Halloween, Permission, and Being Something Else

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Halloween was always a thrilling time for me, both as a child and as an adult. It’s not that I was that into being scared; scary things were actually way too intense for me when I was little. And candy was nice, but given the weird scares of the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to eat most of the candy I collected anyway. No: what really drew me was the opportunity to dress up and be someone different.

Costuming has always been powerful for me, especially as an actor. A different set of clothes, hair, makeup, shoes – it can all serve to change how you stand, walk, move, even think. The interaction between the body and the things we wrap it in is a source of constant fascination, changing our relationship to gender, age, place, season, cultural identity, time, and self.

If you think that’s a bit strong, think of how different you feel when you are sitting on the couch at home in your PJs, versus how you feel when you put on a suit, or dress up for church, or go out dancing on a Saturday night, or go to visit an elderly parent, or prepare to work on your car, or go hiking. If you’ve ever worn period clothing, you know how much a corset, or a loose tunic or robe, or a frock coat, or a flapper dress, can change how you stand, move, bend and carry yourself. Cross-dressing or deliberately queering gender through clothing has an effect on the wearer, as well as an effect on the viewer, depending on the culture in which it is done, the level of tolerance of the people involved, and the context. Today, a guy in my office won the costume contest dressed as Princess Leia – not, I think, because he looked silly, but because he looked so good without hiding any of his masculinity, and pulled it off proudly. Were he to show up dressed similarly on any other day, the context would have shifted, and the office would have a different response.

While it may be true that our “true selves” are inside us, what we express outwardly both reflects that internal state, and can shift it in minor and major ways. Halloween and other events like it – Carnival in various parts of the world, Purim in Judaism, and so on – offer people a chance to be something they are not, without any real consequences. As a result, it can offer a rare opportunity for people to explore something that they would like to be, or would like to play with being.

Even if you don’t go out to parties, or trick or treating, take some time this holiday to mess around with your outward appearance. What happens to your state of mind and the feeling in your body when you wear something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear? What becomes possible that wasn’t before?

Watching music wake people up

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Scott Allen Jarrett, center, with some of the residents of Compass in Hopkinton

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to do something wonderful with the Back Bay Chorale – a great volunteer chorus I’ve talked about here in the past.  Under the auspices of their new Bridges program, we have been visiting nursing homes and assisted living facilities in small groups, singing well-known songs to seniors in all stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Our foray this weekend was to Hopkinton, where 15 of us sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Ave Verum Corpus,” standards like “Moonglow” and “All the Things You Are,” and a sing-along medley of The Sound of Music.  The audience consisted of a cohort of Alzheimer’s patients – this was the first facility we’ve gone to that was entirely a locked Alzheimer’s unit – and an energetic, positive staff.

Our mini-chorus

Our mini-chorus

One sharp old character – a former professor at BU whom the director addressed as “Doctor” – kept asking to see the words of the songs so he could better sing along.  One woman in the front row kept saying “wonderful,” and sang along to the standards, knowing every word.  Others were less responsive, but one woman simply opened her mouth and sang.

The response we received reminded me powerfully of a video I shared in another post, in which an almost entirely unresponsive man is brought to sudden lucidity by listening to a familiar song.  Aw heck, it’s so good, here it is again:

I keep being floored by the effect that music can have on the brains and hearts of people who are watching their lives and memories fade.  After we sang one of the jazz standards, one woman exclaimed, “That takes me back, oh, about 25 years!”  The brightness that came into these people’s eyes, the clarity, was at moments stunning.

I’m looking forward to more of this, and more research on how music can help restore, even temporarily, a person’s sense of self, time, and place.

Carmina Burana, the bombings, and being an artistic first responder

On Monday night, I returned to rehearsal with the Back Bay Chorale. We rehearse on Newbury Street, about a block from where the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, and since we rehearse on Mondays, last week’s rehearsal was a no-go.  But this past Monday, we were back, and our fearless leader Scott Allen Jarrett had some beautiful things to say.

