Time Play, Act III

clockface2Like last week’s post, this is another I wrote in 2006. My mother had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer a year earlier. She spent most of her time denying she was nearing the end of her life. My head was filled with thoughts of aging and mortality, both Mom’s and my own. The poem below slipped out onto paper in response to a prompt on a poetry site I was following at the time.

My attitude toward aging and death has changed since then. I love being in my seventies. For the most part it is a very comfortable and peaceful time. I’ve enjoyed being able to slow down, to do more of what I really want to do, and taking all the time in the world to do it. I see things very differently now. Wisdom has overshadowed my ignorance and in many ways I’m more patient with myself and others, as well.

It’s fascinating to me that my fears of aging and death no longer haunt me as they once did. Back then I wanted time to pass quickly so that I could get on with my life. Since then I have developed a great appreciation for this moment … right now … the in breath … the out breath … even if what is happening isn’t the most pleasant thing in world. By allowing myself to live with what is before me, the sting of life is not as severe, and I see things more clearly.

This is what I wrote on August 24, 2006.

Time has never been my best friend. There is never enough or there is too much. I look for quality time, end up with no time. At times I’ve been able to stretch time, but that skill is elusive. It’s either rush, rush, rush, or are we there yet? I waste time, I buy time. I’ve even killed time. Time is a mystery. I’ve written a notebook full of poems about it. I don’t know any more about it now, than I did before I took the time for this exploration.

Time Play, Act III

Instead of rising the curtain falls
on a revolving stage numerals tick
tossing seconds back and forth
the orchestra marks each hour
with silver chimes

In the fly-space heavenly doors
swing open spilling light
revealing angels robed in red
feathered wings propel
cogged wheels around the clock

Beyond the flicker of footlights
tiers of aging faces line the dark
fear the cuckoo’s wooden call
a chorus of fingers points to the dial
weeping candles hail the fractured moon

There is one part of the aging process that is not at all pleasant and that is the loss of friends.  In the last 24 hours one has passed away and another is in the ICU at a nearby hospital.  My prayers reach out to both of them and their families.

Wonderland and Niagara-On-The-Lake

IMG_0309This summer I didn’t plan a long stretch of free time for a vacation because of the work involved in the start of marketing my book. And since Bill will be having a complete shoulder replacement on September 14th, our usual fall trip to the beach will most likely not happen. After surgery he will be in a sling for four to six weeks, and unable to drive for three months. Like every other person in this world, we get lovely stretches of peacefulness and then, WHAM, stuff hits the fan. His left shoulder has been painful for a long time, but this summer it has gotten worse and his range of motion has steadily decreased. Just as the arthritis kept his right knee from being usable, it’s now taken over his left shoulder (he is a leftie) and the bones are grinding against each other. Ouch!! His total knee replacement last January was hugely successful and it’s now time to fix the shoulder. His surgeon has a great reputation and gets rave reviews from many people including Bill’s friends who have had to use his services. And we are very grateful that the problem is arthritis and not some terminal illness that frequently hits older people. So for now we’re counting our lucky stars!

We’re also hugely grateful that we recently took a five day trip to one of our favorite places … Niagara-On-The-Lake. On the south shore of Lake Ontario in Ontario, Canada, it’s about 45 minutes north of Buffalo. We first went to this lovely little village four years ago to attend the Shaw Festival in late summer. It’s the third largest theatre festival in North America and includes plays by George Bernard Shaw himself, classical writers like Chekhov and Strindberg, and some contemporary playwrights as well. With Bill being the theatre man that he is and my love for the countryside, we both find it a fabulous summer destination, away from the theatre crowds in places like New York.

We have also attended the Stratford Theatre Festival in Stratford, Ontario which is also wonderful but it’s is much more touristy and glitzy. We love the country ambiance of Niagara-On-The-Lake, which is surrounded by fields of grape vines and wineries where you can spend days tasting the best of what this important wine region has to offer. Because of US tariffs on wine, the Canadians are unable to sell their products in our country, but many of the wines made in the region are exported to France.

