A shift in focus

I just finished narrating lovely Janice MacLeod’s memoir PARIS LETTERS for Tantor, which tells the story of Janice’s decision to save enough money to leave her job and travel for a year. Janice ended up meeting and falling in love with the lovely Christophe, and rather than tourist-ing her way through foreign lands, eventually, she put down roots, committing to Paris and to her new love, creating and embracing a new life and career.

Janice and I had a wonderful conversation this weekend by Skype. I’d contacted her to ask her how to pronounce the names of her friends and how to voice other phrases in the book that are unique to her world, but we ended up talking for an hour about writing, love, her work, my work, our future plans, and more.

Janice is preparing for another international move, this time in the company of her now-husband, Christophe. The two will leave Paris for Calgary this fall, and I’ll be checking into Janice’s blog so that I can keep up to date with her contemplations, observations, and adventures. She’ll be taking pictures and painting pictures, and as one of her newest fans, I’m eager to luxuriate in the work she creates and the window into her life she opens to others.

One of the things Janice said she’d miss is the beauty in Paris. Everything in Paris is made to be beautiful. Beauty is celebrated and prioritized. Her admiration of her adopted European home made me think of my dear Maine, where beauty is everywhere — on every tree-lined street, down each hill toward the park or the beach or the city square or the farmer’s market, where no matter the season, something sweet captures your eye and your heart.

I told Janice that I had been taking a lot of pictures in my New York neighborhood lately, and though the pictures were different than those I’d taken in Maine, I was finding just as much beauty around me in this urban landscape as in the more apparently bucolic setting of my previous home. Beauty still surrounds me, if only I will change my perspective. I can’t as often take a wide shot and find as much natural beauty; I must focus my gaze tighter, look for smaller details, in order to find something that soothes me. But there’s no shortage of scenery that brings me peace and well-being. It’s up to me to shift in harmony with my landscape, so that I don’t hold an old expectation in this new world.

I look forward to taking more pictures of my new setting here in New York, and I look forward to seeing the new setting of Janice’s life, too. In the meantime, here are some shots of the beauty that has blessed my days lately.

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Vocal heartstrings

Sunday evening I was at the 5th Maine Regiment Museum on Peaks Island in Maine to hear my beloved Renaissance Voices perform their spring concert. My best friend sat next to me as we listened to the a cappella voices perform songs by Stephen Foster, William Billings, Faith York, Amy Beach. When Leah noticed I was trying, unsuccessfully, to hold back tears, she reached over to hold my hand tight.

It’s been exactly a year since I was on Peaks and last made music with these dear people, the twenty or so sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses with whom I shared a decade — births, deaths, marriages and divorces, illnesses, injuries, success and all the messy rest of life — during Sunday evening rehearsals and seasonal performances.

On June 2nd, 2013, I took the ferry from Portland to Peaks with Bernie, Harold, Lisa, Jean, Sarah and Kirk, George and Cevia, and the rest of the choir. We got off on Peaks and walked the fifteen minutes up gentle hills, past yards decked with poppies, lupine, lilacs, and rhododendrons, swung around the last bend toward the rocky coastline, and then clambered up the stairs and across the wooden deck of the tidy, yellow clapboard civil war memorial.

As we had always done, we set up rows of folding chairs, changed into our black concert dress, then went through a quick warm-up and sang through the beginning of each piece. The double doors at the back of the room were open to the sea, and the salt air and surf accompanied our happy, relaxed preparations for the evening. When Harold, our conductor, was satisfied, rather than dismissing us to the wings to await the audience, he carefully pulled forward a chair and invited me to sit.

Then my friends gathered around and presented me with a basket full of presents. In 48 hours I would be moving to New York to continue my career as a voice actor and writer, and they had conspired for weeks to give me a loving, generous, heartfelt send-off. Lovely Cevia, my fellow alto, placed the basket in my lap, from which I pulled and opened each gift, wrapped in a page of sheet music with lyrics that perfectly, wittily complimented what was inside: an LL Bean hiking boot keychain; a NYC $80 metro card; a jug of Maine maple syrup; a Renaissance Voices T-shirt; a collection of dear George’s essays about island life; a card meaningfully signed by each singer.

The sweetest of all the gifts was a manila envelope decorated with the score for With a Little Help From My Friends, stuffed full of everyone’s personal contacts in New York, complete with explanations of how the person was connected to my choir compatriot — their friends, their family members, other musicians they held dear. Each person in the group was offering me an extension of themselves — the people who they trusted would soften my landing and ease my path in New York. Though I was moving away, they were showing me that I would not be moving on without them.

That early summer evening, before the concert audience arrived, as I was surrounded with people I cherished, I wept with gratitude, my heart at once breaking and full of joy. As each person hugged me in turn, the tears continued to flow. I was tearful throughout the concert. And when Harold announced before the encore that one of Renaissance Voices’ dear friends was leaving, but was always welcome to return home, I gave up and allowed myself to cry and sing shakily and wipe the tears from my cheeks and laugh, with Lisa on my left and Jean on my right tearing up, too.

