Ohio Again, Day Four

It was rainy, windy, and humid today, with the temperature bouncing up to nearly 70 degrees. The smell of warm, wet, grass has always been my strongest sense memory for Ohio.

Sue was the first person I saw when I walked in the door of the United Church of Christ. She started to introduce us in the same fashion she’d been introducing us all weekend: “You remember Warren? This is his daughter Kathy.” We never met anyone who didn’t remember my grandfather Warren, and didn’t smile at his name. I miss my grandpa. It was nice being with his little brother Bob all weekend; it was nice hearing that same sly sense of humor.

I found Uncle Bob sitting in his pew along with my cousin Mike and his wife Erin. My baby cousin Sarah was in the pew in front of us, wiggling around and grabbing the pencils and bookmarks out of their designated spots. According to the program it was Communion Sunday. They only do communion once a month, and Erin said in all the years they’ve been coming up to visit from Oklahoma this is the first time she’s been there for communion.

There was an opening song and some prayers, followed by what was called the “Children’s Moment.” The kids came up from Sunday School to perform for the church, singing along to a song off a CD. “Singing” is a bit of an exaggeration, since most of them seemed to be concentrating only on the clapping and hand motions.

Then kids then sat in the front row and the organist brought out a small whiteboard, saying, “I’ve got a long word for you today.” She turned it around to reveal the word ‘memorabilia’ on it. She told them what the word meant, then brought over a small bag. “I’ve got some memorabilia with me right here.” She pulled out a music box and talked about how a family member had brought it back from Switzerland during the war.

Next she pulled out a piece of dark blue cloth, unfolding it to reveal one of the special #RaineyStrong t-shirts everyone had been wearing the day of the funeral. I felt myself sucking in a bit of extra air at the sight of the shirt, and heard Erin doing the same next to me.

“What does this remind us of?” The organist asked.

“The Raineys!” shouted one of the kids immediately.

“Exactly,” she said, “The Rainey family.”She told the children the shirts would help us to always remember them. Then she pointed up to the altar where the bread and wine was already prepared. “What we’re doing today is a kind of memorabilia too. It reminds us of Jesus. Do you know what he said? He said ‘When you do this you’ll remember me and you’ll know that…” she lowered to a whisper, “I’m coming back.'”

One of the little boys gasped.

“That’s right,” she said. “Jesus is coming back, and the Raineys are coming back too. We’ll all see each other again some day.”

It was weird to watch. Weird because it was nice to see the kids care but also strange for my cousins to be an object lesson. Weird because I don’t believe in the kind of literal heaven where we will recognize our lost loved ones, but I like that everyone else here does. Mostly it was weird because it was beat for beat what I’d seen back in 2009. Back then it was Austin and Cody up front doing motions and forgetting to sing along. The word the organist put on the whiteboard that day was ‘Sing,’ and she talked about how we sing to praise God. It was all exactly the same. Just with one very big, very sad absence.

After church Uncle Bob, Mike and Erin, my folks, and I all went outside to the parking lot and waited for Aunt Sue to do her chatting. I went back out to the gravesite again. It seemed like there were more flowers than I’d seen the day before. A few had been knocked over in the wind. I put them back up. It was still warm but a strong wind was coming through. One of the sprays fell over again. By the third time I gave up and left it laying on its side.

Everyone headed back to Bob and Sue’s house for one last hour of talking with the family before we had to leave for the airport. I played with baby Sarah and we tried some of the jerky Mike makes in his butcher shop back in Oklahoma. I told Erin to find me on Facebook, and we hugged everyone goodbye.

On my way out I took a picture of the front porch, where I can still see Jim standing in his neon green “Race Tractors!” T-Shirt with the sleeves cut off, holding a beer and yelling to Cody that there’s still one more duck in the garden to chase around. I took a picture of the long gravel driveway, where I can still see Austin furiously riding the brand new bike Jodi and I picked out for his 11th birthday. In my mind my grandfather is still in the backyard grabbing that mother duck on his first try. Aunt Jean is driving us out to Fostoria to look at Great Grandma Nina’s tombstone, and on the way we pass by a big white farm house that means nothing to me, because my cousins won’t move in for another four years. That house was built in 1820, before my great grandfather Howard was even born. Now it’s ashes, as are Jim, Jodi, Austin, Cody, and Jessica.

If we’re lucky and the organist is right, we’ll see them all again someday.

Ohio Again, Day Three

By the time we got to the high school to help clean up, almost all of it had already been packed away. There were no extra chairs, no screen, no tables full of photo boards. All that was left was a row of flowers and memorial gifts near the front. My Aunt Sue introduced us to Pam, Jodi’s mother. We said we thought cleanup wasn’t supposed to start until 10AM, and Pam said, “Well, we couldn’t really sleep, so…” One of the other helpers told me both sets of parents had been there since 8:30AM.

We loaded the dozens of vases, baskets, wind chimes, blankets, and memorial stone benches into the cars. Sue and Pam went up to each arrangement or gift to look at the card and determine who should take it home. A gift from Jim’s work would go with Sue, flowers from a student Jodi worked with would go to Pam. Pam said something about having read these cards a million times already. It must be exhausting to make so many decisions that feel significant but are ultimately trivial.

Sue wanted to drop a few of the arrangements over at their church, where the casket had been buried the day before. We went out to place the eternal flame stand near the spot and see the freshly dug dirt. The family was buried in the back corner of the cemetery, overlooking a big open farm field. One of the students Jodi drove stopped by to pay his respects. He is mentally disabled and said he hadn’t been able to attend the service because he gets nightmares easily. His mother said it would have been too much to be there. But he wanted to see the grave and honor Jodi in his own way.

We went back to Sue and Bob’s house and began unloading three cars full of gifts. We filled the dining room table with flowers. Sue decided she wanted to give some to the nearby nursing homes, and we loaded them back in the car. As I was walking back into the house they were discussing who should help deliver, and I heard Sue say, “And Katrina! Katrina will go with us!” She was very excited to bring me along. I got the feeling she was very excited to have anyone around, and anything to do.

Mike, Sue, and I stopped at two different nursing homes to deliver the flowers. We had to drive by Jim and Jodi’s burned down house twice. Both times there were people stopped outside. Sue didn’t like this. She couldn’t help but feel they were all just look-i-loos.

