9/28/2009

Again!

Performing impromptu in front of friends and family has never been one of those things I enjoyed. Like a lot of FilAm kids (and likely kids from all parts of the world) my parents and relatives expected me to be able to perform at the drop of a hat. There was a certain prestige to having a child who could knock out Fur Elise perfectly at age 9 or be able to sing and sway to the old standards as well as put on the attitude for the newer songs. "Pressure to perform" took on a whole new meaning as child after child was called forward to do their best act for visitors.

My cousins and I balked at the repeated requests to perform for our grandparents and soon, the requests ended all together. Around middle school, my cousin discovered stage magic and I watched in horror as my father picked apart the performance, guessing how things were done even before the tricks were complete. I don't remember my cousin performing for us ever again even though I know he loved to juggle and do close tricks. I do remember being at my father's brother's house and being prodded to play something on the piano. Even though we didn't know each other well, I knew instinctively that my latest memorization of a Bach piece wasn't going to go over well with my hip-cool cousins and when they tried to sing one of the top hits of the time together, we felt embarrassment for each other.

The worst moment was trying to cajole my cousins on my mother's side to sing "Rainbow Connection" at our grandparent's 50th anniversary. We didn't want to be on display, didn't choose the song, or hated that we were never asked if we wanted to perform, it was just assumed we would. Didn't matter. It had to be done and we did it. A few cousins threw in songs of their own and we were a hit. We vowed never to do it again. We've all resisted at one point or another, and oddly, we've all volunteered to play or sing at family events. Well, most of us... actually, not me.

I freeze up in front of my family of origin. I feel the iciness of reproach on my shoulders, hear every wrong note played or sung, and most of all, I feel judged before I can even attempt to play. Performance anxiety doesn't even come close to describing the feeling. It's a combination of being on display, vulnerable to the insecurities of others who must criticize in order to feel important, vulnerable to other's fears that they didn't raise me right=bright=prodigy, and ultimately that I would, once again fail to meet the expectations and worst of all hear "Well, it was okay. Really. Good try," delivered with a distant look betraying a desire to high-tail it out of the hall before anyone else noticed all the flaws and trumpeted their children's triumphs instead.

Bitter? Not really. It's what it was. It still hurts and I flinch at the thought of performing in front of family. When the potential for stage time opens, I have to remind myself that I can choose to perform or not at any given moment, that I can give into the urge to unreel a tale for anyone willing to listen and it will be okay. Storytelling - that's easy. Singing, a little bit more difficult, but after singing show tunes two hours straight at the RWW residency last August after not singing for .... a couple of decades... I can say that it's easier than it was, but still harder than Telling.

But playing the piano, with all that piano playing straight-A-Asian-girl garbage and the fact I haven't touched keys, really practiced since before I stopped singing in church choirs. Just a little on my mom's piano... when I knew everyone was watching TV and I just had to feel the smoothness of the ivory, the resonance of the notes through the wood, the softening of tones with the press of a pedal... but nothing much more.

Until last night. My husband and daughters were there. My friends were there. The piano was there. And like we say in Improv, the moment became "Yes, and..."

I didn't plan it, which is good because then I didn't stress about it. The moment flowed from all beautiful music and stories Swil Kanim shared with my friends and family. My husband and daughters had each taken a turn playing tunes on their instruments, spur of the moment performances they chose because they wanted to share their gifts too. And the piano was open, keys white and smooth, and I thought, why not? SK had told us the story of the watershed moment in his life when he realized that he needed to play his own music to feel fulfilled. And I have this one song I wrote a long time ago...

So I started. I almost didn't. But I wanted him to hear my song, wanted to give back a little of the gift he'd given me. My hands shook and I couldn't remember where to put my hands. I stumbled within five or six notes. I rubbed my hands on my jeans and thought "Again!" - that Improv permission to start over. Again, I placed my hands on the keys and I got a little farther in the song. Again I faltered. I thought I should stop and give an apologetic shake of my head. Too rusty, I'd explain. It had been too long. But I didn't want to. I asked myself, do you want to do this? Keep going? Yes, I said, and I rubbed my palms on my jeans, put my hands back up and started again. Got a little farther. Shifted the song to account for the unexpected key change, shook my head when I hit a wrong note, muttered an apology and then kept on going.

There's a point in every performance, no matter how long or short that a performer realizes it's not going to get any better, but it's not going to get any worse. Swil Kanim came and sat next to me. I stifled a flinch, my reactions of yesteryear, but then I allowed his curiosity and openness to create a positive space, because I knew that was what he wanted to do. I breathed and chose Yes, Again. And again, and again, until the very last chord.

When I finished, I realized I played the best I could, didn't give up, and existed in a space where I was totally safe even though I trembled at the core of myself. I was repatterning my past, choosing a new future.

I don't know if I could play the piano again in front of others, but I give myself a better than good chance I might. Ultimately, though, I brought choice into something that was so painful before and that's started a change and healing within me.

All for the feel of the keys, for the song needing to be shared, and wonderfulness that is friends and family gathered in unconditional love.

9/19/2009

Story Bag

Every Teller has a story-bag, a list of stories they know and can Tell at the drop of a hat. I've been performance storytelling about 3-4 years now, but my bag is still pretty small.

There's my favorite - Alitaptap and the Sky King, The Thimble/The Axe, Marcella's Three Tests, Penduko and the Snails, Heron and the Hummingbird, The First Woman, Pina and the Pineapple, The Sea, Sky, and Wind, Bathala and the Coconut Tree, Juan Tamad and the Market Horse, the Battle of the Wind and Rain.

There's the ones I think I've only ever told one time - The Golden Rooster and the Greedy King, Seven Silly Brothers, the Hummingbird and the Carabao, The Three Brothers and the Princess, the Rainbow Princess, The woman who left her jewels in the sky - the endings of a couple of these are really vague in my mind.

That's over a dozen. Hrm. Not bad actually. More than I thought.

Last night's Tell at the Library was pretty cool - I wore my T'boli garb, played my gong, and told the Bathala story for the first time. The garb really set the tone and the rhythms on the gong I used seemed to work well. I discovered, though, that my vocal pitch drops when I'm thinking too much. That's good to know for next time. One little boy, though, said the story was sad, and I guess it was - I was thinking about Silversong, had dedicated the performance to her memory. And the story is about the death of a friend. I'll rework it to bring out the caretaking more.

There was time for me to tell two, so I did Alitaptap which got a few laughs. The surprises of the night were the presence of SheilaG, my improv teacher, and Jason Quick, a local juggling performer and motivational speaker. Jason had seen my FB notice about the event and yep, I got all fan girl on him a bit too. He's a one-armed juggler, for goodness sake, and a terrific speaker. I'm hoping he comes back and joins the Guild. It would be great to have him on board.

So, between the garb (gonna have to figure out how to secure my malong better), SheilaG, and JasonQ being there, I was more than a bit nervous, but it seemed to go well. Kel and Doug were the other Tellers and it's always fun to share the stage with them.

I've been thinking about meaning lately, how to bring a story full round to a meaning, how to hint at it in the beginning without overplaying the hand, or overstating the obvious. In improv, though, we're supposed to be obvious and trust that the connections and meanderings will just happen.

Maybe this entry is about how I under-regard myself because my progress is slow, at least to my thinking. There have been artists who talk about each moment they perform is the culmination of their lives up to that moment, they say "People ask me how long it took for me to write this book/poem/song and I tell them, all my life, up to that moment." And I think I look at myself when I'm at the page and I think "I've lived my whole life up to now to make /this/?" Implying that what art I've made isn't worth all that life, or maybe that my life hasn't been all that much if the results are so poor on the page.

An artist once told me never to write about weakness in my blog, to be overly self-conscious. I've tried to do that, but it's a sort of censorship that today, I guess I just can't buy into. I'm hard on myself, I get that, but what's hard is that I can't see anything different, even after realizing I look at my work and my 'career' so pessimistically.

But I look to the start of the entry to find the ending - my story bag /is/ small, but I've given 3 dozen performances over the last three years and that's pretty cool. I even remember people telling me they liked my stories, gotten high-fives from tellers I respect and learn from. And I'm not likely to stop Telling anytime soon. There's always next month's third Friday tell, and a Scary Stories Tell sometime around Hallows (I'm thinking an awsang story might be in order... gotta brush up on my scary screetches and old women poses...), plus I think a Tell near Winter's Solstice where I'll try my hand at the Bathala story once more... or something about the return of the sun... seasonal stuff is hard with Filipino stories since the seasons are so different there than here.

I think my writing is the same. I got a collection of poems out to a couple of contests this week. I've got the start of a couple of pieces for my packet due in a few days. I've got work to do, more than enough ideas.

So maybe for me, it's not a matter of figuring out why I'm overly pessimistic, but to just keep following my art, see where it takes me, set some small, reasonable goals, and to just remember to have fun.

9/08/2009

Something Something

These are the things you should know.

The house on 10th Avenue was once green with white trim, but I remember it as yellow with brown trim. Yellow because it was Father's favorite color. Yellow because he was born in November. Yellow because it was his color.

The shag carpet was gold because topaz is gold, because topaz is the birthstone for November, because his birthday is in November. Even Mother's Singer was a Gold Touch, best on the market, because that's what was best for our house.

