The Refuge of Art: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

I've been stunned wordless by this Portland Center Stage show, thinking for days about artists and heroes, miracles and music, and the courage to rise above unfathomable cruelty.

When Mona Golabek stepped onto the Main Stage looking ordinary in her sensible shoes and black skirt with a pucker at the back zipper, I was unfazed. Her attire was nondescript (read: frumpy), and she was brown-haired and middle aged (read: just like me), playing the part of a simple Viennese girl. How was she going to hold her audience with this one-person show?

I could never have imagined that in the span of ninety minutes I would be spellbound, moved to tears, burning to dance, and awed into hero worship.

Mona Golabek is not only a performer, musician, writer, and actor, she is heiress to a legacy of courage.

Golabek brings to life the character of Lisa Jura, her own mother, the Holocaust survivor and inspiration behind the story, doing so while performing concerto after concerto. Golabek crafts a wonderful human experience, flowing from story to song and back again.

I know little about classical music. I recognize the works but can't match composers with titles. As I watched, I felt lazy-minded and undisciplined in light of the story of this young pianist whose knowledge, dedication, and hard work were phenomenal.

Because practice is key. In order to create art that changes the world, we have to be willing to dedicate ourselves to the hard work, the boring stuff, the tedious parts. We have to see beyond the day-to-day exercises into a world that may be.

In the case of Lisa Jura, her world was falling apart. Though she practiced with extreme care every day, the Nazi regime invaded her beloved city and denied her the right to continue piano lessons.

Yet her commitment to music opened a door to ride the Kindertransport, the railway that operated for less than a year, rescuing 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied territory. We glimpse the horrors of this time in footage shown on the ingeniously-designed screens, set in ornate frames as portraits on a wall.

The images wreck your heart.

Lisa Jura plays piano, note after note, night after night, using every available resource to keep her skill alive while making her temporary home in a London hostel. When bombs crash all around, the others flee to the bomb shelter. Lisa stays at the keys.

"I couldn't listen anymore," says Lisa at the piano, "so I escaped to the only safe place that I knew."

In the end, what we take away from art is not how perfectly we have honed our craft. Art itself becomes a refuge for us.

And Claire de Lune steps lightly, trilling, haunting and holding us, too. The Pianist of Willesden Lane takes us all to this place of safety.

Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel

How to Live, Unwritten

I've been thinking of the paradox of newness. Every day is new, and a new year is sparkly and exciting and Possible. And yet, not.

We mark days and years with our calendars, naming the movement of the planet. And yet our lives begin with awareness and continue in a seamless way, unbroken by calendar pages except in our imagination.

We can always start over. (And we can always let go of having to start over.)

The most important way to be new is to be open. In our thoughts. In our doings. To be receptive to what comes. To allow ourselves to be unwritten.

"Only the unwritten can truly live a life." --David James Duncan 

This means letting go of what we thought, wrote, or created yesterday, and taking life as it is right now.

Controlling Your Image vs. Giving What You Have

"Control what others see."

Isn't this what I'm always trying to do?

Google knows.


More and more, I'm disgusted with my efforts at controlling what others see. Do I want to live a life aimed to please, impress, sell, and satisfy? Is my artist soul about how others view me?

The problem with image control is that I can start believing my own press, shaping and tending my image, and thereby losing touch with my interior self.

It doesn't sound like it could happen so easily, but for me, it does. I must return and return again to my own inner validation, shucking off both the compliments and the complaints, and worst of all, the crickets. Whether my audience likes me or doesn't like me, or whether I'm seen or heard, is not what fuels me in the creative life, in the spiritual life, or in any true sense of accomplishment.

Working with writers and artists as clients and students, I've met many who need to lay aside the concern and effort knotted into image-making. The sensitive and caring seem most affected. These are the ones who habitually notice others' needs and emotions.

When we create an image for people, we gain the toxin of personal confusion.

When the image takes in a lot of people, we call the image "fame." Filmmaker Mike Meyers told interviewer Terry Gross he sees fame this way:
"It's the industrial disease of creativity. You want to make stuff, which is fantastic, and then this thing happens, which is very gratifying and I'm very grateful for it, but it does require a hazmat suit, a psychic hazmat suit."

