The Value of Art

Marketing Guru Extraordinaire Seth Godin says:

“What it means to make art isn’t always that you get to make a living. It might just be that you get to make a difference.”

As a creative soul who yearns to spend her days writing and photographing, it was a real gift to be relieved of the burden of earning money with it. How many of us artists have been asked, when speaking of our art, “How are you going to earn money with it? What’s the point wasting your time if you can’t make a living?”

Or the ominous: “Major in something practical.” I have heard the dreams of many students crushed with that advice.

The work of art makes the world beautiful, it soothes our collective and individual souls, it creates connection.

Creativity matters. Art matters. Make it.

dandelion 2 Photo above taken by me at Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch, where artists of                               all kinds are celebrated at the annual Family Reunion.

Follow Seth Godin, who keeps me motivated and fueled to keep doing the work I am called and created for at:

https://seths.blog/

 

Short and Sweet: A Good Mom

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice. Almost like a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth.

Not now.

I have had to make a major shift here lately. I had to because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. Empty Nest is a big change. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me.

So I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and healthy. I even have a nose stud.

And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

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When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. I didn’t have many peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in my college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

I am now the grandmother of a six month-old. I was not ready for this. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

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When my daughter and her boyfriend left our house after they told us they were expecting a baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am. To do that, though, means that I must acknowledge that I was a good mom. It means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

 

What’s a time when you really rocked your parenting? Maybe you created a memory, taught a life lesson, or protected your child. I’d love to hear it.

If you’re a mom looking for a tribe, try Hello Minder. It’s moms with a lot of love and a desire to help each other more-than-muddle through the mom journey:

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Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

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That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

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For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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Is “Late Night” Worth Staying Up For?

I love Emma Thompson. I have loved her since the early 1990s, when Dead Again, Howard’s End, and Much Ado About Nothing were available on VHS so that I could rent them from Blockbuster and watch while nursing my babies and folding their freshly washed cloth diapers. Emma can play a solitary spinster like no other- even in her characters’ own marriages she radiates loneliness. Witness her restrained break to the strains of Joni Mitchell in Love, Actually. She breaks my heart every time.

I am less familiar with Mindy Kaling’s work, mostly because she’s of my millennial children’s generation. Mindy has built her resume’ in the way that new Hollywood works: write your own damn projects then produce them yourself. Don’t wait for some guy wearing a suit in his posh corner office to give you permission.

Which is exactly who Emma is in this film. The dude in the corner office, wearing a power suit. And I adored her. The film, too.

My eldest child, a daughter, recently visited from Los Angeles, and since Booksmart was not playing anywhere in Houston (Texans, we have got to get our acts together. We can have twenty screens of John Wick, but can’t spare one  little screen in the corner for an intelligent female-centric movie? Come on, y’all) we went to see Late Night instead. My daughter happens to be a female-writer-actor-producer-intern-production-assistant in LA right now, so she had a pretty specific mindset going in, that of the young-woman-trying-to-make-it-but-encountering-obstacles-while-she-climbs attitude. Plus, she loves Mindy K., whose career trajectory is one of her models.

In Late Night, written by Mindy K., an egomaniacal talk show host must fight to save her position as the star of an eponymous TV program. In Kaling’s script, the twist is that the host is a woman, and in 2019, this is still nearly as far-fetched as the premise of a teen web-slinger gallivanting around Paris. Irrelevant, though. Glass ceilings gotta break somewhere. Maybe if we do it in fiction first, those who wring their hands in misogynistic woe can get over it. Chelsea Handler (E!) and Samantha Bee (Comedy Central) are leading the vanguard on this, btw. They’re doing the work, they just aren’t household names yet.

Kaling’s script is dialogue-sharp, giving evidence of the comedic chops she honed while writing for The Office and The Mindy Project. Emma Thompson has the gloriously fun job of playing ballsy-just-this-side-of-pure-bitch. Her Katherine Newberry is too smart for the room, and has lost all patience with the men around her, with the sweet exception of her husband, played by John Lithgow. What I loved about Katherine was her complexity.

