Saturday, June 25, 2022

Lessons on Combatting Despair (and white supremacy) from the L.A. River

An antidote for despair? Community (and movement).

Volunteering with Friends of the L.A. River, this morning we donned our gloves, gathered our trash bags, heard the safety spiel, and traipsed down into the L.A. River with perhaps 40 or more folks. The FoLAR rep had informed us that a biologist had scoped the area we would be cleaning earlier that morning, and there were no nests for us to be concerned about disrupting, but to also avoid the cattail as that is a common nesting area. 

As I peered around to identify plastics, cables, and oh so much more, I heard kids crying out when they cleaned up something big or strange - Dad! I found another scooter!

Ducks waddling nearby, a blue heron soaring overhead to land just a few meters away, kids making discoveries: all reminders of why and for whom we're cleaning and keeping clean the river.

The waves of anger and despondency wash over me in equal parts these days, and at a downtown rally last night, one of the speakers said, “If you're feeling hopeless, look around you.” I looked and saw a community of people of all sorts, gathered together to share in our humanity, fight for our human rights, and support each other.

Some of the plastic, clothing, metal, and wires have been in the riverbed so long, they’ve started to wrap around and decay into the natural elements. At times I had to yank at something with all my strength, at times gently tug, see where it was intertwined with branches and moss, and follow its trail to release its hold.

 There are times when we will need to rage and disrupt, and there are times we will need to pay quiet attention to see where the thread is leading us to unravel the white supremacy, racism, and hatred that holds our nation back from flourishing as a living, healthy ecosystem.  

Looking at the bags of trash we, working alongside so many, pulled out of the river, I had a glimmer of hope.


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Olafur Arnalds at Disney Hall: Magic, Shadows, Laughter, & Mask-Ruining Sobs

“It’s so good to be with you in this … very expensive building.” - Olafur Arnalds greeting all of us gathered at Disney Hall on Tuesday night. Surrounded by the musicians he features in his multi-instrumental pieces – a cellist, a violist, two violinists, a percussionist, and the AI player-piano that greeted us with a touch of magic as we found our seats – Olafur began.


I hadn’t heard his work until a few years ago, when Patrick and I watched the first two seasons of Broadchurch, and wondered who composed the score that makes the place so tangible in its dramatic cliffs, moody storms, grieving townspeople, secrecy and beauty and struggle. Finding that the composer was an Icelandic multi-instrumentalist in his young 30s, we went deep into his playlist. His storytelling and escaping to the beauty of his space in Iceland via video helped us recall beauty and magic during the bleakest parts of the first months of the pandemic.


Seeing Olafur in person only added to this experience of his music. The lighting design was stunning (done by Stuart Bailes, whom Olafur said he met when in his previous musical career he was the drummer in the punk band Fighting Shit). There were moments with the strings played to sound eerie and oceanic alongside the smoke effect and lighting design, we were transported to a dark night on a rocky coastline. Lit from below the violinists and violist at times cast shadows high against the wall of Disney Hall, dancing shadow creatures that intertwined as the musicians bows and bodies weaved through space, casting otherworldly ghosts of smoke and straw as the shadows of the sharp edges of bows and instrument necks meshed with the players’ bodies.


Patrick spoke later about the power of a room full of people giving their undivided attention to music, sharing the experience. Olafur shared that music is a conversation for him, and how grateful he was to be in this space, sharing the work from the past three years, released during “the thing,” and how that thing gave him new perspective.


I don’t know which song it was that I had the overwhelming sense that we are all eternal beings, made of the stuff of stars, and even though my time on this planet is brief, I am part of this magnificent whole of the universe, known and so completely unknown. In the same moment, I was aware of the specificity of the art I had experienced from that very stage, where Olafur was seated, Patti Smith had stood, where Patti had danced, the Deaf West players had shared the story of Beethoven’s Fidelio. With the music, I was reminded that time is not linear, and it felt that all the past and present and future art and connection was now.


