Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Tonight is the opening ceremony for the Paralympic Games and I am one of the few people lucky enough to have tickets. If you would have told me the first time I came to London that this night would occur within eight years, I would have laughed at you. London was very different then in its attitudes towards people with disabilities. It was still nearly impossible to get on a bus (today they are all wheelchair accessible), less than half the number of underground stations were accessible than are today, and most shockingly the Disability Discrimination Act had yet to take full effect.
As I have written about before, during the summer of 2004 I would go outside and feel as if I was drowning. I would get routinely ignored in stores, sales people asking those who were accompanying me what I wanted rather than asking me directly. I can remember theaters not charging me the price of an admission ticket because they were afraid I wouldn’t be able to get to my seat. Worse, often a theatre would refuse to sell me a ticket because they claimed that my presence would pose a “health and safety hazard.”
For years I have worked with TFL and others to make this city more accessible for those of us in wheelchairs. There have been so many meetings where I really doubted that any change would ever come, even after London had been named the host city for 2012. I can remember pulling into Westminster Abbey to visit Willberforce’s memorial there just to tell myself that society does progress and that sooner or later the walls of oppression fall.
Add to all of this, that I had my own dreams of Paralympic victory when I was a kid, and it makes for a pretty remarkable event all the way around. I’m probably among the first wave of individuals who could look at adaptive athletics and wonder in what other areas could the world be stretched to become more inclusive. For me it was the arts. Last year, on the very day my play opened, London began its official countdown to the Paralympics by setting up a clock in Trafalgar Square. I could hear the cheers and excitement as I walked past on my way to the final dress rehearsal. I knew in that moment that I had made the right choice concerning my path. But how strange is it that both paths seem to lead straight to London during this time.
As I wait with building expectation for tonight, I know we have a very long way to go until disabled people in London are treated in the exact same way as abled bodied people. While the Paralympics will no doubt prove to be a big step forward, this is a civil rights battle which is difficult to even chart the boundaries of, much less figure out appropriate tactics for. But I have always believed that London is a place where world changes begin, if for no other reason than it is where the rest of the world goes to for its beginnings. The nature of London is that it is the world’s city, and people from every country imaginable come here, even for a very short time, before returning to their homes. Inevitably a shift in how London treats those of us who have disabilities, will have ripples across the world. Our changes from within are only the beginning.
Change has come and change is coming, both within my own life and society as a whole. Waiting for the events of this evening I cannot help but admit that the struggles I have encountered in London as a result of this city’s shortcomings have changed me for the better. In this way, I am thankful for the struggles I have encountered. Few people tonight will realize as much as I do just how far we have come. I’m glad I have been able to witness it.
Wednesday, August 08, 2012
I had BBC Radio Three on the other day as I was working as I often do. I find it gives me the illusion of being intelligent even as I sit and stare at my blank computer screen. During the past month or so all the talk has been about the Olympics, what makes a champion, what quantifies achievement, and how to excel. Those are big words to come out of anyone’s mouth, but hearing come from the BBC is, for some reason, highly ironic. Although I’m unsure as to why.
During one segment, I listened to a discussion with a former gold medalist on whether or not the future Olympic records would begin to taper off, if we as humans were going to reach our limit someday of how fast we could go and how high we could jump. The former athlete answered in one word: yes.
This very quickly set off alarm bells in my head and my rebellious American interior monologue kicked in. No! There’s always room for improvement. Man can always do better, be stronger, faster. These were the ideas that I was brought up with. They are ingrained in me without proof, as sort of a dogmatic doctrine that repeat to myself when I don’t know what else to think. Evolutionarily speaking, do we change that quickly? Will we reach a point where we’ve hit our limit? Will human history even go on that long?
As I’m realising is more and more common, I have no answers, no way of getting the answers, and I don’t think anyone else does either. I suddenly begin to wonder what it would be like to live in a world were we have athletically hit our limit. Images of Bladerunner start popping into my head for some reason. Who would be our super humans once we know the limits of the human body? Would we even bother to have the Olympics and with it individual events like running?
