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* πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯
^ 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 πŸ˜‚
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!!!!πŸ‘πŸΌπŸ‘πŸΌπŸ‘πŸΌ 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: πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ» 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 πŸ’― 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. πŸ˜‚

Al: Me too.

The Creature: Thank you.

Al: Thank you.

The Creature: Goodnight. πŸ’œ

Al: Sleep well: you have class tomorrow. πŸ’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.


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