Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Basking with the Daffodils


I raise my face to the sun with the blooming daffodils on campus. I just had a rejuvenating meeting with my advisor regarding course registration for next semester and negotiating the dynamics of my interests in Communication, English, and Theatre. After much deliberation, I have decided to major in Theatre, with a double-minor in English and Communication––and I want to shout it to the world. Amidst my planner filled with pencil marks is a clearing––a better sense of how I want to shape my education at college, the work I want to produce, and the world I want to be a part of. I crouch down by the daffodils and breathe in the spring air.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hope in the Absence of a Happy Ending

"Where is the hope in the story?" my step-dad asked at the talk after a Tuesday night performance of Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced. Unlike most popular dramas, Disgraced doesn't give us a clean lyrical moral to sticky-note on our mirrors. Instead, one of the most memorable quotes from the play is when the Muslim lawyer Amir, who rejected his religious roots to advance his career, admits he felt a sense of pride on 9/11. A black woman participating in the talk-back after the show affirmed that these conversations amongst minority groups happened after 9/11––the sense of pride that the culturally oppressed finally found a way to "punch back" at those who had tried to impose their cultural values on them. That's not a quote I would put on my mirror.


But it's honest––frighteningly honest. It's a statement that might be held only in a living room, where the entire play is set. What starts out as a celebratory dinner for Amir's white American wife, Emily, in recognition of her Islamic-inspired art (including a portrait of Amir), soon turns uncomfortably political, religious, and personal. The guest list at the dinner party is religiously and ethnically diverse, between Amir (an ex-Muslim), Emily (a white American), Amir's colleague Jory (an African-American), and her husband Isaac (a Jewish art dealer promoting Emily's work). With the help of too much booze, the realistic New York apartment setting transforms into a room of mirrors, as every character's inner prejudices, bottled resentment, and naivety is reflected before their eyes. What they find is a distorted form of the put-together individuals they try to portray.


Despite all this, the play uniquely makes no apologies for its bluntness. Shakespeare's Hamlet explains that actors must hold "a mirror up to nature" (III.ii). This often distorts how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Disgraced rejoices in the theatre's ability to hold a "mirror up to nature."


The absence of apology and obsession with "political correctness" is the hope in this unsettling play. There's hope in the honesty of the script and the five actors who are brave enough to embody these discussions. There's hope in the talk-back sessions after the show, where audiences have a public forum to discuss the issues raised in the play. I find hope in the black woman who was brave enough at that talk-back session to affirm the reality of Amir's pride in 9/11. There's hope in the high school attendees in the back corner of the theatre. There's hope in the shared silence and stillness of the audience, and in the standing ovation at the end. I find hope in the support of and engagement in this cross-cultural discussion.


Brené Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, writes about the importance of conversation in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.


Most everyone reading this book knows how to eat healthy. I can tell you the Weight Watchers points for every food in the grocery store. I can recite the South Beach Phase I grocery shopping list and the glycemic index like they're the Pledge of Allegiance. We know how to eat healthy.


We also know how to make good choices with our money. We know how to take care of our emotional needs. We know all of this, yet...


We are the most obese, medicated, addicted, and in-debt Americans EVER.


Why? We have more access to information, more books, and more good science––why are we struggling like never before?


Because we don't talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best for us, our children, our families, our organizations, and our communities. (36-37)


We know the only way to achieve coexistence and communicate across cultural borders is by practicing tolerance, immersing ourselves in diverse communities, and being open-minded to self-reflection and change. To quote Brown, "We know all of this, yet..." (36)


Our Congress’ parties can’t come to a consensus about gun control in the United States, even in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino shootings. American citizens vote for the familiar and therefore “electable” candidate, rather than the one who presents something new. A woman like black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde writes an essay titled, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, explaining how “white women have such difficulty reading Black women’s work…because of their reluctance to see Black women as women and different from themselves.”


Why? "Because we don't talk about the things that get in the way" (Brown 37). We don't talk about our universal fear of a way of life different from the one we already know.


Jonathan Lear, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, explores this universal fear in his book, Radical Hope. Following the story of the devastation of the Crow Native American tribe through the eyes of Plenty Coups, “the last great chief of the Crow nation” (Lear 1), Lear explains how Plenty Coups was able to courageously lead his people in abandoning an old way of life to make room for a new one. Plenty Coups’s courage, Lear argues, comes from his radical hope, a hope that allows the Crow to identify their anxiety over an uncertain future.