I guess my heart sinks when I consider humans knowing that they have maxed out on anything because it is a stationary marker in which we can begin to quantify ourselves against other people. If there isn’t even the biological opportunity for improvement, then all of the sudden, the bar is set and not going anywhere. We have a definitive measurement of how fast can a human go, and at what point will man have maxed himself out.
Those of us who are competitive within ourselves would, no doubt keep running, actively seeing just how close to that biological standard we can get. But there is a certain type of competitive persons, who only care about how they rank up compared to other people, not seeing improvement in themselves. When the top athlete is ranked and its been scientifically proven that there is no further to go, is that competitor willing to do what it takes to be yet another king of the mountain?
This olympics I have a bit of a different outlook than I had in the past. I think that the trails and successes I’ve had in the arts over the past four years have altered my thinking slightly. It is always within my nature to want to be at that very top, to be that unreachable star which everyone admires. But I have learned, as an artist and as a person, very slowly, that if you are truly committed to a craft or a skill, you’ll always want to do your best, even when there is no one else watching. Whether it be in the rehearsal room or on an early morning jog, being able to hold oneself accountable is the first step in achieving excellence.
I hope I never see a day where there is no more opportunity for improvement. To me, that’s like giving up on living all together. If that day were to come, it’s hardly as if I would be anywhere near the edge of the spectrum of elite athletes, so it’s not as if the news would affect me at all. The race set before me is unlike that of any other man’s, and that is the one I must focus on. It may bring me to the eyes of millions or it might be a struggle that only I am aware of, but without a doubt, it pushes me far beyond what I ever knew my capacity to be.
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
The BBC has been, as one may expect, taken over by the Olympics. Every event possible is to be shown, every highlight, every summation, and why not. It has been over sixty years since the games have been here, and the city has been preparing for this fortnight for over seven. As a city we’ve worked hard, we deserve it.
I was at the market yesterday, and I saw a few people about speaking in foreign languages and shuffling through their binders like mad. They had they olympic badges around their neck which read “athlete” or “coach” and each of they still looked sheepishly lost and confused. Ducking in and out of stalls myself, looking at my list and trying to figure out what I needed next, there was still a little voice in my head that said “hey, that’s a world class athlete and she looks as bewildered as I feel.
Ever wonder what is the universal appeal of the Olympic Games? It’s not the world class athletics, or seeing the most exciting football game of the year. Even the people who aren’t die hard sports junkies can’t help but be whisked away by the excitement of it all. Indeed, you have to be a complete misanthrope not to be inspired by this sort of drama, for greatness inspires greatness.
To see the someone who is the best at something, not to mention seeing a whole slew of elite athletes who are at the top of their field, competing and rising to the occasion, always makes us think of our own capabilities and limitations. But it is not the gold medals or the broken records which inspire us. It is the stories, of perseverance, of sacrifice of loss and redemption, which turn would be Gods into humans, and cause us, in turn, to stretch beyond what we think ourselves are capable of, which makes these two weeks every four years so magical. It is the actions taken during the struggle, not after the victory, which is illustrative of the triumph of the human spirit.
I was still very young when the USSR lost its grip on the iron curtain, allowing its former citizens to see freedoms which were only dreamt of a generation before. During the 1992 Olympics, the stories of the athletes who struggled for so long in the Soviet Union were so inspiring, that they are still with me today. Struggle is something that every human has to face, it is the velvet hammer we all can choose to learn from, and it is within understanding the struggle of these athletes, that even someone such as myself, can relate to the Olympics. What makes athletes great is not how fast they can go, or how high they can jump but rather the obstacles and barriers which had to be torn down in order to reach these achievements. If it weren’t for gravity, nobody would be impressed by an event such as the high jump.