As I sat in the audience Sunday evening, listening to the beautiful music my friends were creating together, many songs that I’d sung with them in years past and still knew note for note, I cried again, with an aching heart still so full of love and appreciation for the individual friendships I had made and for the collective experience we’d shared for so many years. There is nothing like making music with people you love, learning to blend your voice with theirs, to harmonize. I am so thankful to have had the gift of ten years in the company of these sweet friends, and to know that we’re connected still.

Harold’s trilogy of beautiful songs set to Shakespeare’s words was a magical, fitting end to a beautiful evening, with my favorite from Twelfth Night:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear your true love’s coming,
      That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
      Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love, ’tis not hereafter,
Present mirth, hath present laughter:
      What’s to come, is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty:
      Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Orchid wisdom

One of the last gifts my husband gave me before we divorced was an orchid on Mother’s Day. We never had children together, but we played the role of surrogate parents to a few young men who were adrift in the world, without families that were shaped the way one might expect, or the way our guys deserved. My husband gave me the orchid as a thank you for embracing these rough-around-the-edges boys, and as a promise of future family.

When he presented me with the orchid, it was in full, delicate flower. I don’t recall what color the diaphanous blooms were, but the firm, plump leaves were dark green and supple. The gift was characteristic of my husband — a surprising offering of beauty.

Within a few weeks the orchid blossoms had fallen away, and within a year or two, my husband and I had fallen away from each other, too, which is the gentlest possible description of our painful dissolution.

Even though what had been a stunning showpiece had become just a squat cluster of withered leaves against a dark pot, I tended to it as best I could. I made a trip to a nursery, bought new bark and a new pot, transplanted the shallowly covered roots, and watered around the base. But as my pothos and peace lily — plants that can withstand neglect and whose leaves will regain their strong stance within minutes after being watered, even if their heads have been hung low — continued to thrive, my orchid receded into itself and continued to languish.

When I moved out of the house my husband and I had shared, the orchid found a home on the kitchen windowsill in my new apartment, where it continued to receive regular attention, or at least as much attention as I could muster, when I could lift my gaze and connect with anything outside of the hemorrhaging pain of divorce. By the time my life showed glimmers of hope, the orchid was down to three dehydrated, shrunken, thinning leaves, a stump of a pale yellow tendril of stem, and brown, desiccated roots.

With a mixture of determination and regret, I drove the orchid to the nursery one afternoon to see if they could talk me through reviving the once regal plant. A woman brusquely grabbed the pot and pulled the orchid free of the bark with no effort at all. She flopped the leaves back and forth, then scalded me with her glare.

“This is dead,” she said. “Buy a new one, because there’s nothing you can do for this one. There’s a compost pile at the end of the greenhouse. You can toss it there on your way out.”

My inability to nurture the plant, a gift from someone who had once cherished me, someone I had once cherished, made me ashamed. The thought of tossing the plant aside brought on fresh grief.

“Isn’t there anything I can do to bring it back to life?” I asked.

The woman rolled her eyes. But then, after looking at me closely, she showed the hint of a smile as she gently placed the pot and uprooted orchid back in my hands. “I suppose if you want to try replanting it, and attending to it really carefully, and giving it a little water — just an ice cube’s worth, no more — every three days, and rotating it in the sun, then you just might revive it. I doubt it, but you can try.”

Over the next few months, I did all the things she told me to, paying closer attention to the orchid. The leaves slowly started to become heartier, the tendril turned pale green and grew longer, and then one day, from the middle of the cluster of leaves, a tiny sliver of new growth appeared. Day by day the baby leaf grew larger, until there were four full leaves — not the grand leaf canopies it had shown off its first days out of the florists’ care, but undeniably alive once more.

 

*****

 

When I arrived in New York a month ago, I propped the orchid in the living room window and then got busy and distracted trying to navigate a cramped apartment, an overwhelming workload, and the challenges of uprooting a relationship in its early growth and transplanting our coupling to a difficult climate. So it was that a few weeks went by before I noticed that the oldest, scrappiest orchid leaf had become sunburned, losing its dark green and becoming a mottled brown and yellow.

The old shame of having been neglectful and inhospitable washed over me on a day when I already felt neglectful and inhospitable to the one I most wanted to nurture. I thought about pinching off the leaf, throwing it in the compost pile, giving up. It occurred to me that maybe this just isn’t meant to be. Getting something to flower isn’t yet a possibility, I thought; I’m not even able to keep things green and growing. Orchids are supposed to be dramatic, and mysterious, and beautiful. No one keeps a pot of pitiful orchid leaves around. What’s the point of that? Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll cut it off.

Yesterday was a very hard day. It was oppressively hot, my work was constantly interrupted, the boxes that remain unpacked caused me deeper anxiety, frustration, embarrassment. The air was thick with misunderstanding, unmet expectations, sadness. So, in the late afternoon, on a walk, when one of my closest friends called, I burst into tears as soon as she asked, “How are you?”

