Wednesday, March 18, 2015

All worth it when the curtain rises

“I thought I’d be really nervous, but once the curtain went up, I couldn’t stop smiling,” my 12-year-old said breathlessly as she hopped into the car after yesterday’s dress rehearsal for her class musical.

Her seventh grade class is putting on a little-known production written specifically for middle schoolers this weekend, and Holly has a minor ensemble role. She didn’t want a big role, because big roles require singing alone, and Holly doesn’t like to sing alone. Instead, she’s a pirate, one of several. She stands near the edges of most of the pirate scenes; some pirates have names and lots of lines, but Holly has no name and just an occasional “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”

No matter. Holly is having a blast.

And so as I once again take stock of a complicated, volunteer-intensive effort that left some parents exhausted and others a little bewildered, I look at Holly and remember once again what the merits of this experience can be. She witnessed terrific talent in some of her classmates who do like to sing and dance and who feel comfortable in the spotlight. She saw other classmates assist in designing, building, and painting sets. She helped her fellow pirates learn their choreography. She did homework with a group of kids from the play every afternoon before rehearsal.

Witnessing all of this over the past three months has reminded me of why this is a valuable experience. For a kid like mine who is not particularly interested in theater, it’s really not about having a chance to learn stagecraft. It’s about learning more about life, as seen through the eyes of a seventh grader. It’s a chance to interact with new adults who are sometimes pushed to the edge by the cheerful unruliness of the cast and put their best foot forward anyway. It’s a chance to be reminded that sometimes the kids who never stand out as the smartest or the best athletes have unexpected talents when it comes to projecting lines or blocking a scene.

Unlike most of the towns around us, our middle school does not have a theater program. So putting on a musical – which each class does only once, in the spring of seventh grade – relies almost exclusively on parental volunteer effort, with a couple of professionals – a director, a choreographer, a pianist – whose stipends are paid for out of fundraisers which were also led by parent volunteers. Sometimes it seems like a never-ending process for parents, pulling off all these events.

But seeing Holly’s triumphant glow after yesterday’s dress rehearsal reminds me of why it’s all worth it. Kids learn and grow from these opportunities: not necessarily from standing alone in the spotlight, but sometimes from supporting the other kids who do. 

Holly might well never choose to be in another musical; she has plenty of interests, but theater still isn’t really one of them. Nonetheless, she’ll retain wonderful memories and subtler life lessons from the past three months of preparing for this one. And we parents can take a deep breath as we settle into our seats in the auditorium this weekend and be glad we put forth the effort to make it happen. 

“I just couldn’t stop smiling!” Holly repeated as we drove home from yesterday’s dress rehearsal.

For the moment, I feel just the same.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Deep snow, narrow roadways

Despite the near-record snowfall of this winter, I’ve spent plenty of time outside. Due to my good fortune in living on a cul-de-sac with very little traffic and having a reliable plow service, I’ve been able to continue my running streak with a daily mile or two, take frequent walks, and even continue my ten-mile-run habit on Saturdays.

So when I read an article recently about people becoming morose from lack of fresh air and exercise, I didn’t think it applied to me.

And then one day as I was letting the dog out into the yard, where, ever since the snowpiles grew taller than she is – several storms ago – she’s had to run along the one narrow path we shoveled for her, turn around, and run straight back, I realized not all outdoor time counts equally. 

Because I’ve been feeling like the dog recently: running – or walking, or doing anything – on one straight path. And even though that’s better than not getting out at all, it still feels confining.

Part of this is my own fault for not finding other options. Most winters I replace my occasional walks in the woods with snowshoeing. But even snowshoeing has been impractical this winter, with frigid temperatures most days and snow so fluffy that in four feet of snow, the snowshoes still sink three feet.

Getting out at all in this weather is a privilege, but I miss the feeling of open space. I miss walking through the woods or even just across the lawn. Like the dog, I’m tired of every path being so very narrowly circumscribed.

Fresh air, sunshine, and exercise are all important to our emotional well-being, but so is a sense of open space, I’m beginning to realize. Walking or running in a singular line is better than nothing, but I can hardly wait until the snow melts and I can walk in any direction at all once again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The surprises everyone holds

Imagine walking through an airport. All around you are people carrying bags – small purses, large backpacks, gym bags, duffels, briefcases. Imagine that you have to guess what’s inside each bag.

A lot of the time, you’d probably be fairly accurate. A laptop. A water bottle. A wallet. A phone. Cosmetics. Paperwork. Snack food.

But if the bags started falling open, you might be surprised by some of the items that fell out. Heirloom jewelry. Small weapons. Toys of an unidentifiable nature.

That’s how I feel when I meet with prospective memoir clients. They have a story to tell. Usually I can guess parts of that story. Sometimes I can even guess most of it. But there are always surprises.

Yesterday I met with a prospective client in her nineties. She was trim, mobile, alert, articulate. She must have had an easy life, I found myself thinking as I settled into an upholstered chair in her well-decorated condo.

She talked for nearly two hours. And like a stranger’s purse spilling open in an airport, some of it was what I might have guessed. A happy childhood with several siblings. The run-up to World War II. A romantic chance meeting with her eventual husband. A lifelong penchant for arts and culture, especially community theater.

But surprises spilled out too. One of her three children suffered from incurable mental illness and died in middle age. She said goodbye to her parents at the age of 22 in her country of birth and never saw them again. As a young wife and mother of three, she held a clinical fascination for the fast-evolving technology of birth control in its early years. In their eighties, she and her husband were victims of a violent home invasion. 

She recovered from that event, though, and now tells the story of the home invasion in nearly as merry a tone as when she described emigrating from the U.K. to America by ship and seeing the war refugees kneel at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. If there was lasting trauma, it isn’t apparent anymore. It’s just another thing that happened to her, another bead in the strand making up the story of her life.

If she decides she wants to do a project with me, I’ll learn even more details. As with all my memoir clients, I’ll be amazed at some of the details that spill out and unsurprised by others. But as I listen, I always remember how hard it is to guess. As you walk down the street or through the airport, you just cannot imagine what is in all those bags. Remarkable, really, just how different each story is…and how different each person is.