Things to be grateful for

Abscess

Just over a week ago, I had to look up how to spell "abscess." Now it just flows from my fingertips.

But here are things within this circumstance for which I found myself to be grateful.

The week before, I bought a car, on Memorial Day. I'd saved up a little money for a down payment and the Sunday before Memorial Day, I transferred the money from my savings to my checking. Or I tried to. Usually, these transfers are instantaneous, but for some reason I can only guess at, this one was scheduled for Tuesday. What? My friend, Julie, who was taking me to buy the car, said we should go anyway. Turns out they let me buy a car without a down payment. Well, okay, cool. I now had a cushion for taking on a car payment.

Until the following Friday, when I developed a pain, sensitive to pressure, on my lower right back molar. Which got worse over the weekend. Which found me in an emergency dental office on Sunday afternoon. Which found me in an endodontist office on Monday morning. Expensive trips, even with dental insurance.

So, yeah. I'm thankful for a slow transfer of funds because if I'd used that money as a down payment, my exploding gums would have put me way up that foul creek. Even though the close calendar proximity of taking on a car note and my dental calamity (it HURT, ya'll) causes me no little anxiety, I'm grateful.

And even though the endodontist on Monday was dismissive of my pain and the swelling under my jaw, I'm super grateful for modern medicine and the second endodontist I saw on Thursday, who was much less dismissive and actually got me some relief. (If you are recommended to see an endodontist out Westheimer here in Houston, get in touch with me first. I have an exceedingly better recommendation in the Medical Center.)

For paid sick leave, I give thanks. Two days out from work with this adventure.

This is a sketchy outline of what I went through, but some of it is pretty gross and while I'm happy to share, maybe another time. Suffice to say, the swelling under my jawline is going down and I'm taking very few pain meds now while I finish up a round of big, honkin', antibiotic pills (for which I'm grateful).

Currently Reading

I'm slowly working my way through Mosaic of the Dark by Lisa Dordal. I don't remember where I read a review of it, but this poetry collection is an exploration of family, faith, and coming out as a lesbian. Or it is so far. Other themes may emerge. I'm reading slowly (although not as slowly as Brady Peterson might say I should read them---but that's what makes him a poet and me . . . not one). I do read most more than once and when I realized one section was addressed to her mother, I started that section over again with deeper appreciation. I think they're good poems. Lots of familiar feelings for me.

Currently Listening

Just briefly, i'm going to recommend this new podcast from ARC, a Theopoetics Podcast. The first episode is up and I'm looking forward to the second. Theology, creativity, embodiment, race, jumping Double Dutch as a site for theological expression/reflection . . . it hit a lot of sweet spots for me. Give it a go.

Random Memory #2

I don't recall my age at the time. I was late junior high (what the kids call "middle school" now) or early high school. I was with Daddy and we were cutting through the west part of Giddings after having been to the Nutrena feed store just a block off Highway 290, where we had our feed ground. By west part of Giddings, I mean the Black neighborhoods. As we passed one of the small homes where a black man was sitting in the front yard, Daddy said, "I think I know that man." Daddy was much more an extrovert than I'll ever be and he turned our truck around parked in front of that house.

The man in the front yard was very old, very dark, and very welcoming. He and his family used to come out to our farm, before I was born, when my family raised cotton, and worked for my family.

As I say, this was all very much before my time, and this man seemed quite impressed to meet the youngest of our family, when our family was already pretty large when he worked for us. I wish I remembered details of what we talked about that late afternoon, but I remember it being very congenial, full of story. While I know my parents were not progressive enough to have been marching for civil rights or anything like that, there was a comfort among us. Daddy and this older fellow seemed to have a respect for one another. I'm wise enough to the ways of the world now that I imagine some of it was practiced respect for a white man from a black man who was treated well enough by him. Or maybe it wasn't. I'll never know. But we left that visit with me having really enjoyed listening to Daddy and another man visit---not that common an occurrence.

What I know of that period before my birth, when, when my family raised cotton, was that Mama and Daddy hired people to come pick it. I believe my oldest siblings were out there with the hired hands, as was Daddy. Mama spent the morning in the kitchen cooking up a big lunch for everyone---something that old man talked about in his front yard. Mama said the older workers got on the younger workers for slacking off, not unlike Mama and Daddy got on us when we were lazy and complained about hard work. Mama mentioned once that she really enjoyed hearing the singing start as the day ended. One would start, another would join in, and soon the whole field was singing as quitting time approached.

