Saturday, July 04, 2015

A New Website

Hi Friends,

I wanted to officially let you know that I have moved blogging operations to danamray.com/blog!

In May, I decided to consolidate the work I've been doing in freelance and consulting into one webpage alongside my blog. The new space has a specific focus: to explore and engage human creativity and relationship.

Which is, I'd argue, what I've been writing about on here from the beginning.

Please please please visit www.danamray.com! Comment, engage, enjoy! And add my blog to your regular blogging lists.

With Love,
Dana


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Julius Caesar on Old Main Lawn

Julius Caesar
Free and Open to the public
7:30pm, Old Main Lawn, tonight and Friday night

Important note: I will be applauding and recommending PSU's production of Julius Caesar in this post. But there are several disturbing moments. Some trigger content: actors carrying real assault weapons, a blank shot fired at a prisoner in a black hood, sounds and lights of a guerrilla battle field. If this content or the sound/light stimuli are too much to handle, I do not recommend attending.

In fall of 2009, I attended at Penn State School of Theatre production. Romeo and Juliet. They staged it against the Alumni Center. It was cold. I huddled under a blanket, shook myself to stay warm. I thought I saw a shooting star and gasped; it was a moth falling in the glare of the stage lights above our heads. The whole thing was magical.

Last night, I attended another School of Theatre production: Julius Caesar, set against the Roman Columns of Old Main. The actors were tiny players against the enormous stage, their characters small against the immovability of fate.

JC is one of the Shakespeare's I haven't read. The historical plays were the least engaging to me back when I first attempted the Great Bard. The language fell on me fresh and clear. Everything surprised me. I didn't know the play was actually about Brutus and not about Caesar at all. I didn't know that it was about friendship and politics and fear of power.

Shakespeare well spoken falls along a pattern of breathing. It's language twists and turns along. It surprises and undercuts the hearer. It's hard to do. And let me say: these actors did an impressive job. I could follow even the most complex monologue even with accents.

The adaptation was astonishing. And extremely uncomfortable. The setting is a "modern African country". The point is to demonstrate that this story is a familiar, recurring one: a story of power, the questions and confusions, the meaning of love, and the relationship of oneself to ones nation state. It's complicated and passionate and possible to read it a million ways. I could not align myself with any of the players. We simply watch the tragedy unfold, and how the removal of one power out of fear opens the power for others. By the end, Brutus and his compatriots face Mark Anthony and Octavius before a battle. Brutus and his men are black and look like what we expect from guerrilla fighters on the news. Anthony and his men are white and wear formal uniforms; they are colonialists.

But perhaps most disturbing was a scene with bandits and a Roman citizen, whose name unluckily corresponds to one Julius Caesar's murderers. His head is covered in a black hood and he is dragged to the top of the steps, crying out. Two actors shoot blanks at his head. He goes still. I carry more photo images in my head than I want of captives wearing black hoods before they are executed. It was a frightening, upsetting moment. Yes, this story is a current story. Human nature continues its uncontrolled madness towards death.

It's hard story to hear. I hid my face in my lap at many moments. And the crew and actors carried the moments well. Projecting a story like this across an open field is no small task.

My one complaint: the ensemble crowd scenes undercut otherwise impressive speeches. Poor Mark Anthony gave his astounding rhetoric to a crowd moving with all the earnestness of an Intro to Acting class, a comparison I'm allowed to make since I took Intro to Acting back in the day and was as earnest and awkward as I could be. And there we so many higher female voices that the crowd's vocal roar never reached a pitch of fiery anger or passion.

Caesar stands above the Senate before his death.

In conclusion: I highly recommend going in the next few nights. Be sure to wear lots of warm clothes as the temperature drops steeply after the sun sets. Blankets and hot drinks also help.





Saturday, April 04, 2015

When It's Embarrassing

What is embarrassing for you doesn't ever seem that bad to other people.

