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daddy

Intermission #1 of “Daddy” by Jeremy O. Harris: The set designed by Matt Saunders of a Los Angeles art-filled contemporary home includes an actual swimming pool on stage, at times the swimming and other activities staged in the pool splashed the front rows of audience with water, delightfully breaking the line between witnesses and participants. Following a sharp dialogue about the art of Kara Walker and a gallerist’s studio visit to the young poppet-making artist played by Ronald Peet, who speaks with a breathless quality mixed with fierce intellect and a resurfacing traumatic past, there was Alan Cumming in the role of his older lover, Andre, singing George Michael’s “Father Figure” in the pool, attended by a trio of watchful gospel singers of a chorus that witness the young artist throughout the play… “That’s all I wanted / Something special, something sacred / In your eyes / For just one moment / To be bold and naked / At your side…”

Intermission #2: My partner, Joseph, rightly names that all the characters get a better opportunity to be more realized in the second act, and though I was less enthusiastic about the melodrama the play’s subtitled status definitely delivered, I loved loved a sparing dialogue about Carl Andre being less important than Ana Mendieta just because he survived the “circumstances” of her tragic death. I appreciated the intimacy of the shared water of the pool, almost an alchemical character itself, but during the second act the action stayed mostly on the ground. There was some beautiful staging of the silent studio activities, as the artist created more evolved and larger fiber pieces, eventually acting out pantomime stories with bigger than life-sized figures that begin in pieces, helped in the act of mending/building by the chorus women as a kind of divine studio assistants. “…Sometimes I think you’ll never / Understand me / But something tells me together / We’d be happy, oh oh…”

After the play: I am caught by surprise at the ways the issues of a never-known biological father and the tensions that linger in a conflicted relationship with the character of the mother as experienced and expressed by the young artist making fiber art seemed to steamroll me; I was surprised that I was surprised. Heading into the production, I’d been focused on the questions this playwright explores so powerfully about Black artists and bodies being “consumed” by white audiences, and aware, sitting amongst the mostly white audience of the theater, that I was also a gay white viewer contributing to the playwright’s own sky-rocketing success strikingly similar to the lead character’s fast paced artistic recognition, and gratefully challenged with his very intimate investigations of attraction, interracial desire like Harris did in the more satirical “Slave Play” we saw earlier this winter. I’d not really been prepared to feel somewhat unearthed by the family story themes crashing against my own underworld of family histories. Trying not to cry, I choked out my own missing biological father experience, “In the reality of his death, there would be no phone call coming from a father I never knew.” Leaving the experience of the play,  I was also painfully aware that the “daddy issues” for both the artist character and me, are very much centered and wrapped tightly around the figure of a very real and living mother, and the inheritance of the choices she made in the circumstances of bringing a child to into the world.

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Studio view, work-in-progress on sculptural garment, “Lift the Curse” (above) the back inner lining with hand-stenciled text and (on dress form) back section with textile collage work 18″ x 42″ x 10″ in the #urbanfey: protective wear for urban faeries series by Michael Sylvan Robinson

“An initiation journey often begins with the perception that something is wrong. We undertake a process of transformation because we want more than what is given. We sense that some loss requires restitution; some balance must be restored… We each inherit many, many ills we did not create. The path to personal power requires that we know what we are called to heal and what we are not called to fix. In our personal lives, we did not create the families we were born into. We did not build the castle, nor did we contribute to its design. We may or may not be able to heal its ills… Collectively, too, we live in a castle not of our own design, full of secrets and inherited ills. None of us alive today created our heritage of sexism, racism, poverty, social injustice, war, or environmental degradation. Sometimes these conditions may oppress us personally; at other times we may benefit from them directly or indirectly… the willing undertaking of responsibility, can lead to healing… When we answer the call with courage and responsibility, we begin the a process that will transform us as deeply as it changes the world around us.” ~ The Twelve Wild Swans, Starhawk and Hilary Valentine

Over a meal in the theater district, Joseph talked wisely of the cycles in which we re-engage the healing of these old patterns rooted in our family histories. Part of me sat quietly, appreciative of his efforts, but another inner voice critically reviewed how invisible all my years of work through therapy, recovery and spiritual practice, the coaching and the art-making seemed, and wondering what could possibly be needed “more” than all those previous approaches and processes? I named out loud, “that obviously, the delayed news of my biological father’s death triggered old fault lines.” He affirmed there’d been a lessening of the intensity from my initial reaction following the discovery, but also ways in which these lingering wounds intrude upon my presence and participation. This mirror reflection made me mad, not at my partner, but at all of it, the family legacy like a demon I’ve tried so hard to exorcise, reminded again of the religious imagery utilized in the play, and though not the specific flavor of my own problematic religious upbringing, it was close enough to sting. “I will be your father figure / Put your tiny hand in mine (I’d love to) / I will be your preacher teacher / (Be your daddy)  / Anything you had in mind / … I will be the one who loves you / Till the end of time.”

Over his meal, and with great care, my partner asked, “Perhaps there’s some kind of ancestor work you can do to release him?” Yes. Yes, there is.

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remembrance1

Michael Sylvan Robinson shared his Mourning Jacket for a Sweet Satyr in memory of Eric Ginman at the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Plays, January 21, 2019 at Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo by Ellery Schiller ’21

“Spencer saved my life,” I said as I stepped into the gathered circle of (mostly) Bennington alumni of varied generations at the start of the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Play process. This special event benefits two Bennington College scholarships, the Nicky Martin Performing Arts Scholarship and the Spencer Cox ‘90 Field Work Term Fellowship for Student Activists. “He was the first person to tell me about condom use and safe sex in the 80’s,” and I shared a humorous recollection Spencer and I joked about together when we’d run into each other in the city, “At Bennington Spencer often got the theater roles I wanted, but I got the boys he wanted.”

My heart felt so full, a rising presence as I prepared to share about the art piece in my hands. I’d brought my art memorial garment for Eric Ginman ‘92, and I walked within the circle as I spoke his name, showing the beautiful photos of Eric stitched into the fabric, and the hand-stenciled text honoring his life and death, and our relationship. “Spencer, Eric, Queer Ancestors, dear beloved activists and artists, Bennington alumni brothers, lost to AIDS (and both fought addictions), your work-in-the-world finished too soon. What is remembered lives…

Sometimes one puts the mourning down until there is the space and presence to return to the ache of grief. Sometimes the art-making waits until one day it is time for the work to resume. After two years of not being able to work on this piece, I began again on the Mourning Jacket for a Sweet Satyr, knowing I wanted to share this act of remembrance for Eric J. Ginman: 11/13/69 – 7/19/97

Eric died in the 90’s, as many gay men did, before he reached the age of 30. He died of AIDS right before the advancement in treatment that saved so many others… Like Spencer, Eric also struggled with addiction which left him isolated and vulnerable. Eric and I were lovers/spiritual brothers/friends in those days both before I graduated from Bennington, and afterwards, in NYC. He sent me beautiful self-portraits which I held privately for years and years. I’ve been thinking of him so clearly – the music he made, both in formal and rustic landscapes. The sweetness of his nature and the mischievous Scorpio sensual side. Eric was incredibly talented. What is remembered lives….