Its be awhile since London has had so much hope and victory in it. London is a great city to be sure, but in the daily struggle and grind, the spark of overcoming often gets lost. Having an event such as the Olympics allows us all see an undeniable greatness and source of victory in our guests. From that recognition, it is an easy realisation to know that we are made of the same stuff, and have the same capabilities within ourselves.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
London this week is… very clean. Cleaner than I’ve ever seen it in fact. Those of us who live around the dock marvel every time we go outside as we see city workers scrub mould out of places we had no idea mould would grow. Then we watch the river water spay up in the sunlight and think how quickly mould grows on this island. But at least it’ll be clean for the Olympics.
I didn’t realise how clean the city was until I left for a few days and then returned. As I drove into the city and through the Isle of Dogs, my jaw dropped as I saw the windows sparkle in a world without graffiti. How was this even possible? Was this my London?
It’s rare in urban life for everyone’s mind to be focused on the same thing. About the only time it does occur is in the face of some tragedy or disaster. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, everyone wanted to hear his music. There was, of course, the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. But this is clearly different. Anticipation and excitement is in the air, people are more hope filled than I have ever known them to be. As it is now the first bit of sunny weather in weeks, everyone at the pub and around town is ecstatic. Here, today, its the closest to heaven I’ve ever been, or, at the very least, I’ve stumbled upon the version of London which was in Mary Poppins.
In town there are wet paint signs everywhere, to the point that I actually need to start paying attention when I walk down the street so I don’t ruin my dress. I hear people whistling as they work, and then they throw away their trash with, I kid you not, a slight skip in their step.
The thing is, London doesn’t really need to show off to visitors. It has always been a magical place and it alway will be. Those who don’t live here can’t help but romaticize the red buses and telephone booths. For better or worse, it is a place of kings and queens, Dickens and Darwin, as well as everything else you think of when the name “London” is uttered. So many ideas, art, opportunity is all here, waiting to be used.
But it is those of us who live in this city, who are most prone forget or even neglect its remarkable properties. The daily disappointments and rejections which are inevitable anywhere come more frequently in a place where so many qualified people are packed into one place, weigh on the spirit. The grey skies dull the senses and brings the forgetfulness of mundane living. Crossing London Bridge seems to be the most aggravating thing in the world if you’re in the middle of morning traffic. We all forget where we are, and how many blessings are on our doorstep until we see the council workers scrape the mould of the docks and whistle.
Whenever we attempt to impress others we are invariably attempting to impress ourselves as well. Perhaps we have, as a city, forgotten what it’s like to be impressive. Its the newness of having to put forth an effort that has ultimately created wonder. We are all at the top of our game because the world is watching and sending those at the top of their game to our city. Excellence brings excellence.
Of course there will be disappointments, there always are in the grandest events. But for this week, its a little bit like that time before christmas, when you can still imagine that you’ll get everything you’ve wanted and reality hasn’t set in yet. Hope, excitement, and aspiration fill the air waiting for it all to begin, and hoping we’ve cleaned ourselves up enough in the meantime.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
When did life start going so fast ? I think back to my high school days, where the days seem unending waiting for the bell to ring to mark out the hours over and over. The years went by then at the rate that years should go by, not like now. Now the seasons melt into each other, barely touching their climax before the next one starts. Sometimes we say “where was summer… what happened to winter” as if those months never happened at all. But they did happen, we just weren’t paying attention. Maybe that’s just the nature of adult life, it speeds up and slips away when we aren’t looking.
I’ve lived in the flat where I am now for three years. In many ways I feel that nothing as changed, I’m still flaying around as a young adult, having no idea what I’m doing with my life. My friends back in the US are married, popping out kids and putting down roots like it’s their job. I can’t relate to the people I went to college with anymore. They are in a race to get out of Neverland, shutting the doors to young adult living and making their own Wendys and Michaels. And I’m still living with the pirates, happy to be working side by side with a quay full of Peter Pans feeling no need to move on.
In other ways everything has changed in my life. Internal changes may or may not be recognised by my friends but I can tell that something from within me has shifted. I’m less afraid of conflict, more of a loaner ready to work solely on my own stuff, not seeking anybody’s approval but my own. These are massive shifts that alter the geography of the entire world, unnoticed by outsiders. There are none of the worldly markers that suggest a change, an improvement. No engagement ring, no new car, not even a title. People ask ‘do you work?’ And I explain what I do. And they look at me asking again “but do you have a job?”
We all are looking for improvement, a measuring stick that goes forward year after year pointing to the peak of our lives. But what they do not tell us, in the classroom or the as the subtitles attached to our day dreams is that life, in all its forms and variations, simply does not go in a straight line. We cannot constantly move forward or else we run the risk of catching vertigo, not knowing where we’ve come from or where we are going. Just like anything else, we need times of dormancy and stagnation, growing in seeming stillness as everything else seems to pass us by.
A small girl runs into the victorian dinning room where I am working. My papers spread out, my water bottle half empty and ideas hanging in midair making no sense what so ever. To her a year is a lifetime and a lifetime a year. Does she know that life speeds up so fast that it seems to pass us by until we feel we will never move forward again.
No, she does not know any of this, or else she knows that none of it matters. The external signifiers of success and adulthood moves away like leaves in the wind. What she knows is that a table makes the perfect fort, that little girls are supposed to have big dreams of being princesses and ballerinas at every age… and that I am the person to go to when looking for someone to dream along side her.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
“How do you feel if…” I brace myself knowing the question that is about to come. This question was actually the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of getting me to leave drama school in 2007. I refused to give an answer and my teacher pushed further than was altogether needed. So I waited for the punchline my insides groaning.
“How do you feel if you see a non disabled actor playing someone with a disability?” My friend is a West End veteran and has played a huge range of roles, many of which are disabled in their own ways. Now he is toying with the idea of putting a character from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in a wheelchair for the sake of an interesting artistic choice and it seems he is coming to me for absolution.
Now, the fashionable whims of political correctness dictate that I am horrified by this suggestion, that I find it barbaric and akin to white people blacking up for minstrel shows. I am supposed to, as a disabled actor and as the zeitgeist of our day demands, throw myself from the top of the stairs and thus fall into a martyr’s coma because I protest to such ridiculous discrimination.
Problem is, I don’t find it discriminatory at all.
The people who are insulted by such practices say that it’s akin to a white actor blacking up to play a role such as Othello or any other piece meant for a dark skinned character. Their argument then extends that having an abled bodied actor in a disabled role in turn takes employment away from an actor with a disability. But this of course assumes that disabled people are being employed in the industry in the first place, which they aren’t. So how can their be jobs “taken away” from actors with disabilities when there are no such jobs out there in the first place? Furthermore, if we were to pass a law saying all disabled characters must be played by actors with disabilities (which seems to me to be the definition of censorship, something that artists are not really known to react well to) we wouldn’t have more disabled actors employed to play Richard III. There would simply be less productions of Richard III.
The entire point of acting, and let’s not forget we are talking about an art, not a matter of employment law, is to relate to the human condition, specifically elements of the human condition you are normally excluded from, better. The actor than has the job of bringing the story to life in a clear concise manner so that the audience then can relate to a story they would not otherwise be able to relate to. An actor, therefore, plays not what he is, but what he could be. We do not seek out bi-polar people to play bi-polar characters, or real cancer patients to play characters with cancer. If we said that straight actors could only play straight characters, and gays gay characters, many sects in this industry would be in a real mess. But in exploring what we as humans can be, it helps us understand what we are, and the dizzying condition of being human. Disability is part of humanity, a very integral and unavoidable part in fact. Every actor will have his body fail him and indeed the most physically capable of us are simply waiting for the day where the frustration of disability dictates our boundaries rather than our own drive. Weakness and vulnerability form the very core of the human condition. As artists, this is the centre we strive so deeply to touch, and even on our best days, none of us do it particularly well.
The reason why white men performing in dark face is so insulting, is because it is a
tradition brought out of minstrel shows. The actors who ‘blacked up’ were seeking to perpetuate offensive stereotypes which would then perpetuate racism, not find the truth of a character. There is no such tradition that is the disability equivalent. An actor who plays a character who is paralysed from the waist down, if he carries out his craft well, can only seek to discover what life is like with a disability and then show what that life is like to the rest of the audience. This performance serves only to inform and provoke, not to insult and degrade.