It was, clearly, a spiritual experience. Olafur is a force, dressed in a simple white tee-shirt, pants that look like hiking gear, and no shoes, just cozy black and pink socks. He’s hilarious, with a dry wit that had the audience laughing and cheering. Early on he asked if we knew how to sing, and after the lackluster response, he said, “That’s the L.A. confidence I’ve heard about.” He then recorded us all singing aaaahhhhh to A and then used the sound in the following song.  


After an encore, his band left the stage, and Olafur told us a story of his grandmother, who while he was drumming for Fighting Shit (not her favorite music) would sit him down and play him hours and hours of Chopin, influencing (brainwashing works, he joked) his compositions. After saying goodbye to her in 2012, he left her deathbed and composed the final song he played for us, sitting at the player piano. The tone pure, towards the end, the distant sound of strings joined him. I saw people turn their heads to look for the source, and from our seats we could glimpse the string musicians in a room off-stage, the door open not even a foot, as they walked in a circle and played.

Tears were streaming down into my mask; I was trying not to sob because the acoustics at Disney Hall are *really* good and I didn’t want to interrupt the moment. The composition with the off-stage strings evoked the sense of a person passing, passed, their spirit still making music in our lives.


Olafur finished and the hall was quiet for a moment before another standing ovation. He thanked us for sharing the experience, joining him in this conversation. This is my thank you to him for creating a space for us to remember both the expanse and mystery as well as the intimacy of our world.

(Visit to experience the sound and sights of his music.) 





Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Listening Beyond Language and Finding Curiosity


Feeding the universe (dinner). by Ella Frances Sanders

“Eileen Crist reminds us that while it is important to know that human language and storytelling are crucial in understanding, it is also vital to consider there are other ways to communicate, many of which have been drowned out by the very noise of language and story. ‘These others have been de facto silenced because if they once spoke to us in other registers – primitive, symbolic, sacred, totemic, sensual or poetic – they have receded so much they no longer convey such numinous turns of speech, and they are certainly unable by now to rival the digital sirens of the dominant culture.’ Mars, a eucalyptus tree, an owl, a baby. We have to listen carefully for the registers they use to speak. At times, we need to be silent.” – Maeve Higgins, Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them.


I closed the book, and looked out past the woman in the window seat to take in the view from 30,000 feet. I saw a snowy mountain peak, alone amongst foothills. My mind wandered to its seismic or eruptive beginning, the power of the earth as plates collide or molten rock erupts. I hesitated to use the word “violence,” the violence of the earth as mountains were formed. It seems a human observation to put a descriptor onto what is natural simply because the plates colliding wreak havoc to our human societal structures. I wonder when we lost the connection to “listen carefully for the register they use to speak.” As I listened, enclosed in a human-made contraption using fossil fuel to get me from one place to another more quickly, I heard the mountain remind me of how small I am. How the mountain had existed and would exist long beyond my time on the planet, whether reflecting the sun from a snow-pack or the flint of bare rock. I received a sense of rest, of connection to the earth, even that earth that heaves up mountains.


Scrolling stories a few days ago on Instagram, I think it was Ella F. Sanders, a writer and artist whose reflections on her world enlarge my understanding of my own, who posted something along the lines of, “I find I don’t have anything to say.”


I'm sure she felt she would again have words and images to share to help us all process these moments,, but in that moment, there were no words. I’ve been experiencing that lately, a numbness and exhaustion, a tinge of warning of depression. Also a need to process and be quiet. Days in which I still find some joy and joys, but also find myself wishing to fill the hours with mindless tasks, laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, til the sun is setting and it is socially acceptable to pour a glass of wine and disappear into the stories of the shows I’m watching, to then sleep and wake in the wee small hours to wonder about my anxiety-ridden bizarre dreams and then finally wake to start again.


