Thursday, August 22, 2013

Beyond the Masks

I'm living with that idea from drama class - that acting is learning to take off masks. I'm living with it, letting it steep and percolate. I'm trying not to resist it, trying to keep from running away to hide behind my masks, behind my walls, behind my . . . behind my roles.

Can it be that I can only learn to be honest by learning to . . . act? Isn't acting pretending? How can I learn to be real by pretending?

A light dawns. This is why I react so strongly to theater: Because it is real! When theater is done well, the truth is there on display, unvarnished, for those who care to see. Good actors portray real, honest emotions and behaviors. Even as they wear the masks of characters they play, actors communicate real and relatable responses to challenges. I see the truth there and respond to it viscerally, to the degree that I have to take care what I watch because I can easily become distraught even though "it's just pretend." It's never just pretend. I often say, nowadays, that some truths can only be told in fiction, and I am becoming more and more adept at seeing those truths.

It's a choice I make, though. I choose to pay attention to the spirit's stirring within me, the whispers that are more meaningful than words, the sensing that defies explanation. I choose to look beyond the masks to the message, and that changes my response to every piece of art I encounter - visual, musical, literary, theatrical. I'm not a typical audience member, and today I'm understanding a new way I differ from the crowd.

It's the choosing: I choose to see truth. For most of us, though, it is much more comfortable and certainly more entertaining not to look too long there. Truth is often inconvenient. Most of us, rather than seeking the truth, prefer to see . . . the masks.

How do you choose?

Notes from Drama Class

I'm being brave like little Piglet again. This bravery is even more of a stretch than sharing a poem: I'm participating in a drama class.

The class is at my son's small, private school, and I'm allowed to sit in and observe. My agreement with the instructor, though, is that I will join in. Which, of course, means this is not a class for studying the history of theater or for discussing the styles of playwrights. I've done that, back in college when I realized how much theater meant to me. This class, though, is teaching acting, and learning is changing this learner.

I wanted that - I wanted to change from the person who broke out in hives at every piano recital and once refused to audition for a song I'd previously performed. I wanted to find out what is beyond that lump in the throat that tightens whenever I'm asked to do anything remotely like acting. I wanted the stretch.

God likes it when I want to stretch, and He helps me to see how everything that happens has layers of meaning. He helps me to see the broader applications of life's lessons. Drama, not surprisingly, has a lot of possibilities for broader application, especially as taught by this instructor who is committed to the idea that we must know ourselves before we can act at all. I like that; I'm always trying to figure out me, anyway. As the first class homework, I did a character analysis of myself, and my notes went to five pages!

I'm that way. I understand myself better if I write down what I learn. I hope to share some of that here, from drama class, from time to time, and perhaps in the sharing you'll get to know yourself better as well. Here's my first reflection.

August 20, 2013

Thinking about yesterday's exercise in drama class, I keep returning to the feeling . . . of feeling. I followed directions and tried to imagine how I would walk, look, smile, speak, saying the same simple line in a variety of contexts. By the end of the list of setups, when we were supposed to act as if something very sad had happened, I was focusing inward very sharply and acutely. We had time, took time, to come away from the fun and laughter of earlier scenarios, and we paid attention to the feelings associated with an actual, personal sad experience.

At the time, I simply went along quietly. I didn't actually participate in the exercise because I chose to observe instead, allowing the "real" students - the paying ones - to have partners and engage fully. Thus I was imagining how I would act but I was not acting. When it was over, though, as we reflected and debriefed, I began to feel as if I had brought to the surface something very personal and private.

If I draw on real experience and take the emotions from those experiences to inform my interpretation of a scene . . . if I act as if I am sad, but the actions are honestly re-telling a truth in the form of a fiction . . . do you begin to see my uncertainty? Where does pretending end and being begin? Am I revealing my private self when I act, pouring out who I am, for public scrutiny? To act, must I show the audience who I really am, even though I am showing it through a filter of fiction?

How else can I act, though, but as myself? I can only walk this way the way my body walks. I can only speak the way my voice can speak. Even if I copy the actions of another, I am doing so myself, and it is I performing the actions of interpreting another's actions.

I feel a little frightened by that idea.

I think I thought learning to act would mean learning how to wear a mask convincingly. I think now that perhaps it is the reverse of that: learning to act may mean learning to take off the mask and be convincing.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Small - Five Minute Friday

Lisa-Jo Baker describes the Five Minute Friday group as "a brave and beautiful bunch." Some days I'm braver than other days. I tell my children that being brave is not the same as not being scared: being brave is doing the important thing even when you're scared, I say. Today, I'm brave.

The Five Minute Friday prompt today is "small." I like these prompts because they can go in so many directions. Today my thoughts took me to a very introspective place, and whenever I go there I write more in images than in direct, logical sentences. I spent my five minutes pouring out a poem. That part wasn't scary, but this next part is.

I'm going to share my poem. Brave and beautiful, I'm going to put this out there because I want to be a real part of an honest community. I don't like hiding, I hate hypocrisy, and today I just couldn't come up with a pleasant, uplifting, encouraging post about "small." I felt too small to stand up and do such a big thing. Instead, I'm being truthful - and brave.

(Are you a fan of Winnie the Pooh? I am, and I am repeatedly surprised by how deep and true is the philosophy of life acted out in the Hundred Acre Wood. I think I'm acting like Piglet today.)
a brave and beautiful bunch
a brave and beautiful bunch

Without further ado, here are my thoughts.


Small? Too large to realize
the living space, the sense of size,
regardless of the yawning need,
the emptiness, the ache to feed.