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Sharing my Inspirational costume piece at the start of the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Play event captured in a beautiful photo by Ellery Schiller ’21, thank you!

I see myself here in this photo: midlife Queer artist me sharing my art and activism and love in the way I most want to do. I see myself Here. Surrounded by the collaborative web of Bennington kin, bringing such an intimate personal art offering and honoring of a lost dear beloved, knowing now what magic would come next with skillful craft of playwright Maia Villa ‘15 and director David Drake and their cast, in the creation of a new play, Remembrance; a new play in which Queer Ancestor ghosts arrive artfully dressed for a hauntingly beautiful reunion of parted lovers, one living and one amidst an embodied transformation to the ancestors.

With roots built from shared inspiration, and this memorial garment itself featured so prominently, the play culminated in the jacket being worn for the first time by a dear friend from our shared Bennington past, Julia Prud’homme ’87, in an incredible, evocative performance. It was the first time we’d seen each other in decades, perhaps since we were both last together on campus, but it felt so easy and familiar, not at all like years of distance. I loved the play we got to work on together, and I loved Julia’s great performance as as a Queer Ancestor getting her magic ghost-self suited up for the big transformation of humanness into mystery and spirit in a rite of passage in which her character transformed/evolved into a more embodied Queer Ancestor. I was crazy moved by bringing such an intimate offering to our collaborative circle and to be able to then receive the gift of watching others, dear respected friends and artists, build such artistry from their own inspiration and presence over such an intense, twenty-four process.

OLIVE. (singing) with me, with me… show me you’re here, sweet thing. (beat) Well, elise, there may not be an afterlife, you may not be anywhere, not be anything anymore. I just wish you were. I just wish the moon was a sign, that anything was….

ELISE. …and I miss you… I’m afraid if I touch her, I’ll feel my own guilt.

CROW. Isn’t that a useless emotion? / DOVE. You won’t.

OLIVE. …kiss me in the moonlight, sweet thing… I whispered in your ear, “you rent the U-Haul yet, cutie?”

remembrance5

Remembrance by Maia Villa ‘15, directed by David Drake, costume design by Michael Sylvan Robinson ‘89, lighting design by Kryssy Wright ‘03 and sound design by Mike Rugnetta ‘06, with AD Emma Welch ‘17, and amazing cast: Julia Prud’homme ‘87, Eben Moore ‘96, Julia Crowley ‘18, Abigail Gampel ‘85.The dress worn for the role of Dove was created by Emily Woods Hogue ‘10. Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Plays: January 21, 2019

My participation as a costume designer for this event was also an action of remembrance and service as we honored the life and career of Danny Michaelson, Bennington faculty member of more than thirty-five years, a wonderful costume designer and teacher, and mentor for this collaborative group of designers bringing their time and skills to each of the new plays. Danny died suddenly this winter, and we shared fond memories of our time in the Bennington costume shop with him and the gifts of that place and faculty mentorship received during our Bennington years and beyond the days on campus.

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Costume design team for the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Plays: Therese Bruck, Valerie Marcus Ramshur ’89, Michael Sylvan Robinson ’89, Emily Woods Hogue ’10, and Simone Duff ‘06, and Carla Klein ‘89 (not in photo) at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, January 21, 2019. Remembering beloved Bennington faculty member, Danny Michaelson. 

This writing of remembrance begins and ends with Spencer. I had the amazing opportunity on February 11th to attend a glimpse of an important work-in-progress, Euphoria, being developed by Tectonic Theater Project by Moisés Kaufman and Jeffrey LaHoste, that considers “the story of AIDS activist Spencer Cox, whose dedication to getting ‘drugs into bodies’ at the height of the crisis saved countless lives. The play grabbles with the puzzling questions his friends and colleagues were left to confront following Spencer’s death from AIDS-related complications.”  I spoke briefly with Moisés about my friendship with Spencer, and then sat quietly as the short excerpt of the play shared such love and respect for Spencer, highlighting glimpses of his youngster arrival into important AIDS activism and his tremendous impact; the words and memories of the play’s interviewees, some sitting the audience that night, performed by the actors of the show through the unique Tectonic play development process. I am so excited for this developing work, the ways in which Spencer’s life and activism will continue to inspire others, and I know he would be thrilled to receive such a fantastic arrival on the New York theater stages and beyond as this play evolves. Acts of remembrance.

 

MSRThereWasSadness

“There was a deep sadness found…” Work-in-progress, inside lining for “Melancholy Moonlight,” sculptural garment 12″ x 16″ by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2019)

I heard myself say, “I’m going to follow this thread of sadness in my life down to its root,” and moments later, in the space that opened, I discovered the 2014 obituary for my biological father, a man I’d never met, only a brief series of problematic phone calls and letters shared in the mid-90’s between us. How do I mourn a man whose biggest contribution to my life was his absence, a haunting shadowed presence of his ghost, even as he lived, faced now in the belated news of his death?

“I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view. Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future. These specters appear when the trouble they represent and symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view. The ghost, as I understand it, is not the invisible or some ineffable excess. The whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, your attention. Haunting and the appearance of specters or ghosts is one way, I tried to suggest, we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present, interfering precisely with those always incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed toward us. Haunting is a frightening experience. It always registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present…”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

There was a shocking return of anger, which surprised me, perhaps after all the years of reflection and therapy and letting go, accompanied by the rush of emotions rising with an inner slide show of childhood longings and unraveled stories. I recognized the finality previously shielded by a unacknowledged delusion that there could be a kind of reconciliation. Immediately I encountered renewed resentments targeting the living, of course, for the long contributing failures, the truths and mistruths, secrets and silences. Under all of it, a deep old hurt caused by the choices of this man, whose genetic lineage I hold; I’m its only actual descendant despite the missing “survived by” designation on the online memorial page. I wondered at his end of life, any reckoning or instinct for amends, or just the long hidden secrets never voiced to those receiving gestures of condolences for the loss of such a giving man?

“The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eye, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. ”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

As I reach for some resolution, some greater agency to the narrative of my origin that felt like it was never really mine to share, revealed in stages throughout a childhood infused with the hidden facts: How do I wrestle against this long secret history while doing no further damage to others? What do I need from the living and the dead?

