Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Pearl Moon of Zagreb

The main square in Zagreb just outside 'Europe House'

I felt like a passenger pigeon, delivering our little package to Zagreb. It was, as always, a mad dash getting all the last minute details in order before flying overseas. The sound recordist and editor were tweaking the sound while we scrambled to find out how to burn a DVD in European format. Thanks to many hands including Confederation College, it all happened on time. Tucked in my carry-on, I had with me a blue-ray and DVD copy of “Under the Pearl Moon.” I was taking with me, not just the film, but all of the talent and energy so many had given to our project (Sonja Obljubek and myself and other's, of course.)

Photo: Zagreb

When a person travels, it's important to let go of expectations. But sometimes, expectations are hidden from view; tucked away in a corner of our brains and we don't even know they are there. When my daughter Caitlin and I arrived in Croatia, I noticed how the people seemed reserved and being that we did not know one word of the language, at times I felt uncomfortable.  And, maybe it was just my imagination, but there was a sense of the effects of post-war in the air.  I also saw many senior citizens collecting plastic and glass to redeem for a bit of extra cash. People seemed less prosperous (although, we too have our problems of poverty in Canada), but also less swept up in materialism. This was definitely a different country.  How lucky we were. We had each other, a great adventure and Alanna to give us a home away from home.

Mom and daughter getting to know Croatia.
The longer I found myself living in Croatia, the more the people and the culture grew on me. And the more I understood what it was that Jennifer Garrett, our “Aunt Birdie”, had fallen in love with there. Though the young people wear ear buds and trendy clothes like North Americans, they are very considerate of older people. They stop to open doors and give up their seats on the tram. They smile and say “Dobar dan” (good day) to each other.  I learned a few simple greetings and became a 'regular' at the market downtown. Each day, I stopped for the best tasting coffee I've ever had. Each day I made my rounds at the market buying fresh cheese, fresh greens and fruit as well as corn bread. I got to know the vendors and even though I didn't know Croatian, they were always helpful and kind. Music was everywhere. In the streets, there are buskers, choirs, church bells tolling and the sounds of children singing. Everyone, it seems, sings in a choir or plays an instrument. In fact, every single university department has a choir with a professional choir director. There's a philosophy choir and a history choir and a veterinary choir and so on. One night I went out to an event to hear each of the university choirs and I was moved to tears that evening, more than once.

I had traveled to Zagreb for the purpose of sharing the film “Under the Pearl Moon” first and foremost with Jennifer's circle of friends and acquaintances. It seemed fitting that this needed to be the first sharing. And, fortunately for me, Alanna, Jennifer's daughter was with me every step of the way. Europe House was our host and a fitting one, since Jennifer had given concerts there as well as exhibited her paintings. The windows opened up into the main square, the exact spot I meandered through each day on my way to the market. The room seated about a hundred people or more. It was perfect.

In the spirit of Jennifer, we brought fresh food and a table with unique art items for sale.  We hung Jennifer's art on the walls and invited her long-time musical friend Vladimir and his band to play. 

 As we were setting up, there was a rock band in the square below giving a sound check and let me tell you, it was loud! Alanna and I exchanged knowing glances. If they decided to play during our film screening, the audience would near nothing but the rock band. Oh well! There was cheese to be sliced and fruit to be washed and projectors to be tested. And of course, everything went wonderfully well. The rock band held off until later in the evening. There was a translator who kindly translated our opening talks into Croatian. The room was filled with love and laughter, just as Jennifer would have wanted it. In fact, I felt as if she had orchestrated the entire event. I felt her smiling from wherever she is; reminding us of what is truly important in life: friendships, song, art, love.

Europe House:  A Room with a View

Just before the guests arrive.

Alanna and our host Renata at Europe House

Jennifer Garrett's paintings

Alanna and I at the event

Happy guests

More happy guests.
Posters, anyone?

Picking up the paintings in a thunder storm

On my last night in Zagreb, one of Alanna's dear friends popped in to offer me a jar of honey from her parents bee farm. As she stepped inside Alanna's apartment, we noticed she had something tucked inside her arms. Her face was lit up with joy. What was it? She revealed an orphan raven that she had, only moments before, rescued.  The raven clutched onto Anna's sweater, determined to not let go of its new mother. As the sky darkened and we gazed out the windows onto the cityscape, we saw the moon make its appearance in the sky. It was one night away from the full moon, which meant that I would arrive back home on the full moon! What a lovely coincidence. In the storyline of the film, Pearl herself is finally reunited with her mother on the night of the full moon. And she, like me, was away from home for four weeks: from one full moon to the next.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I thought of the many ways I felt like little Pearl on my trip to Croatia. I started out feeling culture shock and homesickness, just like her. I couldn't mange to get internet access in the cafes because I didn't know how to ask for the wifi password, just as she couldn't manage to get a cell phone signal. There were other parallels too but the icing on the cake was Anna's orphan raven. When you do see “Under the Pearl Moon,” perhaps you'll enjoy hearing Aunt Birdie say “Did you know that I once had an orphan raven? Beautiful blue-black wings. We were great friends.”

Anna's orphan raven

The Pearl Moon of Zagreb.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Art Pin Factory

Today, we gathered to create “art lapel pins,” an idea inspired by my friend Marianne Brown. The initial purpose was to hand stitch lapel pins and the proceeds would help our fundraising efforts for the film Under the Pearl Moon. And yes, in that sense, the afternoon did help to bring us closer to our goal. But it did something more, as well. There are certain things we don't often do together as women, like hand-stitching. Yes, it seems very old fashioned but I have the sense when I stitch with my daughter or my women friends (like today), that something else is going on: something under the surface.  

Throughout the afternoon, there were times of quiet as all of us focused on our work. Other times there was laughter and story-telling. As we worked, I felt that were not only stitching cloth and beads and silk threads but we were also stitching our conversations and our thoughts and our creativity. I am reminded of the Finnish women and their “sewing circles” at the turn of the century. As these women sewed, they also organized themselves as an integral part of the labour movement. Though our sewing circle today may have had a less urgent purpose, it still carried with it that weight of women gathering for the greater good of the community.  And this has left an impression of richness in my life today.

Spring colours

Yellow tulips and a long table of buttons, beads and silk string.

Beautiful selection of beads and pearls

Threading those needles!

A completed lapel pin.

(These photograpsh were taken by Marianne Brown throughout our afternoon together.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Car Collision and the Impulse to Sing

I was in a car accident the other day. It was a head-on collision (thankfully, in the city and not on the highway) and both vehicles were “totaled.” There was a moment before the ambulance came, that all four of us (my son and I and the driver and passenger from the other vehicle), were out in the minus thirty-something weather, comforting each other. I can't say exactly what the others were thinking in that moment of shock but I know I was feeling amazed that we were all relatively okay. It seemed to me to be nothing short of a miracle. Not long after, two cars passing by stopped and invited us into their vehicles to stay warm until the first response people came. My hat and mitts were back in my car and yet I did not feel the cold at all. It could have been a spring day as my body was not registering the fact that it was extremely cold. Initially, I didn't want to step inside the young woman's vehicle. I wanted to be out in the wide open sky where I could breath. The woman, in her own gentle way, coaxed my son and I until eventually we did and when I closed the door behind me, I immediately felt her kindness. (The warmth of her personality alone would have kept us from frostbite.) A few minutes later, she put a CD on with soft, soothing music, another act of kindness. Which brings me to the impulse to sing part of my musing.

Occasionally, I will hear someone humming quietly to him or herself but it is indeed rare. In our culture, we're shy to sing. We think that unless we have 'beautiful' voices, we should not impose our wobbly notes on the world. Most of us don't sing in community, other than perhaps in church if we happen to be churchgoers. Or some of us join choirs. For the most part, unless we feel total confidence about our singing voices, we remain silent. A number of years ago, my spent time volunteering in a hospital in India and she noticed how both the patients and the residents sang on a regular basis. One day, they asked her to sing a song, much to her discomfort. No songs came to mind and so she found herself singing our anthem “O Canada.” Since that time, I've often asked my students that if they were in a foreign country and were asked to sing, what song would they choose? Most respond the same; O Canada or Happy Birthday! If I ask them to dig deeper, they sometimes will come up with a nursery rhyme from their childhood. This lack of repertoire seems commonplace among us Canadians, at least Canadians in my neck of the woods. Of course, not everyone falls under the umbrella. A friend of mine, who recently passed away, sang constantly. She sang when she woke up in the morning and she sang while she cooked and she often encouraged others to sing. Whenever she visited my home, she sat at the piano and invited me to sit beside her. I loved singing with her. It lifted my heart; it put my priorities in the right order for the day. But it didn't 'catch'. When she left my house, my voice again fell silent.