They told me, though, that they covered the hardwood floors with carpet because my knees got cold when I crawled on them. They told me that my father quit smoking when my mother was pregnant with me, that he tore a pack of cigarettes in his hands, that he craved tobacco so bad, he dug cigarette butts out of the ashtray for one last hit.

But these were things before I was born, before I had memory, and all that was left were the yellow birch leaves in Fall, shimmering in the wind, falling, cluttering up the green, green lawn.

9/07/2009

Meeting Felix Solomon

Like all good moments, I didn't go looking to meet Felix Solomon the other day. I meant only to reward myself with a gourmet mini-cupcake after a good writing session at the local cafe.

Woods Coffee sits on the corner of Railroad and Chestnut, a half block down from the Saturday Market. As I wrote, Market patrons milled between stalls of fresh basil and mushrooms, handcrafted baskets and lotions, and food booths boasting everything from Hawaiian Shave Ice to Indian curry to Mexican tacos. A late summer wind whipped through intermittently, a sure sign of rain later in the evening. I sat in an overstuffed leather chair and wrote about encountering a Euro-American, a blond-haired, blue-eyed slip of a woman sporting a white t-shirt with "Got white privilege?" printed in black letters. It was almost too easy to write that draft.

So it didn't take much self-convincing to take a stroll around the long way to the cupcake stand, then circle back to my car. Along the way, I tipped a bagpipe player (just returned from a festival in Scotland where he placed 6th overall) and a young violinist (bound for his first out-of-state competition) both busking for the day. After rewarding myself with a dark chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream frosting, I merged with the crowd picking up a basket of golden chanterelles for orange sauce later, carrots for lunches and a half dozen of my favorite Wenatchee peaches as I walked along. Turning from the fruit stand, I glanced over a small card table burdened with Salish wood carvings and small fliers I recognized from the night previous. At his First Friday concert, Swil Kanim handed out the small bookmark fliers advertising an event benefitting Felix Solomon's latest project for Maritime Park. I slowed my steps, fascinated by the model of the proposed carving that sat on the table. Shaped like a fisherman's gaffe, figures rode a longboat seaward, the prow of the boat bearing the traditional marking of the Lummi tribe.

A woman behind the table offered me a flier and knowing the cost of promo materials, I shook my head. Her face clouded with perceived rejection.

"I have one," I explained. "I'll be there." (Sunday, Sep. 13, 2pm Maritime Park)

She smiled and a man beside me started telling me about the raffle they would have to support the carving and maintenance of the finished pole. He showed me pictures of more carvings and a talking stick topped with image of a man's head, his flat cone shaped hat indicating he was a Keeper, a spirit who watches and protects.

My heartbeat quickened - it occurred to me that this couple might know Felix Solomon and maybe even how I might talk to him in person. I've been searching for a local Native carver since writing my novel draft three years ago. One pivotal character is a Salish carver and I could only glean so much about native carving from books and museum excursions. If I could actually /meet/ a carver, then I thought I'd begin to understand what makes a carver do the art they way s/he does, and make the character come alive on the page.

The man and I chatted about Swil Kanim (who'll be performing at the benefit) a bit and I looked at the table again. Near the photo album was a copy of a local magazine featuring Felix Solomon, his face and studio right on the cover. I'd read the article when it first came out, tried to find contact information about him on the 'net, but came up empty handed.

I glanced at the man talking to me, blinked, and looked back at the magazine.

"Wait," I said, looking at the man closely, recognition uncovering my eyes. "Are you... Felix Solomon?"

He chuckled. "I am."

I was floored. After years of start-stop research and dead-end leads, here was a Salish carver standing right there talking to me, trying to convince me to come out and support his work, when I had only hoped to maybe see him in the distance at the forthcoming event.

I'd like say I was smooth, explaining my project eloquently, speaking in humble, unobtrusive tones. Nope. Fangirl to the last, complete with "WOW! You're /him/! You're the guy from the magazine article I've been looking for! WOW!"

He grinned with bemusement at my enthusiasm. I, on the other hand grinned stupidly at the gift Grace was providing.

You'd think there'd be no coming back from that sort of... expressiveness, but I figured, if this was my one shot at talking with a contemporary Salish carver, I was going to ask for more.

"I was hoping to talk with you about your work for a book I'm writing," I said. He gave me his card and I promised to email him, then I noticed that his studio address was listed there too.

"Could I visit you---?" "You can come by the studio---" Came at the same moment.

Finally, after months of self doubt about the novel, one of my characters was there, in the flesh, or at least the flesh and blood carver who's personality and experience would influence my character's development was there, giving me a hug, promising to show me his work personally.

Better than a chocolate mini-cupcake with buttercream frosting, I left the Market with a true treasure, the hope of a story saved.