This is difficult to write and I hope I don’t chicken out of posting it.
I keep thinking about legacy. I think of Jen. I think of Bob Farley. I think of my grandmother who died with her best dresses wrapped in plastic, tags still on, waiting for a special occasion.
There’s a Miller Williams poem, “Ruby Tells All” that is a first person poem of a Delta woman speaking to a stranger in the diner she works, in which her last line is “…I have dresses I have never worn.”
I read that poem as an undergrad and it has stuck to me like meat on bone.
I have tried to live my life with reckless abandon. People in my family die young. They die tragically: run over by a train, beaten to death by a husband, cancer. I never thought I’d live long, so I wanted to do everything. Right now.
“…maybe that against appearances
there is love, constancy, and kindness,
that I have dresses I have never worn.”
I read this poem for the first time a couple of weeks before I was tossed onto a gravel road—thrown clean of a car that had been plowed by a drunk in a cherry picker truck. I sat there my face burning like being covered in battery acid. Sitting there broken and busted, reaching up my single working hand to my left cheek and swiping down hard at the red and grimy. Trying to wipe away what seemed like bloody Comet with thousands of tiny sparkles in it. This turned out to be my blood, mixed with flesh and thousands of shards of glass. I survived that in tact, more or less. Not so anyone could tell much. Just one long scar across my cheek and a cobbled together left arm that hurt to the touch.
But I was able to go on and do what I wanted. I directed plays. I knew I wanted to be a director at six, I may not have know the name for it, but I knew what I wanted--I wasn't gonna waste any time in getting to it. The creator of worlds. A collaborator. A communicator. I worked with amazing artists. People you hear and see and watch now. People whose names you may not know, but you love what they do. I got to do that.
I acted in roles that I wanted—lines I was too greedy to want to give to another. I got to do that.
And then I came to Los Angeles to learn how to make movies and I became a teacher. A real live professor. I met and mentored glorious energetic and idea-bursting students. I got to do that!
Ahhhh, I loved every single minute.
But no matter how much you get, you always want more. What a greedy bunch we are. Well, I am.
There’s no end to the students I want to teach. Directing classes. Acting classes. Single cam classes. I was so delighted to find out late in my life, I love teaching. To see a student ‘get’ frame rate vs. film speed vs. shutter speed—to help elucidate the Sunny 16 Rule—to witness a new actor stop acting and start listening. Man…it is second only to hear the breath snatched from an audience in a moment you’ve directed—to feel hundreds of people pulled forward to the last inch of their seats, just to get closer—to collaborate with the most creative artists who make your ideas better—to build a world based on Shakespeare’s words. Not one thing better. I have directed Measure for Measure, Midsummer, Hamlet, but there’s Twelfth Night, MacBeth, Cymbeline, Shrew, King Lear…and twenty-eight more.
I think of Bob Farley. Kind, loved Bob Farley, who provided work for so many Atlanta artists. Did Bob get to do every show he wanted?
Then I think of Jen. My Jennie. She was the first person I called when I got the itch to do something. She was my muse in so many ways. She and I willed productions into existence. Our collaboration was the greatest of my artistic life. There were so many MORE things we wanted to do. So many shows. So many movies. So much life.
I think about my life in the past year since I graduated from grad school. I lost Jennie and it pulled at me. Pulled at my core. Pulled me to a spot on the floor where I was not able to move or breathe. All I’ve wanted to do is teach and direct and write and shoot and I’ve just been going through the motions. Afraid of how little time there is. Afraid that I may never achieve that for which I long.
And now…well, now—I’m sick. I’m sick and I may lose my ability to speak. I may lose my life.
I’m not ready. I haven’t done everything. I haven’t even finished editing the work that Jennie and I did on Hedda. I’ve been so concerned with perfection that I haven’t allowed myself to just be good. Jennie pestered me the last year of her life with that Steinbeck quote: “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
Well, now I’m just trying to get it all out. It’s all coming out in stream-of-consciousness journal entries. And I worry that I’m not doing this right. I’m not accurately describing this…this crushing YEARNING.
“…I have never felt as important again
as on those early mornings, waking up…”
This work is all I’ve every wanted. I have never thought of money. If money makes you worthy or important. The thought never entered my mind…until now.
I know money is necessary. I work hard to get the little I do so I can make things. I went to grad school. Took out so much of it—money—so that I would understand more and get to teach more artists. I have taken jobs simply because they gave more a return on time investment, so I could create more. And if it weren’t for good friends and people who value what I do, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I am forever grateful for those that have believed in me so strongly to help me keep on doing the work I do.
