My grandmother, mother and I sit comfortably in our own chairs on the back porch. We are all reading. I am five or six years old. I have been told that I am a good reader. My mother writes down the title and author of each of my library books in a notebook. From this time I remember Pippi Longstocking and Ramona Quimby. I like girls who like to run and play, have big imaginations, and don’t obey the rules. This predilection will not change as I grow older.
I am turning nine years old and in the fourth grade. It is my birthday and my friend Cara gives me a three volume set of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I read the total of eight Anne books countless times. Opening each worn paperback cover calms and comforts me. I am sensitive, a little chubby, and not completely comfortable with the neighborhood kids. The girls all seem to be paired up and reluctant to take on a third. I wish for a “bosom friend” like Diana. I share Anne’s tendency to daydream and to get into trouble, often simultaneously. Though she despised it, her red hair inspires a lifetime longing, one I finally commit to in my late thirties when I decide to cover my gray.
Ms. Creech enters my life in the ninth grade, and then again my junior year. She is a Southern intellectual, who speaks of literature as great and reads us the entirety of Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” with a cultured twang. She presents us with Flannery O’Connor and I make my first attempts at deciphering symbolism with Joy/Hulga’s wooden leg in “Good Country People.” Ms. Creech’s praise of my essay makes me feel like I have done something unique and important. Deciphering the meaning of a text opens a new world, one I giddily choose as my own.
In Ms. Creech’s class, I first encounter The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Characters Edna Pontellier and Janie Crawford, respectively, refuse to be defined by others’ expectations, though each comes to a very different end. Restricted by the conventions of her day, Edna ultimately takes her own life. Facing down a string of challenges, Janie becomes gifted in the art of self-transformation and lives to tell her own story. Angered by Edna’s lack of choices and inspired by Janie’s perseverance, these two women accompany me through college and graduate school, as I write and rewrite my way through my twenties.
I have not given up my habit of reading books more than once. My appetite for plot and character sated in the first quick go around, I am free to read like a writer, more attuned to technique and language. Books still comfort me and provide me with companionship. Often I will buy a book knowing it will pass through my hands to those of my mother and grandmother. I read to explore new worlds and to find reflections of my own. Each new book holds the possibility of another Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Anne Shirley, Edna Pontellier, or Janie Crawford. Each new book holds the promise of sustenance, of connection, of grace.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Mercury Studio, a coworking space in Durham, NC
Monthly Member Brunch
Megan asks us, how is your heart?
My heart breaks a little, because I have to leave to get to a meeting. And by the second answer, I can tell this conversation will be rich and deep.
As I go about my day, Megan's question stays with me.
I've got an extremely resilient heart. For most of my life, I've asked my heart to go from zero to 75, 100, 150 miles an hour. Then, after the inevitable crash, it would be a really long time before I asked any more of my heart. Some combination of depression, fear, shame, perfectionism, and isolation reinforced this pattern.
Then some combination of a deeply held conviction, the opportunity to learn something new, a passion for a cause, the possibility of connection, my new meds kicking in, or an external sense of urgency (deadline) would get my blood pumping again.
My heart would get right back to work, and for a little while, I might even feel hopeful, like this time might be different. But I never felt safe, never felt like I'd built up the necessary stamina, that my initial burst of momentum would get me across the finish line.
I've finished races. I've even won a few. I've received praise from reliable sources, dismissed most of it. For a long time, I thought the issue was self esteem.
I've finished races. I've even won a few. I've received praise from reliable sources and dismissed most of it, no matter how thoughtful or heartfelt. I'd smile and say thank you, filled with grief over how separate I felt from everyone else, how little I felt like celebrating.
At one time, my inability to accept praise may have been about low self-worth. But that wasn't it, not anymore. It was more complicated.
Though we are all better about this now, I was not encouraged as a child to take a breather to appreciate my success. My father believed in our potential so whole heartedly that pausing to recognize an achievement was, in a way, counterintuitive. He never doubted we would succeed. Why make such a big deal about it? Look ahead to the next milestone!