I'm not even famous*, but there's something in me that wants to be. My tiny fame is enough to make me jumpy and sensitized and noticing. Google wants to help. (Aw, that's so sweet, Google!)

Yet this disease and the need for protection affects the unfamous and the unpublished just as much as those who are well known. The idea is, I have to make the whole world love me, because if I do, I will truly be lovable, not to mention happy. 

This idea is a lie.

There is no joy or love in controlling my image, garnering fame, or manipulating a particular response - from one person or ten thousand.

The juiciest creativity pops, the happiest life unfolds, when I abandon control. This is the magic of focusing on what wants to be delivered into the world, sent straight from a pure and carefree heart.

Sign says "Changing House." Change before you plunge. 
When it comes to validation, as a creator or a writer, what you need most is to trust your own authority.

Join me as a guest speaker at Vancouver Community Library, where I'll be giving the talk, "You're the Authority," on Sunday, January 31 at 1 pm. This is part of "National Unpublished Writers Day" a celebration that recognizes and supports writers - regardless of publishing status.

"National Unpublished Writers Day" at Vancouver Community Library will also feature host Christopher Luna, novelists Mel Sanders and April Bullard, and poet Toni Partington - four luminaries who have learned that giving from their hearts is much more powerful than trying to control their image.

In the meantime, I'll be wearing my Tiny Fame Hazmat Suit.

*This is the kind of famous that makes the most sense.

Forbidden Words, or, How I Kept Sane in Silence

A week ago, I emerged from a 12-day silent retreat. No, not a retreat. It was not relaxing, restful, or a getaway. It was a death march into deep silence, and I don't recommend it. Not unless you are a glutton for excruciating experiences which just might change you forever.

Giving up speaking was tough, but not as tough as giving up the written word. There was no reading, no writing, no journaling, for 11 days.

Three weeks earlier, I was navigating emotional upheaval during an intense yoga teacher training. My number one support had been my notebook. Two notebooks, in fact.

My notebooks in yoga teacher training.
Now, I would have no access to my words, no way to process on paper what was going on.

I expected to feel like Harriet the Spy.

She found that when she didn't have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down. She sat very stupidly with a blank mind until finally "I feel different" came slowly into her head. --from Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

I figured it would kill me.

Later I realized that was the point.

It is in dying that we find renewal, that we truly connect to the creative force. When a part of ourselves is buried, even for a little while, seedlings of understanding take root. When we who do word-work set those words aside, surprises happen.  

One thought that poked above the soil was this: that I will always create, that it is more than a thing I do, it is nature, my work: to birth that innate creativity in self and others. Well, okay, I knew that. But now I knew it anew. I mean, I really knew it.

And as I slouched around the compound (I began thinking of the meditation center as prison), I began awakening to creativity.

Fallen branches and vivid berries called to be celebrated. Rocks looked important. 

The bananas, apples, and oranges that were served whole, exactly the same way, for two meals a day, took on new possibility.

And it came to me how, without breaking the rules, I could treasure words.

I created a swag for my dorm room door. Well, there wasn't a place to put it, so I set the berries and branches on the fire alarm box and tucked the ends of twigs into the top ledge (thinking, wouldn't it be funny if I set off the fire alarm in this silence? But no, it wouldn't have been funny).

I built a cairn of small stones which I placed under the bathroom mirror.

I started mixing up the bananas, apples, and orange (zest!), with the proffered almond milk and tahini, in new smoothie concoctions every day.

And I collected the tags of teabags. And pulled out my pocketknife scissors, and began snipping labels from toiletry bottles and tags from sweaters.

I set rules, such as, I didn't form sentences, only worked during free time, didn't write anything down, and didn't go out of my way to get a label. I placed all the tiny words in a teabag envelope: my forbidden journal.

After I got home, I created with those scalloped words. And this poem emerged.

And so I ask you.

What, in your life, is asking to go underground for a while?

What elements need to die so that creativity can be rebirthed?

Where can you let go of words?  