I wish I remembered the name of that man, or any details from his stories. He's certainly long dead now, but he should be remembered. I guess I do, though namelessly.

I asked Daddy if we could go back and visit him again and he said yes, but we never did.

Blogging

Honestly, I had good intentions of blogging more on this, my homepage, after years of blogging on Blogger. I'd divided myself up over there and thought here, I'd be more "all of me"---my artsy self, my Jesusy self, my silly self. I still have good intentions, but little follow through. So here's a random post. Enjoy. Or whatever.

Reading

Back at Christmas, I received a much appreciated book called Through the Dark Field by Susie Paulik Babka. I'm not going to lie---it was slow reading, being heavily academic. I don't read enough academic work for it to be fast reading for me. It's a particular language to which your eyes and brain have to acclimate. But I found it very worthwhile reading, as well. Babka leads us through a lot of thought and theology on suffering and how artists have expressed it---and I realize that's reducing it to a very shallow summary. She leans heavily on Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (his name keeps coming up in the best arts reading I do, so I'm going to have to eventually read some of his work), especially his work around the idea of The Other, how our best moral/ethical philosophy/theology boils down to how we treat The Other. Babka's "Aesthetics of Vulnerability" . . . well, don't ask me to encapsulate that, either. I just found so much of the book mind-buzzing (I mean that in a great way) and will likely return to it again.

I'm now reading Way to Water by L. Callid Keefe-Perry. Keefe-Perry, who runs the Theopoetics website, offers this book as a less academic endeavor while engaging academic sources. It is much faster reading than Babka, but still fairly advanced reading. What I'm learning here is that while I've been pursuing theological aesthetics, I am probably more in tune with theopoetics. I'm only about halfway through, but it's definitely giving me a lot to think about as I pursue my own work. I think it may be giving me permission to be more myself, or my more integrated self (which was why I started this website, right?) (see above). I've long thrown around the phrase "art-making as a site for theological reflection" but I think what Keefe-Perry is leading me into is to recognize my art-making as itself doing/being theology. Which I think I also knew before, but I compartmentalized. Art over here, religion over there, silliness a bit to the left of that. I don't know why, but I seem to like compartmentalizing myself, which isn't very healthy. At the same time, I've always leaned toward the interdisciplinary (one of my degrees even uses that term!) but this theological bent to my art-making---well, I guess we'll see where it goes from here.

In between these two books, I read Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot. I picked it up on the recommendation of a friend who is Native, as is Mailhot. As a matter of craft, it's a gorgeous book. The writing moves between a raw urgency and lyrical beauty. I also find it difficult reading as it's a personal story (a memoir) of a somewhat unhealthy love relationship. It's hard to watch someone continually make what appears to be poor choices. Then there's the aspect of the book that offers some insight into contemporary Native life. It's not the focus of the book, but there are times when Mailhot foregrounds her culture in ways that illuminates the effects of colonization and conquest---effects that are pretty well invisible to me as one who benefits from colonization and conquest. So I guess two out of three makes for a recommendation. I just know some people will find the relationship story to be very difficult.

Watching

I started out 2018 being a very active audience member. Then I spent a month going to The Quality of Life, the show I directed, and now I'm slowly returning to seeing other work. This active audience member thing is a cyclical thing with me.

I just cleaned out my backpack of programs and in recent weeks, I've seen Open Dance Project's Dada Gert, the Company OnStage's productions of Around the World in 80 Days (adapted by Toby Hulse) and Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, the local Fieldwork Showcase, now called Field Day, sponsored by Core Dance and Dance Source Houston, and just tonight, the premiere of NMD2, NobleMotion Dance's new pre-professional company. All had things to recommend them, but I was particularly partial to Dada Gert. First of all, I love the early 20th Century art movements and their penchant for manifestos. The off-the-wall-ness of dada as channeled by Annie Arnoult and company had me grinning stupidly though most of the show (at least until the swastikas showed up---those always destroy the stupid grinning). The manic energy of Around the World in 80 Days was also a great treat, with three hardworking actors playing 20-something roles leaving everyone exhausted but smiling. It was an odd feeling to be in the audience of a Fieldwork showcase (rather than on the stage) but it was one of the best showcases I've seen in some time. It was a good variety, with storytelling, monologues, and dance. Between the reading I'm doing and performances I'm attending, it has me thinking about my next moves as a performer/performance-maker.