Healing work, not clear in what form beyond the writing of these first words, might be found in this midlife rite of passage unique in its twisted pathways, but also, not uncommon, inclusive in the wide company of those within families for which one is not of the same blood. I remember the writers and witnessed memories of others, and these shared experiences help me start to trace the path forward from this haunting absence ended.

“The willingness to follow ghosts, neither to memorialize nor to slay, but to follow where they lead, in the present, head turned backwards and forwards at the same time. To be haunted in the name of a will to heal is to allow the ghost to help you imagine what was lost that never even existed, really. That is its utopian grace: to encourage a steely sorrow laced with delight for what we lost that we never had; to long for insight of that moment in which we recognize, as in Benjamin’s profane illumination, that it could have been and can be otherwise… If you let it, the ghost can lead you toward what has been missing, which is sometimes everything.”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

 

landing with less fear on my feet

1,001+ days of walking practice and a slow return to dance

BeYou

“Depending on which way one turns, different worlds might even come into view. If such turns are repeated over time, then bodies acquire the very shape of such direction. It is not, then, that bodies simply have a direction, or that they follow directions, in moving this way or that. Rather, in moving this way, rather than that, and moving in this way again and again, the surfaces of bodies in turn acquire their shape. Bodies are ‘directed’ and they take the shape of this direction…” ~ Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

9/12/18 First dance class, Intro to Modern adult beginners at Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn after more than a decade since I’d last tried a regular dance class; I took a short cycle of classes in DC when I first started my MFA as part of my Goddard packet work, but that was also before I’d broken my ankle in 2015. The basic stretching of leg and foot through repeated tendu motions were exactly the kind of PT exercise I should have been doing all along, but yowza my poor left foot and ankle had a shock! I was, not surprisingly, the oldest (and heaviest) dancer in the class. I’m trying to just be myself, as I am, and let my body remember it used to love to dance. It was humbling, the lack of flexibility and the stuckness, the inability to express rhythm when too many layers of movement from too many body areas are supposed to be doing too many things at once… It was an intense work day, and for me, a challenging drive to get here on my own and home again, and then there was resistance to just staying put when I wanted to leave. And, though I can’t say it was fun, I did try to maintain my sense of humor and perspective. When I broke my ankle it was months and months before I could even jump a little, and tonight’s class end with series of jumping, not difficult, but for me, a bit emotionally and physically tough. Maybe as this weekly class progresses, this dancing bear will be less afraid and be more present in the movement, But I am tonight at least grateful for its resilience. 🌈🐻❤️🙏

“We can be shattered by the force of what we come up against, when our bodies are little objects thrown against the hard walls of history… We can damage relationships that matter. And that is one of the hardest things about coming up against walls: it can threaten some of our most fragile and precious, our best, our warmest connections. As I write this, I feel sad, so very sad. And this too is one of the risks of anger. There is so much to be against; we know this. But how easily anger can spill, can spill at those who happen to be near by, who are closest to us…” ~ Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life

9/19/18 Last night, as the sun set over the river, flooding with light the cavernous center filled with thousands of people in prayer and reflection, I remembered how different my life was last year at this same time. So grateful for where I have found myself here, this present and its return to living in Brooklyn, though it was really unimaginable then when last year’s struggles were evident; the outcome of steps we took to reach this new life together could not be predicted. In those cycles of struggle, of course, there were actions and behaviors that I could have done with better skill and care, and in which others could also have been more present and loving, but these are challenging times we find ourselves, and in this new year ahead for which I truly feel so blessed, may the tangled resentments and old grief and wounds be healed, mended, eased. 🙏❤️

Dance class 2: Better. Took the subway from Bushwick which was less stressful than driving + parking. Wore my best Ganesha shirt so instead of catching sight of my belly in the mirror w/judgment I’d see his Beauty in the reflection. Body remembered more of the combination from week before than I expected, and I had almost no ankle/foot trauma fear AND when we did a new up-up up-up down-down down-down foot combination across the floor without a chance to practice it (exactly the repeated motion that my healed ankle needs stretched) the teacher pulled me from the herd (I think there are 30 + in class) and asked me to go across the floor ALONE and I didn’t freak out; I did the combination alone across the floor, and the class applauded afterwards and it was all okay. I can’t say I had “fun,” yet, but I can feel disappointment that I won’t be able to attend next week because of a work obligation. 🙏❤️

“When I think about my personal experiences with leading over the past few years… I completely underestimated the pull on my emotional bandwidth, the sheer determination it takes to stay calm under pressure, and the weight of continuous problem solving and decision making… we desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.” ~ Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

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View from Here: my office table with flowers and lavender from our urban garden and current reading

9/30 Day 1,001 daily walking practice (consecutive with one sick day “off” in the middle). I walk, mostly by myself, a time of reflection or releasing and sometimes prayerful silence or “dialogue.” Listening. Observing the change of seasons, the quality of light and shadow, night or day. Initially I walked through a period of loss and recovery from a broken ankle, I walked because I needed to be present in the midst of it all, and change occurred sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly in shocking conflicted occurrences, and I walked to discern and discover my truth and pathways forward with mindful steps deepening into miles. Love was lost and Love was found.

Within these 1,000+ days and 3,000 + miles my life changed so much that today looks nothing like those first days: a new job and return to living in Brooklyn after 18 years in Baltimore, a commitment to life together that matured into living together. There were trips as a couple in which my walking time was spent together on the shores of Provincetown or hiking in the Columbia River Gorge seeking waterfalls. Lately, like today, my Bushwick neighborhood walks delight with street art sightings and local artists. I am grateful for this middle-aged queer body that carries me on my journeys, and I am learning how important this self-care practice is to my well-being and work in the world. I remember once a dance teacher in college described my early choreography efforts saying, “there’s nothing needed but the act of making a thousand dances to learn what is yours to express,” and I am reminded, back in dance class again for the first time in many many years, how the importance of being present, awareness of my body and the ground below in its embrace of gravity; I move forward in greater clarity in my voice as the work-in-progress of my life continues, one day of walking practice after the next, seeking the freedoms and facing the challenges of spiritual practice.