But the feeling is real. The burn that starts in the stomach and shoots towards the face. The instinct to turn away, to curl up over your center. RUN. Tear your hair. Writhe. It all has so much power even months after the fact. WHY. did it happen like that?

There was a moment for me that I need to share now, a moment I couldn't look at in the face and still have a hard time reliving. And I do get to relive it because it was caught on film.

Last April, during a speech and debate tournament with my kids, the American teachers hosted a performance. The Bulgarian students regularly competed in English; this time, the American teachers would perform in Bulgarian!

My speaking was still super rough so I chose to dance instead. I asked my teacher, Tanya, to teach me a special dance for the occasion. I had practiced, watched videos, repeated the steps in class, even practiced with my hands in the bus on the drive to the tournament.

When it was time to perform, one of my students introduced me. I got up there in a small space in front of 200 Bulgarian high school students.

And a minute in I had a total mind blank.

Gone.

Kaput.

Nada.

I had nothing.

And it was one of the lowest moments of Bulgaria. I cried on the phone to Robbie later that night, hours after the fact.

I know my reaction made no sense to anyone around me. It didn't make sense to me. But it was a deep humiliation that I had a hard time facing. I think it was because I had given a lot the previous ten months. I wanted to dance a really good horo to say Thank you and I learned from you and I did a really good job here. (Maybe that last one was primary)

There it was. The final say in how I did: A Brain Fart.

It's still embarrassing for me now. The first time I watched the video, I shared it with my boyfriend and roommate. I took a shot of tequila to calm myself down. But still ran out of the room mid dance.

I know I'm overreacting. But sometimes, it's just a personal, private humiliation that you can't explain.

Recently, a student shared it on Facebook. And I'm facing it all over again. Was I a good teacher? Did I try hard enough to understand where I lived? Did I honor Bulgaria? Did they like me?

 I'm going to share it. Give you the evidence of the fact of some of my worst head trash. Welcome you to my low moment. Because it's survivable. It's good. And it wasn't "that bad". And failing is going to be okay.

Watch Here on Facebook

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Journey": A Game Review by a Very Non-Gamer

When my New York cousins visited my Georgia childhood home, the oldest boys brought some sort of game consul that they played without ceasing on the ancient tv in the basement. The games had monsters that fascinated and scared me to the point that I had trouble sleeping, or at least that's what I assume was the reason for my parents telling me to stop watching them play. I was allowed to play Mario Paint, something in my skill range. But not the scary game with monsters. So throughout growing up, games were not something normal in my life. I had "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" and "Millie's Mathhouse" and "Treasure Mathstorm" and "Mavis Beacon" [which I do credit for my typing skills today]. In any case, what I played were educational gimmicks. I loved them. But they weren't "games" in the kind of problem solving exploration that gaming became as it grew up.

In high school, all my nerdy friends (like the rest of the world) fell deeply into Halo and had "lan parties" which I assumed for years were actually called "land parties". Again, something with monsters and shooting. It didn't fall in my range of options. But that point it was too late for me to be a gaming "native" the way my friends were, handling a controller with an intimacy and skill the way I only ever handled a microsoft word file.

I have to note that my little brother, ten years my junior, now has various gaming consuls. Times change once the eldest passes through. And the older cousin who played monster games? He's worked at well known places like Blizzard and worked on projects like League of Legends. So there's that.

But it's taken me years to even concede a value in gaming. It's taken a few thoughtful and well spoken friends to explain the joy and play and the beauty and craftsmanship. "It's an art" they swear to me. And I began to wonder what I'd missed out on.

Connor invited me over to take me through "Journey" which he promised I'd love. I was doubtful, so very very doubtful. And so I must cry "forgive my unbelief!"

"Journey" was incredible.

We played the entire game with Connor occasionally taking over for me so I would be able to get home at a reasonable hour. For those of you who have played this game, you know that it usually involves another person journeying with you in real time, usually connected with an online set up. We didn't have that option so Connor acted as my in person guide and resisted any control or direction until I needed it.

