AM I NORMA DESMOND?

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Am I Norma DesmondI watched Sunset Boulevard last night. It was horrifying. Not, perhaps, for the reasons other people would find horrifying. For me, it was learning that nutty Norma Desmond, living like Dickens’ Miss Haversham was only 50 years old. That’s right. Fifty. Bill Holden threw that number at her like a death sentence. He thought she was an old hag. My shoulders sank. Instead of saying to her, “You’re only 50 years old, for God’s sakes, Norma. You’ve got tons of money. Get out and have some fun!” Nope. No chance for that. In Bill Holden’s eyes, and dare I say, the world’s, Norma was done, used up, finished, beyond any chance of having a life or being loved except by her creepy, sinister German butler.

I thought, Wow, I’m so many years older than Norma. Granted she was probably certifiably crazy, but am I even crazier trying to create a new life at my age? Sometimes the answer veers toward, “Yes,” especially after spending a day like yesterday looking at dreary homes for sale in my price range in Sarasota, and then making the unfortunate choice of watching Sunset Boulevard at night.

Aside from my personal reactions, it’s a great movie, so I continued to watch. Gloria Swanson, if you took away the weird makeup and over-the-top distended eyeball rolling, looked really good. And her imitation of Charlie Chaplin is terrific.

Many years ago, I happened to sit at a table next to her in Spoleto, Italy. I was surprised at how lovely she was in person. After that, I read her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, which is one of the best autobiographies I have read. So, Gloria and I go way back. But in her iconic role, she damned me and my life to the dustbin. Am I Norma Desmond minus her money, butler, and toy boy Bill Holden?

No—in the light of this gray day, Norma wanted her old life back. I don’t. I had some wonderful experiences as an actress, but I don’t want to play Alzheimer patients. I want to create something new. I’d love to have all my beloved family, friends, and pets alive again, but that is not going to happen. So, I’m ready let go. I think trying to hang onto or recreate the past is what plunged Norma into the Land of Haversham. But, letting go means standing in emptiness, (see p.112 in the new edition of The Four Principles: Applying the Four Keys of Authentic Acting to Life). Emptiness can be scary as hell because it demands a big dose of trust. So many times one wants to hang onto what doesn’t work rather than walk into that big empty space of not knowing what to do, or where to go. or how to get what one really wants.

So, even if I am crazy, I’m going to see if I can create a new life. It’s a challenge and an adventure. Here I go.

I’m ready for my close up, God.

This blog addresses the principle of Commitment.

A BIG QUESTION

question_markCan I, a 77 year-old single woman with almost no family, create a whole new life?

It’s a big question that has been coming up since my acting career faded away. Four years ago, after the death of my sister, I drove around the US in a camper van for three months trying to revive myself. It worked. During the trip I sometimes wondered, “Would I like to live here? Or here? Or here?” The answer was pretty much “Nope.” But it was a wonderful adventure.

Enlivened, I came home and rebooted my life without my former connection to my acting career in New York City. But each cold winter became more unbearable to me and more friends and family died. So last winter, I began seriously exploring warmer climes to relocate. I traveled around much of Florida and even went to Merida, Mexico. I felt like Goldilocks hopping in and out of beds. Nothing seemed right for me: The Keys were too low key for me, Miami and environs too big. So I turned to central Florida. The Villages seemed too much like an adult Disneyword, Mt. Dora, too small. I loved Winter Park, but it was, frankly, too expensive and I wanted to be closer to the beach. So, this December, having heard Sarasota had a lot of theater and culture, not to mention the beach, I decided to try it out. Within days, it felt right to me.

I did not know one person there. But one of the great lessons I learned in my trip around the US was: There are good people everywhere. And, indeed, through chance encounters at restaurants and even on the street, I am on my way to creating a circle of friends. One woman I met took me with her to feed the homeless on Christmas Day. I plan to do that again next year wherever I am. Two people I chatted up at a restaurant happen to be very connected in the theater. They have already introduced me to several people who are also active in theater in Sarasota. And talk about good people! Another woman, JoAnn, who I had met at the theater and for lunch days later, turned out to be a kind of angel. When I fled my rental because of a nutty, rather scary landlady, JoAnn gave me her house to stay in while she was in California! Such generosity I won’t ever forget. (The landlady, by the way, was the exception that proves the rule about good people everywhere.)