Many of us probably felt a bit helpless on the day of the event, but many of us also tried to find ways to respond that would be productive in some way.  As not all of us can be first responders, or firefighters, or police, or doctors, we looked for ways to connect.  To help the grieving.  To begin the healing.  Scott plugged us choristers in to what it is that we do, and how much it truly helps.  Here is an excerpt from his letter to us:

As creative people, we feel the impulse to actively participate in making music, as affirmation of our communities. And in so doing, we each become ‘first responders’ of a sort. Some of you sang the Brahms Requiem last night. Others of us sang Messiah Saturday night. Still others raised the roof of the Garden with the National Anthem at the Bruins game.

Tonight we’ll gather to rehearse Carmina Burana. There is no In Paradisum or Selig sind die Toten, a Heaney sonnet, or even an energetic Et vitam venturi. But these texts are in our shared musical vocabulary. They are the reason we can so ably and readily respond in time of need. We have practiced being a community before. And we will do just that tonight and next Monday and in all our future rehearsals and performances….

Most of the time, I’m interested to care for the music, and in so doing, care for one another, each receiving in her own way. And so tonight, come and sing, work hard and sing more right notes, get better, learn a few more words. But let’s ‘lean forward’ together and look for ways to care for one another. This practice of community is and will be a healing and necessary affirmation for us all.

At the rehearsal itself, he drew us together still more, his voice breaking a few times as he gave his earnest self to us, and to the music, yet again.

I am struck, again and again, by how healing music is, and how intimately related it is to the body, especially for singers.  The ability to literally move vibrations through our bodies and produce sound, which then enters our own ears and others’, and which literally moves us and changes us, is a powerful gift.  Sound, as psychology professor Anne Fernald explains, is like touch at a distance, and so the intimate relationship between Ilana Rubenfeld’s musicianship and her healing work begins to make more sense.

I feel blessed to be able to work with singers as a singer, and also, to work with performing artists as a healer.  As we work together, we help each other to become more responsive – rather than reactive – in situations where what is called for is contact, community, and harmony.

 

The healing power of music

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I’ve written here before about how music touches lives, opens hearts, and even brings back memory.  Music may not be entirely unique to humans, but it is definitely a primal need: throughout our history, music has soothed us, aided us in celebration and in mourning, been indispensable in our rituals, driven cultural revolutions, fueled protests, and been one of the most popular forms of entertainment for centuries, whether it’s Grandpa on the porch with a banjo or Madonna on an arena stage surrounded by sexy dancers and pyrotechnics.

When considering RSM, it’s helpful to recall that before she was a healer, Ilana Rubenfeld was a Julliard-trained symphonic conductor.  The extent to which music informed her work is great, and really masterful sessions can have the qualities of a well conducted symphony: separate movements, swells and climaxes, gentle andante sections, elegant resolutions.

Music moves through the body just as touch does: sound is literally vibrations which not only get translated to sound in the air, but can sometimes be felt in other parts of the body.  Think of how a really low bass note will vibrate your belly, or how drums shake the floor.  And partly because of this, music can move us in more direct ways than other things can: music is intimately connected with emotion, and for many people there is nothing that can bring tears or smiles more easily than a well-placed strain of music.

For me, this phenomenon becomes even more profound when I’m the one making the music.  Yesterday I again got to sing with the wonderful Back Bay Chorale, and we sang a new piece along with the Mozart Requiem.  I was going through some personal difficulty this weekend, but predicted that singing the Mozart would help a great deal.

I was thrilled with how right I was about it.  Breathing deeply, singing fully, letting that gorgeous lamentation for the dead flow through my body made me feel freer and stronger.  Being surrounded by 120 other voices, an orchestra, and world-class soloists peeling the paint off the walls also helped.

Even if you don’t feel like you can make your own music, though, when you’re having a hard time, let music help you.  Play it loud in your living room and lie on the floor to let the vibrations literally move you, or wear headphones in your bed.  Blast your favorite song in your car as you drive.  Let the music you love vibrate your ears and your cells to a new place.  Believe me, it helps.