My mother inherited, and dutifully passed down, a terror of the possibility that anything she said might be interpreted as bragging. Praise was a private matter, and as such, practiced judiciously, lest one might slip up an say something in public!
The other thing was, my heart used every bit of oxygen coursing through my veins to fall through the yellow tape. There wasn't much left to go on. Bed rest was in order.
For a while now, I've been working a different training regimen with my heart. I'm more consistent, building up strength more slowly. It's definitely not as exciting, much less of a rush. There are times I still return to my bed, but not for as long, and when I get up, I usually feel gently towards myself. Ok, that happened. Let's go. I've still got a pulse.
I'm resisting the marathon metaphor, one because it's obvious, and two, I understand that sprinters also have enormously strong hearts. But I can't get this vision out of my head: I'm running along, and just when I'm starting to lose heart, I notice a station filled with people handing out water in little paper cups. I gratefully swerve over to receive my water, brushing hands with the giver. It's just what I needed. I holler thank you, and crush the cup with my hands and drop it on the ground. (I think I've seen that on TV.)
Maybe at the next station I get one of those little energy gel packets. Maybe I match my speed with another, and for a few miles we are running the same race, and we encourage each other when we hit the wall -- hopefully not at the same time -- and hang in there until the endorphins kick back in.
I find this metaphor so irresistible, finally, because finally, I get it: I am not alone. I am not grotesque, or a freak, destined to a life alone in my bed, or mildewing on the couch. Look at all these people! Each running our own race, together.
My heart is delighted. My heart is strong and pulses in a reassuring rhythm: You got this. Keep going. I'm with you all the way.
When Andrea Love said "yes" to animating "FEAR," one of the four "Other Stories" included in the documentary, it was a landmark moment for me as a filmmaker. For years, I'd carried around a vision: to see each of the "Other Stories" animated by a different artist. For someone of Andrea's caliber to commit to Bipolar Girl Rules the World + Other Stories felt like a huge validation of the project. But more importantly, I believed that she "got" Zenglo, and I trusted her to enrich and deepen Zenglo's narrative with her visual storytelling abilities.
Andrea and I went back and forth a few times before she agreed to work on the project. She wasn't being coy. To produce approximately 7 minutes of animation, Andrea will be working practically full-time between now and January. Animation is wildly labor intensive, averaging about 100 hours of work per finished minute.
I was introduced to Andrea's work through Emily Ensminger, the artist responsible for drawing Bipolar Girl and Kacey the Wonder Dog. I went to Andrea's website and watched "Boulton Farm." Of all the truly amazing details that go into this animation, what I couldn't get over was the way a doll's hair moved in the breeze from the open window next to where he was being "interviewed." You can see what I mean, 20 seconds into the piece:
Andrea's work shows a deep sensitivity to her subjects; she manages to bring humor to her characters and stories, but without a trace of meanness. The animation she's created so far for "FEAR" exceed all my expectations, and that's saying A LOT.
I'll be posting Andrea's progress here at [cracked]; I also encourage you to follow her Instagram feed.
I was flipping back through the archives of the original Bipolar Girl Rules the World + Other Stories blog, and I found this faux Oprah interview that I wrote in 2006. I think it's pretty hilarious and really interesting that it begins with a commitment to sleep! And while my spiritual beliefs have shifted somewhat, I felt a lot of resonance as I read.
I'm really grateful that I've been able to live in some of the values I spoke to "Oprah" about. I'm also really pleased that I gave myself until 2017 to accomplish these goals. Who knows what might happen before then!
Sunday, October 29, 2006
The O Interview, 2017
Just want to say...it is singularly terrifying to post this piece of writing. I am afraid you will think I'm full-of-myself, or fooling myself, or that I'm just kind of stupid. I find it so much easier to be self-deprecating.
On the other hand...
I do believe that if we put our desires out into the world that God/Source/Spirit/Energy responds. So even if I don't end up on the Oprah show in 2017 -- well, the three pieces of art I mention in this post are gifts I want to give the world, and to create for myself.
Also, a cool thing that happened while I was writing this piece is that ideas came to me -- that I had never thought about performing the shopping play in a mall, though it makes lots of sense to me, and I didn't have a title for my series of essays on water, either.
If you do your own faux Oprah interview, I'll publish it here!
The Oprah Show: Sometime in 2017
O: So Dawn, in Water: An Autobiography, you write about your 36th birthday being a real turning point for you.
D: On my birthday, I made a list of my goals for the year. And at the top of the list were three things – get good sleep, exercise, and eat healthy. I listed other goals – spending more time with friends, shedding responsibilities (without taking on new ones!), and making time for my creative self -- but it was absolutely clear to me what my priorities needed to be – and sleep, especially was at the top of the list. But of course, knowing what I needed to do and actually doing it were two very different things.
O: Oh yes, don’t I know.
D: I think it’s safe to say that everyone around me had heard me say for years, “I need to slow down. I need to slow down.” And it was frustrating that my number one commitment – just to get enough sleep! – was so difficult for me.
O: So what made the difference? What actually allowed you to make the changes in your life that allowed you to create – to produce these plays, films, and writings – and now a book! (audience applause) that people connect to in such an intimate way? Because that’s what I can’t get over – this book is so funny, and self-deprecating, and it’s – you know, I can sit on the beach and just flip the pages…but girl, when I put it down -- you are deep. You are DEEP! These funny little stories…
D: I’m so glad you think they are funny…
O: No, they are funny! But you are dealing with some deep – well, let’s talk about Water…
D: Well, I think that connects back to the other question – about how I, well, finally got enough sleep (audience laughter).
O: That is revolutionary, you know – how many of you in the audience get enough sleep (audience groans, 10-15 people raise their hands). And how many of you have children (about 10 of the hands drop). It's hard -- it seems to me that women, in particular, neglect their most basic needs, and don't even know that's what they are doing.
D: Right -- exactly. Well, what I did -- I decided to take the sleep thing really seriously. It began to represent something big to me – the whole idea that I was valuable, that I was a child of God, that I had ideas and passions to share with the world. I felt like, if I can’t actually commit to going to bed at a certain hour most nights, how seriously can I take the rest of my goals? How could I have faith in myself to step out into the world and follow my dreams if I couldn’t even commit to getting enough sleep? And also, being bipolar, sleep is critical. Some people can go without sleep – put in a few all-nighters and be ok – but losing sleep sets me up for a big depression. My mood is so obviously sleep-dependent.
O: Ok, so sleep – what else happened?
D: Well, the other thing that happened is that I began to own my creative power. I realized that I had a number of creative ideas that were unrealized -- but that I could see, in their entirety, completed. That I knew the first step, and the second step, and believe, through my wobbly faith in God, that the next step would appear to me as I moved along. I have always had a lot of ideas, Oprah, too many, sometimes. But these ideas – they were so tangible, so solid I felt I could hold them in my hands.
O: And your first idea – it was a documentary, right?
D: Yes. An animated documentary about bipolar disorder. And how that happened – the path was definitely made by God. Who I met, the brilliant director I partnered with, the people who agreed to be part of the story, the resources that appeared – it was all already out there.
I lived with that knowledge for a long time – that creative projects could work that way. I had some small successes where I saw that the creative process could be, well, if not painless, at least it could be spirit-filled. So I believed that the pieces would fall into place, but I wasn’t ready to take the leap. And it was about the time that Water started to form in my mind. It seemed everywhere I looked, the idea of water, in all its incarnations – ice, vapor, flowing water, oceans, rivers – and also, floating, drowning, surfacing, swimming. Around that time, I also started taking my swimming seriously, training for open-water swims.
As all these ideas were floating around in my head (sorry about that), I kept going back to the thousands of laps I swam as a child on my neighborhood swim team. I learned to trust water. I trust the way my body moves in water. It’s a faith born out of practice, not just belief. I wanted to know – how could I build that same – that same embodied trust in my spiritual self, my creative self?
O: So many people think that you should be able to just transform overnight. It’s about building trust, building faith. Even the big leaps – the "aha" moments – it can take years to make the changes, to live into the “aha” moment.
