31 December, 2017

from The Once and Future King by T.H. White

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."
—T.H. White, The Once and Future King

19 December, 2017

"The Impossible Dream"

Last night I performed in a concert version of Man of La Mancha at Merkin Hall in Manhattan for The Transport Group. It was one of the most moving nights of theatre I have ever participated in and among my 'Top Five New York City memories.'

I was fortunate enough to be tasked with Aldonza's big emotional scenes at the finale of the piece but also partnered with longtime friend, the golden-throated Jason Danieley in the "Impossible Dream" scene at the finale of Act 1.

Quixote says:
"Love not what thou art, only what thou may become.
Do not pursue pleasure...
or thou mayest have the misfortune to overtake it.
Look always forward.
In last year's nests...
there are no birds this year.
Be just to all men, courteous to all women.
Live in the vision...
of the one for whom great deeds are done.."

As the scene progressed, it became abundantly clear that Don Quixote's idealism and vision of fighting for a better world was painfully relevant and poignant in a way none of us participants were prepared for. Jason and I came prepared to embody a scene, not knowing we would be embodying a philosophy for our age—lifting the audience to a higher, more hopeful place.

The scene began, and with it, the music.

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go;
To right the un-rightable wrong.

To love, pure and chaste, from afar,
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star!

This is my Quest to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause!

And I know, if I'll only be true
To this glorious Quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this,
That one man scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars.”

Jason singing with his glorious voice, that song, with those lyrics accompanied by a full orchestra, in this moment in history? All with the emotional aid of our friendship and connected “eyeballs”... it was one of the greatest artistic moments of my life thus far.
I will never, in all my life, forget it.

Thank you, dear dear Jason, and Jack Cummings III for giving it to us.

Highlights from the entire spine-chilling evening are captured here:

13 December, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 12


We endured so much.
No one else could have done it.  
I loved you. Im sorry. 

04 December, 2017

Questions from Book Tour - Part 2

I wanted this to be the cover. I... didn't win that one.
1. The novel exposes much of the social change and violence in Russia that the characters experience. Did you feel that you wanted to create a different and perhaps more realistic story for the characters than the more sentimental one that existed in Fiddler On The Roof?

I did absolutely. The tone of the world changed dramatically in 1905 after the first Revolution—and Fiddler on the Roof nods to those changes directly with the program, the inter-marriage of Chava, the presence of Perchik and his ideals, and subsequent imprisonment.

But what Fiddler hints at, but does (and can) not directly display, are the true horrors experienced by individuals across the country during that post-1905 era. These are the brutalities endured particularly by women, children, the elderly, political activists and the religiously displaced. I wanted to add those very real adversities realistically to the plot, to throw light on a profoundly dark era, and in doing so, give our protagonists the dignity they deserve for they have the strength and capacity to endure such horrors.

I receive some strong "criticism" that the book is "dark" or "not like Fiddler—" both of which I don't interpret as criticism at all. Not only because those points are both accurate, but moreover, I am extremely proud of them!

Everything changed in 1905. The world became a harsher place. By hiding those truths, by brushing them under the rug, avoiding the horrors entirely and treating them like mere historical 'unpleasantness,' I rob Hodel, Perchik (and the millions of human beings they represent) of their strength and capacity to endure. Historical fiction is fiction, yes, but it is also historical. A history that was real, and thus must be accurate because the authors are choosing to set their tale truthfully in a time and place different from our own and it is important that we tell the truth. Details matter. Truth matters.

2. When did you start writing After Anatevka and did the writing process affect how you approached your role in the play?

I began writing the book about a year after I completed playing Hodel so it did not have an impact on her portrayal. However it did have a great impact on my portrayal of Tzeitel on Broadway, and subsequently, I utilized that knowledge and put it back into the manuscript before finally submitting it. It truly was stage to page, page to stage, and back again.

3. If you were writing/editing during the New York production, how did your role as Tzeitel affect your writing of hat is basically Hodel's story?

I realized that I had judged Tzeitel! Not unlike the way siblings judge one another growing up and come to understand the complexities more finely as they grow up.

One of the things so fascinating about being a human being is that we can all experience the exact same upbringing, parental guidance (or sadly, sometimes, lack thereof) the same birthday parties, high schools, teachers, elections, vacations… the list goes on. We can have identical experiences, and yet, interpret those experiences totally differently for a myriad of reasons. It’s one of the great joys of growing up— reconciling those differences and hopefully making sense as well as peace.

I suppose that is exactly what happened between Hodel and Tzeitel for me, the only difference was the experience occurred at the same geographical address. The result is a real dialogue between my older and younger “selves” and I believe one of the strongest parts of the narrative.

4. What is a fun fact people might not know about you?

I’m an introvert. In fact, according to the Myers Briggs personality test, I’m a super-introverted  INFJ (which is a very rare personality type, about 2% of the world’s population).

Many—if not most—people challenge me on this, based on their misimpressions of not only me but introverts in general. They meet me for 5 minutes and perceive me as "gregarious" or "friendly—" both of which I am the majority of the time. But those qualities are not antithetical to introversion. Introverts are not necessarily aloof, shy, people-hating trolls, we simply recharge our personal batteries in solitude.

Some unsolicited advice? If a person shares with you that they are an introvert, never say “But you’re so friendly” or “but you’re not shy” or, the worst of all: “No you’re not!” Comments like these are degrading to Introverts (who are not necessarily aloof, shy, socially anxious or rude). The final statement especially attacks the person’s sense of self, and knowledge of self. All of these comments are presumptuous and abrasive.