For twenty-five minutes I leaned into the wrought iron fence surrounding the playground a block away from my apartment and sobbed, while parents and toddlers played on the swings and cavorted through the fountains. “What is wrong with me?” I cried. “I feel like I can’t do anything right. I feel like things are never going to be okay. I feel like I’m so damaged and so horrible and I’m trying so hard to make my life work, but I feel like I can’t keep going. I feel like I hurt everything I touch, and I let down everyone I love. I don’t have any more energy. Even if I knew how to make everything I want happen and fix everything that’s messed up, I don’t have the energy to do it.”

She listened, lovingly and patiently, as she always does, as I always do when she calls me in a similar state of tearful despair — we’ve taken turns caring for each other in this way over the past fifteen years of our friendship — and she said many comforting things. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” “You’re not damaged.” “You’re doing the best you can.” “You have to be gentle with yourself.” “Things can be difficult to reconcile.” “It’s going to be okay. I believe that no matter what, you’re going to be okay.”

And then she said, “You know, it’s all right that you don’t have any more energy. You don’t have to have energy right now. There’s not a finite amount of energy in the world or in a lifetime or in you. It doesn’t work that way. Later you’ll have more. Don’t worry.” And this was the most comforting thing to hear, because it made me remember the two years of deep, sustained, all-consuming grieving after my divorce, when I felt, too, that I had no energy and would never again have any stamina or strength, that I was a dead thing, but bit by bit, that intensity of anguish eased and I found myself again, and rebuilt my life, and no longer felt like a walking wound, but like a real person.

When I returned home, I made a salad and texted my friend that yes, I was eating something, and I drank some water and then a glass of cold rosé, and took a deep breath, when I noticed the orchid. At first I was confused, because I knew I had not pinched off that yellow leaf the night before, but it was no longer there. And then I realized that after few days out of the direct light of the sun, and with a little water, and a little relief from the elements, vibrant color had flooded through the leaf, returning it to a lush green. The leaf was scarred with a small brown gouge carved by the too-harsh sunlight in which I left it, but still, it seemed a wondrous thing, that what had been bruised and seemed beyond repair or redemption, could renew and restore itself.

This plant may never again look like an orchid “should.” It may be more reasonable to throw it away and start over, or, like some people do, rent an orchid, trading in the old for new whenever the blooms fade. I’d love for my orchid to flower and flourish and achieve a state of perfection once more, but maybe this plant is already perfect, in spite or because of all its imperfection. It has survived for years under challenging conditions, when I’ve not been at my best, when I’ve made mistakes and taken it for granted and not paid it attention and misunderstood its needs and been inattentive. It’s come to the brink of death, but still, it persists and will not be discarded. This orchid shows me that it’s enough for me to keep on doing the best I can, that it will not die because I’m not perfect, and that there is beauty and elegance in surviving and adapting and living in a way that is my own, even if it doesn’t turn out exactly the way I imagined.

Acclimating

My equilibrium has been completely thrown off.

After sleeping some nights eight, ten, even twelve hours, the feeling of being rested and refreshed eludes me.

Light filtering through the shades this morning awakened me at 5:45 a.m. My head was full of cotton and time and space were unclear. Was it Sunday? Was it Tuesday? Was this my apartment in Brooklyn? I went back to sleep.

An hour and a half later, I awaked from a dream about turtles and dogs and trying to find the space to live in peace with each species, followed by another dream, somehow relating to the first, in which I was bitterly disappointed in a platinum blond, corkscrew curl wig. Emerging from dream-sleep, the bedroom was stifling, though the windows were open and a breeze shoved the shades across the wide windowsills, then sucked them back in, shoved them out, sucked them in. I went back to sleep.

Between 8 and 8:45 a.m. I drifted in and out of consciousness, startled awake by a street sweeper, or maybe a garbage truck, or a delivery truck, or groups of children on the street a floor below, on their way to church, or school, or maybe they weren’t children at all, but groups of young people, gossiping on their phones, or maybe they weren’t young people at all, but old women, chattering on their way to work, or maybe there was no one at all. I went back to sleep, until I finally awakened and forced myself out of bed.

This is what life is like in New York, at least for right now. I’m trying to wake up, to figure things out, to place myself in time and space, to determine what is real and what is a dream, or an idea. It’s hard to know what is concrete or imaginary, what is urgent, what can be put off for another hour, day, week, year.

36 things

It’s my birthday!!

I love my birthday. Celebrating another year of life gives me the opportunity to consider all the things for which I’m deeply grateful, to mark the beginning of my New Year, and to extend wishes to the Universe to send more peace, prosperity, adventure, love, good health, and friendship my way.

Let’s celebrate together! I’ll list 36 things I’m grateful for, and I invite you to list in the comments anything that brings you joy and blessings!

In no particular order, here are 36 amazing things to be thankful for:

1—6: My family! My mother is not only my beloved mama, but one of my very best friends. My father inspires me to be my best self every day. My brother exhibits grace and resilience and makes me very, very proud. And these three silly kitties, Mirren, Houdini, and Blossom! They’re cuddly and funny and fun and demanding and exasperating and maddening and loving and hilarious.