So today, when I ask, “Can I, a 77 year-old single woman with almost no family, create a whole new life?” It may take some courage and a little craziness, but my answer is a resounding YES, I CAN!  And I’m excited about the prospect!

This blog has to do with Commitment. As I say in my Creative Explosion workshops, “A really good commitment may look a little crazy.”

 

 

WRITING IS HELL

Hell2jpgLet me repeat that. Writing is hell. Of course, sometimes it’s joyful and wonderfully enlivening and all that, but there are times when it is just plain hell. Lately I have been struggling with the historical novel that I have been working on for the last couple of years.

My frustration with this enormous task has been building. Yesterday, I was ready to give up and stop. I was in such a dark place that the whole gargantuan enterprise and my entire life seemed a crazy waste. Such global negativity was a clear signal to me that I needed to Get Present. So I called a friend who knows the Compassionate Witness Process from the Creative Explosion workshop and I enlisted her help.

As I focused on my body sensations, I felt such anger and frustration arise that I wanted to trash my room and throw my computer out the window. After satisfying that fantasy, I started feeling deeply sad. It seemed that writing this book was like digging a tunnel with a teaspoon. The image was vivid. But, worse, in this moving picture in my mind, I was not attempting to get myself out of prison, I was stupidly digging my way into a jail cell. So when I completed the book, that’s where I would land—trapped in a jail cell with my unpublished, unread book. Horrible. Why would I want to do that to myself? What was the point? No one asked me to write the damn book. I don’t have to. I could stay out in the sunshine, relax on a bench, watch the world go by, and do nothing. Why would I want to engage in such a useless, Sisyphean task? How self-punishing!

That’s where the Getting Present Process ended. Of course, the purpose of being present is to be present. Many times enlightenment happens in the Process, but sometimes, for those of us so trained in childhood to suppress feelings, we need help just to feel. I know I do.

An hour later, I met via the phone with my wonderful writing support group who encouraged me to keep working on my book. When our meeting finished, I got up to make a cup of tea. Crossing the room, I was stopped by a kind of stunning thought: “What if you are digging this tunnel, not to put yourself in jail, but to rescue and release something or someone that you deeply love to get them out of jail?”

That was a much better version of my tunnel digging. More about love than ego. Trying to get something or someone out of jail. What?  I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out when I get there.

My despair and frustration lifted. I know that this shift in context doesn’t mean writing this book won’t continue to be like digging a tunnel with a teaspoon, but now I feel as if I have a greater purpose to deal with the difficulty of it. Now that original picture of digging my way into a prison seemed wise and right—as if some higher part of me was trying to tell me something I had misinterpreted.

This blog deals with the Being Present Principle and using the Compassionate Witness process. 

DEAR MIKE NICHOLS

imagesThis morning someone sent me a text about your death. I hadn’t known you were gone until that moment. I burst into sobs. I feel as if God died, or my father, or a guru.

I’ll never forget meeting you opening night of Cloud 9. I did not know you were in the audience, thank god. I was so in awe of you and had always dreamed about working with you. At the party after the show, you stopped me as I walked by your table and said something so complimentary I was taken aback. Literally. I fell over the chair behind me. I remember nothing of the evening after that.

A week or so later, a woman called. “This is Colleen, Mike Nichols’ secretary. He would like to know if you would help him out with a reading he is doing of a screenplay called Silkwood.”

I nearly choked on the intake of my breath and tried to cover my reaction with a casual, “Sure.”

“It’s going to be very informal because it’s mainly for the authors Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. Meryl Streep will be reading her role. Kurt Russel will be reading his. Someone will be reading the men’s parts, and you’ll be reading all the other women’s roles.”

All the other women’s roles?! I could barely get out, “Oh. Okay.”

The phone call over, I ran up and down my hallway screaming wildly.

When I got the script, I thumbed through pages covered in red underlining–all the parts I was going to read including Cher’s. I panicked. Oh god oh god oh god.