The basic plot is this: a small figure (you) end up in desert landscape and you know you have to travel towards the mountain far away. As you go, you find skills and start setting free these scarf spirit things. I called them "scarf friends".
"Scarf Friends" being set free
Eventually, you learn the back story for this abandoned civilization through a series of visions and learn about the scarf-eating, air-swimming mechanical monsters. The scarf spirit friends join your clothes and give you energy and the ability to fly and bring dead scarves to life with the sound of a flute.

It sounds absurd. Believe me. I know.

I'm also explaining it oddly. I chatted about it today with a Bulgarian friend in England who laughed and said "Scarf eating monsters? I guess that's one way to put it..." So I have the lingo wrong. I'm trying here.

But in the unexplained oddness of the story, it manages to achieve a kind of childlike beauty. There seemed to be some distinct anime influences, the epic (can I hear a Joseph Campbell from my lit-crit people?), and maybe some Tolkien. Or the simplicity and beauty of a good children's picture book. No words are spoken in the entirety of the game. Everything is directed silently and deftly. Silently? That's a misnomer because the music is fabulous.

Dark and cold
The whole thing was very elegant and moving. Several moments pose some real difficulties and it's emotionally difficult. Connor told me that "This is what I think of when I think of depression. You might be alone. You might not be alone. But it's this really dark struggle." I think it was a very relatable section.

And this chapter is followed by a kind of resurrection where the character flies up and up these waterfalls, "further up and further in" as C. S. Lewis would call it. And I was giddy through out it (even if I, for the love of everything, could not figure out how to fly straight up without crashing down for a bit. I jumped off a bridge on accident during the miserable part of the game).

I'm still not sure what the "meaning" of it was. Connor said I had to make of it what I wanted. For him, it is the story of how going through the long journey enables you to walk the long journey with someone else. And I see that, especially keeping in mind that many people experience the game with another figure beside them giving them help. I kept thinking that the story was going to be about rescue, about bringing the lost world back to life. But it isn't. You pass through a kind of nirvana state and end up back at the beginning again for another journey, another unsolved world space. So a kind of reincarnation mythology? Connor just raised and hands and said, "Whatever you think, Dana." I think I'll have to play it again to more accurately identify what was going on.
Dazzling

"Journey" was possibly the perfect game to introduce me to "gaming". Enchanted is almost too flimsy a word for it. The world was magical. And visually, it was the kind of 3d experience that most of us create for ourselves while reading... and without a single break down in the visual, aural, sensory spell. Even the controller would respond elegantly to the narrative. It held together in a way vast numbers of books, films, and (I'd imagine) games fail to realize. I got to spend two hours wandering a world that was art each way I walked.

I just had no idea anything like this could exist.

Many thanks to Connor Jennings, voice actor / gamer/ friend, for taking me through this journey. And for other friends like Miriam and Lazar for showing me the potential for beauty and goodness in gaming.





Monday, March 09, 2015

Dance Yourself: MadJam 2015

Before I left the west coast swing event last weekend, I re-introduced myself to a guy I had danced with sometime after midnight the previous day. His name was Logan and he was from Singapore. He greeted me with, "I remember you! That dance was amazing! Truly amazing!" I agreed. It had been a memorable moment for me as well.

At the time, I could tell we were both relatively new at the dance. Technique was all over the place. But half way through the song, something clicked and we both lit up. We went from trying to do things correctly to really  dancing with each other. It wasn't anything that would have gotten us called back in a competition. But it was so cool. I've had trouble describing it since. It was a shift that happened for me this weekend at a number of points that just made me giddy. Both of us showed up in that dance and we were hitting all kinds of things in the music we weren't doing just a few bars before.

What happened? I think we suddenly were completely present. And not just present but engaged. There was a giving that happened and it was mutual and it meant that the dance was more fun than I can describe.