7: Dear Dutra, who is also cuddly and funny and fun and demanding and exasperating and maddening and loving and hilarious.

8—16: My wonderful girlfriends. Leah, who advises, counsels, guides, amuses, entertains, and uplifts, and breaks my heart open. Caseylin, who is proving herself to be a warrior every day, and is going to be such a beautiful mother, inside and out. Jamalieh, who is a creative genius and who motivates me to keep practicing and focusing on what’s most important. Elena, who soothes my spirit and awes me. Melissa, who is intrepid and brave and wise and as funny as ever. Michelle, who makes me laugh and cry, often at the same time, and in whose company I am my best self. Giovanna, who is crazy brilliant and ever surprising. Maggie, who is so lovely and kind and warm and wise. Bianca, who I think is as tough and devoted a girl as I’ve ever known.

17: This lovely view out my living room window:NYC view

18: This super secret detail about the view out my living room window. Notice the children’s toys? That’s because there’s a daycare right downstairs, so all day, I get to hear children laughing and playing outside my window, which I love:

NYC view 2

19: Getting to live in New York! I LIVE in New York! I know that 8 million other people do, too, but this still feels like a miraculous circumstance!

NYC

20: Discovering Oaxaca Tacos in my first week in Brooklyn! DEEEEEElicious!

Oaxaca

21: Finding an awesome apartment in Park Slope! I love my apartment and I really really love my neighborhood, which I discover is more rad (yes, RAD!) every day. Really, I couldn’t have landed in a better place.

22—25: The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Public Library, Park Slope Food Coop, and BAM, which are all ridiculously close by.

26: The F line. My line. Takes me most everywhere I need to go, and doesn’t seem to be a grumpy line, like the G. (Sorry, G.)

F train

27a and 27b: MAINE and Renaissance Voices. As I said, this list is in no particular order, so my dear, sweet, peaceful, gentle, kind, supportive, nurturing, magical state of Maine could be first on the list. It could be the entire list. How grateful I am that Maine came into my life, along with my most adored Renaissance Voices choir, which is also dear, sweet, peaceful, gentle, kind, supportive, nurturing, and magical.

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28—30: Cornish College of the Arts, The Salt Institute, and Vermont College of Fine Arts — the wonderful places that have educated me and prepared me for whatever adventures and opportunities await.

31: My body. I am grateful for my imperfect, flawed, idiosyncratic feet, legs, spine, neck, and shoulders. They’ve been through a lot, but I’m walking and biking and dancing, and I AM SO GRATEFUL.

32: Kate Christensen. I’ve narrated more than 200 audiobooks, but never had I had an experience like that of narrating her Blue Plate Special. I can’t wait for her book to be released, and for readers and listeners to get to know her joyful, huge spirit.

33: My clients — all those publishers, producers, and directors who have given me so much opportunity and trust and faith and patience and support. I would not be anywhere without them.

34: Pat Fraley and Hillary Huber, who set me off on this audiobook journey, shepherding and encouraging me and helping me hone my skills. They’ve become life-long friends and without them, this path would have been far rockier, and much lonelier.

35: Stephen McLaughlin, who directed all of my first books, and has been one of the kindest, most supportive, forgiving, loving friends anyone could ever ask for.

36: Language — written, spoken, read, heard, sung — my greatest joy.

And one to grow on:

37: The ARCHERS! My favorite, favorite, favorite thing in the world.

Your turn. What are you going to celebrate today?

 

Good papa

I spent yesterday, Father’s Day, if not in the physical presence of my dear father, in his good company.

All morning and into the afternoon I opened box after box of books — many of which were originally my father’s and which I have taken, or been given, from his library — carefully considering whether each one would make it onto a shelf or be set aside to be taken to a used bookstore or donated to Housing Works. After separating three large boxes-worth from the “keep” piles stacked haphazardly on the floor and shelves, then breaking for a quick lunch and a trip to the farmer’s market for garlic scapes, strawberries, rhubarb, and kale, I returned to book-sorting in the afternoon. For several hours more, each volume that had made it into the “keep” stacks was reevaluated, then even more texts ruthlessly removed. Those that made the final cut were sorted and grouped by genre, until my collection had been pared down from four large bookcases to only two (albeit with pleasingly over-crowded shelves).

What remains in my library is the best of the best, the most loved, useful, important-to-me books, colorfully arranged and categorized — children’s books, poetry, philosophy and religion, classic and contemporary fiction, memoir, travel writing, history, biography, politics, business, letters, sociology, reference, theater craft, writing craft, essays, art and design, health and healing, and my favorite shelf dedicated to my most beloved and inspiring writers — William Maxwell, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt, John Steinbeck, Richard Russo, Mark Twain, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Shakespeare.

