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I knew my daughters had planned something for my 60th birthday because they traveled here from where they live and because they told me they had. They told me I would not be hosting anything at my place and I didn't need a new dress! I asked if the weather would affect it. They said no (ahem!). I had ascertained some info but got it in my head that whatever it was would be happening at night. Funny how one wrong assumption can throw you off and keep you from seeing the big picture. And they played along with my assumption -- barely even had to lie!
So I was completely caught off guard when Elizabeth and I pulled up beside a park picnic shelter in a drizzling rain around 1:00 in the afternoon to pick up Katherine, who had supposedly gone for a walk and gotten caught in the rain. I bought the whole ridiculous story. Those crazy daughters had planned a picnic with a shelter full of family and friends huddled underneath the roof singing happy birthday. I never have. . .! My mother's sister Lil, in her 90s, and cousins. Brother and sis-in-law. Dance friends. Young friends. Old friends. New friends. Thank you, dear folks of mine! I won't soon forget the sight or the feeling -- for which I hardly have words. Something like not having control, not knowing what's in store, and being given a deeply lovely gift in spite of myself. I can't stop wondering about other assumptions I might have that keep me from seeing beyond the story line, seeing how simple it really is.
This is a story about how I managed to be emotionally present at my daughter’s wedding – no small feat. When my younger daughter married, I shouldered a lot of the responsibility but without being fully “there.” When the oldest announced her engagement and their desire to have the wedding near home, a thousand miles from where she and her fiancé currently live, and inexpensively, I knew I needed a plan of action. This was a job for a score.
A score is a written or graphic plan for a process. It is a way to be intentional about the process, to be open to what might happen in the moment – like an improvisational musical score. It addresses the experience that is happening internally as well as externally.
I learned to score when I studied movement-based expressive arts at Tamalpa Institute, founded by postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, now 95, and her psychologist daughter Daria Halprin. Since the 1960s, Anna has used scoring as a technique to structure her performance art and happenings in non-traditional venues like city parks or the deck of her home, with pedestrians as performers too.
Happenings may sound like a throwback to the ‘60s or worse, a poor excuse for art. However, scoring gives Anna’s work organic clarity. It is scoreography not choreography, dance as ritual. My score would give the wedding ritual the same clarity. Actually, to ritualize something is to allow it to take on gravity and meaning.
Brides and grooms often recoil at the idea of their wedding as a formalized performance and therefore try for a “laid back” quality. A score addresses that along with the need for a plan.
The meta-score I created was primarily for my eyes. I imagined showing it to the bride but did not know when or if I actually would. I imagined she might feel overwhelmed by it, so I waited to see if she would ask to see it. When I offered it via email the week before she arrived, she said it was overwhelming. She was feeling the weight of a hundred details amid the responsibilities of a full time job and preparation for travel with a wedding gown, albeit a simple one, in tow alongside her honeymoon bathing suit. At that point, she seemed glad for me to be working my end of things from my score.
The bride and groom worked with the officiant to outline the ceremony. They did not share this in its entirety with me immediately, and I respected their need for privacy. The time came, however, when I needed to know the details to fit the ceremony into a wedding day score. I promised not to comment. They trusted me.
Eventually the wedding day score evolved into a timeline score for use by other players – facilitator, musicians, sound technician, officiant, bride and groom – on the wedding day. The scores benefited from my having been mother of the bride once before.
A score has seven parts: Theme, Intention, Time, Place, People, Resources, and Activities. The activities are keyed to the intention like paragraphs to a thesis statement. If an activity doesn’t carry out an intention, it’s either not needed or the intention needs to be revised or other intentions added.
I went back and forth between themes of marriage and simplicity and in the end decided it was okay to have two themes. Theme was stated concisely as a noun. Allowing my thinking process to be structured by the grammar and format of the score felt rigorous but not confining.
Articulating the intentions was the most important part of the scoring process. Intentions were stated as “To ___” because they expressed action.
My intentions were
- To surrender to what is taking place
- To cultivate gratitude for what has gone before and what is – friends, family, meaningful coincidence.
- To create spaciousness for myself, the bride and groom, and guests
- To recognize, celebrate, and bless the shift of the bride and groom to a new stage of life
Intentions specific to the week before the wedding were
- To prepare for the wedding
- To bond as a new extended family
The “Time” covered by the Meta-Score was the two weeks before the wedding, including the night-before rehearsal activities. For the wedding day, I also created a spacious timeline and the bride approved it. For the purpose of this writing, I have consolidated my scores. The score’s duration of two weeks lent to the wedding an old world, feast-like quality for those of us who were intimately involved.
Like the time signature in a musical score, the orientation to time in a score unifies the players. It is a framework within which everyone enacts different roles and improvises as needed. My score’s timing allowed for spaciousness without leaving things to chance. After all, there were intentions at stake.
The facilitator’s job was to carry out the intentions and attend to the clock. In our case, the facilitator was a close friend of mine with the gift of being directive without being bossy.
I scored no more than 30 minutes for family photos after the ceremony. I have seen weddings where guests waited an hour or more – drinking, snacking, playing party games – while the photographer took the couple off to parts unknown looking for a certain slant of light. This casual heedlessness delayed other activities. Our picture-taking timing closed the score but resulted in creative alternatives. There was a plain-clothes shoot with bride and groom days before the wedding. The photographer also spent time with the families in their respective tents before the ceremony.
For months, I leaned in towards the wedding as if it was the second coming. I put off no errand, however small. When the first scored week finally came, I focused on preparing for my daughter’s arrival and checked in with vendors. After her arrival, we had only a few days for activities that required us working together, like the dinner seating chart. I had bought a poster board and narrow sticky notes on which to write guests’ names and move them around. The bride and I discussed who might be compatible, amazed and grateful that people would drop their lives to come. Those two weeks I experienced an unusual sense of well being that went beyond the busyness of the event. I attribute this to the spaciousness of the score. It held me, even though I was also its author, and gave us room to play.
“Place” is where the score is to be performed. In our case, ceremony and reception took place at an old dance hall by a river 30 minutes into the foothills of nearby mountains. My daughter had grown up going to contra dances there, and as a video artist had made a short video in the hall. The video was screened at the gallery where her future fiancé worked. The ramshackle dance hall had meaning to them. The property was naturally beautiful. The theme of simplicity (versus laid-back) made sense.
The considered the path of people’s movement from ceremony site to porch for social time before dinner. The location of the guest book acted as a gate to draw guests around the building and towards the river. Location of dressing tents for bride and groom was left open, as was specific placement of rental chairs by the river for the ceremony, and these details were finalized by the facilitator and florist that morning when tents and chairs arrived. Other than that, the meta-score happened at home and places around town.
The “People” of the score are the participants – family and other wedding party, musicians, technician, caterer, florist, and close friends involved with the wedding, including my friend the facilitator. And the guests. I remember the moment when it occurred to me to add the wedding guests to the score. It was a moment of insight that they were also performers and not merely passive audience. Thank you, Anna Halprin!
I evaluated and re-evaluated the activities in relationship to the intentions, a part of the creative process the Halprins call Valuaction. I tried to set even the smallest item on the to-do list in the container of the score. For instance, I saved a thorough cleaning of the house for the day before the bride arrived. To set this chore in the score, I lit a candle before starting to pick up and clean. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it, but it felt purposeful.
“Resources” are what we have to work with, like budget, props, or talents and skills of others. The built and natural environments of the site had resources to offer. For instance, a tree branch grew out over the river and provided a focal point behind the officiant so that we did not need a trellis or other background. The hall’s size and sprung wooden dance floor played a part in decisions about table placement and dancing. Resources shape activities.
One resource that helped me carry out intentions was my favorite yoga class. I scored housekeeping tasks as grounding resources for both daughters and me, with their approval. The bride’s primary job: take out trash and recycle. Her sister’s: unload the dishwasher when needed and make quiche for weekend breakfast.