Update: 11/7/18 Day 495 (1,039 days and 3,111 miles so far)

“A lifeline can also be something that expresses our identity, such as the lines carved on the skin that are created as an effect of the repetition of certain expressions: the laugh line, the furrow created by the frown, and so on. Lines become the external trace of an interior world, as signs of who we are on the flesh that folds and unfolds before others. What we follow, what we do, becomes ‘shown’ through the lines that gather on our faces, as the accumulation of gestures on the skin surface over time. If we are asked to reproduce what we inherit, then the lines that gather on our skin become signs of the past, as well as orientations toward the future, a way of facing and being faced by others. Some lines might be marks of the refusal to reproduce: the lines of rebellion and resistance that gather over time to create new impressions on the skin surface or on the skin of the social.” ~ Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

10/3/18 Dance class #3 (after a missed week for a work annual fund event) guest teacher, more traditional which was great and harder with lots of foot work and then a combination of tilting and curved shapes on top of rhythmic moving legs. My repaired ankle (note the new emphasis rather than “broken”) has significantly reduced movement (all add “currently”) making all my attempts at demi-plié positions moving from some wonky core compensation efforts to “protect”. Younger Me remembered how fluid my moving body was, but the midlife me feels very solid and stiff, so I could “see” the shapes but not bend into them, and the tilting was better at the edges of the arms rather than any arc or curve in the torso. But I could hear the floor combinations better in the accompaniment from the musician, and so I tried not to Think Think so much and Listen to the rhythm in the music. It was a dance day, as I visited a 2nd grade dance class at the Lower School in a gorgeous dance studio that is part of the contemporary addition to the castle-like Victorian mansion where I first taught drama in 1990 on a postage-stamp sized stage that is no longer there in the highly renovated campus, so despite my self-criticisms dance IS really returning to my life and for my own body as well 🙏❤️

10/17 Dance Class # 4: I didn’t want to go after a bizarre week in which I got a lot of my important action items done amidst a comedy of errors landscape. I missed last week’s class because I was sick, and the guest teacher was finishing up her coverage with tonight’s class. My right knee has been giving me some trouble for the last couple of days, especially on the stairs, and the left repaired ankle doesn’t really plié which makes 4th and 5th positions particularly challenging.

At the start of this class I could not stop looking at my belly, despite having slimmed since moving to back to NYC, but perhaps my slightly smaller size in some ways making me all the more aware of the prominence of the middle. Once, at Bennington in a dance class a teacher put her hand flat on my belly (20 years old, 150lbs at 5’10”) and said, “that’s quite a belly for a skinny boy.” I’ve felt gay-guy pressured some years and achieved more gym-toned or yoga fit-ish cycles; I’ve also been significantly heavier than I am now at 51, but tonight I could not shake the lack of love for my protruding belly. Intellectually, politically, I know that I am rocking my medium-sized Bearness when I feel good about myself, but that embodied me was not feeling it tonight, and eventually, I just moved to where the piano cut off my view below the chest in my mirrored reflection because I was just so distracted.

After that, I eased up, noticed my foot combinations were a little better, my balance improved even with mindfulness to not overcompensate for the stiff left ankle and to try and shift between the singular weight bearing legs with less wobble. Eventually, still in my obstructed mirror view zone, I managed to move to the front row of tonight’s smaller class, the first time with others behind me. I’d forgotten my glasses and could see better up front, but also found it less distracting. When we lined up for the floor combinations, I took one of the four first row spots and just kept trying to hear the counts and listen to the musician’s cues to remember the phrase without someone to follow.

I wasn’t very good, but when it came time to leap and leap again, I was up in the air with greater ease, landing with less fear on my feet.

This week I finished a year-long commitment working individually with the eighty students presenting senior convocation speeches. Most mornings, before the start of the regular school day, I sat in the theater listening to a senior rehearse her convocation speech, a graduation requirement, in preparation for presenting to the entire Upper School. Each senior convocation was a rite of passage, a unique opportunity for the speaker to share her own narrative of discovery and individuality. Some speeches were amusing and light-hearted, and others were challenging, introspective, or evocative. As the senior convocation leader, I listened and took notes for the student and considered the impact of her words in the unpredictable nature of community. We talked together about what questions she might be asked in the open discussion that followed each prepared speech, and depending on the speech topic, there was sometimes follow-up actions in support of the student, or in consideration of others. Throughout the year, I felt honored and humbled to be in this work, hoping to share an important sense of community and the joys of deep intellectual pursuits as I served and supported the seniors in this capstone experience. Before the cycle of the senior speeches began, I delivered my own speech, known as the “convocation about convocation.” I’m including a slightly edited version of the speech here. The original speech was delivered on Sept. 7, 2017. Today, I’m looking back on my words that began an incredibly transformative year for me as artist and educator.

“Guided by Love, Learning to Live in Community”

To speak is also to risk being known, to step more clearly into the space we share together. To listen is to witness, to care and learn. This is the dance of community. Being present together.

My questions repeatedly lead me back to the writings of bell hooks, one of the great leaders in developing an understanding of intersectional feminism. Today, I reflect on a call to love that bell hooks names in her essay, “Faith, Writing, and Intellectual Work,” she states: “To be guided by Love is to live in community with all life. A culture of domination like ours does not strive to teach individuals how to live in community. As a consequence, this must become a core practice for all of us who desire to transform society in ways that will bring justice, enable peace and well-being – learning to live in community.”

I repeat her powerful intentions again: “…guided by Love. …learning to live in community…”

…In her book, Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler, the impressive and challenging American philosopher and influential gender and queer theorist asks, “If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognizable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life.” Butler suggests we are asked to account for ourselves, and in doing so, the starting place is personal, a unique narrative of self. She cautions that these narratives are always partial and ever-changing, she writes: “Perhaps most importantly, we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human… ”

I think many seniors find themselves on this very stage revisiting what they believe or know about themselves and this place and how it shaped them, as they consider the unknowingness of the future.

An account of myself.

Most of my life I’ve identified as a gay male person found mostly in the places and social circles of women. I believe this sense of belonging in the world invited me in at an early age when I was the only boy in a Wonder Woman club that met at recess during elementary school. Not the Wonder Woman of this summer’s blockbuster movie, but the iconic and somewhat awful television show starring Linda Carter.

As I remember it, and I will admit that memory often glimmers the past with its own artistry, we met in the center of what we called “the woods” which was really a small grouping of trees at the dividing line between the half of the playground for boys and the half of the playground for girls. Perhaps this was only a social construct of children and not enforced by the teachers, but it is also absolutely possible that recess was segregated by gender in those days of my childhood at a suburban public school. And so, we met in the space that was kind of a venn diagram, that managed to accept my inclusion into the circle of wanna-be Wonder Women, strong and opinionated girls I found significantly more interesting than the playground sports and bullying of the boy-side of the world that awaited me there.

I wanted to dance, but at school I was told that boys weren’t allowed to be in the dance club…

The consequences of being less gender normative in a small town left me targeted for verbal and even physical violence. I “escaped” to an intimate, small liberal arts school, Bennington College, formerly a women’s college, and though it went co-educational in 1969, in the 80’s it was mostly women.

That first semester, I finally took my first dance classes.