I believe that individuals with disabilities should be incorporated in mainstream productions, clearly. I wouldn’t be an actor if I didn’t. And I can’t wait for the day that seeing a disabled actor on stage is commonplace. But strong arming artists by enforcing quotas and censorship is not going to foster the creativity and boldness we are looking for. This insistence is only a cheap trick to avoid the real work needing to be done in order to make such equality a reality. The matter is one of captivating hearts and pushing the limits of imagination, not making demands and limiting performers. And the only way to do that is to tell great stories, make the sacrifices it takes to be the best artists in the field, and create extraordinary work even if it seems no one is looking.
Anything other than that, and I’m not interested in inclusion in the arts.
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
Last night I woke up with a start. For the past few days I’ve been trying to get interested in a new television program which seems to be all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. Its a fresh story, high drama, incredible talent… And is now keeping me up at night. This is not a good sign at all.
The show isn’t particularly scary. A bit gruesome perhaps but not anything that should be waking me up in the middle of the night. And then it hits me full on. If I continue to watch this show, its going to be very bad for my imagination.
To feed the imagination is like any other diet, what you put in is in direct correlation to what comes out of it. If I put trash into my imagination by reading crummy books or watching plotless films, then that is the type of stories I’m going to create. Feeding and investing in imagination is something that most artists are terrible at. Its like we forget that inspiration doesn’t come from ourselves, but within what we find, or at least choose to find in life. We creators are simply conductors and translators to what is around us, there’s nothing particularly passive about it. So we go around wasting our days, watching trash that doesn’t make our brains think too hard.
The television program I’ve been watching isn’t trash, in fact it is one of the most critically acclaimed shows on TV today. Any writer who can come up with this kind of high intensity story, should be lauded. As an actor I would commit murder to be on an episode. But, after three episodes of the program I can see its flaws. And at the end of the day, I don’t want to write a piece of work that is reliant on gore and decomposition to tell a good story. I’m not even sure why, that simply isn’t the work I wish to create.
An artist by default must be proactive and cautious about what he sees. We, more than any other generation, have so much access to so many stories. From films to the news to even commercials, we are saturated by stories and other forms of expression nearly every waking moment. And like any other cultural movement stories are not created inside a vacuum. All the other pieces of work being produced affects the marketplace in which your story will eventually be told. Every story you hear influences you. And if a story is supposed to be an expression of you, any story you hear influences the stories you create.
Which is not to say we should shut our eyes and ears to stories, shunning the ones which are below our standards. Indeed, one can learn just as much about playcrafting from a bad play as from a Tony Award winner. (Sometimes those plays can be one in the same.) But does mean being aware, knowing that how I invest in my imagination will influence what it turns out. And it some cases, it’ll clog up my imagination altogether by ensuring I don’t produce work, either because I stay hypnotised by someone else’s story, or because I don’t get enough rest to write my own. Regardless of which it is, not creating work is assured.
There are certain productions, works of art, stories, that I am willing to go the extra mile for. If there is a particularly notable show in town or exhibition in an area that is very hard to get to, I’m going to pay the extra money it takes to see it. Such investments in my imagination are almost always worth it. But like any other investment portfolio, just because a stock is popular doesn’t mean it is a good investment. This TV show may indeed be the best in production, it might even tell a great story, but that doesn’t mean it is made of the stuff that I want going into my own creative works.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Spitalfields market. A place where all possible color, languages, and smells wrap around you in a cocoon of splendor and majesty, hopeful new artists, designers, chefs, and charity bin scavengers, all flock here each Sunday in hopes of selling up, selling out, or, at the very least, selling to that person who is looking to discover the next big thing. About once ever three months I pay the market a visit. If I were to go any more frequently, I’d have no money left for food ever again. But every few months I go, looking for bright minds who are willing to help me come up with innovative ideas to adapt clothing, utensils, furniture, and inventions all their own to assist me in my day to day life. If they wanted to, artists could put a lot of occupational therapists out of business.