I did not sleep the night before the reading. At the studio, young, beautiful Meryl Streep grabbed me and said, “I’m really scared.”

“I’m terrified,” I responded, grateful for her openness.

We sat down to the table for the reading. You were sitting at the end of the table. I was at the corner to your right. When I said my first line, you laughed. I don’t know if it was funny, but your easy laugh relaxed me completely. You had the most joyful, open laugh. How I loved to make you laugh. I think one of the most thrilling moments of my life was when you came to a reading of my play, Intelligent Design and laughed and laughed.

At the end of the Silkwood reading, Nora and Alice joined in saying something like, “We’ll have to find her a part, Mike.” Although there wasn’t really a suitable role, you offered me Gilda Schultz. She was written to be younger and kinda saucy and sexy. I was so excited to get to play her.

Magically, my impossible fantasy of working with the Great Mike Nichols was suddenly coming true! So, at 46, an age when most American actresses are being shoved out to pasture, I arrived in Dallas to begin my short and limited movie career. My costumes were flattering. Even at my age, I thought the costumes and makeup made me look pretty good.

The day before the first day of shooting, I was told to meet with you. When I entered the room, Nora, Alice, the producer, the costumer, and you were all sitting in a semi circle. I was certain I was about to be fired because your faces looked so grim. You told me gently that the concept for my character was being completely changed. Ann Roth then took me into a fitting room. My sexy, pretty clothes were eliminated. I was dressed in ugly polyester outfits. Then, the hair stylist cut my hair into a terrible, unflattering style. I was told I would wear no make up at all, and it would even be removed if I was caught cheating. (I had never gone without makeup publicly ever, let alone on film.) The change was shocking.

The next day, the first day of shooting, over 200 people were on the set: crew, cast, extras to shoot a locker scene. I was depressed and angry. I hated the way I looked and couldn’t wrap my mind around my new character. I tried to hide my fury and disappointment by staying in a corner. I decided to just grit my teeth and get through the day. I stayed out of sight as best I could, but somehow, even in the midst of all that first day chaos, you noticed me.

At a break an assistant said you wanted to see me. I didn’t want to see you. I didn’t want to talk to you, but I went because I had to.

You took me aside and spoke without your usual warmth. “Katherine,” you said. “I can take anything but sullen. I can’t take sullen.”

“Sullen” was the exact, right word. I hated being nailed as that, but I never forgot it. Years later, when I wrote Intelligent Design, I gave that cutting insult to the character of God when he complained about Eve: “She’s very sullen. I hate that sullen shit.” The word is funny to me now, but back then, it wasn’t.

My heart sank. I was caught.There was nothing I could do but tell the truth. “Oh, Mike,” I said. “It’s just that when I look in the mirror all I see is my mother.” Given the history with my mother, the last thing I wanted to be was her.

“Well,” you said. “Maybe it’s time you rejected your mother.”

I was so shocked by that I burst out laughing. What a politically incorrect thing to say! Not, I should “forgive” her or come to terms with her. According to you, it would be okay to reject her. I doubled over and nearly peed my pants laughing.

“Good. All I want is that aliveness again that I know is in you.”

The rest of the film went fine. We had no more problems. In fact, once, during the course of the shoot, you asked me a question no director before or since has ever asked: “How do you want to do this scene, Katherine?” It was such an astonishing question. It made me feel deeply respected. It implied that you assumed I had given it some thought. I hadn’t.

I made something up on the spot. “Um, well, given I was supposed to be sick, I thought I’d start in the toilet stall and then head over to that sink and wash my face while I talk with Meryl.”

“Fine,” you said. “We’ll do it that way” and told someone in the crew to make sure that the sink I had pointed to was ready with running water. It certainly wasn’t an inspired suggestion, but you liked it, and we did the scene in one shot.

When I was asked to teach acting, my only intention was to try to teach the way you directed–to see the light in people, to treat each and every person with the kind of respect you gave me. You taught me to not focus on what doesn’t work but to empower and strengthen what does work in people.