Recently that's all changed. I often find myself singing. I sing while I drive in the car; I sing while I meditate or while I'm out walking; I sing while I cook or sew. I don't know how it is that I suddenly have an entire repertoire of songs. They seem to be emerging from my childhood and if I don't know the words, I just make up my own or hum the tune. I find myself singing snipits of melodies from classical music or opera, thanks to my father who played classical and opera music continually when I was a child. And now, it strangely feels very natural. It makes a subtle difference in my day. I have no intention of becoming a 'singer.' It's just that singing seems to take the air around me and the thoughts within me and shape them into something clearer and kinder. Like everyone, many of my thoughts don't even crest the wave of my conscious mind; rather they're undertows of desires and fears. When I sing, it's as if a simpler part of myself emerges; less complicated, less competitive; less forced; more genuine.

After the car accident, sitting at home, gazing out my front window, I had a sense that everything had changed. I noticed the objects that I had placed earlier in the day. There were two vases, clear glass, that I had photographed. And hanging above the vases dangled my stained glass chickadee. They looked different. I reflected on the fact that I had spent an hour singing earlier that day.  And those songs were somehow still resonating inside of me, helping me get through an evening of shock. A voice expressed does something for us. And perhaps, in the end, it does something for others too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold December Nights and Tips on Playwriting

It has been cold. We're into the minus 20's and most of us aren't quite ready for it. But ready or not, we're in for the ride. With these temperatures, everything takes more time: more time to dress, more time for shoveling, more time for the car to warm-up. When it's this cold, the car seat in my car won't move forward so I spend the first 20 minutes of the drive with pillows piled up behind my back so that I can see out the windshield. And yet, I find myself enjoying winter. It's a perfect time of year to stay home and write or sew or bake or read. And as long as I avoid the commercial rush of Christmas, December can be a truly enriching time of year. The snow makes everything so beautiful. Though the cold air stings our faces, the landscape is soft and soothing. Though we may miss our loved ones during this time of year (as I often have in past years), we can imagine them with us; in the stark, still winter skies when the stars seems brighter than other times of the year and in those not-so-early mornings when the sun slowly draws its brush of colour across the sky.

Last night, I facilitated a workshop on playwriting titled "From the Page to the Stage" (sponsored by 10by10 and NOWW) and given the weather, we weren't sure what the turn-out would be. But the room was full. We all braved the cold; each of us making at least one comment about the cold upon entering the warm building. And, as the evening progressed, we created our own environment in the room; an environment of exploration, questioning and sharing. The group, though mostly strangers to each other, shared their sources of inspiration. What struck me was how much we have in common. And how storytelling is a basic human need, whether or not we are writers by trade. We look to story to make meaning, to probe, to reminisce, to inquire, to laugh, to ignite, to disturb, to comfort, to inspire and a thousand other reasons.

Some of use may need the world to first give us permission to tell our stories. Some jump in and if the world happens to respond in kind, that's wonderful. But if the larger world fails to respond to our story (in whatever form we chose to tell it), we may choose to remain undaunted. Because, perhaps in the end, it is the act of telling the story that matters most. We're better off for forming that story in our hearts and minds; our winter skies may seem clearer and brighter because of it.

