A Walk in the Woods

Pumping up the hill in the State Park this morning, my dog, Molly Moon, gamboling easily, happily, ahead of me, I think about a monologue I wrote some time ago – I was an Illegal Alien – and how I haven’t recited it in a while. It’s quiet in the park, morning moist and aromatic with the gentle scents of the abundant foliage. I’m not someone who likes to listen to music as I walk but rather hear the sounds of nature as I run dialogue or envision plot twists in my head for things I’m working on. Or sometimes, I choose to do a monologue for an imaginary audience. Today that audience is in New York, in a small space, maybe a reading room at the Dramatists’ Guild.

“For a short while, after I first came to this country,” I start, seeing the straight up and down of the bark on the tall cedar trees that stand sentinel, on both sides of the grassy path I’m climbing. It’s amazing how different the bark is on a cedar tree from a Douglas fir, both of which are prolific in the Pacific Northwest. Firs trees have chunky, swirly, pitted bark, like a walnut shell, that will put you out of your house with the heat it can create in a fire, whereas cedars have long strips of paper thin bark, reminiscent of tobacco in cigars.

Somehow my mind captures this information without me really thinking it because I’m well into my recitation by now and enjoying the response of the imaginary audience. “Not that I intended to break the law,” I tell them and I can see them vacillating, wondering whether they should believe me or not. Peter Brook says all you need is am empty space to create theatre but I think all I need is an imaginary audience in my head. Of course, maybe my head is an empty space…

I watch Molly stop to sniff a frond of a sword fern and my eye is drawn to a series of tiny magenta blossoms strung like Christmas lights on a Salmonberry vine. I push on getting to the part in my monologue where I describe being offered a job making fundraising calls in the development department of Metropolitan Opera, and I hear the audience chuckle as I say, “I think she thought my British accent would be just the ticket for talking people out of their hard-earned cash.” Ahead of me, sunlight filters through the trees and I wish, as always, that I had a way to describe the many shades of green I see in these woods. Somebody told me once that Norwegians have many different words for snow and I think we should have an equal number of words for green. Maybe, if I were like Shakespeare, I would invent these words and people would sit behind the actors on the stages of my plays because they want to “hear” the play rather than see it.

But I’m not like Shakespeare. I don’t invent language, I just enjoy it. I wrote this monologue for an artistic director who was at the end of her life and wanted her last hoorah to be an evening with playwrights she had nurtured in her career. She overheard me once telling the story of my student days in NYC, and she said, “You outta write that down.” So for her last hoorah, I wrote I was an Illegal Alien, and shared it first that evening. Now I find myself slipping parts of it into my new novel and feeling ahead of the game that I already have this sticky note of material.

I reach the top of the hill and turn left, starting down the trail that runs alongside the creek. Coincidentally my monologue also makes a turn, away from illegal work activities and onto what it took to become legal. “Did you know, for example, that in order to become a permanent resident I had to swear that I was not a sexual deviant?” The audience laughs out loud, and I add the line, “Who gets to decide what that means?” although I think it might be too much. They get it. To my left I see a dogwood tree in full bloom, its wide, white petals laid flat around its yellow stamen. To my right the creek water clatters uninhibitedly downstream but it’s a sound that blends rather than distracts because it belongs in this environment.

We’re in the final stretch of our walk now and I’m at the place where my husband looks at the Immigration Officer and says, “What if she’s lying?” Audiences love that line and the one in my head is no exception.
“I look at him dumbfounded. Doesn’t he know these people don’t appreciate jokes?!” I complain. But it’s the character’s blatant honesty that they love. Don’t hide your past, is my husband’s mantra; that way people can’t hurt you with it later. I enjoyed writing this piece because it demonstrates that even someone who looks like me can have been an illegal at one time.

Molly skitters into the brush after something – maybe a squirrel – and I pause my monologue to click in my cheek and bring her back. She emerges, tail high in the air, front shoulders kicked back, as if to say, “Perimeter’s secure now, Ma’am.” Ma’am like ham, not like farm. Hey, if I can have my internal dialogue, she can have hers.

We ride home in the car next to each other, our lungs flush with new oxygen.
“What do you think about when you’re on your walk,” my husband asks me as I take off my sneakers.
“Well today I performed a monologue for an audience in New York,” I tell him.
He laughs and says, “You’re such a little girl!”
I think about that for a moment. A little girl, or a consummate performer? I shrug; who cares? I’ll take it.

The author as a little girl

The author as a little girl

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A Comedy of Canines.

It’s 6:00 am, pitch dark and raining out. Molly Moon, my 3-year old Springer Spaniel/Lab mix just had knee surgery and needs to be on a leash while she goes out for her morning ablutions to make sure she doesn’t wander too far, or too fast. Or fall over. My eyes are still bleary from sleep as I step into my muck boots and pull my fleece jacket on over my sweats, and I wonder if our new puppy, Pinky, can be trusted not to jump on Molly if I let him come on the short walk with us. Part of me wants to leave him in the house but, at only 12 weeks old, he still needs a little company when doing his morning business otherwise he gets distracted and forgets. Which in turn can lead to oopsies in the house. Yeah, he’d better come too.

I grab a leash for Molly, who is already struggling to her feet, and think – flashlight! Molly likes to lead me away from the motion sensor light on the back porch so she can do her business in private, and it’s too dark and too early for me to want to trip over a tree root on our property. I grab the flashlight, connect the leash to Molly’s collar and then go through a brief farce at the back door as Pinky decides he wants to bring the door mat with him and Molly’s tugging to go down the steps and she won’t stay and he won’t come and I’m beginning to feel the rain down the back of my neck so I lean back in to encourage Pinky to let go of the mat and come outside while Molly thinks she’s supposed to go back inside now and Pinky wants to show us how fun the mat is all balled up and why can’t we bring it with us? I finally get them both out and this is how it starts.

“Pinky, no! Don’t jump on Molly. Pink-Y!!”

My cockerel crows in the chicken coop, probably woken by my yelling at the puppy, and then a second crow, louder, stronger. I sigh. Two of the three chicks hatched this past fall must be roosters, not just the one I already gave away. Their crowing distracts Pinky who, as part Chesapeake, is a bit of a bird dog. Molly’s left in peace but she’s not inclined to pee yet. Even on three legs she’s doing the leading and makes a beeline for the shadows, between the wood shop and the pottery studio. Pinky barrels up behind us and starts nipping at the backs of my legs.

I love you. I love you. I love you, his little love bites say.
“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” I yelp. “Pinky, stop that!”
Can I play with the leash then?
“Pinky, NO!”

I tug him away and he veers off, distracted by a twiggy length of salmonberry bush. Molly tries to crawl under the studio.

“Don’t go under there!” I snap.
Skunk.
“What are you…?
I smell skunk.
“You’ll get all tangled up – Pinky, NO! Leave her tail alone!”

I manage to get Molly back out into the open without getting the leash tied in knots but then she seems determined to lead me even further into the woods. I can see the grassy pathways between the brushy areas fairly well with the flashlight but the ground is uneven, and I’m worried she’ll stumble and hurt her bum leg. Plus I took my husband’s advice and put her on one of those leashes that unravels from a housing, so she could wander a little further and feel more private; but this particular leash was one of my husband’s “treasures” from the dump and the lock button sticks, so Molly keeps getting further and further away from me.

“Can’t you just go here?” I plead with her, pointing to a tree stump surrounded by soft mulch. “I’m hungry.”
Pinky leaps this way and that in the air. Me too. Me too. Me too.
Molly gives me a baleful look. I can’t. You’re watching.
“I’ll look away.”
You’ll know.
Pinky jumps on her. Can I ride on your back?
“Pinky, no! Will you get OFF her!!!”

I pull the puppy away and Molly disappears around the back of the studio. I move faster.

“Where did you….. Oh, you’re peeing. Good girl.”

A glorious sense of relief washes over me. Then I remember the puppy. I look left and right. Behind me.

“Where did Pinky go?”

I shine the flashlight all around and catch sight of him under a fir tree, doing his business.

“Good boy,” I coo.

All is well. The rain is a steady drizzle, fresh against the skin on my face even if my head is getting wet because I forgot to put on a hat. I hear the rooster crow again, followed by his echo, but they’re both more muted this time since the studio is between us, absorbing some of the sound. I feel peaceful standing in the oxygen rich woodland; until the puppy nips at the back of my leg again.

“Ouch! Stop that!!”
I love you.
“That hurts!”
I love you.
“Find something else to chew on!”
I love you.
“Ouch!”

As I swat him away, Molly spins to the right, heading into an area of thick brush. The vines snap as she clambers over them, trying to get in where she won’t be seen. I’m worried that she’ll get her leg tangled in the leash so I push my thumb hard against the lock button, but it’s stuck. Pinky bounces against my leg and yelps when I accidentally step on his paw. Then he tries to grab the flashlight with his mouth. Molly moves further into the brambles as I try not to trip over the puppy. Then I hear the leash being sucked back into the housing as Molly hobbles back out to join us, not having gone poop.

“What was wrong with that spot?” I wail.
The thing on my neck was bothering me.
“Pinky, NO! Leave her ALONE!”
I just want to ride on her back.
“Get off her!”
Okay, let’s play bite-the-open-mouth game.
Molly’s tail wags. You’re too short. You’ll never get me.
I will if I jump.
“Pinky, no!”

They run forward together, making hawing sounds as they move their mouths this way and that, trying to get a purchase on each other, tails wagging. Pinky jumps and jumps, his little body jostling her neck as I worry about her leg, thinking – she’ll never poop at this rate. I step forward to separate them. The ground is soft and wet but my boot lands in something softer, wetter. Something that smells….

“Did you poop here?” I bark at the puppy.
He looks down, surprised. No. That’s yesterdays.
“Good Lord!” I complain. “Can’t you poop in the brush like Molly?!”
She gives me a scathing look. Oh, so now it’s a good thing that I poop in the brush?!

I’ve had enough.

“I’m an actress! And I haven’t had my morning tea. So do your business!”
Molly looks at Pinky. Now you made her mad.
No. You made her mad.
It was your poop. You should learn to be more discreet.
What’s disskreeet? I’m hungry. Can I ride on your back?
“Pinky, NO!”

I separate them – again! – and walk a little further, around to the big Maple tree next to the garage where Molly often goes in the morning. The puppy dances away and I wait, hoping Molly will get busy. When she doesn’t, I decide this isn’t working.

“You probably don’t need to poop, do you?” I say to her in the quiet of the morning.
She looks at me. We can go with that.
“Come on. You can try again later.”
Can I at least get a drink?
“You want some water?”

I walk her over to the bucket that catches rainwater dripping out of the gutter on the garage but she prefers the puddle in the driveway. As she balances on three legs, lapping noisily, the puppy appears beside us, something white in his mouth. It’s a small plastic flag, a marker for the invisible fence that denotes the limit of where he should stray on the property.

Look what I found.
“Give me that!”
Okay, can I bite Molly’s ear then?
He’s touching me!
“Pink-Y, NO!”

And we head for the house as the cockerels take up their duet in the background.

THE END
(Well, until tomorrow morning)

Molly Moon & Pinky

What? I’m just hugging her.

All the World’s a Stage

Sitting in Le Pain Quotidien at St Pancras Station, drinking coffee and eating croissants, I mention to my husband that the flat serving tray, a ceramic cutting board of sorts, with a small hole at one end to hang the item between uses, and slight, inward curvature like a fish tail at the other, might be an interesting new object for him to make in the pottery. People race by on the main platform of the station, the to and fro from England to destinations European, and a man raises his voice to one of the serveuses, accusing her of being rude instead of responding to a simple question.

“I could make these,” my husband says, turning what he thinks is a handmade object over and around in his hands. “But I’d ask the waiter if he likes using them.”

“Ah no,” the waiter tells us in English laced with just enough of an accent – maybe French, maybe Italian – that it’s charming. “They don’t break or chip but for eating, is not so good. Messy,” he adds and flaps his free hand in the air over my plate, to indicate crumbs falling off the sides.

Behind him the belligerent customer opts not to eat in the café and as he storms out, a young man enters and immediately apologizes to the now smiling waitress for something he wasn’t even part of but senses was not her fault.

“I think he’s right,” my husband says to me, meaning the waiter’s opinion of the ceramic object. “They need a return on the sides.”

“But we wouldn’t sell them as plates,” I explain, “I’m thinking cheese boards. Or vegetable trays.” The rectangular flatware has a small bread motif stamped into one corner. I point at it and add, “You could put your tulip stamp here.” Three tables down from us, two men in elegant, silver-grey suits keep up a lively discussion in French about the percentage decline of the stock market. I lean into our table, so my husband can hear me over the background noise. “I really prefer cutting cheese on a flat board.”

“Uh huh,” he says, inspecting the tray again. “But I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere.” He runs his index finger around the perimeter of the clay. “I could make a simple groove just inside the edge.”

I nod; that makes sense. I tear a section off my croissant and look beyond him, to the small Marks and Spencers food shop on the other side of the main platform. We went in there before coming to the café, to buy a green smoothie for me, and I was very impressed to see that they sold pairs of peeled, organic, hard-boiled eggs on fresh spinach in plastic cups to go. I should tell my friend, John Scott, about those, I think, remembering that I owe him a reply to the beautiful missive he sent me about morning time on the beach in Costa Rica. I dip the piece of croissant in my coffee, noticing the remnants of flaky pastry now on the table around my plate. Maybe he could suggest they sell something similar at the Co-op, I continue in my head. I bite down on the coffee softened croissant and nix the idea, realizing that John Scott probably doesn’t want me reaching across the miles with a business suggestion while he’s got his toes on a sandy beach in paradise. Although, I think with a certain amusement, here we are on our way to Paris and I’m talking plate design with my husband. How curious.

After we finish our petit repas (the time wasn’t right to call if breakfast or lunch, just a little snack) the waiter clears up our plates and cups and I hear myself saying, “Shoot! I should have taken a picture.”

“If I were a journaling kind of person I’d draw it,” my husband says and immediately my mind buzzes to the red writing journal I have in my backpack and the drawing he could make in it. I want to get it out and let him do just that but the backpack is behind him, the table is fairly cramped and now it’s covered in croissant crumbs, so I resist.

But not before thinking how strange (yet appealing) this idea is, a journal with sketches of pottery in it. Not birds or wildflowers, things we’ve come to expect in journals, but cups and bowls and plates and cheese trays.

Quick sketch cheese tray

Quick sketch cheese tray

And then I wonder how my life went from thinking almost exclusively about acting to discussing serving ware over café au lait on the way to Paris? And if I didn’t know that businessperson was just another role for me, I could let that bother me. Fortunately all the world’s a stage in my head and I love the range of roles I get to play.

Now about those flat, ceramic trays; how about a Mishima drawing of trees in the corner?

The Dark Subject

One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger, foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.

I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a battered woman on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.

I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”

Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.

Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.

When I heard on the radio that the father of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding, was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father – through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.

The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.

Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.

Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.

Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.

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