If you are surprised to learn that a person declares themselves to be an introvert, it is perfectly appropriate to respond with “Oh really? I find that very surprising, please tell me more,” but to deny what an Introvert is, or worse, that a person does not fully know themselves is rude at best, particularly if the individual prides themselves on their self-awareness. It is wise to assume that you are not the expert on anyone but your self. Ask questions before making any statements.

Despite my highly developed extrovert behavior, I still require (and enjoy!) lots of time alone to process life, abhor small talk, love to socialize in small groups, treasure my closest friends, and enjoy quiet, solo activities above all others. These all indicate that I am a powerfully introverted person— it does not mean that I don’t have highly developed extrovert behavior! But that behavior is energetically “expensive,” and I must always recharge from it.

5. It is highly unusual for someone to both act as a popular character (Hodel) and then to create a novel. Are you hoping to continue as a writer by creating more novels or do you prefer to continue more of your career in acting and singing?

I do not intend to stop professionally engaging in either! It has been my honor to enjoy such a varied and ongoing career on the stage, and writing has brought be extraordinary creative pleasure—We only get one life. Why limit oneself? I desire a rich and textured life full of a variety of experiences from the personal to the professional.

Is it at times challenging juggling doing multiple things? Certainly.
Rewarding? Inexplicably.

An example: Motherhood is an expansion of Womanhood, not the definition of it. So too is becoming a professional writer an expansion of my artistic identity. It is an expansion of my artistry, not the definition of it.

Society often associates “success” with a very vertical trajectory of accumulated rewards. “More." More things, more wealth, more possessions, more accomplishments, Broadway shows, fame, followers, etc. But I desire a wider trajectory of “more." More experiences, more connections, more skills, more cultures, knowledge, satisfied curiosities, and, I suppose, more careers. I’ve said it before, but success is not about what you do, it is about how you feel about what you do, and I feel my best when I am contributing to the world, and connected to a sense of attempting to fulfill my maximum possible potential for one lifetime.

When I am done with this life, I want to feel like I wrung every last drop out of life's washcloth.

30 November, 2017

“since feeling is first,” by: e.e. cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

©Nick Bantock

28 November, 2017

Day of Giving Thoughts

On this Day of Giving, I wish to state that not all activism is created equal. Activism is a *deeply* personal act of courage, and, in my opinion, the best and most effective activism is always done with civility, and comes from a place of peace and a desire for greater understanding.

I am not saying that there is no place in this world for outrage—great changes have been made upon its back. But violence, angry outrage; thoughtless, knee-jerk tweets, and the making of enemies from every micro-issue, is not a world I personally wish to live in.

So on this Day of Giving, I welcome and challenge you to give not only of what is in your pockets, but give of the generosity within your hearts, and in the opening of your minds.
Sometimes a soft touch can achieve far more than an angry blow.

27 November, 2017

Questions from Book Tour - Part 1

1. What’s your writing setup like? Do you have a certain playlist you listen to or a drink you always have?

Yes. I have a beautiful vintage pull-down writing desk! It has been handed down from my mother— she found it on the street when she was in college. When she discovered it, it was covered in layers of paint that she stripped away to reveal a beautiful raw wood. The desk has been in my home since childhood, and the handle where you “pull-down” is the face of a lion, that I always thought was the face of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia.

I write first thing in the morning, with my morning coffee or tea (poured from my perfect tea-for-one teapot gifted to me by beloved pal and actress Lara Pulver). I start by what I call “sitting with” my writing for at least an hour—internet free—and spending time in the that innately creative world while I’m waking up, still feeling a bit “dreamy.” I’m certainly not the first artist to start the day with their creativity, “morning pages” is one of the primary tenants of The Artist’s Way, and though that was not where this ritual began for me personally, it is no wonder! There is a certain creative freedom that comes to us just as we first start to stir—a lack of internal editor, a connection to a more playful and innocent place of total possibility.

After that, I usually immediately do my vocal (singing) warm-up, followed by working on any music I have going on/coming up. And that means I have all my creativity “chores” done at the very beginning of the day and everything else achieved is gravy.

I’m not a slave to regiment— sometimes this all goes out the window, sometimes I’ve been known to write (literally) all night long and fall asleep at 8am after a particularly long lighting-bolt of inspiration. Sometimes (especially when I have a deadline and it’s like the Wild West with da’ rules,) I will include parts of m neighborhood and city into my writing “set up” — the city has a number of beautiful cafes with back gardens, sidewalk spots to park a laptop or a legal notepad, and write. It helps to “air yourself out!” Staying in your apartment and writing for 16 hours is something I can only do when it is a deadline RED ALERT, or when the spirit of inspiration had really struck. That image of Michael Douglas as writer Michael Chabon in Wonder Boys? You know the image I speak of: of a writer in their under-pants padding ceaselessly around the book in The Bathrobe of Shame? Yep. Been there. All with my perfect little tea pot, under the “supervision” of my cat, Tatiana.

2. Speaking of which, what do you do when you are creatively blocked? How do you deal with writer’s block?
Practically I do three things:

First, I return to some of my original sources of inspiration.
For After Anatevka specifically, I drew from several sources of inspiration you’d likely never even imagine: Rosencranz and Guildestern Are Dead inspired my writing of the “scenes between the scenes,” the J.J. Abrams TV show Lost was on television when I first began the novel, and directly inspired the “flashback” structure of the story-telling. The prose of John Steinbeck and Boris Pasternak (particularly East of Eden and Dr. Zhivago, respectively), the stories of Yiddish oral tradition and other Yiddish writers in addition to Shalom Aleichem such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I.L Peretz. I return to the masters and pray for a jolt by “praying at the altar.”

Second, I “phone a friend.”
I also have a small circle of (very) trusted friends that I will call and talk through the troubles with. That can be anything from story, plot, conflict, to trusting them to comb through the words themselves and tell me if I use too many italics. Or Whatever. Sometimes I scream into the phone while this friend talks me off the proverbial ledge. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we do victory laps. The best part is, I always enjoy returning the favor. To give the two most important credit: I have been bouncing ideas with Santino Fontana since we were teenagers, and I don’t know where I’d be creatively without Bobby Steggert. Which is why both are thanked in the acknowledgments of my book by name only, without any need for explanation.

Third, I walk. Everywhere. Until I drop.
I usually get the heck out of my “space” and walk and walk and walk. Anywhere. Often commingling #1 and #2 whilst power-walking my way to publication. Have you ever seen the episode of The West Wing where CJ can’t sleep so she exercises on a stationary bike until she sweats out her spleen? Yeah. It’s like that. With less political consequences.

3. Do you have to be familiar with the play or Sholom Aleichem's stories to appreciate the book?

Not at all. The piece is accessible to all, and a stand-alone story. If you know the Sholom Aleichem and the musical, even better.

I truly wanted to create was an utterly original story based upon and inspired by, but not tied to, the source material. My research makes clear that the sentimental shtetl world altered hugely in 1905— right after the first Russian Revolution. The safety, security and rules of life-as-they-knew-it changed suddenly to a stark and harsher reality— I wanted the story, as well as the prose itself, to reflect that reality. That makes this a story about Hodel, but one that takes up its own mantel and carries the story into the 20th century and hopefully, beyond.

4. Many questions are left unanswered at the end of the play. Why did you choose to make Hodel's story the basis of your novel?

Hodel took on a deeper significance for me than any other character I’d ever portrayed, mostly because when I began rehearsing her in London I was coming to terms with the death of my father 5 years earlier at the age of 18.

Hodel’s final scene is not only an assertion of her adult autonomy, but it her chance to say goodbye to her father, a chance I was personally lacking in my real life. When Hodel said “Papa God alone knows when we shall see each other again” it was more than a piece of dialogue for me. It felt mythological, primal even.

I suppose I only now see the direct connection between an 18-year0old girl who boards a train to Siberia, and an 18-year-old girl who boarded a plane to Scotland. By exploring and assuring Hodel's future, and her capacity to endure, I was in some deeper way doing the same for myself.

5. You’ve made the transition from West End to Broadway and from acting to writing so well. What would your advice be to people hoping to do similar / any advice or aspiring creatives?

Being a “multi-hyphenate” is simultaneously straightforward, and tremendously complex.

To “do” something other than what is listed on, say, your tax return, there is very little required other than to just do it. You want to write? Don’t wait for a permission slip from the Gods of Writing; just write. An essay. A blog post. A Tweet. It doesn’t matter what you create as long as you actually create it, and create it from a place of authenticity.

20 November, 2017

TV Series' I've Viewed in Entirety: A List

Vintage GOLD
Murder, She Wrote
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Golden Girls
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Diagnosis: Murder

Procedural Crime Drama
CSI: Miami
Rizzoli and Isles
White Collar
The Guardian
The Finder

Period Pieces
Miss Fisher Mysteries
Miss Marple
Downton Abbey
Father Brown

Contemporary Classics
The West Wing
The Wonder Years
Breaking Bad
The Keepers

31 October, 2017

from Measure for Measure

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil'd name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i' the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I'll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.


To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me? O perilous mouths,
That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof;
Bidding the law make court'sy to their will:
Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,
To follow as it draws! I'll to my brother:
Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour.
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he'ld yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorr'd pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:
More than our brother is our chastity.
I'll tell him yet of Angelo's request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul's rest.


© Oliver Munday; source phoo by Raymond Hall / GC Images via Getty

23 October, 2017

Adversity 101

    Last year I had a riveting conversation with one of my graduated students, that I (with their permission) decided to capture and share, here. In that instance, instead of the traditional “Ask Al” Q & A format, I chose to preserve the conversation in its dialectic essence, so you could see how beautifully the thoughts and lessons progressed. That conversation became the post "Cherish the Climb," and, to preserve the student's anonymity I called them "The Creature" (yes, theatre nerds, in honor of Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons). Today, "The Creature" returns! (It is in fact, a different student, but they shall remain "The Creature" all the same). Last time I wrote this as a prologue to "Cherish the Climb:"
    "... the subject matter, though specific to acting, is utterly universal to anyone meeting difficulties in pursuing a dream of any kind. It could be about family stuff, relationships, work, or a major life event. (...) When we are in pain or distress we want the discomfort to ease right away so we look for familiar “fixes.” These might work temporarily, but ultimately discomfort is necessary in order to truly grow.
As I mentioned above, this time around we have a different student, but in the same format, and with a lesson just as universal. The Creature had recently experienced a slew of adversities ranging from mild to severe (at any stage of life, let alone as a college student). Eager (and understandably impatient) to move forward and "get on" with their life, The Creature reached out to me for help, hoping to gain insight and perhaps expedite the process.

    Here is a modified transcript from our conversation. It blew both of our minds, and I hope it helps you too. May we all be our very best teachers in life's many classrooms.

* * *

The Creature: I'm just feeling so frustrated! Not only by the setbacks themselves, but by my inability to recover from those setbacks quickly!

Al: I totally understand, hugely relate, and also? Welcome you to the adult human race.

The Creature: Ugh. Really? This is just how it is going to be for all adulthood.

Al: Well not necessarily! Adversity will happen. Nothing will change or prevent that. But our response to adversity is completely within our hands, and how we choose to interpret and "metabolize" those experiences is up to us. That's nothing but empowering!

The Creature: I think I understand. But I'm not sure.

Al: Okay, I hear you. Let's do a series of question and answers. Answer me this: the greatest teacher in the world for Al was..?

The Creature: Losing your dad? Experience?

Al: Absolutely. For me there was the specificity of ‘grief’ but adversity is THE Great Teacher. *This is a little dense so go with me here*

The Creature: Go for it.

Al: Ok. List for me how adversity/Grief might have affected another young woman of 18. Who might I have “become,” and/or, what behaviors would have been conceivable? (Examples: victim mentality, excessively bratty, an addict, over-achiever, etc.)

The Creature: Well, I have an aunt who also experienced and early loss. She grew up to be very closely guarded—she has lots of emotional walls up, is (in my opinion) overly distrustful, intimidated by all emotion, etc. I can palpably see how it affects my uncle and cousins.

Al: Bingo. And how do you perceive that affects them, as her family? (I like that you went straight to your aunt by the way, it shows how compassionate you are).

The Creature: She tried to instill those behaviors in her children. Probably to keep them from getting hurt, like she was! No one wants to see their loved ones struggle. And her children tried to follow those behaviors for a while, but eventually they went the other way and chose to feel their feelings. In a way, I can see that by trying to protect them she sort of did them a disservice, and they have now sort of left her behind, emotionally speaking.

Al: That story is very common and generational; meaning that all generations (and cultures) of human beings on some level collectively decide how the majority will behave/view a certain issue. From strong emotions to the environment to religion. It's been that way since the dawn of conscious humanity.

The Creature: Wow. That's true. Like how segregation seems unthinkable for my generation, but it was largely unexamined by my grandparents as "just the way things are?" Or marriage equality, the environment, even social media?

Al: Exactly like that. So! Back to dealing with adversity. Two Grieving Processes you are familiar with: mine, and your Aunt’s. Two losses, very different outcomes. Let’s look at it this way: Your aunt and I both took the same “Grief” class … but got totally different experiences from that class.

The Creature: Oooooh.

Al: SO here is the big question: is ADVERSITY the teacher? Or is adversity the CLASSROOM?

The Creature: Oh. Both, I think?

Al: In my experience, Adversity is the classroom, and we are the teachers. We self-teach.

The Creature: ... Excuse me for a moment. My brain exploded.

Al: Self-teaching means we show up to Adversity Class and we realize… there is no teacher. That teacher is not coming. But we can’t get out of the classroom until we finish our assignment so we go about trying to figure out what the assignment is, how to do it properly, etc. We have to figure all of it out. Ourselves.

The Creature: Whoa.

Al: Some students ignore this and just literally sit in the classroom for the rest of their lives, really resentful that they ended up there.
Some get on the internet straight away and buy loads of hippie voodoo books and a crappy journal, and talk to people who have taken the class before about how they got out of the room….
Some people numb out and ignore being in the room with food, drugs, alcohol, sex, TV, whatever…
But, crucially? WE are the teacher.
So… welcome. To Adversity Class. What are you gonna do in here to get the most out of this class? You literally only get out of it what you put in.

The Creature: Wow. Okay. I'm going to work my ass off in Adversity Class.

Al: Get that A girl! And as for your poor poor Aunt, it is okay. She is moving at her own pace and capacity, and likely informed hugely by her generation's relationship to dealing with adversity. She is mostly just so afraid of this class.

The Creature: She's terrified of it. I don't think she ever got out, really. She’s under the impression that the teacher is that teacher who is mean and punishing and you can never get an A.

Al: I agree. She’s still sitting in there. All she wants is for the people she loves to never enter the room. But that’s not how this life thing works. She takes HER pain class, and you take yours. You can’t get the A *for* her, you can only get it and give it for/to yourself.

The Creature: *brain explodes* ๐Ÿ’ฅ๐Ÿ’ฅ๐Ÿ’ฅ๐Ÿ’ฅ๐Ÿ’ฅ
^ my brain.

Al: Okay. So now let’s do my favorite thing. Let's turn this around for a second. Teach this back to me.

The Creature: Hahaha okay ๐Ÿ˜‚
So, something crappy happens to you.
Really crappy.
Next-level crappy.
And you're in pain.

Al: Got it
^ me, in pain.

The Creature: Thank you for the demonstration. You are now being sent to Adversity 101.

Al: *This Class sounds like it SUUUUCKS!*

The Creature: So you get there, and discover that there is no teacher. The teacher is not late. The teacher is not coming. (And, by the way, there is not that rule that if the teacher doesn't show up after 15 minutes you can leave.)

Al: *That is ridiculous how am I supposed to take the class if there is no teacher? How do I know what to do to pass?*

The Creature: So you can either choose to sit in the classroom and suffer, you can try to dull the pain, numb out, avoid the problem with a variety of vices, but none of those options actually fix or heal the pain.

Al: *Okaaaaay. So what is the alternative?*

The Creature: You can freakin’ do something about it! You are in a fancy classroom filled with lots of resources! You can address the adversity head on, or sideways, at whatever pace feels effective for you, and along the way you can even figure out what your study techniques are!

Al: *How do I do that?!*

The Creature: Well. You can start by writing some it down—journaling all of your real feelings in a shitty ugly journal (like you taught me to do, because you’re so right, no one can really totally let loose and let go in a gorgeous perfect journal). So, all of those overwhelming thoughts and feelings you don't even want to acknowledge? Put them in there.

Al: *That sounds hard.*

The Creature
: It is and it will be hard. But you have to pass this class.

Al: *Or else what?!*

The Creature
: Or else… you never leave. And that means you never grow.

Al: [PS this is really fun]


Al: [Okay sorry sorry] *So what else can I do to pass? And also! how do you know if you get that A?*

The Creature: You can read some self-help books - the ones that people sometimes laugh at and call “weird” or “hippie voodoo.” Some of them are weird and out there, but a lot of them are at least a little helpful, with lots of science to back them up, practical examples, actionable things to do.

Al: *Can I just read the good ones and skip the stupid ones? Or will I have to possibly endure some stupid ones too?*

The Creature: Read as many as possible. They're on the syllabus.

Al: *Ugh. Okay.*

The Creature: And also, you can talk about it. Talk to people you trust, talk to people who have taken this really tough class already.

Al: *Oh! That sounds helpful!*

The Creature
: It totally is helpful, and they're often really willing to help. Also, if you need to, talk to professional helpers and healers?

Al: *Yes, it sounds like, in this metaphor you’ve made up, that mental healthcare professionals might be like a super-tutor for this class?*

The Creature: Sure. Mental Health professionals could absolutely like talking to an expert on Adversity 101— you jut have to find the just-right super-tutor.

Al: Yes that sounds right. In my experience with tutors, you have to shop around a little but it’s worth it. *Okay okay so I take Adversity 101, and what if I get a bad grade? Do I have to keep retaking the class until I really learn my stuff*

The Creature: Pretty much, yeah.

Al: *Also: even if I pass— will I have to take the class again someday?! Like, OMG: I graduate but then years later I take Adversity 102, 103, etc.*

The Creature: Probably.  "The thing about pain is it demands to be felt." - A pretty shitty book I read once, but that quote was great.

Al: *But what it sounds like is that those classes are hard, but nothing is ever harder than Adversity 101?*

The Creature: Yeah, basically. 101 is the hardest. But here’s the great thing: if you have to take Adversity 102 or all the way up to Adversity 4052, you can always use what you learned in Adversity 101 to get through it.

Al: *Well that sounds genuinely useful and thanks for your help! I’m gonna work my ass off in 101!*

The Creature: Yes.

Al: *So I better get on with the work, huh? Because I kinda want to get an A now.*

The Creature: Yes.

Al: . . . [Can I be me now?]

The Creature: [Fiiiiiine.]

Al: TA-DAAAA!!!!๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ Ok! So this is now so helpful because now you are gonna have the superpower of being able to see if someone is sitting in Adversity 101. They might even be in “class” and not even know it.

The Creature: Right.

Al: You’re gonna be all like “I know what you’re going through and this stuff is HARD. If you ever wanna talk I’m here.” But then? You have to walk away and leave them alone because, again, they are their own teacher. YOU can’t teach them.

The Creature: Right.

Al: And here we are, coming back round to the point:
It sounds like your aunt is possibly stuck in the class. Maybe she’s never even left. And it is frustrating because NO ONE ELSE CAN TEACH HER. You cannot make her learn, force her to read the books or write the personal statement essays. You have no power over her vision of reality.
You can only use this, and every, situation… to teach yourself.
One day, you will look back at this the exact same way I view the loss of my Dad: as Adversity 101. As the moment I learned to teach myself how to truly be honest and authentic and vulnerable and thriving in the world, unafraid of Pain— because I *aced* that class, bitches.


The Creature: ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป Brava.

Al: I thank you. Don’t you feel better than you did earlier today?

The Creature: Oh SO. MUCH. BETTER. Different-person-better.

Al: Yay. Okay, gimme your thoughts.

The Creature: Okay
1. This officially goes down as the best (and also probably weirdest) text conversation I've ever had.

Al: 1. Me too.

The Creature: 2. There is nothing I want more in this world than to get my aunt out of that fucking room. But I can't.

Al: 2. Good girl. I know— you can’t do that. That is her business.
In this life there is
Your business,
Their business,
And God’s business.
    You can only worry about Yours.
(I didn't make that phrase up, incidentally, someone else did. I just forgot who. Apologies.)

The Creature: 3. I'm also realizing that while my aunt was stuck in Adversity 101, there were other events that happened that should've sent her into Adversity 102 and so on. But she couldn't move on because she was still stuck in Adversity 101. So now she has multiple course loads piled up in front of her and she can't deal with any of them.


4. But I can learn from that and say, "Wow, I never want that to happen to me. So I need to get the heck out of Adversity 101."

Al: 4. That is exactly right.

The Creature: 5. So I'm going to work my ass off. I'm going to journal and read and think and communicate. I'm going to choose not to suffer, like I've been doing for the past couple of weeks which has led to so much anger and craziness and tension and blah. And I'm also going to look at my aunt with a lot more empathy and compassion because I know that she's stuck in Adversity 101!

Al: [This has seriously been one of the best conversations I’ve had in recent memory]

The Creature:
[This has seriously been one of the best conversations I've had ever.]

Al: 5. Creature? This is The Work. Welcome. You are well on your way to ace-ing this class. The most important part of anything on earth is how you choose to view it. I am so so proud of you.

The Creature: I don't know what I would do without you. I honestly don't. Thank you. Thank you infinitely.

Al: Thank you. You have given me a gift too. It is an honor to clarify these thoughts in your presence and in doing so, grow with you and from and because of you.

The Creature: If I can help you 1/100th as much as you've helped me, that means the world to me.
I actually can't believe how mind-blowing this conversation was.
Oh also, one more realization:
I think the last time I was really in pain was when I got rejected from all those summer stock auditions last year and I thought I was going to die. But that adverse journey led me to you. So I'm going to trust that this journey will lead me to something good as well.

Al: Okay there you go! ^ That is data: evidence of how good you are at this. And how you are gonna get a freakin’ A+!

The Creature: Oh I'm going to get a ๐Ÿ’ฏ so hard. I'm going to kick Adversity 101's ass.

Al: Yep. And then? You’re gonna be the best study buddy ever. Someday (I promise) you are going to be having this exact conversation with someone you love/are mentoring, and you’ll know how far you’ve come.

The Creature: Thank you for showing me the way.

Al: You are infinitely welcome. It has been so rewarding and mind-expansive for me as well.

The Creature: Okay, my brain is tired from exploding so many times. I should probably go to sleep now. ๐Ÿ˜‚

Al: Me too.

The Creature: Thank you.

Al: Thank you.

The Creature: Goodnight. ๐Ÿ’œ

Al: Sleep well: you have class tomorrow. ๐Ÿ’œ

10 October, 2017

from 'Different Seasons' by Stephen King,

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” 

—Stephen King

© Nick Bantock

09 October, 2017

"I wish... I know"

     In 6th grade when asked by our middle school music teacher to bring in a CD of our favorite music, everyone else brought in Ace of Base, Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey, I? Brought in the 1989 Original Cast Recording of Into The Woods.
That’s right.
I brought in Stephen Sondheim.

I was obviously very popular, and by “popular” I mean I was not popular. But I didn’t care, because even at eleven, I could appreciate a 6/8 time signature, internal rhyming, all things Robert Westenberg, and poignant social parallels.

Into the Woods with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book James Lapine is a masterpiece of the musical theatre about the inner-lives and backstories of the world’s most famous (an infamous) fairy tale characters.  We are fortunate as a culture to have the original production preserved not only on audio recording, but in a beautifully filmed live video of the stage performance. I grew up devouring both.

A Narrator guides us through the first act of familiar stories: Cinderella and her Prince, Jack and his beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and some new characters such as a Witch, a childless Baker and his Wife, all criss-crossing and influencing one another in ways our children’s stories were never privy to.

The curtain rises, and the audience is welcomed by the Narrator (incidentally, played originally by Tom Aldridge, who also plays Mr. Gutmann in What About Bob, thus, making him a god among men) who says:

“Once Upon a Time…” followed by a now-celebrated and utterly identifiable series of chords, and lights up on the characters we are about to meet. The first is Cinderella. She sings a phrase that is to become the haunting theme of the evening:

    “I wish…”

Every one of our characters has a wish— to go to the festival, to have a child, for fortune, wealth, security, beauty. They wish. For things. They want.

How fascinating and fun.  By the end of the stream-lined first act, every character has achieved their well-known conclusions, and we celebrate with them in a rollicking Act One Finale celebrating Happily “Ever After!”

And then the curtain rises on a complicated second act.

Cinderella’s prince is unfaithful; life in luxury, unfulfilling.
The Baker and His Wife have their child, and they are ill-content.
With the wolf dead, Little Red fakes confidence in the shadow of her attack.
The Witch has lost not only her daughter Rapunzel, but her magic powers in exchange for physical beauty.
And above all, Jack has murdered the giant in the sky, and angered his wife, who now threatens to destroy their kingdom if she can not take her revenge on her husband’s killer.

Slowly, over the course of the incredibly difficult second Act, it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly everyone suffers in the wake of the Giant.

This musical opened on Broadway in 1989, at the very height of the AIDS epidemic, and as a child born in the middle of the crisis, I suppose I only now realize that the actors in the original production were suffering losses every day, of their friends, family, members of their communities. Mind-obliterating, countless, losses, daily fear— all of it, lacking in any kind of reason. ‘The Giant’ had ravaged their kingdom.

Into the Woods is a piece I have never truly seen myself inside of—somewhat unusual for an actor, as we tend to see where we would, or would like to, fit inside a story. But with “Into the Woods,” I’ve always been in the audience, seeing the whole picture, never precisely identifying with any individual story-arc.

Until now.

In the final few moments of the play, the too-old-to-be-babied, and to-young-to-be-ready Little Red Riding Hood, sits in shock. She is already vulnerable, traumatized from her experience with the wolf in Act 1, yet, in this moment she cannot move in the wake of losing her entire family. Her face is strained, still, but dry (and truly, the raw emotion on actress Danielle Ferland's face is a masterclass in trusting stillness and vulnerability). She realizes slowly, that she is alone in the world— a child, with nothing but a wolf-skin coat on her back.

Beside her, is Cinderella. She is dressed in rags once more, and having left the Prince, on her own again to face the world a stronger and smarter, woman than before.

Dreams shattered. Lives forever altered, the two women sit there. And from the depths of Little Red’s viscera, comes the musical phrase we know from what seems like forever ago, a cry from her soul so straightforward, so true, yet so painful she can barely utter it:

    “I wish…

Cinderella looks at her. Not with pity. Cinderella cannot grant this wish. No one can. The kingdom has been annihilated. People are dead. Life will never be the same. The pain, unutterable. Her childhood, ended. With great respect, Cinderella responds:

    “…I know.

Four words.
Yet this brief exchange is the summation of my entire life.

Four words that capture the essence of both versions of myself, of where I sit today as I write these words upon the page, looking back to “once upon a time,” exactly half my life ago. Before the Giant ravaged my kingdom; took all but my heartbeat.

Little Red, my eighteen-year-old self, and Cinderella, the self of today.  Would that I could look that brave young eighteen year old girl—who had already faced so much— straight in the eye, as Cinderella does for Little Red. Tell her that she is absolutely right, this is the bottom of the well of human pain. That her innocence is indeed, shattered, her childhood at its end. It will not get better, darling girl, I would say, it will only grow familiar and thus less harrowing; that there will never be anything deeper or more painful to wish for, ever again.

But now? Now she has earned her passage to the human race. She may now arrive upon its shores as the inextinguishable woman she is destined to become. That this exact tragedy, in time, if she allows it, will make her soul the richer; escort her to her highest self.

30 September, 2017

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

25 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 11


I should have loved you 
better. Not The One. 
But the best I knew. 

The hurt is nothing 
nowturned to gratitude and
sentiment. All one.

You get three stanzas.
For in the end, Im proud of 
us. Im proud of us.

24 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 10


You showed us how to 
love harder.  First rebellion.
The first, everything.

23 September, 2017

[The Real] Rabbi Syme

    As many of you out there are reading After Anatevka, you might be surprised to know that one of the leading questions I get is whether or not Rabbi Syme (Perchik's teacher and advocate) is based on a real person. The answer: of course he is. Rabbi Syme was indeed so influential, that I felt he had to be memorialized in After Anatevka for he was my first spiritual advocate.

    Fictional Rabbi Syme is based very loosely upon the real-life Rabbi Syme—loosely because my description in the novel is not so much a literal, but more of an evocative recollection and honoring of his influence. Real-life Rabbi Syme and I only spent a collection of minutes together in 2001, but they were crucial minutes. He gave me the gift of delivering the eulogy at my father's funeral service, as well as bearing witness to it when he lead the funeral service, and above all, he gave me an hour of his time months later, reminding me of what was eternal, and chartering a map toward the beauty, strength and individuality my faith. Irreplaceable gifts one can never forget.

    The influence of Rabbi Syme proves another true-to-life maxim: that we never know the depth of the influence we have upon one another. A fleeting moment to one, might bear a lifetime of profundity to another, for better and for worse. So it is in these tiny actions that we must recognize that our influence on earth is vast, has meaning, and should never be taken for granted.

    I include this story from my memory (also included in my upcoming memoir) in today's post because the prayer Rabbi Syme references, the Shema' Koleinu, is not only a prayer that is part of the Amidah (the core of every worship service), but especially significant on the High Holy Days, which are currently upon us.

    L'Shana Tova, one and all. May your new years be filled with positive influence that you both give and receive. Here's to a brighter and more peaceful world.


    Two months after the funeral I went to see Rabbi Syme.

    In the Jewish community, a rabbi is viewed as more than just a life cycle overseer, administrator, Bible reciter, or spiritual leader; but also as a counselor, a true community role model, and above all, an educator. The word Rabbi, in fact, translates as “teacher." At the time I’d be willing to admit that I required all of the above from good ol’ Rabbi Syme, a man I’d known for approximately 2 hours. I walked into Temple Bel El ready to order up the “super size me” platter of spiritual needs. Plus, I felt inexplicably close to him, compelled beyond logic to spend time in the company of the sweet, wise man who had, in such a brief collection of minutes, given me the ultimate gift—the eulogy. He had been the cartographer of the map that chartered the rest of my life.

    By the time I got to his office at Temple Beth El I realized, of course, that I barely knew him, and was suddenly embarrassed at my presence there. I knew so little of Judaism, had (unjustly) railed so harshly against it for, up until then, I had only ever associated it with my horrible grandparents.  Still, I entered and sat across from him. Two almost-strangers in two tiny chairs.

    “So. How are you doing?”

What was I supposed to say?

    “Fine, thank you Rabbi.”

I wanted to tell him about everything.

    “How is your family?”

Well well well, Rabbi Syme this is all getting a bit personal! I usually wait ’til the third date to list my favorite Mandy Patinkin roles in order of sexiness, craziness, intensity, beard length, let alone discuss my batshit-bonkers family, but I suppose I can make an exception. How. To. Respond. How can a person respond when “One time, grandma kidnapped me” is, say, the sixth most dysfunctional story?

    “I… don’t really know.”

Rabbi Syme sat up in his chair and nodded.

    “I sensed as much. They were… unusual.”

Rabbi Syme’s Spidey-skills: for the win.

    We talked for a long while that day, Rabbi Syme and I, or at least what felt like it.  It was an odd discovery, but Rabbi Syme was more than my first spiritual advisor, in many ways he was the first adult who, even in the mere three hours clocked together, was more interested in my cultivation of wisdom than of knowledge. I knew that the word Rabbi translated as “teacher” in Hebrew, but this exceeded reciting the periodic table. Knowledge is information—a collection of facts. Wisdom is the poetry inside those facts. Wisdom relies on evocation more than description. It is the difference between two photographs: one that looks exactly the way it looked in the moment, the other that looks exactly the way it felt. Memory through a lens.

    “Do you know the Shema' Koleinu” he asked, as if I actually might?
    “Rabbi, I wasn’t invited to the Bar Mitzvahs or the quinceaรฑeras if you catch my drift.”
    “I ...do not.”
    “I’m kind of a Cashew.” He stared at me blankly. “A Catholic-Jew? An interfaith secularization situation?”
    “That’s very clever.”
    “Thank you.” I continued, nervously, “Well technically I was invited to both the Steinman kids parties and for what it’s worth I played Golde in Fiddler sophomore year of high school—”
    “I—” he stopped me, kind but swift, “I understand.”

    He went on.
    “The Shema' Koleinu is the sixteenth paragraph of a central prayer of Judaism, called the Amidah, which is the core of every Jewish worship service.

    It reads:

ืָื‘ ื”ָืจַื—ֲืžָืŸ, ืฉְׁืžַืข ืงื•ืœֵื ื•ּ, ื”' ืֱืœื”ֵื™ื ื•ּ, ื—ื•ּืก ื•ְืจַื—ֵื ืขָืœֵื™ื ื•, ื•ְืงַื‘ֵּืœ ื‘ְּืจַื—ֲืžִื™ื ื•ּื‘ְืจָืฆื•ืŸ ืֶืช ‘ืชְּืคִืœָּืชֵื ื•ּ, ื›ִּื™ ืֵืœ ืฉׁื•ืžֵืขַ ืชְּืคִืœּื•ืช ื•ְืชַื—ֲื ื•ּื ִื™ื ืָืชָּื”, ื•ּืžִืœְּืคָื ֶื™ืšָ ืžַืœְื›ֵּื ื•ּ. ืจֵื™ืงָื ืַืœ ืชְּืฉִׁื™ื‘ֵื ื•ּ.

    "Hear our voice, O Lord our God; spare us and have mercy upon us, and accept our prayer in mercy and favor.Hear Our Voice is the essence of this prayer—and I sense that your voice has always been heard, both of the spoken and the sung variety. The eulogy proves that.”
    “Really?” I replied, not entirely understanding where he was leading me, all I knew was that I was willing to follow. 
    “Well I believe so. What do you think?”

     No one had ever asked me anything remotely like this, and I grew hot and uneasy fearing I would offend him, or say the wrong thing.

    “I really don’t know how to respond.”
    “There is no right or wrong here, Alexandra,” the Rabbi pacified, “it’s just a simple question. One of the beauties of Judaism is this ancient tradition of the dialogic process. Of discussion! Jews recognizing that understanding comes from meaningful exchanges, from challenges, not only with one another but with God Himself.”
    “Oh! Like in Fiddler how Tevye has a kind of dialogue with God!”
    “Exactly like that. God and Tevye have a very personal relationship.”
    “I really like that.”
    “So do I,” he smiled. “So? What do you think of ‘Hear Our Voice?’”
    “We all… want to be heard.”
    “And we all struggle to listen?”
    “I think so.” He leaned in. “Hear Our Voice is a very simple request, but it indicates that we want to engage beyond ourselves. It acknowledges the desire to be heard, and the validity of that desire.”
    “Wow,” I gasped. The thought took my breath away.
    “That’s why you are here today, isn’t it? To be heard?”

It certainly was. I nodded.    
He continued.

    “The prayer continues a few lines on: ‘Renew our days, as of old.’ Almost as if the speaker  is a little skeptical: Alexandra, do you think it is possible to recover the days of the past? And I’m not saying it isn’t.”
    “No but…” And then I saw.

    If prayers were only knowledge, prayers would fail. As wisdom, the prayer was true as anything. My father was dead. That was the fact. But the poetry of that fact could continue for the rest of my life if I turned these days of pain into lessons. Yes, the past indeed is truly “passed,” it is unrecoverable, and none of us can truly live there. But the wisdom gained by reflection upon that past is why we are alive. To make meaning. To understand better.  I looked at Rabbi Syme and said as much.
    “Do you believe, Alexandra?”
    “I believe you.”

I did—it wasn’t an evasion.

    “You know what I’m asking.”
    “I do. I can’t believe I’m saying it but I do. I believe in something.”
    “Well, good. ‘Something’ is possibility. ‘Something’ is something.”

    I thanked Rabbi Syme and left him that day, never to see him in person again. But his impact would be ever-with me, his name etched upon my heart, and, forever synonymous with integrity. 

22 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 9


While they got married,
You showed me I could, still, fly. 
Ill never forget.

21 September, 2017

Coulda-been-ku 8


Oh, the agony 
of being seen. Dark chapter. 
I loved you. Too much.


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