“Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell…”
~From “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim
I come from a family of words. They were my legacy far more than money or physical characteristics. My mother and grandmother were writers (poets and journalists), and my grandfather was a scientist who loved to write long missives, reports, and papers. They, and my father, also all loved to read the words of others. When my sisters and I cleared out my parents’ house when they were gone we filled the garage with shelves and boxes of books to sell at the garage sale or donate afterwards. This was after the family had taken what we wanted (hundreds each). When I was a child, not only was I read to often and urged to read and write the minute I knew how, but Grandpa used to pay me to read long, dry, scholarly textbooks or memorize state capitals. He’d take me to lectures at the University of Utah, where he taught (because his only child, my mother had been raised as a mini adult, so he felt his granddaughters deserved no less), then walk me around the campus, expecting me to memorize the labels on the trees and bushes.
The day I watched my mother’s organs fail and her spirit slip from her frail, cancer, diabetes, and heart-disease-ridden body I rushed back to her house and tore through her bedroom in search of her. I needed her words, for I knew that’s where I’d find her. My whole life Mama kept a small, neat white notepad or scrap pieces of paper carefully cut to the same size for her lists. She made the usual “To Do” lists, as well as lists of every possible thing that interested her (and I don’t recall anything that ever DIDN’T interest her). There were lists of places to travel, things to wear, things to eat, things to cook, things buy, things to read, things to say, things for her DAUGHTERS to wear, read, do, say, etc.. All have been interesting to read since her death, because they tell a bit about her. She also kept a diary, but, sadly, it was not the detailed stories one might expect of a professional writer, but, rather, more apt to list how many jars of peaches she canned or if she went to church that day. The telling, best words, were the ones written on those tiny note papers and slipped randomly between the lists. There she had titles for future poems, lines for poems or even nearly complete but not-yet-published ones, or sometimes just thoughts and rants on a variety of subjects. She never had Facebook or Twitter, so she poured her heart into those little notepads.
Before we sold their house I’d grab a box and read Mama’s notepads every time I was in town. When we finally had to pack up the last remnants, I grabbed the extra boxes of Mama and Grandma’s poetry and Mama’s little notepads. I’ve yet to finish the sorting , and I really rather dread it, as I can’t bear to dispose of the “less important” word, and thusly pieces of my family.
So I understand that words have power.
Writing always came easily to me, as well, though, unfortunately ,without the ability to be brief that the ladies before me possessed. I was often saved in classes by being able to whip out a ten-page essay at a moments notice, ‘though admonished a bit in a professional setting when I disliked supplying only “bullets” to my managers. Early on I learned that my viewpoints and experiences, however, were markedly different from most of those around me. I got my first lessens in “Things We Don’t Talk About”, and over time more and more of my words, my stories, became contained in essays I wrote in private and showed to no one but the occasional friend. I learned to pour my feelings into visual Art I created, roles I played, or, best of all, plays I directed. My words were still there, but filtered through the language of other authors or the mouths of other performers. Almost no one but other directors realizes the extent of their input.
Sometimes the things I’ve learned not to talk about relate to my religion. In a college Playwriting class I wrote a One-Act using characters who happened to be Mormon. Some were “good”, and some…not so much. I wrote it that way because I grew up in a world where most of the people I met were LDS. Like most other groups of people, many were excellent human beings and good, nice people. Some were not. Those are the sorts of stories I knew. And many of them were dang INTERESTING stories.
When the class read through my completed play most liked it. What broke my heart was the friend whose critique was “What a good play. Too bad it can never be produced. Mormons will be offended and non-Mormons won’t be interested in LDS stories.”
In the three decades since that class I have written other plays. I’ve finished none. My words made people uncomfortable, so they were never staged. I teach classes, give talks, do programs, often sharing fairly vulnerable stories, but they are in closed settings, with limited audience. Still, there has been a cost, with some people turning from me and me losing callings. But the biggest stories stayed untold. Some have been funneled into fictionalized versions for possible novels, but they, also are unfinished.