Small, the size of words that bite,
piercing hope with shreds of night.
Through the rips, the bindings hold,
pulled too tight against the cold.

Small, the thoughtless sacrifice:
automatic playing nice.
Make the picture fit the dream.
Stop the breath to mend the seam.

Small remaining world may see
whether there is room to be.
Take the tonic. Numb the pain.
Growing time will come again.

Friday, August 9, 2013

I Have a Name

But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
 And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
 But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
 T.S. Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, "The Naming of Cats."

I have a name. It is given me by God, and it is who I am. I cannot speak it. I cannot introduce myself to you by this name. I only know it . . . when I hear it . . . and when I hear it . . . I know myself.

I spend a lot of my life becoming: trying to be a better wife, mother, teacher, friend, writer. I try on personae like putting on clothes. One day I am fun and frivolous and colorful and spontaneous; another day I will be focused and reserved and reflective and subdued. I am many things to many people, and I try to be all things to all people, to save them from trouble or hurt, to help them become their best selves.

In all this service, though, sometimes I begin to feel disconnected. I took a personality survey recently and the results surprised me. I went back and took it again, more than once, each time focusing on a different aspect of me, of how I have behaved in different situations, of how I wish to behave in life. Every profile was distinct; there was no overlap. It would look to an analyst as if several different people had taken the test.

Am I several different people? Do I suffer from multiple personality disorder? No, but I wear many hats – I am called by many names – and by this age I suppose I’ve developed roles around all those costumes. When I start to feel too much like a character and not enough like the actor inside, that’s when I need to hear my true name.

That’s when God speaks it. When I’ve stretched as far from me as I can to become someone I think I’m supposed to be, God reminds me who I am. He says my name, the name only He can pronounce, the name never given to another in all of time and space, and I know. My spirit rings like a tuned bell, full and round and bright and alive, and I take a moment to breathe inside that dome of heavenly sound: my name. Yes, I am someone. I am unique. I am special. I am important.

I am worth saving.

I am who I am, and that is who I am intended to be. He looked at all His creation and called it good, and He created me. I can picture His eyes full of love and concentration, imagining every detail of me. I can hear the music of heaven in His voice as He gives me the seal of approval, a name. Whenever He calls me, if I pay attention, I realize that I am and always have been clay in this Potter’s hand, and that I have value because He says so. He gave me a name, a meaning, a hope and a future. He has plans for me.

I am His.

I do not belong to any of the people I try so earnestly to serve. I am not defined by the roles I play. I am not owned by the hats and scarves and garments I take on to become what I need to be. I have a name that is none of those things.

That name is who I am.

Even if I could speak that name, it would be reckless to do so. If I told you my name, it would be like giving you . . . myself, my destiny, my soul. It is my God-given name and only God can use it.

Sometimes, though – and this is a mystery – sometimes I hear my name spoken in voices I don’t expect. In a piece of music, a certain combination of notes and instruments might strike me so that I feel as if I am part of the song itself. In a story, even an old one, I might meet a piece of truth that is my truth, my heart beating outside of me in a fictional body. In the touch or the words of a friend – or sometimes a stranger – I may hear that resonance, that unique tone that is mine and mine alone, and I realize I am part of a grand symphony more complex than human mind can conceive.

It’s true even if my tone is just the triangle at the end of a coda. I have a unique essence, and I am essential.

I have a name.

Here's a fuller presentation of Eliot's poem, as brought to life by the cast of "CATS."

And HERE is another thought about names. A friend shared this on Facebook today and it was just too much of a coincidence for me to keep to myself.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Standing by his butterfly bush, my new friend Pat and I were talking about church and family, living and learning. He remarked, "If you aren't deadheading, you're missing blooms."

I smiled and nodded, a little mystified. The comment didn't seem to fit our conversation. But Pat is Irish and a musician, so I naturally assumed he was imparting deep meaning upon my humble, seeking mind. "Yes, true," I agreed, raising a thoughtful eyebrow, hoping to hide the fact that I was grasping for the truth veiled in his simple words.

I'm not sure how many minutes passed before I realized he was just talking about nipping off the dead blooms from his butterfly bush so the younger buds would develop more quickly. In addition to being Irish and a musician, Pat is a gardener, and while we visited his hands were busy neatening up the shrub and preparing it to bloom more fully. Since it was a butterfly bush, he was preparing it to attract more butterflies, as well.

The deep truth was there, though. My brain looks for allegory and message in everything, because I believe God speaks to us through the stories of life now just as Jesus did when He walked among us. In Pat's little self-explanatory sentence I heard echoes of a vinedresser's shears trimming fruitless branches, whispers of waiting brides keeping oil in their lamps, and footsteps of a discouraged young ruler who could not let go. God is in the details if only we'll listen.

Deadheading. Getting rid of what's no longer necessary, so that what is beautiful may come into being. If we aren't deadheading, we're missing blooms. If we aren't releasing anger and jealousy and disappointment and fear, those old, deadly habits will hang around until they kill us. Hands that are gripping hateful memories or vengeful thoughts cannot open in praise and they can neither give nor receive. We have to deadhead. We must cut off the spent, the used-up, the useless. We must learn to recognize what things are out of our control - and some of those things are controlling us, with our permission - and we must release our hold on them so that they will have no hold on us. Then we can be free to grow, to become, to expand our territories and walk in joy.

So here's a challenge: Have you heard a story within the story of your day? Have you listened? Listen now. And if you can't hear, consider letting go of whatever you're holding over your ears. You might be surprised by how much better you can see.