Monday, October 26, 2009

Notes from the Field XIX

A September (and early October) to Remember

While I normally reserve this section for my adventures as a storyteller, I have lately come to recognize that to restrict my musings here to just that part of my life, I’m really not telling the whole story. My life, like most people’s, I suppose, is made up of a web of many different strands. My work as a dancer, clown, storyteller, and yoga teacher weave in and around each other constantly. Each one colors, informs, and enriches the other individual pieces, and creates the whole tapestry that is my life. In just sticking to writing about storytelling here, I would, in effect, be presenting just one ball of yarn, instead of a fully woven piece, ready to be viewed.

So, from now on, my “Notes from the Field” will be notes from the whole nine yards of my field, because life, like all good stories, has many layers. And so on that note…

I am writing this while sitting at the Shanghai airport – yes, that’s right – CHINA!!!!! Crazy, right? And, while in a normal month, or even a regular old six months, this would have been BIG, HUGE news – this time, it is only one part of a truly amazing period in my life.

Around the third week of July, I received a phone call from the head of the volunteer department at Harlem Hospital. Because of my work for the Big Apple Circus, performing there, they have always considered me part of the family. Through the years I have volunteered my time to clown “off hours” at hospital events, walked as part of the Harlem Hospital Center team in various fundraising walks, and pretty much anything else these great folks have asked me to do. I thought they might need me for an upcoming back to school event when Ms. Harewood called. Instead, the conversation went something like this.

“Julie, this year during the 9/11 commemeration ceremony, all the city hospitals are being asked to select two volunteers to read the names of the victims alongside a victim’s family member. We’d like you to represent Harlem Hospital. Would you …”
“You’d have to…”
“There would be..,”

How could I not? How could I not accept this tremendous honor, and pay homage to the people, who, unlike myself, weren’t lucky enough to have already exited the World Trade Center that day fifteen minutes before the first plane hit as I had. Those folks like Stewart Meltzer, whose sister-in-law, Rachel, was my partner for the ceremony, and had only worked for Cantor Fitzgerald for three months, had two small children, and enough internal calm to call his wife as the building was being consumed by fire, to tell her that he loved her.

Like all New Yorkers, and many others, 9/11 always had a “face” on it for me. It was never an abstract disaster, a far off catastrophe that had happened to “somebody else”. I saw with my own eyes that billow of smoke dust and ash that ballooned into the beautiful September sky. But this year, as I sat in a cold, wind and rain soaked tent, besides Rachel, and she told me the story of her family’s deepest sorrow – the massive loss of the day became emblazoned in my soul. As I looked around the waiting room before Rachel, and I took the stage, it was sobering to know that every second person in there had lost a brother, sister, husband, wife, mother, father, or other part of their family.

I have never been so honored, moved, and nervous in all my life. I had studied the CD they provided with the correct pronunciation of all the names – loading it into my i-pod, so I could study as I worked out, and I prayed to any and every God I had ever heard of not to blow it. I knew there were people standing in the rain, waiting to hear the name of their loved one that had been ripped from them.

Rachel was a source of inspiration to me in two ways – she, and her husband’s devotion to helping raising Stew’s two children is a lesson in compassion and selflessness, and her dignity and grace as she sought to put words to her family’s feelings for Stew, blew me away. It was a day that made me remember, once again, the preciousness, and fragility of life. It was a day that I connected to Rachel, her family, and anyone who lost a loved one eight years ago. It was a day I was proud to be of service in any way I could, it was a day I’ll never forget.

And then, less than three weeks later, I was on a plane to China, to perform comic dances, and clown at a festival – SUREAL – but that’s my life!!

Here’s the scoop on that.
I, along with about 30 other performers were going to perform for a ten days during China’s National “Golden Week” – a country wide vacation time. Now, while I have travelled all over North American and Europe, China was a big departure from that! Not only wouldn’t I be able to speak the language, I wouldn’t even be able to make out any letters on the signs! And, more importantly – could I make these people laugh. I know I may not be what people think of when they say “All-American Girl”, but I am as American as apple pie (albeit one on the browner side). Would what’s funny in Harlem, NY go over in Hangzhou, China?

Short answer – yes! There is a universality in play, silliness, and fun – people like funny, people like to, want to, need to, laugh. And kids – they are the same EVERYWHERE. Of course, there are cultural differences – various histories and social set-ups – but, kids, as they say, are kids. And everyday – I got to look down into the ADORABLE faces of children who, most likely, had never seen a brown skinned American woman before, and have the privilege of bringing a smile to their faces.

And, I hope I’m not going to come off as sounding pretentious, or ridiculous, or both, but I think that with every laugh we performers got, with every little connection we made with a child, and their family – we spread a little peace. We all know how easy it is to make a villain of a faceless person or persons, but when “THOSE PEOPLE” become “that person with the great smile”, it’s a lot harder to demonize them. It’s a lot easier to hear their individual story, and even if it’s way different from yours – still respect, and honor it.

I’m airborne now – the screen on the seat in front of me says I’m somewhere over the Bering Sea – I don’t know that I have a tidy little paragraph to sum up this essay. An ending that will sum up my experiences of September 2009 in an articulate and thought provoking way. I have a feeling that what I have seen, heard, smelt, touched, and felt these last few weeks, will take me a long time to process, and will resonate in my life for many years to come – weaving its way through my storytelling, clowning, dancing, yoga, writing, and life – at least, that’s what I hope.


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