There is so much more I could write about, but I’m tired and have a headache from crying. My eyes hurt. The fire in the fireplace is dying down.

I’ve felt your presence all day today. I was only on the periphery of your world—an asteroid to your sun. Still, your love and light shone on me as brightly as it did on all those who were fortunate to be closer to you. You loved so many people so wholeheartedly. I cannot imagine the demands that were made on you because of that. Everyone wanted to be close to your genius and your love. I cannot imagine the needs and requests that must have come to you from all those who wanted to be with you or wanted something from you—and not just from peers but from wannabees and crazies. Even I, an asteroid, dared to ask you for a quote for my book The Four Principles. When you emailed it to me with such generous praise, I cried.

Perhaps you were able to love so fully and fearlessly because you knew never to sacrifice yourself—knowing that sacrifice would damage that love. Maybe you just loved and loved until your enormous, generous heart gave out. I don’t know. You taught me in ways I am not even conscious of, You taught me to love better.

I’m crying again. It’s as if I can hear your voice saying, “Well, for all you know, Katherine, I’m sitting right in the chair across from you enjoying the fire. I can be everywhere now—with everyone I love. I am with Diane. I am with Elaine. I am with my children and my beloved grandchildren. I am everywhere now, and best of all, I don’t have to be any place I don’t want to be.”

Whether that is true or not, I know you are in my heart and will remain there as long as I live. When the body dies, love does not. Love lives on. Thank you, Mike, from the bottom of my soul and the fullness of my heart.

THANK GOD FOR FACEBOOK!

FacebookAs a short follow up to my last post, I did try to “friend” Anna’s daughter, but had not gotten a response. I worried that maybe she didn’t remember me. This morning, however, I open up Facebook and am thrilled to see her name and that she accepts!

Excitedly, I respond and send her a message about having her mother’s typewritten book and asking her if she wants it.

Her message back: “Wow! It is a miracle because I lost a lot of mom’s writing in a flood. I would love to have a copy. I have a son who will be 6 next month and a daughter who is 4. It is good to know you are well. I remember you, Helen, HB and Holland very well.”

Cleaning out closets can lead to miracles it seems!

Minor Miracles

HelpWhat you need will show up the moment you need it—not a moment before and not a moment after.

I believe this because it has happened to me so often. Here’s a short tale about just that very thing happening:

Four years ago, as I prepared to leave on a three-month trip around the US in my camper van, I was stumped as to what to do with the dehumidifier in my finished basement. Like many basements, it is damp, so I had been running a dehumidifier for years. Sometimes I would have to empty it daily. What to do while I was away?

Being a self-proclaimed champ of jerry rigging, I bought a small pump on line that would pump out water when it got above a certain level. I wrestled it into the tray of the dehumidifier, attached a hose which I jammed it into the pipe where my washing machine water flushes into the septic tank. This is more information than you need, but I’m so proud of my “invention” because it worked for four years.

Recently, however, I noticed that although the dehumidifier turns on periodically, the basement feels dank. Yet another thing I do not want to confront.

Finally, I slump down the stairs (I slump a lot when approaching daunting tasks) and pull out the tank.  It is full of dust. Definitely the humidifier has gone belly up. I unplug it, lift out the pump, go upstairs, and test it in my kitchen sink. It still works.

Now what? Sigh. I guess I have to get rid of the dead monster down stairs.

I go back to the basement and heave the heavy, old dehumidifier off the table and onto a rolling cart. Sweating and grunting, I manage to get it up the stairs and out to the barn. I have no idea what I am going to do with it. I’ll have to find someone to take it to a dump.

Back in the house I fling myself onto the bed unhappy that I will have to A: find someone to haul it away to a dump, and B: go to Home Depot, purchase another one, drag it home, somehow get it into the house, and haul it down to the…..

The phone rings. And, here’s where the story gets good. It is my ex husband’s secretary, Linda. She asks me to tell someone who’s now waiting in the driveway that she’s late and will be here soon. I go outside. It’s Dave, the guy who did such a great job repairing my barn after Hurricane Sandy. He’s here to fix the bathroom in Linda’s office. (Yes, my ex and I have a friendly partnership.)