I stop by my favorite booth. The tailor from Trinidad, Amin, who two years ago, made me a hand made wool winter coat and, at my request, sewed magnets rather than buttons onto it so I could fasten it myself. Since then I have occasionally taken all my clothing that needs adapting to him, as well as him making pieces of his own, so that I am gaining a beautiful wardrobe of independence. Today, the six foot something man with coco skin and a soft beard is trying to sell me a suit, fastened by magnets of course. This means he has made it especially for me, which he knows, I find irresistible.
Twenty minutes later and new suit in tow (as well as old leather jacket I asked him to change the buttons on, which was the real reason I came… Honest…) I am off looking through the market again, for a matching hat of course. Now I am jostling back and forth between the aisles of the market, people jumping out of my way, avoiding eye contact, staring at me and hoping I don’t notice, oblivious lovers standing right in the traffic’s path, this is quintessential city life. And quintessential city life wasn’t made for a very small young woman in a three hundred kilogram wheelchair carrying an enormous shopping bag. But, here I am, which means I have to deal with everyone else and their inconvenient obstructions, and they have to deal with mine.
This is the heart of why I love London. If you want to change the world, not just your country, or your culture, not just shape the minds of those people who already think like you, then move to London. Like Athens during the time of Paul, or Rome during the Renaissance, London is the crossroads of the world drawing every ideology, economic status, and demographic into it, and then letting it all go back out to their home countries, in an continual ebb and flow of people passing through. In a city like this, you have to meet people different than you, smell their strange food, be affected by their very existence on this planet. Markets in cities remind me that we have to deal with each other, people have to on the most basic level find some way of living side by side and getting along other wise chaos ensues.
A woman’s burka gets caught on my wheelchair. She looks at me out of frustration although I’m not sure if that aggravation is meant to be directed towards me, or the yards of fabric weighing her down and constantly getting in the way. Or perhaps it is just her seven year old sun running ahead of her with his own impatience and frustration. That is a sight which is universal regardless of what city you find yourself in or what culture you relate to.
On the days when I need a little bit more self confidence, I like to imagine that most of the people in the street who stare at me or give me a hard time, come from cultures that still don’t have a whole lot of disabled folks out and about in public. Perhaps I assault, or possibly insult, their senses as much as they do mine by their own reactions. In a city like London different people can’t be avoided, particularly in the marketplace where we are all trying to find some sort of relational stasis, even if it is just to drive a good bargain. And just maybe, when the person I’ve jolted goes back to where he’s from, be it Northumberland or New Delhi, he’ll approach a disabled person in his native marketplace just a little bit differently. It many ways, we do not need to change minds to make the world a better place, we need to change hearts. It’s not the passage of laws and policy that will make people progress, but the interactions between individuals in the marketplace, at the theaters, in the streets that will bring in a new phase of history.
I’m at the other end of the market and haven’t found a hat to match my new suit, although I’ve found seven other hats I want, and the world’s most perfect handbag (Or at least today I think it’s perfect). I look back from where I just came from. The view at this end of the market is just dizzying. The colors and fabrics waving in the wind makes the market look like a celebration rather than a commercial endeavour. Everybody here is wants something from somebody, and ironically, that’s what makes people who wouldn’t otherwise get along, make some sort of transaction with a smile. It causes people to do their best to please each other with what they can offer the other. Changing not only the marketplace, but the whole world in the process.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
My Dear Teacher,
Today is our birthday. And like every May 23, I am writing this to wish you many happy returns (although quite honestly I am not exactly sure what that phrase means. returns from where exactly? But it is something we say often on this side of the pond so I’m bound to repeat the phrase as well). This year is a special birthday for us for three reasons.
I am now the age that you were when we first met. This supposedly means that I am a reasonable adult, although I honestly see very little proof of this.
This birthday now means, according to arithmetic, that I have known you for over half my lifetime.