Tourists from all over the world visit this picturesque town to attend the festival and sample the wines. I love thatIMG_0288 walking down the street, I often hear at least four  different languages being spoken around me. It’s also an extremely friendly place where you can share wine and theatre adventures over delicious food at the many great restaurants. On our last night we had an exquisite meal at the Trius Winery, and also purchased four bottles of wine to bring home with us.

Because of its location on Lake Ontario, and the escarpment that protects this region from the damaging winter storms that wipe out places like Buffalo, this area has a microclimate unto itself and it is temperate all year long. This time we missed the first week of the heat wave that saturated most of the US, instead enjoying sunny days in the seventies. In winter there is supposedly very little snow compared to what is happening all around them.

As at any theatre festival, some of the shows were fantastic, others not so good. My favorite this year was a one act play adapted for the stage by Canadian actress and writer, Lisa Codrington. Based on Bernard Shaw’s novella, The Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God, which he wrote in 1932, it is a forty-five minute whirlwind of laughter, song, and discussion about religion and the church. I wanted to go back and see it again as I’m sure I’d missed some important lines because I was laughing and clapping so hard.

Competing with The Black Girl, for my favorite, was Master Harold and The Boys, by Athol Fugard, a moving play set in 1950 during Apartheid, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It left me feeling bereft because of its timeliness and the very recent horrific shootings of African Americans here in our own country.  Will things ever change?

IMG_0312The play that really drew me to the Festival this time was, Alice in Wonderland, adapted for the stage by Peter Hinton. Although the costuming, special effects, and scenery were exquisite, I found Alice’s adventures and the actors all overshadowed by the technical artistry of the production, making the play itself rather boring. Basically an artist’s show, you can get an education in design by observing the costuming and how to make Alice appear larger and smaller on stage using video techniques. My least favorite plays, were August Strindberg’s, The Dance of Death, and Anton Chekhov’s, Uncle Vanya. Both theatre classics, most of my interest was lost in the contemporary translations and adaptations in each play.

All in all it was a wonderful get away. I finally came to grips with the idea that vacations are for leisure and gave up on the notion of doing some writing between shows. Instead, I napped every day, sat and read in the lovely garden at Brockamour Manor where we always stay, and came home fully rested. Why I’ve been using vacation time as work time all these years is beyond me, and I’m very happy to be breaking that habit.

Do you work when you’re on vacation or do truly let go and relax?

I hope you’ve had a lovely summer despite the intense heat
and are as ready as I am to greet the the cooler days of autumn.

On Being A Teacher And A Student

Me with yesterdays class of third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School.

Me with yesterdays class of third graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School.

“Ooh! I have an idea!,” one boy with expressive brown eyes said, as his third grade classmates waved their hands, eager to get their own ideas out and up on the board as options for a story we would begin writing together.

I was at a local elementary schools where student teacher, Kassandra Hoffmeister, had invited me to come and talk to her class about writing. She had been told by another student teacher, Yarden Batson, about my visit with her class just a few weeks earlier.

I had met Yarden, earlier when I was looking for a house sitter. She came highly recommended and when she found out that I was a writer, with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, she asked if I’d visit her classroom to talk with the kids about writing. Having been away from a classroom setting for what seems like hundreds of years, I eagerly said yes. Not only did I want to step back in time a bit, I’d been concerned that students aren’t given much of a chance to write creatively these days. I thought going into the classroom to inspire kids to write would be a great way to give back to the world of creativity that I have been blessed being a part of.

When someone discovers that I am an artist as well as a writer, they often say, “I don’t have a creative bone in their body.” In response, I jump on my soapbox and try to convince them that they most likely haven’t given themselves a chance.

Creativity isn’t just for those who want to dance, paint, compose music, or write poetry. Everyone is blessed with “creative bones.” Those bones just need to be nurtured.

Creative thinkers rule the world even in science and math departments. Without the ability to step outside of the box, Steve Jobs would never have come up with the computer I’m using to write this blog post. Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t have invented the telephone, which now is something we all carry around in our pockets. Even the process of designing and constructing an environmentally friendly buildings is a creative act that gets those involved asking questions that no one has pondered before.

The easiest way to nurture creative thinking is to start early. A toddler’s first crayons help him or her to discover the world of color as they move their hands, spreading red, yellow and blue onto a piece of paper. Each piece of paper is the masterpiece of a young mind that hasn’t been strangled by the rule that one must color within the lines.

On my first visit to a third grade classroom, I took a cue from my husband, Bill, an actor, director, and a playwright. I used a story telling exercise he often uses with a newly assembled cast to help them get comfortable with each other and their new roles.

First, I helped the kids create a list of characters they felt drawn to tell a story about. We then worked on a list of settings in which a character might be found. The third list was made up of things the character wants or needs. The fun continues as the children vote on which character the story should be about, where the story is taking place, and the problem the character needs to solve. Sometimes other characters and settings are included as the story takes shape.

In the first class I worked with, the kids began developing a story about a young elephant visiting a football stadium, in hopes of being gifted with his favorite player’s jersey. Yesterday’s class came up with a California Sea Otter, named Jason, who found himself in a portal to the ancient world, where he hoped to find some cotton candy. We can laugh all we want at what seems like a crazy combination of story parts, but these kids are amazing at coming up with story lines that somehow make sense and that gets them started on a path that just might help them one day become creative geniuses.

At the end of my time with them, they’ve not only started the writing process, but we’ve usually had time to talk a little bit about titles, the structure of a paragraph, and the concept of the beginning, the middle and the end of their story. Later in the afternoon after I’m gone, each child finishes writing their own version of the story they started creating together.

What I find to be so much fun, is their enthusiasm and their willingness to leave what makes sense behind, as they jump freely into a world where they can be who they are and need to be. We older, stuck folks could learn a lot from watching them.

I believe that when a teacher stands in front of a classroom of children, the teacher becomes the student, as he or she has the opportunity to be introduced back into a world of creative being, that we too often leave behind as we get older and learned to color within the lines.

Huggable Robots?

IMG_1187I’m on vacation in the spectacular mountains of North Carolina, less than five minutes from my daughter, her partner and my grandkids. I’m staying in a cute, little cottage tucked into the side of a mountain, with gorgeous views. Though there are houses nearby, I can’t see many lights after dark. We are way up in the trees. When the cicadas and tree frogs start their evening cacophony, it’s more than raucous. By morning they’re done and an early bird chorus takes over. This morning as I walked the dogs down our steep driveway to our twisty road, I heard the song of wood thrushes and the drumming of woodpeckers. It’s heavenly and a great place to get some writing done.

A few weeks ago I took some down time and made a trip with my theatre-obsessed husband, to the Contemporary American Theater Festival, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. We saw five plays, sat in on a playwright’s roundtable, and ate wonderful food, all in four days time.

My favorite show of the weekend was a new play, Uncanny Valley, by Thomas Gibbons, an award winning playwright from Philadelphia. The term “uncanny valley,” is a well-known idea in the field of robotics, artificial consciousness and computer animation. Since my last full post here was about work being done to create robots that can be caretakers to the aging, writing about this show seemed a perfect follow up to that post.

Gibbons got the idea for his play while reading a National Geographic article about the LifeNaut Group, in Vermont, who are investigating the possibility of downloading human consciousness into artificial beings, so that humans can extend their life span, by perhaps two hundred years.

It sounds pretty freaky to me. I have no want or need to hang around for that long. Sure, I’d like to see my grandkids grow into young adults, but I’m not keen on the idea of seeing what else might arise long-term, as the climate continues to change and the wars that seem unending, continue to take up headline space. On the other hand, this kind of research might lead to making those steel and plastic robots now being tested as caretakers in Japan, into huggable beings that remind us of our favorite relatives when we become incapable of caring for ourselves. Wouldn’t holding a hand that feels warm and soft, be preferable to one that is cold, hard, and so obviously artificial?

In the play, Uncanny Valley, Claire, a scientist, is played by Barbara Kingsley. Her field of study is artificial consciousness. She is preparing robot, Julian, played by Alex Podulke, to be downloaded with the consciousness of a wealthy business man who will be soon be departing this earth. We watch, fascinated, as Julian’s voice changes from the flat, nasal tone of a robot, into one of a conscious and feeling, human man. We watch as he is given arms and later, legs. At first his movements are jerky and typical of what we think of as robotic. But they gradually become graceful and athletic.  And Julian, the robot, looks just like the man whose consciousness he will soon be carrying, when he was a young man.

Though the term “science fiction” was repeatedly heard as I exited the theatre, these ideas are not the stuff of science fiction. According to the timeline in the program, in 2009: “Multiple organizations work together to create Bina48, a humanoid robot that is created as a physical replica of a real woman, Ina Rothblatt. Bina48 is the most advanced robot of its kind, able to carry on conversations utilizing Ms. Rothblatt’s beliefs, morals, tastes, and speech patterns.” In February, 2011: “The 2045 Initiative is founded by Russian billionaire, Dmitry Itskov. The 2045 Initiative aims to help humans transcend the average lifespan by uploading their consciousness to non-biological carriers such as computers, robots , or even holograms. Itskov hopes that by 2045, hologram-like nano robots will be available on a mass market scale for human beings to extend the life of their minds indefinitely.”

I’m not exactly sure whether I was more fascinated by the ideas and the ethical problems humanoid robots of this ilk will create, or the talented actors who pulled off one of the most thought provoking plays I’ve ever seen. That is exactly why I so enjoy going to this play festival every summer. Instead of seeing the same old summer musical favorites that most summer theatre consists of, the plays you’ll see here are new, mind boggling, discussion inducing, and a refreshing change from the usual stuff all theatre goers know all too well.

This year, there was an extra bit of a side show. As the final play we were enjoying was about five minutes from its conclusion, my husband’s cell phone, which he had on vibrate, let out a terrible shrieking sound, letting him know that a tornado was whirling around the area. When the show was over, torrential rain was being blown sideways.  We stayed inside the theatre for more than thirty minutes waiting for the storm to abate, where we had wonderful conversations about that last play with other festival fans. We’ll go back next year for sure, tornados or not.

looking down on the driveway from the deck.

looking down on the driveway from the deck.

Around The World In Fifteen Days With Only One Stop

IMG_0787I’ve been home for just over two weeks since we returned from London.  The first week was great.  The second week I had a nasty cold. I’m over it and the jet lag, though last Saturday’s time change is setting me back a bit. I’m very happy to be home. It’s no fun being sick when you’re away from your own space and without the usual comforts I keep stashed away for just such an occasion. Like my  “Sure-to-Cure” Elderberry syrup and sweat inducing chicken soup, filled with big chunks of carrots, parsnips, shredded chicken, and brown rice. I frequently clicked the heels of my ruby red slippers together while sniffling away, and repeated “There is no place like home.”  But I didn’t wake up like Dorothy did, to find myself in my own bed with Auntie Em and Toto welcoming me home.

But really, it wasn’t all that bad. The Organic Planet grocery shop right around the corner from the flat we rented was a huge help. They had dynamic smoothies and carrot/apple/ginger juice which I enjoyed several times a day at the peek of feeling aweful.  And I wasn’t alone.  Bill got it too. But it wasn’t like the time we both got the flu with severe body aches and fevers while visiting New York City.  We were staying in a not so great hotel in Chinatown, that didn’t have room service. It was in the middle of winter with snow on the ground and freezing cold winds whipping through the canyons between skyscrapers.

