I was in a short film today. This was a dream I inherited from my mother. She might have enjoyed it more than I did but perhaps not. I love the idea of being in films but I would rather not be paid because I act better when I am playing than when I am performing. Today we attacked the issue of power and bullying in University faculties. When performing this live, my sense of play was activated by the effort to involve a live audience. Today, I had no audience or perhaps I had just my invisible one, my mother. After thirteen takes, I could feel tears building. I reminded myself that tears are important messengers whether they rise from sadness, shame or frustration. They are however, incredibly inconvenient when one is playing a professional scholar who is supposed to be in control. I shoved them down, cursing my sensitivity. I longed for the gift of play. My mother was always playing, even when she worked. Some days I can get there. Today was not one of them. I was tired. When I was alone I wept and that is how I came to write this.
My mother liked people to think of her as “ballsy.” She actually was sensitive and easily discouraged. She didn’t have enough cheerleaders for her team. Most people want to be seen as confident and competent but there are a few of us clowns who challenge this idea because of the damage it does to our humanity. My mother never hid the fact that she stayed back a grade and was not considered college material. She was an avid reader and forward thinker. She seemed only allowed to be proud of her children, her singing and her good looks.
I notice on the set that much of this thinking is still with us. The women get extensive color makeup, the men just a base. In the 1980’s I wore just as much eye shadow and lipstick as any other woman or man but I wear much less now. I’m older. The creases show. I live in Alaska, a state which produces red cheeks even on the warmest of our summer days. I still rise above the wearing of fleece anywhere outside a campground. I think a lot. I read a lot. I dress up just as oddly as I ever did. I never grew out of my David Bowie phase. I admit to purposefully trying to confuse people about my gender over the years and have embraced not fitting in. My mother tried her best to protect me from this choice. She enrolled me in a beauty contest because she participated in them and enjoyed them, but I could not tolerate it. She saw me closing in on myself and attempted to pull me out through theatre. I enjoyed theatre the most when I could clown or challenge the status quo. That is the part of her I carry off best.
Today, one of the actors introduced himself as an attorney who is currently engaged in three theatre projects. I introduced myself as a comedian with little experience in film and asked for the patience of the crew. He chose high status and I chose low. He talked on and on throughout the shoot probably as a way to tame his own anxiety. I stayed quiet. At one point, the director noted that I didn’t seem relaxed. “Be less stiff”, “Have you ever tried yoga?” This is about as kind as film directors get but I still felt like punching her. She was probably just as frustrated as I was. As my eyes threatened to drain down my airbrushed cheeks I focused in on the other actor in order to ground myself. He looked away. Honesty is frightening . This made me laugh because I thought – he might be feeling superior now but he would fail a class in Meisner Technique! Afterwards the sound technician told me he appreciated my performance because he could hear compassion in my voice. That was the inside part of me I could bring to the role even if I could not impersonate a person in complete control.
Living in a wealthy community, working as a housecleaner and an aide to the elderly, I think my mother gave up trying to wear the middle class mask. She could be herself and fall to pieces around her friends Grace Walsh , Lillian Theriault and Pat O’Leary Steech, Chukki Mains. We all need a place to play and a place to fall apart. Then we have the energy to try something new. My mother learned to drive at age forty. She was at her best in the moment, playing with the neighborhood kids, dressing up for a date and singing as she hung out the clothes. I am at my best when I remember that film is not a dream. It’s a “cool medium” which inspires not through the perfection of its actors but through the humanity of its stories.
My mother’s story, the story of one woman and many women, has moved forward incrementally through my life. Just because I don’t have children, her dreams do not die. They live in each honest tear and each dream approached, however hesitantly. Keep the faith.
My mother goofing around with her sister Audrey
If you have lived a dream of your mother’s, one she had for you, or for herself, feel free to share it in the comments!