Deciding what to keep and what to let go required careful consideration. I have culled from my collection many books in the public domain; as wonderful as it was to see War & Peace in the mix, I can call up a copy on my iPad instead of straining my eyes at the small print on the page. But the paperback, spine-cracked copy of Great Expectations stays, because my papa bought it for me at a small bookstore when I was 12 years old, and I remember reading it in the waning light of the backseat as we drove back home to Twin Falls after a rare winter day-trip to Sun Valley. Travels With Charley, purchased somewhere on Route 66 on my road-trip to Maine in 2001 when all my books stayed in storage in Seattle goes into the donation box, because the small Pocket Classic edition of my father’s, the one whose cover and loose pages are kept together with a rubber band, remains in its proper place with a dozen other novels of Steinbeck’s.

Hard to imagine that two years ago, when I moved from Pine Street to Thomas Street in Portland, I went through a similar process, then eliminating twenty bags of books, yet yesterday there were still so many to place. These books have been hauled from Idaho to Seattle to Maine over the past twenty years, and though I’ve loved them all, it feels lighter and better to be the proud owner of fewer heavy, dusty tomes. But even after going through this exercise two times in two years, it is still almost impossible to eliminate any book that my father has marked and notated.

There was nothing fancy about my father’s office/library in my childhood home. His massive red vinyl chair clashed with the garish red and black stiff carpeting, and the light filtering through the basement windows was dim. But still, it was a magical place, because the walls were lined with bookshelves and each shelf filled with books — politics, poetry, philosophy, plays, history, biography, classics — and I knew that those books were more important to my father than anything else. He read voraciously, to himself and to our family at dinner, so I grew up with James Thurber stories, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Chronicles of Narnia performed aloud, over however many months or years it took him to read the complete series.

For my father, a book is not something physically precious, the pages to remain pristine, spines to be left unbroken. The meaning of the words is what holds weight for him, and that’s what turns these battered volumes and yellowing pages into pure gold for me. When I pick up a book my father has read, I know in the front cover he’ll have written his name, the date of purchase, and the date he read the book. He’ll have listed unfamiliar vocabulary words, along with their their definitions. He’ll have marked the page numbers of thought-provoking ideas, along with notes for further consideration, and he’ll have underlined and annotated page after page throughout.

Book markings never reveal that he’s lost interest partway through and turned his attention elsewhere. No, he keeps up his critical, thoughtful reading until the very last word, which is how, in his “retirement” (he no longer works for the Idaho Education Association, but remains as busy as he ever was during his 35-year career) he is reading the classic fiction he never took the time to before — Les Miserables, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Sister Carrie, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jude the Obscure, The Count of Monte Cristo. My father is a much more disciplined reader than I, refusing to allow himself to get distracted or deviate from the mission before him.

It was my father who taught me, by example, to read and to deeply cherish books and ideas, so that when, in one year, I heard the same comment from Longfellow Books and from Michael at the Portland Public Library — “You read so broadly, and such interesting things!” — it was a tribute to my father, more than a revelation of my character.

My parents are themselves planning to downsize and move into a new home next summer, and I know that it will be difficult, and painful, for my father to pare down his book collection. He’ll surely offer me countless volumes from his library — those he can bear to part with, but that he hopes will remain in the family. So I’ll be going through this evaluation exercise all over again. I suspect that more books of my own acquisition will be relegated to the donation box, in order to open up space on my shelves for the books that he so dearly, and deeply, loves, and that, in this way, he’ll always be present, and close.

One foot in front of the other

In 1995, after enduring more than a dozen corrective foot surgeries starting when I was just seven months old, I was referred to and met with a young foot surgeon, newly in practice. He glanced at my sheaf of x-rays, holding them up against the light-box mounted on the wall, flipped through my thick file of medical records, held each of my feet in his hand and tested my range of motion, pressed his thumbs into my arches and across the bridge to determine how thick the scar tissue from so many procedures had become, had me walk across the room and back to judge the healthiness of my gait. When I told him I was going to be an actress, he shook his head no. “You can’t do that. Find a desk job,” he said. “You need to stay off your feet.”

In spring 1996, I was wrapping up my sophomore year at the University of Washington as a drama major. A relationship that had started out strong and mutually-respectful with the head of the undergraduate theater department had recently soured, and the tension between us was thick and furious. On a humid April afternoon, as we stood in the lobby of the Drama Department, this award-winning, highly-respected actress, producer, director, and professor told me that I would never be allowed to enroll into any upper-level acting courses at UW, and, in fact, that I had no acting talent whatsoever and no future in the theater. She told me to find a different career.

In 2005, after submitting audiobook samples to a publisher, I received a very generous, typed response from the casting director. My breathing had serious issues, as did my diction, she said. My pacing and phrasing were very poor, my mic technique was problematic, and overall, she was not convinced that I had an emotional connection to the material or the ability to tell an authentic, intimate story. She thanked me for giving it a shot, but added, gently though without reservation, that she was not interested in hearing from me again, and suggested that audiobooks might not be the best place to focus my attention.

Yesterday I sat in the office of my agent, Shari Hoffman, at Innovative Artists. Shari and I met three years ago, when I first told her I was interested in her representation. Shari had been very kind, and said that there was a small possibility that she’d be interested in working with me, but only if I lived in New York. I remember sitting in the chair next to her window looking out on Park Avenue near Union Square, struck with the absurdity of what I was hoping for. I felt suddenly that I was too heavy, not pretty enough, my clothes and my hair were all wrong, I was too unsophisticated to make it as an actress, I would never be able to convince anyone to give me a chance, I would be unable to overcome my humble beginnings or my inherent unworthiness to be successful, especially in New York.