Along the way I learned there were other things “We Don’t Talk About”. Miscarriage, infertility, family members with mental illness, suicide attempts, physical ailments, bankruptcy, loss. Myriad facts and stories confided to me or wearing upon my own life that must never, ever, be mentioned in public. Because they embarrass. Because they make people sad. Because they make people afraid. Because they make people doubt. Because they make people uncomfortable. They built up along my spine until my head could barely raise at all. Stones to carry but never share. My only lifeline in the drowning floods was to turn these stories into words. I started to cast them out, like wildflower seeds, not caring whether they took root but just needing to let the wind carry them to possibility. I started this blog half-heartedly. I added more personal stories to lessons. I joined groups on Facebook.
I started to feel a little bit free. Tides had turned. A Mormon ran for president. A musical about my people won the Tony. One of the Facebook groups I joined seemed miraculously filled with people who also had complicated, painful, often Mormon, always INTERESTING stories, too. I learned that maybe, just maybe I COULD talk about some things, tell some stories. That being different, and asking questions was okay. After decades of too much swallowing my thoughts, I could form the words.
Then it hit. People started being excommunicated from my church again for their questions. Essays were published that admitted some truths but danced circles around others. And we all started to learn about race and privilege. The safe place I’d found seemed often a hotbed of accusations and discord. I wanted to learn. I read as much background as I could. I listened to podcasts. I attended seminars. I tried to “check my privilege” every time I spoke and to label triggers. I’ve never wanted to knowingly cause pain to others. But every day there is more privilege and more triggers. More things to never, ever mention. Because we all have some types of privilege and some types of pain. And we SHOULD be considerate of other people’s pain. Some is more raw, new, or extreme than others and deserves special limitations. I want to be kind, broad-minded, an ally where ever possible.
Yet I’m starting to suffocate. Once again I am swallowing more than I speak. Just as my stories were starting to find words I am hearing that only certain ones should be allowed. Don’t get me wrong. Nothing I’ve said has been really shut down or attacked much. I haven’t got to my deepest stories yet, and I tend to observe first, so it is the comments I see in various groups, blogs, and threads in reaction to other people’s words that disturb me. I understand both sides. I really do. I may belong to many kinds of privileged classes, but I also know all about being the “other”. I won’t claim it to be on the level with some, for it has generally not threatened my life. But I was the bullied child crying in the elementary school bathroom because I was tall, klutzy, and asthmatic. In Junior High a back brace was added to my charms. I had friends, successes, and moments of joy. Still, I was always the outsider. When I tried to kill myself at age 30 it was on the night when I realized that I didn’t actually belong with the wonderful gay men who had been my constant companions for many years, not even as much as with the conservative straight LDS friends with whom I’d grown up. Later in life other personal and health situations “othered me”. So I do not wish that feeling on anyone. I also have many things that are triggering to me. Miscarriage and fertility issues are big for me, able to send knives to my heart in a single instant. Somewhat related, I also get sensitive about only children and lack of proximity to family. I found myself crying in a restaurant the other day just because an adorable little boy was having a family birthday party at his table. It wasn’t even a big crowd. But suddenly I thought of all the birthdays my now almost-18-yr.-old has had with no relatives to gather and celebrate him other than my husband and myself. My sister has giant outdoor parties for large numbers of relatives for every birthday. Crowds appear for every recital or ball game. My son just had us, except for the times my parents could fly over when he was little, before death and illness took them. Silly thing. I LIKED that that child was happy. I would never want him to not have that just so that I didn’t have to remember and have pain. But it WAS a trigger. So I understand the trend.