D: Well, yeah (grimacing). It would be nicer if it didn’t work that way, but that does seem to be how it goes.
D: I think two approaches made it possible for me to move forward, to create the kind of life that I had dreamed of living for such a long time.
O: Right – because you said in your book that you feel you lost much of your twenties to depression, and that a lot of your thirties was a catching up time.
D: Yes, that’s right. So on the one hand, there was the microcosm: get enough sleep. On the other, there was the big dream: find a way of living that would allow me to spend a significant amount of time on the projects I felt called to do. And I decided in my birthday month that I would spend the next year learning the skills I needed to move toward my goals. Because honestly, if I had won the proverbial lottery and had all the money in the world and didn’t need to work any more, I don’t think at that time I had the skills to create the life I wanted.
O: Money is nice – it helps, I’m not saying it doesn’t make things easier (audience laughter) – ok, it can make certain things a lot easier – but it is not the answer. Speaking of which – I hear you got a sizeable advance for Water.
D: Yeah…not quite sure how that happened.
O: It might have been the success of The Art of Shopping – and believe me, there are not many plays that have reached that kind of audience. It first played in – where -- Durham, NC – (Dawn nods) and then in all these towns and cities all over the country. And then it moved to off-Broadway. That’s kind of backward…
D: It was just, well – how it happened! I’d done a bunch writing on my own – my partner said I didn’t need to interview anyone, that I had enough personal experience to write a thousand pages…but it was so much fun to talk to women about shopping! I’d done – I don’t know, fifty or sixty different interviews and mixed my own experiences with the interview sources.
There were three women who collaborated on the play with me. I’d never written a play, never staged a play, but there was a group of us that got really excited about it, and we pulled it off. We actually did the first performance in a mall – it was a fundraiser for a mental health organization that focuses in particular on women and children suffering from mental illness and living in that gap between Medicaid and having insurance. It’s a very personal cause for me, as you know – I’ve been so blessed to have access to health care, and the substantial support of my parents and friends.
O: You tell some of these stories in your bipolar documentary – the struggles of these women, and what they have to go through to get help – it’s staggering.
D: Right – so through my awareness work around these issues, I was asked to do a fundraiser, and we thought staging a dress rehearsal of Shopping would be a good way to get a sense of the audience’s response. It was so much fun, Oprah! People stepped out of the flow of shoppers and came over to see what was going on, and they stayed! It was so exciting to see people connect with what was happening, in this enormous courtyard, with the echoes of the spaces and so many of the shoppers bustling by… after that experience, we just decided to keep doing the play in, well, unconventional spaces. The set is so simple – three dressing rooms, a clothes rack – and of course, the clothes… we're pretty mobile. And even when we had a longer run at a “real” theatre, we kept the stages just that simple.
When I decided to write “The Art of Shopping,” it was at a time when I was recovering from, if not a buying addiction, at least a shopping addiction – meaning, it was the walking around a mall, or the Target -- Tar-jay -- and just looking at things, sometimes buying, but not spending out of control…it was a habit from my days of dealing with severe depression, when I was grateful just to have a distraction from the pain I was feeling – it was a time when being numb was hugely preferable to what I was actually feeling. And one evening, I was in a TJ Maxx around nine p.m. and I thought, what if the creative energy of the women in this room – because honestly, it is mostly women – what if this energy was harnessed into something else? What are we not doing because we are here shopping?
O: I don’t know, if I’d want to give up shopping, though (audience laughter).
D: No, of course not – me neither…because shopping – the way we present ourselves, the objects we choose for our homes, our shoes
O: You know I love some shoes (audience laughter).
D: Yes! Accessories, how we dress our children – shopping can be a supremely creative act. So I wanted to write about shopping in its complexity – not an anti-consumerist rant, but something we could identify with, a celebration that would also make us think about where our clothes come from, and that maybe there is something else we might do, some nights, instead. I still shop…
O: Especially since that book advance! (audience laughter).
D: Well, yes…but I’m present now when I shop. I’m not numbing myself. (Dawn tears up).
O: (Oprah reaches across to squeeze hand).