That younger me is still Here, found in a joy of dance, especially when I am seated in the darkened theater during Dance Company tech week rehearsals, and I catch myself anticipating the choreography, watching but also slightly joining the dance phrases with a gentle turn of my head, following the combinations and connections shared between the dancers on stage.

Adrienne Rich, the renowned poet, grew up in pre-civil rights Baltimore and graduated from the Roland Park School in 1947, though it was not yet our neighbor in those years. In her 2012 Baltimore Sun obituary, Rich is described as “one of the country’s most honored and influential poets, whose finely tuned verse explored her identity as a feminist, a lesbian and an agent for political change…” Her intimate essay, entitled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” explores the concept of “an honorable human relationship.” In 1975, when she wrote this essay, second wave feminists sought to define lives and work apart from the gender expectations of the generations before them. A focus on relationships shared by women is at the center of her work. She challenges her readers, stating, “This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler… We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even with our own lives.”

Another amazing writer from Baltimore, the contemporary playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, discusses the work of building trust as beginning in ourselves. In her Letters to a Young Artist, she makes the point of promoting small steps, suggesting: “In order to keep trust alive, we must start with ourselves. We start with making ourselves trustworthy… Real substantial trust will come from real substantial doings. It can be as simple as being on time, being honest, being discreet, doing the work you say you’ll do, keeping promises… It requires self-knowledge. It requires clarity about your own principles…”

The willingness to engage others truthfully, even in disagreement, with a commitment to shared ground and respect, is part of Rich’s concept of a honorable relationship practice. Her essay finishes with the following commitment: “It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities between us. The possibility of life between us.”

…Imagine a connecting line to the seniors of the past, some now sitting here in this present time with us again as faculty members, and keep imagining that connection stretching back even further to a time on campus that did not include this theater of today.  …We are a very different community than the origins of this school, grown with the experience and lives of many, many more innovators than just the founding women whose names we repeat in our annual celebrations… Somewhere in this incredible timeline of this institution marched students and faculty breaking previously held religious barriers, brought this school forward past the days of racial segregation, and recently, taught us lessons about being gender nonconforming or transgender at an all-girls school. These are only some of the ways this place learned to change, changed by the challenges and love and care of individuals, in leadership, families, faculty and students, and we are the better for these truths, for these ongoing opportunities to learn and widen the authenticity of a more diverse learning community.

In his book, The Art of Communicating, the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Han, describes the work of community with such beautiful imagery: “Be your community and let your community be you. This is true practice. Be like the river when it arrives at the ocean; be like the bees and birds that fly together. See yourself in the community and see the community in you. This is a process of transforming your way of seeing, and it will transform how, and how effectively, you communicate.”

This was a story that only I might tell, brought together through the craft of writing and rewriting and reading out loud and revising and practicing, until the written words met all of us here in this living present moment, shared with the hope that you too will stand in your own inspiring self and bring forward the wisdom of your own journey.

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“Recurring” series by Pete Hocking at Four Eleven Gallery, Provincetown

“From one tide to the next, and from one year to the next, what do I find here?” ~ prose poem by Mary Oliver, “At Herring Cove”

There’s a writerly narrative in Pete Hocking’s visually evocative paintings, and in the current (and evolving) groupings of varied sizes his work explores emotionally potent terrain, focusing our view towards the edges and reexamined places of many, many miles of walking and witnessing in the stunning Provincetown landscapes. Having followed Pete’s painting work and photo documentation practice throughout the last decade, it is exciting to see these new works and new directions from his deepening roots in Provincetown. From the wilder edges of the Herring Cove series with its powerful waves and eroding remains of the parking lot and road, to the recent pieces which offer playful side-glances of the town’s sites of intimate human-activity in the isolation at off-hours, there’s a poetic repetition of imagery and place that brings his work into conversation with great Provincetown writers and painters of generations.

This was my very first trip to Provincetown, and it began and ended with unplanned sightings of Pete Hocking heading down Commercial Street, timely appearances bookending an inspiring visit. His solo show, “Broken by Wind and Tide,” opened at Four Eleven Gallery at the end of our week’s visit, and the days in Provincetown provided a wonderful opportunity to see his paintings and process as the final days before the reception unfolded. And, of course, there was walking.

Years ago, Pete Hocking’s work was filled with people, more specifically, embodied visions of his own body in a time-bending relational exploration of past, present, and future selves. These figures occupied settings like actors within the scenic design of a play, and their captured moments of relationship and interaction were like pages from a graphic novel. In the Provincetown work, Hocking finds a great opening of spaces, gone are the bodies as figures within the frame, and instead the viewer is guided along the pathways and journeys walked over and over again, edges and glimpses of twists and turns, captured corners of dwellings (homes not his own), intersections and vulnerable grids of power lines, shadows, crosswalks met with the stillness and calm emotional center found in the miles of wandering.

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“At Love’s Frayed Edge, no. 28” by Pete Hocking at Four Eleven Gallery, Provincetown

The “At Love’s Frayed Edge” series brings us the edges of an eroding evidence of human “civilization” met by the forces of nature and impermanence. The powerful waves consume the attempts to maintain the constructed surfaces, and shatter their lines and boundaries into tumbled shapes and remixed patterns. Hocking brings the viewer into the swell and impact of the storm winds, and the inner turmoil of washed away landmarks of normalcy and structure. These are the images of a Hermit at the edges of the known terrain, meeting the wildness in himself and the landscape.

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“Path to Impermanence no. 1 + 2” by Pete Hocking at Four Eleven Gallery, Provincetown

Spring finds the painter considering the fragile beauties of the blooming trees, pink with falling petals just as they’ve done alongside these roads and pathways for generations. Though the storms of the Herring Cove series are quieted, Hocking marks the no less transitional and ephemeral landscape with thick painted surfaces of color that hold movement and light, warmly evoking the afternoons of this particular moment, moody but vividly alive and present.

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One of the 6″ x 6″ “Recurring” series by Pete Hocking at Four Eleven Gallery, Provincetown

One of the great strengths of this exhibition is the inclusion of the smallest pieces, most of which are hung together in a tight group. These small canvases show Hocking at his freest hand, experience and technical skill worked with no preciousness, the scale of the actual landscapes now shared within a small frame, his expressive brushstrokes speak in their simplicity of maturing, direct knowledge of these places.  This particular piece (shared above) is one of 6″ x 6″ “Recurring” series, a painting of a specific location during a walk we took together mid-week. As we approached the start of the dune shack terrain, on a walk filled with conversations about mid-life, queerness, art practice and academic careers, he paused to photograph the specific liminal spaces of the returning woods, the fragility of the green-covered dunes, and the dip leading into the cranberry bog that held enough water and organic material to anchor the new growth of trees. For many decades the dunes were more barren, hard places altered by the impact of the original colonialists, now slowly regaining the diversity of the plants and animals previously lost, supported with the protections of environmental initiatives and long-term efforts. In a time of such uncertainty, the pressing woes of the political era and climate change, the renewed call to art and activism, alongside the more intimate challenges of aging bodies, of community-building and questions of home, the queer ecology themes of Hocking’s Provincetown landscapes arise through his repeated visits, keen eyes and insightful discoveries along the repeated miles of walking, listening, and being present amidst all the great and small changes. And what a wonderful guide he is, whether found at the corner of Commercial Street, in the gallery or studio, along the great stretches of beach and dunes of this historic and contemporary setting.