May I take a little side path for a moment? I happen to teach a film class at the local college, because I love movies and I love to dissect them. I don’t write reviews for the usual reasons, though. I review when I see a film that does modern women well; and I try to equip my students to answer this question from our very first class session is this:

What are we talking about when we talk about a movie being “good?” Or “bad?” We spend the semester asking the question: What were the writers and director and creatives trying to do here? Did they do it well? Measured in that way, we are free from our own personal tastes and able to assess a film based on what its makers meant to do. Of course, sometimes they do it poorly, and sometimes beautifully.

What was the team trying to do in Late Night?

I think screenwriter Mindy K., director Nisha Ganatra, and the entire ensemble were telling us a story of professional women excelling while lifting each other up. They did it well.

These women are real. Emma’s Katherine is prickly, she’s so sure of herself that perhaps only a woman of a certain age can sense the deep well of insecurity underlying every sharp retort, every expression, every fabulous outfit, of which there were many. I felt my own professional bruises every time she went to battle, especially when she faced off with the female studio head. The worst boss I ever, ever had was a woman.  Only an actress of Emma’s caliber could pull it off sympathetically.

Mindy K.’s Molly is brimming with the plucky optimism and opportunism of the go-getters of her generation. These young women have watched their moms and mentors kick stilettos at the glass ceiling. They see the cracks, and they are poised to tap gently or produce a battering ram, whatever it takes, to move upward.

Amy Ryan is fantastic as studio head Caroline Morton. If I had one complaint, it was that we didn’t see her enough. The romantic relationships are beautifully realized; John Lithgow is the conduit for us to see the tender side of Katherine and a long-lived marriage, while Molly’s awkward impromptu visit to her guy’s apartment has all the nonchalant embarrassment that I hear is exactly how dating goes in the millennial world these days.

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There is just enough ease in the film’s characters to make it fun to watch, with just enough tussle to make it worth an emotional investment. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon with my daughter, it gave us lots of discussion fodder for what a joy  womanhood is these days, when the world is opening up to us. Sure, we owe a debt to Alice Paul and Gloria Steinem and so many others. But we also have to give mad props to the new feminists of the millennial generation, women who may not call themselves “feminist”  but who passionately believe in the freedom to choose one’s own path and earn equal pay. Those women are writing it and living it and laughing it and walking it, too.

If you’d like to hear several viewpoints on the movie, some really liking it, some not so much, “Pop Culture Happy Hour” just covered it on their podcast. Have a listen!

https://podcasts.google.com/?feed=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnByLm9yZy9yc3MvcG9kY2FzdC5waHA%2FaWQ9NTEwMjgy&episode=ZjQ5MmY0NjgtYmU2NC00MGNhLWI0ZGItMzQ4NDJhMzdiOTkx

 

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Cathedrals: Fifth of Series

I saved St. Patrick’s in New York City as the finale of the series because it’s the first cathedral I ever saw. I was raised in the suburbs of Dallas, where evangelicals dominate the religious life of the community, and smaller church homes were the norm. Dallas suburbs haven’t really been around long enough to have storied, historic cathedrals. But a visit to the Big Apple opened my eyes to a whole world of diversity and art. I love New York City more than any other in the world.

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One of the things I appreciate about St. Pat’s is how crowded it is, tucked in among the Fifth Avenue crush of skyscrapers and traffic lights, cab horns blaring, tourists gaping, and black-clad New Yorkers hustling to work. It’s not quiet inside, one doesn’t feel an immediate hush inside its walls. Nevertheless, holiness is there.

One might wonder why, if I have left behind organized Christian religion, I have been photographing and visiting cathedrals. What draws me, beyond the intricate gothic architecture, the turrets and gargoyles and limestone? It is simply this: I still love God and Goddess. I know, without a doubt, that the Divine One still loves us. She grieves for us. She waits and watches for us to love.

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