I still feel sometimes too heavy, not pretty enough, unsophisticated, unworthy, absurd, that what I hope for is unreasonable and silly. But looking back over the course of my life, at all these points along the path when I could have stopped, and didn’t, when I felt overwhelmed with fear and shame and smallness, but persisted anyway, helps me remember to keep moving forward, because who knows what will happen next?

Shari is still as kind as ever, and she’s fair, and yesterday, when we met, she cautioned me, reasonably. “We’ll start small. Nothing is going to happen quickly. It will grow slowly. We’ll get to know you, clients will get to know you, you’ll get acclimated, we’ll see how it goes. We’ll just see what happens.” I love that.

Learning from Dorothy

Yesterday afternoon, one of my closest friends, Eric, called. He and his fiance, Rosemary, and her daughter, Lucy, were in Manhattan for just 36 hours, he said, and they wondered if I could meet them for dinner. So last night I took the F train from Brooklyn to the East Village to meet them at Angelica Kitchen (my new favorite restaurant, with a totally dairy-free kitchen and an extensive gluten-free menu). The food was delicious, I was delighted to finally meet the woman who so thoroughly and understandably has captured Eric’s heart, and I bonded with 13-year-old Lucy over recaps of Downton Abbey episodes.

It was significant, seeing Eric at this stage in my transition to New York. We’ve been friends for almost 20 years, through all the big shifts of our lives — marriages, divorces, deaths,  breakups and makeups — and it was meaningful that we had an opportunity to so effortlessly mark this new point for both of us. It felt like no coincidence that Eric, who has not been to New York for decades, was in the city less than a week after I arrived, as though we’d been meant to be together — connecting our pasts to our futures.

Over bowls of three-bean chili and glasses of crisp apple cider, I recounted to Rosie how Eric and I had become close. When I was just barely 18 and a sophomore in college at the University of Washington, I applied for a part-time job as a legal secretary at Seattle’s small Sayre Law Offices. Eric, one of the gravest and grouchiest people I’d ever met, interviewed me, after pointing out that I was late for my appointment and lateness would not be acceptable in the future. He was so scary, I told Rosie, laughing as we recalled that he was only 25 years old. But at over 6 feet tall, with a deep voice and a pointed gaze, he was fierce, and within the first week he made me cry, snapping, “It’s just like a phone. You use it just like a phone!” as I tried to figure out how to work the fax machine.

Those were dark and isolated days for me. I lived with my boyfriend, a furious alcoholic who drank a fifth a night when he had money, or a couple forties when he was broke. I still don’t know quite how or why I had so quickly become swallowed up in an abusive relationship. But what had started as a sweet connection with a drama department misfit, a boy who charmed me, saying, as we did our Russian class homework together at a campus coffee shop, “какая красивая девушка,” had, within a month, devolved into the most frightening and violent time of my life.

Jon never assaulted me physically, but when he was drunk (daily), he was threatening, vicious, and lacerating with his words. One  night, just a couple months after starting work at the law office, I called Eric in a panic. It was a pretty inappropriate call, I told Rosie, since Eric was my supervisor, and we weren’t really even friends. But whatever had happened — neither Eric nor I could recall what exact circumstances had prompted the late night plea for help — Eric was the only person I could think to reach out to. When he heard my teary, strained voice on the phone, he said immediately, “Do you need me to come get you?” and within a few minutes he had pulled his beat-up car in front of my building in the U District and took me to the house he shared with his two roommates in Wallingford. Eric held my hand until I stopped crying and my breathing calmed, and finally I drifted to sleep, awakening the next morning to Tom Waites blaring in the living room and pancakes cooking in the kitchen. Eric and his roommates, Mike and Leslie, teased me and fed me, talking to me gently and kindly, without judgment or criticism. For that long morning, I sat at their table, and was comforted.

It took me another stupid year to leave the terrible relationship with Jon, which remained unhealthy and chaotic throughout its duration, but because of it, I gained not only deep understanding about the powerful mental entrapment of an abusive relationship, but one of the best friends of my life.

Through the evening Eric, Rosemary, and I talked about how the two of them came together, how I met Dutra, their wedding plans, our families, their work lives, my hopes and dreams for my career. I wrapped up leftovers to take home to an exhausted Dutra, and then we lingered over the most delicious chocolate cookie, dairy-free cheesecake, and nut brittle, finally standing reluctantly near closing time, pulling on our coats, exchanging hugs and thanks and well-wishes and congratulations and promises to see each other again soon.

As I walked back to the subway, I thought about how, 18 years ago, when I was suffering so much anxiety and heartache, so unsure of myself and fearful and lost, I never could have anticipated this life. I never could have imagined that Eric and I would remain friends, that we’d share meals and exchange phone calls and texts and Facebook messages, that we’d laugh at the things we laugh at, and tell each other that we love each other. I would have been so amazed by the richness of my community of friends, the peace and promise of my daily life, my life’s evolution, my bravery and willingness to live in a healthy and whole way outside my comfort zone.