A second opening reception on Friday, July 7, includes an additional series of small works, “Buildings and Byways,” with a distinctly psychogeographic view of Provincetown in the empty hours of early morning and evening, the streets passageways without the cluttered movement of pedestrians and bicycles. If you are in Provincetown before July 20, make sure to see Pete Hocking’s paintings at Four Eleven Gallery, 411 Commercial Street, Provincetown.

caution

My flight landed in the Ft. Lauderdale airport shortly after the shooter was in custody. The impact of the violence continued.

The Descent: The pilot announced beginning the plane’s descent, and the woman diagonally across the aisle asked the flight attendant about “the shooting.” The flight attendant answered, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” and on her laptop she showed him the live footage of a local news station reporting there was a shooter at the airport. I could read the scrolling text, and soon other passengers called out the unfolding news as they read from their phones the texts from family and friends alerting them of the violence erupting on the ground. There was a short cycle of cacophony as voices and devices repeated the announcements about an active shooter, followed by a dampened silence with the first reports of casualties. The cockpit confirmed our arrival, due to proximity and fuel levels, and informed us that we would remain in the plane until the situation was resolved. In the airport itself, chaos erupted and hundreds of people fled unto the runways and out of the terminals.

From the Miami Herald: “The police were already tallying the afternoon’s human damage. All five of the fatalities – 69-year-old Mary Louise Amzibel of Dover, Del.; 70-year-old Shirley Wells Timmons of Senecaville, Ohio; 57-year-old Michael John Oehme of Council Bluffs, Iowa; 84-year-old Olga M. Woltering of Marietta, Ga., and 62-year-old Terry Michael Andres of Virginia Beach, Va. – were tourists who had come to Fort Lauderdale for cruises.” I sought your names amidst the national scandals and controversies of the week that followed, and I offer my condolences to your families facing unimagined loss and grief. How quickly this latest gun violence vanished from our news.

On the Plane: After a smooth landing on the sunny tarmac, I managed to text my boyfriend’s mother about the situation. I was relieved to make contact, grateful that we’d arranged to text when I arrived in the airport, and aware that a different plan would have placed her in the terminal. I’d almost booked a slightly earlier flight, which would have placed both of us in the airport as the crisis broke. My cell phone signal was spotty, and my battery low, but I felt reasonably protected in the plane. Through the windows, the airport was eerily still and empty. The plane passengers exhibited a combination of chatting, listening to devices (now out loud and not on headphones), and every once and a while a nearby passenger would answer his or her phone, sometimes with a weepy edge in their voice as loved ones connected from afar. For the most part, we remained in our seats, with only occasional updates from the pilot.

As the sun set, maybe four hours after we arrived, with rumors of a second shooter and news mostly from a friend sharing what she could find on Twitter, the plane cabin lit up with the flashing red lights of the police cars parked as a barrier. A fellow passenger, blond wavy hair pulled up in a loose knot, took over the hospitality area and distributed the remaining snacks and water. Her calm demeanor helped reduce the complaints as she took care of a flight full of concerned people. Later, a service vehicle came and emptied the contents of the lavatories. An ambulance arrived and the boarding door was open to let in EMT’s to care for two diabetic passengers affected by the hours and lack of food. One returned shortly after, wanting to be returned to her family, and the other was taken away. Mostly, we waited.

Leaving the Airport: Six hours after the plane landed, we disembarked the plane and into the terminal; the area was filled with belongings scattered across the spaces where others fled for their lives. Laptops left on tables, suitcases knocked over in the fearful escape, meals left unfinished on café tables, coats and phones and purses strewn across the floor and overturned furniture. Military officers lined the hallways calling out, “Do not take photos! This is a crime scene.”

Down in the baggage claim, not the one where the shooting took place, hundreds of passengers wandered without real instruction surrounded by officers with assault rifles. I knew this was only a transitory passage, and so I asked the officer behind a “help desk” what was the next step. “Where do we go?” I asked. Redirected upstairs, I stepped out into the humid Florida night, where more than a thousand others waited for the evacuation buses. With a phone battery nearly dead, I feared being lost without any way of contacting my boyfriend. I wrote his phone number in my journal so that even without access to my contact list I could still reach him whenever access to a phone might be provided. I tried to think clearly about the steps ahead.

Alongside those of us released from planes, most dragging luggage besides them, were hundreds of others without their belongings. The airport announcements repeated that no one could return to the terminals to retrieve lost belongings, the abandoned items left in the chaos of the afternoon, the personal items discarded as they fled out onto the tarmac, and into the fields; you watched the footage of their escapes throughout the day, and we did, too, from the relative safety of the grounded planes, as the long afternoon stretched forward. Late into the evening the announcements claimed that instructions would be provided later regarding the procedures to regain suitcases and personal items left behind. Apparently it was more than 20,000 pieces of baggage and personal items left in the airport during the crisis.

I felt tears rising as I gazed out across the crowd, the reality of being alone, and fearing the potential for further conflict or panicked evacuees and armed officers shouting orders. I felt vulnerable, especially as a queer person, and yet also aware of the privilege of my body and gender. I knew I was slipping into a dazed shock, so despite my nearly drained phone battery, I wrote an update on my Facebook page, and the act of naming and witnessing the unfolding situation helped anchor me in the uncertain transition. I took pictures of what looked like a scene from a dystopian science fiction movie. I saw in that brief moment that my friends knew I was alright, and it helped me stay focused amidst the insanity of the circumstances.

When the busses arrive, the crowd surged forward, anxious to get away from being hostage to the violence. There was immediate relief that my bus included USB ports, and so with phones charging, we headed towards the cruise ship port near the airport. Later I would read that 10,000 passengers were bused from the airport in the aftermath of the shooting. There were no further instructions; no official explanations of where we were going, how to meet up with our family members, or how to get transportation to hotels or other arrival destinations. Almost an hour later, the buses stalled amidst the shut down highways, trapped in the gridlock of arriving cars and shuttles trying to pick-up rerouted passengers. The majority of the bus passengers got off the buses, and so I did as well, and joined hundreds of evacuees walking along the edges of the cruise ship docks uncertain of where to go.