At the second nursing home the manager was on the phone when we arrived. She appeared to be having a difficult conversation. “Well no, you’re not nothing,” she said, “He raised you, but you’re still not his biological son, so…” We waited patiently and she apologized for taking so long.

“I’m Sue Rainey,” my aunt said. There was a pause. “I…”

The manager nodded. “I know.”

“Well,” Sue continued, “We have all these flowers and I thought I could leave some of them here with you.”

The manager smiled, clearly touched by the gesture. “Of course,” she said, “Our residents love fresh flowers. We can put one in every common room.” She came out to get them from the car herself.

Mike and Erin had to leave to attend a wedding, and the rest of us sat around chatting for a while. Bob made fun of Sue for being too afraid to get eggs out of the chicken coop. I walked around outside the house and recreated my favorite photo of young Cody from my visit eight years ago. The trees have grown so much since then.

Sue and Bob took us down into the basement to show mom and dad the old photos they had of my great grandparents. The partially finished basement is full of stuff, from boxes of VHS tapes to antique furniture my cousin Erin would like but Bob swears they’re “still using it.” There were piles of stuff that belonged to Sue and Bob’s three boys, left from the broken rule that they would take all their stuff out once they each had their own home. We came across some old boxes of farm toys that Cody, Austin, and Jessica used to play with.

“They never came by to pick those up,” Bob said. “And now I guess they never will.”

We had sandwiches at the house and got in the van for a little drive. As we were leaving one of the chickens wandered into the garage, and Bob asked me to get it out. I ran after it, making noises and flapping my arms. My mom thought my tactics were pretty entertaining. I told her everything I know about chasing chickens I learned from Austin and Cody.

To start our drive we went to see my cousin Andrew’s new property, then through Fostoria to see the flour mill where Jim worked. They’d put up a memorial cross by the sign surrounded by four small crosses, and dressed it up with Jim’s safety vest and hat.

Next was the Chestnut Grove Cemetery, where my great-grandfather Howard Rainey is buried with his second wife, Helen. My family line is through his first wife, Nina, who is buried somewhere in Fostoria. Sue couldn’t remember where exactly, and with both my grandfather and my Great Aunt Jean gone, I’m not sure anyone knows anymore.

At this point we’d been driving around for over two hours, and Sue told us it was so nice to have a reason to get out of the house. We still had time before dinner so we stopped by Bob and Sue’s old farm in Republic, the one I visited back when I was nine. I’ve kept a memory of that farm in my head for over 20 years, and it looked exactly the same. Smaller, I suppose, but otherwise just the same.

We arrived at the Tackle Box 2 (so named because the original Tackle Box burned down), and my dad and I split a pound of fried perch. My parents were hoping to pay for dinner, but Sue insisted she and Bob would. Her voice started to crack.

“It’s just meant so much to us to have you here,” she said. Both her and my mom started crying.

I’m so glad I came back to Ohio.

Ohio Again, Day Two

We slept in until 10:30AM this morning. My folks and I got dressed in the nice but dark clothes one generally wears to funerals, and headed out to get a late breakfast at a nearby diner. We drove through the tiny town of Bascom to get to Hopewell-Loudon, the school where almost every Rainey in Ohio graduated high school. Jim and Jodi’s oldest child Austin had only graduated this year. Cody had just started the 10th grade, and Jessica was a first grader.

The service wasn’t until 3PM, but we came early because there was “a visitation” in the gym from 10AM to 3PM. I’d never heard of a visitation before, and my mom suggested they must be calling it that because a formal viewing would have been impossible. The fire that killed the Raineys was so hot firefighters hadn’t even been able to enter the building when they arrived. It was hours before they were able to recover the bodies. With the exception of Austin, all the family members had to be identified using dental records.

We pulled up to the school and found a firefighter in uniform directing traffic. As Sue had instructed the night before, we told her we were with the family and would be in the procession to the gravesite later. She pointed us in the right direction, and we parked in a line of cars right outside the gymnasium. We followed a line of Hopewell-Loudon marching band members in formation as they entered. The lobby was full of flowers and photo boards, as well as a therapy dog that had been visiting with students all week. Flowers and gifts had come from every corner of the community: the auto shops, the Wells Fargo employees, the firefighter’s union Austin had only just joined. The marching band went into the gym and to the front to play a song in remembrance before taking their seats in the bleachers. A single casket was near the front, the remains of the entire family hidden inside. My parents and I said hello to Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob, then we put our coats on a few of the chairs reserved for family. I’m really sick of having reserved seats at funerals.

The next two hours were a mix of looking at photos and re-introducing ourselves to distant relatives. All around us people were wearing matching navy blue t-shirts with the firefighter logo and the hashtag #RaineyStrong on the back. Austin was a cadet for the Bascom Volunteer Fire Department, but they treated him as though he were any other fallen firefighter. Austin died just two weeks before he was supposed to take his exam. My dad got the phone number for the woman who organized the t-shirts. He’s hoping to get us each one when she does the second order.

Though there were five clergy members leading it, the service lasted no more than an hour. We listened to scripture and sang a few hymns. They played a video of little Jessica performing a dance she learned for one of her Vacation Bible School songs. At the end, what appeared to be the entire fire department stood up and came to the front. They ceremonially draped an American flag over the casket and gave a salute. The fire chief came to the microphone to narrate the bell ceremony. For each bell rung he listed a different significant date in Austin’s life: the day he was born, the day he was called to serve, and the day of “the last call he answered.”

The line of cars in the procession was very long, led by several firetrucks. They also had a yellow school bus and a transport bus for the Seneca County Opportunity Center in the line, as Jodi had been a driver for both. At the very end was a bright green tractor.

A sharp chill had come up by the time we got to the cemetery. They’d set up the casket underneath a small blue canopy, but it could barely fit a third of the guests in attendance. It was a good excuse to crowd in close to combat the cold. All of the firefighters were still with us, surrounding the group on all sides. The priest performed a short gravesite ceremony, and the firefighters folded the flag and gave it and a second flag to the paternal and maternal grandparents.

Next came a loud sound, like an alarm. Then beeping and ringing. It was coming from the radios of the firefighters, all of which had been turned on. There was the sound of static, then a female dispatcher’s voice, clear and orderly:

“This is Seneca County calling number 69, Austin Rainey.”

More static. I heard the whole crowd intake breath at once, and we all began to quietly weep. There was a very, very long silence.

“This is Seneca County calling number 69, Austin Rainey.”

Static. Silence. More loud beeps to call to attention.

“Attention all units, I regret to inform you that Austin Rainey has answered his last and final call on this earth.”

She said his badge number, 69, would be retired. It was now a memorial to him. I looked over to my left and saw a young man, not much older than Austin would have been, with goosebumps all up his arms from standing in his firefighter short sleeve dress shirt. He had tears on his face.

After the service my parents and I drove over to see the burned down house, just a minute or two away from Bob and Sue’s house. They had to erect a chain link fence around it because there are ongoing investigations into the cause of the fire, and to keep people from hurting themselves trying to get close to the wreckage. As bad as I thought the house might be, it was worse. It was just a shell of a home, charred black, with half the walls and none of the roofs. The stairs were still there but most of the second floor was not. Many of the possessions had been completely destroyed, but some were surprisingly intact. There was the melted remains of an oven, half of a sleeping bag, and an entire pumpkin from the porch.

We went over to Sue and Bob’s for a large meal with the family. I spent some time cuddling with a few babies, my most distant relations. Aunt Sue gave one of the little girls a bucket Jessica used to use to store her crayons at their house. My cousin Andrew said he never understood how a heart as big as Cody’s could fit in his small chest. My Great Uncle John made fun of my Great Uncle Carl for only being his half brother instead of a full sibling like my grandfather. My cousin Matt asked if I was going to wait another ten years before I came back to see them. I ate two servings of spaghetti and way too many chocolate peanut butter bars.

I never had a chance to meet Jessica in person, because she was born after the last time I visited. I have been repeating a memory in my head from the last time I was in Ohio. It was the time my grandfather, Uncle Bob, Jim, Jodi, Austin, Cody and I had to chase a mother duck and her ducklings into the pen for the night. Aunt Sue was laughing at us from the deck because of how terrible we were at it. I wished Jessica had been alive for that. I wished she was a part of that memory.

I saw Jessica’s birthdate listed under one of her photos at the gym. I did the backwards math to that moment in the backyard with the ducks. Eight and a half months. I can’t know for sure, but I think Jessica was there.

Ohio Again, Day One

One week ago today my cousin Jim, his wife, Jodi, and their children Austin, Cody, and Jessica all died in a house fire.

This morning my parents and I woke up early for our cab pickup at 5:15AM. We took Southwest through Oakland and then on to Columbus. We picked up our rental car and started north. It would take almost two hours to get to Tiffin. We called my Great Aunt Sue to tell her we figured we’d just go straight to our hotel, since it would be so late by the time we arrived.

“Oh that’s alright,” Sue said. “Mike and Erin and Matt and Michelle are all here, and we’ll be up pretty late. Don’t eat anything though, cause we got lots of food.”

Aunt Sue asked if we had GPS to help us find our hotel. We told her we did, but either she didn’t hear us or didn’t trust it, because she proceeded to explain in detail how to get there from Columbus. She said after we checked in we could call her if we needed directions to the house as well. We told her we’d be fine.

We checked in, spent a few minutes freshening up, then got back in the car to drive over to Bob and Sue’s house. Dad had their address in his phone, and he handed it to me as navigator in the front seat. Looking at the map it didn’t seem right. It’s been eight years since I was in Ohio, but I thought they lived farther out of town, and on the other side of the main road. The numbers in the address seemed wrong, too. I’d spoken with my grandmother in California right after we found out about the deaths, and she’d given me Bob and Sue’s address in case I wanted to send a card. I thought I remembered it being different, but since it was still on a post-it note on my desk at home, I had no way to check.

Dad’s phone directed us to a set of dark buildings. Dad commented that there didn’t appear to be anyone home. I said with certainty that this wasn’t the right place. The closer we got to Bob and Sue the more I remembered those two weeks I spent with them back in 2009. I texted my boyfriend to see if he could send me the address from my desk, but he wasn’t at home. So we called my grandmother, told her we’d landed safely, and asked if she had her address book handy. As soon as I put the corrected address into my phone it made more sense. As we approached the cross streets it all looked familiar, even in the incredible dark of rural farmland. I pointed at the house lights up ahead. “Yes, that’s it. That’s their house.” It was exactly as I remembered it.

I said hello to my cousin Mike in the driveway. Him and his family were about to drive down to pick up more people from the airport. Inside my other cousin Matt and his wife and baby were about to head out, but stayed for a few minutes to say hello. Sue and Bob and I sat in the kitchen for the next 45 minutes. Easily 35 of those minutes were spent just listening to Sue, which is exactly what I wanted. She told us what we’d learned about the fire, the trouble with the arrangements, how things were going.

We went over the plan for tomorrow, and how there were five ministers helping with the funeral service. One was from the UCC church the family attended, one was from the local Catholic Church (Jodi was raised Catholic), one worked with Cody in the community, another had taught Jessica, and as I understand it the fifth minister was there to help with the sound system and the slideshow. Sue explained how they’d been given $2500 from the Red Cross to help with arrangements, but they had trouble spending it at first. They assumed it would go towards caskets, but since Austin was in training to be a firefighter much of the casket arrangements had already been paid for by the fire department. Another donor had taken care of the plots, someone had donated money for the cemetery tent and sound equipment. The Red Cross money went to the headstone carving, and eventually Bob and Sue had to set up an account at the bank just to accept the donations. Sue says they’ll turn it into a scholarship fund later.

It’s very late, I’m very tired. I’m very glad I came back to Ohio.

10 Minutes in the Forest

When people asked about the show I was in, I would say to them, “It’s part theater, part game, part haunted house.” The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, produced by my friend Casey Middaugh. It was an immersive theatrical experience, where audience members would enter alone or in pairs and be the protagonist in their own fairytale, based on the Slavic folk tales about Baba Yaga and the Firebird. This is how it would go:

In the lobby right before your scheduled time, a man in a black suit tells you in a deep voice:

Firebird lightenter the deep forest, stranger

where Firebird hides her eggs from danger

three attempts are all you’ve got

you are safe: the eggs are not

beware, take heed, keep watch, look out:

Baba Yaga is about

You go through the door and into the black box theater. Sitting in a pool of orange light is the Firebird, a dancer wearing red, yellow, and orange wings. She looks up and coos curiously at you. She looks you up and down – her new friend(s). Behind her and taking up the entire rest of theater space is a large, messy forest made of PVC pipe, plastic wrap, and tulle. It’s dark. A disconcerting sound is heard from within the forest and Firebird begins to panic. An orange light comes up on the far side of the room, and Firebird gestures towards it. She needs her eggs. They are in the forest. But she can’t get them herself. It’s too scary.

You have to get them.

Pulsing green lights come on as you enter the forest, and you slowly move side-to-side to avoid the big, flat, plastic trees and low-hanging tulle branches. A few simple drum beats or some high harps are heard overhead, but it’s not enough to cover up the sounds from inside the forest – a tapping click, a low growl, maybe some hideous laughter. You notice a figure darting through the trees. She stays low to the ground. It’s Baba Yaga, the old, witch-like woman you were warned about. You get to the corner and find the nest, raised up on a large platform. It’s made of knotted plastic and inside are three balloons – the eggs.

Baba Yaga on floorYou reach for a balloon and notice that Baba Yaga doesn’t seem to like this at all. She’s holding up a large knitting needle, ready to pounce and pop a balloon the moment you grab it. You take your chances, grab the balloon, and make a run for it. Baba Yaga chases you through the forest, scurrying around and catching you between trees. If you make it out with the balloon, Firebird is overjoyed and spins around in delight. If Baba Yaga gets you, the balloon is popped and Firebird lets out a wail of sorrow. Either way, you have to go back for the other two. The music is louder and the lights are flashing. And now you only have eight minutes.

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The original game mechanic was simple: there were three, bright red eggs in a nest in the back of the forest, and the audience members had to recover all three and bring them to the Firebird. In an ideal scenario, Baba Yaga would pop one or two eggs but always let them get the last one. Unfortunately there’s really no way to rehearse a show where the audience is the main character. Our opening night was filled with unintentional play testers, and it was immediately clear that our game was too easy. The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, and people were getting out in 4-6 minutes. One group did it in three.

Because both roles are so physically demanding (especially Baba Yaga), we had two actors to play each part every night. After each run that first night Casey and the four actors (myself included) would quickly throw out ideas for how we could extend the experience. Each run gave us a new idea, which meant each audience member was seeing a slightly different game than the last. Our changes in order of implementation:

Firebird - back1) Add more story

Originally the audience came in to find an already panicked Firebird. Instead, we had her start happy and allow the participants to see the panic grow in her. This was a good element story-wise, though it added at most 20 seconds to the adventure.

2) Leave only one egg in the nest

The first egg was in the nest, the second we hid in the other back corner of the forest by sticking it into a sort of tulle hammock that draped just above eye level. The third we stashed behind the nest, with the intention that Baba Yaga would bring it out when the time was right. This helped a little, but once people found the hidden egg they were bolting out too fast for Baba Yaga to catch them. And one group found the third egg that we thought people wouldn’t see.

3) Seriously, hide the last egg

We moved the final egg to an area behind a black curtain where audience members were extremely unlikely to find it. Even if you started poking around in the curtain, it was easy to miss. Therefore the only way to get the final egg was to somehow get it from Baba Yaga.

4) Make the forest more difficult to navigate

After about five groups there was a big break in the time slots, and we used it to add more tulle to the forest. There was no time to secure it, so we just threw it everywhere. Anything to make it harder to move around. Before the second night of performances we came in early to hang even more. I made it my personal mission to block off the route out from the second egg.

Hammock5) Add black eggs

With only one egg in the nest, people knew right away to look for more. The second night we added two black balloons with the red one, so when you first approach it seems like these are the three eggs you’re supposed to get. However if you tried to give a black egg to the Firebird she would recoil and motion for you to go back for the red one.

6) Swaddle the second egg

We started wrapping the hidden hammock egg in tulle before placing it, so you’d only realize what it was if you were looking right at it.

The more we ran the piece, the more we realized how different each experience could be, and how our attempts to draw out the game ended up adding a much richer story. People now had to go through three trials, just like one would expect from a fairytale. The first was to figure out their task (red eggs, not black eggs). The second was to venture deeper into the forest (find the second egg). The third was a direct confrontation with Baba Yaga herself (she is holding the final egg).

What may not have been clear to the audience members is that they really were informing the whole story. If you came in with fast energy, Baba Yaga would be running around and jumping out at you. If you were really scared, Baba Yaga would be quiet, slow, and creepy. This wasn’t something we discussed with Casey ahead of time, but something all of us who played Baba Yaga naturally did. Baba Yaga is not always the villain in the original folklore, and we loved playing with that idea. If you treated her like an evil witch that’s how she would act. If you were respectful and unthreatening, she might decide to trust you.

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A handful of the things that happened in the forest:

Baba Yaga eating balloonsA young couple came in, and before I had a chance to present myself as the Firebird the woman loudly announced, “Alright, we’ve got to get some eggs.” They were ready for the game. Once inside the forest I heard her tell her partner, “We gotta get them for my friend Feeny” (as in Phoenix). They found the hidden hammock egg first, Baba Yaga began to chase them, and from somewhere in the forest I heard the woman yell, “Move, move, there’s a witch, bro!”

One young woman, after getting the second egg down from the hammock, held the black one out in front of her to ward me off like a human shield. I decided to play along with her idea, decided I didn’t want the black ones harmed. When it came time for the final egg she approached me with the black one, lowered it near the floor, and lifted her foot. It was a threat. Give her the red egg or she’ll pop the black one. It was brilliant. We traded.

Nest in lightAn older couple came in and took the longest time figuring out they needed to get the eggs. The wife realized it first, and she noticed that I (as Baba Yaga) would respond to her movement, and even chase her around if she got my attention. I heard her whisper to her husband to “get the eggs!” before getting me to follow her away from the nest. In response, he stood there. He stood right next to the unguarded nest and did nothing. She and I did this twice more before he finally caught on. They got the second egg without much trouble, and I held the third one close thinking they might offer a trade. Instead she started approaching me and making noises to see how I’d react. For a minute I thought she was going to simply ask for the egg, but instead she tried to startle me and I recoiled. The husband was standing nearby, and after watching her interact with me for a while he held his hands up slowly as if to say “I’m unarmed.” He then gently lowered and extended them, asking without words for the egg. I ignored the woman and handed it to him. If you were nice to Baba Yaga, she would give up the final egg.

When all three eggs were either found or destroyed, a white light would come up over the second lobby door and Firebird would stand by it, bowing in gratitude and showing audience members the way out. One man didn’t get this at all and rather than going out the correct door or even back through the entrance, he walked out a third door over by the booth that was only for actors.

A young woman and her boyfriend came in, him in casual street clothes and her in full Lolita fashion attire. I don’t know if it was the wedge heels or just the way she always walked, but she moved very slowly and didn’t want to run. He was able to get the first egg out without trouble, and I staked out my usual threatening spot near the second egg. He came over and stood on the other side of a plastic tree, right between me and the egg. He grabbed the side of the tree and moved it back and forth, using the plastic to block my path. No one else had thought to “trap” Baba Yaga like this, and I started clawing at the shrink-wrap like a bear. I shifted to the side and he grabbed another tree, blocking me again. The whole time, Lolita was slowly pulling the second egg down from its nest and quietly making her way out of the forest.

Forest with tulleWhen the actors were taking a break from performance we would usually sit in the booth with Casey. You could see the whole forest from up there and watch the story play out. When watching from the booth, nothing was better than the Narrators – that was the nickname we gave to anyone who narrated their own experience out loud. When Narrators talked to Firebird it was like playing charades.
“So we need to go in there and bring back the eggs.” Firebird would nod. “Will you go with us?” Firebird would shake her head.
Once inside they would talk about Baba Yaga. “There’s some kind of witch or something in here,” they yelled loudly. We loved Narrators because we could go on the whole journey with them – mistaking the black eggs, looking for the hidden one, trying to decide what to do at the end.

Casey in TulleMy friends Kristina and Joe came through when I was Firebird. Kristina was startled every time Baba Yaga made a move toward them. Once they were deep in the forest I heard the following.
Joe: “We could use the buddy system.”
Kristina: “What do you mean the buddy system?”
Joe: “You know, you don’t have to be faster than the Baba Yaga, you just have to be faster than your buddy.”

In terms of absolutely precious things people did to convince Baba Yaga to give up the final egg, no one beats my friend Brandon. I was Firebird the night he went through, and I crouched down low to watch the final interaction from between the trees. Brandon first tried to bargain, but he didn’t have a black egg so there wasn’t much he could offer. He handed Baba Yaga a bit of broken balloon, but she didn’t seem to care. He grabbed a bit of the plastic wrap from the nest and offered it, but she just laughed and gestured to the forest around her, filled with plastic. He patted his pockets for a moment, looking for anything else he could offer her. Finally he started to lower himself to the ground. It was pretty common for people to lower their stance when attempting to make a deal with Baba Yaga. At first it seemed like Brandon was just trying to mimic her movements – maybe to trick her, maybe to make fun of her. But Brandon kept going. Slowly, steadily, he went all the way to the floor until he was completely prostrate. He was lying flat on his belly, chin on the floor. Baba Yaga rose up a bit, enjoying the respect he was showing to her and the forest. She gave him the balloon.

Whispered between a young couple:
“Should we split up?”
“No, no, we should never split up.”

A woman came out of the forest in the middle of a particularly energetic run and looked up straight up at the booth. “I lost my shoe in there!” We never spoke to audience members from the booth, but in this case we assured her that we’d go get it once they were done. She nodded and started back towards the forest to join her friend, who was still inside chasing Baba Yaga. She then stopped, took off her remaining shoe, and threw it on an open shelf near the exit.

FirebirdSome people would temporarily give up. They’d go see the eggs, see Baba Yaga guarding them, then come back out to Firebird and say, “We tried, but there’s this woman there.” As Firebird, some runs you had to work harder than others. Yes I need the eggs. No I don’t want black ones. Yes I mean the red ones. Yes there are more to find. No I can’t come help you.
As Firebird, communicating ‘yes’ and ‘no’ without words is easy, but telling someone ‘I have no opinion on that idea’ is rather difficult. So questions like “Should we put the black ones back in the nest?” or “What should we do next?” were difficult to respond to. Next time you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, try expressing the sentiment “I don’t care, you do what you want,” through a series of balletic shrugs.

Forest - Setting up with LadderThe last run of the show I watched from the booth. Two young men came in and the taller of the two immediately demonstrated that he was a Narrator. He started talking rapidly to the Firebird, asking her questions and explaining to her how they needed to find some eggs. While he was asking real questions, there was humor in his voice. He was being good natured and playing along, but he wasn’t really invested. Baba Yaga began to rustle in the forest. Firebird pointed toward her eggs and the tall man said, “We should probably enter this…scary forest.” Wink wink. They approached the edge and he nudged his friend forward. “You go first,” he said, “I got you though.” Wink.
The next few minutes were fast and chaotic and full of laughs as they went through all the normal steps of the show. Each time the tall man let us know exactly what he was thinking. They found the black eggs and were confused about why she didn’t want them; they found the hidden egg and tried to get it away from Baba Yaga (they lost that second egg; it got popped in the struggle and Firebird cried). But they made it through in the end and recovered the last one by trading the black eggs. As they were walking out and Firebird was giving her thank you bows, the tall man yelled into the forest, “Goodbye misunderstood old lady! I hope you enjoy your black eggs!”
Because it was the last run of the night, we all went out to talk with them afterwards. The tall man explained that in situations like this, he uses humor to deflect so he doesn’t have to worry about things getting too scary or too intense. But when the second egg popped and he saw how sad the Firebird was, he really started to go on an emotional journey. Then at the end, seeing that Baba Yaga wasn’t just some crazy killer took him to a whole different emotional place. He said that being in the forest made him drop his usual defenses.

ForestI loved every night of the show and many people managed to get all three eggs, but if I had to pick a true winner it would be my friend Jillian. She ran the show with her fiancee Jake, and their experience was mostly typical. They each grabbed a black egg only to find they were worthless. Like most, they left them on the floor near the Firebird and went to retrieve the first two real eggs. When we got to the end I held the third egg close, thinking Jake and Jillian were the kind of people that would think to trade. Sure enough Jillian disappeared and came back with a black balloon. She held it out in front of her with a stern look on her face, pulling back slightly when I reached for it. It was a gesture I’d seen a lot from audience members: ‘you hand me yours and I’ll hand you mine.’
Slowly I gave up the red egg and grabbed for the black. Jillian disappeared with her prize and I began my usual end routine of making scary laughing noises while Firebird escorted the audience members out. I went back to the nest but when I turned around, Jillian was there again. She had the other black balloon, and was holding it out for me. I’m not sure what face I made, but it was probably one of shocked gratitude. When you’re Baba Yaga you take the way people treat you to heart. Jillian already had what she came for. All three red eggs were safe. She didn’t have to come back into the forest, but she did. After the show I told her how surprised I was that she brought me the second black egg even though she had already won.
“We had a deal,” she told me.

_______________

What you get from the forest is what you bring into it. It was such a joy to see the excitement, confusion, creativity, and fear. Everyone is precious. Humans are great. Thank you to Casey, my fellow actors, the Pocket Theater, and everyone who helped make this show possible. Let’s keep making weird things happen.Wasabi Peas!

A Book That Scares You

When I was first reading over the list of 50 challenges in the Pop Sugar 2015 Reading Challenge, there was one book I knew I had to read. It fit with:

book that became a movie
a book you were supposed to read in high school
a book you started but never finished
a book based on a true story

and most importantly of all:

a book that scares you

on-the-road-jack-kerouac-front

______

In 11th grade English we had a vibrant assistant teacher. She was a movie character come to life: the optimistic young white women sent to get the kids to realize their potential. She wanted to get us excited about learning, excited about English literature. She wanted us to try new things and experiment. So we didn’t just write book reports – we made art and journals and brought in songs and did all sorts of insanity none of us really appreciated at the time. And we didn’t really appreciate her either. I think at most I had a sort of objective appreciation. I felt like I knew who she was – the dreamer who hadn’t yet had her spirit broken by a thousand terrible school board decisions. I somehow felt like I knew more about how the world worked than she did, like I had already outgrown the naiveté that causes a person to believe they can change humanity through education. I was cynical and sixteen, and I respected her for being something else.

I remember talking a lot about the supposed American Dream in that English class, and at some point in the year we were assigned On The Road by Jack Kerouac. We learned about Stream of Consciousness writing and fell in love with it, as I assume all 16-year-olds do. We got our copies of Kerouac and we all underlined that same beautiful passage near the beginning of the book. The one I assume is underlined in every used copy of On the Road in existence.

because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!””

I wrote in books back then. I didn’t when I was young, but my best friend Sarah did all the time and somehow she convinced me it was something free spirits did. Sarah convinced me of a lot of things that free spirits did, because that’s what we both powerfully needed to be at that time. We were middle-class white girls who didn’t do drugs or have sex. But we were smart, and we had to use our minds to form our rebellion. We liked making jokes no one else understood. We liked being obsessed with things other people found old or dull. We listened to lyric-intensive songs and wrote our own poetry and once tried to convince our whole 10th grade English class that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was about Santa Clause.

We were outright brats.

I always had trouble finishing books in school. From elementary through college, I struggled with getting my reading done on time. This was strange, since as a child I always tested above my grade in reading. But as I grew older I never wanted to read what they assigned in class. And I quickly learned that I didn’t have to. I had perfect attendance, good notes, and I picked things up fast. I finished few books, but received many As.

Sarah loved On the Road, I think because part of her longed to be a drug-addled madman. There was something exotic and enticing about being a true deviant, not just playing one from the back of the class. I liked the idea myself. The drugs didn’t hold much fascination, but the dangerous and winding jog across the country did. What an amazing thing to do, being free like that. Freedom is all that matters when you’re in high school and oppressed by everything at once yet nothing in particular.

I started to read On the Road. I really loved it. I loved the way Kerouac could start a sentence with monotony and end it with poetry. I loved the way the whole thing flowed, never telling the reader what was and was not important, and glossing over what felt like monumental events. It was beautiful. I got through 72 beautiful pages.

I can’t tell you what interrupted me the first time. School work I suppose. Watching TV late at night. Being in a play. Whatever it was, I wasn’t able to finish the book before whatever test or paper concluded the unit (I did fine on that test or paper by the way. I don’t remember it of course, but I know I did fine because I was an honor student and I always did fine).

With the pressure from class gone, love of the text wasn’t nearly enough of a reason for me to keep reading. It never was. Life went on and other books I never finished came and went. That summer Sarah and I went on vacation together and I brought along my copy of On the Road with the intention of finishing it. Months had passed so I had to start at the beginning. This time I got through 98 pages.

There was a third attempt about a year later. Another vacation, another chance to convince myself I could read a book in my free time. When Sarah saw me pull out the same beat-up copy of our high school text, she laughed.

“You are never going to finish that book,” she said.

I don’t know what it was. Something about her tone. Something about being high school girls and by definition as much friends as we were enemies. Something about her expectations of me and her expectations of herself. Something. She was so sure of my failure. And she was right.

I made one more attempt a few years later before finally taking Sarah’s curse to heart. I was never going to finish this book. And if I did, it would most certainly kill me. My ignorance of the ending had turned into some demented horcrux – if I destroyed it I would destroy myself.

Years went by. Sarah and I became closer friends. Then roommates. Then things got difficult. She had troubles I couldn’t save her from. I loved my friend so much I thought maybe I could fix it all if only I stuck around long enough. It took me months to realize our relationship didn’t exist anymore. I left. It was terrible and I felt like a monster. It tore her apart and I knew it would, but I had to get out. I had to get out before it got me.

I moved into a new apartment, then a house, then a studio, then another apartment. I still had the book. The book with my notes in it. It had her notes, too. She used to scribble on my copy in class when she wanted to make it clear she wasn’t paying attention to the teacher. Alongside the underlined passages were our inside jokes. Stupid, immature, inside jokes that don’t make me laugh anymore. And that one dumb line about falling in love with the mad ones.

______

The beginning of On the Road was just as captivating this time around as it had always been. As narrator, Sal Paradise is the best mix of idiotic and wonderful. He does the stupidest things, the bravest things, the strangest things. And with each paragraph you meet a new and unusual character, the mad people that populate his life on the road. And the whole time you’re feeling that same anxious desire he feels: you can’t wait to see Dean and the gang.

But then you meet Dean. You meet the gang. And after some time with them and California you go back across the country, away from the mysterious West. And you’re outside New Jersey for awhile, and then back driving across the country, and the whole thing has so little purpose, no course to pin your anxious desires to. You start to wonder what Sal’s problem is, why he never seems to want anything enough to go after it.

As I read through the endless travels, I was driven by my own benchmarks: the old bookmarks that I’d left between the pages. There was a receipt with nothing itemized, a sad letter I’d received from a friend, an old ticket to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from 1999 that was in the book when I first bought it. With each piece of paper I got one step closer to my goal of reaching the end of this damn book. With each piece of paper, I had done just a little bit more than I’d done before.

It was difficult. Every time I sat down to read it felt like a slog. I couldn’t get into it. I wasn’t fascinated like I was when I was young, like I was when I read those first glorious chapters. I told my boyfriend about my sneaking suspicion.

“I’m starting to think maybe I just don’t like this book,” I said.

He laughed at me. “I could have told you that,” he said, “It’s taken you ten years to read it.”

____________

As I muscled through the last 100 pages, it was becoming very clear what I couldn’t stand about On the Road. Dean and Sal aren’t just unsympathetic, they are the poster children for oppression nostalgia. It’s that feeling you get sometimes when you read about how things used to be and find yourself looking back with longing, completely forgetting how grateful you are to live in a world without polio. If you want to look back at the 1950s with affection then On the Road is the perfect book for you. If you want to remember a time when people were free and loved life and roamed the land and weren’t all stuck up in cubicles, then Sal Paradise has a story for you. But a requirement for reading it is forgetting that one man’s rebellious youth often comes at the cost of another man’s liberty. To enjoy On the Road you need to be willing to overlook the powerful stack of inequalities that allowed Dean Moriarty to blow through life like a petulant three-year-old while the rest of the world suffered for his benefit. You have to assume that the 1950s were just a safer time, rather than acknowledging that men like Sal Paradise could go wherever they liked, wrapped in the secure embrace of unspoken privilege. You have to do that to enjoy On the Road. And I can’t do it anymore.

I can’t feel for Sal when he wishes he were born a ‘negro’ because they apparently live such simple and beautiful lives, while he’s stuck having to actually think about who he is and what he’s supposed to do in the world. I can’t sympathize with Dean when he goes from one woman to the next, making promises only slightly faster than he can break them, and leaving in his wake a trail of broken marriages and fatherless children. I just can’t be on their side.

I could do it back in high school because in high school I didn’t really know oppression. I didn’t know systematic injustice. In high school sexism was on the way out and racism was defeated sometime around 1959. But the person I am now has trouble revering a story about pushing the limits of human decency in the name of celebrating the straight white man’s freedom. I can’t enjoy Sal’s story because all I can see are the “colored girls” he fetishizes and abandons, all the times when he should have ended up in prison instead of my high school classroom. Liking On the Road required a certain ignorance on my part – an ignorance I am anxious to outgrow.

_______

On an unassuming Saturday morning more than 12 years after I first read the opening lines, I finally finished Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In the very back of my copy was a post-it note, folded in half so it wouldn’t stick to the pages. On it were the words “You were right Sarah, I never finished it.” I’d signed my name at the bottom. This note was my insurance policy in case I died without telling my dear friend that she was right all along. I took the note out from between the pages and threw it in the trash. Not all dreams are meant to be admired. Not all prophecies will come to pass.My Copy of On the Road

Time Off

Yesterday I forgot to write for the first time in 89 days. There was no reason, no excuse, I just completely forgot about it and then went to bed.

I’ve got a lot going on right now, all of it good, but writing hasn’t been the creative joy that it normally is. I’ve put a lot of interesting things on my plate, and I’m sure to write about many of them eventually, but the burden of getting in my words every day is getting to me. So I’m letting that go.

I’m going to take some time off. I’m not sure how much, but I know that I’ll be back to writing every day by November at the latest (to participate in NaNoWriMo) and eventually to blogging (stay tuned for the exciting adventures of Rob and Katrina in Utah). I may surprise myself and find that I don’t need much time off at all, but I have to give myself permission to stop for awhile. That’s how it works when you’re an enneagram one: you have to give yourself permission, even when what you want is what’s best for you.

 

Life Update

You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything new in almost a month. That’s because I’ve been putting all of my energy into preparation for my Great Utah Adventure, which consists of two parts.

In Part One, Rob and I drive down to southern Utah and tour through the national parks. Utah was a part of the country I missed entirely on my big trip, so I’ve decided to make up the oversight. I waited too long to plan which means we don’t have any reservations. I REPEAT, I’M GOING ON A TRIP AND I DIDN’T MAKE ANY RESERVATIONS. I’ll admit it’s stressing me out. Rob seems unconcerned.

Part Two is the General Convention for the Episcopal Church. General Convention is held once every three years, and this will be my fourth time going as an elected deputy. The convention itself is in Utah, and lasts 11 days (they’ll try to convince you it’s only nine days, but many of us have to arrive two days early for committee meetings).

I’m not sure I’ll have the time and head space to blog Part One as it happens, so I think whatever I end up writing will be posted in July or August. However blogging General Convention is something I’ve been doing for years, and will do again this time. My General Convention blog can be found here, and I try to do a post every day of the convention.

With my travels already begun and daily blogging at a different site on the horizon, this is likely to be the last post you see here for yet another month. I encourage you to check out the convention blog even if (especially if) you have no prior knowledge or interest in the Episcopal Church. I try to write it with the layperson in mind, so no matter what your background you should be able to follow it.

I’ll see you in Salt Lake City!

Sit Up Straight, Part Four: Keys to Creativity

I never learned how to type properly. I went from hunt-and-peck to 50 words per minute on my own. I started by staring at the keys. I still stare at the keys.

Let’s be clear about one thing: I have the keyboard memorized. I don’t have to look at it to find the letters. What I have to do is face it. My muscle memory for typing is so strongly tied to looking at the keys, it shuts down if I try to face the screen. I’ve tested a few different positions, with the following results:

Can Type Just Fine:

  1. hunched over the keyboard and staring at it (natural resting state)
  2. hunched but with my eyes purposely unfocused
  3. hunched with my eyes closed
  4. sitting up but with my head still tilted down

Still Works But Slower and with More Mistakes:

  1. sitting up with my head down but eyes closed
  2. facing the screen with eyes unfocused
  3. facing the screen with eyes closed

Get Stuck After Two Sentences:

  1. facing the screen and watching as I type

The profound connection my brain has made to my neck is amazing. Somehow I’ve managed to tie a physical posture, a dexterity-based task, and creative imagination together like a Gordian Knot . When I try to change one, the others shut down.

KeyboardI tried taking online typing courses, hoping I could re-learn by being taught properly. I got better at typing while looking at the screen, and thought fixing my typing posture might be simple. But when I tried keeping that posture during my daily writing session everything fell apart. I couldn’t do it. I would write a sentence or two and my brain would just stop. Normally I can write an entire post in one sitting without stopping. The words flow naturally and uncritically and I can come back to edit later. But when I was typing properly I found my internal editor could not shut up.

After much trial and error I determined the problem. When I type hunched over and facing the keys, I know the words because I am listening to them. Some voice in the back of my head starts talking, and the fingers follow. This is probably why I have such a problem with typing the same words twice or replacing words I mean to say with ones that look or sound similar. My fingers are just playing catch-up, like a personal assistant following my brain around and scribbling furious dictation.

But when I watch the words on the screen, I hear them twice. I hear them first in my head when they come to me, and again as my eyes read them on the screen. There’s an echo. Watching what I’m typing is like having that assistant quietly repeat everything I say right after I say it. It’s maddening.

So far I’ve been focusing on just losing the hunch. I still look at the keys, but I focus on keeping a soft tilt in my neck instead of rolling my whole back over. When I’m doing really well I’ll try to soften my focus and reenforce the fact that I don’t need to see the keys. This doesn’t seem to slow me down, but I keep unconsciously re-focusing my eyes and having to purposely bring the softness back.

In addition to the typing techniques, I looked up a few stretches designed for office workers who hunch over their keyboards. When I remember to do my stretches they seem to work well, but the effects are temporary and I always forget about them. I even tried putting the stretches on my task list at work, but I keep glossing over the task. At least I can soft-focus with some things.

The more research I do in my goal to correct my posture, the more I hear that general stretching and exercising are where I need to start. I’m still working on moving more, though it’s hard. I’ve had to resort to finding more challenges and schedules in order to keep myself motivated to exercise. Sometimes I look back with longing at my college days majoring in drama and dance, when exercise was a part of my grade and half my classes required me to wear yoga pants. I used to eat giant cinnamon rolls for breakfast without gaining any weight. I probably had terrible posture but I never noticed. My calves looked amazing. Sometimes I find my mind drifting off and I hear a familiar tune I’m finally starting to understand…

Sit Up Straight, Part Three: Ariel Yoga

Not long after I published my first post on learning to correct my posture, a friend told me I should try Ariel Yoga. She said the inverted postures allowed your spine to hang freely and your head to be “loose and bowling-ball-y.” She said she left the classes feeling taller and straighter, and suggested it might improve my walking posture. There was a studio she’d been going to that was only a few minutes’ walk from my apartment. I was sold.

The first class was expectedly awkward. Like any form of yoga, I spent my first day turning my neck around trying to look at the other people and confirm I was doing everything right. Ariel yoga is done using a large silk hammock to support and alter typical yoga stretches and postures. The hammocks are mostly opaque, but just see-through enough that if you press your face against them you can still see what the teacher is doing. We started class by sitting in our hammocks and doing basic stretches normally meant for the floor. Sometimes the hammock versions seemed less helpful than the standard poses, while others were leagues better in the hammock. I’ve never known a pigeon pose to stretch my hips quite as well as a pigeon pose suspended two feet off the ground.

Ariel YogaAfter a few starter stretches to get us comfortable with the hammocks, the inversions began. The most basic is called the Spiderman, in which you hang upside-down with the soles of the feet together and the knees bowed out. You know, like Spiderman. The first moment I did it I felt the effects. Because the hammock holds you up by the pelvis and not the waist or the legs, nothing is straining or yanking. Your entire spine is allowed to relax against the pull of gravity, all the way up to your tailbone. It was amazing. I felt like my lumbar spine was massaging itself.

We did a few more inversions that first day, and a few more stretches. Like any yoga class, we ended with the savasana relaxation pose. It was so amazing to be floating in the air with every part of the body evenly supported by a silk hammock. While I still I wasn’t sold on the concept, it was worth trying again. Besides, I’d bought the beginner’s two-class pass.

My second class made more sense and involved less peeking through the hammock to see what I was doing wrong. I was still in the beginner level, full of students just as clueless as myself. I already felt more confident in the hammock, and was able to try a few things I hadn’t done the first time. I bought another set of three classes, and started to move on to the All Levels classes. I did a Flying Dog series that was pleasant murder on my hip flexors. I did a one-legged balancing Sun Salute that made all other Sun Salutes seem like child’s play. And in each class I got to flip upside-down and feel the weight of my entire existence empty out of my coccyx like an hour glass. It was great.

Unfortunately, Ariel Yoga didn’t seem to have any direct effect on my posture. I still slouched, even on the short walk home from class. I did notice some positive, indirect effects. I was stronger, and there was more movement in my life. Holding myself up at the computer was getting just a bit easier, because my body didn’t feel so stuck in itself. The individual postures and inversions in Ariel Yoga didn’t matter as much as the fact that I was exercising again. I was building muscle again. I had been trying to strengthen my glutes and abs after reading about Anterior Pelvic Tilt, but my yoga practice was working out my whole body. Being inverted felt good on my back while it was happening, but the real benefit was the ab strength I used to get back up.

After a couple weeks of classes I decided that Ariel Yoga wasn’t a complete cure for my posture, but it was a fun, easy, and most importantly convenient way to increase my strength and flexibility. I loved that it took less than 10 minutes for me to get dressed and walk to the studio, and that it was challenging but never made me sweat enough to require a shower. Then I heard the news. My precious studio was moving to “a great new space” in Belltown. I’d either have to pay for the bus or pay for parking, and both would require at least a 20 minute travel commitment to ensure I got to class on time. My perfect little yoga situation was gone.

And so the search continues.