Other resources addressed our bodily needs – simple food heavy on vegetables, water, and moderate alcohol. This list of resources stayed in my mind when choices of food and alcohol presented themselves. I wore my watch on the wrong wrist as a reminder to slow down and breathe. I made time for prayer and meditation. The bride saw this on the score, and while I would never have imposed such things on that 32-year old woman, I noticed she took private time for herself.
Maybe my most important resource was my escort. I am single and unattached and asked a friend to perform this role. At first I imagined him merely as a date, but he was more than that. He picked me up early in a shiny clean car, listened while I talked nervously all the way to the site, helped the facilitator put out placecards, sat on the front row saving my chair as the bride’s dad and I walked her down the grassy aisle. My friend sat across from me at dinner and chatted to my neighbor, giving me a peaceful moment. He waltzed with me, drove me home, drank a glass of champagne, and went home. As a resource, he plugged into my internal score, as well as the external one.
For two weeks I performed my meta-score, in no way a rigid or staged show. Rather, the score gave intentionality to ordinary actions. I pruned whatever was unrelated to purpose and function. The score told me what to do, not how to do it. Sometimes the score was open, giving less direction, sometimes it was closed, giving structure. Whether open or closed, orientation to process was the point. Performance of the score was a process not an end product.
On the wedding day, I waited patiently in the bride’s tent with both my daughters. I could see people parking and walking towards the site. I imagined what it was like for them to approach the dance hall, to see the colorful flags billowing from the porch rafters. Many times I had imagined the guests’ viewpoint. Now that it was happening, I was waiting in the wings, a player in my own play. The holding of the score now belonged to the facilitator. I felt emotions I could not name. I had not fully realized that I would be able to let go. In my first mother of the bride experience, I never did.
I had bought a bright purple clipboard for the facilitator’s timeline score – a resource that signaled her leadership. Throughout the weeks, she and I had combed through the score together. She had asked questions that made me take a second look at resources or cues, as some of the recognizable cues, like cake cutting and first waltz, the bride and groom dispensed with. I imagined the facilitator out there clipboard in hand.
After dinner, the dancing was led by me. As a contra dance caller, I have a tried and true scenario to get everyone dancing and to cast the dancing as community ritual. I deliberately did not drink anything alcoholic so I would be in full possession of my words. Clarity of intention helped me ignore the champagne, and I did not feel cheated. Calling the dances was more important to me. I expressed and contributed myself as a resource.
I see now an intention I never articulated, probably because I was being careful not to take away from the bride’s and groom’s ownership of their day. It was for her to be able to let go. She could not possibly have understood the intensity of the day beforehand, even though she had been maid-of-honor for her sister. But underlying everything I felt protective.
The bride and groom had planned the ceremony with the officiant, but the Meta-Score was me weighing in with what I know. Others came into play only as they were in relationship to me or had a job to do. Knowing this created boundaries for me. I had my own process, not the least of which was one final burst of Demeter energies as I prepared to “give away” my Persephone.
What arose in me was a mythical-level high, a bittersweet combination of love and loss, consciousness of the biggies – birth, death, the dance of life. Everything seemed golden, a quality intensified by the long May days. I felt the same numinous love when my mother died. I had no memory of it from wedding one, even though that occasion was equally lovely. I believe the goldenness came because of the aware immediacy engendered by the scoring process.
A post-wedding score might have helped me the next few days. I had started writing one but had lost interest in it amid all the preparing. I had done one activity, however, with a sense of “afterward.” I wrote. I went for walks around a lake near my house, sat on a bench to soak up sun, and recorded my pre-wedding mind on a yellow pad. When I returned to the writing after the wedding, I was glad there was an “I” that knew it would all be over. There was a wiser me talking to myself.
The score helped me fine tune. I ordered a rose for my aunt, the only sibling of my late mother's who was present. I asked my nephew to watch for her arrival and pin it on her. I hoped this was meaningful. It was meaningful to me to imagine it being meaningful to her. She called me a few days later, so I imagine it was.
What is supportive to you in your relationships? What is not helpful? What is the nature of the metaphorical “dance” you do with this person or people? Your role in the relationship dance may be hard to articulate. You want to stand up for yourself and also respect the other person. You want to be heard without being fixed or advised or judged. You want to be brutally honest without being brutal to the other person. You want space and you want closeness.
I always enjoy working with the theme of relationships in expressive arts groups, because each person has postures, stances, and gestures uniquely expressive of who she or he is. It is beautiful to watch people bring awareness to the unseen dynamics in relationships and create new responses. The studio is a place where we get to symbolize the dance using artistic processes to gain insight, level the playing field, and find new options. Relationships, like life, are a creative process.
“Navel gazing” is an amusing term for the excessive side of what is really a good thing. It's a good thing to know ourselves. We go to therapy to gain self awareness. We turn to religion for help in getting the mote out of our own eye before trying to get it out of someone else’s. To know ourselves is to be emotionally mature. It’s interesting that we use a part of the body – the navel – to represent excessive focus on ourselves. If we take the term literally, it also seems to say something about our culture’s excessive focus on body image.
Yet it's rare that we let the body be a barometer of what’s going on with ourselves. I am my body. My body houses everything I am, have been, and will be. Without my body, I am not. But it's easy to imagine it as separate from the real person, the real “soul.” The soul in the sense of soul food – like heart, like guts. All language of body but body as “just” a metaphor for the real thing. Maybe those many times we imagine ourselves separate from Spirit are related to this sense of body and mind separation.
Dance is a beautiful word. When I say or hear it, images that are beyond words in their harmony and pattern pass through my mind. I suppose some people might imagine TV show performers in glitz and glamour. Or raunchy nightclubbers bopping. Or paper-thin girls in tutus. But none of those images conveys what I feel when I say the word dance. The word rolling off my tongue – the vowel sound softened, the “n” held a millisecond longer than usual, the “c” punctuating the sounds with a broad hiss – this word conjures for me pure energy, a kind of concord, a golden mean, an agreement of opposites. It seems mythical. The dance of life. The dance of opposites.
When I walk into an open space, especially if the floor is wooden, this mythical feeling of the possibility of beauty comes. Not the beauty of a trained dancer whose technique is perfect form. I’m talking about the beauty of something authentic expressed in the moment of its coming into being, before reflection. It is more accessible and simple than what is expressed in spiffy dance technique.
There’s a line in the movie American Beauty that reminds me of this. The young man whose hobby is taking video shows his young girlfriend his favorite footage – of a plastic bag swept up by wind in a dance with blown leaves: “The bag was just dancing with me, like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes!” He says it’s his favorite footage because it makes him realize that there is “this entire life behind things,” an “incredibly benevolent force” that wants him to know that there is “no reason to be afraid, ever.” He shoots video because he needs to remember this. “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like can’t take it and my heart is just going to cave in.”
When I see something that is authentically true in the moment, it carries this beauty, whether it feels angst-full or joyful. Like the Keats line, “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all there is to know, and all you need to know.” That is the dance of the beautiful word.
One of the most valuable pieces of the Life/Art process is the exercise of noticing three levels of awareness – the physical, the feeling or emotional, and the imaginal. Sorting experience into these three levels might seem like a fussy brain exercise, and of course, we never can completely isolate the three levels of awareness. But it is still a powerful exercise.
For instance, I might choose a body part like my hands and free associate about this part of myself by sorting my associations into three levels. On a purely physical level my hands might be knuckled, fat, vein-y, scarred, hairy, have bitten nails or long painted nails. On a feeling or emotional level, hands might connote to me openness, nurturing, rejection, or separation. Mental images I might associate with hands are mother, animal paws, food preparation, punishment, the stop gesture, or romance.
After brainstorming this way, I am ready for some hand “play,” a hand dance. This dance may be powerful, beautiful, gross, or ugly. I may dance it sitting on the floor or moving around the room. When it is authentic, it always carries something aesthetically true. Journaling or drawing after such movement gives me distance from my material and allows my life, my body to tell me something. Using this technique, I am grounding my self-awareness firmly in my body. I can allow my body to suggest a response beyond what I am accustomed to. I am relating to my body as the source of infinite wisdom that it is, rather than as a foe.