Lear writes, “Humans are by nature cultural animals: we necessarily inhabit a way of life that is expressed in a culture. But our way of life––whatever that is––is vulnerable in various ways. And we, as participants in that way of life, thereby inherit a vulnerability. Should that way of life break down, that is our problem” (6). This universal vulnerability is perhaps why so many individuals and groups cling to their cultural ideals; they’re ways of making meaning in an inherently uncertain world.


The Crow culture is grounded on the virtue of courage. Aristotle defines virtues as states of character that, if practiced, will lead to an excellent life (Lear 108). At its core, courage is “living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence” (Lear 121). The changing nature of human existence therefore requires courage to be flexible (Lear 83). However, most of us have what Lear calls a “thick” definition of the virtues––definitions compiled based on our culture (Lear 59). For the Crow, they defined courage based on their performance in battle. Since virtues are a conscious practice, everything in the Crow way of life revolved around preparation for battle. They lived their lives in confidence of what it meant to succeed and fail in their world. “This is what came under pressure” when the whites began to take over––the possibilities they had counted on as remaining stable (that they would either succeed or fail in battle), were no longer applicable (Lear 26). Thus, they were forced to reevaluate what was and wasn’t courageous. Referring back to Lear’s assertion that “[h]umans are by nature cultural animals,” this reevaluation essentially worked against their inherent nature as humans, thus spurring anxiety.


Lear proposes that our anxiety about this universal vulnerability is our inability to name it (7). Anxiety is inherently unnamable, because it’s grounded in what we cannot understand (Lear 76). Lear suggests that “if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could [perhaps] find better ways to live with it” (7). The power of radical hope is its ability to identify this anxiety, and thus redirect it toward progressive action. The radical hope manifested in a dream Plenty Coups has about a Chickadee allows him to abandon his thick definition of courage and adapt it to the new reality of the time. Courage, now, isn’t defined by the warrior who performs nobly in battle, but by the Chickadee-person who practices his ability to listen and learn from others. For the Crow, this means learning the ways of the whites.


Radical hope is important because it allows the Crow to hold onto the core foundation of their culture: courage. However, Plenty Coups has to have hope that there is a future with a different definition of courage, a future which he cannot yet see and doesn’t yet know how to navigate. Plenty Coups is courageous in his willingness to sit with the uncertainty.


Brown writes that, like most people, she “always thought of hope as an emotion––like a warm feeling of optimism and possibility.” Her research revealed “hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process” (65). She cites the work of C.R. Snyder, who used to research at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. “Hope is learned!” Brown exclaims.


Snyder suggests that we learn hopeful, goal-directed thinking in the context of other people. Children most often learn hope from their parents. Snyder says that to learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. I think it’s so empowering to know that I have the ability to teach my children how to hope. It’s not a crapshoot. It’s a conscious choice. (66)


Plenty Coups’ radical hope was a conscious choice to sit with uncertainty. Disgrace manifests radical hope in its candid script and unsettling ending. Perhaps what was missing from Disgraced wasn’t hope, but comfort. One woman in the talk-back session suggested that maybe Amir would go on to explore his double-consciousness and become a better person. She was writing the comforting ending she was deprived of. But Disgraced isn’t Beauty and the Beast, where Belle finds the man within the beast. As Amir confronts Emily’s portrait of him at the end of the play, the lights go out with his back turned to the audience. We don’t get even a hint at Amir’s inner feelings, or a glimmer of comfort from a possible transformation. We’re left to wrestle in the dark room of mirrors.


The standing ovation at the end of the play was another manifestation of hope in the Boston University Theatre on Tuesday night. Maybe some of them just stood to follow the crowd, but I would like to believe that many of them stood to recognize the conversation that was had onstage. Maybe some audience members were forced to go to the show, like some of the high school students. Maybe some of the heavy silence was because people were asleep. I would also like to believe, though, that most of the audience members consciously chose to spend their Tuesday night immersed in the cross-cultural discussion Disgraced brought forth, and that most of them actively engaged and listened. I would like to believe they practiced the courage of the “Chickadee-person,” and had the radical hope to look at their vulnerable selves in the room of mirrors.


“Disgraced” runs from January 8-February 7th at the BU Theatre on 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston, MA. Discount tickets are available. Go to http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/ for more information.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Going Out on a Limb

Eight months ago I sat in a tree overlooking Walden Pond with my friend Maiel. It was a day of adventures––philosophical conversations in an empty field, going off the path, throwing rocks defiantly across railroad tracks, and daring society to force us to conform to unspecified societal norms. For those of you who read my post, "...will grow and prosper wherever planted", you'll recognize this as the adventure I went on with Maiel in April, on a journey to decide where I was going to college. After an affirmative "D" drawn in the sand, I could hear my heart voice pronounce its need to go to Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Eight months later, after my first semester at Denison, I've had another soul-fulfilling adventure with Maiel that wonderfully captured my last four months at college.