And for the playwrights and writers who happen to be reading this blog entry, here are some tips on playwriting that I've comprised. I would be remiss if I did not mention the many wonderful directors and dramaturges who, over the years, have shared their knowledge with me (Jan Henderson, David S. Craig and Thomas Morgan Jones to name a few). I cannot say that I've invented most of these ideas. I've just gradually made them my own over the years. They may or may not be valuable for you but here they are:

  1. Whatever your initial impulse is for your story, do not lose track of it. (And I am not the first writer to say this.) Your script may go through eight or nine drafts, but the essence needs to remain true. This is a difficult thing to describe but when you've compromised that initial impulse, you'll likely feel less connected to the story. It usually carries the seed of why this is important to you; why you need to write about it. I remember being in a playwriting workshop and an actor was emphatic about a change he wanted to make in a character he was playing. He wanted the character to become physically and verbally abusive, upon discovering his wife's alleged affair. However, it was very important to me that the affair (which later is revealed as an affair of the heart), was not spurred by an abusive husband but by her own circumstances of poverty and her own unmet needs. For me, if the husband had become abusive, it would have changed the essence of the play and I therefore could not make the change. In that same workshop, I made all kinds of other changes, some of them quite significant, but those changes did not shift the essence of the story.
  1. This is an obvious point but writing is very time-consuming. It means carving out time, whether or not I feel inspired; whether or not I'm in the mood. Sometimes, I'm full steam ahead and other times, I need prompts to get me started. There are many excellent books that provide ideas for prompts. One of my favourite prompts is to take a deck of archetypal cards and draw one from the deck. I then write a quick monologue from that point of view. If you don't have a deck, you can simply make your own list of archetypes: the fool, the mother, the innocent child, the kind/queen, the warrior, and so on.
  2. Pay attention to how people talk. Listen for the rhythm in the way people speak. Then find the rhythm in your own characters. Read aloud your script. Notice when the words don't sound natural to your ears.
  3. Ask pertinent questions about your work. A good dramaturg will formulate a number of perfect questions to urge you towards that next draft. Here are a few samples: “Who is the story about? What are the themes? What visual images are in the work?”
  4. What challenges do your characters face? Through challenges, characters make decisions for better or for worse, and this will give your play a forward thrust.
  5. Ask yourself with each line of dialogue “Is the character hiding or revealing?” In other words, what is the sub-text. What are the characters really saying?
  6. Some writers begin their story by exploring character and some begin by developing a plot. (I've tried both and vacillate back and forth between the two.) I find that when I begin with a character, the process is slower but it is also very enriching and tends to access intuition. When I've drawn out a map of the plot in advance, I can expect the plot to shift as the characters develop.
  7. It is helpful for me to know what my threads are. By threads, I mean a significant object or the themes behind the play or a plot thread. I like to map out my threads. It's important for me to notice when I've dropped a thread and equally important to notice when I've picked it back up again.
  8. Many playwriting workshops have put forth the question: “What does the character(s) want and how far is he/she willing to go to get it?” A dramaturge friend of mine, Thomas Morgan Jones, once asked me, “What is the character most afraid of?” And what is their greatest wish?” Both of these questions, though similar, will give the writing greater depth. Another useful tip from Thomas was to read the first and last line from each scene and than ask myself, “has anything changed?”
  9. What are you, as a playwright, trying to say with your story? Whatever it is, it shouldn't be obvious. It should be carefully concealed in the work. Most often, a playwright is trying to say something; if only “take a closer look at this issue” or “take a look at these characters and see what they're struggling with.” Be wary of writing a play that falls under the category of “Sledgehammer Theatre.” Audiences do not want to feel preached to.
  10. Invite actors to sit around a table and read a draft. It is amazing what can be revealed just by this process.
  11. I write many drafts. By drafts, I mean that I make significant changes (without losing the initial impulse for the work). I may experiment with time period, I may introduce or remove one of the characters, I may change the plot, I may introduce a new challenge. I often say to myself, while I'm rewriting a draft “If I don't like it, I'll just go back to the old draft.” But funnily, I've never returned to an old draft. I get attached to the new one and that becomes my new reality.
  12. There are certain things that have become helpful for me, in terms of re-visiting the work. Sometimes, I focus on one character only and re-work the piece with that one character in mind. I follow all of their lines through the play and it also helps me to see what their journey is. Then I switch to another character and go through the process again. The other thing I've done is create a visual map of the entire story. It's a bit like creating a storyboard, I suppose. However, rather than focusing on the camera angles, I focus only on the journeys of the characters.
  13. It can be helpful to go through the draft and mark the motivational beats. This is a tool that actors use while deconstructing a script. It involves going through a scene and marking the places where a character's motivation shifts.
  14. A short play has the same components that a full-length play has. It just happens to be shorter and more concentrated.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Stark Beauty of November and Transformative Leadership