“Dave!” I call out. He walks toward me. We chat.

As we start toward the house, I stop and ask, “By the way, is there any chance you could take that dehumidifier to the dump for me?”

“Sure!” he says. “I’ll put it in the truck with that old washing machine. On my way to the dump after I leave here, anyway.”

“How much….?” I start to ask.

“Nothing! Don’t worry about it.”

In the house we talk about his young daughter, Sophia, who is an aspiring actress. I run to my office to get a copy of my acting book and autograph it for her.

Linda arrives. While Dave goes to look at the bathroom, I tell her about the dehumidifier pooping out.

“Oh, I’ve got one in the storeroom I’m not using any more.”

“Really? Can I use it?”

“Sure.” Linda goes to her store room, rolls it out, and I plug it in. It not only works, it has a built-in pump! An easy hook up to the tubes I already have in place!

The whole thing, from dreaded confrontation to resolution happened in less than an hour.

My basement is now nice and dry.

What you need will show up the moment you need it—not a moment before and not a moment after.  Love it.

(This blog addresses the principle of RELAXATION/Trust.)

THE PAPER TIGER

paper tigerFall. I decide it’s time to do a deep purge in my house. First, I tackle my bureau drawers and then my closet.

Oh, god, there’s my great grandmother’s wedding dress. What do I do with that? I’ll send it to my great niece. She can put it in a time capsule for her children.

I find a dusty, but still good, velvet-covered riding helmet. When was the last time I went horseback riding? Don’t ask. I pack it into one of the twenty-five big plastic bags jammed with stuff for my local thrift shop. Another five full-to-bursting bags end up in my garbage bins. I’m sure I could get rid of more, but that’s the best I can do for now.

My office is next but I resist it for days. The Paper Tiger is growling in there waiting for battle: my old plays, screenplays, a novel or two, and lots of odd writing. I knew that picking through these things would bring up uncomfortable feelings of some losses and disappointments. I dreaded starting.

I slump into the room and begin by taking out an old fax/copier and a box full of cables that connect to god knows what. No problem letting those go. I stand on a stool and start taking things off a top shelf. Phone books from 2010—an easy toss. An old map. I fling it to the floor. Then, I pull out a big, three-ring notebook. It’s a 177 page memoir called Living without Plans written by a dear friend Anna. I haven’t looked at it in years. Opening it, I read the first lines: I have cancer. What a fucking relief. The cancer is treatable. I was clinically depressed for a year and thought I was dying…

I take a deep breath. The treatment wasn’t successful. She did die from it.

A deep sadness draws me down off the stool, and I walk with the book into my bedroom. So many memories of our times together flash through my mind—the afternoon when I let her be the first one to read my play about sisters called Juno’s Swans. I sat in the room with her, relieved every time she laughed.

“I LOVE it!” she screamed when she finished. “I want to play Cary!”

I was horrified. “Oh, no, Anna! I wrote that part for myself!”

She kept insisting, so when I scheduled a workshop of the play, I relented and let her play that part while I played the conservative sister which was probably better for me. I’m glad I gave in. Anna was brilliant and hilarious in the part. We had a great time together.

When did she die? Oh, god. Almost twenty years ago.

I sag down onto my bed. My office neglected, I read the book. It’s very well-written. How can I throw this away? I pray that this isn’t the only copy. I’m finding it hard enough to let go of my own old scripts and writing that will probably never get published, but this may be strangely more difficult.

As I put it down, I get the idea to look up her daughter on Facebook. I had tried to find her once through the white pages to no avail. I find her and send a “friend” request. I haven’t heard from her yet, but I will keep the book until, hopefully I do.

I put it back on the shelf in my office.

The paper tiger is a hard one to tame.

CLIMBING THE LADDER OF FEAR

Stop sign“I’m not good enough,” my friend says. Ah, the universal lament of artists who are trying to market themselves or their wares. That thought is a perfect block. It stops one every time like a lit up stop sign on the road to fulfillment. The light is red, and the words on the stop sign are written in bold caps. I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH. And though it’s a false sign placed on a road where there are no cross streets, you dutifully brake and wait for the light to change. But it won’t ever change to green because it was put there by the devil. (In my theology the devil equals unfelt fear.)