It’s just that the thing that overwhelms me is that we ALL have SO MANY TRIGGERS, and SO MUCH PRIVILEGE. YES. We need to work on it, learn about it, and whittle it down. But as you go through life you lose things and you gain things. The ones you lose usually hurt, and the ones you gain may give you a privilege over someone. I’m beginning to be at a loss as to where we draw the line. It feels like I’ve just finally been told that it’s okay to question authority, my religion, patriarchy, and most social structures—but wait, just make sure you never mention another whole list of “Things We Don’t Talk About”. Breathe, but not if it’s too close to someone else’s air. Speak, but only if you have memorized and can use our newly stripped and approved Thesaurus. Release your words. Just not all of them.
And I KNOW it isn’t the same as the repression of the past. That this quieting is even supposed to be for a noble purpose. It may even sometimes succeed. But if we look at the root of it, at the beginnings of the old chains, couldn’t the people who forged them have initially claimed the same? I’m just not sure at what point one kind of theoretical book-burning is much different from another. Words DO have power, but it isn’t all bad. Even when the words are wrong. Even when they cause pain. That’s not to say it’s OKAY to cause pain ON PURPOSE, but sometimes isn’t empathy and even a call to action purchased at the cost of some pain? If we don’t ask questions (because maybe we didn’t know the right places to “do our own work” or didn’t even realize there was work to do–through no fault of our own, but just culture and experience), or tell our stories even if they are opposite to someone else’s experiences or triggering to someone, how the hell WILL we ever learn about each other? I won’t care about what I haven’t seen and heard.
I find myself utterly confused, because telling stories has been my world, and all the great literature, plays, operas, or visual art pieces tell stories with conflict. Many of the best are somewhat dark, dealing with uncomfortable, inappropriate, triggering material. According to the current lense much of them shouldn’t exist. Several years ago I had an experience with a play that I honestly didn’t realize was triggering or a part of rape culture. Unknowingly I caused pain to someone I cared about, and I then was harmed as well. I was Directing the musical “The Fantasticks” for the grand opening of a wonderful new performing arts center my Theatre group had won a state grant to build. It was a great honor, and I fully expected it to set the precedent for continuing quality productions that would draw people to our little town and allow us to fund future productions. There were problems:building delays, my father’s sickness necessitating a quick trip out of state that interrupted rehearsals, etc. Still, all expectations were for a successful run. I’d chosen the script for it’s good music, small cast, minimal set and costuming needs, it’s wonderful theatricality, and it’s theme of being careful what you want, because it isn’t always what you think and sometimes the best things are close to home. The fact that it accomplished the theme with an abduction, though pretend, and a seduction by an older man didn’t strike me as a problem because it was all in fun and ended well. I even emphasized some of the darkness in the script. My small town had few male actor/singers, so when the most talented one I found was a white-haired (though quite handsome) bearded man in his fifties I cast him as El Gallo, to pretend to abduct and romance Luisa (whose character was 16). And then there was the Rape Ballet. The scene in which Luisa is abducted by El Gallo and a couple of inept, silly aging actors paid by Luisa and her neighbor/boyfriend’s parents, is called The Rape Ballet. It is not about what we call rape in this day and age. The song makes it quite clear that it is referring to the archaic meaning of rape, which is to abduct. It is a silly, truly amusing song, about the various types of abductions the actors could create for various prices. At no point in the words of the song or my staging of the kidnapping make any reference to Luisa being actually injured or assaulted. But the words. They describe “…such a pretty rape…”.
During our first read-through of the script a couple actors did express concern that people might be bothered by the song, but not from a triggering aspect, just from a sexually-repressed idea that a word now related to sex shouldn’t be spoken in any context. I really didn’t think it would be a big issue, since the play is over 40 yrs old and has been produced thousands of times throughout the world. I had initially seen it at BYU so I couldn’t imagine it could be thought controversial. My first inkling that there was a problem was when my usual accompanist told me she couldn’t be involved with anything to do with that play. That’s all she told me at the time. Two months later, just before we were to finally open, after many building and other delays, after rehearsing in a not-yet-heated building, often surrounded by stacks of insulation and building materials, and experiencing myriad other struggles, she started a movement to get us shut down. It turned out that she had been raped, and though she knew the play and that it was not ABOUT that type of rape, just seeing the ads for it brought her flashbacks. She felt it was making fun or light of the trauma that she and so many women have suffered by making wordplay with the term rape.