D: Honestly, Oprah. There were times – months, years, -- where I never thought I would get to this place. And I don’t mean Oprah’s couch. (audience laughter). I mean a place of contentment. A place of trust in God, in the universe. I’ve been – well, the best way I can put it is to quote myself from Water. I’ve been swimming laps for over a decade now. I’ve been swimming in a pool of faith. And thousands of laps later, I know – I don’t just believe, but I know – that all I have to do is dive under. And I’ll surface. And swim on.
In 2010, I named my production company Cracked Window Studios, after lyrics from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem":
"Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."
Then, Cohen's words were a promise to me. I knew perfectionism to be soul killing and painful. I’d structured my life around the idea that I was an artist, a writer, a person who made things. I had the time and some energy. I was meeting with my kick-ass therapist once a week, and the meds were doing their thing. If I didn’t make things now, would I ever? Bad Dawn. Bad.
Forget your perfect offering.
I sang it, preached it, and finally, I did it. Retched and spit out my imperfect thing. Hid.
Here is the embarrassing part of this story. Pretty much every time I pressed through the agony of releasing my ugly babies into the world, something really good happened. It was horrible, and amazing.
No creation without light. No light without cracks.
These days, I live more like I work at a place called Cracked Window Studios. I still have an estimated 3,543 moments each day where I have to let go of the urge to make something perfect. I still lose the occasional hour or afternoon when I get sucked into the perfectionism vortex.
But don't be discouraged. 3,453 represents progress! Repetition is required to create new neural pathways in the brain. Neuroplasticity: It's science! So exciting!
Part of living in the cracks is recognizing how much help I need with so many things. So I try to accept it semi-gracefully when I know I'm not going to finish a particular writing assignment without my colleague Jasmine sitting across from me, doling out the occasional brilliant insight, cutting my word count in half, and talking me down until I'm able to hit the send button (or take whatever other horrible/wonderful step signifies closure).
Which reminds me. The best side effect EVER of releasing perfectionism is the opportunity to collaborate with amazing people. Even collaboration with OK people can sometimes be helpful. Collaboration requires that I release work into the hands of others while it still deeply embarrasses me. I risk annoying people with my over exuberance, or having too many ideas, or (ack!) cheesy ideas!*
Sometimes, even just pretending to collaborate helps. If I send a piece of writing to a friend, and life happens, and she doesn’t get back to me, it’s usually ok, even if I’m on a deadline. It’s like having an imaginary friend who doesn’t hate my work as much as I do. I’m soothed when I picture my words relaxing in the inbox of an intelligent, thoughtful person. I know it’s been confusing in the past when people have tried to apologize to me about not being back in touch, and I’ve said, “No, you did help. Thank you.”
Still, get a good, sweet, collaboration going, and it softens the earth, and makes digging those new neural pathways a bit easier. Collaboration is momentum. It's not always easy, and some people really don't like it. Collaboration is definitely something I want to write more about. Maybe I can get my trusty gang of collaborators to chime in. (Was it as good for you as it was for me? Was it???)
I don’t have to try real hard to reveal my imperfections to the world. It turns out I’m a natural. But from the beginning of the production process, I’ve made the decision to share pieces of Bipolar Girl Rules the World + Other Stories with audiences while still a work-in-progress. Not so much with people I know well, because that would be terrifying. But with other people, who live further away.
It’s all a process.
*How did "cheesy” become my worst case scenario critique? What's yours?
Want to JOIN the FIGHT Against the Scourge of Perfectionism Facing Our Nation? Check out the still-in-progress Bipolar Girl animated comic Manifesto of the 80% to learn more!
Dawn Dreyer + special guests
Project Updates, Musings, Manifestos, Queries + Conversations
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen
Thank you, Carolina Partners, for supporting CRACKED [the blog] and Bipolar Girl Rules the World.
For over two decades, Dawn Dreyer has worked as a writer, mixed-media documentary maker, and teacher. Since 2005, Dawn has been an outspoken advocate for herself and others with the lived experience of mental illness. Her current project is the animated documentary Bipolar Girl Rules the World.