I haven’t felt curious, a state for which I strive to be in as much as possible. The lack of feeling is for me a warning sign of the precipice of depression, but also a normal trauma response to living in this world – the daily news filled with violence, wars, refugees, mass shootings by terrorist white men, a minority of powerful people leveraging their faith as a weapon to take away the human rights from the majority. Friends suffering and I can’t take any of the anxiety or fear from them. I feel it all and it is too much.

The unrelenting lesson that to love is to open yourself to pain alongside all the joy it brings. To feel fully is frightening sometimes, so I begin to feel nothing, to survive, to ignore and pass the days without the joyful highs of life, because with them come the murky, dark lows.


The mountain, the words of thoughtful writers, allowed a bit of curiosity back, I do have something to say. I crave an escape to be in total silence at the edge of the ocean or foot of a mountain, but I also need to sit in stillness in my noisy neighborhood, to listen to what the planet is trying to tell me, what doing the dishes and laundry has to teach me, that life is worth living for our connection, to the rocks, the earth, and each other. My empathy for the precious souls whose lives were ended with so much violence is nothing unless it leads me to action, to eradicate white supremacy and racism when I see or sense it in my own life, in our systems, in our land that we have crushed with environmental racism. (Check Last Week Tonight for a solid lesson on that front.)


Maeve Higgins notes that the use of the term “’Anthropocene’ which the National Geographic Society defines as ‘an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.’ In ‘On the Poverty of our Nomenclature,’ Eileen Crist argues against using ‘Anthropocene.’ … in that the discourse ‘refuses to challenge human dominion, proposing instead technological and managerial approaches that would make human dominion sustainable. By the same token, the Anthropocene discourse blocks from consideration the possibility of abolishing a way of life founded on the domination of nature.’” 

Higgins notes: “Humans lived on the planet for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution without causing the massive damage we suffer today.”


This may be why watching the show “Station Eleven” was such a beautiful and powerful experience. A catastrophic virus forced the surviving humans to live differently, without the internet or petrol, and together, creatively, they found ways of living in society, caring for one another, creating and sharing art. It wasn’t utopia, and violence and egos were present as destructive forces, but they were not what the majority wanted or needed.


I hope that as we face what seems insurmountable, eradicating and unlearning white supremacy, changing our lives to embrace living in harmony with the earth instead of extracting from it, and guaranteeing human rights to every person, we can do so with a great imagination of what could be, not fear of what is. Listening beyond our limited language to what messages the planet and others have to teach us.



Friday, April 15, 2022

Come Together: Fidelio presented by Deaf West Theatre & Los Angeles Philharmonic

Last night we went with Taylor, Jonathan, & Jose to Disney Hall to see Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, staged by the theatre company Deaf West, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.


I purposely went into the evening having neither read nor watching anything about the staging, unique with actors who are Deaf. Now, I’m purposely writing my thoughts before reading any program notes or reviews to influence such a singular experience.


Every Deaf actor was accompanied by a hearing singer – the actor in a costume of colors, whether drab or bright or dark, depending on the role, and the singer in white. As the story began, it was at first confusing for my brain that is trained to cruise along in a hearing world with expectations of what an opera will look like, wondering, are their two actors, two roles being portrayed?

My brain quickly adapted, and it was one of the most powerful experiences. Instead of seeing someone communicating in ASL off to the side of the stage, interpreting for the main players, often interpreting for several or all, the ASL speakers were centered, they were our focus, and their signers were now signers of sort, translating for us who do not know ASL.


This paradigm shift was especially poignant during the times of only dialogue, as Fidelio is written as a singspiel (pronounced in German ziŋ-ˌshpēl), a tradition characterized by songs interspersed with spoken dialogue. In these scenes, the singers were absent from the stage, and the actors spoke the dialogue through sign language while those of us in the audience who don’t know ASL or were too far from the stage to see, read the dialogue as we’d been reading the English translations of the German songs, on elegant monitors above the stage.

