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The Anatomy of Ecstasy

When my then five-year old nephew, Adam, who was an only child discovered that he had four cousins he said, “I feel so big. I’m bigger than a Giant!”

giantimage  Preparing to return from Atlanta after spending time with a group of amazing women and meeting many others in the larger community, I felt so full of excitement that I told a friend, “I feel like I could fly home without the airplane, though I do know that wouldn’t be a good idea.” 

 My friend and teacher, Cynthia Winton-Henry knows about this. She calls it “Flaps up, Flaps down.”  To demonstrate how to navigate between our Big self and our pedestrian, Little self, she directs her students to raise their arms high and out to the side as though they were a bird or a plane. This is “flaps up.” Then she instructs her students to put their arms down by their sides, “flaps down,” in order to return to their smaller individual selves.

womanspreadingwings Some activities require us to be in our Larger self. When I spoke with a numerologist friend of mine about what I needed to do to promote my book she said, “Last year was your completion year when you finished and published your book but this year is a number one year for you, a time of new beginnings. It isn’t a time to play small.”

  I knew what she meant. This isn’t a time to lead with my insecurities. When I experience that excited/scary feeling in the pit of my stomach just before I step onto a stage – that’s the call to step into my Bigger Self. When I am in this Larger Self, all that I know is available to me, and I am open to inspiration, which in theology is described as a “divine influence. ” I know that I’m likely to be there when I’m centered in myself from deep inside, standing tall without apologies, and fully present to the environment.

Some activities take us to our Larger Self. In Atlanta, when I was with a group of women who were each in their Larger Selves, it seemed easy to be all that I am and to appreciate the wonder and amazement of each of them. During our time together it seemed that magic happened and magic has continued to happen since as the universe seems to be cooperating with our shared goals.

Atlanta group-58 One of the women sent an email to the group members and told of an experience she had while driving home. She heard a voice that didn’t sound like her own. The voice said, “Prepare to be amazed,” and it seemed to her like the matter-of-fact sounding message delivered at Cape Canaveral – “Prepare for lift off.”  Later that same day when she got home she had a chance encounter with a woman who, when she told her a bit about our weekend, offered to partner with her to achieve our desired goals in their community.

In the days since, many of us have been experiencing similarly amazing chance happenings that are likely to help us achieve our individual pieces of the desired group goal. As I reflect on this experience of communal flaps up and its aftermath in my life, I remind myself to take special care of my Little Self. Our bodies aren’t built to live perpetually in flaps up and my bodyspirit need some flaps down time in order to be prepared for more amazement.

 

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance

Wing & Prayer Book Performance

 

I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe

Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Actually Playing is Way Better Than Talking About It!

We’re just back from a Play conference where hardly anyone played. There were over one hundred sessions, and according to the topics, people talked about play, gave research papers about play, offered strategies for breaking down barriers to play, and suggestions for designing playgrounds for play. But from what I saw in the public spaces, there weren’t too many people actually playing.

What happens when we actually play? In our workshop (or what we would prefer to call, “playshop”) we explored InterPlay tools for multigenerational play. Participants let go of their self-consciousness, and fear of looking foolish (we call this having a willingness to play) and moved into the present moment with a breath and a sigh, a shape and a shake, a laugh and a song.

We noted and experienced the bonding that results from a following and leading game between toddlers and their caregivers, between grandparents and their grandchildren, between people of any age from different cultures. And when we experienced moments of blending, when no one could tell who’s leading and who’s following, we noted these are skills necessary for healthy relationships at any age. We practiced interruption, when the connection is dropped or severed, (scary stuff for our inner child), and experienced reassurance in the reconnection.

A special play expert, a “Playcologist” came to one of our workshops and invited us to stop by his exhibit afterwards. Though it wasn’t easy to find, we persisted through the back dark corner of the convention center. Gary Auerbach’s table was colorful and welcoming, full of inviting toys; hula hoops, scarves for juggling practice, Frisbees (he’s the World Frisbee Champ) and peacock feathers. (You probably didn’t know a feather could be a toy!)

“Throw, throw, catch, catch – crisscross, apple sauce.” We practice a cross lateral movement as he teaches us to juggle and I am reminded that this movement is recommended for brain development in children and continued brain activation as we age. Harder and more athletic than it looked, our attempts to juggle generated lots of laughter among this group of “women of a certain age,” as we kept dropping the scarves and stooping to pick them up. 

“Now try two scarves in one hand and one in the other; throw, throw, throw, catch.” Just like in Interplay – you start off simply, and then add complexity. And that thrilling sense of gaining mastery isn’t just for kids. We all loved the triumph of becoming able to juggle three scarves at a time. And the peacock feathers – I discovered I had a special skill, easily balancing one on my palm, then on one finger, and (though I didn’t quite master this), balancing the 3 ft. feather on my nose.

Martin and Me

Our InterPlay troupe participated in several Martin Luther King celebrations this past weekend, which got me thinking about what my kids used to call, “the olden days.” I remembered the time I almost got to meet Dr. King in person.  

Dr. King was scheduled to speak at a Black church in Detroit, Michigan, where my then husband was a news broadcaster. As a member of the press he was invited to attend the event as a special guest and I came along as his wife. The church was crowded with people, and the excitement in the air was palatable. We were immediately ushered to the front and given seats on the stage. As I turned around to survey the audience, I realized we were a couple of only a few white people in attendance. I remember this surprising me at the time, because Dr. King was a well known public figure, and I for one had considered this evening a wonderful opportunity to see and hear him in the flesh.

After some preliminary introductions, the MC of the event made an announcement. “Unfortunately I have some sad news this evening. Dr King will not be able to speak to us this evening. He has been arrested and is in jail.” There was a hush and then a great commotion in the audience as people came to realize the realities of this situation.

The speaker continued, “But we are fortunate to have Dr. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King senior as our speaker this evening.”  I don’t remember the words he spoke, but I can still see his small frame at the podium, the worry and concern for his son on his face. As I told the kids at the MLK celebration at the Kelly-Strayhorn yesterday, the whole audience joined Martin’s father in his concern for his son, because at the time, none of us knew how things were going to turn out. 

And now that we do know how it turned out, my compassion for his father reaches even deeper and broader. Martin Jr. has said, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice.”  I’m grateful to have lived long enough to experience that bend.

United We Stand

Last weekend InterPlay Pittsburgh participated in the Building Change Conference: a convergence for social change. This three-day conference included skill-building workshops, panel discussions, community dialogues, a film festival, an art show, and an evening of performance art.

Our improvisational troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed Friday night on the theme, Changing the World 101.  Two hundred or so conference participants, award honorees, and friends witnessed our 20-minute performance that occurred in the center of an evening of short performances by singers, drummers, dancers, actors, rappers, and musicians – all who use their art as a tool to change the world.

Since our performances are made up in the moment and on the spot, it’s always a bit confusing when we say we practice InterPlay on a weekly basis. But how it works is that a week or two before a performance, we each meditate on the topic or theme, and practice accessing and telling our stories that seem related to it, or to words that people associate with the topic.

The words, “domination” and “fear,” were suggested by audience members when we asked what gets in the way of creating a world that works for all. This brought out a troupe member’s story of how her young son had solved the bullying problem at his school. She had told some version of this story before at one of our practices. But in the presence of witnesses, people passionate about social justice, this simple story became something much more.  As company members joined her, the message her son gave to the bully, (after he had rounded up enough kids for support), became amplified in movement and song. “Whatever you do to one of us – you do to all of us.”

And then, with support from our keyboard musician, the entire company formed a straight line, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity and began moving towards the audience. The song morphed into,“We’re standing together, we’re standing together.” None of this had been rehearsed. It came from the grand goal of the conference, of the Occupy Pittsburgh event that was to take place the following day, and of hundreds of events taking place around the globe last weekend.  I felt in my own body, the connection to my fellow performers, the support from the audience, and the power of standing together. We became, on behalf of everyone in the room, in the nation, and throughout the world, a metaphor and a mantra, for the Power that Unity brings.

Celebrating Redemption

At a graduation celebration for nine women in Pittsburgh who have just completed the InterPlay Life Practice Program, twenty-five of their friends and family gathered to cheer them on. Many of the guests had never seen InterPlay, so members of our Wing & A Prayer troupe provided a short demonstration.

My husband Rich asked the audience to give him a word to use as the theme for his story. The setting was a chapel in a Christian church, so that may have influence the word choice, but someone called out, “redemption.”

Rich began his story, allowing as how, as a Jewish man, he wasn’t sure what his faith tradition has to say about redemption. He did say that many of his brethren were like him, downloading coupons from the internet, printing them off, and then forgetting them at home when they needed to redeem them at the store.

His story was playful and entertaining, but it left the impression that he didn’t know anything about redemption. As the mistress of ceremony, I had not planned on telling a story of my own, but I was compelled to share a memory that came to me strongly in that moment. I did not understand how the story was related to redemption, but I decided that it must be, so I shared it.

It’s the summer of 1998 in Texas, and as usual, it’s hotter than hell. Rich and a buddy have decided to begin raising money and training to ride in the first Texas AIDS Bike Ride – a 7 day, 587 miles tour through Texas. I tried to be supportive, bringing snacks and water to their training rest stops, but the whole idea seemed pretty nutty to me.  The first night of the ride, their campsite, somewhere outside Houston flooded, and they had to be evacuated from their tents to a school gymnasium.

Standing at the finish line in Dallas, looking out to the bridge on the edge of the skyline I saw nearly a thousand bicyclists riding into town like they were following Lance Armstrong in the tour de france.  I spotted Rich in the crowd, wearing a big smile and our son Ken’s picture on his back.  As riders lifted their bikes over their heads in triumph, Rich and I hugged, danced, and poured water on one another.  “Wherever Ken is now, he’s so proud of you,” I told him.

After I tell an improvisational story I’m never sure whether the story made any sense to the audience. I’d written about this scene in my upcoming book, Dancing on Behalf of Life and Death, but I wasn’t sure why it had came to me in this situation. Later, a  Jewish graduate shared a section of an article by a rabbi on her faith tradition’s view of redemption, which helped me connect the dots -

“Here the notion of celebration is central, of public proclamation and acclamation, of the realization that things continually move ahead towards a larger aim. This movement may be toward some sense of redemption – the notion of improvement of ourselves and our species – or it may be an appreciation of our place in this creation – not here as a small, created thing, but as one whose task it is to speak out about this process, to share the sense of the sacred in the world with the rest of the world.”

Life’s an improv

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my facination with improvisation. After all, I’ve spent the last 16 years practicing and teaching InterPlay, an improv system based on helping folks unlock the wisdom of their own bodies. But in the last few days, improv has been following me around. Everywhere I’ve turned; the newspaper, a phone call with a friend, even an NPR radio show on my way to have my hair cut, there’s been something else about improv.

The first incident was a newspaper article about Moth Stories, announcing a performance in Pittsburgh last Thursday night. Moth Stories is a storytelling organization in New York City founded in 1997 by writer/poet George Dowes Green. The name comes from his experiences in his native Georgia, telling stories with friends on the back porch in the summertime, the moths being drawn to the light. The article mentioned that though the performers rehearse their stories, they improvise them each time before the audience,  otherwise the stories “seem like they are coming from a corpse.”

When I learned that the performance was already sold out I signed up to be on the early notification list next year and suggested they ask the group to do a couple of performances given the popularity of their work. Later I visited their website and learned that every one of their performances in New York City has been sold out in the first 48 hours.http://www.themoth.org/storytellers 

The next day, in a phone conversation with an InterPlay colleague, Soyinka Rahim, I learned that when she and I present at the Facing Race conference in Chicago Sept 24-25, using InterPlay, a group named Improv Edge will be sharing the podium. This sent me to their website http://www.improvedge.com/ where I learned that they use improv to teach business skills. According to their founder, Karen Hough, “improv teaches individual and group accountablity, thinking on your feet, saying yes to your colleagues and adding your own contribution.” Wow! I can’t wait to meet them.

The third incident involving improv happened on my way to get my hair cut the following morning. I heard Terry Gross interview Bobby McFerrin, the well known improvisational musician, about his new album, Vocabularies. http://www.bobbymcferrin.com/ Things I remember from that captivating conversation:

  • The importance of becoming completely comfortable in his own body, (something he learned from dancers), because the whole body is the instrument when we sing.
  • The stage has become his second home so he feels completely comfortable there and not intimidated by the audience.
  • His voice has become softer over the years because he has found that a softer voice gives him more flexibility as he improvises sounds.
  • He chooses improvisation partners that will bring out new aspects in him. He enjoys the element of being surprised by what emerges from these collaborations.

Amen and alleluia! Can I dare to hope that these three experiences are a sign that improv’s time has finally come. That our culture is finally getting it that life is about creating in the moment, and it’s a handy skill worth practicing.

Collaborative art exhibit, “Interplay” celebrates 100 years for Associated Artists of Pittsburgh

With several friends the other evening I attended a tantilizing art exhibition celebrating the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s 100th birthday.  The catalog described the challenge to the visual artists: “to create a work inspired by ‘interplay’ …to distill meaning from dichotomy and juxtaposition.”   Titled Interplay, the show was juried by Eric C. Shiner, the Milton Fine Curator of Art at the Andy Warhol Museum of Pittsburgh. This diverse group of artists; video, digital photography, sculpture, painting, fiber, printmaking, and mixed media, presented themes of having money and not, what makes an artist – drawing a straight line? Where do art materials come from, and are we wearing them? There are urban forests and colorful words, kaleidoscopes and symmetry.

Strolling through the galleries, I felt a call and a longing to organize a response. For here I am, a practicing InterPlayer for 18+ years and director of InterPlay® Pittsburgh. I began to imagine what might happen if we could bring the system of InterPlay,® created by Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter twenty-five years ago, into connection with this exhibit.  The InterPlay® of which I speak is a kind of folk art, practiced in over 50 cities in the U.S and on four continents. This InterPlay® is “an active creative approach to unlocking the wisdom of the body.” On the spot and in the moment we use movement, music, story telling, and stillness to respond to a theme, and collaboratively create art pieces together. 

I’m looking forward to playing with my troupe, Wing & a Prayer Pittsburgh Players, using the images and themes from this exhibit. We will allow ourselves to be challenged and moved by the messages we receive from the artists’ handiwork. And using the performing art forms of InterPlay,® we will connect our own stories to theirs. And who knows, I’ve made a few calls and generated some interest, so if the organizational gods and goddesses create an opening, we might be able to play in the actual galleries at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts this summer while the show is in residence, allowing the artists and others to view our responses.