November is here. November the remembrance month; November the just-before-December month; November the month my father and his twin brother were born 89 years ago. There are many things I love about this month but the thing I'm thinking about today is how under-appreciated the month of November is. Perhaps because it stands in the shadow of bright and glittery December, it claims so little fame. Yet it has a full moon like every other month, each day brings its surprises in weather (in the countryside, the snow now clings determinedly to the ground), it has more or less the same number of days that the other months have. So why do we relegate it to a place of so little importance?
I just returned from Vancouver where it was less stark than my own Northern terrain (as seen in these photographs). There, it rained for three days yet leaves still clung to the trees. I saw a bush with tiny purple-beaded berries. I walked in the district of Strathcona and enjoyed the colours of the clapboard houses. I found a tea shop where a lovely young woman explained the various teas and treated me like I was royalty. I attended a wonderful conference titled “Transformative Leadership” led by two friends. Throughout the three days, the facilitators asked us to reflect on our own learning, but somehow I found that a challenge. I was still so immersed in the experience and it was too early for me to say. But now that I'm home, I have a better idea of my learning. True learning, as we all know, happens outside of the classroom, outside of the conference, outside of what we normally associate with learning. However, if the classroom or the conference room successfully engages us, we will then take the ideas that cling to our minds and our hearts and move towards planting those seeds. And yes, this conference most definitely did that for me. It filled me with ideas for communication and helped me connect with my own values. From what I could observe, the experience was equally enriching for the others as well. And what a wonderful group of “others”, I must say. This was a group of genuine-hearted people who are looking to lead from a place of service and kindness. Wow! This could change the world, could it not? Imagine if all of our politicians, all of our teachers and lawyers and spiritual leaders and so on, led from a position of kind service? This is no small thing. This is taking our world and seeing it through a kaleidoscope, where broken pieces become patterns of beauty. Yes, seen in this light, leadership is of the utmost importance.

True be told, there's a tension in me around the word “leadership.” I want to be able to share my passion for creativity with others and so I find myself in leadership roles. But not because I crave it. If anything, I crave time alone; to reflect and daydream. If anything, I would rather not feel responsible for others (unless those 'others' happen to be my own family.) But this discomfort with leadership may be that I've narrowly defined the word “leadership.” And this is my new true learning from the conference: that we are all leaders, after all. Do we not have someone in our lives— a child, a parent, a friend, someone who is interested in what we have to say? Interested in our actions? Interested in our stories? If there is one single person aware of our words or our actions, then we are a leader. My sister once said, “Everything you do is a statement.” And I would add “the things we do not do are also a statement.” November is a perfect month for dancing with such thoughts and ideas. The sky is grey, making colours of thought or feeling seem all the brighter.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Advantage of Moods & The Mother Who Gives up her Eyes

It just so happens I am an emotional creature because I am a human creature. Period. That's the story of being alive for all of us. Sometimes we feel this and sometimes we feel that. Naturally, I'm interested in the things that make me feel good but I also must not overly invest in those things because most are 99% out of my control. So why not enjoy this emotional roller-coaster journey? Why not be keenly interested in the world around me as well as the emotional world within me? And if I approach my emotions with curiousity rather than judgment, often that curiousity translates into fuel for my creative life. The trick is to be curious without drawing too many conclusions.... “I am depressed because..." or “I am sad because...” As soon as I draw conclusions, I've lost my curiousity. It's a done deal. It lacks energy. The fuel is gone. 

Art-making and entering into an art piece created by someone else are cathartic in a way that defy the intellect. My artist friend Alanna and I were having a conversation and I was telling her that when I read a story by Hans Christian Anderson, illustrated by Kay Nielsen, I find myself transported into an understanding of loss and love; an understanding that I could never get from reading a thousand self-help books or even books on spirituality. Why? Because Hans Christian Anderson does not try to give me an answer for my grief. He does not say “If you just take this step or that action, all will be well.” Alanna brought me to see that the author drew me into a world of beauty; a world where characters experience what I experience. And as I read, I feel as if I am the woman who gives up her eyes to the lake to become pearls in return for the lake transporting her to the other side where she believes her child is. I feel as if I am the one who has chosen to trade my hair for the old woman's greying hair. 

The story is something I experience directly. I am at the lake with the woman. My hair has gone grey. My eyes are at the bottom of the lake as pearls. I enter the story from my heart and not from my head. My head is far to cluttered at the best of times to receive a direct experience of truth. This is what I look for, I suppose, in art. And the thing that I look for in art, I also look for in life. That is: a beauty, a ringing truth, a journey into a place of magic that reminds me that this earth is also a place of magic. Things are too layered with emotions to be answered simply with words. We need our stories, our illustrations, our films, our music, our loved ones, our memories, our emotions, we need it all. And when I emerge from the story, I notice the world around me looks a bit more wondrous; a smidgen of magic enters the place. Below is one such magical place. My daughter stands in the distance. And I stand watching.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Under the Pearl Moon film project

It's taken a village to make this film and I can't express enough my gratitude to everyone who so generously contributed to bring the project to this point.

Firstly, I want to share with you that the wonderful, dynamic, generous-hearted, talented Jennifer Garrett, who played the role of Aunt Birdie, passed away unexpectedly this summer in Croatia. The way she lived her life was, in fact, the impetus for the story behind Under the Pearl Moon. She was fiercely committed to the environment and her love of the natural world could be seen in her beautiful and vibrant works of art. For Jennifer, the expression of her creativity knew no bounds. She was a singer-songwriter, theatre artist, visual artist, jeweler, healer and the list goes on.  Jennifer demonstrated by example that as long as we are alive, we can contribute to the world through art-making and through opening up the creative possibilities in ourselves and each other, as she did so effectively and powerfully.  We were so blessed and fortunate to work with Jennifer Garrett last summer on the film. She left us with beautifully performed footage of her role of Aunt Birdie as well as audio recordings of her songs. I cannot express enough how grateful I am for what she gave this project and how excited we are to share the film with the world.  In fact, without her, there would be no Aunt Birdie and there would be no film.  

When this spring we hosted a “Vintage Tea Party” fundraiser,  Jennifer wasn't there in person but she sent me a lovely angel painting which we raffled at the art raffle.  We also had art works from Alanna Marohnic, Marianne Brown and Linda Brown.  And, of course, we had tea in the garden and tea in the house.  I felt Jennnifer's support, even though she was across the ocean at the time.

As well as teas and deserts, we offered tea-leaf readings, a vintage clothing and collectables sale. Thanks to all of the helpers, it went off very smoothly and by the end of the day, we had raised our goal. (We will plan one other fundraiser prior to the launch to help raise funds for the sound recordings.)

The film has now been edited and is thirty minutes in length. We have entered into partnership with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and in December, we hope to spend a day recording live chamber orchestra music for the film. The sound track has been composed by Lise Vaugeois. To include a live orchestral recording for the film is something we could only have dreamed of.  the recording, we will need to add the music as well as final sound edits and “colour correction.” And then, in March of 2014, voila!, we will have a film to present to our community and well beyond. Our plan is to send it out worldwide to environmental film festivals as well as festivals for family audiences.

We have also completed a series of lesson plans for teachers to use in the classroom in tandem with the film. These are experiential arts-engaged lessons that allow students to explore the themes in the film in a deeper way. Once the film in launched, we will take the next step of planning a series of workshops in the schools.

I would like to close with this beautiful photograph of Jennifer taken by Paula Thiessen.  Jennifer is wearing one of the Aunt Birdie costumes and gazing into the just-before-dusk sky.  "Under the Pearl Moon" will be offered in tribute to Jenn.