Logan said that he had never experienced musicality like that before. In another dance with another partner, I had a similar "shift", where something clicks on. He said while we were dancing "Yes! Dance yourself!"

I wish I had better and clearer language for this. It's an incredible moment when it happens. And it isn't about a rom-com "cute meet" on the floor. It's as much about finding this living space in oneself and then being able to dance that with someone else. I'm spending today mulling over what that "aha" moment means for me as a writer and creative. And it means a lot, I think.

All this was at MadJam, a west coast swing event in DC. It was attended by over 1000 people with participants from all over the world. I danced with folks from Canada, Singapore, France, and more. It was also the largest group we've taken from State College to go dance. "This weekend blew my mind" one dancer said.

It blew my mind too.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Poetry of Grief

I was invited by a Writer Friend, Hannah Eagleson, to submit to Intervarsity's Emerging Scholars Network. I wrote the below post. The blog posted it a week ago. Grateful for the opportunity to share there. The link for the original post is here.


It started the day after I stepped off the plane in JFK. Twenty-four hours after my return to my home after twelve months away. It didn’t waste anytime.

It was Grieving. It surprised me like the black ice on Pennsylvania sidewalks. Step. Slip. Down.

I had been with Grief before. We’d held hands, walked the rooms of my childhood home, hidden in towns far away from the damage, cried with our faces turned towards the bedroom wall, cried in public with no warning.

This was New.

My parents separated my senior year of college. The decision had been long in coming. It was not a surprise.

My parents signed the divorce papers three years later, just before Christmas the year I was away in Bulgaria teaching English to rowdy teenagers, learning to read the Cyrillic alphabet, changing my eating habits, wandering around southern Europe by bus. Everything I heard I heard through the phone, after the fact, behind the times.

But I had, in fact, assumed that grieving was over. I could talk about it without too much bitterness. God and I had come to a better understanding of what “all things work together for the good” might mean, and it didn’t mean me being happy or Him rescuing me. I thought I understood.

So this. A New Grief. More tears. Passive aggressive behavior to my parents. Vivid anger towards the church I grew up in. Words stuck in my mouth. What was this doing in me?

A month after my return, I started graduate school for creative writing.



When the marriage first came undone, I had tried very hard to write about it. But, I found, I do not write through strong emotion. Words shut down and go away. Or, they make a clever path circling the pain. I’m too good at words for my own good. Instead, when I’m letting emotion do its work, it runs through my body. It expresses itself in stomach ulcers and tense shoulders; unexplained fatigue and long nights of sleep; food habits; work habits; posture changes. I can’t write, at least not writing that does me any good. The Art I love is taken from me. I am silent.


Then again, I had been trying to write prose. I had wanted to explain my way through. Prose just wasn’t cutting it.

My first semester in graduate school, I took a poetry class. While that wasn’t my “thing”, I was interested in what it could do for my sentences. I wrote by associations and leaps between connections. The first poem that surprised me began with a news story of a girl being stabbed on a college campus near where I live. This meditation leapt to a girl I knew in high school, the first person in my immediate social circles who had parents divorce. Then to me, the scars I carried like my own knife wounds, the body that changes after things fall apart.

I share it here to show you what Grief sounded like in me.

Rescue

A student is stabbed on a campus
over the hill and down the road a ways
and I think of her bleeding out
on the plastic gloved hands of intent surgeons
as if she were me or my sister, someone close,
knowing, she might be (at least) a friend
of a friend, spread out, open to a knife
because her boyfriend took a knife to her,
drunk, mind elusive, reason and empathy
blind through some betrayal.

When R’s parents divorced, she smiled a lot
and laughed at the end of each sentence. I watched
her leap into the arms of a boy I liked,
his grin catching her.
His mother tells my mother that R called the boy
at midnight the night before the court date,
screaming, curled under her bed.
I wondered if men only loved
the ones a bit messed up, scared and fragile
just enough for something to rescue.
I didn’t need rescue then.