Found: I found my boyfriend on the other side of a long fence. He was standing by the car looking for me in the crowd, and I took his hand through the chain link fence, so relieved to be found, to be together. I wanted to just be held and cry, to release the fear and the holding myself together over the hours of the challenging day. Twelve hours after my plane left Baltimore, I made my way around the fence that separated us, and reunited with my loved one. Together we headed away from the confusion and fear, the streets still filled with others seeking their delayed arrivals. I felt exhausted and grateful, both lost and found.

On the Ground: Over the short weekend, we walked on the beach with a stormy sky and the wind providing a deep cleansing from the challenging journey. I stood in the warm waters of the ocean lapping at my feet. The beauty of the varied landscapes provided an easy engagement and intimate reminders of the present joys. The time together with my boyfriend and his family, as well as a visit with a mutual friend from the retreat at which we’d met during the summer, all took on additional weight and importance in the undertow of waves from the crisis I only narrowly encountered. I was grateful for the strong winds and the walks we shared out in the beauty of the water edges, some wild and some more human-maintained, but there was definitely some residual inner processing at work behind my eyes.

The Way Home: Two nights after the attack, I was back in the incredibly overpacked terminal. The airport was tense, but surprisingly not as militarized as I feared. Security was extra slow and thorough, yet we’d been reminded steadily that the shooter had “done nothing illegal until he started firing.”

The kind words and care expressed throughout my hard arrival into, and my return from, the Fort Lauderdale airport on that tragic day touched the aching places revealed. To be so close to the violence and loss and fear a strong lesson in the impermanence and uncertainty we all face. Held tightly in love’s embrace, a salve, but also in the knowledge that others did not return with their loved ones from the Fort Lauderdale airport as I did, a potent reminder.

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Labyrinth, work-in-progress, Michael Sylvan Robinson (2016)

Each morning and before I go to bed, for the last two weeks or so, I’ve brought myself to the yoga mat.  Beginning in child’s pose, I whisper into the floor, “Letting go. Letting go. Letting go. Letting go.” There is breath and silence within, releasing and opening; my body stretches gently and carefully. Though it is certainly not the power yoga sculpt classes I went to before the accident, there is a daily practice and discipline I’d never before achieved at any point in my life.  I am grateful and humbled in this body knowledge. Rising up into downward dog, I look carefully to make sure my heels are even, the right heel which soon could go back to touch the mat again, and the left heel that might never again be able to touch the floor. I try to not be critical or fearful, letting the progress of just being on the mat again be enough, bringing myself twice a day to be present in my body as it is, right now.

The landscape of today is really different than the intense winter in which I began a daily walking practice as part of rebuilding strength and flexibility, and the inner landscape is also greatly changed. I am still healing, still figuring out what happened to me over this transformative year.  The dramatic injury and long recovery process forced me to reexamine the unsustainable pace of a life I’d built in the confidence of vision.  Being injured was a life-changing, traumatic, unexpected upheaval of how I managed, or thought I managed, relationships, work, art-making, self-care, health and house. Now, 135 walking days later (and 620 miles), I honor the movement and stillness which helped me open to the present and release old stories and patterns of the past. I am healing and remember that I’m-Not-Broken.

I am not broken, but I am also not the same.  My life is not the same. Not everything survived the accident, the surgeries, the days on crutches and the too-soon return to work, the additional stresses and pressures revealed other broken places in my life, but in the losses that followed, there are also places that deepened and strengthened. Feeling vulnerable and frightened, I stepped into greater self-care, into the quiet of the walking meditation and sitting practices, into the acceptance of what is, rather than what I wanted it to be.  There is gratitude in my life again. Thank you for the friendships that, despite all the challenges, stood close to me. I am also thankful for the new people arriving in my life as I step back into community service and return to activities of interest and passion. With more mindfulness, I strive to bring the values I hold to all the circumstances of my life: Caring. Gentleness. Listening. Being honest. I’m not always the best me, but it’s a very human me, not an inflated superhero-me, that I bring to my regular life today.

On a mid-morning walk, a great big red fox crosses the road in front of me, the bright sunlight through the tall trees a spotlight on his beautiful, graceful dance as he bounds about in the gardens of a neighboring house near campus; the birds in the trees above call out their warnings. At the end of that first mile, I watch a young hawk circling directly above me, tawny below the outstretched wings and keening to her kin, a moving beauty on the absolute blue canvas of the sky.  Daily, I greet the tremendous blossoming where once I walked carefully amidst frozen ground and biting winds. In the green canopy of new leaves, the gathering of crows calls to me. I am Here. Here. More present than I have been in years, striding forward in greater liberty.

I’m almost finished a simple adult jazz dance class taught as part of a professional development program by one of my amazing colleagues. I went into the first sessions worried that I might not be able to do much, and that the old “dancer” me would be hypercritical and judging.  I was a dance/drama major during my undergraduate years (a long time ago). There was a little of that voice in my head, but mostly I chose to have fun, to laugh, to enjoy the movement I could do, and catching sight of my white-bearded and older body moving across the mirror in a simple dance combination, I felt glad to be at such a moment just fifteen months after breaking my ankle. I’m learning to allow and accept the limits of my ankle’s current flexibility and strength, that prevents much jumping or turns, but I bring a calm determination to my return to dance and yoga. There’s a part of me, deep inside, that still identifies as Dancer, and I’m tending that self with these first steps back into the studio.

“We must also open ourselves to the hope that comes with understanding the one thing we can do… Being present is a radical act. It allows us to soften the impact of trauma, interrupt the forces of oppression, and set the stage for healing and transformation. Best of all, our quality of presence is something we can cultivate, moment by moment. It permits us to greet what arises in our lives with the our most enlightened selves, thereby allowing us to have the best chance of truly repairing the world.” ~ Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burke’s Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others

Autumn Butterfly

Autumn Butterfly

Today, exactly seven months after the injury, almost to the hour, I drive myself to a follow-up appointment with the surgeon. It’s my first solo trip, as I couldn’t walk the distance between parking and the foot and ankle center office until now.  The new school year is just starting to establish a more regular routine, and on this beautiful autumn morning, at the very start of the season, I park my vehicle and walk carefully up the sidewalk of a short, but very steep hill. I’m clearly still injured, visibly limping, though no longer wearing a brace or needing crutches.  I know I look older, aged by the pain still showing in the wincing muscles of my face; I’m trying to be patient with my progress, so differently vulnerable in ways I could never have predicted before the fall.  There’s a weariness etched in my spirit, but also a wisdom earned from the many months of recovery from trauma and a long healing process still ahead.