We arrived in England to temps in the 70’s with clear skies and sun, though it turned into typical London weather a few days later with on and off rain and a bit of a chill.  Our second day out, we walked four miles through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, enjoying the glorious day, the swans adrift on the pond, and lots of dogs running free, playing frisbee or ball with their people.  We ate a lovely lunch right in Hyde Park and in the evening went to St. Martin in the Fields to hear the music of Beethoven and a host of other composers. How sweet it was. The following night we met a friend and went to see the play, “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time.”  It was a “WOW” show. Bill has written up a brief review of it and the other shows we saw, on his blog if you’re interested.

The first week ended perfectly with an overnight to Canterbury where we caught up with friends we haven’t seen in years, their gorgeous daughter, and amazing grandchildren. Back in the city we returned from dinner and a movie to find a terrorist arrest happening just around the block from our flat. There were dozens of police, guns, roads roped off, and gawkers standing about.

Then the “Cold” hit the fan. During “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, my throat was sore and my nose started running a marathon. I had no tissues with me. Despite the big names, we were both unimpressed with the show. At intermission we hightailed it out of there and went home to bed. I pushed myself to go out a few nights later for dinner and another show, (Ibsen’s, “Ghosts,”) with friends. The meal, the show, and seeing our friends were great, but I was feeling worse and by then Bill was sick as well.

We spent the next few days, like two caged birds, lying about and shlepping out to the Organic Planet for juice, lozenges, and vitamin C, while mountains of yucky tissues were building around us.  Happily I read a lot and finished up Part II of my memoir.

Bored and pretending he felt better, Bill took in two more plays while I languished at home. Stubborn as mules, we took to walking again, saw a few movies and made a visit to the fabulous, Chelsea Physic Gardens, where I was in seventh heaven.  It is a small (3 1/2 acre) garden with plants that are used for food, medicine, and cosmetics.  Before we went, I envisioned shelves of the gift shop filled with plant tinctures and bottles of elderberry syrup to help me get through our upcoming return journey across the Atlantic.  No such luck, but I did enjoy a delicious salad made from plants grown right there.  Then there was the arduous seven and three-quarter hour flight back to Washington which made things even worse. I was weak, impatient to get home and very grouchy.

IMG_0885Would I do it again? You betcha!

Getting out of town and our own country to see what is happening in the rest of world is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself and your kids. It is a learning experience that brings new perspectives on how we view ourselves and the world around us. I haven’t been out the country for a long time and while I was busy here at home, I found out that we are becoming one big global village. In some ways it’s frightening, but it’s also very exciting.  If the creek don’t rise and I continue to have the stamina to spend all those miserable hours just getting there and back, I’ll go again and hopefully to other places on my bucket list as well.

The last time I was in London was well over ten years ago. Things have changed. This time, walking down the streets, I heard languages from every corner of the planet. I heard much less English.  While the U.S.A. is mostly attracting people from South and Central America, England and the rest of Europe are attracting people from the Middle-East, the Balkans, Asia, and North Africa. Food from all over the world is served in an amazing variety of restaurants. In some areas of the city, women with head covering or full face coverings are a common sight, as well men sitting at outside cafe’s smoking hooka pipes.  When I left on this journey I didn’t realize I was going to have a mind-bending cultural tour around the world.

I came to realize that we as human beings are doing what we have always done: migrating from our homelands to find a place where we imagine work is easier to find and we’ll feel safer. But we’re doing it on a much grander scale than ever. Many of us are uncomfortable and threatened by the many problems it brings. I see us needing to begin adapting to an era of change, in which the entire world becomes the melting pot. Hopefully we will tolerate and celebrate each other’s cultures with love, not war.

If anybody out there wants to know what is really happening beyond your back yard, buy a plane ticket. Go visiting instead of relying on American media to show and tell. In a country that is as close culturally as we can get to our own, I found the whole world just waiting for me to step into it.

IMG_0848Yes, at heart I’m a homebody. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I was sick. Yes, I came home exhausted and I was at times unnerved by the numbers of people I had to navigate through. But I had a look into what the future is perhaps going to look like. I came home a much more tolerant person and hopefully wiser. All in all, it was simply a lovely time.