ASL is already such an expressive language, and to witness it alongside the dramatic and comedic moments of the story was beautiful and powerful. The whole of Disney Hall fell silent, save for the bodily sounds of the claps of hands, slaps, smacks, stomps, and swooshes of an actor emoting through ASL. In those almost-silent but action- and dialogue-packed moments, I was given a near glimpse of what the world is like for the Deaf and hearing-impaired community.


At the close, as we applauded the mix of performers – Deaf West actors and the Philharmonic musicians – we alternated, all of Disney Hall alternated, between clapping hands thundering for those who could hear them, and fluttering hands raised high for the Deaf actors and audience members to see applause and celebration.

It was beautiful. A beautiful, shared moment of recognizing what we may not experience or understand, and celebrating coming together in that space.


Reading the program notes now, and from the director Alberto Arvelo: “We all feel that the experience elevates the perceptual discourse, taking us to places of deep sensitivity, based on the inspiring collective effort. The Deaf actors bring a gestural and emotional poetry that, when fused with the complex work of the singers, elevates the viewer’s experience to an unexpected place. Singers and Deaf actors have come together to create a single character that can express in greater depth the complexity of human nature.”


Come together.


(Photo of FIDELIO from Deaf West Theatre Instagram) 

Friday, March 04, 2022

helpless (guest post written by kelly leffler)


I make an effort to learn people’s names. For me, it has always been the cleaning crew and security 75% because I feel they’re ignored and taken for granted and 25% because I’m eventually going to get myself in a situation where I need help—locking myself out of the building or locking myself in the copy room or needing to sneak someone into or out of trouble. A friend and I went to see Amy Sherald’s paintings at a gallery in the 3rd Street Art’s District and when we chatted with the security guard, he told us people treated him like “a piece of furniture.” That’s why I ask every cashier and server and postal worker and desk clerk, “How’s your day going?” They’re human beings and no one treats them like they are.


            For two years now, I’ve been saying “hello” to the gentleman and woman who clean our building. I run into them from time-to-time when I’m leaving at night. In colder weather, they are sitting in their small SUV with the heat running, waiting for the building to empty. In warmer weather, she is stooping over to pick up cigarette butts from the gutter and placing them in a plastic grocery bag. He stands next to their car, looking up and down the street until it’s time to go inside. He is pale and bald with black-rimmed glasses, average build with a small paunch, a white 5 o’clock shadow on his full cheeks, always wearing a knit hat. She is dyed blonde with deep lines in her face, slight, underweight, smiling like it pains her. She is too old to be stooping in a gutter to pick up cigarette butts. But this is what happens to immigrants to this country—doing manual labor and longer than anyone should. I don’t know the nature of their relationship. They could be siblings or a couple or divorced and forced to work together for financial reasons. His sentences are like those of an immigrant who has lived here a long time in an enclosed community. He conveys the gist in the wrong tense or conjugation but we get each other’s meaning. She barely speaks. He has told me he loves the desert—Arizona, Nevada, Utah. Two summers ago, they drove to eight national parks in ten days. He once played for me on his phone a very long video of a song he composed sung by a woman in a fitted, ankle-length sequined dress at some sort of reception in a paneled banquet hall. I didn’t understand a word of it. He beamed with pride. 


            His name is Volodamir.

            Her name is Maria.


            When I walked out the door of my clinic tonight, the first thing I saw was two Ukranian flags flaccid on a dashboard. Their SUV. Before that moment, I hadn’t considered their nation of origin. There are so many Polish immigrants here who clean for a living…


            I asked him how he was doing. He shrugged and grimaced. Through the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes shimmered with burgeoning tears. His eyelids were circled in red, exhausted in their vigilance. He fixed his gaze to the horizon, his hands in his pockets.


His son and his daughter are in Kyiv.

            “They are in building. There is bomb. They move to new building. There is bomb.”

            “Have you slept?”

            He holds up his hands as if scrolling through his phone.

            “Always looking, looking.”