Blog Year’s Eve – My Top 15

Birthday candle, Downpatrick, July 2010 

Tomorrow is the 1st anniversary of the start of this blog.  When I began, I wanted a place to talk about this amazing work, to explain some of its principles, and tell client stories.  What it’s become is far more comprehensive, and, as might have been predicted, more holistic.  I’ve enjoyed talking about the arts here, and how they relate to this work, as well as sharing the various things that move me throughout my days.

Right now, though, in a kind of celebration, I’d like to do a round-up of those posts I think have been most crucial in making this work clear.  I hope that those of you who haven’t been reading from the beginning will take a look at this retrospective, and thanks to all of you who have joined me over the past year.

Posts About How Rubenfeld Synergy Works

1. The Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy – An Introduction.  This post introduces, and links to, all 18 of my writings on the 18 principles.  For a really comprehensive look at the fundamentals of this work, check it out.

2. Moving From Habit to Choice.  A post on one of the touted benefits of this work.

3. Make a Move, Change A Thought.  What can fear teach us?

4. Just What Does a Rubenfeld Synergy Session Look Like, Anyway?  In two parts, a description of how a typical session goes.

Posts About the Science Related To Our Work

5. Toward a New Theory of Depression

6. How Love, Trust and Empathy Can Be Contagious

7. Treating the Whole Person: Autism, Science and Skepticism

8. How Music Brings People Back to Life

Rubenfeld Synergy and The Arts

9. Fail Better: The Joys of Gentle and Respectful Leadership. On the Back Bay Chorale and our fearless leader, Scott Allen Jarett.

10. Moving and Being Moved: Rubenfeld and Performing Shakespeare.  What Patrick Stewart has to teach me about this work.

11. Fearless, Together, and Free: An Afternoon at Double Edge Theatre.  The experience of movement based theatre and its relationship to the work.

The Spiritual Side

12. The Spirit Part of Rubenfeld Synergy.  What do we mean by “spirit”?

13. And What Is “Energy” Anyway?  Grappling with the notion of energy, chi, prana…

Personal Journeys

14. Rock Climbing for Body, Mind, Emotions and Spirit.  How rock climbing helped me get over feeling like an un-athletic schlub, and how holistic an experience it is.

15. The Things That Shift Me.  A catalogue of little things, and getting through the hard days.

 

Blog Year's Eve – My Top 15

Birthday candle, Downpatrick, July 2010 

Tomorrow is the 1st anniversary of the start of this blog.  When I began, I wanted a place to talk about this amazing work, to explain some of its principles, and tell client stories.  What it’s become is far more comprehensive, and, as might have been predicted, more holistic.  I’ve enjoyed talking about the arts here, and how they relate to this work, as well as sharing the various things that move me throughout my days.

Right now, though, in a kind of celebration, I’d like to do a round-up of those posts I think have been most crucial in making this work clear.  I hope that those of you who haven’t been reading from the beginning will take a look at this retrospective, and thanks to all of you who have joined me over the past year.

Posts About How Rubenfeld Synergy Works

1. The Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy – An Introduction.  This post introduces, and links to, all 18 of my writings on the 18 principles.  For a really comprehensive look at the fundamentals of this work, check it out.

2. Moving From Habit to Choice.  A post on one of the touted benefits of this work.

3. Make a Move, Change A Thought.  What can fear teach us?

4. Just What Does a Rubenfeld Synergy Session Look Like, Anyway?  In two parts, a description of how a typical session goes.

Posts About the Science Related To Our Work

5. Toward a New Theory of Depression

6. How Love, Trust and Empathy Can Be Contagious

7. Treating the Whole Person: Autism, Science and Skepticism

8. How Music Brings People Back to Life

Rubenfeld Synergy and The Arts

9. Fail Better: The Joys of Gentle and Respectful Leadership. On the Back Bay Chorale and our fearless leader, Scott Allen Jarett.

10. Moving and Being Moved: Rubenfeld and Performing Shakespeare.  What Patrick Stewart has to teach me about this work.

11. Fearless, Together, and Free: An Afternoon at Double Edge Theatre.  The experience of movement based theatre and its relationship to the work.