Our "Adventure Trees" (Mine: Left ; Maiel's: Right)

Above is just one of the many crafts we made. The inspiration for these trees come from Windy Sunset's Creations. Windy Sunset's Creations calls them gem trees. We call them Adventure Trees, reminiscent of the monumental adventure we had back in April. For me, that adventure marked the liberating risk of choosing an uncertain future. Granted, the future is inherently uncertain, but as I reflected in my April blog post, Denison was more uncertain than St. Olaf. I chose Denison because I knew there were parts of myself aside from English and Theatre that I had yet to discover. As I wrote in my April post, "I will bring my sweaters and stuffed animals and love of theatre to Denison, but I will also be given the space to grow in an environment where I'm not surrounded by my familiar tastes. I would bring my solid foundation to the unfamiliar soil, and allow new branches to grow. The result was much like my "Adventure Tree:" very unstable. 

I liken our trees to Banyan Trees. The Collins Dictionary of Biology defines a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) as, "an Indian tree best known for the production of large aerial roots that are let down from its larger branches and, in effect, form secondary trunks which give extra support and allow the tree to spread." Maiel's tree is the main trunk of the Banyan tree. With its well-balanced branches and neat, evenly spaced out roots, it reflects 18 years of a developed foundation: strong relationships with teachers and peers, invested in her high school's drama program, and a developing romance. I could be describing her foundation or mine (they're similar in these three areas), although it's not for me to describe her emotional attachment to it. I can say that my own emotional attachment to my main trunk was strong––stronger than I realized. 

I didn't realize how comfortable I was with my tight knit drama group and established relationships until I started branching out. I brought my stuffed animals and sweaters and love of theatre to Denison. However, despite my initial romanticization of spending every free moment in the theatre and late night walks up the hill from rehearsal, I opted out of the first show for fear of overcommitting myself like I did in high school. Without a cast or a character to immerse myself in, and without my familiar teachers, friends, and environment, I felt like I was dangling in the tree. Unlike the main trunk, the roots growing from the branches aren't neat and orderly, like Maiel's tree. They're like mine––tangled and desperate to cling to something familiar. (I think this is why my first friend was someone who carried a briefcase––he reminded me of my friend Alex.) 

What I sometimes forgot was that this new limb was part of an already built foundation. It's the line I drew between "pre-Denison Megan" and "Denison Megan" that left me feeling so disconnected. It felt like I was starting my life over. When I finally realized that this new limb was attached to my main trunk, and would ultimately strengthen my total foundation, I was able to relish in the uncertainty of the ungrounded roots. I can objectively say now that not diving into theatre was the best decision I could've made for myself this semester. If I had gotten right in with a cast, I likely would've followed one group of people, and lost out on the opportunity to let my roots explore new territory. It's through dangling that I found myself in the Communications department so often, and engaging in interfaith dialogue at the house for spiritual and religious life. I'm clarifying what it is I love about English and Theatre––how they help people communicate. Most importantly, recognizing that my "two selves" don't need to be as separate as I thought opened up the possibility of a multi-dimensional self––a Megan Lovely larger than the theatre-enthusiastic, academic-driven, and self-controlled individual, including parts I don't like. 

As I realized sitting in that tree at Walden Pond eight months ago, going out on a limb is liberating. What's most significant about the Banyan Tree is that it's the trunks that grow from these limbs that strengthen the core foundation of the tree, and allow it to spread. Before going to college, I was in the habit of saying, "I can't make a decision." The growth I experienced during my first semester at Denison–a school I chose–assures me that I can make decisions. It's affirmative of the power of not just choosing, but embracing uncertainty. These last four months have given me the confidence and strength to keep going out on a limb, and spreading out to unexplored soil.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Packing My Suitcase for the Future

After going almost nonstop since four o'clock this morning and turning in my English essay 15 minutes before it was due, I finally had the opportunity at five o'clock this evening to sit on the hill, drink Happy Belly tea, eat some of Mom's homemade cookies that arrived in the mail today, and read heartfelt quotes from Brian Andreas' book, Trusting Soul. The book is filled with rough sketches of people and quotes about uncertainty, change, growing up, and other ideas related to trust and the future. In the introduction to his book, he writes,