What happens when you give up the thing you think you can never give up?

When was the last time you connected to your interior creative nature?

Spark: Cut out words where you would least expect beautiful words to exist - a cereal box, a  newspaper from a birdcage. Challenge yourself to discover beauty.

Spark #2: Don't speak, write, listen to media, or read for an entire day, up to 48 hours. Pay close attention to your relationship with language. Before you resume speaking, write down your insights.  

For the Love of Our Town

Our Town at Portland Center Stage opens upon stark simplicity. The only scenery is rows of chairs gathered as in a one-room schoolhouse or town meeting or church.

“What is this all about?” I wonder.

The Stage Manager rearranges chairs, designating different parts of this turn-of-the-century town, and it is like watching the flow of a dream, the collective dream of American history. He introduces us to the Gibbs and their neighbors, the Webbs. The air rings with good-mornings. All have their place: the milkman, the newspaper publisher, the doctor, the busybody, the constable, even the town drunk.

I think of the story of Alice, free to ride her tricycle through downtown Everett, Washington in 1907. On her seventh birthday, missing her front teeth, she stopped in at the studio of the photographer and asked him to take her picture. Her mother hated the gap-toothed photo. Then later, she loved it.

People watched out for the little girl on the trike, and for each other. That sense of being known and protected by an entire community – that’s something we’ve lost. And yet we have new communities, virtual gathering places and Google hangouts, social networks—all sorts of constructions meant to give us a sense that others know who we are and care about our daily activities.

Because what we do every day isn’t all that important.

As the Stage Manager explains, nothing remarkable has ever come out of this town.

You and I have to admit that despite all our clamoring to be remarkable, even with our gadgets and fast cars, we are just as plain and ordinary as the people of Grover’s Corners.

Deep down we fear that we don’t amount to much. As Thoreau mused, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

The search for the sensational pervades our history books, too. The Stage Manager points out that there were two million people in Babylon, “but we only know the names of kings.”

So then, if we aren’t royalty, what’s the point of us?

As we watch young George Gibbs and Emily Webb grow up, this question is in the back of our minds. It’s an uncomfortable question, to be sure. We hate to ask it. Some of the production's moments seem far too slow, almost as if to draw out this discomfort. Yet the beauty of this play is in the clear, unemotional way it persists in this question.

I have to say that my favorite PCS actor, Sharonlee McLean, and her comic interruptions as Mrs. Soames save the tone when it seems too detached and somber. Yet performances are lovely: big-eyed Nikki Massoud is captivating as Emily Webb.

Daily lives and quaint conversations about the "potato moon" give way to the larger sense of time passing, the world spinning, life ending and beginning and ending again.

Emily’s words in the visually haunting final scene are unforgettable. “We don’t have time to look at one another." She asks the dagger of a question: “Do any human beings ever realize life when they live it?”

As I drive home, feeling a stone-heavy sense of time and the world and the question of purpose, I look up at the poplar trees, still green, lining the drive toward my neighborhood. Every Autumn they become a tracery of flaming red lace. Every Autumn I am stunned at the change, forgetting to notice the daily surrender of green to red until it’s shockingly complete.

I remember going down this road with my youngest daughter at the wheel. I would hold my breath, cringing, wanting to be anyplace but in the passenger seat. And those moments passed so quickly. And now she is in her last year of college.

“Oh, I loved teaching her to drive,” I say out loud.

Because even though I didn’t . . . I did.

And to me, that’s the gift of Our Town. Recognizing that we don’t know what we love. Moments that seem lowly and insignificant and irritating and devastating can be honored and celebrated. We have the chance to pay attention. We can know each other.

I can see every face, from my daughter’s, to my own face in the mirror collecting lines every day, to the photograph of Alice, the gap-toothed girl on her trike who became my difficult grandmother.

So what’s this all about?

Not the accolades, or the sparkle, or the royalty or remark-ability of us – but that we are worth loving.

We don’t need gadgets or “likes” or titles or jet airplane rides to make this true. We are observers with the power to appreciate and notice and love all that shows up on the stage of our world, of our town.

In every now, the love, yes, the love.

Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel