The fundamentals of dreams, art & work

Last night I dreamed only about my job at the Neos, a position that I am officially leaving so that I can stay here in Cambodia longer. (Bilal wrote this kind post about my departure — and hey, here’s the listing!) It’s been much more than just a job, and I’m still having a hard time wrapping my mind around moving on.

I first walked into the Neo-Futurarium when I was 18, a freshman at Northwestern. We took a cab from the train and stood in a long, freezing cold line, and I was pretty sure we’d be drive-by shooting victims. This was 1998. I remember everything about that night, climbing the stairs to the second floor, ordering a brownie from one of the cast members, settling into a dark theater and then watching the show’s chaos unfold. Afterwards there was a talk with the cast, and someone said they’d started working there just by volunteering to answer the phones.

Mental note, I thought: Someday, volunteer to answer the phones.

My love was so acute that I interviewed two cast members who were working lame day jobs on my campus, for the school paper. (The basic thrust of the article was: Why are these awesome geniuses pushing papers all day in the Classics department?)

Fast forward. After college, I worked in nonprofit organizations and learned that I loved the hum of getting-things-done for good causes. But I was tired from working in impoverished places. Bone tired, most days. I decided to take some classes at The Neos. I took classes with the same vigor that some people apply to quitting drinking or beating cancer. I was on a mission to revive my little soul.

And it worked. I met a guy named Ian there, whose piece performed on the rooftop of the theater was so powerful that I remember the pacing of those last lines, as the sun set over the neighborhood. With every class I started to uncurl, wrote about what made me itchy and sad and weird. I fell for the place, for everything, down to the painted clouds on the ceiling of the lobby.

I was so glad that I’d studied nonprofit management when, as it turned out, they needed a managing director for their nonprofit theater. I started working there. Working, working working. As fate would have it, I was in fact now working with my old (brilliant) classmate Ian, who’d gotten another staff job there at the exact same time.

For four years, I didn’t want to go anywhere. (Well, except for those times I wanted to run like hell from whatever plague was descending like gnats upon our collective to-do lists.) But when I hit thirty, I experienced… how do you say? A bit of a crisis. There’s so much to do, out in the world. How do you leave a place you love to explore and find more that you could love? Is that possible? Foolish? Borderline insane? My daily life and, in fact, identity had become entwined with a building, a neighborhood, and a group of people, and I feared there was no way I could ever try anything new. I actually had the good fortune to be able to think, “Ok. I’m working my dream job. Every day I walk into the place I’ve wanted to be since I was 18. Where do I go from here?”

My first thought was that I just needed a change of scenery. When I was accepted to this program in Phnom Penh, I thought it could be a temporary glimpse at what else is out there. I was excited about coming for two months, but also aware I might hate it. In the first couple of weeks, more than once I seriously calculated the cost/benefit of jumping on the first plane back to the U.S.

And then, in March, right when I should have been preparing to return, something shifted. I realized I’d stopped freaking out about getting lost, not knowing the language, not having any privacy in the dorm, not knowing anyone at all. I’d met people, found my way, found my tongue. I felt that same feeling of uncurling, relaxing into a slightly new shape that seemed… right. It seemed… me.

And so I am staying longer here, and I can’t be in two places at once. Although – lord, would I like to be.

I’ve learned a lot. A million things. But I want to capture the very, very basics. Top five fundamental lessons from spending every day for more than four years at your favorite nonprofit theater collective:

1) You can be creative and still have your act together. In fact, it’s even easier to be successful if you’re not scattered and Too Creative to Use a Day Planner. Use a day planner. Be ambitious and hard-working. A successful creative career doesn’t just happen. The artists I admire most work tirelessly, and watching them has pushed me to do the same. Art doesn’t have to be a fluffy hobby, even if that’s what your mom thinks it is.

2) Sometimes it seems like the world wants you to fail… disregard. Working in the arts — as an arts manager or an artist — requires hard choices and a lot of bootstrapping. Hustling, all the time, every day, piecing together little gigs that fall through. Personalities clash over intensely beloved projects. You are eating seaweed salad because it’s all you can afford at the sushi place. But just because it sucks, it doesn’t mean you should quit.

3) Be aware of context, and then mess with it. It’s all arbitrary anyway. That flashlight was just a flashlight until by blinking it on and off in darkness during your play you make us feel deep sadness, or belly-shaking laughter. It works, in art. But it also works in life. Bad situations become opportunities if you can re-contextualize them and step back long enough to see things for what they really are. No one’s done x, y, z before because it seems so improbable? Do it first.

4) Learn your quirks and follow their lead. People always say “be yourself” — but I think they mean be comfortable at cocktail parties. Be radically you. Find your weirdest, strangest bits and celebrate them, hold them up to the world, along with a middle finger. Run hard towards what makes you different — it gives everyone else around you the glorious permission to do the same.

5) Take care of each other. Community conquers so much. You lost your job, your kid got sick, your car’s broke down, your bike’s been boosted, your ass is grass. A strong community is the best insurance policy against ending up in the gutter. Find a web of people who have your back and don’t let them down.

It’s this last one that’s been rough. Leaving what I consider to be a crackerjack web of my favorite people ever. And so I guess there’s the sixth lesson, which I am trying to learn now. That if you have the luxury of trying something new, try it. Do it. Learn it. Explore it. Someday there may be more obligations on your plate. Keep learning; keep growing — however you can, however you need, even when it’s scary.

Bird lessons in two parts

An exercise in my students’ workbook posed the following problem:

Carrier pigeons are ______________ (still/use) in some countries today.

They were all having trouble with this until I realized they didn’t know what a carrier pigeon was. So I tried to explain.

Afterwards, they all wanted to know which countries still use carrier pigeons. I had to say I didn’t know. And they said the girl looked a lot like me, because of the skirt.

Big news: I was asked to extend my residency here by two months, and I accepted. This is something I would prefer to write individually to every person in my life, but I’ve put off saying anything here long enough. If you keep reading, you’ll note that I ain’t back in Chicago, and you’ll put two and two together.

I love it here. I’m doing good work (other than my somewhat shoddy explanation of carrier pigeons). But this choice creates more choices. I’ve been so torn up about the entire thing that yesterday I felt compelled to visit an otherwordly adjudicating body. I always feel more balanced after visiting a church or a temple, no matter the religion. (For further spirit-lifting, I changed into my favorite extra-soft sky-blue t-shirt.)

At the city’s biggest temple, Wat Phnom, I expected peace and repose, a walk around the gardens and then maybe staring at Buddha while kneeling on a straw mat. I’d sit in the back, like I always did in Catholic church, and pretend to know the drill. But instead the whole place was under construction and any available straw mat was already packed with kneelers. No blending, not today.

I kept walking, amongst incense burning here and there, plates of bananas and pink dragon fruit set out as offerings… I wandered up and down the stone steps, thinkng I’d have to stop soon before someone asked me to explain all this circular pacing. Then on the roof I found a young woman holding a bamboo cage full of beautiful birds, the size of tiny sparrows but irridescent — inky blue and glossy green.

I knew you could set birds free up here but had always dismissed it as a weird touristy scam. Now, this morning, I really wanted to do it. Drug-deal style, I pressed a dollar into her palm and was expecting just one bird, but maybe got the special — in an unbroken motion she pressed two live birds into mine.

I thought they’d alight on my wrist like in Cinderella, but instead they stayed docile and felt warm, hamster-sized in my fist. I thought of birthday candles neglected and dripping onto cake and panicked: I’ll crush them! I should make a wish or something! I heard myself say: “I don’t know what to do!” — meaning, how do I release them? Just open my fingers? But really, that was the best prayer, the closest to the truth. The woman’s eyes met mine as we both giggled — her (probably) at me, and me at the thrill as they burst from my hand and soared off.