The future is what you bring with you & you get to choose. I think of the stories & drawings in this book as the things I have chosen, the suitcase I've packed for the future. It's only the essentials, because I know you'll bring stuff, too. I packed the lilt of a voice, the curve of a neck in laughter, the glance between people who have wrapped up in each other in the soft night. I've put memories of my grandparents & other made-up people because it seemed like they'd be fun to have around. I've thrown in more than enough packages of love & play & chocolate because the future can always use extra of those & I sneaked in a few unexpected gifts, simply because there is no greater joy than an unexpected gift to a trusting soul. (Andreas) 

The things I try to include on my blog are what I've chosen to pack for my future––pictures and quotes and musings and questions and stories and moments that fill me with inspiration and joy. I try to avoid rambling complaints or conclusions that end with bitter emotions, because these aren't what I want to bring along with me in the future. I'd rather leave them behind.

What's even more fun than packing the suitcase is opening it up and sharing it with others, which is why I get such joy out of posting. It's a space for the collective relish of big questions and small moments.

So for you, today, I'm sharing a picture of the autumn trees on campus and one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver.



Morning

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

***

What will you pack in your suitcase?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dandelion Sponges, Brush Strokes, and Runny Eggs

If I painted with a white dandelion puff, I'd get a smattering of dots, a constellation of stars––sponged constellations on the page.

But I don't want to always sponge. Sometimes I want a paintbrush to make big, long, passionate brushstrokes. Sometimes life is a constellation of moments, but other times it's a passionate sweep.

I dreamt about this idea a few weeks ago. It has been a sampling semester for me in college. Although I came to Denison fully anticipating to dive right into theatre, I've found myself wading in, afraid of what I might miss above the surface if I'm underwater. There are so many things to do all the time, and I'm surrounded by so many different styles of living and hobbies and paths of life. Considering that all of my classes have touched somewhat upon the question, "What is the self?" my brain is spinning with existential questions like, "What is life?" and "Who am I?" I've dabbled in a lot of different areas this semester, between talking with a variety of people, trying out different clubs (I'm trying fencing this week!), and going to unique campus events, like a lecture on policing. I'm used to fully committing myself to a few areas that I'm passionate about, so not doing that has made me feel somewhat scattered. This, in conjunction with the dandelion puff I found at a park off campus a few weeks ago, is what I think led to my dandelion puff dream.

I returned to the park this morning. The river and the swings and the trees make it a nice getaway from campus. As I was running over the bridge, I noticed that the trees looked like painted dandelion puffs with their colored leaves. I so badly wanted to stand on the bridge, gather all my breath, and make a wish on the trees, seeing their leaves scatter in the wind.


I also expressed the desire in my dream, though, to paint with a paintbrush. I don't want to always sponge constellations. I want to paint cirrus clouds. I want to dive in.

These are cirrus uncinus clouds, taken from Wikimedia Commons, a public domain.
Somehow egg yolks also leaked into my dream. The only explanation I can think of is that sometimes I want to crack the "egg" and see where the yolk (paint) runs. (Although, I'm not usually one to just crack an egg.) 

The thing is, whether I sponge constellations, take bold brushstrokes, or let the paint run, it's all still a work of art. More importantly, it's the contrast of all these that makes for an interesting composition.

My first semester of college has not been what I expected so far. I'm starting to be more bold with my painting, but it's a process. I think I've repeated that phrase–"It's a process"–every day to myself since I've been here. There are some parts I wish I could paint over, but there are other parts that shimmer. When I step back and I look at the whole picture, I like what I see. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wildflowers in Bloom

"I'm an imperfect being, living in an uncertain world, and I embrace that."


This is a mantra someone told me recently, and it has been very helpful to meditate over. Denison has thrown me into a world full of uncertainty, and it has been scary. I'm surrounded by new people and new food and a new environment, away from the relationships I spent the last eighteen years of my life developing. I knew I was entering an uncertain environment when I chose to come to Denison. As I reflected back in my blog post from April, I recognized myself at St. Olaf. I didn't recognize myself at Denison, and that was (is) scary. Most of my life, I chose the certain option, the safe option. I chose what I knew would match the picture on the front of the flower seed packet. But when I chose to come to Denison, I didn't plant sunflowers or tulips. I planted wildflowers. And I'm growing.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Yin and Yang


This rock I found on the beach is one of the little "you can do it"s that has been keeping me going throughout the college transition. At this phase in my life where everything seems new, I'm questioning myself more than ever. This rock reminds me that it's all about balance, and to find my center and embrace every part of me.