I watch my steps with focused attention, and I acknowledge that even a month ago this incline would have been impossible. The pain would have been too great, the steep hill too challenging, but today there is a greater strength in my stride. The movement of walking is more fluid, less wobbly, and with significantly less of the rocking side to side motion which I referred to as my  “Ar2D2” walk. Despite the uneven surfaces below my feet, I make decent progress across the short few blocks, passing the medical staff in the shadow of the underpass where they gather to smoke at the outer boundary of the hospital grounds. I walk through the front door of the main lobby, and as I pass this familiar gate, I remember the complicated arrangements it took to get me to my past check-ups and surgeries here; the adjustments my boyfriend and close friends and family made to their own schedules to bring me to appointments. Sometimes, I coordinated shifts of support, one loved one dropping me off at the front door, helping me get on my way with crutches under my arms, and later someone else meeting me after the appointment to bring me home or back to work. For weeks after the accident my car sat in my work parking spot where I parked it the morning of my fall on that icy campus path; there it remained a visible marker of my absence until it could be brought back to finish winter in front of my house. Finally, there was a day, now months ago, when I was able again to drive myself short distances, parking in the handicapped spaces on campus while struggling with the crutches and a series of therapeutic boots. Those previous appointments with the surgeon brought anxiety, cresting in the days just before the return, fearful of being scolded for making slow progress, despite my active efforts in physical therapy, and worrying about the boundaries of the next steps.  On my own with the surgeon, a cheerful but concise man younger than me, I often forgot to ask questions about needed information, or couldn’t remember the answers provided amidst the overwhelming emotional and physical realities of surgeries and pain and recovery. It was a learning process of advocacy and self-care while navigating the tangles of doctors and insurance, workers compensation, medical leave and then a return to work, relationships and personal needs, while trying to prioritize healing.  My body continues to heal…

Today, returning for what might be my last appointment with the surgeon, I feel more agency. Through regular physical therapy and diligently doing my exercises, I’ve regained activities that would have been impossible not too long ago. During my recent physical therapy session, at a fast walk on the treadmill, the very edge before a light jog would be required, I took that push up at the start of jogging, and stepped down into an immediate sharp pain that shot all the way up my leg from the ankle. The pain cried,  “Hell, no! No yet, no way!”  The leg didn’t buckle under me, as it surely would have earlier in the recovery process. After the initial shock, I resumed the fast walk pace with the “usual” pain levels. I described my progress to the physical therapist as, “same pain level but doing more.”

Today, the surgeon is basically finished his work with me. We talk about my ongoing pain levels and the clear progress in flexibility following the second surgery. I ask about the activities I did before the accident: yoga, running, and work-related choreography and stage blocking. I’m to be my own judge of what I can do now, monitoring the pain and working with the physical therapist to regain activity, retrain my body to walk correctly, and resume my “normal” life. He reminds me, again, that pain and swelling is to be expected through a year following the injury and initial surgery. With the permanent addition of the plate and screws in my ankle, he predicts about a 95% return to normal activity, but it’s going to take more time to get there. On my walk back to the car, I feel both relief and hope, but also grief and anger and sadness.

Set from Owl Gate Theatre's production of

Set from Owl Gate Theatre’s production of “Mr. Paradise” by Tennessee Williams

I just started my twenty-sixth teaching year. Directing educational theater, with the exception of a short few years when I went back to grad school, is a consistent, anchoring component of my adult life.  Thinking back on theater as both a student and teacher, I realized that since the third grade, when I took part in a Bicentennial performance piece at my elementary school, I’ve been in some kind of rehearsal process for a large portion of almost every year since I eight years old.

I remember a lot of really great teachers.  My experience as an older student back in grad school was one of the best gifts I ever gave myself as an artist and educator, providing a degree that I needed professionally, but more than that, a revitalization of my art practices.  Not too long ago, a large gathering of peers from my undergraduate college days came together to hold a scholarship fundraising event in memory of a beloved theater director and teacher.  I never had the opportunity to study or work with him in the ways that many of my closest friends and artistic collaborators did, but the event was certainly a tribute to his legacy and the institution itself, a very progressive Vermont arts college, which greatly shaped our experience as theater artists and produced an exceptionally strong caliber of professional artists, writers, performers in many, many competitive arts professions, especially for such a small student population.

I wasn’t always a great student; in my younger days, I was an interesting, creative, but undisciplined student.  I loved being in theater, initially it was a place where the misfit-me found a sense of belonging. I loved performing, but the path to the stage wasn’t always easy for me.  Though the theater itself felt like a home, it was also one of the places I felt most negatively judged by some of my theater teachers.  In my teens and twenties, I was a rather flamboyant gay actor (during the mid to late ‘80’s), and sometimes the least nurturing of my teachers were other gay men, older men I wanted to be mentors and allies. Comments were made to me by drama teachers/directors that I would never, never, never imagine saying to my own students. I was told I was uncastable, despite finding professional experiences out of school, and I steered myself towards performance art, dance, directing, and costume design when the criticism and lack of opportunities seemed insurmountable.

After I graduated from college, I arrived in New York City in an era when so many gay men were dying of AIDS. I remember the awe of seeing queer characters on stage in Broadway productions of Angels in America, Rent, Love! Valour! Compassion. I found community in activism, and we took to the streets to fight for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. I applied my theater skills to giant props for street actions, and making costumes/painting scenery for original or reworked plays for the small, ultra-progressive school and summer camps at which I was first hired to teach. Teaching theater was an anchor in the midst of great changes including gentrification of New York pushing the artists, unable to withstand the rising rents, further and further away from the city itself. Eventually, I moved to Baltimore, where I could still buy a home on a regular school teacher salary.  In the peak of my New York years, I directed more than ten school productions a year, designed costumes professionally, and ran successful theater programs during summers and after school programs.  My own progressive education instilled a belief in theater that is inclusive, diverse, and participatory; these qualities are at the heart of my work all these years later.  

Now an educator and administrator at an all-girls school, my background in gender and feminist studies is a central, core foundation for my leadership in the arts.  I am deeply committed to supporting the work of women playwrights and an advocate for more inclusive diversity in theater.  These values inform actions, such as an ongoing search for the right plays so that my students are empowered, as well as challenged as performers and thinkers. I am mindful of the importance of making visible the stories too seldom told.  I work diligently at discovering age-appropriate material for a wide range of grade levels, and we’ve added a community theater program that provides students an opportunity to work with local performers.  Many of my former students are accomplished performers way beyond my own professional performance career, and others are also teachers, or in professions where their art backgrounds are a vital part of their jobs.

At the start of my twenty-sixth teaching year, I share these thoughts from a life of learning, both on and off the stage. I am grateful to have shared many wonderful theaters with thousands of students and many amazing colleagues over the past twenty-five years, and next week, rehearsals start for the first musical of the new school year.

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