But now. I’m starting to think I should have listened to the head of the chemistry department who pleaded with me to become a major. “You have so much talent in chemistry. This is where you should be.” I just looked at the sweet man and said, “Dr., I’m a director. Theater is where I need to be.” Average salary for a chemist is $72,000. Hmmmm. I don’t think that’s enough. Maybe it would be enough to get good health insurance. Enough insurance where they think you are valuable enough to save.
I think of Wilbur Ross. Wilbur Ross has $3 billion in reported wealth, but we now know he also has $7 billion just sitting in a couple of off shore banks. Just sitting there. I can’t even conceive of that much money. I promise you this—if I had that much money, I would only have it four minutes…okay, maybe twenty, because it would take that long for all the transfers to ACLU, Girls Educational Mentoring Service, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, Salvation Army, several thousand theaters and artists and a long list of other non-profits including American Cancer Society, in general, and specifically, the Georgia Division in which I worked, to go through. (Now I'm not disputing Wilbur Ross earned that money or how he earned it or if he deserves it. But shouldn't money be used--used to create--something. Not just sit there. I don't understand that. I wish he would explain it to me.)
“I never asked for anything myself;
giving is more blessed and leaves you free.”
But I will never know that kind of monetary wealth. It just was never a priority. Money comes and goes. It’s a means to an end. I have never viewed it as the end all and be all and I have never let it determine whether or not I have given of my time and talent. Someone I care for called me the other day to offer me a job editing. I asked about the project. When told the scope, I explained if they took this to another freelance editor it would cost them probably more than a few thousand. Then I said, “Look, you have me. Whatever your budget. I want this done right. So…just know I’m in.” And I know you feel the same too. I am surrounded by people who feel the same as I do AND give more freely. I think you are the valuable ones.
But as I fight every day to get to a university center—a UCLA or USC—that all my doctors agree I need, but my insurance won’t pay for, I’m not exactly doubting my path, but I wish maybe I had taken a couple of years out to earn a small fortune and then returned to art.
But which would have been lost? Which memory? Which show? What experience?
I think of my mother. My beautiful mother. No insurance. Misdiagnosed. The medicaid doctor to whom she was finally assigned coming into her room after a year of the wrong diagnosis to announce, “You have two weeks.”
Most people don’t know my mother was a beautiful, inventive writer. She would sit on the porch and write stories that would make Flannery O’Connor proud. No more stories. No more naps on her bed while she made biscuits and gravy and the best fried chicken. All that love…lost.
I think of Haiti. I think of how Haiti and the Dominican Republic—one island with very different pasts and very different presents—evolved. The choices they made which brought them inexorably to the now they face.
I think of my decision to perfect my applications for professor jobs instead of pushing to get a job. I think of my decision to wait tables while I re-worked scripts and made perfect ideas. I think of how that means I have crap insurance and I will very shortly receive a disability check that won’t even cover my rent. And how some people in this country view me as a liability. That Medicaid as health insurance is an entitlement. That me and my three menial jobs trying to cobble together an existence so I may create art that binds us and educates and nurtures us is just a drain on our economy. I think of Paul Ryan—who I believe should never be able to see a movie, hear music or attend a play, ever again—because with very few exceptions, most artists have tread the exact same path as I.
“…I wouldn't take crap off anybody
if I just knew that I was getting crap
in time not to take it. I could have won
a small one now and then if I was smarter…”
And I think of you. The beautiful you reading this. The souls out there who have helped me. Propped me up. The fact that anyone reads this gives me unimaginable peace. Stories are what keeps me alive. And the ability to share even this ramshackle, mind-vomited meandering keeps me binded. To you. To the planet. To this existence.
“…Nothing matters enough
to stay bent down about. You have to see
that some things matter slightly and some don't.
Dying matters a little. So does pain…”
It’s almost 4 a.m. right now. After a long day of pleading with insurance and calls and a little luck and God’s grace, I got my PET scan scheduled for tomorrow. And I got a little amazing news about home, so while yes, this does hurt like hell and I may be trying to tape an old heating pad to my ear-neck area and choke down some pain pills, it doesn’t kill quite so bad with those two things that happened yesterday. There are miracles driven by good people and it never ceases to inspire.
Lastly, I dressed my bed tonight. I dressed it in the pretty, new, wrapped bed clothes I bought months ago and were waiting for a special day. Well, no more waiting. Every day is special. Every day deserves to be the happiest, happiest, prettiest, most joyful I can make it.
I’m gonna wear every dress I’ve got.