The wonderful night with Eric and his beloveds reminds me that there is no clear picture of what lies ahead. I don’t know who will be in my life in another 18 years, who will become just a great story or who will be my family. I don’t know where I’ll be working, how much security I’ll have, with whom I’ll share my home. Though I will never again be in a relationship in which I am not safe and cherished, more pain and heartache, as well as joy and abundance, are guaranteed as a natural part of life. When things grow difficult I can fret and worry and play out awful, worst-case scenario stories in my mind about all the possible terrors, or remember that I’ve been through roiling, dark nights before, and even at the highest pitch of the storm, when I’ve cried out for help, I have been shown to safety by unexpected sources of strength, love, and tenderness.

……

From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Tantor Audio):
It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily. After the first few whirls around, and one other time when the house tipped badly, she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.

Toto did not like it. He ran about the room, now here, now there, barking loudly; but Dorothy sat quite still on the floor and waited to see what would happen…

Hour after hour passed away, and slowly Dorothy got over her fright; but she felt quite lonely, and the wind shrieked so loudly all about her that she nearly became deaf. At first she had wondered if she would be dashed to pieces when the house fell again; but as the hours passed and nothing terrible happened, she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring. At last she crawled over the swaying floor to her bed, and lay down upon it; and Toto followed and lay down beside her.

In spite of the swaying of the house and the wailing of the wind, Dorothy soon closed her eyes and fell fast asleep.

Taking off the rose-colored glasses

I’ve been coming to New York regularly since about 2005, when my studies in and pursuit of voiceover began in earnest. Things that seem normal to me are thought to be unusual here, like making eye contact, smiling at strangers, not rushing through conversation. I’ve been told that I have very good manners. That may be true, though it could be not so much that my manners are particularly notable, but rather that it’s a priority to use them in every interaction, not just with someone who might be able to do something for me.

I’ve been successful developing friendships and business relationships in this city over the last several years, in part, people say, because it feels like I’m a “breath of fresh air.” This “fresh airiness” about me must come, in part, from the fact that so far every trip to New York has been an adventure, a short-term break from real life, so my view of the inner workings of the city and her people has been through rose-colored glasses, and that perspective has been a pleasure for others to experience.

I like my rose-colored glasses. I like being the cheerful, “everybody loves everybody” girl in the room. I like feeling that people are trustworthy, kind, generous, supportive, that they’re safe.

But now New York is where I live, not where I visit. When I return to New England in the future, it will be for a few days to decompress, breathe deep, give thanks that Maine and her people will forever and always be in my bloodstream and heartbeat. I have a place to get away from the asphalt and frenzy, a place where I am unconditionally loved and supported and feel as safe and cherished as a baby bird in a nest.

But then I’ll return to New York, where people are in constant competition — for space, for gigs, for opportunity, for time, for position. And that’s fair. This city is beautiful and magical, but it is tough here. It’s hard and aggressive; if you don’t compete, you’re going to get run right over.

And the truth is that actually, not everybody really does loves everybody. And not everyone is trustworthy or safe.

That’s not to say that people are not nice here. People are extra nice in New York. People hold doors for you, and give you directions. They’re funny, and communicative, and curious. They smile, and they’re warm and helpful and kind and generous. I love New Yorkers, and I love my New York friends, and I love being here. It’s exciting to develop a life and career from within the city, rather than from the outside. But it’s not going to be the same as it was when I was coming in from somewhere else. It was never going to be the same — change was inevitable — but the shift is a little more painful than I anticipated.

Already I’ve been challenged in ways that surprise me. People I’ve known for years and who have been very kind and  generous and who have expressed support and encouragement are now approaching me with a bit harder edge. My motives are being questioned and challenged in ways they never would have been before. Now I’m not an interesting “other,” I’m right there in the thick of it, fighting alongside everyone else for space, gigs, opportunity, time, position. The people I know have taken off their rose-colored glasses, so they’re seeing me with new vision, as much as I’m seeing the world around me with sharper lines and angles. It’s not personal. It’s survival.

My friends will remain my friends. Some will prove to be more loyal and devoted than I ever could have anticipated, and some will move farther away from my inner circle. That’s normal life, and it’s okay. I’m still going to be a kind and thoughtful person with excellent manners. I’ll still talk to strangers on the subway, and tip street musicians, and let people cut in in traffic. Heck, I’ll even still drive a car!

But it’s going to take a thick skin, a willingness to not take anything personally, and most important, an unwavering commitment to who I am and what I stand for, if I’m going to continue to thrive here.

Let’s go at this from a different angle

At 7 p.m. last night I was walking, again, to Guitar Center, on a mission to buy yet another cord — The Cord, I so hoped, that would finally solve all my problems and let me hear the beautiful nothingness of a clean room tone. It was getting late, the day had been totally wacky, and I did not feel like persisting in problem-solving. What I really wanted was to just go to bed.