            In the fading winter light, I notice his face is thinner. His paunch is gone.

            I hug him.

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

            “No you sorry,” he says.

            We both wipe the corners of our eyes.

            “I will pray for your son and daughter,” I say.


            I don’t pray. I don’t believe in prayer. It feels like a lie worth telling.


            I go to my bike and gear up to leave. It’s cold, the same cold as this morning. It shouldn’t be this cold. I see Maria. I go to her. I don’t say anything. I open my arms and hold her to me.


            “My sister in Kyiv. She take pills. Every day. She sick. I worry.” She sobs once on my shoulder and then collects herself. “Thanks you,” she says as we part.


            I unlock my bike. I hear a snap and a crack and I see Volodamir whipping the rubber door mat against the concrete with muscled fury. Beat it out, I think. Beat it all out.


Two nights ago, a co-worker’s husband dropped dead.

            Right now, Jess is in Minnesota celebrating delayed/fast-forward Christmas. Her mom is dying and isn’t likely to make it through the year.

            Freddy texted me that the alley cat is smothering her kittens. Two have died already.

            I can’t help any of this. 


            I’ve long said helplessness is the worst feeling. Worse than depression. Worse than fear or hopelessness or guilt. To see suffering and to be powerless to alleviate it. It may be tied for worst with shame—shame is inward, helplessness is outward. Maybe shame is a version of not being able to console ourselves.


Everything feels so big and so small. Everything feels both important and insignificant. The little money I can give feels like a drop in an ocean of need. What the fuck is an oligarch? There are enough of them to warrant separate sanctions? Why do we use that word only when it comes to the wealthy in Russia? If the U.S. Supreme Court said corporations are people, then aren’t American corporations oligarchs, ruling our politics with their campaign contributions and lobbyists? Ukranian civilians are fighting to the death to save their country from takeover by a tyrant while here in the U.S. white men have cobbled together a convoy to the capital because they equate tyranny with having to wear a goddamn piece of cloth over their stupid goddamn mouths. Where is Nero with his goddamn fiddle? Cuz I feel like I hear a violin tuning offstage…only we’re all Nero.


(Kelly Leffler is a dear friend and fierce defender of our shared humanity)


Monday, January 17, 2022

A demolished house, van-music, and the façade of uncertainty

Across the street, emanating from a parked van the sound of gorgeous music, haunting and almost operatic, a story in Spanish I can’t understand. The music fills the parking lot but doesn’t drown out the sounds of the park, kids shrieking, dogs barking, birds chirping. It should have sounded cacophonous, but instead it flowed, and helped calm my inner chaos.

I’d felt somehow both untethered and trapped this afternoon; after having spent a morning transported to Maine while reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge with the soundtrack of a rain in L.A, I was suddenly antsy. Needing to be do-er. Buzzing about, checking the outdoor cat food, getting soggy in the rain. Scooping out the morning’s cold grounds from the red enamel French press to caffeinate our potted plants whose yellow-tipped leaves told me they were in need of nitrogen, checking in on the other plants, trimming away dead or dying leaves in order for the others to thrive.

I’ve learned to parent myself when I feel like this – emotions live in the body. MOVE. I leave for a walk to try to strip away the buzzing thoughts swarming my mind, focus on the present: the birds in one bush sounding almost like an electrical current, while the lone bird above them sings a clear set of notes.

At the top of the hill, an empty lot. The footprint where the house once was looks small now, my sense of space off-kilter without walls and things that make up a home: couches and tables and books and lamps and framed photos – things that somehow by filling a space make it more expansive.