Working

But my work lately has been on my writing. I have something that either needs to be cut down into a manageable short story or expanded slightly into a comfortable novella length. I'm opting for the latter at present, and it's slow going. The day job has been draining the last month and when i get home, I'm not much good for writing and editing.

Here's a difference I find between performance/performing arts and writing: When you have rehearsals, you have to show up and you have to work. You have the temporary community that relies on everyone being present and working, no matter how tired you are, how bad your day was. The energy of a cast makes that happen. Writing is harder. You get home and no one really cares if you put in the time. No one is depending upon you to write anything, really. So it's easy to give into fatigue. Makes me wonder if I need to find a place for writers to gather and just write together, feed on the energy of other people in the room to make one be productive. Peer pressure put to the best possible use. I don't know where that would take place, but it seems like something to try. We'll see.

But, anyway, the work on this novella (we'll go with that) with a working title, Cora, is progressing at a snail's pace, but it progresses. Like most of my writing, it's another quiet piece, more character study than story, but also a meditation on the passing of a way of life. It is the day in the life of an aging farm woman, children all moved out, a widow, facing life's challenges as she always has, with pragmatism and work. She receives two phone calls during her day, which add some drama to the proceedings, but over all, it's a quiet piece. It needs a lot of work, and I'd like to get the work moving faster than a snail.

Random Memory #1

(I find myself wanting to write about things from my life. These random memories will be an outlet for them. I'm not planning them, just adding them to my random blogging.)

Sometime in the mid-1970s, one of my sisters brought me a black rabbit. I'd mentioned wanting a rabbit (i don't remember why) and whether or not she cleared it with our parents, it appeared on her next visit to the farm. I promptly named her Bunny Jane Rabbit.

After a few months, maybe a year, I decided I wanted a mate for Bunny, and a black and white buck appeared. I named him Jack Rabbit (I feel he certainly had a middle name, but I don't recall it now). Of course, he wasn't a jackrabbit, but probably at least partially a dutch breed of rabbit. He was slightly smaller than Bunny. I naively put them in a cage together, to keep each other company.

I then found out that rabbits have a gestation period of exactly one month, because one month after I got Jack, I went out to feed my pets to find Bunny had pulled out most of the hair on her belly and deposited a litter of hairless babies in the nest she made with her hair. I ran to the house screaming about Bunny having babies. Mama and Daddy came out with me and we moved Jack to another cage and set Bunny up with a box for her litter.

Then I found out that rabbits are, indeed, always fertile, because one month later, before the first litter was really old enough to be weaned, there was another litter. It seems in between the time Bunny birthed the first litter and I removed Jack from her cage, they'd gotten busy with starting another one-month gestation period. Jack kept to his own cage after that, at least until all previous litters were weaned and moved out.

Eventually, when I entered high school and joined the Future Farmers of America (because I was a rural male and that's what we did regardless of farmer potential), raising rabbits became my FFA project. But therein lies other stories, I suppose. Suffice for this entry to let this be about how I learned the accuracy of all those jokes about rabbits.

Love Letter to a Temporary Community

Love Letter to a Temporary Community

Cast and crew after the final performance: Kathryn Noser (makeup, tech understudy, president of the board at Company OnStage), James West, III (role of Bill), Jo Ann Levine (role of Dinah), Karla Brandau (role of Jeanette) Vincent Totorice (role of Neil), Shelia Johnson (stage manger) Jennifer Brown (tech booth), Neil Ellis Orts (director)

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Preparing The Quality of Life

Preparing The Quality of Life

Jo Ann Levine, James West III, Karla Brandau, and Vincent Totorice in rehearsal for The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson at the Company OnStage (produced by arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.

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2018 Queer Theology Synchroblog---Callings and Derailments

What does my gayness call me to be or do in the world?

Interesting question. I’ve been thinking about how being gay has, in many ways, derailed the life I once thought I would have. Or kept me from discovering a life I might have had.

I’ll concentrate on two touchstones in my life that has shaped me.