My cell phone was dying, so I couldn’t call my mama or any of my lovely friends to keep me entertained during the two-mile walk. I couldn’t ride my bike because I still have only a U-Lock, which is sufficient in Maine, but would be useless in the big, bad city (it takes fewer than 10 seconds to break a U-Lock and steal your best friend bike, Brooklyn bike shop owners assert), and a bad-ass New York bike lock costs $70. I had just tried to deposit $70, incidentally, but the ATM ate the check, made no record of my deposit, and then flashed an error message, “This ATM is out of service,” so a bike lock was not to be had immediately.

I was striding grimly and resolutely down the sidewalk, passing fast food holes in the wall, grimy-windowed laundromats, and cluttered, jam-packed convenience stores. The streets were crowded with teens walking and texting on iPhones, harried commuters emerging from the subways, clusters of cigarette-smoking men in doorways. Fourth Avenue was clogged with traffic, hot and dirty, the air filled with exhaust and the cacophony of cars, buses, and taxis blurring past.

I felt miserable, lonely, and discouraged, when I became aware that my forehead was furrowed, my mouth was in a tight frown, my eyes were cast down to the sidewalk. And then came the memory of David Taft, one of my wise and mystical physical theater teachers from Cornish College of the Arts, who daily reminded us to keep a cool face.

A cool face is a relaxed face, a countenance that is receptive and open to possibility. The expression of a cool face is neutral — non-judgmental and non-critical while remaining thoughtful and discerning. A cool face does not scrunch with deep lines of grouchiness, fatigue, and irritation. A cool face does not express that after fewer than two weeks in New York, the face-wearer is quickly becoming stained with the exasperation of a cynical, life-long city-dweller.

Remembering David’s warm smile and consistent invitation to wear a cool face was a gentle reminder that I was creating my experience, and that I could make a different decision, walk in the world with whatever attitude I chose — one that would serve me, or one that would not.

So I changed my face and my posture. I willed my hot face to relax, to soften, to smooth out the lines and creases until it became a cool face. I straightened my shoulders, relaxed my hands, brought my eyes up from the pavement to take in everything around me.

And then I saw a grinning, wide-eyed little girl wearing a pink helmet and riding a pink scooter, her father guiding her along a blocked-off side street with his hand protectively at her back. Fuschia and yellow flowers burst through the gate of a community garden tucked into a small, triangular lot at a screamingly loud intersection across from the Barclays Center. The intrepid policewoman directing traffic halted cars barreling down the street just by lifting her palm, and when she scoldingly wagged her finger at drivers trying to make a right-hand turn, she smiled and winked at them, too.

With my new commitment to keeping a cool face, the return home was much more cheerful than the first leg of my journey. There were so many things to notice and take pleasure in, so many things to be grateful for:

Paul McCartney was playing at the Barclays and the gay pride parade was in full swing, so Park Slope’s bars, restaurants, and sidewalks were crammed full of people in full drag — huge wigs and garish makeup — or wearing old Beatles t-Shirts that looked like they’d been worn and washed a thousand times.

I checked my dying phone and found a very kind and generous message from a narrator friend, who had read of my preamp plight and offered to ship overnight a spare preamp she had in her studio — such a supportive offer that it brought tears to my eyes.

I emailed her to tell her that her generosity was deeply appreciated, but would not be necessary, because earlier in the day, after locating a replacement preamp listed on eBay by a guy in Forest Hills, Queens, Dutra had driven me though industrial swaths of the city to pick it up, making sure I didn’t get murdered in a stranger’s house (Reuben was actually very nice and dryly funny, and probably wouldn’t have been murdery, but still, it was very gracious of Dutra to sacrifice his afternoon soccer game for my safety).

When we’d become hypoglycemically irritable and frenzied on the drive back home, we’d screeched to the side of the highway and had lunch at a little Columbian restaurant, where we’d talked to the beautiful woman who simultaneously served, hosted, bussed, and caressed her baby son’s toes and kissed the palms of his tiny hands.

We’d brought back with us a takeout carrier of bandeja paisa to reconstitute for future delicious meals made with fresh, organic vegetables from the local market we’d discovered a few blocks away the night before, the market where three heaping bags of produce cost only half as much as it would have from Whole Foods.

Although I didn’t know it on the walk home, the $50 cord from Guitar Center would, sadly, not prove to be the solution to my problems, but I would continue to be grateful that the ever-generous Charles would stay on the phone with me until 10:15 p.m., trying different setup configurations until proposing that still another cable might be the answer.

And I’d be thankful that a potential cat sitter had dropped by right after Charles and I hung up to introduce himself to the kitties and Dutra and me, so we could see what he really wanted — a place to party in Brooklyn for the summer — and confidently remove him from our list.

All this and more make me thankful. Things are not perfect. There are challenges ahead. The recording studio saga is ongoing. But I shall remind myself to keep a cool face, keep breathing, remain grateful for the enormous support and offers of resources and love that come to me minute by minute, from every direction, as long as I will see them.