Before the house was torn down and the land torn up, it was shrouded in trees and vines, messy and verdant and overgrown. We’d sometimes hear music from inside, but could never see anyone or anything. It was always a little wild, a little spooky. Now just dirt with patches of grass growing in a rectangle outlined in chain link fencing. Now a large apartment complex down the hill is visible, downtown’s skyline of skyscrapers miles away seemingly stacked directly on top of the brown rooflines, the post-rain grey sky and its soft light changing one’s perception of depth.
Along the edges of the lot I spot the deep maroon leaves of several castor bean plants, a few small yucca plants with their solid green spikes, and a small carpet of Bermuda buttercup. When I squat to photograph the delicate yellow flower, I realize that its shamrock shaped leaves sparkle with drops of rain, some collecting in the center to form what looks like a jewel. It shapeshifts into a teardrop at my touch and runs off the edge, disappearing.


As I cross back past the electrical bird chorus and the van’s current song drifting up into the trees and grey sky, a passage I’d read this morning in Olive Kitteridge plays in my mind:

“There were days – she could remember this – when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that there were living it.”

It feels especially difficult to be aware enough to be quietly joyful, to know that we are *living life* in the day-to-day moments during the stressful constant of Covid, when friends and family are moving through grief amidst a pandemic – years of uncertainty and questions unanswered.

It was always this way though, wasn’t it? Now, much of the façade of certainty most of the privileged lived behind has been stripped away – we’re able to see more clearly what was always there behind the busyness and convenience of our lives: A mixture of electric birdsong and heartbreaking melody, of things torn away and torn up and cut back to reveal something not previously seen, or new growth, of stooping low and slowing down to see that what appears a delicate diamond reveals itself a far more precious element – water – that shapes and shifts and flows and evaporates but never really disappears.



Monday, December 13, 2021

The Rabbit's Reflection and Exploring Danger and Fear


The Rabbit. I was 8 years old and had either won or earned the privilege to bring home the classroom rabbit for the spring break. Letting him free in my room, I watched as he carefully sniffed about the shag carpet, the captain’s bed and drawers of my room, until he froze in front of the full-length mirror. It’s one of my strongest memories of the not many I have from childhood – the rabbit staring at his mirror image, and then a resounding THUMP of his hind legs, without seeming to move the rest of his body.

I pulled the Rabbit card from my Literary Witches Oracle deck tonight:

 • waiting  • making leaps  • adventure

Adventure and making / taking leaps had long been my m.o. – but the older I’ve grown the more settled my life is, and the fewer adventures I take. The pandemic and lock-down and communal care plays into this the last two years, but before that, I had started to fear I’d lost a part of what made me – me.

Looking back, the idea of the classroom rabbit seems cruel: to leave a pet alone from the time the last bell rang to the time the first bell rang and the rowdy children crowded back into the classroom, hours alone in a darkened classroom with no interaction. To upend its caged life by sending it home with relative strangers for holiday breaks. But my 8-year-old self had not been exposed to those ideas, and was thrilled to play bunny caregiver for a few days.

Searching “why do rabbits thump their hind legs,” I read that “Thumping the back foot is a natural reaction among rabbits to danger.”

Little thumper looked at his own reflection and sensed: danger. Understandably – it appeared there was an unknown rabbit in the same strange room he’d just been introduced to.

The image of him frozen and fearful of his own reflection rings true for me – to sense fear or danger when confronted with parts of myself I don’t often look at. The danger and fear of the unknown about myself. The danger of what could be, the parts of myself I’m not accessing, letting out, parts of myself I’ve tamped down, thought – that’s not pretty enough to present to the world.

(I feel the urge to stop writing, so I know I’m touching on the powerful, uncomfortable truths about what this concept is bringing up for me.)

The Rabbit card: • waiting  • making leaps  • adventure

What does adventure now look like for me? Taking / making leaps? I’ve defined my sense of adventure as the person I was in the past, traveling places others might not go, taking leaps into new jobs, new cities, getting lost, exploring physical spaces and places.

What does it mean for me now, in my mid-40s? Taking a leap to finally put together a collection of essays, to share it with strangers, to risk criticism and all the self-defense words and explanations that I know will rise up in response, to delve into the scary parts of myself and my psyche I don’t want to reveal. To stare directly at my reflection, and accept her.