I needed no nightlight and the childhood dark
seemed lit at the distance by my parents talking in the living room
or in their beds, or, better, not talking,
at rest with themselves, at peace with the space
between them that I would come and find, a small body
tucked in the security of their warm strength.
Nothing could go wrong.

And then it did. I learn
to smile a lot, let myself down
into arms, afraid it is only
for my fear that I am loved,
my own incision scars,
that my rescue will only go
so far.

Poem copyright Dana Ray 2014, all rights reserved to Dana Ray

Grief, here, does not sound like hope. It does not sound like redemption. It sounds like the middle, the place where I’m left with a lot of questions of where I’m going to end up and what will happen to me. But the writing did make the Grief a sweeter thing, drew out some of the poison. I’m not ready to call Grief a gift yet, but I do call the poems a Gift.

One morning, during a revision stage, I sat at my desk and cried my way through edits, feeling lighter with each step. I did not try to write about my parents. I did not try to write about my grief. But I did. It came. The words came. This New Grief had a voice and it was really my Old Grief finally singing its song and letting me go.

I think I know something of what David must have known as he wandered his way through the Psalms. Some of them were likely written on purpose, in response to some prompt like “Compose a worship song for next Sunday of 42 lines”. But the rest came as they were, something like a dirge. Take Psalm 88:

Verses 13-14:
But I cry to you for help, Lord;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?

and the concluding lines:
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

They were not attempts to fix or mend. They merely stated. They found a way to paint the present losses, to cry out from the undoing. And God, in the saying, was there, the silent answer in the gift of the poems.


My own grief has quieted after the spurt of divorce grieving. I suspect that I will grieve again, find new ways to work through, in, with, among the grief. And poetry might not be the thing that hands me a way through. No sense asking for the same gift twice. But there will be a way and it will be good. The losses will keep taking shape: the scars find a familiar pattern in my body, part of my making and the things I make.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dana's Faves: Work Essentials

I'm stealing the form of this post from the Formidable Jade Perry over at www.jadetperry.com. Check out her post here.


Everyone has their thing for what makes work go right. I have mine. Some of these are unique to me and some of them I've learned from other great creatives along the way. What are you essentials to making your day go?

1. Red matte Teavana tea travel mug

I need my tea. And if life is on-the-go (which it is at least two days of the week when I head to Bucknell for classes), then I need my tea-to-go. This mug doesn't spill or drip and lets me make a good cup of loose leaf earl grey. Thank you, Teavana.




2. Pilot G-2 .38 pens

Just thin enough. Always smooth enough.



3. Dangly Earrings

This started sometime in my first year of ballroom dancing. I figured out that if I was wearing something that made me feel more elegant, I danced with greater poise. Carry that over to the rest of my life: it may be a sweatpants, sweatshirt at the kitchen table kind of work day, but I'll be wearing the earrings, thank you.

I don't wear rhinestones in normal life
4. Sticky notes (or the electronic equivalent of those in Wunderlist or Trello)

I need movable idea spaces. Options to rearrange and reconceive concepts. Give me my sticky notes anyway! But I lose things like sticky notes so apps like Wunderlist and Trello are my go-to idea holders. But for big outlining? Always the sticky notes.

5. Apple Computer Keyboards

Some wax vintage eloquent about typewriters. I'm in love with the gentle thud and click of apple computer keyboards. Is it worth the extra cost of the computer? Maybe not. But my hands and ears love the process of writing on this machine. No, I don't write poem first drafts by hand but by the type and click of my fingers.





6. Moleskin unlined notebooks

I don't like the bossiness of lined paper. I want to make my own pictures on the page. Let me have some elbow room! That's why my favorite moleskins are the big ones, the sketch pads. Love 'em.



7. Movin' It

Sitting all day kills my heart. A good dance practice or a walk or pilates by myself in my room makes the difference.

A walk in Bulgaria