Tuesday, December 13, 2011


For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation? ~Thornton Wilder

The day shall not be up so soon as I,
To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.
~William Shakespeare

The sun has not caught me in bed in fifty years. ~Thomas Jefferson

I'll tell you how the sun rose a ribbon at a time. ~Emily Dickinson

You can only come to the morning through the shadows. ~J.R.R. Tolkien

My happiest summer was when I worked as a baker in far West Texas. Now, those who remember me then might have a different memory of my mood, but time and distance are the friends of memory, and I can choose to remember it as a summer of unabashed joy. Working as a baker, I had to rise when it was still dark out, turned out muffins, scones, sticky buns, and apple pies--and then went and turned the closed sign to open just as the light was coming up. There's nothing as beautiful as the sunrise in the high desert of far West Texas.

I started feeling that, even on my days off, hours were wasted if I didn't wake before dawn.

Tomorrow, I'm going to try to start waking before dawn again, just because it feels like the person I am becoming.

I need more solitude, more time with God in the mornings, more time with my pen and paper, and I want to be on the jogging trail when the day is just breaking.

(Yes, I know that "Dawn" is my name, but it's a first name I've never felt a connection to, so I'm taking suggestions for new ones. I receive compliments on the name. I do have other names--Olga is my taken baptismal name, after a great-aunt. And the children around town call my Sweetie Pie. My art students call me Miss Purple. But this is another type of Dawn and one I can discuss at a later date. I must to bed now if I'm to wake so early.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Contrary Action

When I was 26 years old, I had a brief, intense romance with a young man who was incredibly romantic and kind for a few weeks, and then, less kind. He soon moved to the other side of the country to attend graduate school. Instead of remembering the less kind incidents, I held on to the first few incredibly romantic weeks, and I was determined to win him back. I wrote him letter after letter, so he had a big pile of them on the corner of his desk. I also compiled a book of poetry which I dedicated to him, had bound, and sent to him as a gift. It worked. I won him back--in a way. He was determined not to be involved with someone who lived on the other side of the country, and even when I came to visit him, was not where he told me he'd be when I showed up in the rental car I'd driven from the airport. We did manage a few days of romance on Ocracoke Island, NC, but over shrimp when he told me he loved me, he followed it with, "Don't get too excited, I just thought I should tell you that as you are always signing your letters, 'All love.'" I was head over heels for him; he was determined after I left that he'd meet someone who lived near him. It was me who found someone first, someone he used to share a house with back on the West coast. He and I didn't talk for years. When he later heard I had come down with HIV, he wrote me a letter, and we had several meetings over the years, and during the first of these meetings, he made formal amends to me for how he'd treated me, though I tried to discount his actions. He's now happily married; I was invited to the wedding and chose not to go, though I'm happy for him and his wife. They seem well-matched and supportive of each other.

It's 18 years since I wrote that book of poetry I sent to him, which was called Trumpet Lessons because he was learning the trumpet when we were dating.

About a month ago, I furiously started assembling a book of poems, something I used to do regularly, but haven't done since 2006. My impetus: as a birthday gift for X-man, who had his birthday yesterday. I ended up compiling a 67-page manuscript, using selections of poetry I'd written between April and October of this year, which generally encompassed the romance and the aftermath with X-man. The poems also cover spiritual and creative investigations--struggles and joys--as well as being rooted in a wonderment of the natural world. I sent the book out to some first book contests. Though I've written several books of poetry, my attempts to publish have been haphazard, so I don't have a book out yet.

With the help of some friends who probably value me more than I value myself, I didn't bring the book or a cake or any other gift to X-man's office yesterday. I did pass him as I was driving to the parking lot on campus. He walked by and waved; I clumsily rolled down my window and yelled happy birthday, but he didn't stop to chat. I keep in mind, when I try to romanticize what happened between he and I that he didn't stop and chat yesterday. That's about all the information I should need, I think. My mind wants to twist the event, say, he was late for a meeting, etc. However, if a person really cares about another person, they stop to chat, if even for 30 seconds. They say, I can't chat because I'm late for a meeting but hello, good to see you, etc. This seems obvious to most people who've followed my romance with X-man, but to me (perpetual believer in those first few romantic weeks) what I realized yesterday not only helped me hit another layer of reality. Another layer of grief was let loose. I can admit that the grief was not over anything that I tangibly had, but for the hope I had from the joyful start of my romance with X-man.

I'd made a pact with a friend to text her instead of X-man on his birthday. I sent her a message, "Happy birthday!" And then a follow up message, "I owe you a cake. What kind do you prefer?"

She wrote me back, "Thank you for wishing me a happy birthday! That is so thoughtful and kind of you and I am so happy you are in my life. I value you as a person who cares about me because I also care about you. Thank you for thinking of me enough to offer making me a cake! You are so sweet!"

I'm just about 100 percent sure if I go back over the 1200 text messages between X-man and me, there's nothing that sincerely loving and purely sweet as the message from my friend. Thank you, friend! Reality is not easy, but eventually, my eyes will adjust to the light and it will be more beautiful than the shadowy fantasies I've been living within.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.
William James

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.
Henry David Thoreau

Here is the test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: if you're alive, it isn't.
Richard Bach
I love life because what more is there.
Anthony Hopkins

In October 1998, I was in the hospital with my then-fiancee who was running fevers of 104 degrees and had been sick for some time. I remember for months before he was hospitalized I would lie next to him while he was sleeping and try to match his breaths, the ins and outs, but the shallowness of them was too much for me to sustain. I knew something was wrong with him, but I didn't know what. I thought he was stressed from work or sick from chronic alcohol and pot use. He'd vomit every morning. We found out what was wrong with him in October. He had AIDS. Two days after his diagnosis, I received my HIV positive results via a telephone hotline. I'd paid a hundred dollars to get quick, over the phone results, and had gone to a local laboratory to have my blood drawn. I was sitting at my fiancee's bedside when I made the phone call. The room started to spin; I still remember the shade of tan of the tiles on the floor and the way they started moving. I felt like I was rising up out of my body. I rushed the woman off the phone even though she desperately wanted to tell me the things she was supposed to tell me. I didn't need to know. What I needed to know I'd watched happen to my fiancee over the last few years.

He and I had recently separated and called off our engagement. We'd each gone on holidays--I'd been at an artists' residency in Port Townsend, Washington, and he'd been camping in the Sierras when his fevers spiked.

When the doctor told his mother and I what was wrong--with my fiancee's permission--he told us, don't worry, you can't get HIV from women, meaning I wasn't to blame. I now know this isn't entirely true, although it's nearly impossible to transmit from female to male. However, his mom quickly implied that he'd started getting sick as soon as he and I started dating. We never found out the source of the virus, though it troubled me for years. He'd been with a woman whose husband had died of AIDS, but she always said she tested negative. Later, upon reflection, I understood that he had severe problems with alcoholism, drug and sex addiction, along with being a compulsive liar, so the source is really up for grabs. I am no longer in touch with this person, though we stayed together for another year. I don't know how he is, if he's still alive. I don't know how the virus came into our lives. It just happened.

Over the years, since then, I've embraced the diagnosis in a variety of ways--moving full throttle speed whenever I felt well enough--and then often crashing into deep dark depressions. At first, I was kind of relieved--this may sound strange, but it was one less ugly thing to be scared of. I would defy it, and everybody, by living life grandly. Which I did for awhile. To start with, I began teaching solo performance art and making my own pieces and running my own performance venue in downtown San Diego.

I also refused to give up my pursuit of romance. As soon as my fiancee and I finally split, I was almost immediately dating a lovely man who'd spent years working as a circus clown. We made performances together. However, I wanted too much too desperately from my romances and pushed a handful of men away over the years with my neediness. I still believe in romance and have a lot of hope in that area, but am finally trying to get right with myself and to find purpose in my life beyond loving another human being so that I don't sort of make him my end all and be all (which I've come to realize is too much pressure for any one person).

One thing I know about my life is that I should be dead. I wouldn't take the HIV medications for a really long time because I'd read such scary things about the side effects. Plus, I was just plain stubborn and thought I could beat it myself--with yoga and healthy eating. Now, I do yoga and eat pretty healthily--but I also take the medications. I let my immune system completely collapse--I had an AIDS diagnosis based on my t-cell count in 2002 and then my t-cell count continued to drop as I went on and off the meds over the next years, so that by August of 2006, I had a t-cell count of 6. (Normal range for t-cells is 450-1200; an AIDS diagnosis is anything under 200). Not only did I not die, I was never hospitalized, even though my t-cell count was at the same point my ex's was when he was hospitalized with what turned out to be the AIDS-defining pneumonia, PCP.

I'm alive, despite my best efforts at killing myself, despite my best efforts to let myself die. I helped this along with a lot of unhealthy habits, many of which I now abstain from.

But lately, I feel like I've lost my life's purpose--like I don't know what it is any more. I know that I have a strong faith in God and that my crosses to bear are my crosses and God's handed me what I can handle and He's handed me this thorn in my side in part so I can be useful to others, and in part so I can remember God. I can't help reflect on my AIDS diagnosis without thinking about the II Corinthian's passage: "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."

So here I am boasting of my weakness because it is all the more evidence that I'm meant to live.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Big Lonely

Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness that I have found.
Claire Danes

An artist is always alone - if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.
Henry Miller

So, I'm sitting at my desk, still in my coat on from having come in from outside, from having come in from a good cry on the side of the road, a cry affirming the incredible loneliness that has increased most days since I've moved to the Central Valley. (And yet you ask, how could you be lonely with those fall colors, with those almond blossoms that make Spring a ridiculously joyful party. Bear with me, reader, there are seasons of my life when loneliness is a necessary place, a time in which I need to look into the mirror of myself for a designated period of time--every artist needs this space, this time. This may have been a prolonged period of loneliness for me [3 years]. However, it's one in which I haven't made use of the loneliness; instead, I've tried to shove in placeholders to stave off the loneliness. I won't go into all the stuff I've stuffed my life with in the last three years, but what I've always known, what I've talked about in a interviews, even, is that I need, crave, leaning into what I call the "Big Lonely"--a vast desert of solitude that's required to do the work it takes to write, which is also fine counterpoint for the big not-lonely of acting, and the super-social world of teaching. The Big Lonely is also a great chance to listen to God. Henri Matisse, one of my favorite visual artists, said, "The essential thing is to work in a state of mind that approaches prayer." Prayer of gratitude, prayer of asking, prayer of turning everything I want or think I want over to the care of God.)

So, I'm sitting at my desk, in front of a first draft of a poetry manuscript, culled from the multitude of poems I wrote between April and October, poems that celebrate the landscape of the Central Valley; poems that describe my spiritual struggles, my romantic joys and sorrows; poems that insist on choosing life even if the mind wants to twist living into a less-than-attractive option. But it's the only option. I live. I insist on living. My body refuses to give up. It hasn't given up to any of the life-threatening illnesses I am diagnosed with. The poems show that life is sometimes full of unbelievable joy, and is sometimes threatened to be overcome by darkness, but in the end, there is always life. There's always a new hope, a new journey around the bend--whether it's the hope of sensing God on a new level, the hope of a new connection with a friend, the hope of surviving another lonely night, the hope of finding lasting, loving romantic partnership, the hope of the perfection of a creative moment as an actor, musician, or writer--the hope of reaching the next goal as a singer, the hope that my fingers will grow stronger and smoother on the bass guitar, the hope that I'll feel the reality of that line of Shakespeare's from head to toe the next time I perform it, the hope I will discover a new combination of words that will delight myself and another, the hope I will open a new mind in the classroom, the hope that God makes possible.

And suddenly, the lonely has a new texture to it, it's full of possibility, it's full of worlds I'm inventing on paper, it's full of imaginary characters I'm embodying on stage, it's full of songs I haven't yet built bass lines for, it's full of kisses, of prayers, of laughter, of new weather--it's Alaska, Paris, Dublin. It's my upcoming trip to New York City, it's a party on December 17th, and it's now--it's Nick Drake playing on my headphones, it's a sense of momentum, of new, of incredible, of the pool of light on my desk in this dark office after nightfall. It's meteor showers. It's dancing, it's cereal in a bowl, the clinking sound it makes when I pour it in. It's my present skin.

"Time has told me
You're a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.

And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore.

So I’ll leave the ways that are making me be
What I really don't want to be
Leave the ways that are making me love
What I really don't want to love."

Time Has Told Me by Nick Drake

Monday, November 14, 2011


In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.
Deepak Chopra

It's what I learn from the great actors that I work with. Stillness. That's all and that's the hardest thing.
Morgan Freeman

Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen - that stillness becomes a radiance.
Morgan Freeman

Still, it can be more effective to accomplish what you need to accomplish with the minimum effort. Watch Anthony Hopkins. He doesn't appear to be doing anything. He is so still that you can't see him working, but you are drawn into his character through his very stillness.
Morgan Freeman

Many writers who choose to be active in the world lose not virtue but time, and that stillness without which literature cannot be made.
Gore Vidal
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Recently, the idea comes to me nightly that I must dart out of the life I'm living--make major changes, do something huge, move across country, change my career. But the continuum of that idea is complete and total stillness, to root myself exactly where I am and whittle away my activity, so I'm quiet with myself more often and have more room to hear God's instructions.

I'm stilled, this fall by the brilliant colors. I don't know if it is just me, but the trees seemed to change overnight, and on my walk to the jogging path, my mouth hangs open with awe. What was I busy with when the change started? Why didn't I watch the slow advent of autumn? Was my mind racing with places I rather be? Suddenly, the creek is dry; I could walk across it. And the cottonwoods are bright yellow, and the trees lining the streets on the walk to the creek are deep orange and reds. There was a seasonal shift that I missed.

Now, I've bought a crock pot because I've always wanted one and the weather and my long days at work insist on slow-cooked meals.

I want to soften my heart slowly, in the same fashion as the stews I'll make. Let the cold around it warm over months, so by springs first blossoms, I'll be heart-warmed and ready.

I just finished writing a play about trees and the play is really about making a choice about where you root yourself. And the trees wonder over all the things they get to notice that people don't get to notice because of the constant movement.

So, I am here, still, and planting myself in the rich earth of the Central Valley, and in the calendar of the school year, which helps me better connect to seasons, as we change and break as the seasons shift.

I'm learning stillness, so I can stand on stage for several moments and say nothing--and you will know everything about me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This week, I had my first singing audition in thirty years, and it was not like any singing audition I can remember. It was for a musical, and we had to learn songs as a group on the spot—including one in three part harmony—and then sing each solo or with a group. This was interspersed with cold readings from the play, “The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee.” I felt grateful for the cold readings because I’ve worked a lot on those, on taking my time, controlling the time, and really using cold readings as an opportunity to play and to act, so that was the fun part. The singing, however, was like walking through fire. The first song was for a soprano and I’m a mezzo, and I was so nervous the paper was shaking in my hand. But I did it and I hit all the notes—albeit the high ones at a belt, even though earlier that day I’d sung much higher during my voice lesson. Any anxiety or nerves tightens up the muscles and my well-warmed up voice has gone out the window.

By the second song, I have enough courage to make some acting choices, which I hope will show something of what I can offer, even if it turns out they don’t get to see my vocal chops tonight because I’m just not used to the heightened nerves of the situation, and, admittedly, I’m just now coming into my full voice after three years of voice lessons—three years crammed into a very busy life.

Now, I had several gigs singing with a band during this time, and was rarely nervous then, but that’s because I was too busy concentrating on the bass I was playing at the time and the bass was this big beautiful thing I could hold up between me and the lovely audience. And I wasn’t auditioning. I was there. The audience was going to give me something afterwards, except for the occasional “good job” or thumbs up.

I had a song prepared, but there wasn’t time for me to sing it as these were callbacks I’d been mixed into as I couldn’t come to the initial auditions. The song is one I performed often at 14 and 15 for talent shows at school, “Rubber Ducky.” It’s a fun song, easy for me, and I fine-tuned it with my voice teacher. Now I’m adding “Bewitched” to my repetoire, and soon, I’ll have like a dozen songs, and I’ll put together a little nightclub act with a guitarist or pianist, and it won’t matter that I didn’t get cast in Spelling Bee.

Mainly, when I’m acting, I’m righted from head to toe and toe to head. Everything straightens out in me. Sure, it’s nervewracking, but once I’m in the performance space, it’s like coming home, and there’s a buzz in my fingers and toes. I think acting was always in my bones, though this right feeling didn’t come until I performed in New York City at the Atlantic Theater as part of the 24 Hour Plays in May of 2005. It was like a dream come true to perform at David Mamet’s off-Broadway theater space on a dark night. The 24 Hour Plays are kind of a nightmare that always end like a dream come true. Essentially, 6 short plays are written, rehearsed, and performed (off-book) in a 24 hour period. I’d participated as a producer in the past, but I never had the experience of acting in the plays. In New York, around 5:30 or 6 PM, as I was running lines with one of my scene partners, I thought, this is a stupid idea, and acting is really stupid. What am I thinking? I never want to do it again.

However, that feeling completely disappeared the moment I stepped under the stagelights and started sweeping the floor, and then, when I got my first laugh from the 200 audience members, I was won, forever, to the acting.

I haven’t had as much time to act as I’d like. Illness and other distractions (such as living in small towns without much opportunity) has kept me from it for spells, but I never feel like myself when I don’t incorporate into my weekly routine. This means, that for the past several months, I’ve been a half-person, so I was grateful for one evening playing on stage.

Writing this, I wonder, what would it take to make it my life. Could I really make a leap of faith, quit my job, and move to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, and do what my body is meant to do? Stay posted. . .

Friday, October 28, 2011


For pragmatic reasons, I love the routine. I love the structure of it. I love knowing that my days are free. I know where I'm going at night. I know my life is kind of orderly. I just like that better.
Andrea Martin

I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours, a fixed salary, and very little original thinking to do.
Roald Dahl

I'm craving routine. I have very little of it, but that which I do have I cling to. I measure my cereal and coconut milk into the bowl each morning--a cup of each. I add an ounce of nuts--almonds or walnuts. And if I have a banana, I dice that up as well. I bless my food with the Christian Orthodox prayer for food, making the sign of the cross over my bowl as I murmur. And I eat.

From there on out, my days are utter chaos.

This isn't working so well for me.

In order to live in the realm of the imagination, which I need to do to complete works of fiction and to work as an actor, my daily life needs to be full of rest and routine. That's what I need, anyways. I'm sure not every writer and actor feels that way, but when you're throwing yourself into the fire for the hours you are doing the work of the imagination, it's nice to come out to a resting place, a known world, where rules and flavors are familiar, where people follow guidelines.

I think I'd be very happy working the early morning shift baking doughnuts. Baking screams for consistency.

One thing that isn't consistent is the academic calendar. It's full of ebbs of intense work followed by less intense work, followed by no work for weeks or even months on end. I currently work the academic calendar, and while the idea of being a creative working in academia seems a good idea--with the flexibility of schedule and summers and breaks free--there seems to be whole weeks that go by that don't allow one inch of room to jump into the imagination. This results in a spiritual death and looming depression for me.

Some of my colleagues seem to work well in the chaos, and they have ways of squeezing in their creative work, but I haven't found that yet.

I'm just now working on what my lunch routine will be. I want to find three lunches that I can rotate. Vegetables and protein. Protein and vegetables.

However, I will start a new routine tomorrow morning. From here on out, I will stop every day at 3 PM and write for 10 minutes, then I will sing for ten minutes, then I will write for another ten minutes, then I will memorize lines for ten minutes, then I will sing for another ten minutes. I will follow all this by staring off into space for the last ten minutes of the hour.

Please do not disturb signs will go up wherever I am at three pm on the dot starting tomorrow.

Please do not disturb.

This is a matter or utmost importance. My very life depends upon it.