to stage acting. I use these skills in ways I never imagined when I get up to perform, but still I had to leave this other self aside for a while to concentrate on mastering them. It temporarily disconnected me not only from myself but from those amazing people who are part of my tribe. At the same time it brought new tribe members into my world.

I am reconnecting with that girl in front of the microphone, and those mentors who first put me on this path. I have new things to bring to the table, and old things that have only improved with age. It means change, of course, something I actively fear every waking moment. But it also means returning to the thing that I love more than anything else. 

I am not going to abandon all those wonderful new things I’ve learned. If I don’t continue to work at them those skills will certainly atrophy. I will, however, work harder at putting this wonderful gift that is my very heart at the center of them all. The best compliment I got after the show was from a friend who hugged me tightly and said, “You’re a storyteller!” I am and I intend to use every tool available within me to tell my stories. New possibilities are appearing and I can’t wait to see where they take me!

 

 

In Our Own Words...

Michele Brourman  & Me Photo by Cindy Banescu

Michele Brourman & Me Photo by Cindy Banescu

So, you may have heard...I’ve got show coming up (September 16th you can check out the details HERE). Not only does it reunite me with Michele Brourman, but it gives me the chance to celebrate the work of female songwriters. Why female songwriters?  

I’m a storyteller at heart. I was raised in a world of women sitting around a table sharing stories. Family lore, ghost stories, things that happened every day, men who disappointed, children who misbehaved in public and embarrassing ways- each story sparking another one, voices overlapping and rising making it impossible for little kids not to listen. And listen I did. I still remember them. Even the most horrifying anecdotes would be salted with so much laughter and humor that it was years before I realized what some of those tales were really about. 

The more time that passes the more I return to my roots as I’ve realized that as far as we’ve come as women we still are not always the ones in charge of telling our stories. Terms like chick lit and chick flick get thrown around and are used to dismiss stories that are seen as being too small, too domestic to be universal. Stories not told from a male perspective. 

But those stories I heard growing up were not just fluffy, funny anecdotes. They were about survival and problem solving and standing up for yourself in a world that makes it almost impossible. It told me that I could do hard things. That what does not kill me gives me stories (I find myself saying this more and more often these days. As regular readers of this blog will note.)  And most of all that in sharing them we create bonds, and community. They are meant to be shared. In the words of Maya Angelou, There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

This is why I chose female songwriters in this moment. I think they often go places where male writers fear to tread. They fearlessly take on subjects others would see as too small or mundane and use them to illuminate a larger truth. They (to quote my friend, director & performer, Shellen Lubin) created their own sounds and poetically documented their lives and hearts. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about excluding males from my audience. And there are several songs that I’m working on that have male co-writers.  I want men there just as much as I want women there. There has been so much ink spilled over how men and women are incapable of understanding each other. We speak different languages, inhabit different planets..blah, blah, blah. I don’t believe it. Maybe if we could listen to each other’s stories in our words, we’d learn not about being male or female but being human. 

Hitting the High Points...

This summer has been one of constant motion - I joined the board of Pioneer Productions, produced (and had a cameo appearance in) a musical and hit two very big milestones. One was inevitable and the other came through more than two years of blood,sweat and blisters.

The first biggie was my birthday. Whether it was divisible by five, ten or three hundred twelve I will leave you to guess. I’m not ashamed of my age but I also don’t feel the need to advertise it. I have officially entered my IDGAF Years. You have been warned.

The other was that I moved from Bronze level to Silver in my dancing. In my studio you start out at Bronze one and work your way through four levels until you reach the Silver level. Basically the Bronze syllabus is what most colleges use in their ballroom dance majors so finishing it is the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. It took two and a half years and a whole lot of toil but I did it and I’m proud of it. 

I had no idea when I started it but studying dance has been the best decision I could have made. It has made an impact on almost every other aspect of my life. In an odd way almost everything that has happened in my career in the last couple of years can be traced back to this decision. 

Dancing did not make me a different performer/person but through it I have become more myself than I have ever been. I am finally at home in my own skin and that has given me confidence both physically and psychically. The skills I already had when I started, the ability to create a character, to perform, to engage an audience, to tell a story have only grown stronger. Added to that are new ways of expressing myself and different ways to explore and understand music. Also, because ballroom is an art that is dependent upon working with another person it has enhanced my ability to communicate with a partner.

I have always been great with words. Words have been my salvation throughout my entire life. Dance has enhanced my nonverbal communication. I can take the stage without saying a word and that is a powerful tool to own.

It took me a while to come around to seeing it this way, but Dance has given me the gift of being a beginner again. You can never fully master an art unless you allow yourself the time and space to be bad at it. It’s not just how you conquer your craft but what teaches you empathy and patience. Knowing this makes me a stronger performer and a better teacher of performers. (This will really come in handy when I teach my Solo performance workshop in October. A plethora of shameless plugs coming soon.)

Finally, there’s the wardrobe. It hasn’t really changed that, it’s just given me even more opportunities to break out the sequins, fringe and corsets. This is the most excellent thing of all! 

 

Who Knew...

Photo by Denise Medve -  Penguinmoon Studio

Photo by Denise Medve - Penguinmoon Studio

Once a teacher said to me after a performance, “Well, who you knew you had that in you?”  And then went on to wax rhapsodic about all they had done for me, and how lucky I was that they gave me this wonderful gift. I smiled sweetly, said thank you, and walked away. But it nagged at me for a long time afterward. Because I didn’t answer the question. 

I did. I knew. Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that I have been extremely fortunate in having teachers and mentors who have nurtured me and believed in me, and to whom I owe more than I can possibly say. Their advice and instruction was invaluable, but it was I who did the work. I who chose them because I knew who and what I wanted to be, and then sought out the people who could help me become the performer (and human being) I knew in my soul I was. 

It was I who took every lesson home with me and thought over it, and cried over it, and then put in the hours of practice it took to master the material. I was the one who sacrificed the time, and money (oh, so much money) to learn as much as I could to be as good as I could. It was I who ignored friends, and family and housework (not the greatest sacrifice) to devote time to my craft. I was the one who tormented myself by constantly wondering if what I was doing, what I was, was enough.

I didn’t do it because I needed a hobby. I didn’t do it because I wanted attention. I did it because I had a vision. I was called to it. And. I. Knew.

On Worthiness

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There are days when I struggle with the idea of being worthy. I was not raised by artists, my family didn’t know anyone who made their living from art and so I was a bit of an outlier. “It’s a nice dream, but not many people make it, what makes you think you’re talented enough to do it?”  I’m not blaming them, the world is a scary place and the last thing you want is to see your child struggle. You want them to be safe in an unsafe world. They were voicing the same ideas that many people have about pursuing a career in the arts. “Who are you to  think YOU are enough to do this”?

Even now I get comments from “well meaning” friends and complete strangers - “Well, it must be nice to.....” or “aren’t you lucky...” Luck has nothing to do with it. I’ve worked and I’ve sacrificed to be able to do the things that I do. It’s taken me the better part of three decades not just to be good at what I do, but to look another human in the eye and admit it . It is false humility to brush off compliments and pretend that the things I am able to do came about through any means other than sheer toil.

Truthfully, I wish I had learned this year’s ago, but maybe I wasn’t ready yet. My career path hasn’t looked like anyone else’s and most likely never will. There have been times when I’ve made it harder on myself than it needed to be, and times when I allowed someone else’s opinions to divert me. For a long time I refused to use the word artist in reference to myself because I thought it wasn’t up to me to declare myself one. It turns out I had it backwards. 

I am an artist, and I am worthy of a career in art. This is my declaration. I have put in the time and the effort to become one, and no one can take that away from me unless I let them. And that ain’t gonna happen.

Do NOT Try this at Home...

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I am a crazy person. This is something I tend to forget as in my particular group of friends I’m seen as “The Sane One”, competent, calm in a crises and polite to a fault. Finding myself in my car at 9:00 PM on a Friday night dressed to the nines surrounded by the disassembled parts of my center console and dash was a big loud reminder that I am truly and deeply nuts.