She didn’t succeed in shutting us down. I wrote a carefully worded warning and apology that we had published in the local paper, explaining the use of the word and the references in the play and expressing our condolences to any who had suffered rape or who had been hurt by our choosing to produce the play. It opened and had good reviews from those who saw it. Just not to the size of houses it might have had without the campaign against it, and the finances of the Theatre Company never quite recovered all the way. I remember during one of the dress rehearsals sitting at the back of the theatre crying, because the show was so good, but it wasn’t going to have many people see it, and we’d had to go through so much. I wanted to know why I couldn’t have one moment of joy and pride unfettered by worry of finances, willingness in the future for the Board of Directors to let me take chances, and especially the pain I’d unknowingly caused my friend the accompanist. But then I realized that that’s the deal. The world is full of, and needs, its opposites. We can have our moments of joy, but we have to accept the pain that lies next to it.
I still love that play. I also now realize it should probably never be produced again. Which is SAD. Because it has such moments of beauty, and the end result of what it portrays is a very moral one. But in this day and time the word rape and the images of abduction and control by an older man are too closely tied to rape culture and would trigger far more people than the few who noticed in that tiny town. I accept that.
I just find myself lost now, as to how many works of Art must be squelched, how many words swallowed. Tonight I went to see the movie of “Into the Woods”. I love Stephen Sondheim and much of the cast, and found the production values well done. My heart was tender not just by the story itself, but because the stage production of that musical was the last show I saw in Salt Lake City before I moved to California. I was poor, and saving for the move, so my ticket was a gift from two of my best friends as a going away gift. Both of them are now dead from AIDS, so seeing the movie brought them to mind. The story itself made me a bit weepy because it deals with death and loss. Like “The Fantasticks” it is about being careful with your dreams and choices, but it also teaches you to be careful with your words. It does it in a way that is beautiful–but not pretty.
So I find myself standing in a forest alone once again with my own stories and words. I do not want them to be knife cuts. But, see, I’m not sure I want them to be feathers, either. I am not entirely convinced that complete consensus or perfectly smooth edges are to be valued. In Acting classes I was told that what’s interesting about the mirror is the crack in it. I no longer wish to be a perfect object hanging on a wall. Perfect mirrors show you no nuance, no new possibilities. I think we as people, and all of us as society can grow and progress best by WEARING our scars, and looking at each others’ full on. TELL me your pain, and let me tell you mine. Let’s cry TOGETHER. I may trigger you. You may trigger me. Let’s tell each other when it happens, and apologize, and admit it was shitty that any of us had to deal with any of it. Then tell me about your glory, your moments of joy. Tell me what breaks you and what mends you. I want to hear it all. I want to tell it all. I want to see your homeland, and taste your food, and try on your clothes. I don’t want to steal them, and I’ll try to ask first, but they help me to learn, to realize we’re all different, but all OKAY. I want to breathe air in open meadows, and when I swallow I want it to be food, or sweet water. Not words. I want the same for you. Is there not SOMEWHERE, some high mountain or deep ocean, where my words could be written, my stories told? Must I be afraid to even secure them in a bottle on some forgotten sea or fold them and bury them deep beneath rocky soil, for fear that they might make the person who could find them uncomfortable. Must I be forever whispering my words in the deepest forest, alone?
I don’t have an answer. I want to learn. I want to be civil, and respectful, and kind. I also need to breathe, and I hope to create and share what I might have to contribute to the world. Forgive me as you see me gasping a bit in the dark ’til I figure it out.
“…Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white…”
“Careful the Tale you tell. That is the spell…”
“What can you say that no matter how slight, won’t be misunderstood?…”
“Careful before you say ‘Listen to me'”
~From “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim