Monday, September 19, 2016

September 19th

It is September 19th; it is nearly autumn. Today it rained, truly rained, for the first time in weeks. The dry summer streets of New York City thirsted for a cool, soothing storm to ease us into the chilly months ahead. Pavement has sizzled in the summer sun for months, every part of the city expanding in the heavy humid air of a concrete jungle in July or August.

I left my windows open today, no need for air conditioning in the cool morning as rain fell heavy outside. No cruel wind twisted the drops to send them flying indoors; vertical sheets hit fire escapes and sidewalks but window sills stayed dry.

Tonight my bedroom smells of rain and lavender, a candle I burn in the night. It is clean, fresh, and airy, an atmosphere ready for the changing for seasons, for freedom from the heavy scents of summer - sweating bodies crammed in subway cars, garbage warming on the curb, the ever-lingering waft of sunscreen and sea spray.

Summer is in the final minutes of twilight, as the dawn of autumn approaches. I can almost hear the crisp crunch of biting an apple, smell the cinnamon and cloves of spiked cider, feel the first breezes that beckon sweater weather. Now is the time when we would be foolish to stow away our air conditioners for the season already, but most nights can sleep under bedding with windows thrown open to the cool night air. We are nearly free from making every effort to seal ourselves indoors to keep away the oppressive air of summer days in the city.

I smell lavender and rain, feel the comfort of cool sheets, and for once hear stillness in the place of the hum of air conditioners that roar like city cicadas in the night. Sometimes a confused bird squawks, perhaps not realizing it is dark, or perhaps not realizing he is in Brooklyn. Cars race by, driving far too fast on my two-block street, blasting snippets of songs that crescendo and fade, familiar only because I have heard them in this same way so many times before.

Darkness settles in like a heavy blanket, clouds obscuring the moon in the lingering post-storm haze. Lights behind curtained windows from the apartment building opposite mine twinkle through the leaves of the big tree across the street, swaying in an almost imperceptible breeze.

It is September 19th; it is nearly autumn. My bedroom smells of rain and lavender. I say goodbye to the twilight of summer, hello to the dawn of autumn. Say a little prayer to Persephone, and blow out the candle. Goodnight.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Not What You Signed Up For

A series of related things happened recently:

  1. I went to Israel
  2. David Bowie died.
  3. I got my second tattoo.
While the second two may be clearly related to each other, on the surface they seem to have nothing to do with going to Israel, and all together they still wouldn't appear to have anything to do with making choices about my acting career. And yet, going to Israel helped me become the woman in the picture below, which in turn helped me realize the kind of artist I want to be.

While I was on my birthright trip, I found myself saying to my new friends something I've said occasionally over the last several years - that if I weren't an actor, I would look like such a weirdo - covered in tattoos, with short hair constantly dyed some weird color (purple is first on the list). And I realized, during a conversation about tattoos with a few friends on the trip who had some, that I didn't want to continue pursuing a career where I didn't feel like myself.

David Bowie, my great artistic inspiration, the inspiration to freaks and weirdos and aspiring weirdos of generations, died on January 10, 2016. I found out early in the morning of the 11th, before 9 am Israel time, while America was sleeping. Our group was sitting in a national park while our guide told us about a former military outpost we could see on a mountain in the distance. He pulled out his phone to look up a specific detail, and, upon launching the internet, proclaimed "Oh fuck, David Bowie died." That was how I found out my hero, the Starman, the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, was gone from this planet. I suppose we were only borrowing him from somewhere else.

On the bus after our hike that morning I was allowed to take over the audio system for a while, and played all of his hits for the regular fans, and then played all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust for my own sake. The whole group had seen me silently weeping throughout the morning, not having any way of knowing how much Bowie meant to me. And as much as I wished in the moment that I could have locked myself in my room to mourn alone, I'm so grateful now that I was able to process my grief the way that I did - with his music, surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of Israel.

That evening, we went to a hot spring located right along the Galilee, with incredible views of the sea and surrounding mountains. That was where I finally had a chance to relax, with my Squad, and chat about tattoos and mundane things. That was where I told more of my friends there was a freak trapped in this pretty normal-looking, albeit-red-headed, person. And that was when I decided I was going to let myself be me, and look how I want to look, and do what I want to do, and find or create the theatre projects that support that.

We spent a lot of time on the bus the next day, driving from the Golan Heights to Haifa to Jerusalem. During one of the quieter stretches, an idea for a tattoo came to me - not any of the three I already wanted, a new one. As soon as the idea was fully formed in my mind, it felt weird that it wasn't already a part of my skin. The picture that came into my head on Tuesday ended up on my body on Friday, the day after I got back from Israel.

My second tattoo, inked boldly on my chest, is the signifier of my decision to be me, and do "the industry" my way. It may have been a decision that prevents me from getting cast in some roles, working on some projects. But that's okay. I have never felt more like myself than since getting this tattoo. The lightning bolt is of course the most iconic Bowie symbol (though it's always associated with Ziggy Stardust when in fact it's from the album art for Aladdin Sane and was never worn on the Ziggy tour). The black stars symbolize his last album, Blackstar, released on his birthday, two days before his death. And the Hebrew says "ho lo ahuva at lo l'vad," which translates to "Oh no love, you're not alone" - a lyric from Bowie's "Rock n Roll Suicide," my favorite song of his, and translated with the help of several people who have made me feel very "not alone" - Elaun, our tour guide who accidentally broke the news, Jack, our security guard and member of the Squad, and my friend Michael, who I met during the RENT party in 2008 and who has always held a special place in my heart for a number of reasons only he can understand.
Right over my heart, a big red lightning bolt is difficult to hide. I have no intention of hiding it anyway. I'm proud that it's a part of who I am. Deeply connected to Bowie, to Israel, to being a weirdo.
My only other tattoo has, for a year now, slightly more subtly proclaimed my self at its deepest level. The "Hope" tattoo, in the Harry Potter title font, was one I thought about for almost four years rather than four days. But proclaiming my lifelong literal middle name in the typeface of a sixteen-year love affair seemed like a good start to proclaiming who I am on my skin. (This photo happens to also feature a length of blue yarn tied around my wrist, still here two weeks after I left Israel, connecting me to the rest of Bus 486.)

I posted this last picture on facebook because I felt good about my hair the day I took it, but after looking at it more I realized it really summed up me at this moment in time. I subtitled it "Not the granddaughter my grandparents signed up for, but the only one they got." No one expects, when a baby is born, that she is going to grow up to love classic rock and dye her hair bright red and get big tattoos and be a weirdo. But I'm awful proud of the weirdo I've been, and the one I'm growing to be.

Will you stay in our lovers' story
If you stay, you won't be sorry
Cause we believe in you
Soon you'll grow
So take a chance
On a couple of kooks
Hung up on romancing
-- David Bowie, "Kooks" Hunky Dory

Thursday, December 17, 2015

America, Germany, Israel, and Identity

In the month that I've been back in New York since my trip to London and Berlin, I've become a hermit. I get up, I go about my morning routine, I go to work, I come home. I make no plans, and those engagements I previously committed to I frequently bail on at the last minute. I skipped the NYRF reunion the weekend after my return; I skipped the Daryl Roth Theatre (where Fuerza Bruta plays) holiday party this week. I make vague half-plans for drinks or lunches and then don't follow up on them. I hide in my apartment, in books, in solitude.

While in Berlin, on my Red Berlin walking tour, I told my tour guide briefly about the play I've been writing since my last visit, and asked if he had any insight into the daily lives of East Berliners. He recommended I read Stasiland, a book by Anna Funder, an Australian writer who lived in Berlin for a time in the 90s, while Germany was still rebuilding itself. I bought the book recently, and over the last week have spent every train ride to and from work disappearing into East Germany, a country that no longer exists, but whose citizens are still largely alive and well, some only a few years older than I am. Both sides of my family have roots in Germany, and lately I constantly wonder what my life would have been like if I had grown up there.

Tonight I went to my pre-trip orientation for my Birthright trip to Israel. Birthright is a gift of a free ten day trip, from the government of Israel and Jewish communities around the world, to young adults of Jewish heritage. I come from a multi-faith family in a multi-faith country. I always felt, growing up, that I didn't really have much of a national heritage, because the heritage of America, as it was taught to me and as I've experienced it for twenty-five years, is that our nation is a one of many nations. In the scheme of countries globally, we're on the young side. We don't have thousands of years of history as a nation. And similarly, in the religious sphere, I grew up Unitarian Universalist, the religion of many religions. Because my mom grew up Christian and my dad was raised Jewish, I, like so many children of interfaith marriages, grew up in a church full of families with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Unitarian Universalism came from the merging of two religions and technically, by definition, is a cult, because it is less than one hundred years old since the merger.

Neither my national nor my religious heritage have the longest historical background. That has always made me feel a little lost, in the greater scheme of things. I applied for the Birthright trip because I am desperate for a deeper connection to something, to my Jewish heritage. Judaism has rather a long history, you could say. But I grew up as "the only Hanukkah kid in my class," as I said when I came home from one of my first days of Kindergarten. I lit Hanukkah candles with my family in November or December throughout my childhood, and that was most of my experience of "being Jewish" for a long time. I have only attended four Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in my life, all for people I am barely or almost related to - children of my dad's cousin (second cousins? Once removed? I never know), his college friend's daughter, my "cousin" who is the child of my "uncle" Marty, another of my dad's closest college friends. But I had no such experience myself. I have only been to Synagogue on those four occasions. The only Hebrew I know is the Hannukah prayers, and that's memorization more than actual comprehension.

So I float, tradition-less, through a young secular country, and obsess over strange things. I have always felt a connection to the Holocaust even though my Jewish grandparents were born in New York. Gas masks disturb me like nothing else. I spend ten minutes of rare hour-long Skype call with my brother talking about German history from World War II to now. I text my friend John, a grad student studying the holocaust and genocide, at 10 am on a Monday morning, asking for clarifications on the Nazi-Soviet conflict and the differences between communism, socialism, and fascism during the Cold War. I am becoming an encyclopedia on the lives of strangers that lived in a country that dissolved just months before I was born.

I am German; I am Jewish. But actually I am neither; I am American and Unitarian. My passport says I have been to Germany, and soon it will say I have been to Israel, but my passport was issued by the United States of America. My passport says, in the form of seven stamps at the back, that I have pretended to travel between East and West Berlin, places that no longer exist except in the experiences of millions of now-just-German citizens. The truth lies in the date of the stamps, 30 Oktober, 2011, 22 years after the fall of the Wall.

I read my books; I write my play. I listen to Led Zeppelin and Bowie records and disappear into the 70s.  I try to tell the stories of people I never knew, a place I have never been to, because Berlin and Germany are unified again now. A place and people that have nothing to do with a twenty-five year old girl from Chicago who lives in New York and has never been anything but American, who has never fled any kind of persecution or oppression and is only now becoming "woke" enough to realize the police state we live in. (Please watch Citizenfour. I don't know what to do about what I learned from it, but just watch it.)

Daily I feel small, alone though by my own choosing. I have always been independent, but now I exist like a satellite in orbit of the lives around me, away from family, friends, sometimes sanity. I shut out the problems of 21st century New York to despair in those of Cold War Berlin, and still try to find a way to make the two eras talk to each other as we shut out refugees, and threaten the building of new walls, and want to increase surveillance on possible terrorists, and barring an entire faith population from our country. I would have lived a different life as a German Jew in the 40s. I would have lived a different life as an Eastern German in the 70s. But those lives are still being lived now, by different faiths in different countries, and I just want people to wake up. 

That's what my play is for, if I can ever finish it. As I read and research more, I feel the scope expanding, sure it will one day soon escape my grasp. There are such big concepts at play. My access point is a history I was never taught but almost lived, from so many angles.

I wear still in this moment my name tag from the Birthright event tonight. It says my name, my trip organizer - Tlalim Israel Outdoors, and my departure date.  I feel suddenly just now, like I'm wearing a yellow star, but without the danger. "This is when she will claim her history." It labels me as at least Jewish-adjacent, with a date for the homeland. Getting on a plane, not a train, in safety, not in fear. To celebrate something that was once supposed to be hidden, shameful, dirty. To confront a lost heritage, color in a missing part of my identity as I have tried to do so many times on so many trips. 

For me, my Jewish-ness is tied up in my German-ness, two identities that were once so at odds, though my existence as a union of the two is not uncommon. Both cultures are shadowed by a history of conflict - and Israel isn't exactly history's most peaceful country, and that at only sixty-seven years old. I sit here, at 11 pm on a Thursday night in New York, trying to come to terms with all of my perceived history that is not mine at all - that of Germany, of Israel, of Jusaism, and, after a while, of America, that to which I can actually lay claim but don't know how. What is the meaning of being American?  Freedom? Fear? God and guns? So much of what America stands for seems either false or terrible. But then again, I have never been interrogated simply because I wished to travel, or had a boyfriend from another country, or because I dissented from my leader's politics. I can say what I want. I suppose it's just a question, now, of whether it is heard, or whether I want it to be.