Here’s what happened...I get into my car, shift it into gear and it hits neutral and sticks. No amount of force will move it. A piece of the gear shift blind, the plastic that covers the shifter, had broken off and caused it to jam. This is where a reasonable human adult would get our their phone and call roadside assistance (which, I might add, was part of our purchase package). But not me! I saw the little piece break off and go into the well of the gear shift, surely I could get it out myself. That’s what the internet is for, right?

Ten minutes and four YouTube videos later I discover that to reach this part of my particular car I have to remove the entire center console. Sighing I picked up my phone and called...Spouse. I asked him to grab some tools and come outside to the driveway. There are many things I am afraid, nay phobic of (flying, doctors, really large spiders) but there are some things I’m absolutely fearless about. DIY repair is one them. It’s already broken, what harm could it do, right?

I blame genetics. I have clear memories of my Aunt determinedly tackling projects that would frighten even the most hardcore DIYers. I vaguely recall two of my cousins taking a sledgehammer to a living room wall to create an all new great room (needless to say neither woman had previous construction experience). One of our family mottos seems to be “Don’t Worry we can fix this.”

I think Spouse has finally learned that to argue with this impulse is utterly futile, or maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome. Whatever, he came out of the house, tools in hand and spent the next two hours in the car with me dismantling things without a single word of protest. I figure it’s good for our marriage. After all if we can survive an eight hour marathon fix it yourself toilet repair session without killing each other we’re in pretty good shape.  (To say nothing of retiling part of the bathroom, replacing a sump pump, and painting projects too numerious to mention)

My mother often accused me of being stubborn, and she was right. I have been asserting my independence since she first left me in the church nursery when I was a year old. I like knowing I can do things myself. It’s good for my self confidence. And bonus- it shocks the Hell out of people who make assumptions about my abilities based on my appearance.

Two hours later we managed to get all the way down to the housing on the gearshift where we realized that this was beyond even the wisdom of the mighty internet to fix. A professional would have to be called.  A tow truck came and took Eartha Mae (yes, my car has a name) off to the dealer where I’m sure there was much eye rolling among the techs about people trying to use YouTube to fix their cars.

On the upside, if you need someone to disassemble a Volvo I’m your girl.

The Hardest Words

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For someone who considers herself a word nerd the two words in the English language I have the most trouble with are surprisingly...well...small. They aren’t hard to spell or pronounce, and don’t impress strangers at dinner parties. Just two simple ordinary words that manage to flummox me. They are “sorry” and “no”. To me they are opposing ends of the same spectrum. One I overuse and one I underuse.  

Let’s start with the word I find creeping into my vocabulary many more times a day than it should - sorry. I had the double whammy of growing up in the south and an extremely conservative male dominated religion which sent the message loud and clear that men don’t like women who eat on dates, beat them at board games or have opinions (especially if those opinions differ from his). I was told that I could not be the head of my household but if I was very lucky and smart (meaning able to use to my “feminine wiles to manipulate”) I could be the neck that turns the head. Thus I found myself prefacing any expression of my thoughts with the words “I’m sorry”.

What I am sorry for I’ve never been quite sure. Breathing? Being female?  Not being feminine enough to be keep my mouth shut? Maybe what I am really saying is, “please don’t hate me for having a well articulated and thought out  point”. Oddly, what I have discovered is that the more certain I am about something the more apologetic I can be about expressing it. It’s exhausting.

And then there’s “no”. It’s barely even a full syllable and yet so difficult for me to say. I cannot tell you the trouble this has caused. Well, I could but who has time to read a post that long? I suspect it’s hereditary. I have very few memories of my mother ever outright saying no. Mostly it was “maybe” or “We’ll see” accompanied by a enigmatic Mona Lisaesque smile and a fervent hope the matter wouldn’t come up again.  

Sometimes I find myself prefacing the word no with the dreaded “sorry”. As in “I’m sorry but no, I won’t be able to do a forty five minute set for free at your birthday party even though your nephew’s best friend’s cousin’s mother in law is a big agent.” The ugly truth is usually I’m not all that contrite. 

My birthday is coming up in just a couple of months and I think it’s time to enter my IDGAF years. Which means stop apologizing and start using the word no without guilt. This is the gift I’m giving myself. Well, that and a pair of shoes, which I will buy without an apology.