Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life Is a Verb: Chapter 2: Start With "I"

[This is part of an on-going series devoted to Patti Digh's Life Is a Verb, a book that I highly recommend. While I will be discussing the book in detail, I will be focusing on the take-away ideas. The real wonder of this book is in the illustrative essays that are warm, funny, and whimsical, and the illustrations (provided by her 37 Days blog readers after she did an open call for works of art that were inspired by her blog posts). My musings should not be seen as a substitute for reading the book. Please go buy it.]

Chapter 2 of Patti Digh's Life Is a Verb is entitled "Start With 'I'." It is about the power we give away when we focus on what "They" must do in order for change to happen, as opposed to what I can do. Her recommendation: "Stop saying they." She describes an organization she was hired to consult at where people were allotted certain size offices, wall heights, and office furniture according to their position within the company, and the last straw for many of the employees was that Vice Presidents got visitors chairs with arms, whereas others who had visitors chairs had no arms (if they had visitors chairs at all). Those arms were symbols of a whole string of grievances, but when she asked them if they had suggestions how to fix the situation, everyone talked about what They had to do.

"It occurred to me," Patti writes, "We give up our power to the very people who took it away from us in the first place."

She goes on:

"Why do I step back from participating in my own life? To whom am I giving over the power about my own life? Why am I waiting for permission? Why am I letting other people measure my worth in cubicle wall height? What story am I telling myself about myself? What stories do They tell about me that's I've started believing? What does it mean to be in the shadow of Their story about me?"

Last night (or, rather, early this morning), I had a dream. I dreamed I was at a conference hotel in New York, and there was a huge lobby. In part of the lobby there was an area where a group of elderly people were hanging out, sort of like at the mall. They had some couches, and a table and chairs. When I approached, it became clear that these were all elderly theatre people who all knew me. I was very happy to see them, and I  sat down with them to chat. They immediately asked me what I was up to these days. I told them that I was applying for a position as Dean, which puzzled them until I said that part of my motivation for going after the job was because I enjoyed "turning on the money tap for people." One woman nodded sagely, and said "There ought to be more administrators who think like that." Then I started telling them about the <100K Project, and they immediately became engaged, smiling and nodding as I described the reason for the project, completing my sentences before I could get them out. "I just want to provide some sense --" I said. "--of stability," one woman said, beaming at me. "Yes!," I said. Then her eyes misted over: "I can't tell you how much I would have liked to have provided a stable home for my kids when I was working as an actress. But I had to travel from place to place all the time, so..." Her voice trailed off. Another woman spoke up, telling me about her three marriages that had broken up because she was never home to take care of things. I was totally embraced by their sense of understanding and acceptance for the changes I was trying to implement. They were smiling, and nodding at me, and ---- click "--Paulson, speaking of the proposed bailout" -- the alarm went off on the bedstand next to me. I hit the snooze bar, and laid there thinking about my dream.

I so infrequently remember my dreams, or even remember whether I dreamed or not, that it is a real event if I something sticks with me and is in the least bit vivid. Usually, my dreams are incredibly boring, especially compared to the much flashier and symbolically rich dreams my wife often has.

I had a dream last night," I'll tell her.

"Yes?," she'll say, interested in any insight into my opaque inner life.

"Yes. I was mowing the grass. Then I woke up." Ahem. "I think what this means," I go on, a bit desperate, "is that I have allowed my work life to get sort of overgrown and I need to trim it back a little." Right. Move over, Carl Jung.

But this dream was different. It didn't really need to be interpreted; what it meant was pretty clear. My wife, whose ability to illuminate even my lawnmowing dreams often leads to flashes of pure insight, said it best this morning: "You got the blessings of the elders!" I don't know, but I do know this: I felt totally rested, and totally at peace, and I have felt that way all day today despite the fact that my show opens in about a week, I was almost out of gas in a town that is suffering from rampant gas shortages, and I had a radio interview about my show at noon. I should have been frantic, tight as a tick. But I wasn't. My back, which has been killing me in the morning for weeks, was painfree and relaxed.

Something important happened during that dream, if today's painless mood is any indication, though I can't quite put my finger on what it was. If, as Jungian psychology would say, every part of a dream is a part of you, then I had just received the blessings of some wizened part of myself, a positive, open, supportive part that seemed to know and approve of my efforts on behalf of others. And as a result, I feel more open and generous toward others, calmer and happier. And rested, when I ought to be exhausted.

When I write this blog, I seem to find it important that my readers be persuaded, that they approve. They. And when they do what I do, which is only leave a comment if I have read something I disagree with (because what would be the point of simply approving of somebody else's idea, right?), then I have to fight with them because 1) I am attache to being right (p 77), and 2) I want their approval. And this extends to larger issues as well. Am I really all that focused on trying to reform the TCG and American Theatre? Do I really think it necessary to deliver media recognition to theatres across the country, and to counter negative images of rural and small town life? Does the <100K Project really rely on getting Them to change?

"Yes, we need to work on the systems...There's no doubt work needs to be done there, and there's no doubt we don't sometimes have the power to make those changes ourselves. But many times we can't wait for the systems that created the mess to fix themselves. We can't wait for the conditions to be right for change. It will take too long. It's not in Their best interest: things are just dandy from where They sit in Their chairs with arms. The crown fits them."

The solution?