As a kid, I knew I liked moving to music but in my rural context, there were no music classes to be had, and I probably wouldn’t have had them if there were. I experienced my first dance class as a freshman in college, a Modern Dance class for theater majors that wasn’t required but strongly encouraged. It would count toward one of the required P.E. credits. Long story short, all my P.E. credits would be fulfilled by dance classes---two semesters of Modern, on semester of Jazz, one semester of Ballet. I loved these classes and did well enough in them that at least one teacher asked if I would consider declaring a dance minor (I didn’t). No one was really there to tell me that it was a possible path for me. Everything I ever knew about dance growing up was that you had to start when you were six years old, ten at the oldest---but that’s mostly ballet. I’ve since learned that many people go on to dance careers after first taking class in college. Bill T. Jones comes to mind as a more famous example. I was content enough with my theater studies.

There is a long list of difference between me and Bill T. Jones, but one in particular was that while he fell in love with Arnie Zane in college, I was only beginning to realize I might be gay (or have “homosexual tendencies,” as I thought of it then) and resisting like crazy. It didn’t help that one semester of dance class took place as the football team was gathering for practice in the hallway to the dance studio. Walking by them in my university issued tights, hearing their snickers and occasional audible comments reinforced for me that I didn’t want to be gay, and that maybe dance was a gay thing to do.

How has this shaped me into my present self, 30-something years later? In my late 30s, after coming out and not caring if someone thought I was gay for taking dance, I found a modern class in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time. It fed me in ways I didn’t know I was hungry. A couple of people put me in “extra” roles in large dance pieces and it propelled me into an Interdisciplinary Arts graduate program, where I started making performance art pieces with lots of movement. I also began writing about dance and dancers for publication. I became a regular audience member for dance performances. I recognize all these things as, potentially, substitution activities for dancing itself.

 

The second touchstone would be when I was in seminary. I went to seminary to study theology, full stop. I let myself get talked into doing a Master of Divinity degree because no one seemed capable of understanding that I had a call to study theology, but not a call to ordained ministry. Just before my senior year, I decided I would finish the degree but not pursue ordination. I started thinking about the lay professional categories that my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which at the time were “Associate in Ministry” and “Diaconal Ministry.” These categories were on an official roster of church professionals, but not ordained. I could see myself doing religious work, just not pastoring.

Then, in my last semester, I started coming out. Not in my college years suspicion of “homosexual tendencies” way, but more in an acceptance of my sexuality, a reconciliation between my faith and my desires way of coming out. This derailed everything. Although the ELCA now ordains uncloseted LGBT folk, this was more than a decade before that. I wasn’t sure I was willing to remain closeted to pursue church work.

Then I started meeting LGBT clergy. It was really kind of surreal. I told a handful of people I was gay and suddenly, I was introduced to a sort of underground network of LGBT clergy and rostered church workers. I got glimpses of their closeted lives in the fishbowl of public ministry. I can be very private, but I don’t have the personality for that sort of secrecy. All the years I bottled up my sexuality was one thing---I was ashamed of it. To feel no shame and continue having to hide? No, thank you. It wasn’t for me.

After the ELCA started ordaining and rostering LGBT folk, I made another inquiry into a professional life in the church, but that was met with a brick wall or three.

Meanwhile, I also do the occasional article about religion or a religious figure. Almost all my creative work, whether as a fiction writer or performance artist, has some theological thread running through it. I feel a less sense of loss about not having a church career than I do about not having a dance career, but given all the circumstances of my life, it’s really clear that neither was ever going to happen.

People of every time and place can tell you about disappointments and dreams unfulfilled. I write none of this with any illusion that I’m in anyway different from billions of people across the millennia of human history. Being gay derailed some potential career paths, but no worse than the way prejudices and biases derail other lives. It can be reasonably argued that I’m doing fairly well anyway.

 

But where does that leave me today?

At this moment, I work in a university registrar’s office. I write and do theater and make performance art around a full time day job that has nothing to do with any of my education, but allows me to do all the other things I do. As I write this, I’m in rehearsal for a play I’m directing, about two heterosexual couples who lead very heteronormative lives but are going through personal tragedies. I bring my gayness and my theological education to all of these. I do not hide who I am. I am fortunate to have circumstances that do not require me to hide.

This brings me to my real vocation of the moment, what my gayness (I hesitate to use queer for myself, as that has dimensions I’m really much too mainstream to fit into) calls me to do: Be out. I do my level best to not hide. Anyone who is around me for very long will soon enough learn I’m gay. I drop it into conversations casually but purposefully. I suppose that in this way, I queer a lot of my situations, even my most mainstream ones. Being out may even continue to derail some dreams. It’s likely.

I also believe that being out is the best way to create future lives with fewer derailments. If I can continue to be visible in as many of my situations as possible, perhaps there will be fewer dancers in the future who are intimidated by the football time---or, more importantly that the football teams won’t see a need to intimidate the dancers. With more people out, perhaps there will be an easier path for the next generation of seminarians, whether they want to be ordained or not.

Beyond that, what I’m called to isn’t particularly unique. There are any number of people called to study theology and dance and performance art and theater. Maybe not all together, but still. Perhaps my little bit of queerness gives all those things their own particular flavor, but so does the fact I grew up on a farm. But because being queer in any fashion is easy to hide for many people, what I really believe my gayness calls me to is to be out.

Let the derailments continue apace.

This post is presented in participation with Queer Theology's annual Synchroblog, wherein queer bloggers post on a give subject all on the same day.
 

Wait---It's Already February?

So Happy New Year. Eventually.

I've been slowly building up this website and by 2020 or so, it should be a great place to visit.

*heavy sigh* Note to self: Vague New Year's Resolutions are the easiest to break.

I'd given up blogging last year. I'd burned out and found little to talk about. I don't know if the latter has changed, but the itch to blog has been slowly returning.

The thing about the Blogger blogs, and that site has served me well, is that I sort of accidentally fragmented myself. I tried to keep my religious self from the arts self, the art-maker from the art-commentator from the goofball . . . and then I found myself not sure what to do with some ideas that crossed those boundaries and ultimately, I confused myself.

Part of the impulse to start my own website was to bring all my disparate selves together, which when you get down to it all fall under "writer and performer" (as most of my bio notes say) but, well, what I write and perform about may still fall under a variety of headings.

But it's all me. And some of those headings are boring to some people, other headings are all people are interested in. Ultimately, though, they all fit under my skin.

And I'm trying to be better about owning it all rather than separating them for different audiences. That separation was really an apology for loving Jesus to some of my artist circle and an apology for loving performance art to my circle that maybe has a hard time seeing it as a legit form (and yeah, I'm kinda side-eyeing you, church).

So, neilellisorts dot com is an endeavor to pull it all together.

I expect it to go mostly unnoticed.

Things I'm Working On

The immediate, big item on my plate is that I'm directing The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson for the Company OnStage. It's a lovely play, full of hard circumstances. I'll be writing more about it, but we only started rehearsals this past week and I cautiously put in print: I think we have potential to create something really special, if not amazing, here. I have a great cast who are diving into the deep waters of this play and I couldn't be a happier director.

I'll say also that the auditions were pretty hard for me. I can't say I've been to a ton of auditions around here---it's been a slow return to straight theater and I just don't know many folks in the Houston theater community---but I had some really good actors show up for auditions, and only four roles to fill. It truly made me sad to turn some of them away. The final decision came down to some caprice. Gut feelings. I think I chose well, but also know there is a pool of middle aged actors that I would work with in a heartbeat.

I also have various writing projects in the works. I've been trying to develop some longer pieces and my CV will show I tend towards the shorter writings. This year, I have two bigger projects I'm really hoping to get into submittable shape. One is a novella, the central character based upon my mother. It started out as a short story and grew into a "day in the life" kind of thing. I have a very rough draft that should really be less rough by now. (I keep doing other things, like theater and arts writing and some other things I'll write about eventually.) The working title on this is simply Cora.

I also have a good start on a full length play, which I did some development on last year in Fieldwork and gave a reading of a few scenes from the first act. I had started work on it again, but will set it aside while I get Quality of Life on its feet. This play doesn't have a working title yet, but I carry the notebook around for it, though, in the event I find moments to write a few lines of dialog . . .

And I'm getting up the courage to think seriously about producing this one-act play I've written and have been sitting on for a couple of years already. It's called The City, A Desert, and is based upon the stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I recently saw a site in town that would be pretty cool for it and . . . well, we'll see. This would be late in the year, if not early next year. But, you know, looking ahead and all. Putting it out in the universe as they say.

And then, I itch to do some performance art. Somewhere, maybe more on Instagram. I had a great time with the #adventword series of video. Maybe Instagram is my platform for the things I want to do that's neither writing nor theater. Or one platform.

It's a month into 2018, and all the above is ambitious for 11 months. Some of it is spilling over from last year. Some will likely spill into next year. Stay tuned to see how it all goes . . .