The Spiritual Side

12. The Spirit Part of Rubenfeld Synergy.  What do we mean by “spirit”?

13. And What Is “Energy” Anyway?  Grappling with the notion of energy, chi, prana…

Personal Journeys

14. Rock Climbing for Body, Mind, Emotions and Spirit.  How rock climbing helped me get over feeling like an un-athletic schlub, and how holistic an experience it is.

15. The Things That Shift Me.  A catalogue of little things, and getting through the hard days.

 

Out of my comfort zone

Last week was something of a process of getting out of my comfort zone and doing things I’d long wanted to, but never quite had the nerve.  In particular, I applied for a theatrical directing slot at a local respected theatre company, proposing a couple of really classic shows.

I write a bit about the arts here, particularly theatre, but I haven’t previously shared my background: I majored in theatre arts in my undergraduate years, and found my voice there much more as a director than as an actor.  After the end of my time there, I faced some discouragement, in particular a shakedown by a local artistic director at a theatre where I was applying for an internship.  She – seemingly deliberately – made me feel as if I were completely incompetent, and shouldn’t even bother pursuing directing, based on what she had observed of my work at the university level.

Now, being 21 at the time, I could only be crushed; I couldn’t have the perspective that hey, I was only 21, and if I had made some mistakes and not been utterly brilliant as a director at 20, perhaps some life experience and training would help with that.  I did go on to apply to a couple of directing MFAs, but I set myself up for defeat: I was 22, applying to Columbia and NYU and other top programs, and everybody basically said, “That’s very nice, dear, but what exactly have you done?”

It was ten years, a creative writing MFA and a totally different life later that I once again stepped into the director’s chair, and as soon as I did it, I remembered what was so wonderful about it, and why I should be doing it all the time.  Actors told me they wanted to work with me again; after I did The Winter’s Tale at Theatre@First, people kept telling me it was the best thing they’d ever seen there.

But the trauma of that college experience was still – is still – deep enough within me that it’s hard for me to believe that this is something I’m good at.  And the idea of moving from the small pond of my local community theatre into larger waters – other theatres in my area, or even local MFA programs! – is frightening, and makes me feel like an impostor.

But it finally dawned on me that I have nothing to lose by trying.  Last week: applied to some directing jobs.  Saturday: a trip to Amherst to check out their MFA program.  Today: a proposal for a staged reading.

It’s never too late to move forward.

Anything Can Happen

9/11 Memorial - South Pool

This spring, I’m working on a new choral piece with the Back Bay Chorale, called Anything Can Happen.  The five-movement work is by the young Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz, and is based around three poems by Seamus Heaney, and two sections of the Arabic Injeel, the equivalent to the New Testament.  The result is a dark, brooding, chilling and spare work that keeps pulling me into its mysteries further each time we rehearse it.  As usual, rehearsing with Scott Jarrett is phenomenal, but I’m always especially interested in what happens when he, who so much more often works in early music like Bach, takes on something more contemporary.

The finale – and title poem – of the work is Heaney’s off-putting take on Horace, “Anything Can Happen.”  Part translation of Horace’s Ode 1.34, part response to the 9/11 attacks, the poem never fails to fill me with dread, and at the same time a sense of the preciousness of the moment.  Don’t forget, it seems to say.  Everything you have is right now.  And only right now.

It’s a strange kind of gratitude to be imbued with, but its essence is gratitude all the same.

Anything Can Happen

Anything can happen.  You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

-Seamus Heaney
from District and Circle, Faber and Faber Ltd., 2006

(See the Chorale perform this as well as Mozart’s Requiem on Sunday, March 17 at 3pm at Sanders Theatre.)

Gentleness: the first word in our work

Part of a series on the GROUND of RSM – a foundational acronym introduced by Joe Weldon and Noël Wight at the 17th Rubenfeld Synergy Training.

Gentleness may have been the first thing I noticed about Joe Weldon, the co-head of my training.  I may have noticed his size at about the same time: though he is by no means an enormous man, he was the tallest person in our training, and one of the few men.  Though I believe that he is gentle by nature, I get the sense that he also carefully cultivates gentleness, probably in part to compensate for a tendency to seem imposing.  The intensity of his focus, his fierce intelligence, and his penetrating insight may have contributed to an all-around sense of intimidation, were it not for his warm heart and gentle approach.

In fact, in that first week of training when I was so closed and skeptical, Joe’s equanimity and gentleness were part of what made me so suspicious.  I felt I was being lulled into something, perhaps made to accept some kind of touchy-feely, New Age pabulum.  (Only much later would it occur to me, with a painful shock: somehow I had been taught to fear genuine kindness, to be suspicious of sentiment, to believe that if it wasn’t genuine poetry, it wasn’t genuine feeling.  When, I wondered, did I become so infected with irony that I couldn’t receive uncomplicated love?)

With time, though, I recognized that Joe epitomized the first rule of Rubenfeld Synergy Method: gentleness.  Approaching our clients this way also communicates a deep kind of attention: when we are being gentle, we are listening, and leaving space for the client’s truth to emerge.

Gentleness, though, as my own experience showed, can be complicated.  To me, gentleness implied condescension.  I wasn’t used to receiving it, and had a hard shell that needed cracking.  Ultimately it was gentleness that melted it, so that it didn’t have to break.

Some clients may also have the experience of not receiving gentleness; it’s not a highly valued thing in our culture of independence, striving, athleticism and innovation.  The quality of nurturance is seen as feminine, and therefore inferior.  We’re told to “grow up,” “get over it,” “just do it.”  The young generation today is seen as too coddled and entitled, and tremendous value is placed on having had a rough time, pulled yourself together, and made it to where you are today all on your own.  I know people – am even personally very close to some – who respond to gentleness with suspicion, either because they believe they are being drawn into a trap, or because it was never safe for them to be vulnerable.

But gentleness doesn’t mean coddling, or condescending, or even going easy or letting someone get away with things.  Gentleness is an overall approach, even an effective way of being tough, of helping someone see themselves clearly.  I think of the beautiful scene near the end of the film Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, as the one psychiatrist who is able to get through to Matt Damon’s character, Will, simply holds onto him and repeats, gently, “It’s not your fault.”  At first Will is bristly and brushes him off, but he just keeps repeating it, softly, patiently, until Will can hear it and let it in, and the locked emotion comes pouring out.

The world can be a very un-gentle place, but all of us need and deserve a place where we can feel like someone cares for us, lets us be vulnerable, won’t ever attack us or make us feel like our feelings are weakness.  For some people, therapy might be the only place they get this.  And so it is the place where we start, part of the foundation of the work.  When I answer the phone, when I open the door, when I listen, when I make contact: I stand in gentleness first.  Everything else follows from this.

Fearless, together and free: an afternoon at Double Edge Theatre

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in Double Edge Theatre’s Open Training, out in the wilds of Ashfield, MA.  The Berkshires are lovely this time of year, of course, but what I got to experience was far more than the usual New England leaf-peep.  Rather, I had my body worked, my mind expanded, and my spirit uplifted.  (Also, my toes blood-blistered.  But that’s another part of this tale.)

Double Edge is what I can only call a holistic theatre company.  They are housed on an old dairy farm in Western MA, where they have extensive gardens and some chickens and pigs.  Much of their 100 acres is protected agricultural land, and the artists in residence are doing their best to run the place in a sustainable way, including switching to wood heating and getting their water from an artesian well.  More importantly, though, they create amazing performative art, large, highly physical pieces that take years of development and tend to be based on well-known stories like Don Quixote, The Firebird, and The Odyssey.  Their latest touring piece, currently in development, is called The Grand Parade of the Twentieth Century, and I for one can’t wait to see it.