"We cannot give our power away to the people who took it from us in the first place. Put arms on your own chair. If arms are that important to you, then duct tape them on if you must. Find the change you can make and make it. You'll be funding your own revolution. Start with I."

It's not that I don't care about my Nylachi afficionados, or the TCG, or the mass media. I just can't wait for you to be persuaded. I need to find the change I can make and make it. Over at R. Winsome, Rex is busy devising his own manifesto for a way to break out of the commercial arts world. His is built on Richard Florida's The Creative Class, mine was inspired by Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization. His solutions may not be exactly what I think, but when I visit his site and see comments that focus on why his vision isn't possible, or isn't practical, or isn't attractive in some way, I want to take him to his own inner conference hall corridor and let him spend some time with his inner elders. Same with George Hunka. A recent exchange of comments on his blog resulted in this sidenote from George: "I will need to go through our correspondence and previous posts, Scott -- a substantive discussion here which hasn't given rise to churlishness on either side, though no doubt we'll disagree on some essentials. Something's clearly gone wrong." George has created a vision of theatre minima, and taken the time to develop his ideas step by step, post by post. He's started with himself, and not insisted that anyone else change first.

Many of us would like to reject the status quo and create something new. But we can't wait for conditions to change, and we certainly can't wait to be empowered by those who have achieved a level of success in that system or who have committed their lifeblood to working within it. We need to duct tape arms on our own chair, or sit on the floor, or better yet straddle our chair (which is something that can't be done by someone with a chair with arms).

But it starts with I, not They.
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RVCBard said...

So what are you going to do? And does this put the rest of theatrosphere into a different perspective for you?

Scott Walters said...

I have been working on a how-to book for the <100K Project theatres, and I wrote a grant to the NEA for support in bringing together a variety of experts to help me flesh it out more fully. So I am trying to create an national organization for education and support for the creation of theatre in places with populations under 100K.

As far as the theatrosphere, this exploration is a process, and I would prefer not to be rushed toward some conclusion. If what you are asking is whether I think that those who are creating theatre should receive acknowledgment of their work: of course, but I always have felt that way. However, I will also say that this chapter is about actions that are taken to change an undesirable status quo. A great deal of work is done to support the status quo, to work within the status quo for personal satisfaction. While that is also laudable, it is not something I find all that exciting, innovative, or heroic.

Now let me ask you something: did you mean your question to sound like an attack?

RVCBard said...


I am not Don. I am not Joshua. I am not Bob.

Please don't dump your baggage on me if you want a constructive conversation.

Scott Walters said...

Whoa! See, I used a question mark because I was asking a question, not making a statement. I was asking whether you meant to zing me. Apparently, the answer is no, which helps to know. I don't know you well enough to know your tone of voice yet. Perhaps my comments box should start with the Shakespearean question "Friend or foe?" Which is what I was asking.

Joshua James said...

Scott, I know we're not exactly friendly with each other, but I wanted to stop by and compliment you on the what you've written thus far on LIFE IS A VERB. I hope you keep coming along this vein, I really do. I enjoyed reading the two posts you've shared so far.

I'll respect the wishes of the blog and stay out after this, but I though perhaps you'd be interested to know that I found it enlightening.

Feel free to delete this comment if you wish.

I would like to add:

"Perhaps my comments box should start with the Shakespearean question "Friend or foe?"

Scott, I do think that the above is part and parcel of the problematic issue I have had in the past. You need to define who you're talking to in terms of "friend or foe" (which to me means "us vs them") before you can really listen to them.

The reality is, there isn't two teams. There does not exist a "pro-Scott team" and a "against-Scott" team anymore than there is a "pro-Joshua team" and an "anti-Joshua team".

There are people who agree with some of what we say, people who disagree with what we see, and a bunch of others who could care less.

there are not two teams.

I know it sometimes feels that way (believe me, I know) but life and people are often more complex than that - and it also leads one to the dreaded THEY, doesn't it? Defining Friend or Foe means there's US and THEM, WE and THEY, right?

As a reader, I didn't take rvcbard's question to be an attack (nor do I know him), it seemed a reasonable question in light of your recent activities online.

You've probably read it, but if you haven't, after LIFE IS A VERB, I recommend the book BLINK. I'm just about done with it and learned a lot about myself.

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- Thank you for your kind words -- they are appreciated.

I think at this point I am a little gun shy. Because it is difficult to determine affect in the writing, not to mention intonation, questions can be read as questions or as sarcasm. I couldn't tell where we were, so I asked -- which, like the original questions, sounded like sarcasm rather than questions! Comedy of errors.

Anyway, in the transition from my normal type of writing to this more introspective focus, I'm a little jumpy about comments. I welcome them -- I'm just a little jumpy.

I have read "Blink," and found it really thought-provoking.

Suffice to say, I have reached a point where I am tired of constantly wrangling with people, and I'm trying to figure out a better way of putting forward unconventional ideas in a way that prompts thought and discussion rather than mud-slinging.

That's the goal. On a broader level, it is also about my own personal orientation to the world.

RVCBard said...


Am I going to have to quote the Warrior chapter of "The Hero Within"?

RVCBard said...


Joshua . . .

I'm a woman.


Scott Walters said...

*LOL* I have taught from that book so many times I can probably quote it myself. The downfall of the Warrior is that he has to create dragons in order to justify his warrior-ness. Yes, a fatal downfall of mine. I get that Shadow Warrior thing going all the time.

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