The Art of Calm (A trip to Kentucky)

Kentucky is a beautiful state. I never appreciated this growing up, because (and I honestly have no idea where this came from) I had a deeply-seeded resentment of anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Still, late fall, stress from school and eventual early adulthood brings with it dreams of hibernation, home and pie. Being able to  spend all day in pajamas is also high on my list these days. So after coming back to Memphis to visit my family for fall break, we took a road trip to Kentucky. The entire drive, I stared out the window, slightly out of breath over the forgotten beauty of so many rolling green hills. It seems I’ve developed some kind of armor to protect me from life in the northeast and, in the process, I have neglected to look up at the sky. Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun. It takes coming home to realize you never needed wings in the first place.

I won’t pretend I’m a sophisticated northerner. I speak more slowly than many people I know; I don’t own any Ray-Bands or black high heels or know all the subway lines in Manhattan. Still, I’m noticing some stark differences between the vast, expansive south and the busy, densely populous northeast. For one, in the drive from Memphis to Kentucky, I saw more trees than people. More trees, more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass, more fish in the lakes, even more clouds in the sky. There is somehow more sky.

When the only thing you have to contest your existence against is something that’s existed for hundred of years, like a tree, you suddenly feel very, very small. It’s almost impossible  be existential in a city! There are too many people telling you you’re wonderful, and not enough reminding you that the trees were here first.

Also down south, people…are just so friendly. I always thought this was a myth, that people in the south are friendlier than in the north. “Just because people down south smile and wave and say ‘hello’ as if they mean it doesn’t make them more friendly.” Perhaps I will test this some time and see how long I can talk to a stranger in Memphis or Bowling-Green before he or she gets bored or scared of me. But at least when people greet me with a boisterous “hello,” I know they really mean it. You know that awkward semi-acknowledgement of a stranger’s presence, where you’re too shy and too busy to be genuinely interested in someone else’s day, but you don’t want that person to think a bad thought about you so you smile and eek out a timid “hi,” and the other person blurts out, “Hihow’sitgoin’?” and then just keeps walking? Yeah. In the south, strangers greet strangers with genuineness. And they separate their words.

Perhaps what I’m experiencing is a bit of rose colored glasses syndrome, that feeling you get when you’re in a new place, when you’re exhausted from what you’ve left behind, and you look at your present surroundings with admiration and bliss. To tell the truth, I never thought so rosily about the south when I lived there.

In fact, all I remember dreaming of (aside from other planets) was my fantasized, grown up life in New York City. So perhaps now as a young adult, I’ve begun to reverse the fantasy and trade skyscrapers for landscapes and subway lines for tractors. Or haystacks…

Our time in Kentucky was full of farms, animals, fresh air and Mennonites markets. I overheard the boy pictured at left (click to see the detail) speaking Dutch with his father, owner of the first Mennonite farm we visited, where my own father proceeded to buy over a hundred dollars worth of squash! Seriously.

I watched this boy, about ten, grab a basket and pluck a few leaves of kale from the stalk and then mosey on back up to his house, to sell it or to eat it.

I admit I was jealous. When I want to cook kale, I need a car, a shopper of the month card, cash, car keys, a wallet, and the patience to walk under halogen lights and stand in line at a conveyor belt while trying to ignore all the celebrity gossip and “HOW TO LOSE TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO DAYS!” advertisements.
Perhaps this trip was exactly what I needed. Blue skies and sunshine. Apple pie, baseball games, harmonicas and dogs on my lap. I had no idea I was so…American.

“Country rooooad, take me hoooome, to the place I beloooong!”


Working with Conviction

Can art change the world? Or which came first, the art or the world? Does art reflect the conditions of the world, or does the world reflect the conditions of art?
I used to believe so vehemently in the latter. I lived for the stage. Who I was was defined by the spaces in which I moved, like a chameleon, between the black proscenium floors and the red velvet audience seats—I was neither actor nor audience member, neither performer nor–what is the word or a non-performer? Laity? That seems horribly blaspheming, though I suppose it would not be far from the truth. When we worship ourselves, we become broken gods.
I feel a painful polarity in me when I act on stage. The irony, I suppose, is that in those fleeting moments of live energy, I feel so alive, so joyous, as if I’m tapping into the mind of another human being and living in her shoes. But when I leave the stage and cease being a pretend character and become just me again, sometimes I don’t want to give up the glamour of being able to get away with things on stage that I otherwise would be appalled by—my behavior, others’ behavior—in “real” life. In those brief moments when I am transforming from my character back in to myself I cling longingly to the self-love of feeling everyone’s eyes transfixed on my being. I did not do anything to deserve it. Is that even praise worthy? Does praise even equal worthiness?
I don’t always think so. The longer I live in those transitional spaces between a character and myself, the less I feel like myself and more like one amorphous being who is poked and prodded by the challenges and praises of her peers. This is not a real being and slowly these clouds seep into my skin and challenge my autonomy and my humility, which doesn’t really exist in the first place, unfortunately. I live less like a child in wonder of the world and more like a bump on a log, or as CS Lewis once put it, no longer a grumbler but simply a grumble.
I cannot lose myself again. The funny thing is that I struggled with this same sinking self identity in Israel, as I felt myself getting swept away by the sand and the rush of such a complex and confusing country. I felt like I must change myself in order to fit in in order to be happy. And here I am again, changing before my very eyes.
Change can often be a good thing. But when I begin to question the words that come out of my mouth and the people I project myself towards, I wonder if I am being true to myself or if I am clinging to this invisible space between acting and life. I always wonder. I must be true.

My goal for myself is no longer to become anything, or anyone, or change myself or force myself into being something different. I suppose my goal is just to live every day with conviction. That’s hard when you’re trying to please someone all the time. It just won’t work. Sometimes you have to give.
Theatre has always been for me a form of escapism and I know many actors and audience members alike who flock to shows to escape reality. This was what primarily appealed to me about acting, that I could escape, first from a rough childhood, and then in general, from anything that bothered me. I could leave my real self at the door and pretend that life was anything I wanted it to be…and it was.
When I came back from Israel, I realized I no longer want to escape from the world. I want to embrace it and help shape it. But what was so wonderful about being in a play again is that for a little while I found such an enjoyable way to pass the time without worrying about bettering myself or changing the world. I could simply be and laugh. I laughed so much.
So here I am now, somewhere between resplendent escapism and harsh reality. Truth be told, I think I’ll always be a bit of an escapist. I don’t think anyone can be “on” one hundred percent of the time without being an automaton. Perhaps my mode of escapism is changing. Perhaps I crave a more active escapism. Who knows.
(These vegetables have nothing to do with the play I was just in, or escapism, or anything else for that matter. I just think they look delicious and very simple. They are from the Cooper Young Farmers Market back in May. Oh, to be a radish in the earth.)
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