You are, by my best calculations, forty two years old today, which is the age we once assigned to Agamemnon while reading The Iliad together saying, “its that age where nobody respects you because you’re no longer young, but you’re not old enough to be considered wise.”
It is also an important birthday for me because I am now the age of Henry David Thoreau when he decided to build a cabin in the woods in order to learn to “live deliberately.” At this age he already could see that life slips away fast, and unless you stop and learn how to truly stop and live to the fullest, you just continue on with life missing out on so much of what’s in front of you, while wishing for tomorrow.
I used to want to escape to the woods, I think we all do at sometime or another, until the realities of what it would take to live a fully self sufficient life sinks in. And for someone who will never be able to weld an axe, or pull water from a well, I’ve pretty much decided that it would be best to stay in a place where I can at least have access to running water, and a computer, and a power plug, and my DVD player, and my wheelchair, and… Thoreau was lucky, he didn’t have cerebral palsy.
Living on the Thames over the past four years however, has given me more of a sense of Walden Pond than our forefathers could have imagined when they fled to the new world. Here, I have found myself in a community which has “gone Walden” as I watch my friends come out of their boats each morning, starting their day by chopping wood or varnishing their sterns, doing whatever needs to be done on that day to ensure that their homes stay above water. I have found myself, somehow, living with people who live deliberately as we share a co-dependent relationship built on ensuring the community thrives and independence is maintained. From the sounds of a hammer echoing across the dockyard, to the belly filled “‘Allo Love” I hear belted out each morning from the men jumping off their ships to go to work, I have discovered a life here that’s full of questions, ideas, riddles, and verse which would rival and profundity found on a pond in Concord.
Of course, had I not been taught the skills I needed to be able to live deliberately, significant ideas or events might be lost on me completely. Life usually operates in different spheres between “meaning” and “living”. The role of the artist, you once told me, is to bring these two spheres together in to some sort of coexistence. My job, is to take the seemingly haphazard events of life and rearrange them so that they mean something.
This isn’t that different from being a teacher except you much bring order from the chaos in young people’s minds, which in many ways is much more difficult.
This means we must believe that life has order, something you instilled in me when I was still a teenager huddled over my desk attempting to finish an essay before the bell rang. It is an idea that is quickly becoming obsolete in our world as it seems easier to see that madness and futility rule the day. To me, that is the joy of living in the docklands of the Thames. It is living side by side with these men on their boats, being a land dweller that loves and listens to them, and depending on their strength to accomplish tasks which are far beyond my capabilities, that allows mean to see that life has meaning. Lessons from teachers such as yourself taught me to believe in life, living here I am allowed to see that meaning come into a tangible reality. Like all the best elements of life, belief in the significance of the individual must be first believed to be seen.
In many ways I think Thoreau got it very wrong. Meaning isn’t found when one is in isolation, but in community. It is in living together, dealing with one another when you really don’t want to be bothered, having lives that continually bump into each other and constantly create friction, refusing to walk away to a cabin in the woods, that we invest in each other and reap fruits from season after season of living side by side. To willfully choose not to leave when things get difficult is the ultimate act of living deliberately. To realize that life is as fragile as a small boat on a very great sea is to see the immense value of life. To be able to have both at the same time, makes for the conditions to grow great ideas, create fantastic work, and cultivate a life fantastically well lived.
I am loathed to close. Attempting to link the past with the present is always too grand an attempt to muster in a single setting, as I’m sure you know being a history teacher yourself. I think having teachers such as you as a teenager was the beginning of me starting to live deliberately, an exercise I fully hope to continue to make a career of both at my desk and onstage. And yet as each birthday comes around I am struck by how it all gets quicker, seems to have ever increasing significance, and it all connects in the most dazzling of ways. Perhaps it is the realisation of the last that allows me to know that in an overpopulated high school on the north side of Chicago, fourteen years ago, you were helping to groom me for living this life on the Thames all along
Happy birthday to us. May the next fourteen years be lived just as deliberately.
- Athena xx