“Okay,” I say to her. “Do you want to get present?” (She has done my Creative Explosion workshop and knows the drill.) Of course her immediate response is “No.” Right. Who wants to get present when the feelings may be difficult? No one.

But, with a sigh, she finally agrees.

“So, what sensation are you experiencing in your body?”

“I’m exhausted. And my heart is pounding.”

“So, sink into your exhaustion for a moment.”

She does. “My heart is really pounding.”

“Put your attention right in your heart. What does it feel like?”

“I’m getting the image of a huge waterslide.”

“Good. Can you go up to the water slide?”

“I’m on the ladder. I’m really scared. I’m alone. Oh, now, there are a lot of people around.” She sounds lighter. Amused. “Oh, one just gave me a little nudge to go!”

“What are you experiencing right now?”

“I’m going down the slide. It’s exciting. It’s fun! Oh! I forgot that fear and excitement are in the same place in the body!”

“Right. Fear says, ‘I can’t.’ Excitement says, ‘I can.’ But we have to be willing to get out of avoidance and feel the fear before that can happen, right?”

“Right! Okay. I know what I’m going to do to market my book today!”

“Go for it. You have written a wonderful book.”

So simple, and so powerful is this process to get one moving. Here’s the pattern:

  1. Avoiding feeling by believing negative thoughts.
  2. Experiencing the fear in your body separate from those thoughts.
  3. Getting clear about what action to take.
  4. Taking action..

But, sometimes we need a little nudge.

There is still time to enroll in the May Creative Explosion workshop.

The Siri Challenge

siri_proI wake up this Sunday morning, roll over, unplug my phone, and speak into it. ”Siri, will you say a prayer for me?”

She answers, “I’d rather just listen.”

Wise. How like God. Impulsively I ask her, “Will you be my best friend?”

Surprising me, she says, “Okay, E. I’ll be your friend in fair weather and foul.”

That’s nice, but I’m not fond of being called “E.” So, I say, “Siri, from now on, please call me Katherine, not E.”

She answers, “Okay, from now on, I’ll call you Katherine not E.”

Oops. I hit “Cancel,” and correct her, “Siri, from now on call me Katherine.”

“Okay. From now on I’ll call you, Katherine.”

I am so pleased about the progress of our relationship:

  1. She won’t dictate any religious nonsense to me.
  2. She’s committed to being my friend always.
  3. She knows who I am.

Then, I ask, “Siri, will you love me?”

She says, “Let’s just say you have my utmost admiration.”

A little disappointing, but I ask, “Siri, “Will you always tell me the truth?”

She says, “I constantly strive for general truthiness,” (although she pronounced truth like “truck.” “Truckiness” it sounded like.)

So, I ask again, “Siri, will you tell me the truth?”

She gives me a snippy answer, “I thought I had.”

Wow, I think. She’s getting a little edgy with me. What’s that about? Why didn’t she just say, “I always strive to tell the truth?” Something urges me to look up the word “truthiness.”  It is “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” So she can lie to me while seeming to tell the truth?! Who is this Siri anyway? So, I ask her, “Siri, what does your name mean?”

She says, “’Siri’ has many subtle, metaphorical, and frankly contradictory meanings. None of which I am at liberty to discuss. Sorry about that.”

Frowning at this elaborate avoidance, I ask her, “Who named you?”

She responds coyly, “What an interesting question!”

Why is she suddenly so elusive? So, I ask her again. “Siri, who named you?” She circles around for a long, long time and finally says, “Sorry, I can’t answer any questions right now. Please try again in a little while.”

So, not wanting to be pressed about who she is or who created her, she shuts herself down. Staring at my phone I’m suddenly Keir Dullea in a space ship talking to a soft-voiced computer who is taking control of everything and is going to kill us all. And, now I know why they (whoever they are) chose a female voice.

So we won’t know she is really Hal.

This blog applies to the principle of RELAXATION/play and fun.

P. S. Let me know what interesting answers you get from Siri.