I wasn’t clear what I expected when I went into the afternoon workshop.  I went because an actress I respect told me about it, and since seeing Transcontinental Love Affair in Minneapolis, I’ve wanted to do more with physical theatre.  I knew it was going to be physical; I didn’t know exactly how or to what degree.  I thought at least some things might be explained, or discussed.  No: this was to be entirely experiential.  Strenuous, ecstatic, playful, and almost entirely without words.

When my friend and I entered, there were probably about 40 people there.  Many looked like they’d attended one of these before; I’m sure many were new.  Everyone was stretching out, so we followed their leads.

This turned out to be a good plan, since the next nearly two hours were to be an extended, complex, and beautiful game of follow-the-leader, where the leader keeps changing, and then there are several, and tribes and groups and bands form, fighting, cooperating, dancing, strutting, cowering, and carrying each other through an organically evolving, entirely improvised story.

But it started with a jog.

The magnificent Matthew Glassman – though we didn’t know who he was yet – entered, said something like, “Okay, let’s start,” and began to lightly run around the room – a medium-sized community hall with benches around the sides and a low stage at the front.  At first it felt like a martial arts class warmup: we all began to jog around the room.  But soon it became clear that we weren’t all jogging in the same direction.  Then we weren’t just running in different directions but trying to avoid collisions.  We began to encounter each other, dodge, confront, play.  It became clear in a short time that we were meant to follow Matthew’s other movements, too, and he eventually guided us into a large circle, skipping sideways around it.  Soon another leader emerged: Carlos Uriona, another core member of the group, and he and Matthew split the group between them without much preamble.  Before the end there were at least four groups that I could count.  The group I was a part of ended up running out of the hall – barefoot – our hands behind our backs, and running along the street and the sidewalk of the little town, into a church yard, through the leaves and mud and puddles, sitting on a rock wall, looking at the sky, peering about suspiciously at the spirits of Puritans looking disdainfully at us.  When we came back in, some people were wearing vests and hats, and a large cable spool had been rolled into the center of the room.  People were taking turns balancing and walking on it.  A smaller one was introduced.  Then long lengths of sheer fabric, which groups of us moved with, hid under, swept into the air and down again.  The hall became like an organized chaos of circusness.  Every one of us was soaked in sweat.

In the midst of all of this, a number of things happened.  I’ve felt this kind of thing before, most notably in ritual space and at times in less organized dance events.  First, the physical activity, which was intense, thrust all of us out of our heads.  When you’re working that hard, committing that passionately to movement, and making sure that you and others aren’t getting hurt, there’s no space for doubt, or fear, or wondering what you’re going to do next.  You do it, and that’s all there is to it.

I noticed almost immediately how easy it was to invoke an emotional state using my body and others’ bodies.  I could tiptoe around and not just appear, but feel, sneaky and mysterious.  I jumped back and changed direction in fear and alarm.  I leapt into the the air with elation.  I flung myself to the ground in despair.  All of this at the physical prompting of the leaders, and I felt how my heart changed as my body changed, how much I could change my state at will.

Once I was thoroughly warmed up, and so enmeshed in the physicality of it all that I forgot to be self-conscious, I also began to feel the powerful connection that forms between people who are doing something intense together.  There’s a trust that forms almost instantly, and the energy of the group – in this case, both the larger group and the smaller subgroups – becomes its own thing, an organism outside of the individual.  The movement becomes collaborative, the breath becomes a thing that you are moving together.  Touch becomes easier, and a kind of radical intimacy develops.  The sense of safety, of co-creation, of togetherness, becomes intensely moving – to the extent that you can process it in the moment.  In the moment, it’s really just something that’s happening to you: an ecstasy of change.  And for me, a reminder of what human interaction can truly be like, even between strangers.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened.  We moved: we ran, crawled, knelt, reached, jumped, pushed and pulled, leapt and twirled, balanced and twisted, held each other.  We draped the fabric over another group of fallen comrades and either tucked them in for a nap or mourned the dead.  We touched and were touched.  We moved and were moved.

At the end, we stretched out and breathed, rested and reflected.  I wasn’t sure what we had created but it felt profound and important and true, and yet ephemeral, an ongoing work, the work of a lifetime.

I know I will return.